The Cineform Digital Intermediate Codec

For the past few months, we’ve been running all our HD projects using the CineForm codec rather than native HDV. Obviously, if we are capturing on HDV, converting to another codec doesn’t add any visual quality or extra information to the image, but it makes the editing process much faster, and since CineForm is a true digital intermediate format, any recompression of clips that have had effects or color adjustments applied to them stays much cleaner. There are a number of tests of CineForm that carefully document its impressive quality, and I’m on the road today, so I’ll just stick to the workflow issues.

You can get this “Visually Perfect” Wavelet codec in a number of flavors, each of which has different options, ranging from a simple 720/1080 all the way up to 2k, and colorspace from 8-bit 4:2:2 video to 12-bit 4:4:4 to a full RAW version, designed for camera capture. Also, rumor has it that 2k is by no means the limit of the codec, just the limit of the available products at this time. Obviously, it has abilities far beyond Apple’s new ProRes codec, which is why there will soon be Mac support for the CineForm codec. You can get a beta version to play with here.

But CineForm is more than a codec; it comes with an application called HDLink, which can be used to batch convert video files from one format from another and capture from any HDV camera with full control over the video and codec, with full support for P2 files and Canon’s 24f framerate. It can upscale or downscale on the fly, from 720 or 1080 or back again, adjust for lens adapter flip, deinterlace or remove various pulldowns and change framerates to create true 24p video. It also has one of the most accurate scene detection features I’ve seen for HDV, and an option to capture native M2T transport streams from the camera and CineForm-encoded AVIs side by side.

However, we generally skip that, and take advantage of Aspect HD’s seamless integration with Premiere Pro when capturing, since HDLink does not retain the tape’s timecode data on each clip in the same way that Premiere does. Because our production pipeline requires that we store all the timecode so we can rebuild projects from our server backups, we use HDLink rarely. However, Premiere’s capture options offer most of the same controls through a Cineform control panel.

And within Premiere the difference between CineForm and HDV is incredible. Even without using a RAID array, our Opteron 170-based edit box can simultaneously play back three video streams fading in and out of each other at full res without dropping frames and without rendering. There are also a number of Premiere video effects provided by CineForm that provide render-free color adjustments and image panning/scaling, and several real-time transitions. The performance increase is phenomenal.

This comes at a price of filesize, obviously, but the hit is not too bad. Our 30p 1080 footage, captured at the “medium” quality setting (which I find more than adequate for HDV-originated footage), is only two to three times larger than native 25mbps HDV, depending on scene complexity. We tend to get about 30 gigabytes of data per hour-long tape, in contrast to DV and HDV’s 12GB per hour. In addition to storage concerns, this increased filesize also introduces bus-speed issues.

The projected maximum speed of a SATA 1.5 hard drive is roughly 150 megabytes per second, which theoretically means that you could play back several CineForm video files at the same time. Practically, however, the HDD would need to skip back and forth between the files to read them, and the pre-caching required for more than one or two would cause choking. Hard drives connected using USB 2.0 max out at less than a third of that speed, so CineForm projects will scrub and play far more smoothly when video files are distributed across a number of SATA drives.

This is how we have always worked, particularly on documentary projects where interviews and b-roll can be easily split up, and the advantages of editing CineForm footage far outweigh the few issues introduced by larger filesizes. It has also streamlined our pipeline, since we can export a trimmed project (something impossible with HDV), and import that into After Effects for finishing. After Effects scrubs and previews CineForm files much faster than HDV.

CineForm licenses are sold on a per-machine basis, so until I purchase another license for our online suite, I’m using the free CineForm decoder to view the video clips in AE and apply my effects, and then I move the project file to our edit suite for rendering. This is one of the many, many advantages of having identical Adobe installs and content management systems on multiple computers. The free decoder also means I can preview files across networks (fast networks) or on laptops (fast laptops) without purchasing a full CineForm suite just for previewing or selecting footage. I should also note that CineForm is a standard VFW codec, so it works with almost any program in Windows, from Media Player to MoKey to VirtualDub.

Unfortunately, the software is not without a few bugs, most of which crop up during capturing. I’m not sure whether the fault lies with the camera control, scene detect within the transport stream, integration with Premiere, or just CineForm’s encoding itself. I’m prepared to overlook a few bugs when dealing with HDV, since I know that there are several faults that are just intrinsic to capturing a long-GOP format. CineForm’s staff have a great reputation for providing quick solutions, so as soon as they are spending less time porting everything to OSX and CS3 I’m sure they’ll be a little more reachable than they were last month.

In short, I give the software 9.5 out of 10. After wrapping two projects with it, I can’t imagine working in HD without it… and since it scales so well, I may never have to. With Silicon Imaging making CineForm the native codec of their digital cinema cameras, the Wafian hard drive encoders debuting at such affordable prices, and more and more film labs offering scanning to and recording from CineForm, this is the most powerful digital intermediate codec available to low and medium-budget filmmakers (big budget films can afford to be uncompressed all the time). The possibilities are endless, and its contribution to the easy integration between Premiere and After Effects is perfect for digital rebels and those of us wanting to get the most from our production pipelines.