Time to Rethink ProRes RAW?

The Apple ProRes RAW codec has been available for several years at this point, yet we have not heard of any professional cinematography camera adding the ability to record ProRes RAW in-camera. I covered ProRes RAW with some detail in these three blog posts (HDR and RAW Demystified, Part 1 and Part 2, and More about ProRes RAW) back in 2018. But the industry has changed over the past few years. Has that changed any thoughts about ProRes RAW?

Understanding RAW

Today’s video cameras evolved their sensor design from a three CCD array for RGB into a single sensor, similar to those used in still photo cameras. Most of these sensors are built using a Bayer pattern of photosites. This pattern is an array of monochrome receptors that are filtered to receive incoming green, red, and blue wavelengths of light. Typically the green photosites cover 50% of this pattern and red and blue each cover 25%. These photosites capture linear light, which is turned into data that is then meshed and converted into RGB pixel information. Lastly, it’s recorded into a video format. Photosites do not correlate in a 1:1 relationship with output pixels. You can have more or fewer total photosite elements in the sensor than the recorded pixel resolution of the file.

The process of converting photosite data into RGB video pixels is done by the camera’s internal electronics. This process also includes scaling, gamma encoding (Rec709, Rec 2020, or log), noise reduction, image sharpening, and the application of that manufacturer’s proprietary color science. The term “color science” implies some type of neutral mathematical color conversion, but that isn’t the case. The color science that each manufacturer uses is in fact their own secret sauce. It can be neutral or skewed in favor of certain colors and saturation levels. ARRI is a prime example of this. They have done a great job in developing a color profile for their Alexa line of cameras that approximates the look of film.

All of this image processing adds cost, weight, and power demands to the design of a camera. If you offload the processing to another stage in the pipeline, then design options are opened up. Recording camera raw image data achieves that. Camera raw is the monochrome sensor data prior to the conversion into an encoded video signal. By recording a camera raw file instead of an encoded RGB video file, you defer the processing to post.

To decode this file, your operating system or application requires some type of framework, plug-in, or decoding/developing software in order to properly interpret that data into a color image. In theory, using a raw file in post provides greater control over ISO/exposure and temperature/tint values in color grading. Depending on the manufacturer, you may also apply a variety of different camera profiles. All of this is possible and still have a camera file that is of a smaller size than its encoded RGB counterpart.

In-camera recording, camera raw, and RED

Camera raw recording preceded the introduction of the RED One camera. These usually consisted of uncompressed movie files or image sequences recorded to an external recorder. RED introduced the ability to record a Wavelet-compressed, 4K camera raw signal at 24fps. This was a movie file recorded onboard the camera itself. RED was granted a number of patents around these processes, which preclude any other camera manufacturer from doing that exact same thing, unless entering into a licensing agreement with RED. So far these patents have been successfully upheld against Sony and Apple among others.

In 2007 – part way through the Final Cut Pro product run – Apple introduced its family of ProRes codecs. ProRes was Apple’s answer to Avid’s DNxHD codec, but with some improvements, like resolution independence. ProRes not only became Apple’s default intermediate codec, but also gained stature as the mastering and delivery codec of choice, regardless of which NLE you were using.

By 2010 Apple was successful in convincing ARRI to use ProRes as its internal recording codec with the introduction of the (then new) line of Alexa cameras. (ARRI camera raw recording was a secondary option using ARRIRAW and a Codex recorder.) Shooting with an Alexa, recording high-quality ProRes files, and posting those directly within FCP or any other compatible NLE created the simplest and smoothest capture-edit-deliver pipeline of any professional post workflow. That remains unchanged even today.

Despite ARRI’s success, only a few other camera manufacturers have adopted ProRes as an internal recording option. To my knowledge these include some cameras from AJA, JVC, Blackmagic Design, and RED (as a secondary file to REDCODE). The lack of widespread adoption is most likely due to Apple’s licensing arrangement, coupled with the fact that ProRes is a proprietary Apple format. It may be a de facto industry standard, but it’s not an official standard sanctioned by an industry standards committee.

The introduction of Apple’s ProRes RAW codecs has led many in the industry to wait with bated breath for cameras to also adopt ProRes RAW as their internal camera raw option. ARRI would obviously be a candidate. However, the RED patents would seem to be an impediment. But what if Apple never had that intention in the first place?

