I had an interesting discovery about Final Cut Studio today (FCS 3, FCP 7). I went and shot something with my HD camera in 1080/60i format with the idea of using it later in the SD NTSC timeline (the NTSC DV, to be exact). My camera shoots HD only, so I didn’t really have another option, and I naively thought, what the heck, it’ll just work. Well, not so fast…

First of all, my camera’s real-time downscaled RCA output to NTSC for some reason looked pretty bad compared to that of native DV cameras on the same shoot. Bummer. So I tried to drop my HD footage into the DV timeline to replace the bad looking clips. To my utter disappointment, the HD footage in Final Cut looked horrible, even worse than the RCA feed.WTF?

So, after a number of hours and extensive tests, here’s what I finally concluded.

First, my RCA output is not that bad after all. Even my horribly outdated DV palmcorder digitized a decent picture from that output. Something must have gone wrong in the switch board somewhere down the line. Screw that, not my problem anymore.

Next, Final Cut only displays the scaled-down frame badly, but on export the frame is actually good. Better than going through in-camera RCA and external DV recorder. And fast. Contrary to many online complaints, Final Cut is smart about downscaling interlaced footage, so you actually get a true interlaced downscaled version of each frame. Or maybe they fixed it in the latest version – either way, it works for me.

What’s weirder, if you convince Final Cut that your clip requires rendering (orange/red bar instead of green), and your rendering quality is set to High, then the frame in preview will look as good as in the final render. Go figure…

A couple of words about working with interlaced footage in Final Cut. You should be aware that any time the preview scales the frame, it effectively de-interlaces the image. So, if you did something wrong and mistakenly de-interlaced your footage (e.g. ran it through Compressor with the wrong settings – see below), then you may not notice it until way later. And even worse, if by mistake you flipped your fields, the result will still look fine in Final Cut, but totally unwatchable on TV.

To avoid the disaster, check your clips: set the viewer to 100% and look for movement. In a properly interlaced clip, you will see the “jagged” lines – that’s a good sign.  I also apply the “de-interlace” filter and check which field is displayed first – this is crucial for matching the field order. DV NTSC must show upper field first, while 1080/60i apparently shows lower field first, so they have to be flipped (filter “Shift fields” – FCP applied it automatically for me).

Finally, if you really want to go for quality, Compressor can do a splendid job downscaling interlaced footage, but ONLY with Frame Control enabled, and ONLY with “Deinterlace” option set to “Best (Motion Compensated)”. This takes about  a year to convert half an hour of footage, but the results look really good. Oh, and remember to set the “Crop to” option to 4:3 (in Geometry section) if needed; otherwise you’ll get an anamorphic 16:9 DV clip.

Happy downconverting!