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Publishing Movies on the Web (2003)


In Brief:

From 1977, I was often active as a film-maker and teacher of film-making.  I also helped run co-ops with names like "Alternative Cinema".   And so by 2003, I was the archive-keeper of media content, eg short animations, well-suited to web publishing.  And I had a brief from other film-makers to find audiences for their work.  So the search was on for methods, software, and file formats to best handle this kind of material, which because it originates from traditional-film and analogue-video cameras may well react differently to "pure" digital images when processed .  I did this mostly by experiment, taking 3 representative films, converting them to a range of formats at various "compression" settings, and comparing the results. 

There are 2 needs here.

  1. Higher quality, medium compression format for writing to CDs. 
    Needs to be good enough for reasonable big-screen projection.
    RECOMMENDATIONS: 
       a.  Apple QUICKTIME Format (best all rounder,
            friendly to older machines)
            Settings: (see below for explanation of these terms)
            Image =  "Sorenson 3, Size:720 x 576, Quality:60%, Keyframes at < BR >         Edit Points or every 50 frames, Speed=15fps"
            Sound = "uncompressed PCM, mono, 32KHz sampling rate"
       b.  MPEG-2 (newer standard, suits newer equipment)
            Settings: use presets "DVD PAL" or "DVD NTSC" 
            depending on target audience.
     
  2. High compression, small file size for viewing from websites.
    RECOMMENDATIONS: 
    1. Windows Media 8 (most user-friendly and easiest to publish).  
    2. RealVideo 9 (techically best in these tests).
    If possible offer both.  If standardising on one, use Windows Media 8.
     

I did most of this project using free and low-cost software and resources, so I could report on how to achieve no-budget publication of no-budget productions.  There are also some notes on use of commercial software for those who have it available.

The example website is:    https://www.manukautech.info/iafilm


In Detail.

"Digital Video does The Trickle-Down Effect", IAFILM revival 2002-

Digital Video is hungry on computer resources, but those resources were coming down in cost.  By 2002 I was getting increasing interest in the IAFILM material from film students wanting to work in similar ways, and from the "Auckland Moving Image Centre" who started including this work in their regular film screenings.  Internet Business was poor with the I.T. downturn after the "dotCom bubble burst", but I was able to find NZ$110 for a "TV Tuner Card" for my PC Computer.  This started me on low-resolution film-making using a borrowed early model Sony Handicam Video-8.  Not a digital camera at all, but the card could digitise its analog output.  I downloaded the free software "ABC VideoRoll" and produced "Flying House" with my young children and their school classmates to see just how far we could go with a no-budget approach accessible to schools.  A fortunate discovery was that the Handicam+Computer combination could do precise single-frame animation which opened the way to encouraging the children to invent fantastical storylines which they could then make happen on screen.  "Flying House" intercuts between the children making up their story, and their acted results.

Raw video takes up a lot of disk space.  "Flying House" only just squeezed onto my available 10 Gig of hard disk space.  The final 6 minute movie is a file of 1.3 Gigabytes (1300 Meg), too big to even fit on a CD.  With a max of 5 Meg being a practical upper limit for available web-servers delivering to the intended audience, "compression" was the next item on the agenda.


Medium Compression formats, early 2003

I would rate myself as a web technology expert, but I found the path to an online solution for IAFILM to be very long and convoluted.  I hope that this publication can help others get there faster.

When outputting a final result from video editing programs, one sees a very long list of possible "codecs".  Codecs are programs with complicated Math formulas or "algorithms" to detect repeating patterns and use them as a basis for "compression".  I set out to test some of these, successively reducing the size and quality settings of the IAFILM movies to try to find a balance point of small file size while still reasonably viewable and audible.

My first round of tests was of medium-compression formats eg "Quicktime", "MPEG", "Cinepak", "DIVX".  None of these could compress enough to make web publication practical for IAFILM.  With the limited webserver resources we have available, and the limited download capability of our likely audience, we need to compress 1 minute of video to 1 MEG or less of file size while still delivering a recognisable result which conveys the intention of the work.  The closest was DIVX at about 5 Meg per minute.

So I evaluated them for higher-quality distribution and archiving on media like writeable CDs.  eg collaborating film-makers sending footage to each other by ordinary mail. 

Note that while Digital Video is often promoted as giving one the ability to copy and manipulate without quality loss, but this is only true if one sticks to large raw files, or the slightly-compressed "DV" format.  Using medium-compressed files brings in a quality loss, but how far can we go while still keeping it good enough for demo and trial-editing purposes?  Some largely qualitative results are:

"Quicktime"

This is Apple Computer's container file format, but there are a lot of options for compression codecs to use with it.  After testing many of them, I found the
"Sorenson 3" codec to be my best all-rounder.  And it gives reasonably good performance on older computers.

