FCP 7: Pick the Right Version of ProRes

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the May, 2010, issue of
Larry’s Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


With the release of Final Cut Pro 7, Apple increased the number of ProRes versions from two to five:

So, that begs the question: which version should you use for your project?

The first four flavors of ProRes in this list are identical in every respect, except one – bit rate. They all support:

There is a relationship between bit rate, file size, and image quality. In general, the lower the bit rate, the smaller the file size, and, potentially, the lower the image quality. The five versions of ProRes in the list above are sorted in order from lowest bit rate to highest bit rate.

ProRes 4444, the fifth version, is the exception. While it builds on the first four ProRes versions, it adds support for the following:

If you need a clip to retain transparency information, which is called the “Alpha channel,” you only have one choice: ProRes 4444. None of the other ProRes versions support clip transparency.

Well, since it’s clear that ProRes 4444 is the absolute “best” in terms of quality, it seems like we should all just select ProRes 4444 and be done with it.

The problem with this approach is that your file sizes can be quite large, not as large as fully uncompressed HD, but still pretty darn big. (Well, actually, REALLY BIG!) And, unless you have a specific need for this format, you probably won’t be able to see the difference in image quality between ProRes 4444 and other ProRes versions. Also, using ProRes 4444 in your project probably means you’d need to render every shot.

Think of ProRes 4444 as the replacement for the Animation codec. We use the Animation codec when we want to move files between one application and another; for example, between After Effects and Final Cut. Then, once it’s in Final Cut, you render it into the final version you need for your project.

As a transfer format, ProRes 4444 is great. As a video editing format, it’s way past overkill. Most of the time, you will be fully happy with one of the four other versions. And your file sizes will be much smaller.

The four other versions of ProRes differ in only one area: data rate. Changing the data rate directly affects file size and image quality. The slower the data rate, the smaller the resulting file and, potentially, the lower the image quality.

For example, here’s a table that showcases the difference. This is just a guide, different formats create different file sizes, but the general proportions will be the same.

TABLE: ProRes Storage Requirements

ProRes VersionStore 1 Hour of 720p/60*

ProRes 422 Proxy

20 GB

ProRes 422 LT

46 GB

ProRes 422

66 GB

ProRes 422 HQ

99 GB

ProRes 4444 (no alpha)

148 GB

* Source: Apple Inc. ProRes White Paper, June, 2009.

 

NOTES:

* All versions of ProRes use variable-bit-rate encoding, so the actual data rate and file sizes will differ somewhat from this table. In most cases, they will be smaller.

 

** ProRes 4444 is listed without including the alpha channel. As alpha channel sizes vary wildly, it is hard to predict the ultimate ProRes file size.

However, the situation isn’t as grim as you might think. Here are some suggestions you can reflect on as you are trying to decide what codec to use.

ADDITIONAL POINTS

RECOMMENDATIONS

If you are shooting GOP-compressed media – HDV, XDCAM HD, XDCAM EX, AVCHD, AVCCAM – your editing and render times will greatly benefit from converting your footage from the source format into some version of ProRes.

At a minimum, when editing one of these formats, select the Timeline and go to Sequence > Settings > Render Control and change the codec from Same as Source to Apple ProRes 422. My tests have shown that there is about a 40% speed improvement in rendering when you switch to ProRes.

ProRes 422 HQ: This is the highest-quality video format, but unless you are shooting very carefully-lit, high-end video, such as RED, HDCAM, or HDCAM SR, the quality of your source image doesn’t equal the format. Use this version only for high-end work.

ProRes 422: This is the format I recommend for anyone shooting DSLR, HDV, AVCHD, XDCAM EX, XDCAM HD, AVCAM, or P2. Great image quality, with file sizes 30-35% smaller than ProRes 422 HQ. Since the DSLR images start as H.264, which is already quite compressed, ProRes 422 most closely matches the original image quality.

ProRes 422 LT: This is the format to use if you have tons of footage, need to edit using smaller (i.e. less storage space) hard drives, or are going to go thru an off-line to on-line process.

ProRes 422 Proxy: This format should only be used when file size is more important than image quality. Training files, library archive files, or other reference media are a good choice for this format.

NOTE: If you are on an older, non-Intel system, ProRes may not be a good choice for you. The math involved is very CPU-intensive and older systems may not be able to encode or play it fast enough.

