Sorenson Squeeze 9 Pro

df_squeeze9_1

Sorenson Media’s Squeeze encoder has always been at the top of the market for encoding features and quality. It’s now in the ninth generation of the software with standard, pro and premium versions. Sorenson Squeeze 9 Standard and Pro are Mac and Windows desktop applications, while Premium is designed to run on Windows servers. The difference between Standard and Pro is that Squeeze 9 Pro supports the encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only) codecs.

New for Squeeze 9 is an update of the user interface, HTML5 optimization, faster encoding and closed caption support. Another new feature is pre/post-roll stitching. This lets you attach an additional file, like a branding message, to the beginning and/or end of your video. These will be encoded together with the additional video clip(s) embedded into the same file – no editing required. As before, Squeeze supports import from files or camera devices and you can set up watch folders. All Squeeze purchasers get 5GB of free cloud storage with Sorenson 360, which they may use for private review and approval with clients or as a place to host videos that they’d like to embed into their own web sites.

The Sorenson Squeeze 9 presets are built around formats and workflows for easy access. If you want a specific preset, then it’s easier to find that in the format tab. On the other hand, if you want to burn DVDs, then getting there via the workflow tab makes the most sense. Of course, you can modify existing presets, create custom presets from scratch and save the ones you use most often as favorites. There is a large set of audio and video filters, which can be integrated into any preset, including VST audio filters already installed on your computer.

Publishing to the web or disc burning is part of the Squeeze workflow, so your presets can include target publishing destinations, like a YouTube channel or your Sorenson 360 account. One big feature of Squeeze is support for adaptive bitrate encoding. Most smaller users never encounter that, but it’s a requirement for many large enterprise-grade video sites. In this process, a set of different files with low to high data rates are encoded and grouped into a folder for upload. This permits the playback from that site to throttle performance by shifting between the files of these different date rates.

If you have a CUDA-enabled NVIDIA GPU card, then the encoding of AVC/H.264 content is accelerated. Even without it, encoding is fast. On my 8-core Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 card, QuickTime H.264 encoding speeds were comparable to Apple Compressor 4 with similar encoding settings and formats. There was a noticeable improvement in this version with WebM, which is the codec backed by Google and preferred for YouTube. In past tests , this was a real bear to encode. A one minute file might take 20 minutes. With Squeeze 9 it only took a couple of minutes for the same test.

The encoded quality is very good and gone are some of the contrast, gamma and saturation differences of past versions. When you encode QuickTime H.264 files, you can choose between the Apple H.264 and the Main Concept H.264 encoders. Both encoded results play fine in QuickTime Player, though each looks slightly different than a comparable file encoded using Compressor. This likely has to do with how the player interprets the flags within the encoded file. Generally the Main Concept H.264 version was the closer match.

Since I was testing the Pro version, I converted some Apple ProRes files to Avid DNxHD in the MXF format. Squeeze encodes these files complete with corresponding XML and AAF files. This means that you can simply drag the MXF and AAF files into an Avid MediaFiles/MXF/numbered folder. Then import the AAF files into Avid Media Composer and the encoded master clips appear in your bin. No further import or transcoding required. If you work in Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer and prefer to batch encode a set of non-standard camera files into native DNxHD or ProRes media, then Squeeze is ideal as long as it’s a supported codec. If you purchased Avid Media Composer, then the standard version of Squeeze is included in your third-party software bundle. This can be upgraded to the Pro version by contacting Sorenson Media.

Sorenson Squeeze 9 is a healthy update to a top-notch encoding application and a valuable tool for any editor tasked with delivering a variety of formats. Android, iPad, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray or broadcast deliverables – Squeeze has it covered.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 8.5 and 8.5 Pro

For many editors, the preferred video encoding application is Sorenson Squeeze. It’s one of the top encoders for both Mac and PC platforms and also comes bundled with Avid Media Composer in its third-party software package. Recently, Sorenson introduced the optional Pro version, which enables the encoding of Avid DNxHD MXF media, as well as Dolby Pro Audio and Apple ProRes QuickTime codecs (Mac only).

