Choosing the Right Version of ProRes

As of this writing, there are six flavors of ProRes for you to choose from for editing your projects. They are as follows:

  • ProRes 422 HQ
  • ProRes 422
  • ProRes 422 LT
  • ProRes 422 Proxy
  • ProRes 4444
  • ProRes 4444 XQ

I know when I first looked at that I asked myself “Why they hell are there so many?” It turns out they all do serve a unique purpose and aren’t just there to make your import/export process a nightmare. Before we get into how they’re different, let’s take a peek at how they’re the same. They all share these characteristics:

  • Variable bit rate (VBR) encoding — This basically means that scenes with less pixel information (due to low-light or little motion, for instance) will have a lower bitrate than their vivid, high-motion counterparts. You may be familiar with similar techniques used on MP3 or AAC audio tracks.
  • 10-bit color/pixel depth — Your images will display colors accurately and with super high fidelity
  • 4:2:2 chroma subsampling — I won’t get too much into the specifics of this one, but just understand it’s a compression method that focuses on reducing the amount of bandwidth allotted to the chroma (color) channel. JPEG image compression uses a very similar technique.
  • Intra-frame encoding — Each frame of your video is encoded and decoded independently of the ones around it
  • SD, HD, 2K, 4K and even 5K frame sizes are preserved at full resolution
  • One of the only codecs optimized for multiple processors

The only one that differs is the one with the extra digit: ProRes 4444. With this version, you get all of the great stuff listed above AND the following:

  • Preserved color spaces for both RGB and YCbCr source material
  • 12-bit color/pixel depth
  • Alpha Channel support

Then we have the brand spanking new ProRes 4444 XQ, which has all of the above with this gem:

  • Target data rate of approximately 500 Mbps for 4:4:4 sources at 1920x1080 and 29.97 fps 

Prior to ProRes 4444, if you wanted Alpha Channel Transparency, you had to use Apple’s Animation codec. The Animation codec is great for compositing or motion graphics, but when you add full-frame video the file sizes become astronomical. ProRes 4444 maintains transparency and keeps file sizes slightly more manageable. The best of both worlds.

So, after reading all of the above, you may be tempted to just select ProRes 4444 for all of your projects going forward and bask in the comfort of knowing you’re using one of the most superior editing codecs on the planet. That would probably work out great for you up until you’re on your 189th external hard drive purchase to store all of your footage. Like the title suggests, my goal is to get you to select the right version of ProRes given your circumstances, so here we go.

Know Your Gear. Know Your Project.

It’s pretty easy for me to know what version of ProRes to select based on these two factors alone. Was your footage shot on a DSLR with no need for alpha transparency? Well you can immediately take ProRes 4444 (XQ) and ProRes 422 HQ off the list, then whittle down from there. Was your footage shot on a RED, Blackmagic, ARRI, or Sony cinema camera? You’re most probably looking at ProRes 422 HQ or higher to maintain high bitrates and color fidelity.

Apple has posted an excellent white paper (PDF link) which is what I referred back to when writing this blog post. It’ll act as an excellent reference for viewing the target data rates and determining which flavor to choose.

It's worth noting that nearly every external recorder on the market currently allows you to choose not only ProRes as your codec, but the specific type to use for recording. I believe the ARRI ALEXA is the only camera to currently record directly to ProRes 4444, though I'd very much appreciate any clarification on this.

My Recommendations

Due to the fact that there are so many combinations of frame size, resolution, color depth, and more, these are by no means definitive answers to the question of what codec to choose, but I’ll try to help and give examples based on my own experience working with certain types of footage and equipment.

ProRes 4444 XQ — If you're working with the ARRI ALEXA, which shoots ProRes 4444 XQ natively with an additional module, or anything that captures 12-bit (or higher) RAW like a RED, a Blackmagic camera or a Canon 5D3 running Magic Lantern that requires the highest possible quality for digital compositing, special effects, or heavy color grading, choose this option. I doubt anyone working outside of very large theatrical or television productions would need this.

ProRes 4444 — If maintaining 12-bit color depth is something you require or know you’ll be keying out certain colors throughout the edit, choose this one. The most obvious types of footage to use in this circumstance would be anything shot against a green screen.

ProRes 422 HQ — Same as above basically without the alpha channel. In my experience, you’d need a hell of an eye to tell the difference between ProRes 4444 and ProRes 422 HQ.

ProRes 422 — Here’s where I believe most people will end up. If you’re shooting on a modern DSLR or Mirrorless camera that provides an uncompressed signal over HDMI (hopefully with a higher bit-depth straight from the sensor), you'll have an appreciably better picture by choosing this codec.

ProRes 422 LT — I easily recommend this codec for anyone shooting on DSLRs, especially if you're shooting 4K with something like the Atomos Shogun. Your camera's internal codec will have a compressed data rate of anywhere from 20Mbps to 70mbps (usually variable). ProRes 422 LT aims for 102Mbps, which still looks great if you're getting a sensor readout over HDMI and will serve you much better in post, especially while color grading. You’ll also save a pretty hefty amount of disk space going this route.

ProRes 422 Proxy — This format is great for cutting dailies or doing offline editing. It’s also great for editing footage on a low-power laptop. Most training materials from places like Lynda or Total Training provide the footage in ProRes 422 Proxy format. Definitely not recommended as a start-to-finish solution.

That's How You Do It

It’s been really interesting to see ProRes mature and gain traction in the professional field over the past few years. It’s become more and more of a de-facto standard as it makes the process of moving right into post-production that much easier.