Holy Cra-Apple. Video formats make raw look sane.

So, I have this new Sony camera and it's supposed to be really, really good at making video files. If you're hard core you can skip your in camera memory card and the pedestrian 4:2:0 file structure, and the highly compressed files your camera wants to make so your computer doesn't have a file thrombosis, and you can spool uncompressed 4:2:2 files straight out of the HDMI plug and into an external reader/hard disk. The cheap, decent HDMI recorders start around $1,200.  This is great for the people who are playing in the big, big leagues but most of us want to shoot compressed because we don't have a server room back at the studio dedicated to transcoding video and editing big, 10 bit video files.

Most photographer/multi-media folks I know want to be able to shoot on a good video camera or DSLR camera, get enough material on some 16 gig memory cards to make it worth our whiles and have some sort of compromise between compression and quality that works for our clients. We're shooting for local theaters, restaurants, and the usual business interview kind of stuff. We try to toss in a little art from time to time.  The finished work needs to be good and high definition but we're not ready (and our clients haven't saved up enough) for ultra high def (4K)  and all the storage, editing and nonsense that comes with it.

I figured that the big Sony a99, shot at 1080p @24 fps with the lowest compression setting should look pretty good on the old 40 inch TV in the living room. I'll be damned if we'll ever know.... (just kidding....kinda).

Thing is that the camera shoots a format called AVCHD. The people at Apple seem to regard it with the same curiosity travelers regard tapeworms and encephalitis, they don't want to get near it.
But the problem for me is that every computer within a 100 yards of my reach is an Apple product. When I insert a recently shot SD card from the big Sony the Apple kind of rolls its eyes and creates some wacky file folders called, "Private." I can click on them but I never get to see the individual .MTS files I need to get to....very frustrating. Many tricks and much ancient lore must be used to see what I want....the control key being critical.

I can look at the files on a friend's PC and they open right up and play. But on my machine I can only really get a good look at them if I import them into Final Cut Pro X and wait for seven coffee breaks for the buggy-ass program to transcode all the files. It converts them to Apple ProRes, which works fine, but by then the magic is gone, my attention span has gone down faster than the stack of new Boeing Dreamliner orders and I am, for all intents and purposes, grounded. And not in a good, electrical way. At this point I'd even watch European football rather than wait for the magic transcode elves to do their mediocre magic.

Apple likes movie formats that are called .Mov files. There are also beasts called Apple Intermediate Codec, or AIC files. The bling-puters like these too. But you can always buy a stand alone transcoder to convert anything to anything. You just have to spend more time and money and you have to make sure the trade-offs in final image quality don't push you out of the quality/investment paradigm you've been trying to establish from the beginning.

I hate trying to run Final Cut Pro X on even a fast machine while the program transcodes files in the background. It slows down everything. On bigger projects I've been setting up a second work station just to transcode clips from AVCHD to Apple ProRes or AIC while I edit on my primary station. Anything to speed up the flow.

While my primary system is great for day to day Photoshop and batch raw conversions for still images I can see that as video becomes a bigger and bigger part of my workload I'll either need to speed more on computer power and storage or smile and make nice with a skilled editor who has already made that kind of investment.

Realization: I'm pretty good at shooting the stuff. I hate to edit and would love to foist that off on anyone who needs to spend time alone in front of the screens.

So, I finally got everything imported and looked at the files. The stuff looks good. Really good. Better than I hoped. I just wish the whole process was as easy as pulling Jpegs into Lightroom...

Apple needs to spend some of that reserve cash to fine tune a couple things. They need to have some program like Preview that will open and show any kind of video file you even wave next to your machine. Then they need to nicely ask FCP-X not to grab every last shred of RAM with the intention of never sharing it again with any other program until you re-start your machine.

And I think the my monitor needs to be about 2 inches wider. And I think their should be an emulation mode in FCP-X so you can see, approximately, how your work will appear on a TV screen.

Finally, does NTSC really stand for "Never Twice the Same Color?"

Yeah. A video rant. Yawn.

Buy your stuff with our links and we'll make sure the lab continues to.....experiment.


David Liang said...