Sorenson launched Squeeze 8.5 with more features and faster encoding, especially for users with some CUDA-enabled NVIDIA GPU cards. CUDA acceleration was introduced with Squeeze 7 and accelerates presets using the Main Concept H.264/AVC codecs; however, 8.5 also accelerates MPEG-4, WebM, QuickTime and adaptive bit rate encoding. Other new features include additional input and output formats, some interface enhancements and 5GB of permanent storage with the Sorenson 360 video hosting site (included with the 8.5 purchase).

I use several different encoders and have always been a fan of Squeeze’s straightforward interface, which is organized around formats and/or workflows. Settings are easy to customize with granular control and modified presets may be saved as favorites. Although I typically import a few files, set my encoding requirements and let it go, Squeeze is also designed to allow import from a camera or work automatically from a watch folder.

The workflow aspect is not to be overlooked. You can set up Blu-ray and DVD disc burns, upload to various web designations and include e-mail notification – all within a single encoding preset. Burning “one-off” review DVDs for a client is as simple as importing the file, applying the DVD workflow preset and loading the blank media when prompted. If you use the web for client review and approval, then it’s handy to have the Sorenson 360 account built-in. This is Sorenson Media’s video hosting site running on Amazon servers, thus giving you a reliable backbone. You may set up player skins and access controls to use the site as an outward facing presence to clients – or embed the videos into your own site.

Aside from the improved speed and encoding quality of 8.5, the Pro version is a great front-end tool for video editors, too. For instance, if you don’t want to edit with the native media format, convert QuickTime files into Avid-compliant MXF media – or take Canon C300 MXF clips and convert them to ProRes for use in Final Cut. These new Pro features continue to enhance the Squeeze “brand” in the eyes of video editors as their top encoding solution.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

CalibratedQ AVC Intra Encode

Thanks to Apple’s product development directions, the current status of all things related to the Final Cut ecosystem has professional editors a bit rattled. One by-product of this is concern over whether it is wise to master final files in one of the ProRes codecs. This concern leaves the door open to other codec options, like Sony XDCAM or Avid DNxHD. One powerful solution is Panasonic’s AVC-Intra codec, a 10-bit, 4:2:2, I-Frame compression scheme based on the H.264/AVC family.

Calibrated Software is known for its range of products, such as MXF Import, which lets Final Cut Pro “legacy” users work with native MXF media by generating reference .MOV files. Many editing applications can natively read AVC-Intra files recorded by the wide range of Panasonic P2 products; but, up until now, you couldn’t easily encode AVC-Intra masters for archiving and portability. That’s changed with the introduction of Calibrated{Q} AVC-Intra Encode.

AVC-Intra Encode is a QuickTime component that enables any QuickTime-compatible application to encode (or export) .MOV files with one of the 50Mbps or 100Mbps AVC-Intra codecs. This includes encoding applications like Adobe Media Encoder, Apple Compressor and QuickTime Player Pro, as well as NLEs, including Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro. Simply install AVC-Intra Encode to add the AVC-Intra codec options to each application’s output choices. AVC-Intra is a cross-platform codec and both Mac OS X and Windows versions of the Calibrated{Q} encoder are available. Since this is only any encoder, you’ll need other software to play the new .MOV files. Normally this capability would be installed as part of FCP 7, FCP X or Media Composer (5.5.1 or higher); but, Calibrated software also makes an AVC-Intra Decode solution for purchase, if none of these other applications have been installed.

One unique feature is the separate Calibrated{Q} AVC-Intra Encode Options application. This is both a license manager and a tool to embed metadata into the .MOV file. MXF formats, like P2, include camera-generated metadata (clip name, reel ID, etc.), which is contained in a sidecar .XML file. Calibrated Software has included a dummy .XML file, which can be opened and modified in any text editor. Using AVC-Intra Encode Option, you can merge the customized .XML file and the .MOV file to embed that data into the .MOV file. This is compliant with Final Cut Pro X, so that when this file is imported into FCP X, any data you’ve entered, like a scene number, is displayed in the inspector window as part of the clip’s settings. Unfortunately there is no way to batch multiple .MOV and .XML files for an automated process.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 7

Sorenson Media, one of the leading encoding developers, recently released its newly updated Sorenson Squeeze 7 application.  Squeeze has become a popular encoder for many advanced media outlets, such as NBC Universal, which uses Squeeze to encode movie promotional spots for Yahoo, Google and Hulu. Most Avid Media Composer editors have used Squeeze for years, because it has been included as the default encoder within the Media Composer retail bundle (boxed version) or separately as part of Avid’s Production Suite of third party software.