ProRes is an excellent video codec and one that has achieved great popularity in the industry. However, that doesn’t mean you always need to select the absolute highest quality — many times our images weren’t that good to start with.

By spending a few seconds thinking about which ProRes version best matches our video format, we can save a ton of time and storage space down the road.

UPDATE – Aug. 30, 2009

Luca Immesi adds:

I enjoy your newsletter every month, it’s a real valuable source. I’m a film maker and I am one of the Red, Redallert, Clipfinder alpha tester. In your last newsletter there’s written to convert the R3D footage to prores 4:2:2 but now the right format is ProRes 4444 as R3D files are 4:4:4, this is suggested also by Red and Apple.

Larry replies: Thanks, Luca! Though it may be easier for some, especially those not going into heavy CGI work, to keep their file sizes smaller and transcode into ProRes 422 HQ.


Some Historial Background

[ The information below was first published in the June, 2007, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
Updated August, 2007. ]

Chuck Spaulding has been involved in motion graphics and codecs for a number of years. Recently, he and I got into a discussion of video codecs and he provided his thoughts on Apple’s ProRes codec.

Quality appears to be quite good, although I’m sure the folks at Cineform and SheerVideo will do a comprehensive evaluation and we’ll learn the RMS error rate, what its weaknesses are and how it holds up in post. However image quality is only half the equation, workflow is the other half and I’m having a tough time figuring out a workflow that makes sense.

 

After seven or eight generations of ProRes re-compression there is a noticeable difference compared to the uncompressed original which means that the codec isn’t lossless, which would seem to be a minimal standard for an editing codec. If ProRes progressively degrades the image even when you haven’t edited a single pixel, how can it possibly hold up under real-life situations where you’re transforming, filtering, adding effects, compositing, color-grading, and so on?

 

So ProRes is a lossy codec, it is 4:2:2 [not 4:4:4], it is Y’CbCr [not RGB], and it does not support alpha channels. Nowadays, almost all commercial productions combine video (Y’CbCr) footage with digitized film (Cineon) and CGI (RGB), so the ability to handle and transport data equally well is imperative, as is the ability to convert between them without loss. It’s hard to imagine a video or film production without compositing, yet Apple’s ProRes codec, like their uncompressed Y’CbCr 4:2:2 and AIC codecs, do not support an alpha channel.

 

The lack of an embedded alpha channel means that compositing requires two streams of data for each overlay instead of just one, exacerbating the already painful bandwidth problems associated with high-definition video. Also, in SD, video professionals are accustomed to smeared chroma, there’s a popular myth that sub-sampling chroma doesn’t matter because the human eye doesn’t resolve chrominance as well as luminance. In the human retina as a whole, it’s true that color-blind rods outnumber hue-discriminating cones. In the fovea, however, which receives the part of the image we pay attention to, the retina has no rods at all – only cones. So while 4:2:2 may look good enough for standard definition video it is not good enough for anything beyond SD.

 

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a step in the right direction and I’m sure FCP users will adopt it. However one real problem with this codec is that it is Apple-only, meaning it won’t work with Premiere on the Mac Pro. This is a significant constraint of the workflow.

Larry replies: Thanks, Chuck. If anyone has additional comments, please send them and I’ll update this article.


UPDATE – August, 2007

Peter Patten writes:

In reading your recent article on ProRes, are you really sure that the Apple Pro Res 422 Codec differentiates between 8-bit and 10-bit converting? I went through the Apple Pro Res 422 Codec and I could never find that difference!

 

It is always said that it encodes 8-bit and 10-bit Material with 10 bit in two different ways. But it never said that the (HQ) is converted with 10-bit and the lower one with 8-bit.

 

So just the question: Are you really sure?

Larry replies: Peter, thanks for writing. It turns out my initial understanding was wrong.

ProRes 422 ALWAYS stores video information in a 10-bit environment. The difference between ProRes 422 and ProRes 422 (HQ) is the data rate, not the bit depth.

To make sure of my facts, I contacted Adam Green, Senior Manager for Business and Market Development for Apple’s Professional Applications. Adam wrote:

Yes, ProRes is a 10 bit native codec only, and can be used with either 8 or 10 bit sources. 8-bit sources (DVCProHD, for example) would be converted into a 10-bit file. ProRes and ProRes (HQ) are BOTH 10-bit codecs, and there is no option to choose 8-bit when capturing.

