Sony EX-1/EX-3 and Final Cut Pro, What’s Your Workflow?

Late last year we added a new camera package to our offerings at Edit Creations. In part because we wanted to diversify the services we had to offer, and also because it played into a spinoff company we’ve been working on. That new company would be a lot more production based then Edit Creations currently is.

We looked at all the options out there in the sub 10K price range, and after weeks of research ended up with a Sony EX-1. That really surprised me because when we started the search I was pretty much set on the Panasonic P2 format and the AG-HVX200A model. Not only do I have experience with that camera, but almost everything else we do is shot in the DVCPro HD format, so we have a nice workflow in place. More then that though, I can’t stand editing in the MPEG-2 format. It’s fine for shooting and can capture great images, but once you get it into the edit system you can be assured you will rendering more then ever before. But in the end, the Sony EX-1 won hands down in image quality, built in features, and price. There was just no denying it.

So, what to do with the workflow?

On the first several projects we tried multiple different ways of attacking the projects. Everything from working in the MPEG-2 format natively to converting everything to ProRes and editing with the converted files instead. We also have extensive experience working with the Sony software, which includes XDCam EX Clip Browser and XDCam Transfer.

In addition to all of this trial and error, I was training a client on how to handle the workflow for his own project (he was renting our camera). But it seemed every time I met with him I was saying “OK, I know I said do it like this, but now there’s a whole new way to do it”. Nothing like learning on the job to keep everybody on edge!

So here we are now, about 6 months later, with what I believe is a solid workflow. So if you’re using EX-1 (or XDCam footage of any kind) you can learn from our mistakes and start off on the right foot.

In The Field

If you’re new to using a tapeless format, it can be very unnerving to spend an entire day shooting and have no tape to show for. To avoid disaster, redundancy is the key.

A simple but important note – label your media cards!!! Use a sharpie or a nice printed label, but make sure each card has a unique name/number. This will avoid confusion in the field when you drop your cards into a pile of other cards and don’t know which ones have footage to download and which are empty. Seriously, this one little step can save you in the field.

Assuming you don’t have enough SxS cards to make it through an entire day of shooting, you’re going to have to offload the cards and erase them in the field so that they can be reused (see, you’re already freaking out). Here’s how we handle that task.

In addition to the producer, camera person and possible audio guy, it’s ideal to have a AP or junior tech person with you. The handling of the media cards is very important, and getting it wrong can be disastrous. Don’t underestimate how important this is, just because it’s easy. We call this person the Media Assistant (MA from here forward).

The MA has the job of offloading all cards in the field, checking to be sure files were successfully transferred, and then erasing the clips from the card so the card can be reused. The equipment used for this is a MacBook Pro and two portable FireWire or USB drives. You can do the same thing using the PC but we’re all Mac here so I’m unable to provide any details on that side of things.

As each card is filled by the cameraperson, it’s passed off to the MA. The MA will then load it into the Express 34 slot on the MBP and it will mount on the desktop as an external drive (make sure you have the proper drive installed on this machine so that the card will mount on the desktop properly). Then, using a program called Shotput EXPress, the media is copied, simultaneously, to two different external drives (you can do up to 3 different locations. While you can do this manually in the finder as well, Shotput EXPress makes it more automated and does a nice data verification as it copies everything over. It just adds another layer of security.

Once the media has been copied, Sony’s XDCam EX Clip Browser software is used to view the clips on the drives and verify that everything looks and sounds as it should. At this point we’re just spot checking a random sampling of clips. Once the MA is satisfied, the inserted SxS card is erased by selecting all clips and hitting the delete key (this is also done using the Clip Browser software). The card is then given back to the producer or camera person for use again.

Once the shoot is over and the producer is back at the office, the footage is all copied to 2 different full size (and less expensive) drives. One is used during the production of the project by the producers and editors, and the other is a backup, and is stored with the client. It’s essentially equivalent to the box of beta tapes the client would have received in the past. After the media is successfully copied to the larger drives, the mini-drives are erased and ready for the next shoot.

As a side note, don’t cheap out on your hard drives, especially the big ones that are the final destination for your camera originals. A good drive does not cost that much more then a cheap one. Just ask yourself how much your shot day is worth, and if you would be willing to pay to reshoot everything. I highly recommend buying drives from G-Technology. While they’re not the cheapest, they are backed up with the best warranty in the business, they run quite and most of all, cool. On the flip side, STAY AWAY FROM LACIE DRIVES! I can’t tell you the number of editors and clients who have horror stories about drive failures, myself included. We used to have a ton of them but sold them all on eBay just to avoid any additional disaster.

Preparing for the Edit

While the free Sony tools can be used to screen and prep for editing, we have opted to go the route of having a FCP work station for the producer. After doing it both ways, we feel this is the most efficient for both the producer and the editor. (We’re currently looking into setting up a FCP Server workstation to streamline this process even more).

At this point loading, logging and transferring footage is the same is using P2 footage. Using the Sony FCP Logging plugin outlined in a previous SuiteTake post, the footage is loaded into the Log & Transfer window and clips are marked and labeled. As each clip is identified, it’s added to the import cue and converted to QT movies that FCP can edit with. The files you end up are basically MPEG-2 files wrapped into a .mov file. (For faster logging, check out our post on log and capture shortcuts.)