If you already own or are familiar with Squeeze 6, then you’ll feel right at home with the workflow and interface design of Squeeze 7. The interface is designed with specific tabs to organize compression settings by destination, use or format requirements, including Web, Broadcast, Devices, Discs, Formats and Editing. This is a simple method of organization to make it easy to find the right preset, which may appear in more than one group. For instance, you might find the same setting under both the Devices and Formats tabs. In addition, settings can be easily modified and both preset and custom settings may be saved under a Favorites tab for quick access. As before, video can be brought into Squeeze 7 by importing a file from your hard drive, using a watch folder or by direct capture from a FireWire-connected deck or camera.

Squeeze’s Publishing Options feature was originally introduced with Squeeze 6, coinciding with the launch of Sorenson 360 – a robust, professional video hosting service on the web. Now on version 2, Sorenson 360 features content management and user privacy controls that make it an excellent client review and approval site. Sorenson 360 supports plug-ins, too, including a WordPress plug-in that allows you to post Flash or MP4 videos directly into the WordPress publishing platform.

Squeeze 7 still includes a one-year complimentary account to Sorenson 360. The Publishing Options allow you to add an upload component to any existing encoding preset. These include Akamai servers, YouTube and Sorenson 360, among others. At this time, upload settings to MobileMe galleries or Vimeo, another popular video hosting site, are not included.

If you have an established account with any of the enabled services, you may pick from existing Web Destinations presets, which are already formatted for a service’s encoding specs and include a “publish to” component. This isn’t just out to the  web, though. For example, if you select an Apple TV preset, it includes a step to publish the encoded file to iTunes on your machine. FTP publishing is also available. Lastly, you can set up e-mail or text message notifications upon completion. The point of all of these options is to allow you to establish a complete one-step, automated workflow combining import, encoding to multiple formats, publishing to multiple destinations and notification – all as a single Squeeze 7 job.

New features

Several key features were added to Sorenson Squeeze 7. Format options have been expanded to include more broadcast, blu-ray and web encodes. A Dolby-certified AC3 Consumer encoder has been added. If you have an NVIDIA graphics card using CUDA parallel GPU processing technology, you can take advantage of faster H.264 encoding. Sorenson claims up to a 3x performance boost. Even the low-cost GeForce GT120 card will yield some benefit. Don’t have an NVIDIA card? You’ll still get a boost. Squeeze 7 preferences let you launch simultaneous encoding processes, running at up to 1.5x the number of cores. In actual practice this seems to vary with the type of encoding being done, but you should be able to set the preference on an 8-core machine to 12 simultaneous processes and see multiple streams running at once.

Another new feature for Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and CS5 editors is a Squeeze 7 plug-in. This is similar to Apple Final Cut Pro’s “export with QuickTime Conversion” and Avid Media Composer’s “send to – encoding – Sorenson Squeeze” menu options. From the Premiere Pro timeline, simply select the “export – media” command from the pulldown menu to launch Adobe Media Encoder. Within this interface you may select a Squeeze format and preset instead of an Adobe choice.

Sorenson has targeted large enterprise users with Adaptive Bitrate encoding – also newly added to Squeeze 7. One of the tricks for video hosting sites on the web is to throttle playback by switching among several different synched files encoded at various bitrates. If you are watching a web video on a mobile device and the bandwidth gets bogged down, the site can momentarily switch to a lower data rate version without interrupting the stream. If you are the compressionist who encodes such files, it requires specific target rates and folder packaging formats that are server-specific. Squeeze 7 now includes several Adaptive Streaming presets that take care of this for you. As a test, I picked the iPhone 3G preset. This automatically encoded and packaged six transport streams and the necessary reference files to link them.

Improved quality and performance

Sorenson Squeeze 7 definitely provides better quality encodes than Squeeze 5 and more options than Squeeze 6. However, if you can only use one single encoder, then quite frankly, there is no such thing as “the best” or “the fastest”. I’ve found that some encoders do better with one format than another and some do better on Windows than on a Mac and vice versa. Running Squeeze 7 on a Mac gave me great results on most, non-QuickTime encodes, like M4V, MP4, Flash and Windows Media. When it came to QuickTime-based formats, I was happier with the results from Apple Compressor, but often it was simply a toss-up.

