Camera engineers have run amok. The newest cameras offer unlimited possibilities for customizing how the camera records. For us shooters, it’s exciting to have so much control. For producers and directors, it can seem like too many unnecessary, complicated options.
No sweat. With a basic understanding of the concepts, you can decide exactly what settings work best for your project.
TL;DR: Same as in part one, you don’t have to know all this technical stuff. If in doubt, just ask your editor. If you don’t have an editor yet and you don’t know all the technical requirements, discuss the project with your shooter, who should be able to figure out some camera settings that'll work for you.
Video takes up a ridiculous amount of hard drive space. It can be more than 1TB per hour if it’s not compressed. But you can squeeze it down to less than 1/20th the size and most of the time nobody can tell the difference.
The method for compressing the video is called a codec. If possible, you should tell your shooter which codec you want to use. Most cameras have several codec options and no single one is best for every situation. To complicate matters, the difference in quality is generally indistinguishable, so it’s tough to look at several codecs and compare them based on what you see. The best codec for your project is usually whatever works best for your editor.
From here, it gets complicated. Even we camerafolk, who spend our entire lives immersed in our viewfinders, often can’t agree on the best codec for any given situation.
There are several different factors that define how good a codec is. One of the main ones is the bitrate, which is how much data the video creates. A high bitrate means the video is less compressed and the quality is better. Generally, for HD, the reliable codecs have a bitrate of 50 megabits per second or higher. For 4K, good codecs start at 100 Mb/s if you don’t need to do much color correction, and around 240 Mb/s if you want to have the option to really change the look in editing.
Any relatively new camera has a range of codecs, and they’re almost all great quality. The only exceptions are action cams, drones and DSLR-style cameras, some of which push the bitrate down to the point where the loss of quality can be noticeable.
To give an example of how far cameras have come, the Sony FS7 can record super-high bitrate raw, high bitrate ProRes, or lower bitrate XAVC. But even that low bitrate XAVC is acceptable by the high standards of Netflix.
So a mid-range camera’s lower end codecs are acceptable by one of the world’s most discerning networks. My takeaway from this is that there’s no point being a codec snob. Most of the codecs now are great for most projects.
One personal observation: if you have an editor who has done a lot of research on the internet but worked on very few projects in the real world, sometimes they’ll just ask for the highest quality of everything, including codecs that take up many terabytes. In general, more experienced editors know what they need and why, and they’re more likely to ask for more compressed footage.
If you’re rolling two 4K cameras and shoot two hours of interviews per day, the difference between shooting in ProRes at the highest quality vs. Sony’s XAVC-L codec is several terabytes. Multiply that by two or three for making backups and you’ll see that just the time to transfer the footage makes the highest quality codec impossible unless you have a budget for someone to work full-time taking care of the transfers. And at the end of the day, the difference in quality of your footage is virtually indistinguishable.
Too much techie mumbo jumbo? Want a simple answer?
Every camera is different, but if you’re shooting on an FS7 I’d suggest using XAVC-L if you’re shooting in HD. If you’re shooting in 4K then XAVC-I is best. Both of those will give you really high quality footage and won’t take up an absurd amount of hard drive space.
Once upon a time, cameras shot video a certain way, and TVs displayed it the same way.
But then cameras started improving dramatically. Now they can record far more variations in color and light than most screens can show.
For example, if a person is standing in front of a bright window, your eye can see their face, see what’s outside the window, and see the details in the shadows all at the same time. Older cameras, on the other hand, would show the face just fine, but the shadows would be pure black and what’s outside the window would be pure white.
Today’s cameras can see more like your eyes, keeping the brightest and darkest parts in each shot. But screens can’t show all of that extra information. So cameras use something called a gamma to figure out the best way to process it.
There are three options for gammas:
The camera can record just what a screen can show and ignore all of the extra information. This gamma is called REC709.
The camera can record all of the information it sees and then the editor or colorist can decide how to readjust it for video screens. This is Log gamma.
There can be a tradeoff between the two, with the camera throwing away some of the extra information, but cheating to get more highlights and shadows onto the screen. There are dozens of different gammas that do this, each in a slightly different way and all of them with unintelligible names.
Which gamma is right for your project?
For a fast turnaround, shoot REC709. No color adjustments are needed in the edit suite.
For a highly skilled editor or if it’s going to a colorist, shoot Log. This preserves the most information.
If you’ll have just a bit of time to fiddle with color in the edit suite, like adjusting contrast and saturation, and you have some difficult lighting conditions during the shoot, choose one of the other gammas that give you a tradeoff. On Sony cameras, my favorite is called HG4 on the pro cameras, which they’ve unhelpfully renamed to Cine1 on the smaller cameras. This gamma keeps the bright spots from blowing out to pure white, while at the same time requiring little or no color correction in post.
If you have multiple cameras or multiple shoot days for a project, it’s ideal if all cameras use the same gamma setting. That’ll make it easier to match the shots together later.
So if you know what gamma you want, that’s great. If not, that's fine too. A good editor can usually fix a bad gamma choice.
If none of this is up your alley, don’t worry about it. It requires a wide range of skills to be a successful producer and expertise in codecs isn’t on the top ten list. If your shooter has questions you can’t answer, just say you don’t know. You can always get your shooter and editor to talk to each other directly to sort everything out. Then you can focus your energy on that script revision that’s due tomorrow, revising your budget, changing your flight times, and everything else that’s piling up on your plate.