In our last article, "Everything beginners need to know about video codecs", we briefly covered 14 different codec options and where you can find them. But 14 is only a small portion of the myriad codecs currently on the market, so how is the budding Kiwi filmmaker meant to choose which is appropriate for their project?
There's no single answer to the codec question – the best choice depends on your situation.
Which codec is right for my project?
Before we get too far into this piece, we should warn you that this question has no single answer. The best codec possible changes depending on your situation, and though we could recommend some common codecs here, if you change equipment, budget or preference, our recommendation becomes moot.
So, this guide will focus on how to make the choice for yourself.
Your choice in codec will hinge on the following seven factors:
– Budget and timeline
The choice here almost makes itself. If you don't have the money to spend, you'd probably be better off paying your crew rather than investing in the heavyweight equipment required to edit large file types. In most circumstances, this paints RAW formats entirely out of the picture. It might be smarter to work entirely with H.264 or H.265 in order to manage file sizes (without sacrificing quality). Then again, your choice of medium may justify the expenditure – you can read more about output preferences below.
As for timeline, the same can be said here. You'll probably hate yourself if you try to shoot a 48Hours film on 4K RAW, but you also totally don't need to – some of the best entries in this festival have been shot on far worse. Conversely, those with the time to spend finessing quality, such as during the grade, would be wise to do so. More on personal preferences below.
If you're using a Blackmagic Mini Ursa and want to record with your favourite Canon codec, you're out of luck. Cameras are only designed with certain codecs installed – in the Blackmagic Mini Ursa's case, that's either RAW or Apple ProRes. However, you could use an external video recorder to add more flexibility. For example, the Blackmagic Video Assist can output with both ProRes and Avid DNxHD – that way PC-using Blackmagic owners don't have to figure out transcoding from ProRes.
Learn more about how cameras influence compression with the video below:
– Editing software and hardware
Most professional editing software can handle modern codecs. Either that or there will be plug-ins available to achieve the same. For example, Avid does not come with the ability to import REDCODE (RED's 4K file format) by default, but you can download an Avid Media Access plug-in to do so.
If you choose to use free editing software such as Lightworks, double check its tech specs before use – in case certain file types won't work. Otherwise you may have to transcode your media from one file type to another, which adds unnecessary time to your workflow.
Every time you compress and decompress a file, you risk losing quality. This means that when you want to send a picture-locked edit over to colour grading or visual effects, and then they want to compress it again to send back to you, it degrades the image.
To counter this, most colourists, for example, will ask for a conformed sequence with an instruction file like an EDL, XML or AAF. This will let them grade the original camera files, rather than the compressed edit versions.
And if conforming will take too long, the rule of thumb here is to export to the highest possible quality every time, or minimise the amount of exporting needed.
It's easy enough to use heavy equipment when you're sitting in a comfortable editing suite, but when your production takes you out on location, consider what equipment you'll be able to take with you. You'll find it a lot easier to shoot in 1080p and output to H.264 when you're making videos on the fly with minimal equipment.
Don't forget your storage space, either – even if your computer could handle ingesting RAW files, can you actually store them?
– Personal preference
Content is king, and it can still be king whether it's being viewed at 1080p or 8K. If image quality isn't as important to you as telling a good story, you may not need lossless codecs at all.
– Client or output preference
How does your client want your video delivered, or in which medium are you planning to play your film? Filmmakers for the web need to be thinking about mobile users, which means choosing more highly compressed codecs in order to play across multiple devices (without hogging memory space). Conversely, films that will play on the silver screen should be an acceptable quality for the medium – this is where you would consider sinking money into hardware that can handle ingesting and editing with high-res files. DNxHR and ProRes are industry favourites for this.
Your choice of codec is as varied as your choice of equipment. Most of it all does the same thing at the end of the day, just in different ways and to different standards. If you aren't sure what to use, talk to your editor, gradist or the team at DVT.
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