As before, Squeeze requires a bit of color-level tweaking with some source files. This is especially true with Avid DNxHD source files on a Mac. I had several matching QuickTime test clips  using both the Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes codecs. The DNxHD files normally look flatter as compared with the ProRes versions. QuickTime Player doesn’t expand the DNxHD luma levels from Rec. 709 to RGB for the screen. When I converted these in Apple Compressor to the Apple TV .m4v preset, the resulting files matched. When I encoded these same files in Squeeze 7, using its comparable Apple TV preset, the Avid-sourced .m4v looked flatter than the ProRes-sourced .m4v.

For accurate encodes in Squeeze 7 using Avid source files, tweak the built-in filters to adjust black restore, white restore, hue/saturation and gamma. Then save a custom preset for repeated use. This isn’t a criticism, but merely to point out that each encoder has its own peculiarities, which you have to understand in order to make the necessary custom presets. By and large, video levels of encoded files created from ProRes sources typically matched between Compressor and Squeeze 7. You will want to create custom presets for your common routines. This is important not only for proper levels, but also for controlling 16×9 and 4×3 aspect ratios and letterboxed/pillarboxed display attributes.

Time to tackle WebM

A new web format added to Squeeze 7 is Google’s WebM, which uses the On2 VP8 codec. On2 VP6 has been used in Flash, but I’ve never been a fan of these codecs. Clearly Sorenson is trying to stay on the cutting edge, should the web video tide turn away from H.264 and towards WebM. Unfortunately, it’s not ready for prime time. Every encoding attempt I made bogged down about half-way through the second pass and took about 30 minutes to complete. (I confirmed this with Sorenson’s tech support.) The WebM-encoded file did look very nice and played rather smoothly.  That shows promise, but until the encoding time comes down, a 30 minute encode for a one minute clip is unusable. In all fairness, WebM (VP8) encoding is slow on other encoders, too. According to Sorenson, the Squeeze team is currently working on optimizing it for WebM quality and speed.

Sorenson Squeeze 7 remains one of the best all-purpose encoders in the business. Plenty of format options, an easy workflow, relatively fast encodes and high-quality results. Windows users can easily select this as their only encoding application, while Apple users will find it to be a great alternative to QuickTime Pro or Compressor. For a one-step simplified encoding workflow, Squeeze 7 is hard to beat.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media, LLC)

© 2011 Oliver Peters

Grind those EOS files!

I have a love/hate relationship with Apple Compressor and am always on the lookout for better encoding tools. Part of our new file-based world is the regular need to process/convert/transcode native acquisition formats. This is especially true of the latest crop of HDSLRs, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and its various siblings. A new tool in this process is Magic Bullet Grinder from Red Giant Software. Here’s a nice description by developer Stu Maschwitz as well as another review by fellow editor and blogger, Scott Simmons.

I’ve already pointed out some workflows for getting the Canon H.264 files into an editable format in a previous post. Although Avid Media Composer 5, Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 and Apple Final Cut Pro natively support editing with the camera files – and although there’s already a Canon EOS Log and Transfer plug-in for FCP – I still prefer to convert and organize these files outside of my host NLE. Even with the newest tools, native editing is clunky on a large project and the FCP plug-in precludes any external organization, since the files have to stay in the camera’s folder structure with their .thm files.

Magic Bullet Grinder offers a simple, one-step batch conversion utility that combines several functions that otherwise require separate applications in other workflows. Grinder can batch-convert a set of HDSLR files, add timecode and simultaneously create proxy editing files with burn-in. In addition, it will upscale 720p files to 1080p. Lastly, it can conform frame-rates to 23.976fps. This is helpful if you want to shoot 720p/60 with the intent of overcranking (displayed as slow motion at 24fps).

The main format files are converted to either the original format (with added timecode), ProRes, ProRes 4444 or two quality levels of PhotoJPEG. Proxies are either ProRes Proxy or PhotoJPEG, with the option of several frame size settings. In addition, proxy files can have a burn-in with various details, such as frame numbers, timecode, file name + timecode or file name + frame numbers. Proxy generation is optional, but it’s ideal for offline/online editing workflows or if you simply need to generate low-bandwidth files for client review.

