Field Test: ProRes RAW is a Legit Improvement
You don’t need RAW when it’s beautiful. You need it when it’s not.
In an ideal world, every single shot on set would be perfectly exposed, correctly color balanced, and would need only artistic touches in post. However, in reality, there are times when shots are just not properly exposed. Maybe the C camera operator forgot to set the menus correctly and you were only able to watch A and B camera. Maybe you lost light towards the end of the day but didn't have time to switch out from the zoom to the primes for that extra stop. Maybe someone just flat out made a mistake. But sometimes shots make it to post that are underexposed with the wrong color balance.
What if our footage isn't perfectly exposed? Isn't that really what we love about RAW workflow?
When ProRes RAW was first announced at NAB, it was exciting, but all of the test footage was perfectly exposed, which made us wonder: what if it wasn't? Isn't that really what we love about RAW workflow? The ability to fire up the "clip settings" in an application like a Resolve and change the color balance after the fact. While there are "white balance" features in many applications, it always looks better when you make those fixes to a raw shot than to a baked in ProRes file.
Final Cut Pro X, currently the only application that can open ProRes Raw, doesn't have a "clip" menu that allows for menu tweaks the way RED RAW is often implemented, but it does give you access to the full set of raw data when using the color tools. We wanted to know if there would be perks to raw for terrible footage. Thus we wanted to shoot terrible footage and put it through some paces as quickly as possible. Panasonic was nice enough to let us get our hands on one of the first supported cameras, the EVA1, to pair up with our Atomos Shogun Inferno.
In this hypothetical scenario, the operator (calling this hypothetical person a DP feels wrong) on this job had once heard "never clip video" and set their exposure to make sure the little Aputure LED in the lower left corner didn't clip. Which, as you can see from the shot below, would result in a wildly underexposed image. For fun, we also had this same imaginary set the white balance wrong, leaving the camera set to 3200 Kelvin while lighting with 6500K LEDs, since they had once heard "indoors always use 3200." It doesn't happen often, but it has happened.
We then fired up Final Cut Pro X to see what was recoverable. One thing to note is that we noticed the preview video for X inside the application was much darker than the image that appeared on our external broadcast monitor (in this case a SmallHD OLED). We decided to stick with using the internal monitor for these tests, since the point was comparing 422 vs RAW, and they both would be effectively identical by the internal monitor. However, it can't be repeated enough, to always use a broadcast monitor patched through something like a Blackmagic Mini Monitor to evaluate your image.
How Final Cut Pro X handles RAW
Final Cut Pro X handles RAW differently than you might be used to; there isn't a separate panel for RAW settings, it's all just accessed from the normal color wheels. While it wasn't intuitive at first if you've been doing RED Raw for the last decade in apps that had it tabbed, having only one set of color grading controls is actually much more intuitive than having color wheels on one tab and a "raw settings" tab for changing RAW processing.
Many users will find this to be an elegant way to access the power that RAW offers. It's one of those classic Apple moments where the focus on simplicity really does pay off. We have seen many novice colorists, or editors tweaking color themselves in a rush, fail to switch over to the RAW panel when needed, and by integrating the power of RAW into the standard color tools, better grades will result faster.
For the sake of this test, we stuck only to lift/gamma/gain controls for brightness, and the white balance tool for color. With time, and tweaking, the ProRes422 footage was surprisingly robust for how underexposed the source was. However, with just the basic brightness and color balance, there was still a slight blue cast in the 422 footage, especially in the shadows, which you can see in the image above.
In the image below, there is still noise (RAW isn't magic), but the color balance can be recovered much further than 422 allowed. A slight green cast appeared, but so small that it would easily be removable with tint. The image could be brightened more than the 422 allowed with about the same amount of artifacting, which is terribly noisy, but the image was many stops underexposed (at least 5), which will create noise when lifted.
The flesh to neutral (which is comparing how "neutral" colors look, like grey, compared to fleshtones) was much better with the raw as well, and it offered the possibility of better correction. Combine with something like Magic Bullet Denoiser, and some patience, and something could be recovered from the footage.
