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Managing and Moving Your Media: Tips for Preparing Your Files (and Formats) for Post

Here are some disciplines for handling media when moving your project across multiple applications.

The modern direction in file-based postproduction workflows is to keep your camera files native throughout the entire pipeline. While this might work within a closed loop, like a self-contained Avid, Adobe or Apple workflow, it breaks down when you have to move your project across multiple applications. It’s common for an editor to send files to an Avid Pro Tools studio for the final mix and to a colorist running Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve, FilmLight Baselight or similar for the final grade. In doing so, you have to ensure that editorial decisions aren’t incorrectly translated in the process, because the NLE might handle a native camera format differently than the mixer or colorist’s tool. To keep the process solid, I’ve developed some disciplines for handling media. The applications I mention are for Mac OS, but most of these companies offer Windows versions, too. If not, you can easily find equivalents.

Copying Media

The first step is to get the media from the camera cards to a reliable hard drive. It’s preferable to have at least two copies (from the location) and to make the copies using software that verifies the backup. This is a process often handled on location by the lowly “data wrangler” under less than ideal conditions. A number of applications will accomplish this task, such as Imagine Products ShotPut Pro and Adobe Prelude, but my current favorite is Red Giant Offload. It uses a dirt-simple interface permitting one source and two target locations. It has the sole purpose of safely transferring media with no other frills.

Red Giant Software’s Offload is a single-purpose backup utility designed for efficient location use.

Processing Media on Location

With the practice of shooting footage with a flat-looking log gamma profile, many productions like the ability see the final, adjusted look on location. This often involves some on-site color grading to create either a temporary look or even the final look. The task of creating the grade usually falls to a DIT (digital imaging technician). Several applications are available that will do the job, including DaVinci Resolve, Pomfort Silverstack and RED Redcine-X Pro. Some new applications specifically designed for field use include Red Giant’s BulletProof and Catalyst Browse/Prepare from Sony Creative Software. Catalyst Browse is free and designed for all Sony cameras, whereas Catalyst Prepare is a paid application that covers Sony cameras and other brands, including Canon and GoPro. Depending on the application, these tools may be used to add color correction, organize media, transcode file formats, and even prepare simple rough assemblies of selected footage.

These tools are all powerful, but frankly I’d prefer that the production company leave these tasks up to the editorial team and allow more time in post to accommodate. In my testing, most of the aforementioned apps work as advertised; however, BulletProof continues to have issues with proper handling of timecode.

Transcoding Media

I’m not a big believer in always using native media for the edit, unless you are in a situation with a fast turnaround. To streamline the process of interchanging files between applications, it is ideal to end up in one of several common media formats, if that isn’t how the original footage was recorded. You also want every file to have unique and consistent metadata, including file names, reel IDs and timecode.

Divergent Media EditReady enables batch transcoding to multiple locations with optional LUT support.

The easiest common media format is QuickTime using the MOV wrapper and encoded using either Apple ProRes, Panasonic AVC-Intra, Sony XDCAM or Avid DNxHD codecs. These files are readable in most applications running on Mac or PC. My preference is to first convert all files into QuickTime using one of these codecs if they originated as something else. That’s because the file is relatively malleable at that point and doesn’t require a rigid external folder structure.

Applications like BulletProof and Catalyst can transcode camera files into another format. Of course, there are dedicated batch encoders like Sorenson Squeeze, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder and Telestream Episode. My tools of choice for transcoding camera media are Squared 5’s MPEG Streamclip (free) and Divergent Media’s EditReady. Both feature easy-to-use batch processing interfaces, but EditReady adds the ability to apply LUTs, change file names and export to multiple targets. It also reads formats that MPEG Streamclip doesn’t, such as Canon EOS C300 files (Canon XF codec wrapped as MXF). If you want to generate a clean master copy, preserving the log gamma profile as well as a second, lower-resolution editorial file with a LUT applied, then EditReady is the right application.

Altering Your Media

VideoToolShed QtChange may be used to add timecode and reel information to QuickTime MOV files.

I will go to extra lengths to make sure that files have proper names, timecode and source/tape/reel ID metadata. Most professional video cameras will correctly embed that information. Others, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, might encode a non-standard timecode format, allow duplicated file names, and not add reel IDs.

Once the media has been transcoded, I will use two applications to adjust the file metadata. For timecode, I rely on VideoToolShed’s QtChange. This application lets you alter QuickTime files in a number of ways, but I use it primarily to strip off unnecessary audio tracks and bad timecode, then to embed proper reel IDs and timecode. Because it does this by altering header information, it’s able to process a lot of files quickly.

The second tool in this mix is Better Rename from publicspace.net, which is a batch renaming utility. I use it frequently for adding, deleting or changing all or part of the file name for a batch of files. For instance, I might append a production job number to the front of a set of Canon 5D files. The point in doing all of this is so you can easily locate the exact same point within any file using any application, even several years apart.

publicspace.net Better Rename is an all-purpose file renaming batch utility.

Speed is a special condition. Most NLEs handle files with mixed frame rates within the same sequence and project, but often such timelines do not correctly translate from one piece of software to the next. Edit lists are interchanged using EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF formats, and each company uses its own variation of the format. Some formats, like FCPXML, require third-party utilities to translate the list, adding another variable. Round-tripping, such as going from NLE A (for offline) to color correction system B (for grading) and then to NLE C (for finishing), often involves several translations. Apart from effects, speed differences in native camera files can be a huge problem.

A common mixed frame rate situation in the edit is combining 23.98 fps and 29.97 fps footage. If both of these sequences were intended to run in real time, then it’s usually OK. However, if the footage was recorded with the intention of overcranking for slow motion (59.94 or 29.97 native for a time base of 23.98), then you start to run into issues. As long as the camera properly flags the file so that every application plays it at the proper time base (slowed), then things are fine. This isn’t true of DSLRs, where you might shoot 720p/59.94 for use as slow motion in a 1080p/29.97 or 23.98 sequence.

With these files, my recommendation is to alter the speed of the file first, before using it inside the NLE. One way to do this is with Apple Cinema Tools (part of the defunct Final Cut Studio package, but it can still be found). You can batch-conform a set of 59.94 fps files to play natively at 23.98 fps in very short order. This should be done before adding any timecode with QtChange. Remember that any audio will have its sample rate shifted, which I’ve found to be a problem with FCP X. Therefore, when you do this, also strip off the audio tracks using QtChange. They play slow anyway and so are useless in most cases where you want overcranked, slow-motion files.

Audio in Your NLE

The last point to understand is that not all NLEs deal with audio tracks in the same fashion. Often camera files are recorded with multiple mono audio sources, such as a boom and a lav mic on channels 1 and 2. These may be interpreted either as stereo or as dual mono, depending on the NLE. Adobe Premiere Pro CC in particular sees these as stereo when imported. If you edit them to the timeline as a single stereo track, you will not be able to correct it in the sequence afterwards by panning. Therefore, it’s important to remember to set up your camera files with a dual mono channel assignment before making the first edit. The same issue crops up when round-tripping files through Resolve. It may not properly handle audio, depending on how it interprets these files, so be careful.

These steps add a bit more time at the front end of any given edit, but I guarantee they will give you a better editing experience on complex projects. The results will be easier interchange between applications and more reliable relinking. Finally, when you revisit a project a year or more down the road, everything should pop back up, right where you left it.  

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