The Quest for an Archiving Codec

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the August, 2009, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


Kim Rowley, from Rome, started this discussion between Philip Hodgetts and myself. Kim began by asking:

Our in-house production team has just purchased a server and is planning on ingesting our vast tape library which is entirely in DigiBeta PAL. (We have, over the years, transferred all footage from past decades onto this format since we had everything from 1″ to Umatic to BetaSP.) Now for our digital library we are leaning towards capturing all material and storing it in the IMX50 codec having heard that this is the most “universal” and is decent quality. These IMX50 files will be wrapped in MFX with lots and lots of Metadata. What do you all think of the IMX50 codec?

Larry replies: Codecs are Philip Hodgetts’ area of expertise, so I punted the question over to him.

Philip answered:

I do not agree with the advice you’ve been given. The IMX codec family is Long GOP MPEG-2 and a great acquisition format for field work, but I would never consider SD IMX codecs for archive (or even delivery). In SD the IMX codecs deleted large amounts of information in the blacks and highlights before compression making this a very difficult codec to do color correction with as it lacks most of the original detail.

If the future was going to be all Apple then ProRes 422 (standard) would be a great match for Digibeta. Second best would be DVCPRO 50 but that’s also from only one manufacturer (Panasonic). A vendor-independent choice would be Photo-JPEG with the codec set to 100% quality.

Philip’s reply sent Kin scurrying to learn more. A couple weeks went by, then I got this message from Kim:

My codec quest independently of who I asked, led me to the nonproprietary codec called JPEG2000 (used much in digital cinema). All reputable organizations concerned about long term digital archives seem to be implementing strategies using this codec. Since we are interested in long term archiving of our files BUT ALSO repurposing archive material using FCP I wanted to ask Philip (since he lives in all worlds!):

  1. Are we going to have problems getting those JPEG2000 (wrapped in MFX format) into FCP? What intermediary hardware or software is necessary?
  2. What is the difference between Photo JPEG (as Philip first suggested) and JPEG2000?
  3. Would there be advantages of one over another?

Time to send this over to Philip, who replied:

  1. Absolutely there will be problems. FCP does not support MXF natively (Raylight Tools helps) and does NOT support JPEG2000 at all. It’s a Wavelet codec and has zero support in FCP. I doubt it will play in the viewer, although it might. It will need rendering for every frame in any timeline.
  2. Photo-JPEG is widely supported. JPEG2000 is has minimal support. Photo-JPEG will play in FCP, JPEG2000 will need conversion of format and probably codec to use in *any* editing application.
  3. One is widely supported and works in FCP. One is not widely supported and does NOT work in FCP. I think advantage Photo-JPEG by a big margin.

Kim then asked:

Last exchange if I’m not pushing my luck:

  1. What do you suppose these big entities do with these JPEG2000 files? They’re not much use if they are not accessible…
  2. Is Photo JPEG lossless? We treasure our material now housed on Digital Betacam and this ingestion stage is THE most important one. Whatever we throw away today is gone forever. Would this codec be the best non proprietary choice as far as quality retention and ability to “play” with FCP?

Philip answered:

  1. They’re archiving, not using. There’s a difference. I agree that if you want a long term archive then JPEG2000 *might* be a reasonable choice. But one that is converted to whatever you want to use to edit, when it needs to be edited. There’s a difference between storage and use. When you put a car into long term storage you change the oil for a different type than you’d use, you drain the gas and remove the battery. This is not a working vehicle, it’s a vehicle stored for long term stability. To make it workable you have to “convert” to a different format.
  2. Photo-JPEG at 100% is lossless. Digital Betacam is NOT lossless. This is the best non-proprietary codec for retention of quality and the ability to play in FCP.

Kim wrapped up by writing:

Thanks both to Larry and to you Philip. If either of you are ever in Rome, a big plate of spaghetti con le vongole and a good wine is in order on me!

Larry and Philip both added: This sounds VERY good to us! Thanks.

UPDATE – Aug. 31, 2009

Cave Peter writes:

Just read in your latest newsletter about the JPG2000 codec not being supported in FCP. This is untrue.

I have been using this codec for upscaling SD graphics to HD sizes. JPG2000 also supports alpha channels and has a reasonable data rate.

Björn Adamski, from MXF4Mac, is a very knowledgable developer whom I respect a great deal. He takes issue with a few of Philip Hodgetts’ comments:

IMX is NOT Long-GOP, even if it’s MPEG-2 based it’s I-Frame Only. HDV, XDCAM HD and XDCAM EX are Long-GOP.

D-10/IMX has become the major world standard at broadcasters for SD. Entire archives are D-10 based, therefore it is a good choice [for archving].

ProRes is an Apple manufacturer standard. Compared to IMX or DV50 it can only be wrapped into MOV whereas IMX and DV can be wrapped to various container formats such as MOV, AVI, MXF, MPEG, DV.

MXF4mac will add MXF JPEG2000 support with the upcoming 2.0 release of MXF Import QT. Internal tests show that FCP can playback our 2k test files in realtime on a Mac Pro. JPEG2000 is more CPU demanding than Photo-JPEG. Both codecs don’t provide realtime effect support in FCP but in general they behave the same.

Philip Hodgetts responds:

[Regarding Björn’s comments,] OK. All I-frame MPEG-2. I accept the point.

[D-10MX is a good choice.] Do not agree. It is an incredibly lossy format. I would not recommend it for archives. (Just ask anyone who has to color correct IMX).

[IMX provides more flexibility in wrapping a movie.] True, but comparing DV and IMX in the one sentence when we’re talking about archive codecs… come on. I wouldn’t recommend DV as an archive codec (unless the source was DV). To store as IMX would require conversion every time you want to edit in FCP.

My comment was conditional “If it’s an all Apple future…” and FCP only works with MOV so what’s the point [of using IMX] in this context?

[JPEG2000 is more CPU-intensive.] I think that supports my use of Photo-JPEG, which does not require third party add-ons to work with FCP and is less demanding than JPEG2000.

James Benyshek adds:

Here, at Walter J. Brown Media and Peabody Awards Archives, we use MXF files with JPEG2000 as our archival masters, and then write them to LTO3 tapes using a tar utility.

Secondly, we produce an FCP user file as a MOV file using Photo-JPEG as the compressor.

Larry replies: Thanks to everyone for contributing to this debate!

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