If you're thinking of getting more into the video stuff Kirk, not sure if you're familiar with Davinci Resolve? I used Premiere and After Effects to assemble my footage but I use Davinci to do color correction, sharpening etc. The best way I can describe the software is that it's Photoshop for video footage, and the Lite version is free to download. It lacks a few minor things the paid version has like de-noise, but if you're shooting in decent light the a99 should be fantastic.
I shot footage in a club at 6400ISO and the footage after color correction and sharpening/contrast etc was still very good...the a99 is amazing.

David Liang said...

PS Premiere plays really nice with AVCHD

Frank Grygier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Libby said...

Kirk you may want to give this a try to see if it helps with the issue you are having - there is a free trial


I do commercial editing on a fill in basis for a company here when they get busy, and I'm grateful that usually I don't have to deal with AVCHD containers there.

While I wish that FCP would deal with AVCHD natively instead of that log and transfer crap which bloats your files, I don't think it's in the cards.

If you are settled on FCP for final editing and grading, you might want to get a cheap PC laptop with 4GB Ram minimum and run Quicktime and VLC Player. You could view an do your conversions there.

DaVinci is beautiful for grading - it's available for Mac and PC.


For personal video, I am hopefully headed for the Black Magic someday. In the meantime, for what I shoot my present stuff is ok.

Present HD formats - while some may say that 4K is the future, why are so many people sitting on youtube watching 640x480 cat videos? Just sayin'. My own investment on my small level would be in better audio support - for the small stuff I do I use a Tascam DR-40 (it's like the Zoom H4n) and sometimes a shotgun, and even that small addition has resulted in a world of improvement even for just plain outdoor stuff.

Yes, your viewership will plummet today because of this post, and now I've added a boring long winded comment to boot ;-)

Jeremy said...

MTS video containers are definitely a pain, but the onus should be on camera manufacturers to provide output files in more interoperable formats, rather than requiring their custom (and usually crappy) application or transcoding to view your recordings.

These two tools are great solutions for dealing with various AVCHD files on Mac:

ClipWrap - http://www.divergentmedia.com/clipwrap

This utility 'unwraps' the AVCHD stream (a.k.a. MPEG or H.264) from the MTS container, and simply re-saves it into a MOV container. No transcoding required. It allows you to view the original video stream that came off the camera without modifying it at all.

VLC - http://www.videolan.org

You might already know this one, but it'll easily play MTS files and just about anything else you can throw at it. It also has quite a few options for streaming video to devices over a network, like to TVs, computers, phones, tablets, etc.

Also, to second David's comment, PS Premiere allows simple editing of AVCHD files with no transcoding. I typically use FCP7 and FCPX, but for quick and dirty edits, Premiere is a great option.

Kirk Tuck said...

Not too concerned about readership here. I'm happy to have all the suggestions and tips.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'll check out Premier. It must be my life's goal to make Adobe richer....sigh.

João de Medeiros said...

Hi Kirk!

Do try to maintain the original folder structure...copy it to a "Masters" folder where you can then use 5DtoRGB to convert it to H.264 or other file format you like. Be sure to visit vimeo groups and http://www.personal-view.com/talks/discussions those guys are great.

Really love your work, and i have to ask since like you I own many different cameras (D800e, OMD, @99)
Why not a "KirkTuck Guide to @99"... I would love to hear your tips about it. Like adapting lenses to it, wich modern lenses you prefer, etc... you know, all the thing a guy loves to read.

I'm sorry about my english, its kind of rusty.

Best wishes from Porto, Portugal.

João de Medeiros

George said...

Won't add any technical value here to the video stuff but on the "philosophical" rant I can add my minor experience.

Got an EPL2, which, oh fine, just does 720p HD... Seemed little resolution wise but once I saw the files I got with it I almost fell off the chair! 1 minute of 720p HD is ~200mb!, my bad!
And I thought less compression, more size was fine, ah.

As of editing, little idea here. Can agree on that double standards, despite giving alternatives (great) usually suck, for the reasons you describe.

Video is really nice, keeps the movement and the whole scene. But, for a very amateur person like me, with occasional use, it's overkill.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Joåo, I've heard before to keep the folder structure complete and have done so. I'd love to write a guide to the a99 but with my luck just as I finished the writing the a99.5 would come out and Gary Friedmann's book on the a99 would have already been in the market for months....

João de Medeiros said...

Indeed! Still...


João de Medeiros

Cat said...

