The Beginner’s Guide to Conforming with DaVinci Resolve

A recipe for deliciousness

I used to shop at a budget grocery store. The grass-fed beef was affordable, they had organic produce and cheap snacks. But when I made recipes at home, the meals tasted bland and boring. I thought I was a terrible cook. Fast forward a few months, and a fancy grocery store opened up down the street. I thought, “Why not give it a try?” When I made my first meal, I was shocked. The flavors popped out and my digestion was better. It was a revelation! It was the same ingredients, the same recipe, but the results were so much better.

What does any of this have to do with the headline of this article? Well, I’m glad you asked.

What is conforming?

Conforming can be a difficult concept to understand but it’s similar to the example above. Except instead of food, we’re talking about video:

Conforming is the process of replacing lower-quality media in an edit or a shot with higher-quality media, usually camera-original files.

In my goofy example above, shopping at a budget grocery store is like the editing process. You’re using low-quality sources (ingredients) to make your edits (recipes).

But when you conform, you’re shopping at the fancy grocery store for the same meal. You have the same list of ingredients (shots), you’re following the same recipe (edit), but this time with better-quality sources, so the end results looks and tastes better.

In most post-production workflows (even for big-budget Hollywood productions), editors typically work with lower-quality files, called proxies. These files are much easier to edit and require much less storage than top-quality original camera files. Essentially, it’s just cheaper and quicker to edit proxy files, similar to our grocery example above.

Once an edit is finished or locked, that exact recipe needs to be sent to someone else so that they can recreate it in another program. This time better-quality source files will be used instead of the low-quality files. And usually a more powerful computer will be used to re-create this tasty recipe. (Ok, enough with the food analogies. I promise.)

Conforming makes your edits smooth and simple, but still delivers the best quality results.

Why conform?

Now that we’ve established what conforming is, let’s talk about why it’s important.

Early on in your career, you might be able to get away with doing everything yourself in one program like Adobe Premiere or Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. Maybe you edit, create graphics, and color yourself all in one program and don’t need to conform anything.

While it’s great if you can do everything yourself in one program, the more you advance in your career and the bigger the projects, the more you’ll need to hand off edits to other artists for conforming.

Most professional projects have tight deadlines and budgets involving multiple artists using different pieces of software. The project might have CG vendors, colorists, a motion graphics team, and Flame artists involved.

All of these factors mean that files will need to be parsed out, conformed, re-conformed back into edits and managed properly. It’s important to understand exactly what conforming will mean for the project that you’re working on.

Conforming for collaboration

Conforming is an important process to understand, but the term itself can be confusing. Many different scenarios involve conforming. And you always conform in order to do a specific task. It isn’t just the task itself, if that makes sense.

You conform FOR color grading. You conform FOR finishing. You conform FOR CG. All that means is that you replace low-quality files with the best quality files you can to make sure you’re getting the most out of your camera.

If you have an edit with a shot that needs to get sent to a CG vendor for example, you will want to conform that low resolution shot to a higher resolution files, in a codec and bitrate that is best for CG work, before sending to the vendor.

If you have a sequence that is ready for color, a colorist will need to conform the original camera files to the edit sequence before coloring.

When the colorist is finished, she might render out files and send them to an online artist to conform the colored files to the edit. Usually during the online stage, the editorial effects, graphics and audio are all added back to the sequence for final mastering.

As an added example, in more advanced workflows, your source shots might be high resolution DPX files or even OpenEXR. Some film studios transcode all the original camera files to high-quality mastering files like these to make sure the color and VFX pipeline is smooth.

This process maintains the maximum quality of the camera source files, but also makes it easier to maintain a color pipeline with multiple vendors through the post production process.

All about communication

The first step of any conform process is communication. An editor or assistant, a producer or post supervisor, and the artist or vendor doing the conforming need to communicate about workflow.

For example, you might have an edit that needs to be colored by an offsite colorist. Talk to the colorist about his or her preferred method of prep, what the expectation is for the clients seeing the color, and work out the details so that conforming the source files is a smooth process.

