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Shooting and Capturing

Originally posted September 10th, 2008, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist
Corrected September 15th, 2008, with info on capturing AVCHD with Final Cut Pro.

We decided to embark on a quest to shoot and capture HD video using a consumer HD videocam. Then we would edit it and burn a Blu-ray movie disc. How hard can that be? What hardware and software do we need? What pitfalls will we uncover?

We chose the Sony HDR-CX12 HandyCam for shooting our HD video. We wanted something affordable (under $1000), small, and light that records in HD format. The Sony records video at 1080/60i storing it on a Sony PRO Duo Memory Stick. Though there is a model with a 120G hard drive, the memory stick model is lighter and more efficient, as I'll explain.

After shooting 21 minutes of 1920x1080 video, I removed the 16GB memory stick and inserted it in the Sony 17-in-1 Multi-Card Reader/Writer which was connected into our Mac Pro 3.2GHz 8-core "Early 2008" system.

(ALTERNATIVE: The docking/charging station for the Sony HDR-CX12 has a USB port that allows you to connect to one of the Mac's USB 2.0 ports in you don't want to use the a USB 2.0 reader. The capture speed is the same as the USB 2.0 reader, but we wanted the freedom to keep on shooting with a second memory stick while the Mac is capturing the footage from the first one -- a process that takes a while, as you will see.)

I launched iMovie (iLife 08) and it immediately "saw" the memory card referring to it as a "camera." Works for me. It scanned the media and created thumbnails of the 38 video clips. That process took 57 seconds. Once the preliminary scan was complete, I was able to select the clips at random that I wanted to import. This is a big advance over DV tapes used by our TVR900 which required us to import sequentially or imprecisely fast forward to the segments we wished to import. Isn't digital media great?

Final Cut Express is supposed to be able to import AVCHD just like iMovie, according to Apple's website. iMovie required no special drivers to "see" the USB memory card reader (or HD HandyCam). Ditto for iPhoto if you take any 10 megapixel stills with the HDR-CX12.

What about Final Cut Pro? I originally said that FCP would NOT capture the AVCHD files from the memory stick but I was wrong. A more experienced user of the Final Cut Pro (and Video Professional) suggested I try "Log and Transfer." Just as with iMovie, it enables you "see" the memory card (or hard drive) of the Sony HD HandyCam, scan the contents, select the conversion format, and choose the clips you wish to import.

I chose to import all 38 HD video clips. On our Mac Pro, it took iMovie exactly 20 min 47 sec to import 20 min 58 sec of video. Final Cut Pro took 11 min 30 sec -- or about half as long as iMovie took. (Someone suggested copying the clips to the internal hard drive and then importing them into FCP. That two step process actually took 2 minutes longer than the direct import.)

FYI, officially, Apple says you must have a Intel based Mac to capture AVCHD, but if you own a G5 Mac, you can use VoltaicHD from Shedworx to import AVCHD footage.

Initially I was concerned that the USB 2.0 interface would be a bottleneck for the import process, but it turns out that the bottleneck is the conversion process iMovie uses to go from AVCHD format (used by the HandyCam) to Apple Intermediate Codec (compatible with iMovie). This process is CPU intensive. Using Activity Monitor, I observed CPU usage as high as 475% which means that up to five cores were actively involved. Final Cut Pro converted AVCHD to "Apple ProRes 422" which requires as much as 688% of the CPU cycles (or up to seven cores).

Why is this significant? Because the import process will take longer on a slower Mac with fewer cores. For example, when we used iMovie to import the same 38 video clips on the MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo 2.6GHz, the process took 30 minutes (or 50% longer than the Mac Pro). The dual cores were maxed out (190% usage). Though slower than a Mac Pro to capture, a MacBook Pro can be useful in the field for capturing and previewing video footage. That's the basis for our choice of the memory stick based HandyCam. We can start the Macbook Pro importing one memory stick while we shoot more footage with the other.

When I checked the size of the assets stored on the internal hard drive. The 1920x1080 footage had grown from 2.8GB on the memory stick to 19.4GB on the hard drive. Again, that's the "penalty" of the conversion from Sony's AVCHD format to Apple Intermediate Codec. iMovie gives you the op
tion to import the footage as 960x540 instead of 1920x1080. That actually took longer (27 min 33 sec), but the resulting assets took less internal hard drive space (only 5.2GB). If you are NOT planning to burn a Blu-ray disc, the 960x540 resolution should be more than adequate for burning the highest quality standard DVD movie disc.

We invite you to jump to "Part Two, adventures in editing, authoring, encoding, and burning a Blu-ray movie disc" on the Mac Pro using Final Cut Pro, the MCE 6X Blu-ray Recordable Drive, and Roxio Toast 9 Titanium.

You can buy the Sony HDR-CX12 and similar HD HandyCams from your local Sony Dealer or from their Sony Style website ($100 off promotion currently in effect). Or order from Amazon ($100 off). Sony also sells the memory sticks and the USB 2.0 memory stick reader. (Ask the dealer about the discount on an additional memory stick when you purchase the HandyCam.)

iMovie 7 comes with iLife 08 on every Mac currently shipping.
Officially, Apple says you must have a Intel based Mac to capture AVCHD, but if you own a G5 Mac, you can use VoltaicHD from Shedworx to import AVCHD footage. If you prefer Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro, those can be purchased from your local Apple Retail Store or from the Apple Online Store. Ditto for Amazon.

6X Blu-ray Recordable Drive that installs in the spare optical bay of the Mac Pro or G5 Power Mac can be purchased direct from MCE. Other World Computing has an external 4X Blu-ray burner that runs off eSATA, FireWire 800, FireWire 400 or USB 2.0 ports. LaCie has an external 4X Blu-ray burner that runs off the FireWire 400 or USB 2.0 ports.

You can order
Toast 9 Titanium direct from Roxio or from Amazon. Adobe Encore CS3 is bundled with Adobe Premiere CS3 and is available direct from Adobe or from Amazon.

If you need an 8-core Mac Pro to convert AVCHD files to iMovie or Final Cut Express compatible format, I know where you can find one.

Apple Online Store

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2008 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
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