Wednesday, August 27, 2008

AVCHD Editing

I had two concerns when considering getting an AVCHD camera:

1. Dealing with archiving all that video content that I could no longer just file away on the tapes on which it was recorded.

2. Editing the AVCHD content

I’m still working on 1, but issue 2 seems to work okay…though there are issues.

I’ve been using Final Cut Pro for a couple of years, and Apple announced support for the AVCHD compressor with the latest release of it and FC Express. That meant upgrading, and – long story short – I ended up buying Final Cut Express 4.0, because it was cheaper than buying the Final Cut Pro suite.

After shooting some video with the Panasonic AG-HMC70U – and installing the software – I tried inserting the SDHC card into the card reader, mounting that, and accessing the files. The card mounted fine, and revealed a somewhat confusing directory structure, but I eventually found what I took to be the data files (.MTS) in a folder called STREAM. Unfortunately, these files were completely unrecognized by the system, and by the QuickTime player.

Putting the card back in the camera, connecting it using USB, and putting it in “disk mode” produced exactly the same results.

Time to read the Final Cut Express manual

This revealed that Final Cut Express can’t edit AVCHD files directly. Instead, you have to use the Log and Capture tool to view the clips and then convert them over into a format that Final Cut likes.

Opening the Log and Transfer tool, a small spinning icon appeared with the name of the SDHC card, and after about 20 seconds, it displayed a list of clips with icons. You can then select a clip, preview it, and choose in and out edit points. But you have to convert the clips before you can add them to the timeline. This is where things get more worrying, for while the preview is almost instantaneous and works well, the transfer process takes a lot of time. Admittedly I was running this on the lowest of the low – a 1.83GHz MiniMac - but it took 9 and a half minutes to transfer a 5 minute clip. That’s less than real time!

I found a review of Final Cute Express 4 that cites slightly better performance using a MacBook Pro with a 2.33 processor. Transfer times are 1:1.32 – better, but still less than one to one, which is how long it takes to transfer from an HD tape-based camera. (Note: the review suggests that FCE will only convert files that are on the camera, but I think the important part is the file structure; I mounted the card using the card reader and was able to transfer successfully.)

More troubling, the conversion process converts the files to the Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC) and the files are much, much larger than the AVCHD files (the 5 minute clip was 460.6 MB with AVCHD and went to 4.26GB in AIC.)

I have mixed feelings about these results.

a) This is the first rev of Final Cut Express to support the AVCHD compressor. I’m sure that in a year or so, the software will improve, the computers will get faster, and we’ll be editing AVCHD content without going through a conversion step. Also, I’m not shooting video every day, so I’m willing to take some of the pain right now.

b) However, if I was shooting day in and out right now, I’d skip this camera and get the Sony HVR-HD1000. The files are ultimately smaller, and more importantly, the transfer process is faster with HD minitapes if you’re doing more than a minute or two of video. There’s definitely some payback with the random access nature of the cards, if you’re shooting lots of little random bits, and only want to transfer over short subsets, then the loss of time during transfer offest by other gains. It really depends on what you are doing.

c) I’m going to archive the AVCHD clips, not the converted ones. I'm concerned that this may cause problems if I later want to import them into FCE (how to get it to recognize the files seems to be an issue.) The utility VoltaicHD may be particularly helpful for this, and I’m going to look into it. It claims to convert AVCHD files to AIC format. They also claim that their converted files are only four times the size of the AVCHD files.

d) What I’m going to do with the AIC files I’ve converted for projects, I’m not sure; probably save them in the short term, and delete them when I’m sure I won’t need to go back and reedit a sequence.

Finally, it’s important to note that Apple’s support for AVCHD requires the latest OS, and an Intel processor. It’s not available otherwise. The VoltaicHD utility supposedly runs on other machines – I’m going to try it – though they note that it requires quite a bit of system memory for converting longer clips.


Aaron Booker said...

I'm looking for a shoulder mount camera - and stumbled accross your review (I'll be using Final Cut) of the Panasonic AG-HMC70U. I'm really intrigued by the camera - it's relatively cheap and would fit our use perfectly. Interviews at events - minimal editing - then to YouTube. I see that there's a lot of time involved with converting clips - curious if that's gotten any better with software updates or if it's the same slow process?


Aaron Booker

Hunter Family said...

I am having a hard time deciding between the Panasonic HMC7OU and the Sony HVR-HD1000U. Currently I use Final Cut Express. Don't have the $$$ for Final Cut Studio.

Video cameras seem to be moving away from tape drives. But the Sony has it's benefits. At the same time I like the tapeless Panasonic. But it's a resource hog. And I don't like the idea of additional software to convert video clips that Mac would understand. Hope they fix that in the next FCE upgrade.
Hard choice for me to make purchasing a camera.

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