FCP X: When to Use Optimized, Proxy, or Native Media

Posted on by Larry

There are three different types of video media used by Final Cut Pro X:

Camera native media can use a wide variety of codecs, though only one codec is allowed per media file. Codecs include:

And those are just some of the more popular varieties of the hundreds of codecs that are currently in the market. So, which media format should you use? And how can you tell which one FCP X is using? Answering that question is the purpose of this article.

SOME QUICK DEFINITIONS

Camera Native Files. The file format shot by your camera and captured to a card, hard disk or tape for editing. These files have four key parameters:

Of these four, the most important is the codec.

Codec. The mathematics used to convert light and sound into numbers the computer can store. Some codecs are optimized for small file sizes, others for image quality, still others for effects processing. Codecs are, generally, determined by the camera manufacturer and, essentially, determine file size, image quality, editing efficiency, color space and all the other elements that go into an image. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the video codec in video production and post.

NOTE: Codecs are also referred to as video formats, though that is a less precise term as “video formats” can also include elements outside the codec such as image size or frame rate.

Transcode. To convert media, either audio or video, from one format to another.

CHOOSE WHICH TO USE

While there are always exceptions to the rules, here’s what I’ve come up with:

While Final Cut does transcode all files in the background, which saves time, if all you are doing is cuts-only edits with a bit of B-roll, there’s no big advantage to optimizing, because FCP will render all camera native files as necessary during editing. While exports will take a bit longer than optimized media to allow time for rendering to occur for any files that need it, the time you lose in exporting will be saved in not waiting for optimizing to finish during importing. In other words, you only render the media you export, not all the media you import.

However, most camera native formats – specifically HDV, H.264, AVCHD, AVCCAM, and MPEG-4 – are very mathematically complex. As you start to add layers, effects, color adjustments, or fancy transitions, the amount of calculations your computer needs to process will slow things down. Optimizing converts your footage into something much easier to edit, with virtually no loss in visual quality.

Proxy files are extremely small and are a perfect fit for multicam editing, or working with large resolution files during the rough editing phase. Final Cut makes it easy to  switch between proxy and camera source or optimized files for final polish and output. (As a sidelight, proxy files are 1/4 the resolution of the camera native file.)

NOTE: One other element to consider is your hardware. Proxy files will always be easier to edit than optimized files; this is especially true on older/slower systems. However, powerful machines like the new Mac Pro can handle multicam and high-res media without needing to create proxy files. Using a Mac Pro for these tasks can save both time and hard disk space.

TRANSCODING MEDIA

There are two places where you can transcode media:

NOTE: All transcoding happens in the background. When transcoding each file is complete, Final Cut automatically switches from camera native to optimized files.

The screen shot above illustrates your choices during import:

If you choose to import camera native files then convert some or all of your files after import, choose File > Transcode Media. The screen shot above illustrates your choices.

NOTE: If both camera native and optimized files exist for the same media, FCP X always uses optimized files in the project. When optimized files don’t exist, FCP X uses camera native files. Final Cut never uses proxy files unless you explicitly tell it to.

HOW TO TELL WHAT YOU ARE USING

For this article, I’ve imported a variety of codecs into Final Cut Pro X (v.10.1):

For example, this shot of a Great Blue Heron is H.264. (Um, I know that because I put it into the file name.)

But… what if you don’t know what the codec is?

Right-click (or Control-click if you are using a trackpad) on a column header in the List View of the Browser, then check Codecs to display a new column showing the codec for each clip. (Remember each clip only uses one codec.)

As you can see here, the file names accurately match the codecs. (I dragged the Codecs column header from the far right of the display to place it next to file names.)

NOTE: AAC is MPEG-4 compressed audio. Linear PCM is uncompressed audio; which generally means WAV format. The ProRes and Photo-JPEG clips are silent, which is why no audio file is listed.

