Ingesting AVCHD footage: Problems with Final Cut Pro’s Log and Transfer tool
UPDATE 22 September 2010: Apple has released an upgrade to FCP, 7.03. Having used it for a couple of days I can confirm that FCP no longer has an issue with long clips shot with LCPM audio (they transcode very quickly all the way through, what a relief!) and original timecode is carried through (at last). However, Log & Transfer is still unstable and you must be careful not to preview clips by moving the scrubber manually in the L&T preview window while transcoding as it has a tendency (on my machines at least) to crash. High-spec desktop machines seem to have fewer issues with L&T than laptops, no matter how high-spec the latter are.
Note: All comments below are drawn from my experiences using Final Cut Pro 7.01 and 7.02. Not all problems will necessarily apply to both versions all the time.
Final Cut Pro (FCP) cannot handle AVCHD footage, like that created by the NXCAM, on the timeline. You need to transcode the AVCHD files created in the camera to another codec, such as ProRes 422, in order to edit the footage (this transcoding is also called ‘ingesting’). This is accomplished via the Log and Transfer (L&T) tool, which can be found under the File menu in FCP.
You can use L&T to ingest footage direct from recording media (via a card reader, for example) or from AVCHD files stored on a harddrive. [*note: AVCHD files should be stored on harddrives along with all companion files created in the camera – in other words you should copy the whole contents of the recording media into a folder together, not just the .mts files alone. L&T will not be able to deal with .mts files that have been separated from their companion files. I create storage folders with names that begin with the date that the footage was shot on in the order YYYYMMDD_Subject , for example 20100223_JimmyBirthday . This way the folders can easily be arranged in date order.]
However, I’ve encountered a few problems with L&T. I’ll list these along with workarounds, if any.
1) L&T takes extraordinarily long to transcode long AVCHD clips shot with uncompressed LCPM audio – by long clips I mean more than a couple of minutes. Short clips of a few seconds will often transcode in less time than the duration of the clip; clips of 20 minutes can take an hour and a half to transcode. Workaround: Set the camera to record Dolby Digital audio – MENU > AUDIO SET > AUDIO FORMAT > DOLBY DIGITAL – and yes, yes I know, LCPM audio is one of the selling points of the HXR-NX5, don’t tell me…
2) L&T sometimes populates the clip menu (if that’s what you call it) automatically. This can be a real pain in the rear end because it can take ages if you’ve plugged a drive with masses of clips on it into the computer and, I’ve noticed, it also OFTEN does not find all the clips or folders on the drive, so you’re left having to add those to the menu manually anyway, using the ‘folder-plus’ icon in the top left of the L&T window. Workaround: It’s not 100% reliable, but if you make sure to remove all AVCHD clips from the L&T clip menu before closing L&T they tend not to reappear next time you open the tool.
3) L&T does not bring the source timecode of the clip through when transcoding. Each clip, after transcoding, has timecode starting at zero. This can be a serious issue if, for example, you plan to transcode into a low-resolution version of ProRes 422 like ProRes Proxy for an ‘offline’ edit and then reconform the project by re-ingesting the footage for a final ‘online’ edit at higher quality; FCP will not be able to find the points in the original files to ‘know’ which sections of those files to re-ingest because the timecode in the transcoded footage is not the same as that in the ‘parent’ AVCHD files. Workaround: Ingest and work in a high-quality ‘online’ format like ProRes 422 HQ from the start so you don’t have to re-ingest, or a format at least as good as that which you want to deliver the project in. Yes, this can take a lot of disk space!
4) The L&T playhead is screwy and moving it around can cause FCP to crash. L&T offers users a preview window for looking through clips prior to ingestion. In theory, you can look at a clip and only ingest the short sections you need by marking in and out points. However, I have found this to be very risky. Firstly, moving the preview playhead around too much can make it freak out and jump to the end of the timeline from where it will not budge. Sometimes it freaks out so much that it freezes or crashes Final Cut Pro. Sudden crashes can also occur if you try to ingest more than one section of a camera clip. Workaround: Transcode whole camera clips. Don’t scrub through clips by manually moving the scrubber arrow around – play through in real time using play button if you have to look at the clip before transcoding. Yes, it’s a pain, but you’re less likely to have FCP crash on you. [This bug has been carried over into FCP 7 from FCP 6, sadly.]
5) L&T often crashes if you queue up a lot of clips for transcoding. In my experience this happens if you queue up around 20 or more clips. No workaround that I know of other than to keep the number lower than that.
6) After FCP crashes and you restart it, L&T will sometimes not recognize the project you are working in. You will (yes, really) have to restart of the whole computer, not just FCP, so L&T can recognise the project. A real pain!
7) Sometimes L&T somehow thinks that there’s 0 space left on your scratch disk, even if there’s a lot. You’ll queue a clip, processing will not start and a bright octagon with a ! sign will appear in the status column. (If you try to delete the clip from the queue you will be told that the clip is in the process of being transcoded. This is not, as far as I can see, true.) Look down to the bottom of the L&T box for Total Free Space — if it says 0 and you know you have space on that scratch disk, you have this issue. Restarting FCP and restarting your computer will have no effect on this problem. I eventually discovered that if you change the scratch disk settings (Final Cut Pro > System Settings) to another disk and then back to the disk you want L&T will behave itself again.
In short, L&T needs a serious overhaul. You have to handle it very, very gently. It is a substandard tool within what presents itself as a world-class movie editing application. We all need to tell Apple to fix it via the help websites etc.
If any of you know of any other bugs in Log and Transfer, please add a comment to this blog post. If you have improvement suggestions, please mention those too, and I’ll send them on to contacts in Sony who will suggest them directly to Apple.
NOTE: It’s been suggested to me that Log & Transfer is more stable if you open L&T before attaching or turning on the device you’re digitising from.