Grinder’s performance is based on the number of cores. It sends one file to each core, so in theory, eight files would be simultaneously processed on an 8-core machine. Speed and completion time will vary, of course, with the number, length and type of files and whether or not you are generating proxies. I ran a head-to-head test (main format only, no proxy files) on my 8-core MacPro with MPEG Streamclip and Compressor, using 16 H.264 Canon 5D files (about 1.55GB of media or 5 minutes of footage). Grinder took 12 minutes, Compressor 11 minutes and MPEG Streamclip 6 minutes. Of course, neither Compressor nor MPEG Streamclip would be able to handle all of the other functions – at least not within the same, simplified process. The conversion quality of Magic Bullet Grinder was quite good, but like MPEG Streamclip, it appears that ProRes files are generated with the QuickTime “automatic gamma correction” set to “none”. As such, the Compressor-converted files appeared somewhat lighter than those from either Grinder or MPEG Streamclip.

This is a really good effort for a 1.0 product, but in playing with it, I’ve discovered it has a lot of uses outside of HDSLR footage. That’s tantalizing and brings to mind some potential suggestions as well as issues with the way that the product currently works. First of all, I was able to convert other files, such as existing ProRes media. In this case, I would be interested in using it to ONLY generate proxy files with a burn-in. The trouble now is that I have to generate both a new main file (which isn’t needed) as well as the proxy. It would be nice to have a “proxy-only” mode.

The second issue is that timecode is always newly generated from the user entry field. Grinder doesn’t read and/or use an existing QuickTime timecode track, so you can’t use it to generate a proxy with a burn-in that matches existing timecode. In fact, if your source file has a valid timecode track, Grinder generates a second timecode track on the converted main file, which confuses both FCP and QuickTime Player 7. Grinder also doesn’t generate a reel number, which is vital data used by many NLEs in their media management.

I would love to see other format options. For instance, I like ProResLT as a good format for these Canon files. It’s clean and consumes less space, but isn’t a choice with Grinder. Lastly, the conform options. When Grinder conforms 30p and 60p files to 24p (23.976), it’s merely doing the same as Apple Cinema Tools by rewriting the QuickTime playback rate metadata. The file isn’t converted, but simply told to play more slowly. As such, it would be great to have more options, such as 30fps to 29.97fps for the pre-firmware-update Canon 5D files. Or conform to 25fps for PAL countries.

I’ve seen people comment that it’s a shame it won’t convert GoPro camera files. In fact it does! Files with the .mp4 extension are seen as an unsupported format. Simply change the file extension from .mp4 to .mov and drop it into Grinder. Voila! Ready to convert.

At $49 Magic Bullet Grinder is a great, little utility that can come in handy in many different ways. At 1.0, I hope it grows to add some of the ideas I’ve suggested, but even with the current features, it makes life easier in so many different ways.

©2010 Oliver Peters

Cottage Industry

One of the results of post production “democratization” is that many of us are literally working in a “cottage industry” – that is, from offices and edit suites right in our home. We often work in isolation free of clients hovering over our shoulder and free to set our own hours. Sound like utopia? Well, probably not.

I tend to miss the interaction and feedback from coworkers and clients and often find that this way of working lengthens the time it takes to get the job done, instead of improve it. Nevertheless, it’s here to stay, so develop strategies to make the status quo work for you. Working in the “cottage” specifically means devising the best plan for marketing, client review and interaction and delivery of your final product.

Marketing

For most solo editors, this comes down to hanging out the old shingle on a website. For some, it’s a heavy dose of social networking with Twitter and Facebook. I don’t find the stream-of-consciousness world of Twitter to my liking. Plus, I simply don’t have that kind of time to waste. I have had a website online for about a decade, but lately find that the all-inclusive, comprehensive site doesn’t do the trick. After all, the point is to get the message out beyond the boundaries of your own dot com.

Although a company site that elegantly displays all of the demo videos and other details may look nice, it may not actually add any true marketing punch. I’ve opted for a split solution, using a combination of a website, this blog, Vimeo and Flickr. The point is marketing and each of these hosting communities have their own followers and search functions that increase the chance of a potential client finding YOU. For instance, many corporate clients use YouTube, because it has become a highly-searched resource.