Do we have it all wrong?

When Apple introduced ProRes RAW, it did so in partnership with Atomos. Just like Sony, ARRI, and Panasonic recording their camera raw signals to an external recorder, sending a camera raw signal to an external Atomos monitor/recorder is a viable alternative to in-camera recording. Atomos’ own disagreements with RED have now been settled. Therefore, embedding the ProRes RAW codec into their products opens up that recording format to any camera manufacturer. The camera simply has to be capable of sending a compatible camera raw signal (as data) over SDI or HDMI to the connected Atomos recorder.

The desire to see ProRes RAW in-camera stems from the history of ProRes adoption by ARRI and the impact that had on high-end production and post. However, that came at a time when Apple was pushing harder into various pro film and video markets. As we’ve learned, that course was corrected by Steve Jobs, leading to the launch of Final Cut Pro X. Apple has always been about ease and democratization – targeting the middle third of a bell curve of users, not necessarily the top or bottom thirds. For better or worse, Final Cut Pro X refocused Apple’s pro video direction with that in mind.

In addition, during this past decade or more, Apple has also changed its approach to photography. Aperture was a tool developed with semi-pro and pro DSLR photographers in mind. Traditional DSLRs have lost photography market share to smart phones – especially the iPhone. Online sharing methods – Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, cloud picture libraries – have become the norm over the traditional photo album. And so, Aperture bit the dust in favor of Photos. From a corporate point-of-view, the rethinking of photography cannot be separated from Apple’s rethinking of all things video.

Final Cut Pro X is designed to be forward-thinking, while cutting the chord with many legacy workflows. I believe the same can be applied to ProRes RAW. The small form factor camera, rigged with tons of accessories including external displays, is probably more common these days than the traditional, shoulder-mounted, one-piece camcorder. By partnering with Atomos (and maybe others in the future), Apple has opened the field to a much larger group of cameras than handling the task one camera manufacturer at a time.

ProRes RAW is automatically available to cameras that were previously stuck recording highly-compressed M-JPEG or H.264/265 formats. Video-enabled DSLRs from manufacturers like Nikon and Fujifilm join Canon and Panasonic cinematography cameras. Simply send a camera raw signal over HDMI to an Atomos recorder. And yet, it doesn’t exclude a company like ARRI either. They simply need to enable Atomos to repack their existing camera raw signal into ProRes RAW.

We may never see a camera company adopt onboard ProRes RAW and it doesn’t matter. From Apple’s point-of-view and that of FCPX users, it’s all the same. Use the camera of choice, record to an Atomos, and edit as easily as with regular ProRes. Do you have the depth of options as with REDCODE RAW? No. Is your image quality as perfect in an absolute (albeit non-visible) sense as ARRIRAW? Probably not. But these concerns are for the top third of users. That’s a category that Apple is happy to have, but not crucial to their existence.

The bottom line is that you can’t apply classic Final Cut Studio/ProRes thinking to Final Cut Pro X/ProRes RAW in today’s Apple. It’s simply a different world.

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Addendum

The images I’ve used in this post come from Patrik Pettersson. These clips were filmed with a Nikon Z6 DSLR recording to an Atomos Ninja V. He’s made a a few sample clips available for download and testing. More at this link. This brings up an interesting issue, because most other forms of camera raw are tied to a specific camera profile. But with ProRes RAW, you can have any number of cameras. Once you bring those into Final Cut Pro X, you don’t have the correct camera profile with a color science that matches that model for each any every camera.

In the case of these clips, FCPX doesn’t offer any Nikon profiles. I decided to decode the clip (RAW to log conversion) using a Sony profile. This gave me the best possible results for the Nikon images and effectively gives me a log clip similar to that from a Sony camera. Then for the grade I worked in Color Finale Pro 2, using its ACES workflow. To complete the ACES workflow, I used the matching SLog3 conversion to Rec709.

The result is nice and you do have a number of options. However, the workflow isn’t as straightforward as Apple would like you to believe. I think these are all solvable challenges, but 1) Apple needs to supply the proper camera profiles for each of the compatible cameras; and 2) Apple needs to publish proper workflow guides that are useful to a wide range of users.

©2020 Oliver Peters