The Inspector also provides a way to monitor codecs. Select a clip in the Browser and open the Inspector (Cmd+4)

At the bottom of the Info tab are three icons that indicate whether camera native, optimized or proxy files are present for that clip. In this case, only the camera native files exist, indicated by the green light next to “Original.”

Click the Settings button below these icons and change the Info display to Basic.

Near the top of the Info screen is listed the codec of the camera native clip. Here, for instance, the video codec is Photo-JPEG.

TRANSCODING MEDIA

I generally transcode all media during import. It is fast, easy, and doesn’t get in the way of my editing. However, if you need to transcode files later, select the files you want to transcode in the Browser and choose File > Transcode Media. (Media can not be transcoded from the Timeline.)

In this screen shot, Optimized is grayed out because the clip I selected was already in ProRes format. Other formats that generally don’t need optimization include:

NOTE: Both AVCHD and H.264 can be played back in real-time, but on slower systems, or more complex edits, will benefit from being optimized.

If both options are dark, it means that you have imported media that will benefit from optimization. (In general, you only need to create proxy files for multicam editing or media with resolutions above 1080p.)

The time transcoding takes is based upon the duration of your media, the speed of your processor and whether you are editing while the transcoding is going on.

For this example, I created both optimized and proxy files for all these clips.

You can monitor the status of transcoding, and other background tasks, by clicking the clock icon to the left of the timecode display. This opens the Background Tasks window (or type Cmd+9). Here, the clock indicates that transcoding is 100% complete.

While this is what the Background Tasks window looks like when it is transcoding a media file.

Notice that in the Codecs column of the Browser, the actual codec of the camera native file is still indicated; even though transcoded files exist.

NOTE: Optimized files are always ProRes 422, regardless of what choices you make for project render files.

If we go to Inspector > Info > Basic settings, although the codec is listed as Photo-JPEG at the top, the green light icons at the bottom indicate that additional media files now exist.

HERE’S THE RULES

If Optimized files do not exist, FCP X uses camera native files in your project.

If Optimized files do exist, FCP X uses optimized files in your project and ignores the camera native source files.

Proxy files are always ignored, until you change a preference setting.

Apple is very clever in tracking media files. Replacing an old file with a new file of the same name in FCP 7, would cause FCP 7 to link to the new file as though it was the old file.

However, replacing an old file with a new file of the same name in FCP X, disconnects all transcoded media and FCP X treats the new file as a brand new file. This is because Apple tracks more than just the file name in its media management. (Apple calls this tracking the “metadata” of the media file.)

SWITCHING BETWEEN OPTIMIZED AND PROXY FILES

Switching between optimized and proxy files could not be easier. In FCP X (10.1) go to the switch in the upper right corner of the Viewer and choose between Optimized/Original or Proxy files.

In earlier versions of FCP X, go to Preferences > Playback and click the appropriate radio button. (Apple moved both these preference settings to the Viewer switch in the 10.1 release.)

If proxy files exist, the images will instantly switch to proxies.

If proxy files do not exist, you get the dreaded “Missing Proxy” red screen.

Missing proxies can easily be fixed by selecting the media file in the Browser, choosing File > Transcode Media and checking the Proxy checkbox.

EXPORTING

When we export a master file, which is my general recommendation for all exports, the Settings tab gives us a number of options. (Here’s an article that talks about this more: Export a Master File.)

In general, you should set the render codec to the same setting as you plan to export. Then FCP can use the render files and just copy them when exporting. Otherwise, it will regenerate the render files from the source material during the export process, which will take longer. (Though on the new Mac Pro, this time difference may not be significant.) But if you know what your deliverable will be and you will always be creating a ProRes master, then rendering and exporting using the same ProRes setting is a best practice.

Selecting Source for output exports either proxy files, if the project is set to proxy files (as illustrated in the screen shot above)…

Or, if Optimized/Original is checked, selecting Source matches the render file settings in Project Properties (Cmd+J). In the screen shot above, I set render format to ProRes 422 LT, which becomes the output format.