 

Also, you are correct, ProRes 422 only runs on Macintosh systems. Right now, the codec is a Mac-only codec which resides in /Library/QuickTIme/. The answer today for PC users would be to attache to a Final Cut Server Server, and when a ProRes file is browsed on the server (the proxy would be H.264 or Offline-RT), and the PC user wants the online file, there would be a transcode template assigned to that device.

 

So essentially, the PC user would choose Uncompressed or Animation as the download codec, and the ProRes file would be converted as the file is downloaded. That way, codecs that are not available on the PC can be used anyhow. Good for people doing After Effects work, etc.

Larry replies: Thanks, Adam and Peter, for letting me clarify this. As a note, while Adam implies that Final Cut Server is currently available, it has only been announced by Apple, it is not yet released.

Also, here are some additional thoughts based on what I’ve learned recently.

If you are working in the following formats, there is no reason to use ProRes 422:

If you are working in the following formats, ProRes is worth considering, but probably not worth the effort:

If you are working completely in HDV or XDCAM, you should continue working natively in that format, HOWEVER, make sure to change your Render preferences so that you are rendering in ProRes. ProRes renders 30-40% faster than HDV.

If you are working in HDCAM or HDCAM SR, or multiple HD formats, ProRes makes a great deal of sense in terms of reducing file size and speeding render times.

UPDATE – Aug. 22, 2007

Tom Wolsky writes:

Does this presume that you’ll be outputting to ProRes? If you output a master back to native HDV, won’t everything have to be re-render into HDV, losing all the saved time on the backside?

Larry repllies: Tom, in my tests, rendering HDV with ProRes was 34% faster than rendering native HDV with no change in export time. In other words, conforming took essentially the same time, whether I was rendering in HDV or ProRes.

 


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51 Responses to FCP 7: Pick the Right Version of ProRes

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  1. Egon_Freeman says:

    Hi, Larry!

    It is not correct that ProRes can only be encoded on a Mac. There is a program called ffmbc for Windows, which allows encoding to AuthorityFX ProRes 4444. We have a workflow in which we’d otherwise need to transfer fully uncompressed .mov files from Windows to Mac, and this tool simplifies it greatly.

  2. Maciej says:

    Hi, Larry, I am trying to make a few countdown timers in FCP X with transparent background (using the PROTIMER plugin) for the purpose of using them in Keynote slides (I need a small timer in the corner of slides, not a full-screen one, thus transparency is needed). As you mentioned, the ProRes 4444 files are huge, to big for the presentation to work smoothly. I can’t seem to find a workaround. Would you have any suggestions? Thanks!

  3. Edwin says:

    Hi Larry, thanks for your tutorials/help over the years. I truly appreciate it.

    One thing I’ve never been able to understand is when working with ProRes4444 in Final Cut Pro 7, I’m sometimes having to render a shot when I drop it into the timeline, even when the sequence settings match the clip settings. I find it’s very temperamental being that sometimes I need to render a shot and sometimes not.
    In the article above you say, “Also, using ProRes 4444 in your project probably means you’d need to render every shot.” I’ve asked around on Creative Cow and no one can give me an answer as to why this is so. Would you kindly be able to elaborate as to why this happens?

    Here are some test results converting the same H.264 file to ProRes4444 in four different programs. YES/NO having to render the clip in a ProRes4444 timeline in FCP7 matching the clip settings.
    Quicktime 7 – YES have to render
    MPEG Streamclip – NO
    Compressor 4.1 – NO
    Compressor 3 – YES

    All programs converted exactly the same file and settings.

    Regards,
    Edwin

  4. Hi Larry

    I have tons of footage for a project and most of it doesn’t get used. It seems like a waste of space to encode all that footage into ProRes when only a fraction of it will ever get used in the project. Is it possible to edit on ProRes Proxy and then have Final Cut encode only the used clips into ProRes?

    • nissi says:

      Hey Alex,

      Not too sure about specifics such as which version of final cut your using, or what type of camera footage you have. But here is a gist.

      From what I remember in FCP 7, you can edit the ProRes Proxies.
      Once you have finalized your sequence, go to media manage. Create an offline / new project of that sequence. Then reconnect the media through the bin/ re-log as whatever ProRes format you choose. From there you can send xmls onto other software.

