Cleaner XL 1.0

Product: Cleaner XL
Version: XL 1.0 (sp2) (Windows version)
Manufacturer: Autodesk
Price: $549

Performance & stability: 6/10
Features: 8/10
Expected return on investment: 7/10
Support: 6/10
Longevity: 6/10
Flexibility: 5/10

Pros: Fast conversion between many formats, advanced features such as watch folders

Cons:Somewhat unpredictable

Bottom line:When it works, it’s very good, when it doesn’t, it isn’t

Cleaner XLAutodesk Cleaner XL

Cleaner XL started life as Terran Interactive’s Cleaner for Mac a few years ago. Discreet acquired the software around the version 5.0 mark, and developed the current “XL” version for Windows (the current Mac version is simply labelled 6.0) finally branded with the Discreet logo, though not the Discreet or Autodesk look and feel. The XL version has been around for at least 2 years now, and in truth, it’s starting to show its age, but more on that later.
The business of digital movie compression is very murky. There are countless different digital movie formats, and video and audio codecs (the algorithms controlling the compression and decompression of digital movies), and staying on top of all of them is a thankless task. Cleaner’s role in all of this is to allow movies to be converted between different formats, using different codecs. It might sound an easy task, but it isn’t. More standardised formats (such as QuickTime) aside, anyone who’s every tried to play files such as AVI (the Windows audio/visual format) from a website, has undoubtedly run into problems. In fact, even the standardised formats such as the aforementioned QuickTime will occassionally run into problems as new versions are released (QuickTime has just hit version 7.0, which means there are potentially 7 different versions of the playback software installed across the world). There is a similar problem in the digital imaging industry, with hundreds of different image formats, but eveyone tends to stick to a few formats, whereas with video, manufacturers like to compete with each other and promote their own codecs. In popular use right now, there is RealVideo, QuickTime, DivX, Xvid, MPEG, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 (and the H.264 subset), Windows Media Video, ASF, and so on. Add to that the fact that people want to be able to watch content on cellphones (e.g. using the 3G protocol), PDAs (each with their own specifications) and now PlayStation Portables (which no-one seems to know the specifications for), it’s easy to see that there are a lot of different factors to consider.
Enter Autodesk Cleaner, the software to take any format you can play on your PC and change it into something else. A bold mission indeed. The interface in Cleaner XL is fairly straightforward, but it still suffers from the earlier versions’ design (and for some strange reason, competing products such as Soreson Media’s Squeeze, seem to have all adopted a similar interface) that just feels slightly cumbersome. The way it works is as follows: you start a new project (or load a template), set parameters for the source files (frame rate and interlacing properties), then load (or drag n drop) files you want to transcode. This is a bit of a sore point. Certain formats work very well (I was pleasantly suprised to discover that QuickTime reference movies out of an Avid system work very well, but that formats such as m2t (mpeg-2 transitional, like you get out of an HDV camera) do not). This is not necessarily Autodesk’s fault, there are a lot of variables that go into this. However, where I think that Autodesk is going wrong is by not encouraging the same kind of community we see with Combustion and 3DS MAX. It would be great if there was, for example, an online resource where we could see exactly which formats will work, and what is needed to get them to work well with Cleaner. In reality, it seems as though Cleaner is designed to work straight out of the box, as a standalone product. But even with formats that are known to work, it’s somewhat temperamental. For example, I had no problem loading a DV file out of Sony Vegas, but I had lots of problems loading multiple DV files all at once.
Once your source material is loaded in, you can load a number of preset output profiles, or edit them to make your own. The profiles each determine which format you want to output to, and parameters such as resolution and frame rates. With certain formats, you can set advanced options concerning the codec parameters too. You can crop the source file interactively (there is also an auto-crop feature, which I have to say, does an excellent job of removing letterboxes), and you can see a before/after preview of how the compression is going to affect the image (though I tend to steer clear of this, as sometimes it causes the program to crash, even though the subsequent conversion works without a problem), opt to remove fields, and you can add all manner of filters, such as sharpening, visible watermarks and bugs (but no invisible watermarks). There are no options to control spatial or motion interpolation, and it won’t output a DVD-video structure, which is by no means crucial, but would have made for a nice extra (you can output DVD-compliant MPEG files though). Again, it would be nice if Autodesk were actively promoting a way for users to share saved output profiles, or if they provided regularly-updated settings (the most recent update added settings for Flash Pro video, but this was over a year ago).
