Internet Distribution: The Big Squeeze

Web technology
may be the great equalizer
when it comes to
promoting an indie film,
but actually delivering
your video or trailer for
Internet viewing is a
different story. It’s hard
not to feel cheated, as
you convert your work
into a tiny file that can be downloaded by
zillions of viewers who are too cheap to
buy the DVD—many of whom have the
attention span of a gnat. But perhaps most
frustrating are the numerous software companies
flooding the market with different
formulas for video compression. The end
result? Moviemakers get bogged down with
a dozen different codecs (software programs
that enable video compression or decompression
for digital video) to choose from.

There are software packages that make
the process of compressing your video for
Internet streaming much easier. I decided
to test some of the more popular packages,
using the same original DV footage with
medium quality output and default audio
compressors in order to determine which
program offers the most bang for your buck
and the best quality for your computer
screen.

Video
Amphetamines

Use these simple scripts to make your
Windows Media and Real Media files
start playing immediately.
I have no idea how or why these little
written commands make Web video
load faster, but they do—and a hell of
a lot faster at that. Don’t believe me?
Try one!
Here’s how to use them:
Open a word processor on your
computer. (I use Notepad, because it’s
the simplest.)

Windows Media
Copy the following text exactly, replacing
the directories with the ones on your own
Website, of course.

<ASX VERSION=“3.0”>
<ENTRY>
<REF HREF=“http://www.yourwebsite.
com/videodirectory/Yourfilename.
wmv”/>
</ENTRY>
</ASX>

Now save this text document with a
“.wvx” extension (myvideo.wvx) and link
to it on your Web page.

Real Media
Create the following text in a blank
document, inserting your file information.
http://www.yourwebsite.com/
videodirectory/yourfilename.rm

Save this file with a “.ram” extension
(myvideo.ram) and link to it on
your Website.

The Big Three
These first three software platforms are the
ones you probably know best. They’re often
included with nonlinear editors these days,
so you may already be using one or more
of them.

Mass Appeal

Windows Media 9, included with most PCs
www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia
There’s little doubt that if you want a video to
be accessible to the mass audience, you need
a version of it to stream for Windows Media.
The compressed video is of decent quality, as
is the sound, though I can see very little difference
between a file compressed to stream
at 256 kilobytes per second (kbs) and one
that streams at 512 kbs. A few other gripes
about Windows Media: The Mac version of the
player tends to be much less stable than the
Windows version. Also, the Windows player
tends to forget its last size and position, so
every time you open a video clip, the player
jumps forward and fills your screen. There may
be a way to change the default settings, but it
will involve some hunting. For copying, sharing
and repurposing files, however, Windows Media
is great. You can drop .WMV clips right into an
Adobe Premiere or After Effects timeline, then
resize and apply filters the way you would any
AVI clip—although you may have to render to
see your results.

Mass Appeal Revisited

Real Media, $19.95 (for RealPlayer Plus)

www.real.com
Like Windows Media, Real Media has become
a standard video delivery format. The biggest
advantage this software system has over Windows
Media is that files play smoothly on Macintosh
computers, with similar image and sound quality,
using the free RealPlayer application. Also,
RealPlayer allows you to jump around the timeline,
even as it’s downloading. Real Media clips
are difficult to convert, save or manipulate. For
videographers, this slows the work process to a
halt. Say you want to send an RM clip to an offsite
graphics guy and have him add some text or
slides. Forget it. Real Media has the end user in
mind, not the artist.

Slow Good

QuickTime 7 Pro, $29.99

www.apple.com/quicktime

See for yourself:
Side-by-side
compression
comparisons
Blaze Media Pro
Flash 8 Professional
QuickTime 7 Pro
Windows Media 9
VP3

I’m not a big fan of QuickTime (QT). I know,
those are fighting words. But as a reformed Mac
user, I’ve never been able to figure out how to
and smoothly on my Websites. Even when you
select “Fast Start” and save the file in a streaming
mode, the QT application still takes about
10 seconds to boot up—an eternity when you’re
browsing the Web. I’ve also run into glitches when
importing QuickTime files into Adobe Premiere
Pro. Unless I import the audio separately, I get
frequent audio glitches. My biggest peeve about
the Pro version of this software, however, is the
way the company handles upgrades. You’re forced
to buy a new license for every major upgrade.
QuickTime, for my money, is better suited to fullresolution
video, where it does something most
formats don’t: Allows you to save clips with an
alpha layer.

