smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#48 Is ProRes video recording coming to the next iPhone and is it a big deal? — 30. August 2021

#48 Is ProRes video recording coming to the next iPhone and is it a big deal?

ProRes logo and iPhone12 Pro Max image: Apple.

One of the things that always surprised me about Apple’s mobile operating system iOS (and now also iPadOS) was the fact that it wasn’t able to work with Apple’s very own professional video codec ProRes. ProRes is a high-quality video codec that gives a lot of flexibility for grading in post and is easy on the hardware while editing. Years ago I purchased the original Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera which can record in ProRes and I was really looking forward to having a very compact mobile video production combo with the BMPCC (that, unlike the later BMPCC 4K/6K was actually pocketable) and an iPad running LumaFusion for editing. But no, iOS/iPadOS didn’t support ProRes on a system level so LumaFusion couldn’t either. What a bummer.

Most of us will be familiar with video codecs like H.264 (AVC) and the more recent H.265 (HEVC) but while these have now become ubiquitous “all-in-one” codecs for capturing, editing and delivery of video content, this wasn’t always so. Initially, H.264 was primarily meant to be a delivery codec for a finished edit. It was not supposed to be the common editing codec – and for good reason: The high compression rate required powerful hardware to decode the footage when editing. I can still remember how the legacy Final Cut Pro on my old Mac was struggling with H.264 footage while having no problems with other, less compressed codecs. The huge advantage of H.264 as a capturing codec however is exactly the high compression because it means that you can record in high resolution and for a long time while still having relatively small file sizes which was and still is crucial for mobile devices where storage is precious. ProRes is basically the opposite: You get huge file sizes for the same recording but it’s less taxing on the editing hardware because it’s not as heavily compressed as H.264. From a quality standpoint, it’s capturing more and better color information and is therefore more robust and flexible when you apply grading in post production.

Very recently, Marc Gurman published a Bloomberg article that claims (based on info from inside sources) that the next flagship iPhone will have the ability to capture video with the ProRes codec. This took me quite by surprise given the aforementioned fact that iOS/iPadOS doesn’t even “passively” support ProRes at this point but if it turns out to be true, this is quite a big deal – at least for a certain tribe among the mobile video creators crowd, namely the mobile filmmakers. 

I’m not sure so-called “MoJos” (mobile journalists) producing short current news reports on smartphones would necessarily have to embrace ProRes as their new capture codec since their workflow usually involves a fast turn-around without spending significant time on extensive color grading, something that ProRes is made for. The lighter compression of ProRes might also not be such a big deal for them since recent iPhones and iPads can easily handle 4K multi-track editing of H.264/H.265 encoded footage. On the other hand, the downside of ProRes, very big file sizes, might actually play a role for MoJos since iPhones don’t support the use of SD cards as exchangeable and cheap external storage. Mobile filmmakers however might see this as a game-changer for their line of work, as they usually offload and back-up their dailies externally before going back on set and also spend a significant amount of time in post with grading later on.

Sure, if you are currently shooting with an app like Filmic Pro and use their “Filmic Extreme” bitrate, ProRes bitrates might not even shock you that much but the difference to standard mobile video bitrates is quite extreme nonetheless. To be more precise, the ProRes codec is not a single standard but comes in different flavors (with increasing bitrate): ProRes Proxy, ProRes LT, ProRes 422 (the “422” indicates its chroma subsampling), ProRes 422 HQ, ProRes 4444, ProRes 4444 XQ. ProRes 422 can probably be regarded as the “standard” ProRes. If we look at target bitrates for 1080p FHD in this case, it’s 122 Mbit/s for 25fps and 245Mbit/s for 50fps. Moving on to UHD/4K things are really getting enormous with 492Mbit/s for 25fps and 983Mbit/s for 50fps. A 1-minute clip of ProRes 422 UHD 25fps footage would be 3.69GB, A 1-minute clip of ProRes 422 UHD 50fps would be 7.37GB. It’s easy to see why limited internal storage can easily and quickly become a problem here if you shoot lots of video. So I personally would definitely consider it a great option to have but not exactly a must for every job and situation. Of course I would expect ProRes also to be supported for editing within the system from then on. For more info on the ProRes codec and its bitrates, check here.

At this point the whole thing is however NOT officially confirmed by Apple but only (informed) speculation and until recently I would have heavily doubted the probability of this actually happening. But the fact that Apple totally out of the blue introduced the option to record with a PAL frame rate in the native camera app earlier this year, something that by and large only video pros really care about, gives me the confidence that Apple might actually pull this off for real, maybe in the hope of luring in well-known filmmakers that boost the iPhone’s reputation as a serious filmmaking tool. What do you guys think? Will it really happen and would it be a big deal for you?

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