Or, if you want to export a format other than the one you picked for Project Properties, you can choose between one of the five ProRes formats, as well as H.264 and two uncompressed formats.

I generally recommend against compressing H.264 using Final Cut, not because of any bugs, but because I like to create a master file first for archiving, then create compressed files from that master file. In other words, I create all my H.264 versions after the export is complete.

In general, while uncompressed files yield the highest possible quality, they also create the largest file sizes. As an example, I exported a 28-second 1080p 25 fps file.

THAT is quite a range in file sizes!

(Click here for a larger PNG version of this image.)

Could I see a quality difference between Proxy files and everything else? Yes, absolutely. Look at the hair, the artifacts in her skin, and the blockiness around the edges of her mouth.

However, could I see a difference between ProRes 4444 and Uncompressed 10-bit? Not for this 1080p image scaled to 1280 x 720, which is what I would post to the web.

Whether you need, or can even see, the additional image quality provided by these high-end formats is entirely up to you. If you are compressing files for the web, I would suggest you are wasting disk space; stay with ProRes 422. If you are creating files for digital projection to large screens, using high-end formats like ProRes 4444 or Uncompressed is critical, even though the file sizes are enormous.

NOTE: Final Cut does not export camera native media files.

UPDATE – EXPORTING CAMERA NATIVE FILES

After further exploring the Apple website, I learned the following:

Final Cut exports camera native media under two conditions:
  • The camera format is not poorer quality than the master. (For example, XDCAM will show up as an export choice if you are using XDCAM or H.264, but not if you are using ProRes 4444). Specifically Apple supports DVCPro HD, HDV, XDCAM HD (25 mbps, 35 mbps), XDCAM EX (35 mbps) and XDCAM HD 422 (50 mbps) as export options, in addition to the choices listed in the screen shot above.
  • You are using a setting created in Compressor and saved to the Share menu of FCP X as a Destination.

However, these camera native exports are “wrapped” in QuickTime, so they are not “camera native,” but they are the same quality as the camera native formats.

There are also two export tools worth mentioning:

When you export using settings different from your render settings, Final Cut calculates the new files using the source media, not the existing render files.

Also, I would also not recommend using “Send to Compressor” unless you need to use a Compressor plug-in and even then I would save your project as a Master file and check the “When done” menu in the Share settings window to “Open with Compressor.” This exports the master file as quickly as possible, then opens it in Compressor where you have all the Compressor settings at your finger tips. If you need specific settings that are only in Compressor, then I would save that as a custom Compressor setting so that it shows up in Final Cut’s Share menu as a Destination.

SUMMARY

My strong recommendation is to set project render file settings to match the format you want to export as your final master file.

Final Cut does a great job of managing media. For most editing tasks, optimizing media is the best and fastest option. But, there are always situations that demand different solutions. And, now, you have a better idea what your options are.


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99 Responses to FCP X: When to Use Optimized, Proxy, or Native Media

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  1. Dean Suhr says:

    Greetings Larry – great and very clear article. When we import AVCHD can we convert it to ProRes 422 and make them the only format saved in our FCP project? Our AVCHD files are only backup to a live produced/mixed file.

    • Larry says:

      Dean:

      Yes. Optimize your media on import; that creates the ProRes 422 files. Generated media, like optimized files, are stored in the library by default, though you can change the location using Library Properties.

      Larry

  2. I live in China and work in a film school – I have been having a lot of learning curves as we start to work with Final Cut 10.1. and we have been used to Final Cut 7. Therefore, I have been pulling out my hair to understand: 1. Work-flow and setting up projects-events-Library. 2. Working with different codecs. Your article on “When to Use Optimized, Proxy, or Native Media,” is so clear, simple, well explained, and so well written. It has finally answered my questions after using a Lynda tutorial (too confusing) and plugging on through the good yet very lengthy explanations on the apple support…

    Thank you very, very much – and also, I am so happy your website opens in China – you are now going to every student in my doc classes … Jan

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