A company website is still a good place for job-related information, like a production bio, list of services and so on. Beyond that, keep it simple. This blog is a place for me to express my running ideas and thoughts. If you look around, many pros have taken the approach of a blog format for their personal site. In addition to articles like this one, I also get a change to showcase some unique projects that I’ve worked on. One of the things you’ll notice about those fancy, complex sites is that they rarely get updated. That’s the beauty of blogs and video hosting services like Vimeo. You can easily add new content without a major website rebuild, since they are all template driven. This encourages you to keep the content fresh and for viewers to return.

There are a lot of video hosting options, including YouTube, SmugMug, Exposure Room, Sorenson 360 and Vimeo. I’ve tried various ones and in the end settled on Vimeo’s Plus service. I like the clean look and the level of controls. In general, the videos play smoothly for most connections. It also solves the Mac-PC compatibility issue that people have to deal with when hosting their own videos on a personal website. The Sorenson 360 site is also nice, but I find it a bit pricey, since it’s geared to high traffic. It might make sense for larger companies, but probably not for individual producers and editors interested in simply posting a few demo reels.

Client Review

There are plenty of ways to handle review-and-approval, ranging from online solutions to shipping tapes and discs. If you opt for the online route then there are two ways to handle this: direct interaction or delayed response. Direct interaction is the closest to face-to-face communication you’re going to get with a client. There’s Apple’s iChat Theater, of course, but if you are looking for something more platform-agnostic, check out Fuze Movie and Fuze Meeting. Fuze Movie (formerly SyncVue) is ideally suited for an editor and director or director and VFX artist working out the details to change a scene or shot. All connected parties can log in (via Skype) and play, control and even mark up frames during the meeting.

A web-based version of this is Fuze Meeting, which doesn’t require the custom player application or the use of Skype. Any web browser will work, but you loose the on-frame mark-up capability. Nevertheless, this solution seems ideal for an editor or director reviewing a spot with a client, such as an ad agency, on the other end of the line.

I tend to work with clients who can’t be online with me at the same time. A system of sending or posting files works best for them and so, solutions like Apple’s MobileMe, Xprove, YouSendIt, Sorenson 360 and DropBox fit the bill. MobileMe’s new share function is one I’ve started to use a lot. I will frequently encode, post and link both large versions and iPhone-compatible versions.

Xprove is my choice when I need something better than a basic send or share function. There is good privacy and version control. Best of all, team members accessing the video can leave comments, giving the entire team access to the running commentary of everyone’s input.

Delivery

The same services I mentioned above can be used for final delivery. For example, many basic (or even free) services are good for files up to 1GB. That’s enough for a five minute HD clip at Blu-ray specs. Some of the projects I work on these days are targeted exclusively for the web. When that’s the case I can deliver high-quality, high-bit-rate MPEG4 files to the web designer as a “master”. Generally that will be re-encoded into a set of different-sized files. In addition, I ship actual master files to the client burned unto DVD-ROM data discs for their archive. I’ve done a handful of projects like this where I have never actually spoken to my client in person. I could pass them on the street and not even know it was them. How odd?

Encoding

Client review and final delivery make encoding a key ingredient to post. I use more than one software encoder depending on the type of file I need to create. My current favorite for high-quality HD files for Blu-ray and servers is Adobe Media Encoder, which comes bundled in their collections. It’s also one of the fastest encoders across the board. Standard def DVD files get their MPEG2 pass with either Apple Compressor or Telestream Episode Pro. I’ve also used Innobits BitVice and Adobe Media Encoder, just depending on how I feel.

H.264, MPEG4 and MP4 (all versions of the same) tend to be the preferred format for the web these days. These codecs are cross-platform compatible and work with QuickTime and Flash. My new MP4 favorite is Sorenson Squeeze 6. In the past, I’ve had issues with contrast and saturation in Squeeze-encoded files, but Sorenson has completely cleaned that up. The video looks good, speed is fast enough and the interface redesigned. Sorenson Squeeze 6 is the app I like to use for my Vimeo files.

