Battle of the Software NLEs, Part 2: Editing HDV
Posted Sep 15, 2005

In August we kicked off a four-part series comparing five leading NLEs--Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress Pro, Pinnacle Liquid Edition, and Sony Vegas--based on key aspects of their performance in pro postproduction. Here we explore how they fare when editing what's arguably the hottest technology in videography today: HDV.

In the first installment of our Battle of the Software NLEs series, we examined three key components of digital video editing: Overlay, Chromakey, and color correction, using MiniDV as our exclusive capture source. Here we move on to HDV, the much-ballyhooed HD format that delivers highly compressed digital video at MiniDV-or-better bitrates (25Mbps or 18Mbps) that mainstream PCs can handle. How well  the systems handle them is another issue, as is how effectively the top software NLEs in the pro market have been adapted to work with HDV in much the same way they work with the more familiar DV format.

Out HDV tests focused on several aspects of production. First, we tested capture and writing back to tape with all HDV-compatible editors, using a simple one-minute test project. Below, we report how each editor handled the capture and write-to-tape task, as well as associated rendering times.

Then, since most HDV video in the short term will be distributed in standard-definition DVDs, we tested how well each editor could pan into and around the HDV video, and then measured rendering time and output quality. In these tests, we used video of a ballet performance, shot from the back of the theater with the Sony HVR-Z1U HDV camcorder. The camera framed the entire stage during the sjoot and was left unattended, while I used another camera, the Sony VX2000, for closer shots from the side of the stage. For audio, I plugged directly into the theater's sound system.

Zooming In
While producing the ballet video, the goal was to pan and zoom the HDV footage with the editor's 2D motion controls for close-ups of the stage, while mixing the footage with video from the DV camcorder. Out tests simulated this activity with all editors, and revealed significant differences in toolset and performance. As it turns out, in this review, there was no ideal solution.

For example, unless you've moved exclusively to HDV, you'll probably be mixing DV and HDV for awhile. Adobe Premiere Pro can handle both formats on the same timeline, but has no multicam capability, which is a huge timesaver for multi-camera shoots.

Final Cut Pro has the multicam feature, but can't edit HDV and DV on the same timeline, and as a result, the multicam doesn't feature works only with identical formats. You can down-sample HDV to DV and then mix the two, but the workflow is suboptimal and wastes time, since you'll have to down sample all HDV video up front, even the video you'll ultimately replace with DV from the other camera.

Avid Xpress is out, since it doesn't currently capture or edit HDV video (Avid will add HDV capability to the Windows version this fall, but they have no timetable yet on when the Mac version will support HDV, which is too bad, since Mac users could really use an HDV-capable editor that, like Xpress Pro, can mix multiple formats in the same timeline). Pinnacle Liquid Edition can handle multiple formats and has a multicam feature, but currently takes 30 minutes to downsample and render each minute of HDV, about 30 rendering hours per hour of HDV footage. If you're thinking wedding-day edit, this simply isn't going to work, though Pinnacle says that the long rendering times relate to a bug they should resolve in the short term. Like Premiere Pro, Vegas is reasonably fast and can handle the multiple formats, but has no multicam feature.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. When evaluating an editor for HDV production, there are four discrete elements to consider: the nature of the 2D and motion tools, responsiveness while editing, rendering time (performance) and output quality. Let's see how each editor fared.

Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5.1
Premiere captures HDV and immediately converts it to the CineForm intermediate codec, which takes a few moments after capture, but otherwise is transparent. Premiere controls the camera during capture and writing back to tape, and took 4:39 to render our one minute test project before writing back to tape, which was the fastest of the group.

When starting any project, you have to select a preset; we used the HDV 1080i preset and all non-HDV assets, like the title and logo, conformed automatically, which was among the most seamless operation we encountered across the board.

Figure 1 shows Premiere Pro's 2D and motion editing interface, which includes position, scale, and rotation. The rotation feature proved necessary in our tests to correct a slight tilt in our camera setup. Te diamonds to the right of the position and scale controls are keyframes, which allow you to adjust these settings as you go along. In this test, for example, I started at 100% image resolution and then zoomed in to 250% resolution (shown).

