AVCHD codec? No - not really. AVCHD is a data format, but many people think it's a codec. AVCHD is an acronym for the Advanced Video Codec High Definition format.
The Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD) format utilizes one of the most efficient video codecs developed to date. Since its first announcement in May of 2006 until now, AVCHD has grown into a high-quality video format that rivals other professional media. But, not unlike most video formats, it takes a good editor to get the most out of it.
High Definition Lite
The Mini DV format revolutionized videography. It was a huge jump forward for consumers, and later professionals would see its benefits too. Currently, many professionally-produced TV shows still rely on prosumer Mini DV camcorders. Its durability and small size makes it a practical solution for many different applications.
Then along came HDV, which is a logical progression from Mini DV: high definition video squeezed onto the Mini DV tape format using MPEG-2 compression. The HDV format has delivered great results for numerous years now. We've seen it mature into professional video cameras as well. Yet, innovation was on the heels of the HDV format.
The AVCHD format capitalizes on the H.264/MPEG-4 video compression technology that is much better at squeezing video data down to smaller sizes. This is ideal for consumer shooters. More hours of video can be stored in the same amount of storage space without sacrificing visual quality. The AVCHD video format was born and soon consumer camcorders arrived.
One challenge of the AVCHD format is that it can be stored on a variety of media. Unlike Mini DV and HDV which are stored on Mini DV tape, AVCHD can be stored on DVDs, memory cards and internal memory (i.e., hard drives and Flash memory). With all these storage possibilities, it can be frustrating as an editor to find a way to import all of it into your machine. If you're editing a video for a friend or client, you may need them to bring in their camcorder and not just their media. Further complicating the matter is that many shooters end up transferring the footage to their PC to clear their memory card or internal memory. With the footage stored on a hard drive, it may not be compatible with your editing system or software. It all depends on how the shooter got the footage off the camcorder and onto the PC.
Many AVCHD camcorders ship with software that allows shooters to import the footage in its native format. This is useful for doing simple playback of your footage. Other applications will also allow you to convert the footage to a different format. For example, Panasonic's Professional Video division has a software tool that will convert AVCHD to their ProHD video format, which is much more compatible in professional editing environments.
When managing AVCHD media, be smart and make sure your client has the original source footage, preferably on the storage medium that the camcorder uses. This will make importing much easier. Speaking of which, let's take a look at that process.
Log and Transfer versus Native Import
If you are thinking about using AVCHD, you should consider how your preferred video editing software handles this video format. The fastest method for ingesting AVCHD is to use an application that has native support for AVCHD. This means that you can import the video files directly into the application without having to transfer it to another video format. Let's take a closer look at what native AVCHD support looks like.
When you are shooting AVCHD, new video files are created on the recording media every time you press the record start/stop button. When you import this footage to a native AVCHD-supported editing application, the video files will individually display, and you can select which files you want to import for use in your project. These AVCHD files will immediately load into your project bin and be ready to be trimmed and/or placed on your timeline. It takes only a fraction of a second for the application to "see" the files and import them into the project. Such immediacy is ideal for those editors who have a super-fast turnaround time.
One downside to native support for AVCHD, is that the files are still in their "very compressed" state, which means that your computer will need as much processing power as possible to play back and edit the footage. This may slow render times for motion effects, color processing and other special effects. If you want to add a lot of finesse or your editing application does not support native import, you may want to consider the "Log and Transfer" alternative.
Log and Transfer is very different from the common Log and Capture of the traditional tape media. Let's dissect both of these processes.
Log and Capture Using Tape
With tape media, your computer must first log the video clips that you want to import to your project. Logging in its simplest form defines the in and out points of a video clip, using the timecode on the footage. Logging a clip tells the video editing application that there is a video clip of interest between these two points in time. Then, you must tell the video editing application how to acquire this data. If it's on a videotape, you'll tell the application to capture this data. Capturing happens in real time. The video editing application cues up the tape and acquires the digital video stream of bits from the in point to the out point you defined when you logged the clip.
Log and Transfer Using Random Access
In the Log and Transfer process, the logging is the same in principle. Although, because AVCHD is stored on solid state media, the data can be randomly accessed and/or more easily controlled with virtual fast-forwarding and rewinding. In this way, logging in and out points can be done much more quickly, or the individually recorded video files can be simply flagged for import. Once the in points and out points or individual video files have been logged, the video editing application will transfer the footage to a video format that is much more edit-friendly than the native AVCHD format. This conversion can be time consuming as the computer processor chugs away. In this transfer process, we front-load some of the processing needs by converting your AVCHD footage to a video format that your application prefers to use. The transfer typically happens more quickly than real time, meaning that transferring an hour of footage will take less than an hour. It really depends upon your computer's processing speed.
In the end, you'll end up with file sizes that are generally larger than AVCHD, but they won't demand as much processing power during rendering of effects. Some applications will even allow for realtime effects, meaning that there will be virtually no render time for these files.
It's important to keep in mind that, at this point, you're no longer editing AVCHD. You'll be working with a totally different video format. That means you'll need to keep your AVCHD files archived just in case you need the source files if anything should go wrong.
A benefit of AVCHD is that its relatively small file size simplifies archiving. Depending on your shooting settings, AVCHD files can be much smaller in file size compared to other video formats. In some cases, you store twice as many minutes of footage (at lower quality settings) using the same amount of storage space. This is ideal for consumer shooters who do a lot of shooting but don't want to spend a great deal of money on storage space.
In the end, importing AVCHD footage to your video editing application is still faster than traditional tape-based media. Native support is by far the best in terms of ease of use. Many consumers just have a hard time grasping the Log and Capture or Log and Transfer experience. You also get the benefit of saving time at least at the beginning of the editing session.
What About Professional Editors?
The AVCHD format is now available on a variety of professional camcorders and is being used by professional videographers as a low-cost alternative that produces high-quality results. If you're comfortable working with intermediate codecs, then AVCHD can be an excellent source for your video files. The same file-size advantages are great for prosumers, too. However, most of these projects will be shot at higher-quality settings, in which case you won't save much space compared to the HDV file format. But AVCHD is still a more efficient file size than most professional video formats and can produce high-quality video that is comparable to more expensive formats.
Recommendations for the Editor
The typical consumer shooter that is producing family, travel or other non-professional videos will find AVCHD to be a good fit for them. We recommend using a video editing application that supports AVCHD natively. This will make the import process as easy as a couple of clicks of your mouse. You might have to be more patient, waiting longer for renders, but, for the casual editor this will be the best choice. Consider going easy on the special effects, which is generally a good rule of thumb.
For the professional, the greatest benefit comes from using a cheap recording medium. But professionals can also put native import to use. If you have video projects that require an incredibly short turnaround time, using an editing application that natively supports AVCHD can help make it possible to complete video projects faster than ever before. If your aim is to spend more time with your project, being critical of each pixel, make sure your video application can transfer AVCHD to a different video format (most of them can do this). Then, take a closer look at which application has the additional support you desire. This will be different for each type of editor.
Overall, AVCHD can be a great video format to use. Its compression technology is superior in terms of creating small file sizes while keeping the quality in check. And, just like all video formats, you'll get the most of your video footage if you keep your source video archived and well-organized. Don't let the consumer-friendly recording mediums fool you into letting your good data backup practices slide. No video format will do the hard work of backing up all by itself. Now, that would be something!
Contributing columnist Mark Montgomery is a web content specialist and produces instructional videos for a leading web application developer.