Speed Up Your Video Workflow with Rob Adams
As a child of the ’80s, I recall a time when having 64KB of RAM was a huge deal. Not megabytes. I’m talking about kilobytes. That’s about the size of a few text documents today. Having that much RAM was amazing at the time because it gave the user access to a more robust system with which to create, well, more lines of text, which equaled more lines of code and more complex actions. In that context, today’s computers are nothing less than a technological miracle. The human mind of 1983 couldn’t even articulate terabytes’ worth of storage, quad-core processors and RAM upwards of 32 gigs of RAM. Even the Space Shuttle, which was outfitted with the most advanced computer tech on the planet in 1983, had less processing power than today’s digital alarm clocks.
We should feel so fortunate as content creators that we are anointed with the ability to wield such awesome computing power. So why the hell are we so outraged when our computers lag? We’re spoiled children. We know what we want because we’ve seen it a certain way and we want it like that. Now. It’s the degradation of the human emotional position in a postmodern, fast-evolving world that can be described as a high-pressure digital water main in which we are all being gushed through as a society. Video production offers us the chance to act out our worst behaviors when technological limits or the size of our wallets prohibits us from having the fastest computing technology available. So how do we cope with the dreaded adage “Make the best of what you’ve got”?
Digital video workflows can be complex, but there are some simple things you can do to speed up whatever system you may be using to get the most processing and pipeline power for not only your buck but for what you’re running under the hood right now. Let’s take a look at a few things that will help your video editing move more fluidly and give you less trouble overall.
- Assess your system and upgrade where you can.
This is simply a matter of money. If you can afford to upgrade your RAM or step up into a faster, newer computer, this will always help, and it’s the most obvious way to keep pace with the increasing demands of today’s new video tech.
Chances are the computer you are running right now is not maxed out with memory. Upgrading your RAM is a quick, simple way to speed up your system’s video handling capability. It allows the processors to take larger chunks of binary information at one time, increasing read-write speeds and reducing lag time between process requests. In layman’s terms, you’ll see fewer spinning circles and beachballs. RAM is cheap, relatively speaking; for only a couple hundred dollars, you may be able to max out your hardware’s available memory banks.
Today’s most popular professional video editing applications and operating systems make use of as much RAM as you feed them, so this is always a good first step. If you are a PC-based user, another way to increase video handling performance is to upgrade your system’s graphics processing unit (GPU). Purchase a new video card for about the same price for bigger muscles when playing back, rendering and manipulating video files. Coupled with a RAM upgrade, this is a surefire one-two punch that will kick your video editing power into another gear.
Always check your system’s compatibility requirements when upgrading. Check the dealer’s website to ensure you are buying the correct type of RAM or a video card that will work with your current configuration. A little bit of research or even a live chat with a dealer representative is a great place to ensure the right move. I buy RAM sticks from Crucial.com, OtherWorldComputing.com and Newegg.com. They all have RAM compatibility resources that ask you for your system model and then match you with a list of compatible products. Of course, you could always take your system into your local Apple Store or PC dealer to ensure success. Just be prepared to pay a premium.
- Faster drives = faster editing.
Having a fast computer isn’t the end all/be all of building a screaming video machine. A lot of it has to do with drive speed. Several years ago, the only types of drives that were available were internal eSATA or IDE hard drives that contained a spinning disc and moving needle. These were and still are finite in their read-write access speeds. This is because the read-write speed is based on how fast the disc can spin and how fast the little needle can move on top of it. Now we have flash storage, which is considerably faster and safer. They aren’t as delicate and are lightning fast. We also have the added benefit of RAID-configured drives to make accessing and writing data turbo-fast, while at the same time protecting the data with redundancy.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of hard drives and how they correlate to video production.
Internal Physical Drive
These are the most common type of hard drives you find in stock store-bought computers. Drive spin speeds are commonly 5400rpm. Editing video off of a drive like this is possible but not optimal. In an older system, it would be a dreadful experience trying to push HD video. We will get to exactly why in just a moment. If you have no other choice but to use your computer’s internal hard drive for video media storage and editing, and you can’t afford to splurge on a solid-state drive, you should consider swapping out that stock 5400rpm drive for a 7200rpm hard drive.
