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ENCODING FOR THE WEB

From the first time I saw video on my computer monitor I've been hooked. It came from an encyclopedia on CD, and played (just) on my P-166 with a 1MB graphics card. I didn't know a codec from a headache then but I knew something was preventing my seeing half the videos on the disk. It was 1996, and if anyone was streaming video for public consumption at that time I certainly didn't know of it. In the latter half of 2001 only 3% of web sites offered video streams of any kind, but the quality available has improved immeasurably - and continues to do so.

The Big Three FormatsUsers of high bandwidth Internet connections are the principle beneficiaries of improved coding/decoding (codec!) software but there's no getting around the fact that good quality streaming video will demand more than a telephone modem, now and forever. Stream viewers whose systems and bandwidth meet the minimum requirements have their choice of one or all the principal viewing applications - the decoding portion of the codec is free and built into each player. Whatever you watch had to be encoded before it can be decoded, and if you're a digital video hobbyist this is where your interest lies.

Once you've completed a desktop video project and rendered/produced/exported it without compression, you need to decide on the format of your streaming file or files. I suspect that everyone who's been at it for a year or less has a favorite but the reviewers are usually careful about choosing sides

The very informative 2004 edition of the Streaming Media industry sourcebook includes current data on installed player base and visitor preference among the top video formats. The Aberdeen Group in Boston asked survey respondants "Which of the following media players do you have installed on your desktop?" The responses were as follows:

  • Windows Media Player - 94.9%
  • Real Player - 87%
  • Quick Time Player - 83.3%
  • MPEG Player - 38.8%
When asked "Which format do you prefer to use" the replies were:
  • Windows Media Player - 40%
  • Real Player - 22%
  • Quick Time Player - 21%
  • MPEG Player - 12%
The question of what format to encode video for the web often comes up in web media user forums and this is the best available information from which to make your decision.

Since the entry of Windows Media Encoder versions 7 and 8, I've done virtually all of my web videos in the .wmv format, today using the version 9 encoder. Version 9 .wmv files are clean and relatively small, handle motion quite well and encode easily. When you're paying for storage and transfer volume from a web hosting service, getting the best combination of quality and file size is a key objective. It seems the .asf format is quietly disappearing, but .wmv is here to stay. In fairness, Real Media's encoding utility also makes a relatively small file, but I've had so much trouble with their player misbehaving on my Internet PC that I don't create (or watch) Real video anymore. I know many people happily do, particularly since the release of the version 10 player. I'm just not one of them.

In September of 2002 Microsoft released its version 9 encoder and player. Since then it has been embraced by stream-makers of course, but also by DVD hardware makers for delivering HiDef video content, and is likely to become significant in digital cinema roll-outs in North America as the ability to protect the content from piracy is fully developed.
The player doesn't look greatly different from version 7.1 but the options and quality of the encoder are stunning. Of course, with a half billion US dollars invested in development they should be!

The trick to encoding video is in starting with an uncompressed file. If you're using an editor like Premiere 6.5/Pro (and many others) with built in encoders and available plug-ins you can export a project directly from the timeline without having to resort to a separate encoder like those I've linked to. For 6.5 there is now (April 2003) a plug in available to make Windows Media Encoder 9 available as an export option.

I render my projects uncompressed in the .avi format and either keep them on one of my three video drives, or export them to D8 tape. This gives the VX2000 a rest and the old camera some work. If to tape, I save hard drive space and can recapture them in future to grab clips for other projects, expand them with new footage or export them to tape or streaming formats for distribution to friends or posting to the web site. Always starting with an uncompressed file means I'm always able to make a VHS tape of full-resolution NTSC video AND always able to feed the encoding software (whichever format I choose to encode in) the highest quality input, for the highest quality output. (If you have a high speed Internet connection, visit my Video page and judge the quality for yourself).
With the advent of DVD-R, another archiving solution has appeared. Using software like "BackUp My PC" it's possible to archive finished projects or folders full of project parts to DVD blank disks. This software can span more than one disk, allowing for more than 4.38 GB back-ups, which with digital video is about twenty minutes of material. Using DVD-RW disks I can move projects off my hard drive and return them later by restoring the archive. The DVD-RW is then ready for new data, at no new cost.

Both the Real Media and Windows Media streaming format files require, for streaming from a web site, the creation of a small text file with instructions included for opening the appropriate player on the viewer's computer. If, for example, you choose the .asf Windows Media format for your streaming file, you must make a .asx file to trigger the Media Player. It is the .asx file your URL for the video links to in your HTML. When a browser hits this file the viewer plug-in is automatically called up and the video buffers and plays automatically. I've just discovered (June 02) that an asx file can refer to a wmv, which allows visitors using Netscape/Firefox to view a progressive download of the file, rather than automatically saving the file to disk!

As Microsoft describes it on the MSDN site, "A simple, yet effective method of playing Windows Media, is to simply reference an ASF Stream Redirector file (ASX). An ASX file is an eXtensible Markup Language (XML) based text file which references a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a piece of media content. Simply put, an ASX file is a shortcut to Media Content." Follow the link to MSDN to learn how to make the .asx file.Go here for the equivalent info on Real. Using an asx file to refer to a wmv movie file works equally well in IE and Netscape, and it only took me six months to figure that out.

I haven't given equal time to the Quick Time encoder, I guess because I had to purchase it where the other two are free, but it is useful to have. An annoying aspect of using it is that installing a new version of the player requires purchasing the "Pro" component again. If you just install the new player it removes your old "Pro" so you can no longer encode with it.
Premiere doesn't handle QT well, making files far larger than they need to be. The old and no longer updated/supported Media Cleaner EZ will create Quick Time files as well as Windows Media Player file formats, and I have used it successfully for Quick Time encoding. It's handy for sending small e-mail video greetings to friends using Macs. More recently I discovered that my Raptor Edit software will export the timeline in Quick Time format, and with a selection of codecs that includes Sorensen 2 and 3. For really good quality Quick Time files you need the Sorenson 3 Pro codec, but it's a lot of money for a hobbyist. In February (2004) I discovered Procoder Express from Canopus. This USD$60 downloadable software application is an amazing tool for web/CD/DVD video conversions, and does a better QuickTime export than anything else I've tried, although still not comparable in colour saturation and file size to Windows Media 8-9 results. Among its talents is the ability to convert large wmv files to small ones with surprising retained quality. It allows making a high data rate version from your editor (say 500 kbps) and then encoding that file to a web version for slower connections. It also has a crop feature that allows you to draw an outline over a section of your source file and export just the selected area. And it accepts just about any type of source file for conversion to just about any other type - AVI, MPEG-1/2, WMV, Real, QT, DivX.

There are many helpful web sites devoted to aspects of streaming media interest and learning. For a comprehensive overview of shooting for the web, read THIS from Streaming Media World. StreamingMedia.com,once one of my favourite sites, has restructured after hard economic times, and focuses more on industry users than it did, but is still worth monitoring. Enjoy!

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