On the other hand, when I send up review-and-approval files, I stick with Compressor. Encoding speed is fast and I can set up droplets for my favorite presets. One of these is an iPhone preset, which is ideal when posted to MobileMe with the intent of sharing. This way clients can review the file either on a computer or on their iPhone if they are on the run. It makes a lot of sense due mainly to the success and popularity of the iPhone.

A new option is the Matrox MXO2 capture system configured with MAX technology. Matrox has loaned me an MXO2 Mini as a review and test unit (more in a later article). The Mini is an ideal Final Cut Pro accessory for file-based workflows, because it’s a small unit primarily designed to connect your laptop or desktop to a video monitor. Matrox offers a PCIe and an Express 34 card, so you can use an MXO2 Mini with both a MacBook Pro and Mac Pro, if you own one of each. The optional MAX technology adds an integrated chip to provide hardware acceleration of H.264 encoding. It works within Compressor, so after installation, you’ll see additional Matrox presets. Pick one of those and the Mini will accelerate the H.264 compression of that preset for a definite encoding performance boost. If you do a lot of that, then the extra cost of the option will quickly pay for itself.

The current trend of downsizing means that more editors will be working from home. It’s time to develop strategies for making the best of this. Don’t just survive – thrive!

©2010 Oliver Peters

Compression Tips For The Web

One of the many new disciplines editors have to know is how to properly compress and encode video for presentations on the Internet or as part of CD-ROMs. Often this may be for demo reels or client approval copies, but it could also be for final presentations within PowerPoint, Director or another presentation application. The objective is to get the encoded program down to the smallest file size yet maintain as much of the original quality as possible.

 

Everyone has their own pet software or player format to recommend, but the truth of the matter is that it is unlikely that you will encode your video into a format that absolutely everyone can read without the need to download an additional player that they might have to install. The most common player formats include QuickTime, Windows Media, Real Player, Flash and the embedded media player that AOL bundles into their own software. Within each of these, there are also codec and size options that vary depending on how current a version you are targeting.

 

Modern formats, such as MPEG 4, Windows Media 9, QuickTime with Sorenson 3 and others may look great, but they frequently only run on the newest versions of these players. If your client has an older Windows 98 PC or an OS 9 Mac, it’s doubtful that they can play the latest and greatest software. You should also be aware that not all encoded results are equal. Some formats look awesome at standard medium-to-large video sizes, but don’t look good at all when you get down to a really small window size. The opposite is also true. Here are some guidelines that will let you target the largest possible audience.

 

Size and frame rate

 

The first thing to tackle when encoding for the web is the image size and frame rate. Standard definition video is 720 x 486 (480 for DV) pixels (rectangular aspect), which equates to a web size of 640 x 480 pixels (square aspect). This is considered a “large” window size for most web pages. Scaling the image down reduces the file size, so commonly used smaller sizes are 320 x 240 (“medium”), 192 x 144 and 160 x 120 (“small”). These sizes aren’t absolute. For instance, if your finished program is letterboxed, why waste file size on the black top and bottom bars? If your encoding software permits cropping, you could export these files in other sizes, such as 300 x 200 or 160 x 90 pixels. Another way to reduce the file size is to reduce the frame rate. Video runs at 29.97 fps but due to the progressive display and refresh rates of computer CRTs and flat panels, there is often little harm done in cutting this down to 15 fps or sometimes even 10 fps or lower.

 

Reducing the image size and frame rate is a matter of juggling the reduction of file size with playback that is still easily viewed and doesn’t lose the message you are trying to convey. If you are encoding for a CD-ROM instead of the web, then size is less of an issue. Here you may wish to maintain the full frame rate (29.97) so that your motion stays fluid, as long as most CPU speeds can support the size and rate you choose. For instance, a 320 x 240 file should play fine on most machines with a 200 MHz or faster CPU; however, if this same file is playing back from within another application, like an HTML page displayed in a web browser or PowerPoint, some CPU overhead will be lost to this host program. This means that the same file which plays fine outside of the host application, might tend to drop frames when playing back inside of another application.