This will offer marked improvement in read-write speeds and make the overall experience a bit less frustrating. Of course, this depends on how heavy your video files are and what exactly you are asking the computer to do with those files. There are 10,000rpm physical disc drives, but if you’re going to spend that kind of money, you may want to consider a solid-state drive.
Solid State Drive (SSD)
These drives are boss. You also need to be the boss to afford them. Buying one with enough storage space to fit most video production storage and editing needs will make a nice dent in the bankroll. But if you are serious about your video workflow, this is the way to go.
Flash storage is not subject to physical disk limitations and operates solely on electrical current to read and write data. They are remarkably fast and reliable. Space versus cost tends to be the biggest issue.
It is worth noting at this point that keeping your video media on the same drive that houses your video editing application is not recommended. For example, if you have a 1TB internal hard drive or SSD, you will want to work with your video files on a separate drive, either internal or external. It doesn’t matter which, just as long as it’s a separate drive. This is so the data can be accessed much faster without the application itself competing with the read-write speed needs of the drive serving the media. Serious production houses use very fast servers to feed the editing computers the media to speed up editing. However, if you are going to use one drive for both application and media storage, an SSD is the right choice.
External RAID Server
RAID stands for “redundant array of independent disks.” Simply put, a RAID system is two or more hard drives or SSDs linked together to offer more speed, security or both. A RAID built for speed spreads your video media across multiple drives for faster handling and access. You are now using multiple drives to access the same amount of data.
The power and speed with which the video data can be accessed and then fed to the video editing application is increased exponentially with each new drive used in the RAID configuration. To illustrate this: A 6TB RAID-0 system uses two 3TB drives to create 6TB of total storage. Each 3TB drive contains part of the video data. It’s like having two horses instead of one pulling the same carriage. Add more drives and you add more speed. A RAID-1 configuration is slightly different. It uses the additional drives to keep duplicate copies of your data for added safety. All of the hard drives in a RAID-1 are mirrored so if one goes down, the others still contain the media files in their entirety.
There is no speed benefit to a RAID-1 system, but if safety is more important to you, this is a smart choice. I edit using a RAID-0 setup of multiple drives built for speed. This is my “scratch disk,” meaning it’s just a work drive. I copy the files I’m going to edit onto my LaCie 2BIG 6TB RAID server for editing, but I always have additional copies of those original files in other places for safe keeping.
There are a few other types of RAID configurations that offer both speed and security, so ask your dealer if this is best for you. RAIDs are typically made up of physical spinning hot-swappable hard drives, but they can be built with SSDs if you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars to burn. Settle for nothing less than 7200rpm drives in your RAID—10,000rpm drives if you’re a baller.
External Hard and SSD Drives
These are the most common types of external hard drives. They plug into your computer via USB or an Apple Thunderbolt connection, and offer the ability to store and edit video externally.
As with internal drives, physical hard drives are the slowest, and if you are trying to edit video off of a 5400rpm USB external spinning drive, you are probably going to run into some speed issues. Spend a little more and get an external SSD or a drive that offers a Thunderbolt connection (for Mac users only). These tend to be 7200rpm at a minimum and offer a good portable option. LaCie makes a palm-sized RAID drive called the LaCie Little Big Disc, which offers RAID-0 or RAID-1 with a Thunderbolt connection for data transfer speeds up to 10Gbit. That’s fast for a portable external hard drive.
Remember, keep your video media on this and your editing application on your computer’s internal hard drive for the best results.
Fusion drives are a hybrid between a physical spinning disk drive and flash storage. The flash storage part is mainly used to feed the media data to the host system, increasing read-write speeds. They are a more affordable option than standard SSDs. They are far better than standard logical drives, and at half the cost of a pure SSD.
Consider the connection to your computer also. Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 are currently the fastest consumer and prosumer connection interface between external peripherals and the editing computer system. Next is USB 3.0. Then Firewire 800, which is all but extinct and not even being built into the latest computers. If you have an old iMac or MacBook Pro that has FireWire 800, you should definitely be using this over old USB 2.0. Better yet, just upgrade your internal hard drive to an SSD, and you’ll be right as rain.
