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Photography

How to Encode ProRes Video Files for Free on Windows with FFmpeg and Avanti

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Depending on your editing platform and your computer hardware, editing with the footage that came off the camera may result in performance issues. In this tutorial you will learn how to transcode your footage to an intermediate codec. If you have older hardware or an edit app that doesn't play nice with AVCHD, this will result in an increase in performance for your video editing app!

When it comes to consumer video cameras, photo/video cameras, and even many prosumer cameras, h.264 is king. 

"The camera I use doesn't say anything about h.264."

You're right, it probably doesn't. More likely it will list AVCHD, AVCHD Pro, NXCAM, or AVCCAM. All of those use the h.264 codec. 

"Yeah, but don't all video edit apps handle h.264?"

Yes, but... This is where the plot thickens. Every edit app that I have looked at handles h.264, but how well they handle it depends on the software and the hardware. I am an Adobe CC user with a few reasonably fast workstations. On my hardware, I don't have problems editing multiple tracks of high-bitrate h.264 video. Premiere has handled this without problems for the last several versions. How well the software handles this is only half the story. If your computer bits are a bit older, they may struggle editing h.264. Older hardware can struggle to decode h.264 in an editor. This makes editing a constant frustration.

Old Pentium 166 laptop
Pentium 166 FTW! Sadly, not awesome at decoding h.264.  [old laptop] vinciber/PhotoDune

On the other side, software can be the bottleneck. Recently I purchased HitFilm 4 Pro to check out the features and see what it had to offer. On the same system that runs Premiere Pro CC 2016 and rips through h.264 all day long, HitFilm chokes. With a single h.264 clip on the timeline from my C100, a basic trim edit can take between one and three seconds after I release the mouse. With ProRes, DNxHD, and Cineform it motors right along, but with h.264 it is unusable. 

Other compositing and VFX software is happier with transcoded footage too. The bottom line is that h.264 footage takes more work to decode than other formats, and this extra work can mean the difference between great performance and poor performance.

The three major transcode players are Apple ProRes, AVID DNxHD, and GoPro Cineform. Transcoding h.264 files to one of these codecs will result in a video file that is easier to decode, but also much larger than the original file. Depending on the bit-rate of the original file, it could be more than 10x larger. 

All three of these codecs can produce fantastic images that are essentially visually lossless. Some versions of the codecs are lossless, but that isn't necessary for most projects. 

"Great, so how do I transcode my footage?"

There's an app for that. What app depends on what OS you are running and what codec you want to transcode to. If you are the type who would prefer to fork over some dough and hit the gas, you want to look at the following programs:

Mac folks: EditReady 

  • $49.99
  • Transcode to Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD
  • Not an anything-to-anything transcoder
  • Mac only!

PC (Windows) folks: Cinemartin

  • €179 for Cinec Pro 4.0
  • Transcode to Apple ProRes, Avid DNxHD, RAW VIDEO, h.265, VP9, and XDCAM 50
  • Not an anything-to-anything transcoder
  • PC only!

Adobe Users: If you use Premiere Pro and you want to transcode, use Adobe's own Adobe Media Encoder (AME). For the last several years, AME has worked well, and it comes with all the codecs you need.

Are there others? Sure, but these are among the most popular. I haven't used either because I don't mind a little tinkering if I can get it done free! What are your free options?

FFmpeg

From the wiki:

"FFmpeg is a free software project that produces libraries and programs for handling multimedia data."

I think of it like an engine that can handle just about any kind of video and audio input and output. If you are a command-line wizard, you can download FFmpeg and start smashing the keys. 

For the rest of us, we need a GUI. Yes, a graphical user interface. A GUI will make FFmpeg work like any other app. You will have buttons and menus, and everything will make sense. 

There are FFmpeg GUIs for all platforms. Let's look at Avanti for PC. The process should be roughly similar for Mac—you will just need a different GUI (check out Datura or ffmpegX).

1. Download and Unzip the Files

Have a look over the versions and read through the page to see if there are any special instructions or versions to watch out for.

  • Avanti
  • FFmpeg: On the Avanti page it says to use the 32-bit version. Using Windows 7 64-bit I ran into an issue with this. I used the 64-bit version and it worked just fine.

The files are in .7z format. These can be unzipped with 7-Zip, free and open source software.

