Video editing can be a tricky subject. Beyond the creative barriers lie hurdles of technical understanding that can take years of learning and experience to grasp. Video codecs are just one of these many hurdles that editors of every stage face. If you’re looking for a fast track to basic understanding of video codecs, skip the next paragraph and keep your eyeballs moving down the page.
What is a Codec
Codec is shorthand for code/decode. A codec is a piece of hardware or software that encodes or decodes a video signal to make easier to play back. It’s useful for making video files smaller in size by selectively tossing data we most likely don’t need. Fancy algorithms make a best guess based of the selections we choose when encoding our media.
Codecs vs. Wrappers
The web of codec confusion gets even more entangled when discussing wrappers or containers. Wrappers basically house all of a video’s individual parts, like the video codec.
Common wrappers include Jay Z, Kanye West, and Nicki Minaj.
…Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Common wrappers include .mov, .mp4, and .mxf to name a few. Common codecs include Prores, DNxHD, and h.264.
To better visualize this, imagine a candy bar. Pretend that the wrapper is the wrapper (easy enough), the chocolate is the codec, and the marshmallow center is delicious.
The Best Video Editing Codecs
When editing video, it’s important to edit sequences with a quality codec and it’s also extremely helpful to use media that is a quality codec. Quality codecs are intraframe codecs, meaning for each frame of video there is an actual frame for the computer to reference. Though more compressed interframe codecs can be used, they’re very processor intensive due to performing calculations between frames and can make editing a struggle – even on beastly systems.
In Premiere you can set your sequence settings to use whatever codec you wish. I edit almost exclusively in QuickTime Prores sequences.
My custom presets are downloadable below.
Other good options are DNxHD, DNxHR, and Cineform as all 4 of these options work on Windows or MAC and provide good performance without a ton of overhead.
It’s common to receive compressed media straight from the camera, and with today’s NLEs it’s easy to start editing. For a quick turnaround project, have at it.
On longer projects try transcoding your media to a quality codec prior to editing. It may cost a little time upfront, but the cutting process becomes much smoother and faster for it.
Note the major trade off is storage space.
Premiere Pro Sequence Presets
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The Best Delivery Codecs
The edit is done and picture is locked. When the time arrives to deliver your project, delivery codecs come into play. Which one(s) you choose is largely dependent on where your project is going.
Headed to the web? A h.264 .mp4 is the way to go.
Playing on TV? Most likely a .mov in a flavor of Prores or DNxHD codec is a good choice.
When I wrap a project I like to keep both a h.264 .mp4 and prores .mov for my personal archives. It’s nice having the .mp4 to share on the web as needed and the .mov is useful for adding to reels, pulling into edits, or re-delivering in the future.