While going through this process, the producer can import multiple clips from a single recorded clip, add clip names and log notes, and organize footage into multiple bins as desired. This is all typically done to a drive designated as the “project drive”, so what you end up with is a single drive that has the FCP logging project with all of the bins and clips, and all of the transferred and transcoded media. This is what is handed off to the editor at the start of the edit.

Once the editor receives the drive, the project file that the producer created is opened, and all bins/clips are copied and pasted into the current working project (or the template project if we’re starting one from scratch). The project the producer creates is treated as a log project only, we do not edit inside that project.

With the new bins/clips pasted into the working project, we then use media manager to move all of the logged footage to our local edit drives and re-link them. We never work off of client drives, and instead opt to always have the footage on our own system. Since we have dedicated raid systems on each edit system, it’s a lot faster and it’s easier to keep things organized on our end. Once everything is copied over and re-linked we eject the drive and give it back to the producer.


So the main drawback to editing with the XDCam/EX-1 footage is that it’s saved in the MPEG-2 format. Because it’s a long GOP format, there’s not actually a full frame of video for each recorded frame of video. So when editing, FCP has to recreate those missing frames. While on the fly editing it’s usually seamless, the moment you add a transition or anything else that requires editing FCP has to create these new frames (FCP Calls this “Conforming MPEG-2 Video”), and THEN render. It adds a whole new layer of processing and even on a fast machine it’s a slow process.

So, what to do? There are three basic options.

Transcode to ProRes

While logging and importing footage inside of the FCP Log & Transfer window, you don’t have the option to transcode the footage into any other format. However, once that the footage has been imported and wrapped into QT files, you do have the option to convert everything to ProRes using compressor. What you’ll end up with are iFrame based video files that look as good as the original, but are more “edit friendly”. You’ll be able to edit quickly in a ProRes sequence with minimal rendering, and be able to do compositing without watching the image degrade right in front of your eyes. The drawback is you’re adding another step to your process, and depending on the amount of footage you have and the speed of your machine, it can be a very timely step.

Edit Natively in the XDCam EX MPEG-2 Format
For some very simple and short projects, this is actually a good option. Just drag your first shot into the timeline and let FCP match the timeline to your raw footage, and everything will play and edit in real time and you’ll be pretty happy with how it all comes together. But there’s one trick to make it go smoothly.

After you’ve let FCP match the sequence settings to you footage, open up the settings for your sequence and go to the “Render Control” tab. Make sure all rendering is done to ProRes instead of Same as Sequence. This way whenever you do need to render it will take less time and you won’t be compressing back into the MPEG-2 format. This essentially removes the conforming step that FCP would otherwise need to perform, at least while editing.

Exporting your final sequence will go slower then you might be used to, but it’s usually tolerable unless your project is very complex with lots of effects/render files. Because you’re exporting back into the XDCam EX format, it has to convert everything back into the Long GOP MPEG-2 format, which is very slow even on a fast machine.

Edit in a ProRes Timeline
You can also setup your timeline as a ProRes timeline for whatever frame size/frame rate matches your source footage. Once you do this, you can edit with your footage and for the most part play it back in real time (except for some effects) with FCP’s RT timeline. The advantage to working in this way is that since you’re working in the ProRes codec, your footage will continue to look great even if you throw lots of layers, graphics and effects at your project.

The huge down side to this is everything, and I mean EVERY-THING must be rendered at one point or another. Even if you’re able to play things back in real time while you’re editing using the RT features of FCP, when it comes time to print to tape or export a master QT file, you will have to render everything and it can take a very long time, even on shorter projects. You will end up with a very nice, high quality ProRes master file, but if you’re on a tight deadline this might not the way to go.

The Best Way?
After trying all of the above approaches on multiple projects, I don’t think this is a single solution that fits every project. I think before starting each project the best thing to do is look at the details of that project and decide. For simple projects that are short, mostly cuts and dissolves, few graphics and no real layers, staying in the MPEG-2 format is by far the fastest way to go. But if you have a more complicated project with layers, keys, graphics and so on, I would work in the ProRes world so that the image quality holds up though all of the processing.

At least for the majority of projects we do, transcoding everything to ProRes before we start is not really efficient. It takes too long and just adds an extra step that we just don’t have the time for. So in my opinion the it’s just not worth the time penalty.

The SuiteTake Take?
The EX-1/EX-3 and the higher end XDCam cameras have all proven that you can create some great images and record them to the MPEG-2 format. MPEG-2 cameras have really matured over the years, and they’re far superior to the baby brother HDV format cameras.

But understand that if you go this route there are tradeoffs when you get to the postproduction stage. The tradeoffs are not nearly as bad as they used to be and there are now multiple ways to handle the challenges – but they are still tradeoffs.

When starting any project, you should always consider the entire work flow start to end before shooting your first frame of video. If after doing this the EX-1/EX-3 fit your production needs, I say go for it.

27 thoughts on “Sony EX-1/EX-3 and Final Cut Pro, What’s Your Workflow?

  1. What if you’re exporting an edited short video with choma to be keyed in Adobe After Effects?
    What’s the best edited format to deliver it to After Effects for keying?

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