Color Hell: Ffmpeg Transcoding and Preserving BT.601

From time to time, you may get into weird digital video territory quite unexpectedly. For instance, you just want to cut some screen records made on mobile devices, such as tablets or mobile phones, only to find out that something is wrong with the colors.

Run-of-the-Mill Footage

The drama starts with screen recording footage that seems quite innocent and normal at first sight. It may have been recorded on Android 7 devices using a screen recording app (such as «AZ Screen Recording», but not the “Pro” fake). And this footage has two slightly unusual properties:

  • a highly variable frame rate,

  • it is using BT.601[1], instead of BT.709[2] like so much HD footage these days.

Should cause no problems, right? Well…

As it turns out, Kdenlive's media engine MLT can exhibit some issues with video footage that has a highly variable frame rate, such as between 0.001 and 100+ fps. The symptoms are subtle, yet endanger production quality: it seems as if MLT may well pick a future frame which is way off in regions with a low framerate. While this is not an issue for a suitably high framerate, this causes odd results in other places. For instance, user touch interaction shows up even a few seconds before the interaction will appear. This is probably caused by a very low fps during the inactivity period just before the user interaction.

Transcoding to a fixed frame rate surely is one of ffmpeg's easy tasks (this example assumes a constant project frame rate of 25 fps):

ffmpeg -i raw.mp4 -r 25 -crf 18 screen-rec.mp4

The constant frame rate cures the issues mentioned above, so the results are as to be expected. Except…

Easy Transcoding: Color Me Bad


Unfortunately, the resulting video now shows shifted colors! It might not be too obvious in the first place, but it can be quite prominent when you work more with your footage. And it gets clearly visible to your audience in case you are going to mix this footage side-by-side with further processed versions of it, such as extracted frames for stills.

A closer inspection either using Kdenlive's built-in clip properties pane or ffprobe reveals that the transcoded file lacks the BT.601 color profile indication. Yet, ffmpeg did not transform the colors at all during transcoding, and simply dropped the correct color profile information!

Makeshift Measures


Clip Properties color space override

Of course, there is always Kdenlive's ability to overwrite source clip properties using the built-in clip properties widget.

Simply select the transcoded video clip in the project bin. Then go to clip properties and select its “Force Properties” tab document-edit. Check Colorspace and then select ITU-R 601. Kdenlive now applies the correct color profile.

While very easy, this method has its limitations: It is fine while you keep working solely inside the Kdenlive editor and its MLT renderer. But as soon as you need to pull in external video tools, such as ffmpeg for image extraction you will loose because these tools do not know about Kdenlive's source clip property overrides. We thus need to get the correct color profile information right into the transcoded video files themselves.

Preserving BT.601 in Transcoding

To make this matter worse, the seemingly obvious color profile transformation

-vf colormatrix=bt601:bt601

simply does not work: ffmpeg complains about not being able to transform between the same input and output color profile.

The missing puzzle piece can be found on Stack Exchange's Video Production Q&A site in a post from 2015 asking "ffmpeg: explicitly tag h.264 as bt.601, rather than leaving unspecified?".

There is a catch to watch out for: BT.601 comes in PAL and NTSC flavors which feature slightly different primary chromaticities, transfer curves, and colorspaces. So check your raw footage first using ffprobe (or MediaInfo) which one has been used during recording in your case. Please note that it does not matter that your screen recording has not standard definition (SD) resolution at all, but it does matter when it comes to encoding color.


So how do we find out if a given video recording file, say raw.mp4, uses the PAL or NTSC color space? Of course, ffprobe comes to our rescue. But in order to not get lost in all the nitty-gritty details ffprobe will throw at you, we need to tame it using a few options and grep:

ffprobe -v error -show_streams raw.mp4 | grep color_

This should give you something along these lines:


The line color_space=... tells us whether we are dealing with PAL (bt470bg) or NTSC (smpte170m).


If it is PAL chromaticities (color_space=bt470bg), we then need to transcode as follows:

ffmpeg -i raw.mp4
-color_primaries bt470bg -color_trc gamma28 -colorspace bt470bg
-r 25 -crf 18 screen-rec.mp4


For NTSC chromaticities (color_space=smpte170m), we will need a different set of primaries, transfer curve, and colorspace:

ffmpeg -i raw.mp4
-color_primaries smpte170m -color_trc smpte170m -colorspace smpte170m
-r 25 -crf 18 screen-rec.mp4

In any case, Kdenlive/MLT now correctly see the transcoded video using the BT.601 color profile. In addition, other media tools correctly detect the color profile too - unless they are broken in that they do not understand BT.601 at all.



The original text was submitted by user TheDiveO to the now defunct blog. For this documentation it has been lifted from and adapted to match the overall style.