What file format plays the fastest in After Effects?

September 2, 2016

Ever wondered which image sequence format After Effects truly “prefers”?

I use that word in quotations because it’s not so much about it preferring a format, as it’s more about what format offers the best file size to RAM preview speed ratio. It’s also recognizing that After Effects must read any compression that is applied to compressed formats. After Effects would prefer to skip this step and read the file brute force (uncompressed) and is much faster when skipping that step. Problem is, no one wants to fill their precious solid state drives with uncompressed image sequences. Thus the dilemma.

First off, let me start by saying that if you are rendering out of C4D and you plan on doing any color grading or compositing to your images, I recommend the EXR format in Half Float. This format has the best color fidelity and is relatively small compared to similar bit depth formats. It can also hold multi-channel data all in one easy to use format.

Secondly, if you are rendering Quicktimes or other encapsulated movie formats out of C4D, please stop. There’s a litany of reasons why this is bad, but just take it from me, you don’t want to experience any of them first-hand.

Thirdly, always avoid “Lossy” compressions when you can. Lossy compressions like JPG can really make a mess of things. Sure it’s small, but at a big price of fidelity and compression artifacts. Always opt for “Lossless” compression when possible. Lossless will compress the file with no artifacts or loss of color fidelity.

Ok, so this tutorial was inspired by a conversation that was taking place on Twitter about frame formats. I had mentioned that the best format IMO when rendering out of C4D was Open Exr. I also mentioned in that tweet that if you don’t need to render out full floating point color images and need to render out an 8bit format, that PNG was my go to. This sparked a big discussion on what 8bit format does After Effects play back the fastest and which format has the smallest file size. I quickly created this semi-scientific video to see what was what. I hope you get some clarity and start rendering out the best format for you.



 

30 Comments
  • Interesting post. When you grade with exr and half float do you find you use different tools that when you use 8bit? Always found the 32 bit mode of after effects a bit confusing, certainly with working colour spaces. In 8bit i used to just grade with curves and levels but 32 bit doesn’t seem to respond quite the same. Do you still grade with curves and levels in 32 bit or use tools more like exposure?

    Thanks for this though, super insightful

    • Peter, thanks for the comment! I grade with the exact same tools in 32,16, and 8bit. Though I will say that I rarely am grading in an 8bit comp. Perhaps I should do a video explaining when working in 8,16,or 32bit comps is a good idea. Adding it to my list.

  • Do you reco ProEXR from fnord, or something else? I’d like to start using OpenEXRs more, but not sure which reader/opener I should invest in. Thanks!

    • That sort of depends on where you are opening EXRs and what renderer you are using out of C4D. For instance, Octane ships with a photoshop plugin that allows you to open your multichannel exrs in photoshop. The makers of Extractor also make a photoshop plugin that works very well.

      If After Effects is your destination, I’m afraid you have to use Extractor. I’m not aware of any third party EXR import tools for AE.

      hope this helps and thanks for the comment!

  • Thanks for taking this to a scientific level! I’ve thought about this a lot during big 10K projects (for projection mapping) and sometimes go through revisions for a few weeks before even rendering to a good format.

    I’m also curious if maybe compositing and color correcting would slow down certain formats more than others. Such as an exr with lots of object buffers and compositing vs a png with the same. Maybe one is good for single pass with color correction and no compositing, and another is good for lots of layers but not color correction! I know i’m getting deep nerd here, but in situations where a 1/4 res ram preview takes 30 minutes it could really save me some time!

    • Great comment Tim! I’ve been there with large formats. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t use AE for tasks like this anymore. I gravitate towards Fusion or Nuke. They are much better suited to handle these large format projects.

      Here is something that may help you. Proxies. Try creating smaller, lighter versions of your renders and use them as proxies. Many times when you are working on a large format job, you hardly ever need to see your frames at 100% until closer to delivery. Creating a 1/3 size version of your renders and loading them as proxies may help speed you up. You can also bounce back and fourth from proxy to full res very easily.

      The best advice I can give you though is to start considering a node based compositing app for this type of work. You won’t regret it. Try Fusion by Black Magic. They have a great free version to learn on.

      thanks for the comment!

      -chad

  • Chad, thanks very much for this awesome deep-dive here. We need more hardcore nerdery like this!

    One question about multi-channel EXRs: I was in the habit of using that format for all my multipass C4D renders, but found that pulling out all those channels in AE with the EXtractoR effect brought my workstation to its knees. I’ve since switched back to using single-layer formats (like TIFFs or PNGs) for all my multipasses, but of course then you end up with a bajillion separate files that ALSO bog things down in AE, at least to some degree.

    In your experience and testing, is there a happy medium to be found when dealing with multipasses?

    Thanks again!

  • I am new to using C4D an AE. Do you have a best-practices video for using the two? And is there a video that tell why not to use Quicktime. I guess I’m old-school from my Avid and FCP days.

    Thanks,

    Dan

    • Hi Dan,

      Chad will surely give you better reasons, but to me it is because if your render crashes midway and you haven’t saved every single rendered frame you’ll lose everything and you’ll need to start over from scratch!

      This is something I learned the hard way working on BAD computers during my school days, when crashes were hourly appointments 🙂

      • Hi Dan! Thanks for the comment…listen to Giovanni here. He is correct. Quicktimes are a great format for getting work into FCP or PP (or the internet). Think of them as an intermediary format. A format. Hope this helps!