It's not a night and day difference. With time and with using all the tools available it's likely you could get close to the results of the RAW shot with the 422, but in post-production time is money, and RAW got there faster, with just a brightness and a quick drag of the "color balance" slider. It's super rare that anyone fails so spectacularly on set that a shot that dark would make it to post but our test scenario shot serves as a great demonstration that the footage does behave differently. The difference in the image was absolutely there, and frankly, when dealing with a multi-camera setup where one of the cameras was improperly set, this would be a huge plus for matching. Those small color differences matter, especially in the shadows, and we felt that RAW was appreciable in its benefits.
Worx 4 X
In another test, we used the popular media management tool Worx4 X from Marquis to see if it could create new ProRes RAW clips and it does. We aren't sure if this is something that was deliberately supported by Marquis, or if the new format is so similar to the old format that support is just something that works out of the box. In a future test, we want to experiment more with high dynamic range situations to see if RAW offers benefits there. Since it's the same bit depth as classic ProRes, it might not, but since it's RAW sensor data that hasn't been put in a video stream, it might, and we're excited to find out.
Benefits of ProRes RAW
ProRes RAW is an impressive technical innovation for giving post teams access to more flexible footage. If you have properly color balanced, perfectly exposed footage, PR Raw doesn't appear to offer a huge benefit, though the file sizes are roughly equivalent or slightly smaller than traditional ProRes 422 so it might be safer to switch over to shooting RAW all the time, especially since, working on a 2013 MacBook Pro Retina (NVIDIA card for the win) 4 RAW footage played just fine off an SSD, even with the color correction on. We had "better performance" selected, but never saw the quality drop noticeably. While you might not find yourself blown away by the benefits for all your perfect shots, that tricky shot that doesn't want to match will likely be easier to work with if shooting RAW.
How can you shoot ProRes RAW?
Atomos is in an interesting position. The company doesn't have its own camera or its own RAW format to promote, like ARRI and RED do, but it has to work with every camera manufacturer and have a RAW workflow solution. Thus it makes sense that Atomos was one of the first major vendors to provide a solution for capturing ProRes RAW, announced simultaneously along with the announcement from Apple. If you are shooting ground-based footage, and not holding an Inspire 2 in your hands, Atomos is the only way to capture ProRes RAW at the moment, and since capturing is the whole point of PRR, that’s a pretty big aspect of the new codec. So big that Apple even included an Atomos device in its announcements, which isn't something Apple does often.
But what the heck do we call it?
We are also left a bit with a nomenclature problem that we are hoping to address here. The kids are already calling ProRes4444 "Quatro" out on the West Coast and "4x4" here in New York City, but we are without slang for "plain old ProRes." Since ProRes is both the overall category, and also an entry in that category, it gets confusing. Someone asks "what did you shoot?" and you say "ProRes" and they ask "What flavor?" and you say "ProRes" and it's the post production equivalent of "Who's on first?"
Now that we have both "plain ProRes" and "plain ProRes RAW," the likelihood of confusion is extreme. While we assume most users will default to HQ because "they want the best," many users will test and see that plain ProRes RAW fits their workflow just fine, and confusion will ensue. To fix that, on the suggestion of Pliny at Endcrawl, we're going to go with "prime" as the bi-coastal slang for "plain vanilla" ProRes.
What's next for ProRes RAW?
The big remaining question many have about ProRes RAW is when this will roll out to other applications than FCPX. On the camera side, we know that Atomos is going to really push support for as many different platforms as possible. While only SDI cameras are putting out RAW for now, Atomos is ready to capture HDMI RAW when the manufacturers support it.
In terms of post, it's another question of how long this will take to expand to other platforms. If this was two years ago, we would guess that it would be a matter of months. At that time, Final Cut didn't have amazing grading tools, and Resolve wasn't aggressively trying to be an editing platform. However, in the last two years or so, Blackmagic has pushed hard for Resolve to be a competitive editor, Final Cut has worked hard on its grading tools, and Premiere has kept beefing up its finishing features.
We have absolutely no inside knowledge of what is coming next, but if we were going to guess, it'll be awhile before we see the ability to support ProRes RAW in other post-production apps. Back when FCP7 had enough market share to promote the use of ProRes, Apple was incentivized to open it up to all as a standard. From its current position, it doesn't seem like it makes as much sense. Apple would like pro users back, and the grading power and lightweight file size ProRes RAW is a compelling reason to give the software another look.