If you just want to play video files that the Mac does not handle, VLC media player is a popular, open source, free choice. I downloaded it from http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-macosx.html when I started using the Panasonic GH2's AVCHD output. After previewing clips in VLC, I convert and edit the keepers in FCP X which is not speedy but seems fine to me.

Frank Grygier said...

You can "rent" Adobe Premier by the month from the cloud.

Van Lam said...

Couple of thoughts:

1. Are you running Mountain Lion? AVCHD files can be previewed in Quicktime no problem on OS X 10.8
2. There's no reason ever to use AIC. ProRes is more efficient and compatible.
3. If you have a fast enough computer, you don't need to transcode AVCHD in FCPX. Just turn off "Create Optimized Media" and "Background Render" in preferences, then you can edit AVCHD natively.

Kirk Tuck said...

Van. I just updated three of the studio computers to M. Lion over the weekend and was delighted to see that you are right. I can view in QT now. Yeah! I only use AIC when I want to play around in iMovie. I'm off to implement your last suggestion. Cool!!!

Alan from Chgo said...

Please don't think the following is a rant or Mac vs PC screed. Just a suggestion to make your life easier. One of my sons (just 10 years younger than you) has made his living since college with video and Photoshop (if you remember the Budweiser frogs that is some of his work). He learned on Macs at school then used them on high end advertising agency setups and became a believer. I on the other hand started with a Commadore 64, then the first PC compatibles, they had basic business apps and file/list management programs which I was able to leverage into a series of side businesses that paid the college for two of the three kids. We had interesting discussions for years.

I fell into some mad money six years ago and thought I would see what he was talking about. I bought a 2007 MacPro and over the years maxed the ram and added a higher level video card. I found I like Macs for photo editing but was too old to change from Windows for writing, bookkeeping, etc. I also found what you have that MTS files in Mac programs are a pain. I was using Boot camp on this machine, and after doing a copy of the Windows partition found I could boot from a Windows only drive and it was as fast if not faster than the Mac drive. Just leave the side panel off the Mac two hard drives in their own caddies/cradles. Pick what you want to do today, push one drive in and boot. SATA cards which work in both Windows and Mac with a fast Raid box to store your working files and you are in business.

There are a number of Windows programs that handle MTS/Sony files very well, including Sony's own Vegas Pro. I make videos for the family with an a57. I am still chugging along on this six year old machine, I don't have deadlines any more.

As a side note when the ad agencies started cutting back and offloading their video work to independents my son began working for a company just a few miles from Mike Johnston that handles video editing for a number of local TV stations throughout the state in their coverage of High School and small college sports. They take feeds from the station's on court cameras, cut, paste and dub to order and feed it back to the stations in time for their local news casts. When football overlaps basketball he starts Friday afternoons and finishes early Sunday morning. This has to be fast, accurate, using a variety of equipment on the stations end. It is an all Windows shop.

I have used five paragraphs to suggest the purchase of a MacPro rather than their all-in-one machine you posted about. My son got an all-in-in Mac last year and found the lack of expansion ability to be frustrating.

Michael Bulbenko said...

Kirk, another thing is even with iMovie there is no need for you to ever go to AIC. ProRes LT is good enough for 80% of any kind of corporate need. Secondly, do you own Toast? Most Apple users do...well it has long had a AVCHD converter built into it.

theaterculture said...

Second Alan's comment - among my documentary film and video friends and acquaintances, the experience of eventually replacing the iMac or MacBook Pro with a Pro desktop or a high-end pc desktop RAMed to the gills is universal. Still beats the 15k or so you used to have to invest in hardware to build an AVID system, Zip-disk and all...

The Mgmt. said...

You can save yourself the trouble of a restart by using the "purge" command in the Terminal. Might not be the exact same thing, but it's probably good enough.

John Flores said...

FWIW, I'm handling the AVCHD files coming from my Panasonic GH2 no problem with a circa 2011 MBP running FCPX. I don't bother transcoding or AIC, both CPU and HD hogs. As long as the CPU is fast enough to decode the AVCHD on the fly you are good to go. For reference:

2.2GHz Intel Core i7

My biggest investment was for a Thunderbolt RAID. I've got 4x2TB 7200RPM drives sitting in a Pegasus R4.