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You’ve finished your cinematic masterpiece and now you have to tackle the biggest problem facing filmmakers today: How do you distribute your video to the plethora of available outlets: DVDs, iPods, iPhones, the Internet, and God forbid, Zunes. Considering the number of codecs and video formats out there, getting your brain wrapped around all of them can be an exercise in futility. Don’t fret, future Antonioni, we’re here to weed out all the excess and you give you the information you need to get your film seen now without the need for a degree in video engineering.
He’s the codec, I’m the wrapper.
Before we get waist deep in the codecs with names that sound like weapons from a bad cold-war thriller, we need to clear up a common misconception. MOV, FLV, and AVI, are not codecs. These are formats of video that are commonly called containers, or wrappers. Containers contain streams of media, both audio and video. These streams usually consist of two audio streams (for left- and right-channel stereo) and one video stream. The audio and video media within this container will usually have compression applied to them that is independent of the other. In other words, your audio compression can be independent of your video compression. A good example of this is a music video versus a video with strictly talking and no music. Both videos would have the same video codec to optimize picture quality, but their audio quality would be different. The music video would use a codec suited for music, giving you a wider range of audio with little compression, while the video with just talking could use an audio compression with less audio range in order to shrink the file size and save bandwidth.
It’s best to experiment. But before you dive into the hundreds of compression options out there, let’s get caught up on the current state of video output options.
The best way to ensure that someone can view your media is to put it on a DVD—the discs are cheap and almost everyone has a DVD player. DVD video is based on the MPEG-2 codec. (MPEG stands for Moving Picture Experts Group. The group standardized MPEG-2 to transport video and audio for HDTV and DVD.)
Most video-editing applications give you the option to output your video for DVD burning. Be sure to choose the appropriate DVD size when exporting—a dual-layer DVD holds 8.5GB while a single-layer DVD can hold 4.7GB.
If your editing app doesn’t have DVD or MPEG-2 video output options, your DVD-authoring app will. Toast, iDVD, and DVD Studio Pro will all encode videos for DVD authoring. Choose Dual-Pass when encoding—the app will check each frame twice, in order to compress it for best results.
The various video-capable iPods (and the iPhone) use one of the latest implementations of MPEG-4, called H.264. Also known as MPEG-4 Part 10/AVC, the codec H.264 allows higher-quality videos at lower file sizes without being too complex. This efficiency is the reason your iPod videos look so crisp without taking up gigs of space.
To get your movie onto an iPod, you can use QuickTime Pro ($29.99, www.apple.com) and export using the iPod option. Or you can use iSquint (free, www.isquint.org), which is quicker and cheaper, and has a funny name.
How would we know what fanatical Britney Spears followers feel or the plight of Chad Vader if not for the Internet and the videos on it? YouTube is the first logical step on your path to Internet superstardom. But if you try to post your 8GB video to the site, realize that by the time it uploads and gets converted, your video may not be as topical as it once was. YouTube recommends 640-by-480-pixel MPEG-4 videos with MP3 audio. Fortunately, those specs are almost in line with iPod videos. Just convert your video to iPod specifics using QuickTime Pro or iSquint.
If you’d rather steer clear of YouTube, you have a few options. The easiest is to place a MOV file on your site. QuickTime Pro and iMovie both give you the option to export to the Web. These videos are generally 320 by 240 pixels and use the H.264 video codec and AAC or MP3 for audio. If you’re adventurous and want to tweak the settings yourself, try to keep the bit rate (the rate per second that video is delivered) below 300 kbps (kilobits per second) for video and below 100 kbps for audio. A framerate of 15 frames per second is adequate for video, and audio should sound fine at 32KHz. These settings are for broadband connections and can be adjusted lower for dial-up friends who still happen to live in caves and eat food without the benefit of fire to cook it.
If you have Flash installed on your machine, you can create Flash video, or FLV, with QuickTime Pro using the above settings. Or you can import a video into Adobe Flash ($699.95, www .adobe.com), and the app will ask you a few questions about how you plan on using the media and will encode it appropriately. If you’re thinking about using Flash videos on your site you might as well upload the video to YouTube and use the embed code available for each video and place it on your own site.
Video Terms and Their Common Uses
MPEG-2 DVD file format
MPEG-1 VCD (video CD) file format
MPEG-4 part 2 Used for DiVX, Xvid, FFMPEG, 3ivx files
MPEG-4 part 10 Also known as H.264 AVC; used by iPod and other media devices as well as HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs
Sorenson 3 Old QuickTime codec, was replaced by implementation of H.264
Sorenson Spark Common Flash video codec
WMV Windows proprietary codec
RealVideo Developed by RealNetworks and rarely used anymore