By Brady Betzel
Over the last few years, transcoding has been a hot topic of discussion. With the line between offline and online editing becoming more blurred than ever, it’s crucial to implement a proper workflow that will erase any bottlenecks in production and post production from the very beginning.
Whether you are ingesting 1080p footage from a DSLR or 6K from a Red Dragon, it’s critical that all transcoding is fast, invisible (at least as invisible as possible) and able to run across multiple systems if you have them.
When I was an assistant editor I remember months of 24 hour-a-day transcoding. Typically, it was because of GoPro footage. Don’t get me wrong, I love GoPro from a size and usability standpoint, but when getting that footage prepped for offline and online editing it takes a huge chunk of time to transcode (not to mention checking for errors). Depending on the choice of the director of post or post supervisor, typically we would pick a “mezzanine” codec to transcode the footage to. A mezzanine codec is one that is high enough quality for your master outputs but also workable within your NLE to not cause hiccups. Apple’s ProRes, Avid’ DNxHD and DNxHR, as well as Cineform’s codecs are all considered mezzanine. Codecs such as H.264 or AVCHD are not easy on a processor and are typically converted to the mezzanine format of choice if you want to work efficiently.
Now that I’m an online editor and on the other side of the fence, so to speak, I see just how important it is for assistant editors to transcode to a proper codec while maintaining viability in the offline edit, as well as keeping image integrity for the online process.
So what I’m really getting to is, what program will allow the fastest transcode time while offering the highest image quality for “dailies” and even outputting masters and sometimes with multi-channel audio? That’s a very loaded question, but hopefully I can give some testing results that will give guidance in your decision.
Episode Pro 6.5
There are many different programs that are stand alone transcoding solutions — Adobe’s Media Encoder, Apple’s Compressor, Divergent Media’s EditReady, Sorenson’s Squeeze, MPEG Streamclip. It’s also offered via the NLEs themselves, and color correction apps like Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 12. However, in this review I am just focusing on Telestream’s Episode Pro 6.5.
Some of the latest features in Episode 6.5 are Closed Caption support; updated codec support including HEVC, XAVC, VP9, and MXF AS-11; multi-bitrate streaming support, which includes MPEG-DASH; improved multitrack audio support and reassignment; and image sequence support. While I won’t be running through all the new features, be sure they are all very big additions.
Immediately when opening Episode Pro 6.5 I noticed how cleanly my options were presented. There are four main categories: Workflows, Sources, Encoders and Deployments. I then had to activate Episode Pro 6.5, which didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped, but I will get to that later. You can use Episode’s preset workflows or create your own; it’s dead simple.
Up to the Test
To run a few test I used an older MacBook Pro laptop (2.4 Intel Core Duo, 4GB of DDR3, Nvidia GeForce 9400M 256MB and SSD boot drive). It’s slow compared to today’s barn-burner mobile workstations, but it is something that could be used in a production that wants to set a standalone transcode station up without purchasing new equipment. Plus, I can run comparisons with a few different transcoders.
I used two QuickTimes that I created to run a few speed tests. The first is a one-minute H.264 QuickTime from a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition and the other is a 20-second ProRes QuickTime from a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, both are 1920×1080 running at 23.976fps.
My first test was to transcode the one-minute long, 356.7MB, GoPro QuickTime into ProRes using a few different encoders to get a sense of speed and file size, here are the results:
Episode Pro 6.5: three minutes and 11 seconds: 878.3MB
Adobe Media Encoder CC 2015: two minutes, 13 seconds: 868.7 MB
EditReady 1.3.4 — 57 seconds: 901MB
The second test was to transcode the 20-second 131MB, Blackmagic camera ProRes QuickTime to ProRes:
Episode Pro 6.5: 33 seconds: 133.7MB
Adobe Media Encoder CC 2015: 1 second: 131.2MB
EditReady 1.3.4 — 10 seconds: 135.9MB
The third test was to transcode the same: the 20-second, 131MB, Cinema Camera ProRes QuickTime to DNxHD 175, 8-bit:
Episode Pro 6.5 — 52 seconds: 192.9 MB
Adobe Media Encoder CC 2015 — 30 seconds: 194.4MB
EditReady 1.3.4. — 29 seconds: 195.3MB
Remember that while I do mention products like EditReady for transcoding, EditReady is limited in features when compared to Episode Pro, which is a fully featured encoding and transcoding solution — literally one transcoding tool that will do everything you need, including prep and upload your file to YouTube.
So what do I really think about those speeds? When transcoding a single file it really isn’t the fastest app out there. However, when needing to run two or more jobs at once using a fast computer like an HP z840 with 128GB of RAM and an Nvidia Quadro m6000, you will probably make up that time. In addition if you enable a Cluster with all of your Epsiode installed systems you will probably cut your time down tremendously (keep in mind you need a fully paid Episode license on each cluster system for this to work).
A Cluster is basically a workgroup of computers that can be used to run jobs simultaneously via IP connection. Clusters are relatively easy to set up, although I would suggest running it by your IT department first if you work in a proper workplace.
If you happen to have a few spare computers lying around your house, you can set up a Cluster and let Episode do the rest. This will allow up to two simultaneous jobs to be performed in parallel with an Episode Pro license and unlimited parallel jobs with Episode Engine (costing a little under $6K).
Another perk to the Episode Engine version is Split and Stitch, which allows one file to literally be split among many “nodes” of your encoding/transcoding Cluster, rendered and then stitched back together at the end. If you have a severe time crunch or just like to be the fastest encoder on the block you could save yourself tons of time with this feature.
Closed Caption Insertion
What really got me pumped about testing Episode 6.5 was the closed caption insertion feature. If you’ve ever seen the bill for closed caption insertion you know that it might be worthwhile to check this feature out. When I first started out, I figured I would be able to encode a ProRes HQ QuicktTme with a caption file and be on my way, sweet! Unfortunately it’s not that easy, Episode 6.5 can handle captioning files (.scc or .mcc) but can only insert or pass through into MXF, MPEG-2 and H.264 wrappers. You will need to purchase one of Telestream’s other products — MacCaption (for Mac) or CaptionMaker (for Windows) — in order to insert your captions into any sort of mastering format or Avid AAF (a sweet feature I just learned about is MacCaption or CaptionMaker can create an Avid compatible AAF that will allow you to place closed captioning on a data track within Media Composer for output). Cool new feature if it fits your workflow.
I wanted to touch on the differences in the versions. There are technically three versions of Episode: Episode ($594), Episode Pro ($1,194) and Episode Engine ($5,994). To me, besides the price differences, the real differentiating factors are the amounts of parallel encoding and higher end format support. Episode Pro and Engine allow for formats such as MXF, MPEG DASH, as well as image sequences. Episode Pro allows for two parallel jobs while Engine allows for unlimited, the standard version allows for one job at a time.
If you are a person who has an encoding farm at the ready or a post house who needs to run two or more encodes/transcodes in parallel, Episode Pro or Engine is for you. While my tests showed Episode running a little slow in a single system, one file job — in the right cluster based environment with multiple threads and multiple cluster nodes you could easily cut the transcode time in half. Telestream has put a ton of work into Episode with its depth of technical tweaks you can make to your resulting encodes. On the other side it’s super easy to jump in and add a preset transcode setting to your workflow, there is little knowledge needed.
Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood. Previously, he was editing The Real World at Bunim Murray Productions. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @allbetzroff.