The Digital Journalist
Compression Session:

July 2007

by PF Bentley

This month Compression Session finally gets back to its original premise, as I check out Compressor 3 which is part of the amazing Final Cut Studio 2 upgrade. Nobody likes to wait and Elgato's Turbo.264 promises to cut compression time by over 50 percent. We'll then see some Smooth Cam tests on footage I shot last month, and see if this FCP 6 effect is the fix for all unsteady and shaky video.


As we all know, compression takes time – sometimes a lot of time – like overnight on large projects.

I never really liked Compressor since it was slow and gave me much larger files sizes for QuickTime output than I could get by exporting to QT Conversion directly from the FCP timeline.

The good thing about Compressor 3 are all the easy-to-apply presets for every type of QT-based output and platform format.

The bad thing about Compression 3 is it still takes a lot of time no matter what Mac you have.

For exporting a simple QT for Web use, Compressor 3 is slower and the file sizes are larger than exporting direct from the timeline using QT Conversion.

Check out the tests and see for yourself. Because I wanted to get this column out before the next Ice Age, I chose a one-minute talking head clip as the test file. The original clip has audio, but I took out the audio track for our purposes here. Both examples are 480x264 in size and I tried to match the codec settings and output. The Export to QT was compressed on the High setting and the Compressor 3 was compressed using 800kps Streaming setting.

The export to QT Conversion from the timeline is 4 MB and the Compressor version is 5.4 MB. The export to QT Conversion version took 2:52 and the Compressor version took 9:21 to compress. I used a dual 3GHz MacPro with 4GB of RAM. Depending on your machine, mileage may vary.

I did the exports a second time to make sure of the times and timing was done by the digital stopwatch.

Export QT Conversion from FCP timeline

Export to Compressor 3

What I do like about Compressor are the many presets for other output options and that you can save settings for future use that you can't using QT Conversion. (If someone has a way to save the settings from the QT Conversion dialog box please contact me!) You can also compress as many settings at once, go to Greece, have lunch, come back and it's all done. The settings for making MPEG2 files for DVD Studio Pro are superb – add 15 in the Sharpen Edges filter and it will be looking good.

In conclusion, for simple Web QT Conversion I still export straight from the timeline for speed and lower file size. For everything else, I use Compressor.


These days a lot of my projects on assignments are 5- to 15-minute Web documentaries that take a lot of time to compress, so compression speed becomes an issue with me. When I heard that Elgato's Turbo.264 that claimed to cut a 10-minute edit compression down from about an hour to 11 minutes I had to see for myself – and if this would have some application for us VJ types since Turbo.264 was only intended to compress files into Apple TV iPod and PSP formats.

Yes, the Turbo does perform as it claims in terms of speed. However, being this is a three trick pony, as it hasn't settings other than for Apple TV, iPod and PSP formats. You can either compress direct from the timeline under QT Conversion (the Turbo settings show up there under Options once the application is installed) or make a reference movie and compress using the elegant Turbo interface.

In my tests on our 1-minute talking head using Turbo, it took 1:56 and was 23.8MB. Using the FCP QT Conversion Apple TV setting, it took 2:47 and was 20.9MB. They both came out as m4v files for use in the Apple -V device. I saved them as mov files to show here.


Export to QT Conversion using Apple TV setting

The Turbo was darker in exposure when played with QT and was 800x600, which is elongated for a 16:9 clip. FCP's Apple TV setting was 720x540, again elongated for 16:9. I do not have Apple TV and maybe these native formats look correct when played on Apple TV.

I feel Turbo.H264 is a good product for non-FCP types who don't have the expertise to compress and are going to use the file to watch something on Apple TV, and iPod or PSP device. Now, if they could come up with something that has the Turbo speed and maintain a lower file size for the Web, along with other changeable presets for professional compression use, we'd be in business. We have the need for speed (along with high quality at low files sizes!)


When Apple demonstrated SmoothCam as part of FCP 6 at NAB in April, I was impressed. I immediately thought of all the implications this might have on the way we shoot. Would this mean the end of tripods?

While SmoothCam is handy tool, it will never take the place of good shooting technique. However, it may get you out of a jam depending on the situation. Simply put, it works by enlarging the image to compensate for any movement. How much it enlarges it depends on how much movement there is in the original footage.

The first test was shot with the camera mounted on the front of moving car. As you see Smooth Cam worked quite well in.....smoothing things out. The effect is subtle but works well. (You may have to save this particular QT to your desktop and then enlarge the QT to see the effect better.}

(Note: All examples are in SmoothCam default settings.)

Next is a close-up of a speedometer in a moving car. I couldn't use a tripod here and needed to get in there tight for the detail. As you can tell, SmoothCam enlarged the frame for this but at times could not take out all the movement.

So, how about those times you have to shoot a telephoto scene and you're caught without a tripod or don't have time to set one up? Well, as you'll see, SmoothCam did a pretty good job of helping steady the image.

I wanted to see how Smooth Cam would do with a walking shot, so I took some footage on a country road just walking, then running, then demonstrating the infamous walking backwards shot. It works – up to a point.

At this stage of its development, SmoothCam is not a cure-all for all forms of shaky video! At times it makes content seem like its in slow motion. If a clip is "too far gone" in movement – SmoothCam is not going to help. It is, however, applicable to many situations and will be part of my bag of tricks. I do look forward to seeing what Apple comes up with in the next generation of SmoothCam.

That's it for this month.

Due to my insane work schedule and the upcoming Maine Platypus Workshop, Compression Session will be back in September. Have a great summer – PF.

© PF Bentley

PF Bentley is lead Final Cut Pro instructor at the Platypus Workshops. We won't bore you here with his 12-page bio & resume.