Small compression ratio, high quality result, with "Sorenson 3 at 90%"
   eg "EEL-UP": 900Meg DV to 200Meg Quicktime
   eg "Into, Out Of": 1000Meg Raw to 210Meg Quicktime.
Quicktime maintained surprisingly good quality when the heat was turned up on the Sorenson settings = adding "temporal compression" (= ticking the 'keyframe' checkboxes), and dropping the "quality" setting from 90% to 60%.
   eg "Tailspin"(1.5min excerpt) 360Meg DV to 22Meg.

Advantages:

  • Widely used standard for medium compression, high-quality.
  • Quicktime is the working format for some video editing programs eg "ABC Videoroll", which suggests that other formats get changed into "Quicktime" anyway while one is working on them. 

Observed Negative Result:

  • In one trial, the slightly non-standard rectangle dimensions of the archive IAFILM material caused "Quicktime" to "fill in the gaps" with bright distracting side bands which I could only get rid of with an option in the commercial "Adobe Premiere" editing software.


    This does not matter so much with the "Quicktime Player" which has a light grey frame, but the use of "Quicktime" as an working intermediate means that this can become a problem for the final result as illustrated in this image.
     
  • Apple Computer do the common marketing thing of giving away a free Quicktime player with basic capabilities, but you need to pay if you want the "Pro" version with some editing capabilities.  Unfortunately, the basic free player can not play videos "full-screen" which I regard as a basic need.  In my opinion, Apple have misjudged their marketing balance and been too mean on this point.

Issues:

  • Being non-Microsoft may be a plus for acceptance with some users and stakeholders eg those on non-Microsoft computer systems.
    In my case, I am based in Auckland, NZ and so take an interest in the "Moving Image Centre" whose equipment is Apple MacIntosh.  "Quicktime" is an Apple product so "Quicktime" is an easy format for them to handle, eg when I submit IAFILM material on CD to them for their screenings.
  • Being non-Microsoft means that an additional installation is required to make the Quicktime codec and player available on Microsoft Windows machines.  Is this a barrier for some users?


MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group)

MPEG is a family of codecs, with 3 versions at last count, named 1, 2 and 4.  The "missing" Version 3 is sound only and is the currently popular (in 2004)  MP3 sound format. MPEG have their own .mpg container file format.  Microsoft AVI files and Apple Quicktime .MOV files can also use the MPEG codecs.

Example degree of compression with MPEG-1:
   "Flying House": 1300Meg DV to 60Meg MPG

My conclusion (details below) is that MPEG-1 is a useful format but of rather limited quality.  At the time of writing (start of 2004, revised Oct 2004), 
MPEG-4 is such a complex codec that many machines in common use do not have enough processing power to run it well unless the movie is low-resolution: eg 320x240 pixels or less. 

MPEG-2 is the standard for DVDs.  I conclude that it is good value as a working medium for newer machines.  It also works well with ULEAD MediaStudio software which we are increasingly using from mid-2004.  You need to play it back with DVD-playing software to get best results.

Advantages:

  • MPEG comes from an independent standards body so in theory it is free from the politics of inter-corporation standards wars.
  • MPEG-4 is being offered by some video camera manufacturers as their alternative compressed format.

Observed Negative Result:

  • I found MPEG-1 to be the only consistently reliable version on the one modest new computer and range of older machines I am using.  Even then it was only reliable with its "PAL pre-set" image size of 352x288 pixels.  Anything else would cause image breakup on rapid movement. (see below).

    MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 deliver higher image quality than MPEG-1, but both suffered from image breakup on my number-one machine: it has an Athlon 1800MHZ processor on a budget motherboard with built-in video.
    With my low-end test machine, a Celeron 300MHZ, the MPEG-2 file caused Windows Media Player to crash.  The MPEG-4 file played the video in slow motion with the soundtrack at normal speed going right out of sync.
    Other users with machines as fast as 1000MHZ have told me that they also suffer from this kind of MPEG-4 overload.

    I struggled with the mystery of how my Athlon machine could play DVD movies perfectly well.  DVD movies are compressed to about the right ratio for what I want to work with so whatever is happening on a DVD looked like a promising idea.  I read that DVD movies are in MPEG-2 format, so why was it that my own movies processed with MPEG-2 came out badly by comparison?!  I eventually tried the experiment of using my DVD player software, "Samsung" in my case, to point to my hard drive and play my MPEG-2 test files.  And they now looked good!  Which now makes me unhappy with both Windows-Media and Quicktime Players for spoiling the MPEG-2 party in rapid-motion scenes.  Conclusion:  MPEG-2 can look good but only by playing messy-user-unfriendly tricks with the DVD player or by making up strangely-formatted "SVCD" CD disks.  I am more interested in a result which is a computer-oriented CD with films introduced and annotated using web pages.  The DVD format is off doing its own thing in a rather different and incompatible manner, which can also be unfriendly to loading material back into a video editor - this is especially the case with the "SVCD" version. 

    UPDATE Mid 2004 - we now discover that "ULEAD MediaStudio" works well with MPEG-2 formats, especially the standard "presets": "DVD" and "SVCD" so we are now using MPEG-2 more as our compact high-quality archive format.