 

Formats and players

 

There are a lot of conflicting opinions on this subject, but I tend to go for what is a common denominator and provides quality playback. For this reason, I tend to stick with formats like QuickTime (Photo-JPEG codec), Windows Media 7 and Real Player. MPEG 1 and 4 are supposed to be playable on nearly everything, but I haven’t found that to be true. I love the way Sorenson 3 (QuickTime) looks, but it requires QuickTime 5 or newer. If you encode in one of the previous three I mentioned, which are somewhat older, odds are that nearly any machine out there will be able to play these files or will be able to download a simple player in that format that works on a wide range of Mac and Windows PCs. Although Photo-JPEG is generally not considered a playback codec, the advance of CPU speeds lets these files play quite fluidly and the codec lends itself to controllable encoding – meaning, less voodoo to get a good image.

 

If you are putting a file up for anyone to see, like a demo reel, then you will probably have to create a version in each of these three player formats. If you are encoding for a single client and you know what they can play, then only one version is needed. As an example, a typical :30 commercial encoded with QuickTime (Photo-JPEG at about 50% quality) at a size of 320 x 240 (29.97 fps) will yield a file size of around 10 to 15MB. This is fine for approval quality, but a bit large when you multiply that for a longer demo reel on your website. Cutting down the image size and frame rate and using a lossier codec, will let you squeeze a demo reel of several minutes into that same space.

 

Interlacing and filtering

 

Interlaced video doesn’t look good on computer displays and doesn’t compress efficiently. Some programs let you export single fields only or let you apply de-interlacing filters. I recommend you use one of these options to get better results especially when there is a lot of motion. The one caveat is text. De-interlacing often trashes graphics and text, since half the visual information is tossed out. Generally, you get a better web look if your footage is based on a single-field export. Additionally, some encoding applications include noise reduction and image correction filters. I tend to stay away from these, but a touch of noise reduction won’t hurt. This will prefilter the image prior to compressing, which often results in better-looking and more efficient compression. Adding filters lengthens the encode time, so if you need a fast turnaround, you will probably want to disable any filters.

 

Constant versus variable bit-rate encoding

 

Like encoding for DVDs, many compression applications permit you to choose and adjust settings for constant (one-pass) and variable (one or two-pass) bit-rate encoding. I prefer constant bit-rate encoding because variable bit-rate often makes fades and dissolves look quite “blocky”. Constant also gives you a better look when transitioning between static graphics or frames and motion. The downside is that you will have to use a lower average rate to get comparable results in file size. Not all codecs give you this option, but when they do, it will often take a bit of trial-and-error to determine which rates look best and to decide how often to place keyframes (usually a slider in the software or a number value).

 

Audio

 

Remember that audio is a major component of your program. You can cut done your video by quite a lot, but at some point audio is taking up even more space than the video and needs to be compressed as well. Tackle this in several ways. First, change your stereo audio to a single track of mono audio. The difference is minor and often stereo channels don’t seem to encode well, introducing all sorts of phase errors. Next, drop your sampling rate. You probably edited the show using a rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz. On most programs, you can successfully drop this to 22 kHz without really affecting the sound quality heard on most computer speakers. Do not drop the bit-depth. Reducing the bit-depth from 16-bit (typical) to 8-bit will create some very undesirable audio. Finally, add compression. Most codecs include some typical audio compression schemes, which all players can decode. A compression ratio of 4:1 is common and hardly noticed.

 

Software

 

Choosing the best application to encode/compress your footage gets down to learning curve, comfort factor, speed, preference and whether you are on a Mac or PC. Not all applications give you equal quality results with the same codec, though. You can encode using the internal export functions of most NLEs or choose from a wide range of applications, including Apple QuickTime Player Pro, Apple Compressor, Discreet Cleaner, Canopus Procoder, Sorenson Squeeze, Ligos, Windows Media encoder and many others.

 

When you encode a file, you may also choose to make it streaming or downloadable. Selecting progressive encoding will make the file downloadable, which is generally what you want for a demo reel or a client approval copy. If you want to ensure that the person’s browser will permit a download, wrap the file in an archive (data compression) format like .sit or .zip using WinZip or Stuffit. This forces the viewer to either open the file or save it on their local hard drive.

 

As with most things, it helps to read the book and spend some time experimenting when you’re not under the gun. This will let you decide which codec and encoding application gives you the best results based on need and the target audience.

 

© 2004 Oliver Peters