Premiere presents a strong toolset for these types of edits. Positives include the ability to view safe zones while editing (you can't do this with Vegas or Edition), which is critical to precision placement. You edit directly in the preview window, so can preview in more or less real time at any time, which helps you assess the smoothness of the 2D motion (you can't preview from Vegas' pan and zoom window).

Though it's not apparent from the controls, you can adjust each setting by dragging over it with your cursor. For example, if you wanted to smoothly shift the image to the left without effecting vertical position, you simply click the left position number and drag your cursor to the right. It sounds simple, but you can't do this with Final Cut Pro; you have to drag the image and hope you stay on the same horizontal plane, or enter a new numerical value.

While editing HDV video, Premiere Pro was very responsive, and there was minimal lag when we dragged or zoomed in or around a frame. However, during these adjustments, the frame becomes very grainy, though you can see enough to position the image effectively (see Figure 2). Once you stop for a moment, the image settles back in and gains resolution. While definitely preferable to Edition, which was quite sluggish while editing, it's not as elegant as Final Cut Pro, which suffered no lag time and didn't experience degraded visual quality.

Rendering performance on the 250% zoom test file was quite strong, as Premiere Pro produced our one-minute test sequence in 1:58 (min:sec) on our Dual 3.6GHz Xeon Dell Precision workstation. Premiere's output quality, however, was clearly the worst of the bunch, fuzzy and lacking detail (see Figure 3). We queried Adobe about this with two weeks left before press time, but got no resolution (no pun intended). Accordingly, we recommend caution if you plan on downconverting HDV video to DV resolutions in Premiere Pro.

Apple Final Cut Pro 5
Final Cut captures and edits in native HDV format, controlling the camera while capturing and writing back to tape, with a very polished interface for writing to tape, complete with bars, tone, countdown, and even a text title, which all proved very helpful. Note that after rendering your file into HDV format, Final Cut takes an extra step to "conform" your HDV, which took 9:23 for our one-minute test file, a serious potential bottleneck on longer projects.

When working with HDV video, remember to set your Sequence, Capture, and Device Control presets to HDV; otherwise the aspect ratios that you see may not be correct. Once these initial settings are done, however, Final Cut adjusts titles and other imported non-HDV assets automatically.

Final Cut's HDV editing interface is near the top with great responsiveness on our Dual 2.7GHz PowerPC G5 at full display resolution. Note that if you have a title or other overlay over your HDV image, Final Cut can become quite sluggish. You can speed things up by clicking the "Visible" toggle to the extreme left of the track, which making the track invisible.

Editing goes most smoothly when your monitor is in Image+Wireframe mode, where you can grab and manipulate the frame directly (those are the wireframes you see in Figure 4). Otherwise, you have to click the cross to the right of the Center control, and then drag the frame, an extra step that adds no value.

Apple could improve the interface by providing sliders and perhaps arrow keys for all controls, so, for example, you could slide the image to the left without worrying about vertical positioning. That's about our only complaint, however; rendering time was acceptable (4:58), and image quality was the best in the test set.

Pinnacle Liquid Edition
Liquid Edition edits HDV in native format, capturing with machine control (using the FireWire preset). Working with HDV can be persnickety, particularly when downsampling to DV, since there are at least three settings that must be aligned to produce optimal results.

For example, when you start a project, you choose a preset, which typically should be your target output, or 16:9 DV for our downconvert test. Each time you create a timeline sequence, you also have to choose a Render:Fuse codec, which should also match your target output. Finally, each asset imported into the project can be configured with different Pixel Aspect Ratios and field order. If all these don't match up, bad things can happen.

For example, in our full-length ballet project, we captured and imported 60 minutes of HDV, which we mixed with 16:9 video using Edition's Multicam feature. After rendering the first DVD, we noticed severe ghosting on the HDV clips, which we tracked down to a faulty field order and aspect ratio in the properties window of the HDV clip.

