What is Round-tripping, and How do you design a Round-tripping Workflow?

Most post production workflows fall within three major groups:

Types of directo editing workflows

The media card represents either a media card (duh) or a signal from a camera (via HDMI, SDI, etc.). Lets call this the Source.

The simplest workflow (the first one in the image) is recording and editing in-camera, and then saving the final video to a hard drive directly, without using any software in between. The hard drive represents the final video, the Master.

The second workflow involves the use of software between the source and the master. The data from the card or camera has to be fed, captured or ingested into an application. Usually this is either an:

  • NLE, or a
  • Production Switcher/Vision Mixer (for live programs), or an
  • Encoder (or Transcoder)

Obviously there are no limits here, but the assumption is: the single application (software) – which I call the Primary Application – can handle everything you might want to accomplish with your workflow.

When more than one application is required, you get the third workflow. E.g., moving from an NLE to a color-grading or VFX app, etc. Every subsequent application is called the Secondary Application. I call it ‘Secondary’ because you are forced to use a Primary Application before you can use the Secondary Application.

There can be unlimited secondary applications in a workflow, and many sources or masters. E.g., you can have footage shot directly, or stock footage bought from a library, or CGI, etc. – all of these are sources, and can come into the workflow at any point. Similarly, you can render many masters for each delivery type. For simplicity though, I use the term ‘Master’ to signify the one which has the best quality, and which is the true and ultimate representation of your work.

A reminder: I use these terms to simplify your understanding. It does not mean the ‘industry’ uses them the way I do (if at all). Let’s keep this between ourselves.

What gets moved?

How does one move a project between applications? Here are a few methods, generalized:

  • By Rendering – You render to one file format, and then ingest that into the secondary app. E.g., you render DPX from your NLE and import into your color-grading suite.
  • By Instructing – You produce an ‘Instruction-file’ that carries instructions on how to use footage. E.g., EDLs, XML, AAF, etc. These are simply a list of instructions that both apps understand.
  • By Porting – You open the project file from the primary app as-is in the secondary app. E.g., you can open Premiere Pro projects in After Effects, and so on.

In all these methods, you might have noticed one constant theme: You ideally don’t want to change the source material. When you do, as in the first case, you try to preserve the best quality possible.

My preference is in this order:

  • Porting
  • Instructing
  • Rendering

Simplifying workflows is always to your best advantage. Some people get hung up on manufacturers, operating systems or software. “I’m a fan.” or “I’ve always used this.” or “The other guy is the devil.” or whatever. You know what? These companies are businesses, and will drop you in less than a second if you threatened their bottom line. You don’t owe them loyalty, only goodwill. If they can’t fulfill your workflow, and make it tough on you, find something else that makes your life easier.

I will never recommend or endorse a workflow that is based on vendor-loyalty.

What is Round-tripping?

Is round-tripping the fourth kind of workflow? Let’s see:

Roundtrip Workflow

Round-tripping means having to return to the primary application after you’ve been to the secondary application(s).

Round-tripping is a compromise at best. This is why many NLEs include color-grading and VFX plug-ins, so that an editor can try to do as much as possible within it (the primary application).

Of course, secondary applications are important, but it always sucks to have to come back after having taken a detour.

Again, the question arises: What moves? The same as listed above, really. You either render, port or instruct.

Wait a minute. If you’ve noticed, round-tripping is nothing but a special case of the third workflow. You can always treat the primary application as a secondary application. It deserves no special treatment.

So, how do you design round-tripping workflows?

Answer: The same way you design any other workflow. You follow these simple guidelines:

  • Aim to use the least number of applications.
  • Choose your primary application, and the order of your secondary applications.
  • Your primary application revisited is just a secondary application in its second-coming. No special treatment required.
  • Once you’ve laid out your apps in a string, you have to figure out how to connect the dots. Use my preference (or your own as you see fit) of finding one that helps you port. If this is impossible, then instruct. Finally, render.
  • Avoid rendering until the very end, no matter what.
  • If you have more than one choice of app that can fulfill the same workflow, use the one you know better.

It couldn’t be any simpler. If you do this rigorously and ruthlessly, you will find yourself achieving better results faster, with no grief.

There is no place for grief in workflows.