If you need to send shots to a CG company, jump on a conference call with them. You’ll need to know how to prep the files, what type of files they’ll need, how you’ll get the files back, etc. Sometimes you might need to conform yourself when preparing files for external vendors.

Today, a great tool for conforming is DaVinci Resolve. In Resolve, it’s a simple process to match edits back to source files and spit out whatever formats, color spaces, and resolutions are needed.

Once all of the players are on the same page about the needs of a particular project, you can start to move forward.

Most common conform scenarios

To give you a better idea of common conform scenarios, I’ve listed a few common color and online workflows below. These are very general workflows that cover a wide range of potential projects:

Commercial conforming

  • Color and shots
    • An edit sequence is prepared without effects, just shots end to end.
    • The colorist conforms and colors source shots.
    • Individual shots are rendered with handles from color.
  • Online and sequence
    • An edit sequence is prepared with all effects.
    • An online artist conforms to the colored shots.
    • Graphics, audio, and all the pieces from offline are cut back in.

Film/TV Conforming

  • Online and shots
    • An edit sequence is prepared with all effects.
    • Online artist conforms source shots
    • Conformed shots are rendered out for CG or VFX
    • Sequence is rendered out for color
  • Color
    • A conformed sequence with baked in effects is imported
    • Color or assistant notches or cuts up the edit
    • Color and render back sequence to Online

Best practices for conforming in resolve

DaVinci Resolve is a free program that is very flexible to use for many different workflows. It can handle many different types of source files and render out high-quality files very easily.

Resolve is a good place to start when learning about conforming. Below I’ll walk you through some best practices for conforming an edit in Resolve.

Prep for conform

When you start the conform process, you’ll need three things from the editor or assistant editor:

  1. An offline reference QuickTime from the edit with burn-ins (burn-ins use text, like timecode or file names, that is “burned-in” to the edit during export.)
  2. A matching XML/EDL/AAF of the edit
  3. High-resolution source files

Offline reference QuickTimes

The offline reference QuickTime is like your bible for the edit. To go back to our recipe analogy (I know I promised I was done!) it’s like the picture of your final recipe that shows you how the food should look like.

The reference QuickTime will be used as a guide to match every shot and effect that was created during the edit.

When you export a reference QuickTime from the edit, a good rule of thumb is to make a timeline-resolution ProResLT or DNxHD 36 file. Both of these codecs are common editorial formats. They are ideal to use as references because they playback easily while retaining good quality.

Before exporting, it’s also very helpful to add burn-ins to your reference QuickTime for conforming. The three most helpful burn-ins to add to the reference QuickTimes are:

  1. Source file name
  2. Source timecode
  3. Text overlays describing unsupported timeline effects like stabilizes (resizes and timewarps should come across in the XML/EDL/AAF below)

In Resolve, you can import the reference QuickTime as an offline reference in the Media tab. After you’ve imported XML/EDL/AAF, you can link your offline reference to the XML sequence to compare with the high resolution media.

XML/EDL/AAF Preparation

An XML/EDL/AAF is a text file exported from an edit sequence that describes the file names, source and record timecode, and effects of the source files. They are used to re-create timelines or relink shots in different software.

Today, XMLs and AAFs have eclipsed EDLs as the preferred format for conforming. XMLs and AAFs can contain more information about effects and multiple timeline layers which is really helpful with complicated edits. All of the major NLEs today can export some flavor of XML, EDL or AAF.

After exporting a reference QuickTime, it’s a good idea to duplicate that sequence to prepare the XML/EDL/AAF. It will greatly help the conform process to delete unused layers, collapse shots down to one layer if possible, remove un-used shots, and delete audio tracks.

The more you can do to clean up your edit sequence before exporting an XML, the simpler the conform process will be.

Organization from editorial to find source files easily

When you’re conforming, finding the right source files can be difficult, especially if they aren’t all in one place. By default, Resolve will often look for the same files that were used in the edit.

Since that’s the case, it’s really helpful if an editor or an assistant can point you to the exact location of your high-resolution sources. If they’re really great, they might even organize the files and folders so that all of your source files are in one location, ready to be conformed.