  • Hi Chad,

    thanks so much for the scientific and documented approach you have in your tuts, it’s extremely more helpful and informative than hearing “do this because yes”… this kind of technical and TESTED knowledge is pure gold for us little freelancers!

    What I wanted to ask is: what’s your “next step” suggested format? For example, what do you render out of AE to send to PP/FC for editing? I usually go with ProRes422/4444 depending on the need for an alpha channel, are there better (less disk hungry – same quality – same speed) formats? Thanks!

    • Great question Giovanni! What format do I output for editorial from AE?

      Honestly, I’ve always asked the editor what file format they would prefer. I’ve worked with enough editors to know they all have their favorites. If I’m the one doing the edit in PP, I usually do an Animation Codec Quicktime and let PP render it. I must admit though, this is probably not the most efficient method. I guess it’s a good thing I hardly ever edit my own work. 😉 I work on a PC so doing ProRes quicktimes has always been troublesome. Anyone out there have a method for getting rendered work from AE into PP? Let’s discuss! Love the comments keep’em coming!

      • Working as a freelancer editing my own work is an absolute need, and I have to admit I also love editing… but I understand your statement, you get sentimental about your shots and it can be bad 😀

        Anyway for prores on windows I use Miraizon ProRes codecs: while Animation made sense for shots with an alpha channel, I really felt the need for a smaller 422 format most of the times (doing the compositing/vfx in AE, it’s actually pretty rare for me to need an alpha channel in PP: I mainly use PR4444 for graphic overlays / lower thirds / similar stuff – as an alternative for saving disk space I render out .png sequences, but I’m lazy and do really prefer to deal with as few files as possible).

        I chose that because I loved how PP handles prores on OSX and wanted to go the safe and known way, but honestly I never did any performance test on a PC… maybe someone here has and will make me go back to Animation 😀 !

        • PS. I also bothered for a while with Avid codecs, which are free, but I could’t get accurate colors once in PP no matter what I did!

      • i also now work on a PC, i create a lot of graphics in c4d and AE that are moved over to a premiere pro edit, almost always with an alpha. During the last few years, i’ve experimented with many codecs, from QT animation, the miraizon prores codecs, lagarith, ut video, avid’s DNxHR/HD (which i’ve NEVER been able to make work) and have recently settled on using the lossless magicYUV codec. which is available for windows and mac, offers 10 bit support, and has been the best, least troublesome cross-platform codec in my workflow.

      • From AE into PP, I sometimes use bridge and bring the AE comp straight into PP using Dynamic link – otherwise I’ll export a PNG sequence from AE into Premiere.

  • Great video Chad!! Thanks!!

  • Great video! Thank you Chad 🙂

    I can see that you switched from macOS to Windows, so did I some weeks ago. But I am having a hard time getting comfortable in Windows :/ Do you have any tips and trix swiching? For example, I used to render out Quicktime ProRes 4444 from AE on Mac, do you have any suggestion of a good Windows format? And the Windows file explorer is terrible… any tips there? (missing the column view in Finder) And what video player are you using?

    Missing Mac…

  • Hi,

    I’m having trouble importing DPX sequence from C4D into AE CC 2017. Can you tell me what render settings you used out of Cinema? Thanks.

  • Benjamin Markus May 2, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    Hey Chad,

    This was a very informative video. However, I’m curious if you’ve ever done any tests regarding which Digital Intermediate or Master formats render the fastest out of After Effects?

    For example, last week at our studio, we had to deliver a very heavy 4K comp out of After Effects ASAP, using VC Orb, and the client had asked for a ProRes4444 master (No Alpha) at Trillions of Colors. It was going to take all day on my colleague’s machine, so I suggested we try and use all 4 of the machines we had available. They’re all pretty hefty towers with something like 6-Core Intel Xeon 6128 processors, 128GB of RAM and two 1080TIs in each. I realize the GPUs wouldn’t make a difference in most AE scenarios, but in this case I’m pretty sure VC Orb utilizes them, although maybe just for preview and not rendering.

    Anyhow, I suggested we try and use multi-machine rendering and send them all to the same folder on our server with skip-existing files selected, something I’ve done with great success in the past, although with no alternative. Anyhow, we chose to create a PNG sequence because, as you said in your video, it’s a small file size and great quality and we weren’t really gonna comp with it again, so playback speed wasn’t an issue. However, the render times out of each machine were excruciatingly longer than if we were rendering to ProRes4444 that we decided to just manually split up the comps and pre-render each part to a ProRes4444 mov and link them back together afterwards.

    This of course defeats the beauty of using all machines to render to an image sequence. The speed of using four machines and the peace of mind, that we could pick back up where we left off if one of the comps were interrupted, was lost. And, luckily none of the comps were interrupted otherwise we would’ve been in trouble.

    This also goes against my own logic as I would imagine a single PNG frame is far less compressed than a ProRes frame. If I were guessing I’d say it would take far less time to encode to PNG than to ProRes because it has to compress it and create the Quicktime. Alas, I’m no encoding wizard regarding render times and the details of codecs, so I thought I’d ask if you’d looked into this at all. For example I’m wondering if TIFF, DPX or Targa might render faster than PNG or will video codecs always be faster? Or, perhaps we’ll have to do our own tests.

    Either way, thanks for having a look if you’ve got time.

    Regards,

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