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