To Transcode or Not Transcode: Deciding To Edit In Premiere Pro Natively or Use an Intermediate Codec

As a Final Cut Pro editor, there were two features in Premiere Pro CS6 that informed my decision to seriously consider making the switch and making it my NLE of choice. As someone who has used After Effects for a number of years, Dynamic Link was one of these (you can read my post on round-tripping between Premiere Pro and After Effects with Dynamic Link here.

The second feature that held the most sway was Premiere Pro’s ability to edit natively with most formats. The possibility of being able to import P2 or DSLR footage into Premiere Pro and start cutting immediately was simultaneously an exciting and depressing prospect. Exciting because of all the time I would be saving by not having to Log & Transfer my footage before I could start editing a project. Depressing because I thought about all that wasted time spent Log & Transferring over the years when I could have gone to Premiere Pro sooner.

What Exactly Does “Edit Natively” Mean?

According to Adobe, Premiere Pro is able to edit the following tapeless formats natively:

  • Panasonic P2 (DV, DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO HD, AVC-Intra)
  • Canon XF
  • Sony HDV
  • JVC ProHD (both MP4 and MOV)
  • Canon Digital SLR
  • Nikon Digital SLR
  • AVCHD and the Panasonic-branded equivalent, AVCCAM
  • RED

But what does that mean in practical terms? Well, footage from any of these tapeless formats can be imported into Premiere Pro and edited immediately – no need to install any additional codecs, plug-ins, or import modules. There is no waiting for re-wrapping or transcoding because you are literally “linking” straight to the source files that you offloaded from the camera. Indeed, perhaps “linking” is a better term than “importing” to describe the video acquisition process in Premiere Pro.

When is Editing Natively Not Such a Good Idea?

Native editing workflows are perfect for about 80% of the projects I work on. These include projects that are done end-to-end by me in-house and on-site jobs like live events where time is of the essence. But despite the time-savings of native editing, there are some workflows where it just isn’t practical.

For example, I recently completed a project in Premiere Pro for a particular production company that is still sitting on the fence and using Final Cut Pro Legacy. Although it was a corporate job and not for broadcast, I was essentially doing the offline edit. They were going to take over and do all the graphics and color grading themselves. Premiere Pro is able to efficiently export projects for Final Cut Pro (with XML), but since Final Cut wouldn’t work with the native footage, I had to transcode everything to Prores 422 before I started editing.

There is also the issue of performance: I have heard complaints of chugging timelines when working with some native formats. I personally have not had any issues with Premiere Pro's performance when working natively. Having said that, I have not worked with all listed native formats and my machine is fairly fast. Transcoding to an intermediate codec like Prores does make thing easier on your CPU and can make for a better user experience. But as I said, this has not been the case for me so far and in my opinion native editing has been nothing short of a godsend.

Color Grading With Native Files In Premiere Pro

If you plan to finish your projects in Premiere Pro, you may be put off by the fact that some native formats can’t work in greater than 8-bit depth. While that may be true in other applications that support native formats, Premiere Pro automatically up-samples your media to 4-4-4 on the fly (which may explain the reason behind potential chugging timelines mentioned above). So if you are going to color grade in Premiere Pro, you won’t get any more latitude by transcoding to Prores or another intermediate codec. In fact, you may find your results are less satisfactory than if you stayed native.

Transcoding Your Footage With Adobe Media Composer

If any of the scenarios above apply to you and you need to transcode to an intermediate codec, you can easily transcode with Adobe Media Encoder. The first time I tried it wasn’t so easy, however. I was short on time and in the mad rush was not able to figure it out. In the end I had to bail and turn to an old standby, Compressor. I have since worked it out and will be putting together a short tutorial on how to do it for next week so be sure to check back in for that.