Cleaner uses the codecs and formats installed on the local machine for transcoding. This is something of a double-edged sword; it means that support fot new formats can be installed easily, but it also means that many of the parameters have to be specified multiple times. For example, if encoding to a particular QuickTime format, you might have to set the output options once in Cleaner, and then again in the QuickTime exporter settings. Even worse, some of the advanced options may be locked out (such as when trying to encode a DivX file), because there is now a trend for digital movie formats to sell “Pro” licenses separately to unlock advanced options. It’s not very comforting when you’ve already spent around $600 just for the base license.
Multiple outputs can be selected for all the items in the list, which is a great time-saver. When you’re ready, you submit the job to a queue.
The queue manager seems like a good idea on paper, it’s basically a local render farm, so you can adjust the order that jobs will be processed and so on, but there are several drawbacks to this approach. First, the queue manager cannot be run as a standalone programme. Second, you have to have a separate license for each installation of Cleaner, and each copy will not talk to the others, so setting up a render farm is out of the question. The queue manager seems like it’s designed for environments that are doing lots of different transcoding jobs all the time, but then it’s not really fulfilling that function well if only one person can use it. For me, I’d prefer to just do away with the queue manager, and just process the job I’m working on. The reason for this is that if and when a job fails in the queue, I have to load it up, and “set status to ready” before I can edit it to see what’s wrong. Further, in this day and age, you’d think everything is run on XML, but this is another area where Cleaner seems to be showing its age, but not a huge problem, admittedly.
Without a doubt, the feature that makes Cleaner worth its price is the incorporation of “Watch Folders”. Often overlooked, Watch Folders allow a directory to be specified, which Cleaner will then monitor. Any time a new file is dropped into the bespoke folder, Cleaner will automatically process it according to the settings you specified. In the right kind of environment, this type of feature is invaluable, not least because it completely removes all the pointless repition of clicking through various buttons and menus to get the results you want.
I’ve been using Cleaner XL for around a year now, and I’m split 50-50 over its usefulness. When it works, it works very well, when it doesn’t I end up finding other ways to get the result I want, usually not by using Cleaner at all. But all the time I’ve been using it, I’ve been amazed that certain things are overlooked. For example, and this is especially true in the digital intermediate industry, there are a number of file management tools that don’t exist, that Autodesk would do well to build into Cleaner. I’m talking about the ability to renumber frames, batch rename files, convert frame numbers to timecodes, edit the metadata of numerous files. Granted, that’s possibly beyond the scope of the system, but the point I’m making is, that nothing else on the market does those things at a reasonable price bracket. I myself will resort to using Combustion to perform those kinds of tasks, which to quote a colleague, is like “using a sledgehammer to crack walnuts”. In fact I’m tempted to suggest not buying Cleaner, and instead just spending a little extra to get a Combustion license, which can pretty much do everything Cleaner can, and with more style.
All of these issues add up to one thing. If you buy Cleaner for a specific purpose, for example if all you’re doing is converting QuickTime movies to still image sequences (and/or extracing the audio), which is a fairly common practice in the digital intermediate environment (people like to send offline edits as QuickTimes these days, but many conforming systems won’t read them), then Cleaner will probably work well, and will be a good investement. If however, you want to be able to take any format and convert it into any other format, you will undoubtedly run into problems along the way. Perhaps Autodesk has bitten off more than it can chew in trying to lay claim to Cleaner being a one-stop-shop for digital transcoding, or perhaps the next release will be just what we’re after.
UPDATE: Autodesk plans to update its Cleaner product line before the end of the year with Cleaner 6.5 for Macintosh and Cleaner XL 1.5 for Windows. These will update most codecs and add new rendering output options. Once the new point release versions ships, customers will be able to buy the upgrades here (pricing unkown at this time)

For more information on Cleaner XL, see the Autodesk Media & Entertainment website

All reviews are based upon the principle that the hardware or software reviewed is to be used within a commercial digital intermediate environment; as such the review may not necessarily reflect the product’s intended purpose.

About the reviewer:
Jack James has been working with digital imaging technology for 10 years. He has worked within a number of digital intermediate environments since joining Cinesite (Europe) Ltd.’s Digital Lab in 2001 to work on HBO’s Band of Brothers.  He has a number of film credits, and has published the book "Digital Intermediates for Film & Video" with Focal Press.

The reviwer’s opinions are his own, and not affiliated with any third-party.

Posted: September 27th, 2005
Categories: Uncategorized
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