      Hope this helps. Sorry for a vague explanation. It’s been a few years since I touched final cut.

  5. Luis Cunha says:

    “ProRes 422: This is the format I recommend for anyone shooting DSLR, HDV, AVCHD, XDCAM EX, XDCAM HD, AVCAM, or P2. Great image quality, with file sizes 30-35% smaller than ProRes 422 HQ. Since the DSLR images start as H.264, which is already quite compressed, ProRes 422 most closely matches the original image quality.”

    Is this information valid today (2014) to transcode H.264 for edition with Premiere Pro/After Effects? Pro Res 422? Not the 422 (HQ) version?
    Thank you very much.

  6. eugene says:

    I’ve made lowerthirds in after effects which have white text on a black bar at 40% opacity to make them easier to read. However, when exported as animation or prores4444 and taken into final cut the black opacity is a very light colour which makes the footage behind lighter rather than darker. Changing composite modes doesn’t help either. Any ideas?…

  7. Thinh Pham says:

    Larry,

    How is Prores Proxy compared to H.264? Do I have any benefits when transcoding from H.264 to Prores Proxy?

    Thanks.

    • Larry says:

      Thinh:

      ProRes Proxy will be faster to edit and export, but lower image quality than H.264. Only use Proxy when you need to reduce file sizes, never for final output.

      Larry

      • Thinh Pham says:

        Larry,

        That makes me confused. I heard that Prores Proxy has similar bitrate as DSLR H.264 and better colour space (not sure). How can it produce lower image quality?

        Here’s my workflow: I transcode DSLR footage (H.264) to Proxy (full resolution) for easier editing in FCP, then I export the project as H.264 (with the Poxy source, not linking back to original H.264 clips). Will I face any quality lost problems with that?

        Thank you.

        • Larry says:

          Thinh:

          Bit rate isn’t everything. ProRes Proxy only displays every other pixel on every other line. It was not designed for high image quality, it was designed for 10-bit color space, very fast editing and small file size.

          Because of this, the workflow you describe is reducing your overall resolution and image quality about 50%.

          Larry

  8. Yves Opstaele says:

    Hi Larry, I would like to import VHS to FCP. Which devices do I need and in which codec is the best to transfer. You mention that there is no reason to use ProRes 422. Big thx in advance & kind regards, Yves

    • Larry says:

      Yves:

      For FCP 7, all you need is a video tape deck or camera with a FireWire port. Connect that via FireWire to your computer and FCP 7 will automatically connect to the deck and allow you to import the video. It uses the DV codec, which is just fine.

      If you don’t have a FireWire port on your computer – because it is too new – you’ll need a FireWire to Thunderbolt converter cable.

      Larry

      • Yves Opstaele says:

        Hi Larry, sorry I am a bit late with my reply but big thanks for your reply! If I understand it correctly I connect the VHS player with a video tape deck (or camera) through cinch cables and then I connect the video tape deck on its turn with the computer through FireWire. Also I am intending to buy the Panasonic NV-FS200 with a Time Base corrector. Is this a good choice and will the TBC help to have a more stabilized picture? Thanks in advance

        • Yves:

          Time-base Correctors (TBCs) are a HUGE help when converting VHS. They can do wonders, so I really encourage using them.

          I don’t know the Panasonic unit, so I don’t have an opinion.

          And your signal routing is correct – though you can improve the signal going VHS > TBC > FireWire converter (such as Grass Valley or Canopus) > Computer.

          Larry

  9. Alkarimeh says:

    Hi Larry,
    I have a film 80 minutes long, It was filmed on 5D Markii back 2014(full HD 1920*1080). Unfortunately, I was convinced somehow that Proress 444 is the best format for color grading because I tried to do the color grading on native footage H264 using Fcp7 but the result was horrible . Therefore, I converted all my clips to ProRess 444 which were ended in a very very big size. Now, the original clips I have are ProRess444 which they look fine and sharp considering the color and quality, but my client is asking to reduce the size. Whatever I tries to convert from ProRess 444 to any format using Quick Time, Fcp7 or the compressor, the film always looks as it has been washed-out and turned to be reddish. My question, how can I export this ProRess 444 to any low size format without losing that much of quality and without turning the film color to red(even there is no color grading applied or problems with white balance) ?. I spent a lot of time searching to find an answer but my attempts were in vain. Thanks a lot for the rich information and knowledge you provide all the time, and I hope I can find a solution for my problem.
    Alkarimeh

    • Larry says:

      Alkarimeh:

      Thanks for writing.