All of these upgraded hard drive options are a step up from what your stock system currently has, and having a faster drive coupled with more RAM internally will speed up your video processing power.
- Proxy Your Media
If you find your computer lagging constantly as you try to edit your HD video, and even a RAM upgrade and faster drive isn’t helping that much, you should probably consider dropping the quality of your media for editing. This is called proxying or “offline” editing. You can easily create lower-resolution proxy media in Final Cut Pro X. If you’re an Adobe Premiere Pro or Sony Vegas user, you can use Adobe Media Encoder or Apple Compressor to create proxy versions of all of your original video files, then edit using those.
Working with reduced-resolution video files makes cutting and manipulating your media much easier on your system. You can cut your entire video using the low-quality proxy media, and, with a few clicks (only one click if you are using FCPX), you can easily reconnect your high-quality original media once you are ready to finalize and export.
Keep in mind that if you plan on doing any sort of color grading or adding filters to your clips, you need to use the original media because you won’t have access to the media’s highest bitrate and color space when using proxied clips. I use proxy when editing 4K UHD media on my laptop when I’m on the road, and then reconnect the original media back at home in front of my monster editing system.
There’s no shame in proxying, and it can save you thousands in hardware upgrades to boot. For more information, do a simple Google search and you’ll get a crash course in seconds.
- Save the Filters for Later
One of the most common mistakes I see new video editors make is they pile on all sorts of effects and transitions and filters too soon. The more crap you add to your clips and your project timeline, the harder your system is going to have to work to process everything you are asking it to do.
The best editors build their story and make their primary cuts first. They lay out the entire video with no bells and whistles. They don’t even make the audio sound any better. At the end, when you have what we call “picture lock,” meaning that no major changes will be made to the overall final cut, we add video color correction, color grading, noise reduction, sharpening, effects filters, digital compositing, titles and a final audio mix with its own set of sound effects, manipulations and filters.
Saving all of that stuff for the final render will save you much of your system’s performance power to do the real heavy lifting of making your video narrative awesome. If you find your system getting extremely bogged down when you apply filters, consider a hardware upgrade and faster drives.
- Optimize Your Media and Know Your System Settings
Today’s video editing applications can pretty much handle it all if your system is fast enough. You can dump all kinds of mixed video footage onto a project timeline. Different frame rates, large and small frame sizes, various aspect ratios and codecs—the program will likely handle it. It doesn’t mean it will handle it well.
The best thing you can do is make sure that the video media you are working with is uniform and matches the project timeline settings for your particular application. There are some exceptions, but overall, you want to make sure your video editing application knows what to expect from the video files it’s working with.
For example, video files that come out of a DSLR camera are not traditionally in an “editable” format. They can be edited natively or in their original state, but you will get much better system performance and application cooperation with footage that has been transcoded or rewrapped into a file format that is more industry standard. Converting your DSLR video files from their native h.264 to Apple ProRes 422 will help your system process the codec more smoothly, especially on older systems.
A maxed-out newer system may not even flinch at native h.264, but if you are having lagging issues and application crashes, consider optimizing your footage. Once again, FCPX has made this extremely easy by offering this service inside the application with just two or three strokes of the mouse. If you are mixing frame rates, consider conforming all of your footage to a uniform standard ahead of editing. This decreases the amount of required rendering while editing, and improves the overall speed of your system.
Lastly, ensure that your video project timeline is set for the frame rate and type of video file you are working with. If your video files are 1920 x 1080 at 23.98fps in Apple ProRes, your project timeline settings should be the same. Most video editing applications prompt you when you add footage for the first time to a timeline and confirm the timeline settings to the parameters of your footage. Check anyway.
I know the frustration that comes with every stage of video editing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over 20 years of creating videos, it’s this: Having an optimized, organized workflow keeps you sane even when your computer is not.
Check out my video for a closer look at how Final Cut Pro X makes optimizing and proxying your video for editing a headache-free experience.