Picking a Codec for HD

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the November, 2007, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


A codec (video compressor/decompressor) is at the heart of non-linear video. It compresses the video to meet the specific needs of a camera, editing system, or playback device.

There is no one “best” codec, just as there is no one “best” camera — each is designed to meet different needs. However, codecs these days seem to be proliferating like rabbits. And, sometimes, you can’t tell your players without a program (to badly mangle an old baseball joke).

This was brought home by a question Steve Denn, from WJBK in Detroit, asked:

My question is about using the Animation CODEC. Our Art Department uses the Animation CODEC for everything we use. It has proven to be the cleanest looking CODEC for our 720X486 videos.


Now that we are moving into the big world of HD they made us an Open that is 1280 x 720 30 fps, using the Animation CODEC. I matched the sequence to the clip. It plays fine in the Canvas and displays on our 30-inch HD Samsung monitor via AJA’s breakout box, but as a still image only. So I posted my question and got a response back from Philip Hodgetts, who wrote:

Use a codec FCP likes. Animation and Video are not all I-frame and will never play successfully in an FCP timeline even if the settings match. DVCPRO HD, ProRes 422, Uncompressed or Photo-JPEG will work. Animation, Cinepac, Video et al will not work and require rendering before playback.

So what do I do?

Larry replies: Philip is correct. Some codecs are designed for data transfer at high quality, such as the Animation codec, while others are designed for real-time playback, such as ProRes 422 or Uncompressed video.

The easiest workflow for your organization is to have the art department continue creating materials using the Animation codec. It has great quality, and a known workflow. Then, bring those Animation files into Final Cut and edit them to a ProRes 422 timeline. This workflow means that your art department doesn’t need to do anything new, while ProRes provides you with real-time playback and great quality.

You’ll need to experiment to decide whether you prefer the look of ProRes 422 or ProRes 422 HQ. My suspicion is that ProRes 422 will be sufficient.


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9 Responses to Picking a Codec for HD

  1. Tori says:

    Hi Larry,

    My question is this: What is the best codec to export my video?

    Here is the background: I would like to export a 45-minute HD video. The content of this video consists of a composite of multiple SD video clips. As a result I can’t export using the same HD codec the video was shot in, as it was shot in SD. The final work will played back using a combination of a USB stick or drive, a Western Digital Media Player, and an HD projector. I’m working in FCP.

    I ask the question because I have previously exported HD video and shown it on a brand new (then mid-2011) HD television. I had a lot of difficulty with jittery playback and I would like to prevent that from happening with this export. That video was 4-minutes, H.264, and was played back using a USB stick and a Western Digital Media Player. (Of note: I used this setup in 2009 with a 162-minute video and it played back beautifully, so I know the media player is capable of accurate playback).

    Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated.

    • Larry Jordan says:

      Hmmm… First, why upres to HD if you shot SD?

      Play SD directly – you won’t get any additional visual information/resolution by up-resing. You’ll just make the picture soft.

      JIttery playback GENERALLY means that the USB stick does not play video fast enough – or – the frame rate during compression was set too low.

      What I would do – given the little you’ve told me so far – is export the video as a self-contained QuickTime movie, then, using Compressor, compress it using the default YouTube setting. HIGH quality, good images and will fit to a USB stick.


      • Tori says:

        Hi Larry,

        Thanks very much for your feedback. I should have been more clear about why I’m exporting to HD. The SD footage has been composited (vertically and horizontally) across the screen. The resolution I’ve attained in the resulting composite ends up being 5700px wide by 3300px high–in the end, I’m actually downresing to output to 1920×1080 HD. So ultimately I do need to export to HD. Can you recommend the best codec to use?

        Thanks for your help.

  2. David says:

    Larry – I am shooting some footage on a Sony HDR-FX1000 in HDV 1080i 30p and am finding myself stymied at the point of choosing the correct Codec for importing to FCP. Any advice?
    Thanks. David

  3. francis says:

    Hi Larry.
    am a junior video editor.i just shot a three minute music video using the canon 600D in full HD.mov file format..and couldnt log and transfer into fcp for edit.so i decided to convert the files into proress 444 and imported them and edited. exported using the default quicktime settings and even made a DVD using the iDVD.but to my suprise the video has lost all its quality on playback from the DVD i made..my question is which codec should i choose for DVD output..your response will be of great help and is appreciated in advance.
    kind regards

    • Larry says:


      Thanks for writing. You can save space, next time, by converting to ProRes 422 – no need to use ProRes 4444.

      As for export, export using your current settings. Then, convert to MPEG-2 for DVD using Compressor. The export format isn’t important – leave it as ProRes 4444. ALL DVDs use MPEG-2 for media. Remember, also, that DVDs are standard definition, so they will not look as good as the HD that you shot.


  4. Soumya says:

    I have a sony pmw ex-1r and am shooting HD video at 1920x1280p. I use the sony transfer software to get the files into mov format for fcp. Now, what will be the best sequence setting and codec for high quality hd video?

    I would like to keep an initial high quality and then change to dv-pal/ h.264 later by importing the better quality film and re-exporting for various purposes.

    Please advise.

    • Larry says:


      The less you convert something, the better the potential quality.

      Let FCP X configure your Project settings based upon your video clip, then edit in that format.

      For output prior to compression, use File > Share > Master file.

      The worst thing you can do for quality is convert frame rates, so be sure you are shooting in the frame rate you want to distribute (i.e. 25 or 50 fps for 25 fps distribution).


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