2. Place the FFmpeg Files in the AVANTI Directory

After unzipping the files, you will have a folder for Avanti and one for FFmpeg. There are two files in the FFmpeg folder (probably named something really helpful like ffmpeg-latest-win32-static) that need to be copied to the Avanti folder. Drill down in the FFmpeg folder until you see a folder called bin. In the bin folder you will find ffmpeg.exe and ffplay.exe. Copy these with Control-C

Navigate back to the Avanti folder (which is named something like avanti-0xx [version number]) and drill down to the ffmpeg folder. Paste (Control-V) the two files in that folder.

3. Check That Avanti Is Working

On my first attempt, I downloaded the 32-bit version of Zeranoe FFmpeg. I copied ffmpeg.exe and ffplay.exe to the AVANTI FFmpeg folder and launched Avanti-GUI.exe. It gave me an error message...

Missing required FFmpeg components at the current ffmpeg folder

I thought that this was probably because it was the 32-bit version of ffmpeg, so I decided to delete the two files I copied to avanti-092\Avanti-ffmpeg-GUI-092\ffmpeg and try the 64-bit version. 

When I looked in the avanti-092\Avanti-ffmpeg-GUI-092\ffmpeg folder, Avanti had renamed ffmpeg.exe to ffmpeg_avanti.exe. I closed Avanti and deleted the ffmpeg_avanti.exe and the ffplay.exe file. Then I downloaded and unzipped the 64-bit version from the same page and copied over the same two files back into avanti-092\Avanti-ffmpeg-GUI-092\ffmpeg.

Launched Avanti again (double-click Avanti-GUI.exe) and... success!

Avanti window showing System Ready message
Check out the system ready message at the bottom. Nailed it!

4. Time to Transcode!

This process is very similar to other encode/transcode apps. Select the input file (video you want to transcode) and destination (where you want to save the transcoded video).

Select the input file and destination
Avanti will bring up some details about the file you just selected. Double-click in the upper blue area to return to the previous page.
Avanti screen showing file details

Select your desired codec.

Codec dropdown menu in Avanti

By default, AVANTI has one of the three standard intermediate codecs in the list, DNxHD. If you want to use this, select it and press the Start process button. You will notice that when you select DNxHD, several other settings update. The audio will change to PCM/WAV, and the bit-rate will be set to 185000.

Final settings in Avanti

Click Start process and AVANTI will get to work transcoding your video!

5. Add the ProRes Codec

By default, Avanti doesn't list ProRes as an option in the codec menu. If you want to add this option, click in the codec box, type ProRes, and press enter.

ProRes shown in the codec box

The Codec Register Wizard will pop up. In the Select desired VIDEO codec menu, select prores. Then enter a file extension (mov) for the selected codec/container. Click on the Update entry and exit button and then Yes on the next window that asks if you want to update and continue.

Select desired VIDEO codec menu with prores selected

Right-click in the codec field again and choose Link template to "ProRes" codec.

The load template window pops up. Click the UNI tab and select the ProRes template.

ProRes template in a list in the UNI tab

Right-click in the lower blue area and select Template Reference

Blue area showing template currently linked to ProRes

Then click the Back To Main Page button toward the top. 

Back To Main Page button

Here you see a list of the different ProRes profiles. The default is 2, which is around 175Mb/s.

list of the different ProRes profiles

You can select a different profile by typing "-profile:v 3" in the User VIDEO options> field. The number selects the profile. So in this example I selected the default profile. 

-profilev 2 in User VIDEO options

If I didn't type anything in this field, Avanti would have defaulted to this profile, which is fine for just about everything except cine cameras that shoot to 444 color. But most cameras that shoot to AVCHD and other flavors of h.264 use 4:2:0 color, so it's fine.

Note: Check the audio settings on the ProRes encoder. Make sure the sample rate matches your original files. This will probably be 48kHz. The profile defaults to 44.1kHz, so you may need to change that.

You can batch process videos in Avanti too! Click the 123 button at the top of the interface.

123 button at the top of the interface

The Job Control Manager will pop up next. Right-click in the blank space and choose Add Media files to the list. Set your destination folder for these files with the button at the top.

Avanti Job Control Manager

Click the Process Jobs button, and Avanti will start churning through your videos.

Conclusion

Using Avanti is really fairly simple. Download the files, put FFMpeg in the right location, verify that Avanti loads FFMpeg, add prores and set it up, and you are ready to start transcoding your files! For those of you who don't want to bother with that, there are some commercial options that should get you going. There are certainly different methods and different apps for transcoding that I didn't mention. I am simply sharing one that I have had pretty good success with. In just a few minutes you can get Avanti running and transcoding files for free! Happy encoding! 

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