How they got that way, I have no idea, though I'm sure it's user error. Whatever the cause, however, after changing this on each and every HDV sub-clip used in the production (about 100) and re-rendering the set (which took 15 hours), the video looked great.

The lesson learned is that the first time you produce in HDV, start with a mini-project that encompasses all the elements of your final project-video, titles, transitions, logos, etc.--but is much, much shorter. Capture, edit, render, and produce your DVD with the mini-project, so you understand the workflow and can catch any production errors while they take you minutes to correct, rather than hours. Though this holds true for all editors, Edition's lengthy rendering cycle and highly configurable workspace makes it absolutely essential.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I've always considered Liquid Edition's 2D interface (shown in Figure 5) to be among the best, though examining it under an HDV lens reveals several flaws. First, you can't display a safe zone while making your adjustments, so you risk obscuring the sons and daughters of your paying customers on the extreme edges. That's a big problem. In addition, the 2D controls were very sluggish, often taking 2-3 seconds to respond, which hindered our efforts.

Though you don't insert your pan and zoom effects in the preview window, as with Premiere and Final Cut, you can still preview your work in more or less real time, which is good. Edition's dedicated 2D interface provides excellent keyframe controls, with faster and easier copying and pasting, for example, than either Final Cut or Premiere Pro. When you're assigning several hundred keyframes in a project, a few seconds here and there really add up.

Unfortunately, what Edition gives in keyframe manipulation, it takes away with a glacial rendering time of 30:48 (min:sec), which is surprising, since Edition is generally a top performer. We discussed this with Pinnacle, who stated that PAL rendering times were much quicker than our NTSC results, probably no surprise given that PAL is the predominant format used by their German development group. Our contact surmised that NTSC rendering times should soon align with the PAL rates, but we'll believe that when we see it, as with most manufacturer promises. Rendering quality was good, just a touch behind Vegas and Final Cut.

Sony Vegas
HDV capture in Sony Vegas is accomplished in a minimalist embedded window on the bottom left hand side of the program, rather than the usual, more robust separate capture application. Vegas controls the camera during capture, storing the file in native MPEG-2 format. A wizard guides you through the process of writing back to tape, first creating a rendered video file--which took a lengthy 7:40--then writing it to tape, with machine control.

To edit HDV in Vegas, choose an HDV preset, which Vegas will use to ensure that titles and other generated media have the correct parameters. Even with the proper preset, however, Vegas' preview never assumed the proper 16:9 position, which was disconcerting.

For example, in Figure 6, you can see that the video in the Event Pan/Crop window has a different aspect ratio from the preview window on the bottom right, leading to the inevitable question, "What's the final output going to look like?" You'll also notice the absence of safe zones in the Pan/Crop tool, and the lack of playback controls, forcing you to return to the main interface to preview your work in real time.

Like Edition, however, Vegas provides excellent control over keyframes with its Pan/Crop interface, and avoids the cramped feel you often get when making 2D adjustments in Final Cut and Premiere Pro. Operation is pretty snappy while panning around within a frame, but moving from frame to frame was more time-consuming than it should have been. Vegas's downconverted output was quite good, trailing Final Cut only slightly, and Vegas produced the file in 4:29, behind Premiere (as shown in the EIA Resolution chart comparison in Figure 7), but well ahead of Edition.

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HDV Summary
Table 1 summarizes our findings regarding HDV editing, and underscores the lack of a product that dominates the category.

TABLE 1: HDV EDITING CAPABILITIES

Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5.1Apple Final Cut Pro 5Pinnacle Edition 6.1Sony Vegas 6.0b
Writing to Tape: Render time (including conforming)4:3914:2229:407:40
Editing 2D
HD/DV on the same timelineYesNoYesYes
Preview in 2D interfaceYesYesYesNo
Safe zoneYesYesNoNo
ResponsivenessVery good (reduced quality visually)Very goodSluggishSluggish
Downsampling
Time1:584:5830:484:29
QualityPoorExcellentVery goodVery good
Multiformat Handling3153
HDV timeline editing4433
Performance5313
Quality1544
Total13131313
HDV Score2.52.52.52.5