Image Conscious
These tools have a steeper learning curve
and slower conversion times, but they can
deliver superior quality video streams.

Powerful, If Quirky

Flash 8 Professional, $699.00

www.adobe.com
As Adobe puts it, Flash Player “is the world’s most
pervasive software platform,” playing Flash videos
on 97 percent of PCs. That may be true, but in my
experience, playing Flash files is just as dodgy as
any other proprietary software. Like Real Media,
Flash video resists efforts to capture, edit or do
anything other than watch it. That said, the latest
version of Flash is extremely powerful and
delivers outstanding quality video. The Flash file
created from my DV footage took about twice as
long to convert as the Windows Media equivalent,
but the final Flash video blows away the competition
in clarity, color and watchability. Rendered
sound quality was about average. It has far too
many bells and whistles for my simple needs, but
I’m sure it’s ideal for the full-time Webmeister.
Bandwidth misers, beware, however: If you try to
make your Flash video files too small—the way
YouTube does—you end up with mush.

Secret Weapon

VP3, Free
www.vp3.com/getvp3/index.shtml
Here’s a little piece of software you’ve probably
never heard of. It’s a video codec called VP3,
made by the same company that makes the
software behind Flash 8. VP3 produces video
that looks better than most of the major software
packages, but it has the added advantage
of costing nothing. As part of the “Open Source”
project on the Internet, you can download the
VP3 codec (code that allows you to play back
and create VP3 files). If you want to make your
own VP3 videos, you’ll have to use a third-party
program to do so. No worries. After installing the
codec, just open up QuickTime Pro or another
software package and you should see the VP3
option.

All-In-One Suites
These two programs allow you to quickly
and efficiently convert video to several
different formats.

Studio Workhorse

Sorenson Squeeze 4.3 Compression Suite, $449.00

www.sorensonmedia.com
The latest version of Squeeze is moviemaker friendly.
I like the fact that you only have to deal
with one screen for most of your video conversion
and you can set the “in” and “out” points
in your original video. Its interface allows you to
log in several clips for batch processing, a major
labor-saver, although the time required to render
will increase proportionally. Squeeze also offers
formats such as MPEG-4, which are becoming
more common and offer streaming possibilities
that MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 do not. It’s also very
handy that this version produces high-quality
Flash video that is easy to upgrade with the OnQ
VP6 plug-in (the same software used in Flash 8)
for even better results. My one complaint is that
the program does not offer real time previewing
of what clips will look like compressed. In order
to see how your final video will look you have to
pre-render a short clip.

Swiss Army Knife

Blaze Media Pro, $50.00

www.blazemp.com
The newest release of this conversion package
might seem like an odd choice for this article. It’s
not aimed at creating Web video, like Squeeze or
Flash. Instead, it does a little bit of everything.
Most surprisingly, it can create Flash video from
your AVI, MPEG-2 or QuickTime files as well as
create Windows Media streaming files. On top
of that coup (considering the cost), the program
boots up quickly and quickly converts back and
forth among those standard video formats. The
interface also features a simple video editor and
a kick-ass audio editor/converter. Without ever
reading a manual, you can extract audio from
any video clip and convert it into whatever format
you want. You can also convert CD audio tracks
to WAV files, or burn a CD, or replace the audio in
an existing video. Bravo.

As a general rule, you will have to tweak the
original video before compressing in order for
it to work best in Web streaming format. Levels,
such as the contrast and color settings, usually
need some adjustments. For example, I often
adjust the gamma level of an indoor scene up
(making it brighter) by 10 percent. The only way
to get it just right is through trial and error—so
have some patience.

Now, here’s the dirty little secret about
Web streaming: Different compression software tools affect different components of your film, turning some to
trash and preserving others. To ensure
you don’t lose all of your project’s pro-­
duction value, rank each element of
your video in order of importance and align
it with the strengths and weaknesses of the
software I’ve investigated. You are sure to
find a happy medium—and the best compressor for your work. MM

Portland, Maine-based Matthew Power is an
indie moviemaker, stage actor and awardwinning
journalist. His ongoing video project,
Liberty News TV (www.libertynewstv.com) reaches
30 million U.S. homes every month by way of
Free Speech TV and public access television.

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