If your source files are all over the place or in the same subfolder as your high-resolution sources, Resolve will have a difficult time choosing the right high-resolution sources to conform.

If source files can’t be moved to one location, having an assistant or editor send file paths is another option. That way the person conforming can navigate to the files easily without having to dig through many folders and files blindly.

Importing high-resolution media

There are three ways to import the source media into Resolve:

1. Point Resolve to the media when importing the XML. It will automatically import the media that it adds to the timeline.

2. Import the XML without connecting it to media yet. Use the XML to navigate manually to the files on the drive and import them.

3. Navigate to the files manually in the Media Hub and import all of the high resolution source files. Then import the XML and point it to the files imported.

Each of these options have their strengths and weaknesses based on the context of your situation. For example, if the source files on the drive are unorganized and in multiple folders, it might be a better idea to find all the files you want Resolve to look at and import them first.

The more you can do to guide Resolve into finding the correct files, the easier it will be to do the conforming. 

The secret to automatic conforming

When you start conforming, things may not go well and you might not know why. Resolve does a lot under the hood that is not always clear. There are four general reasons why conforming goes smoothly or not:

1. Matching source timecode

Timecode is like a train track: it tells you where you are at a given moment in time. Matching source timecode is the number one reason that conforms work or not. Timecode essentially tells Resolve which part of the clip to use for a particular shot. Embedded in most clips is a timecode track.

If you have clips that don’t have timecode in the edit or clips that have offset timecode between the edit files and source camera files, Resolve won’t know which part of the clip to use for any particular shot. For a long piece, not having matching timecode can be a huge time-suck and capsize a project.

Pro-tip: If you have source clips that you know don’t contain timecode, or if there are multiple frame rates that you want to conform to one, you can use Resolve to make two sets of files before editing. You can render to lower res versions of ProRes like LT and higher res versions of DPX files or ProRes444. Resolve will embed new timecode into the files.  One set of files can be used for editing and the other set can be used for grading and finishing. Also, as long as the file names match identically and are unique, Resolve will be able to conform them properly to the high-resolution set. Keep the files separate and clearly label them.

Most of the time, cameras that don’t record timecode aren’t recording very high-quality video, so you won’t lose any information transcoding them to something like ProRes444 for grading and finishing.

2. File Names

While source timecode tells Resolve which part of the clip to use for a particular shot, file names tell Resolve which clip to use in that shot. Resolve has to parse through a collection of shots to find the right one. The XML/EDL/AAF contains the file names from editorial.

While file names can work for conforming, sometimes there are slight discrepancies between the file names used in editorial and the source high-resolution files.

In Resolve, the edit file names need to match the source file names exactly, character for character, to find a match. If the names don’t line up exactly, Resolve won’t be able to link the correct files.

3. Reel Names

Reel names provide a much more robust way of maintaining a link between edit files and source files, but they need to be embedded before editorial begins.

Reel names in Resolve are a hold-over from the tape days. A reel name was used to determine which tape a file was from so you would always know how to track back the clip to a physical piece of media.

While tape-based workflows are more and more rare, reel names are still probably THE most important, underused part of conforming.

The great thing about reel names is that if they are embedded during proxy/dailies generation for editorial, they can’t be modified. The link between the source files and the edit files will be unbroken by any file manipulation.

Reel names need to be embedded in a proxy or dailies file before editing begins. Then they become a part of the file even if an editor changes the file names. When it’s time to conform, the Resolve can use the reel name to find the right match easily.

Resolve has great tools for pulling reel names from source files for any type of source file whether it’s embedded within the file, from a folder name or a few other options.

“If you want to use reel names in your workflow, open up Resolve’s project settings. Under General Options there is an option to Assist using reel names from the. Select Embedding in source clip file. That is the most common type of reel name.”

If you can find a way to incorporate reel names into your conform workflow, they can save you a ton of time.

4. Effects Translation

XML/EDL/AAFs contain information about resizes and time warps. Depending on the edit and NLE, some of these effects will import correctly and some won’t.

