What are proxies and why do we need them?

There’s an embarrassment of riches in the world of video. The powerful tools that are used to tell cinematic stories are readily available to anyone with a desire for filmmaking. Even cameras that deliver 4K footage are commonly found at consumer prices, and 8K cameras are within the reach of a modest budget.

So, with rich colors and spectacular depth, HDR video is gaining ground as more capable display devices enter the market. However, these amazing formats come at a cost outside of their price tag. The true quality they deliver in production is dependent on file formats that require a lot of space and bandwidth. Thus, this burdens the systems used to edit them. So, how can you keep up and efficiently deliver a quality edit on-time? Simple, with proxies.

What are proxies?

Proxies are duplicate files of a project’s source footage. The proxy footage is a transcoded file that’s smaller in file size and at a lower bitrate than the original. Editors build an offline edit using the proxy footage and conform it as a final edit that utilizes the source footage.

More importantly, editing with proxies has a long history in the post-production industry. It’s easy to do and has a lot of benefits for an editor who is looking for an efficient post-production pipeline.

The process for setting-up an offline edit that utilizes proxies starts at the beginning of post-production. While you ingest the source footage, you can set your video editing application to transcode copies of the footage. This is where you’ll determine what you need for a proxy in terms of file size and format.

Next, you should select a file that reduces the overall file size and plays efficiently on your editing system. Once the footage is ingested and transcoded, the project is edited using the proxies. When you’ve completed your edit, you can swap out the proxies with the source footage for your final output.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC showing the proxy creation menu

A tradition from film

There’s a hidden history to proxies that comes from film editing. Most motion pictures that are shot on film use a digital intermediary for post-production. The editor scans the film into a digital form using a telecine process. The film editor cuts the digital proxies of the source film.

Before the days of the digital intermediary process, film editors wouldn’t cut the source footage. Film editing was a physical process in which the editor would literally cut the film and tape, or splice shots together. This put the physical film at risk from damaging scratches and folds.

In order to mitigate the risk, the film editor would work with a workprint–a physical copy of the source footage. This allowed the editor to make multiple cuts using the same footage without ever touching the source stock. Once the edit was finalized, the editor conformed the source footage to the final cut. Even though the film industry wasn’t dealing with the issues of file size and bandwidth or bitrate, they were looking to make the editing process efficient.

Blackmagic Design Resolve Studio 16 rending menu for mass proxy creation

Proxies in today’s post-production environment

In short, there are several reasons an editor might want to edit with proxies. Post-production environments and pipelines are quite robust. Video editing applications are able to handle a wide range of projects and video formats. However, there are always new technologies coming out and challenges that will slow down even the most advanced edit suites. Consequently, the primary reason an editor might choose to edit with proxies is to speed up the editing process. 

High-resolution video formats, especially when uncompressed, are able to capture incredible amounts of detail. In turn, these formats produce incredibly large files that tax the resources of a video editing computer. When you set up a project that references large quantities of these files, often referencing more than one file at a time, your computer can grind to a halt or even fail to display the video. Proxies give you the ability to edit the project while reducing the load on your system’s resources. As a result, you save time and move efficiently through the edit.

DAM workflow

Numerous industries are using video in a variety of ways. As a result, there are more in-house studios then there were in the past. Sometimes, these in-house studios need to rely on an established Digital Asset Management infrastructure. However, the problem occurs when the DAM isn’t meant for video production. When this is the case, the editor needs to find an efficient way to edit their projects while maintaining the integrity of their source footage for archiving purposes.

Editing with proxies allows a video team to capture the highest-quality video possible while allowing the video editor to scale the post-production pipeline to fit within their organization’s digital infrastructure.

Lack of infrastructure

In a similar vein to an in-house video team dependent on a non-video infrastructure is the in-house video team without an infrastructure. This is the situation in which multiple editors are working on a large project, but they’re stuck with video editing suites that are confined to their local computer. The editors need to reference the same source footage, but there’s no pipeline or common storage for them to work from.

In this situation, transcoded proxies are much easier to place on each individual computer. It takes less time to set everyone on the team up and it keeps space available for other projects. An added benefit is that the source footage is safe on a drive separate from accident-prone team members.

On the go 

There are many commercially available laptops that are powerful enough to edit video. This is an excellent option for the video professional who is on the go or travels as a regular part of their role. The downside to this is that while laptops can readily handle video editing operations, they can’t always handle the footage that goes into them.

On the whole, proxies allow you to work on the go. This way, you can quickly respond to your clients and fit more projects into your calendars. Once you return to your primary editing suite, you’re able to offload the edit and online the project. 

Multi-site post

Proxies are a technical solution that help editors transverse great distances. Post-production operations don’t have to be on-site, or even the same continent, to keep production moving. Large footage files that escalate into terabytes of storage are difficult and time consuming to transfer through the internet.

A remote production, or post-production facility, can create proxies to send digitally while the source files are delivered through physical media. The proxies help post-production to continue and keep the editor from waiting on the physical post. This can shave days off of a production schedule. 

Should you use proxies?

Proxies do require some additional setup time. They also require some forethought on the part of the editor who chooses to work with them. However, there are many situations in which proxies become a great time saver in the long run. They can help the individual editor who lacks the computing power or resources to work efficiently with large format files. Plus, they can help out a team that’s spread out over great distances. Proxies are nothing new, but they’re a great solution for new problems, including ones that have yet to be seen. 

Chris Ace Gates
Chris Ace Gates
Chris "Ace" Gates is a four time Emmy Award-winning writer and producer. He is a big fan of animation and transmedia storytelling.

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