FCP X: Export the Best Image Quality Using ProRes

Posted on by Larry

I was doing some research recently to figure out the best way to export media from Final Cut Pro X. Here’s what I learned.

SIMPLE EDITS

Let’s say you shot a video using any 4:2:2 or 4:2:0 codec – in other words, just about any non-RAW codec. For example, most Panasonic and JVC cameras shoot 4:2:2 while most DSLR’s shoot 4:2:0.

NOTE: The numbers refer to the amount of color information recorded by the camera, compared to gray-scale data. In general, 4:2:2 images provide more color fidelity than 4:2:0. RAW formats shoot 4:4:4, which provides the greatest amount of color information.

For this example, let’s say the camera native format was 4:2:2. After editing and color grading, I’m ready to export my final project. Is there any advantage to exporting ProRes 4444 master files, rather than ProRes 422?

I learned that the answer depends on the nature of your edit. If you are simply transcoding 4:2:2 camera native media to ProRes 4444 or doing a cuts-only edit of 4:2:2 material, then there’s very little advantage to exporting ProRes 4444 because the original chroma source is being interpolated or “synthesized” into the new color space. (This is similar to playing a 1080p source on a 4K display where the display is doing the upscaling. No new data is created.)

ProRes 4444 does apply a little less compression than ProRes 422, so you might have a little more quality headroom, but ProRes 422 and 422HQ are already very high quality. Also keep in mind that ProRes 4444 uses 1.5x more storage than ProRes 422HQ, and almost 2x more than ProRes 4222 for the same frame size and frame rate.

WHERE TO CHANGE SETTINGS

Let’s say we want to export using ProRes 4444, should we change the project settings or simply change the export settings. Specifically, does FCP X re-render everything in the project to meet the new export settings?

Here, the answer is more nuanced.

If you disable background rendering and never render your project, then it doesn’t matter what codec you select for the “Render Codec” project setting. Everything will be rendered from the source media during export.

However, if you have render files, then the answer depends on whether you are using File > Share > Master File to a ProRes video codec.

Your render files are only used if your render codec exactly matches the export codec. If so, then the rendered frames will be copied directly into the output file, which will accelerate the export process. If the render codec doesn’t match (like you rendered in ProRes 422 but you are exporting to ProRes 4444) then the ProRes 422 render files won’t be used. The export will be performed using the original source media.

Your render files *will* be used and therefore it is *very* important to set your render codec to ProRes 4444 if you intend to export to ProRes 4444. Otherwise you put yourself at risk for the ProRes 4444 export to be a transcode of your ProRes 422 render files!

PICK THE BEST OPTION

After this research, here are my take-aways:

If the exported file is going to end up being transcoded to H.264 or HEVC for delivery (e.g., YouTube, OTT, broadcast) then at that point it’s going to 4:2:0 anyway, so I don’t see much of a need to use ProRes 4444 personally.

If the exported file is going to be handed off to another stage for further post production work, and especially if the file contains any “true 4:4:4” sources or Motion graphics content, then ProRes 4444 might be worth it.


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2 Responses to FCP X: Export the Best Image Quality Using ProRes

  1. Sebastián lannepoudenx says:

    Hello Larry, how are you!? I just finished a documentary feature film, shot with canon dslr, edited in fcpx. I have already export using h264 video codec. You said that is much better to export prores442 first,then compress outside fcpx again into h264 to delivery on Vimeo or other?
    By the way, i need to upload the film to sale on line, i know Vimeo pro, You know some other platform where people can pay per view whitout the possibility to download it? Thanks in advance! You are great! I’m your fan, all the best, cheers from Argentina

    • Larry says:

      Sebastian:

      The problem with exporting an H.264 project is that you are exporting 8-bit video. This will limit the results of any color grading or gradients in your project.

      I prefer to export ProRes (ProRes 422 in your case) to take advantage of its 10-bit depth and create a master file from which I can create whatever derivatives I need. Having a high-quality master file means you can easily create H.264, HEVC or MPEG files all from the same high-quality master. You can’t get the same results if you start with an H.264 master.

      As for Vimeo, check their Help files and see which format they recommend.

      Larry

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