DV, HDV, DVCPRO HD and others; What Are They Good For?

DV, DVCPRO 50, DVCPRO HD, HDV, and AVCHD are all intermediate formats. What I mean by this is that they are useful for capture, and for editing, but if you can avoid it, not for mastering.

DV Good Use: DV is a very popular camera format for good reason. Its cheap, small, and gives you relatively good quality. I’ve read lots of places that its on par with BetaSP, but I think its a little above BetaSP when you look at the DVX100 and XL2, and is closer to 16mm film, although it gives you nowhere near the dynamic range. I think the quality per dollar of DV cameras, especially the progressive ones is amazing. If you are happy with standard definition DV is a great format.

DV is also very useful as an editing format. Shoot DV, or film, digitize it into your editor of choice, and you have a small file size, easy to edit, good quality format to work with. This should only be for offline editing however. After final picture lock you need to import your timeline into an uncompressed timeline to avoid losing quality on any shot with titles or effects, as they will need to be recompressed if staying DV, and if you shot on film hopefully you also telecined to a less compressed SD format or even an HD format.

DV Bad Use: I know that a lot of people, including myself, have DV final masters. But I can not stress this enough, DV is extremely fragile, you will get drop outs if you play your master more than 3 or 4 times, and it will degrade your final video quality. DVCAM is a little more stable than DV, but has the exact same quality issues. The problem with using DV for a master is that it uses very severe compression, 25 Mbps, versus Digibeta at 90 Mbps, and uses relatively shallow bit-depth, 8-bit vs. Digibeta’s 10-bit. You can really see the lack of bit-depth on slow fades to black. After all the work that you put into your project do you really want to throw away three quarters of your image information by mastering to DV? I know I wish I hadn’t. I’ll tell you what you should do in my conclusion.

DVCPRO 50 Good Use:
DVCPRO 50 is used almost exclusively as a camera format giving twice the data rate of DV, and therefore less harsh compression and better quality, but is a lot more expensive than DV.

DVCPRO 50 Bad Use: DVCPRO 50 VTRs are pretty rare, and I don’t know anyone who has ever mastered to it. There is really nothing you can do with it other than shoot on it.

DVCPRO HD Good Use: DVCPRO HD is pretty much DVCPRO 50 for HD. Its twice the data rate of DVCPRO 50 and gives you decent quality for a midrange price. It will give you significantly better quality than HDV.

Some people are using DVCPRO HD as an HD editing format in a similar way as people are using DV for SD editing.

DVCPRO HD bad Use: No one is really using this format for mastering, even though it would look ok.

HDV Good Use: HDV is a very interesting format. I’ve looked at a few projects shot on HDV and they look surprisingly good. HDV is HD squished into the same data rate and tape mechanism as DV by using MPEG-2 compression. There are some motion and compression artifact issues, but if you want to shoot HD on the cheap HDV is the way to go. Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress Pro, and Premiere all support native HDV editing, so you can use it pretty much the same as DV; edit HDV offline until final picture lock, and then online in uncompressed HD.

As far as I know no one is using HDV as an offline editing format because it uses interframe compression, which throws away most of the information from frames between key-frames.

HDV Bad Use: Just like as DV is a good cheap camera format but a bad mastering format, HDV is a good cheap camera format, but a terrible mastering format. HDV has the most insane compression ratio, 27:1 vs. 5:1 for DV, so going back to HDV for a master is going to look terrible for any shots that have titles or effects.

AVCHD Good Use: Right now the only good use for AVCHD is for home movies for Blu-ray/HD-DVD playback because none of the big three (Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress Pro, and Premiere) support native AVCHD editing. Final Cut Pro just added pseudo AVCHD support, but only by transcoding the footage to a different format first, either ProRes 422 or Apple Intermediate, which increases file sizes 10 fold. Sony Vegas does support native AVCHD editing, but I’ve never seen anyone use it. AVCHD does hold promise for future goodness though. It is speced up to 24Mbps, very close to HDV, but uses a much more efficient compression scheme, so could sometime in the future offer better quality than HDV. AVCHD also does not use tapes, only hard drives and DVDs, which is great because capturing from tape is a waste of time as it only plays back in real-time.

AVCHD Good Use: For right now shooting AVCHD and expecting to be able to edit it is a bad use, because its only possible after transcoding to much larger files that will hog your hard drive space, and take a while to convert to.

In conclusion, all of these formats (except AVCHD for now) are great camera formats that are able to give impressive quality for low cost. If you can afford it the best workflow is to shoot and edit with these formats, and then create an uncompressed version. From this uncompressed file you should make your master tape, Digibeta if SD, and HDCAM SR or D5 if HD. Since even Digibeta and the HD formats are compressed I recommend using the media manager in Final Cut Pro to make a new project that has just the media used in your final cut and copy the media and project files onto a hard drive that you then wrap and put into storage, ideally in a cool dry place. The files should be the original camera material before any titles for effects have been applied, then if someone buys your film or you get more finishing money you have more flexibility in what you can do with it.

All of this effort might sound crazy, but when you need to do something with your project, be it DVD mastering, web download, or theatrical release, you will be much happier with the results you get from your high quality master.