Did you pick the right camera? Part 3

Let me wrap up this three-parter with some thoughts on the media side of cameras. The switch from videotape recording to file-based recording has added complexity with not only specific file formats and codecs, but also the wrapper and container structure of the files themselves. The earliest file-based camera systems from Sony and Panasonic created a folder structure on their media cards that allowed for audio and video, clip metadata, proxies, thumbnails, and more. FAT32 formatting was adopted, so a 4GB file limit was imposed, which added the need for clip-spanning any time a recording exceeded 4GB in size.

As a result, these media cards contain a complex hierarchy of spanned files, folders, and subfolders. They often require a special plug-in for each NLE to be able to automatically interpret the files as the appropriate format of media. Some of these are automatically included with the NLE installation while others require the user to manually download and install the camera manufacturer’s software.

This became even more complicated with RED cameras, which added additional QuickTime reference files at three resolutions, so that standard media players could be used to read the REDCODE RAW files. It got even worse when digital still photo cameras added video recording capabilities, thus creating two different sets of folder paths on the card for the video and the still media. Naturally, none of these manufacturers adopted the same architecture, leaving users with a veritable Christmas tree of discovery every time they popped in one of these cards to copy/ingest/import media.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am totally a fan of ARRI’s approach with the Alexa camera platform. By adopting QuickTime wrappers and the ProRes codec family (or optionally DNxHD as MXF OP1a media), Alexa recordings use a simple folder structure containing a set of uniquely-named files. These movie files include interleaved audio, video, and timecode data without the need for subfolders, sidecar files, and other extraneous information. AJA has adopted a similar approach with its KiPro products. From an editor’s point-of-view, I would much rather be handed Alexa or KiPro media files than any other camera product, simply because these are the most straight-forward to deal with in post.

I should point out that in a small percentage of productions, the incorporated metadata does have value. That’s often the case when high-end VFX are involved and information like lens data can be critical. However, in some camera systems, this is only tracked when doing camera raw recordings. Another instance is with GoPro 360-degree recordings. The front and back files and associated data files need to stay intact so that GoPro’s stitching software can properly combine the two halves into a single movie.

You can still get the benefit of the simpler Alexa-style workflow in post with other cameras if you do a bit of media management of files prior to ingesting these for the edit. My typical routine for the various Panasonic, Canon, Sony, and prosumer cameras is to rip all of the media files out of their various Clip or Private folders and move them to the root folder (usually labelled by camera roll or date). I trash all of those extra folders, because none of it is useful. (RED and GoPro 360 are the only formats to which I don’t do this.) When it’s a camera that doesn’t generate unique file names, then I will run a batch renaming application in order to generate unique file names. There are a few formats (generally drones, ‘action’ cameras, smart phones, and image sequences) that I will transcode to some flavor of ProRes. Once I’ve done this, the edit and the rest of post becomes smooth sailing.

While part of your camera buying decision should be based on its impact on post, don’t let that be a showstopper. You just have to know how to handle it and allow for the necessary prep time before starting the edit.

Click here for Part 2.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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