      You are correct, ProRes 4444 is the best format for color grading because it retains all the color information in your clip. However, you shot H.264 which, when recorded by the camera, throws out much of the color information in your clip in the process of creating H.264. It shoots a format called “422,” which means that you would have been fine to convert to ProRes 422 to retain all your original color. (Ignoring for the moment that H.264 is an 8-bit format and ProRes is a 10-bit format.)

      When you convert your finished film to H.264, or some other compressed format for distribution, part of the compression process throws out excess color. This is part of the format and can’t be avoided. However, it should NOT turn your footage red.

      During compression, you should be able to retain all your image resolution (pixels) and most of your color, however, some desaturation is inherent in the format. I prefer to use Compressor to compress files, rather than FCP 7, as I think Compressor does a better job.

      Also, during compression, I’ll make a small adjustment to the Gamma setting to slightly darken the image. This tends to compensate for the decrease in color saturation.

      You can also try different compression tools – Adobe Media Encoder, Sorenson Squeeze, or Telestream Episode – to see if one of them does a better job compressing your file. While the compressed video format they create will be the same, they each use different steps to get there, which means one may do a better job on your film than another.

      Larry

      • Alkarimeh says:

        Thanks for your response,
        I relied on your advise and tried too many formats in both compressor and Adobe Media Encoder. Here what I have frequently noticed, I still don’t know why when I use either FCP7 or QT to convert from ProRes 444 to these settings( HD 1920*1080/ H264.mov) the most noticeable color is the red with even some adjustments of the saturation. Using QT (Version 10.4) to convert from ProRes looks really horrible with regard to color and sharpness.However, after your reply, I concentrated more on using (both compressor and Adobe Media Encoder) with same settings ( HD 1920*1080/ H264.mov) or ProRes 422, you can tell that positively there is a slight difference but the red is still noticeable in both softwares (compressor and Adobe Media Encoder)knowing that I used different softwares to playback the film after exporting and conversion such as QT 10.4, QT7 and VLC . Using same sittings (1920*1080/ H264) but this time with (MPEG 2), here I can say that I really have a big difference, the odd reddish footages are almost disappeared, especially by using Adobe Media Encoder, but there is no way as you said to maintain the same resolution as in ProRes. I still don’t know why when I convert from ProPres 444 to( .mov), the film’s footages tend to redness, but with (MPEG) the footages’s color looks right even with using the same settings in both file formates(1920*1080; H264). I am very grateful to you for you help and for showing me the right way to go.
        Alkarimeh

  10. Hello Larry.

    I have converted AVCHD files shot 1080p/1920, NTSC – for editing in final cut to ProRess 22 (HQ), Linear PCM why do the images have about 2 seconds of stutter, as if needed a push to flow smoothly, and sometimes loose sound, and are basically not good. (When I converted same AVCHD files to H.624 – 1080p/1920 – Linear PCM, absolutely no problem.)

    Tried two convertors in case one was not working well…

    Tested different files shot with Canon5 mark 3, same settings, which does not need conversion as format is .mov – ProRes 22 (HQ), Linear PCM and play back was smooth ?

    So, tested files shot in 2013, not my Panasonic, another Panasonic, AVCHD files , same conversion codec, and runs perfectly smoothly.

    This puzzles me and worries me as much of footage for a project is shot with AVCHD files and have converted all to pro res…(I do not have Premier and currently live in China, language a barrier.)

    I understand that for quality, it is preferred I use Pro Res above H.264…yet, seems as if I will have to reconvert my current shot footage to H.264… to have smooth images…Would be grateful for feedback. Jeanne Pope..as am going mad trying to work it out. Work in film school here, but no one has answer for me…

    • Larry says:

      Jeanne:

      I don’t think this is a problem with the conversion. From your description, it sounds like the hard disk storing your media is too slow.

      ProRes 422 HQ creates large files which require plenty of bandwidth (speed) from your storage to your computer. The symptoms you describe are what I would expect from a USB-connected device, or, perhaps, FireWire 400/800.

      Take the files to a different computer, or change your storage, and see if they play smoothly. If they do, its a hardware problem, not a conversion problem.

      Larry

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