Understanding and Using Different Video Formats in Final Cut Pro

by Brendan Albano

This FAQ explains how to set up your sequence settings, and your video clip file formats when editing video in Final Cut Pro.

The format of your Final Cut video clips and Final Cut sequence settings can have a dramatic effect on the ease of editing your movie and on your final image quality, and when mixing video footage from the internet, video camera, DSLRs, etc. things can quickly get confusing.

If you aren’t keeping your clip and sequence settings in order, you will find Final Cut to run slow, you will have to render constantly, and your video quality may be degraded. Read on to find out how to avoid these problems by making sure your clip file formats and sequence settings are set correctly.

Before we even get to Final Cut, it is important to have at least a vague understanding of video compression. There are two parts of a video file to be aware of: the container format and the codec. A somewhat incorrect, but useful nonetheless analogy would be that the container format could be thought of as an envelope, which contains instructions to the postman on how to handle the letter, and the codec is the language the letter is written in.

The container format is identifiable by the file extension, some common container formats are .mov (Quicktime movie), .mp4 (MPEG-4), .avi (AVI).

The codec is the actual method by which the video footage is compressed. These are identifiable in Finder through File>Get Info (+i), or in Final Cut by right-clicking on the clip and selecting Item Properties>Format. The codec is listed under “Compressor.” Some common codecs you may encounter are DV, AVCHD, M-JPEG (Motion JPEG), and H.264. These are codecs you will find when capturing footage from video cameras or downloading videos from the internet. There are also codecs like Apple ProRes 422 that are used only while editing video (more on that later).

Okay, so now that we have a basic idea of video formats, here’s how it relates to Final Cut: if your video clips and your sequence have different video format setting you will constantly be having to render your sequence unnecessarily, and Final Cut will operate slowly. Sometimes this is a minor annoyance, but sometimes it can be a major problem.

There are two solutions: change your sequence to match your clips, or change your clips to match your sequence.

Changing your sequence to match your clips:

  • Right-click your sequence and select “Settings.”
  • Everything you need to change is in the “General” tab.
  • Check your clip settings by right-clicking on the clip and selecting: Item Properties>Format.
  • In newer versions of Final Cut, when you drag a clip to a timeline with non-matching settings, you are given an option to change the timeline to match the clip automatically—this is much quicker than changing the settings manually.

Changing your clip settings to match your sequence:

  • Open Compressor.
  • Click “Add file” in the batch window (the top-left window by default) and choose your file.
  • Select your settings (more on this below).
  • Hit "Submit".
  • Find your files (take note of their names in compressor to make sure you get the new files not the original) and import them into your Final Cut project.

Now you have to decide which method to use, and if you are converting your clips, what format to convert to. Changing your sequence settings to match your clips works if all your clips are the same format, and if it is a format that Final Cut edits well. Final Cut edits DV just fine, but has trouble with H.264 for example. You’ll have to do some testing or googling to determine if your file format plays well with Final Cut.

If your video clips are in multiple different formats, or are in a format Final Cut doesn’t like, you will want to convert them all to standard format to edit. Your destination for the footage (DVD, YouTube, etc.) will determine the best choice, as will the type of footage you have.

If you have HD footage in a format such as H.264, converting it to Apple ProRes 422 is usually the best choice. In the latest version of Compressor, this can be found under Apple>Formats>Quicktime>Apple ProRes 422. Often (LT) will be sufficient but the regular ProRes is higher quality, and (HQ) higher still. If you have an older version of Final Cut Studio that does not have ProRes, you can use Apple Intermediate Codec instead. NOTE: ProRes is not a delivery format—do not export your final video using ProRes. H.264 is a better choice.

If you have SD footage and are planning to output to DVD, then DV is a good choice. In the latest version of Compressor, find it under: Apple>Other Workflows>Advanced Format Conversions>Standard Definition>DV NTSC (NTSC is the North American standard, PAL is the European standard. You probably want NTSC). Choose DV NTSC Anamorphic if you have anamorphic (widescreen) SD footage.

After you have converted all your clips (you can do them all at once as a batch in Compressor) and imported them into Final Cut, you will need to follow the previous instructions to make sure your sequence settings match your new clip settings.

You will find that when you do this the file sizes of all your clips will increase greatly. This is the price you pay for (relatively) effortless editing and compatibility! If you are working with a lot of footage in the lab at school, you may find that a USB stick isn’t going to cut it anymore, and will need to buy a small portable hard drive. Get one with the newest transfer cable format your computer supports—Thunderbolt is currently the best (although few PCs support it), USB 3.0 is very good and pretty standard.

Audio formats function similarly to video formats, but generally cause less problems in Final Cut. You will almost always want to have your audio set to 48khz 16bit while editing your videos.