It’s important to understand how Resolve is translating the effects information from one program to another. Resizing from Premiere, for example, is different than resizing from AVID.

Because of the way different NLEs use resize information, you might need to change the default sizing presets in Resolve for an accurate translation.

The exact differences between NLE’s effect translation for re-building effects properly is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s important to understand the concept.

Slipping, editing, eye matching

So now that we know how conforms work under the hood, it’s time to do the conforming. The first thing to do is to make sure the correct high-resolution clips are in the correct place in your sequence. Use the reference QuickTime to check your clips.

Once you have the right clips in the right place, it’s time to go through each one and make sure they match the reference QuickTime with frame accuracy.

Matching each clip takes time. You’ll have to go through and slip clips, move edit points by frames, and if there are keyframes, resizes, or timewarps, you might need to eye match them manually instead of using the information from the XML/EDL/AAF.


Media management

Once the conforming is complete, the next thing to think about is your media. Can your system play the material back in real time? Do you need to play the material back? How many times will you need to render your timeline? Does the high-resolution media need to be sent to another artist after conforming?

Most computers won’t be able to play camera original files very well. Especially if the computer is a few years old or doesn’t have very good specs. If other people need to watch you conform in your room, your computer power can be a real bottleneck.

Options for dealing with high-resolution playback

RAW camera files, in particular, are very hard on your system. For files in a RAW format and other processor intensive formats, Resolve has a few options that can help with playback.

One option is optimizing your media. Resolve will take your whole source clip and create another clip that is easier on your system (like ProRes444 or DNxHR444). Resolve will maintain the link between the optimized media and your source file so you can always access either one.

Optimizing media can be great, but in some cases it can be tricky. For example, if you need to render a lot of files from RAW sources, this can really slow down your workflow, especially if noise reduction is applied to clips.

Another option is to trim the pieces of media in your sequence to another format on another drive. This can be useful if you’re taking a project home or moving it somewhere else. You’ll have a much smaller group of files to work with and you won’t need to change any settings within Resolve once they’re rendered.

In Resolve, if you select a timeline, you can media manage the connected clips to copy only the pieces of the media you need to another location. This can save a lot of time finding each clip in an edit, copying and sending large files. Once you have a proper conform, trimming media can be a really powerful way to take only the media you need for finishing or color grading instead of needing to copy gigabytes of data.

If you’re uploading project files to the internet, or if you’re sending them to a VFX artist, media management will make it much easier to send just the piece of the clip that you need from the high-resolution source files.

Every situation is different, so you’ll need to decide how to manage your high-resolution media based on each project’s needs. There are always trade-offs, so it’s important to understand the needs of each project and the resources available.

The future of conforming

In the future, conforming might one day be an automated process. If software manufacturers made it easy to translate their timelines between programs, the conform process wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as it is.

The development of XMLs and AAFs is many years behind the development of cameras and therefore many parts of conforming are still manual processes. Hopefull,y this will change or evolve with the technology of the future.

Free certification training

It’s already pretty incredible the amount of power and features you get with the free version of DaVinci Resolve. Blackmagic has also recently launched a suite of training videos that cover everything from the NLE features, Fusion and VFX, audio using Fairlight, Media Management, Delivery, and more. There are nine video lessons in total, and the curriculum is suitable for beginning up to advanced users. The training site also includes PDF versions of five in-depth training books. Click here to learn more.

Why it’s a good skill to learn

Conforming can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially when files and sequences haven’t been properly prepared.

Knowing how to reconnect files to their high-resolution sources is an invaluable tool for anyone in post-production today. From editors to colorists to VFX teams to finishing artists, the rise of digital files has made it even more important to manage large unwieldy camera files.

If you can master the skill of conforming, the quality of your videos and your life as a post-production person will improve dramatically and elevate whatever production you’re currently working on.

Share your own recipes for conforming in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Dan Swierenga

Dan Swierenga is a professional colorist and Flame artist with over 10 years of experience in post production coloring and finishing many feature films, shorts, documentaries and commercials in LA and Chicago. He is the co-founder of the post production blog, a site dedicated to teaching post production skills and techniques.

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