We get a lot of questions about video file formats and Pro Tools and which one is best to use and also some misunderstanding about terminology and definitions too. In this article, we will be trying to clear up some of the confusion as well as answer the key question "What Is The Best Video File Format To Use With Pro Tools?"
A typical question might go like this "I was wondering if anyone could give me any pointers on what the best video file format and resolution for movie files to be imported into Pro Tools. In my experience, files (.mov, .mpeg, etc..) are being used more and more for "audio-for-video". I would just like to be able to recommend a quality file format to the video editors to export so that when I have clients in the room, it looks professional."
The question also shows some of the misunderstandings with regard to video file formats so before we look at the core question, let's start with the first popular misconception.
What Is A .mov?
In essence, a .mov is not so much a file format, it is more like an enclosure or wrapper. A .mov container will contain a video file with one of a variety of codec and video formats. It is a generic file extension that hides the wide variety of options you can find inside it.
Video Editors Send Me H264 Files - Do They Play Well With Pro Tools?
The simple answer is no. Let me explain why. Intra-frame codecs like DV and photo-jpeg) work better that inter-frame codecs like H264. Inter-frame codecs produce much smaller file sizes but they put a much heavier load on your computer. One of the reasons for this is because the H264 format is not a frame accurate format because the codec is working across frames, events may not be displayed in exactly the correct frames. This is also known as long-GOP (Group Of Pictures) compression and is the reason why chunks of the picture move around weirdly when your TV signal breaks up. That for us can be a problem when we are track laying, checking lip sync or tracking foley etc, all of which need frame accuracy. (Thanks to Ross and David for correcting me on this one).
What Do You Recommend?
In the early days of Pro Tools, the advice was to use DV format especially when we were using the likes of the Canopus boxes over Firewire. Although the DV format produced huge file sizes, it presented very little load on the computer and so played very nicely with Pro Tools. Other recommendations at the time were Apple Motion JPEG A or Apple Photo - JPEG. Whereas others recommended ProRes 422 or ProRes proxy, which is light on file size, or the Avid DNxHD codec with different data rates.
Avid DNxHD Is Now The Answer
Bizarrely since Pro Tools produced a new Avid Video Engine with Pro tools 11, some users reported that they have had much fewer problems with video playback in Pro Tools whilst others reported more problems with some choosing to stay on Pro Tools 10 because of these issues.
That said, the Avid DNxHD formats are now the best when working with Pro Tools, especially as they work so well with the Avid Video Engine in Media Composer and now in Pro Tools too. So we recommend you either ask your video editors to provide you with an Avid DNxHD video files or be prepared to convert what the video editor sends you to DNxHD. There are currently two codec packages available from Avid...
Avid Codecs LE The latest qualified LE codecs are installed with Pro Tools.
Avid Codecs PE Available when installing an Avid video editing application.
Avid Codecs PE includes the MPEG IMX codec, but the Avid Codecs LE package does not. The Avid Codecs PE installer is only available for owners of Pro Tools HD. The following table shows which codecs are included in each package:
|Codec||Avid Codecs LE Package||Avid Codecs PE Package|
|Avid Meridien Uncompressed||included||included|
|Avid Meridien Compressed||included||included|
|Avid MPEG2 IMX||included|
How Do I Convert Video Files To Avid DNxHD?
Ideally get your video editor to output the video file in that format but if they can’t or won't then I strongly recommend to transcode whatever they do send you into Avid DnxHD and use that in Pro Tools. Currently you can use QuickTime Pro but we recommend the free MPEG Streamclip application from Squared5 which is available for both the Windows and Mac platforms. However when Apple releases the next version of the macOS after Mojave, neither QuickTime Pro or MPEG Streamclip will work because Apple will be ending support for 32-bit applications with macOS 10.15.
You can read more about this in our macOS Mojave Pro Audio Applications compatibility article. The QuickTime player will still be there as that uses AV Foundation, which is the QuickTime replacement, but unlike QuickTime 7 you cannot add codecs, like the Avid Codec packs, to AV Foundation as Apple is also choosing to restrict codec support to a handful of known safe and speedy codecs and this will not include Avid DNxHD codecs amongst others.
From macOS 10.15 individual applications will need to support any codecs Apple doesn’t and that will need to include Pro Tools. It also includes MPEG Streamclip, which hasn’t been updated since 2012 and is not 64-bit compliant and uses QuickTime based codecs, so MPEG Streamclip will also not be available to us when macOS 10.15 is released.
How Do I Use MPEG Streamclip To Convert To Avid DNxHD?
If you are running macOS Mojave or earlier then you can continue to use MPEG Streamclip. We produced a detailed step by step tutorial a few years ago and that is still valid, even though MPEG Streamclip has gone through a number of revisions since then. For Pro Tools, the Avid DNxHD 36 8-bit is the best one to go for and then select the appropriate frame rate, and frame size for the content you are working with.
What Other Options Are There Moving Forward To Convert to Avid DNxHD
We have undertaken some research to look at cost effective and easy to use solutions to replace MPEG Streamclip and QuickTime Pro and we believe the answer is based around a cross platform free open-source command line application called FFmpeg. However there is a snag. With any command-line app, you need to communicate with it using text based commands in Terminal, which isn’t the most user-friendly interface. But we have found 2 solutions, one is to use ffWorks that provides a graphical user interface to the free FFmpeg app and the other is to use some clever Applets produced by community member Marco Bernardo and we will be shortly releasing a detailed tutorial article showing how to download, setup and use these 2 solutions.
Are There Any Other Tips?
Another thing that will help you have trouble-free video playback is to make sure that the video files are played back from a dedicated quick video drive and not your audio drive. At a push play the video back from your boot drive but ideally have a dedicated video drive, either an SSD or a rotational drive, although quite a bit of the advice I have read recommends an SSD drive, suggesting that when you use an app like the free AJA system test utility, comparing a good internal SATA 7200 rpm that is likely to have a read performance from 100 to 150 MB/s with a good SSD that can offer around 260 MB/s makes the cost of the SSD drive worthwhile.
What About Video Slave Pro from Non Lethal Applications?
A growing number of people have stopped using the Avid Video Engine and use Video Slave Pro and have found that it has solved their video problems. Some use a separate computer to run Video Slave Pro and lock them together over a network. We have also seen reports that Video Slave Pro works well with Pro Tools 10, 11 and 12.
Check out our review by Alan Sallabank of Video Slave 3 By Non Lethal Applications.