    Image breakup example (falling cistern from "Flying House"):
    Left is MPEG-1, Right is MPEG-4

 

"DIVX"

The DIVX format, an independent variation on MPEG, showed some early promise for IAFILM-Online. 
eg "Flying House"  1300Meg DV to 22Meg DIVX, low quality but viewable.
But 22 Meg is still not good enough for online publishing.  
And when considering DIVX for the IAFILM medium compression role, its acceptance as a standard, and capability to be read into video editing programs were its main question marks.  DIVX appears to have been a breakthrough back in 2001, but by 2004 I believe other more widely-used technologies have progressed and left DIVX behind.

 

Decision on an IAFILM Medium Compression Standard

Like so many computer decisions, we end up with 2 answers:
Successful handling of "Quicktime" supplied by me on CD to the "Auckland Moving Image Centre" prompts me to give it my "overall first place" rating.
Apple QUICKTIME Format: 
Options: Image =  "Sorenson 3, Size:720 x 576, Quality:60%, Keyframes at Edit Points or every 50 frames
Speed=15fps for demo purposes saving space. 
Speed = 25fps where future editing, even trial editing, of the file may beneeded.
Sound = uncompressed PCM, 32KHz sample rate, mono.

Recent success(mid 2004) using MPEG-2 with ULEAD video editing software has us using that more, and I now give it my "close 2nd place" rating.
MPEG-2 format, use "presets": "DVD PAL", "DVD NTSC" or "SVCD"  depending on target audience.  We find we can make disks for DVD players using blank CDs if we use the "SVCD" standard which fits about 35 min on a CD.

It is clear to me now that codecs vary in their usefulness depending on what kind of software and equipment is in use.  We find ULEAD loves MPEG-2 and does a slow conversion from Quicktime.  And we find that Adobe Premiere 6.5 loves Quicktime and does a slow conversion from MPEG-2.  Our current Manukau Institute PC + mostly-ULEAD setup favours MPEG-2.  Increasing numbers of DVD players in the community also point us to MPEG-2. 
In my opinion, Apple Quicktime (Sorenson) is still the most versatile for computer-based platforms, and eg we have recently found ourselves forced to convert clips from MPEG-2 back to Apple Quicktime to get best results when incorporating video into Multimedia productions built using "Macromedia Director".


"Hey!  That streaming stuff can do KISS Low-Budget too!", July 2003

For my first trial with the "Windows Media" format, I used "Microsoft Movie Maker" which gave me disappointing results.  I turned my attention to the medium compression issue as reported above. 
On returning to the high-compression problem, I found that both the basic free version of "ULead VideoStudio 5" and the commercial "Adobe Premiere" have "Windows Media" export options which give good results. 

"Windows Media" delivered a dramatic drop in file size. 
"Flying House" compresses to 4.6 Meg as a "Windows Media" file.  The rival "RealVideo-9" with advanced options delivers 3.7 Meg. So these codecs are successfully compressing to 300 to 400 times smaller than the original.

I tested a range of 6 possible variations with "Imagex 2", (1 minute).
For these trials, I made "single-rate" files with an above-average sound quality setting.  These codecs can also make "multi-rate" files which can deliver one of several levels of quality depending on how fast the connection is, but "multi-rate" is intended for "streaming" which we are not testing here.
The main settings that "Windows Media" and "RealVideo" offer are the "streaming bit rate" measured in "kilobits per second".  In our case of simple files this is a measure of how fast the information will be read out of the file.   The "100 kbps" setting, originally intended for streaming over "Dual ISDN", seems to meet the IAFILM objectives best.

Windows Media:

"100 kbps Dual ISDN" gave an "Imagex 2" result of only 0.74 Meg, but in my opinion lost the intended effect of my rapidly spinning animated dancer in the final scene. Note though that Windows Media subsequently "passed" my "100" test for the other 4 movies analysed, and it was only "Imagex2" that required a bulkier "256" file (1.6Meg) to work well.

The file-download process was friendly.  It even gave a kind of no-budget streaming where it started the movie before the download was complete. This early start is timed so the player reaches the end of the movie just as the download completes.

Navigating to a video file via a simple hyperlink caused the Windows Media player to offer 2 options to the user:

  1. Play in the Internet Explorer Media Sidebar
  2. Popup the player as a separate window

I decided I liked Option 2 better, but unfortunately Option 1 is the default and I can well imagine ordinary users having some problems with this.
A possible solution is a block of code for web pages which defines the Media Player as a component "object" of the page.  This places "Media Player" more firmly under the control of the webapp programmer.
 

RealVideo-8 and RealVideo-9
RealVideo-8 gave similar results to "Windows Media", with its 256Kbps-rating file being slightly smaller at 1.6 Meg.  This file is included in the set I invite the reader to test, as it may be already available on many machines without the possibly obtrusive need for a download.  ie I want to know if supporting an older option helps with user-friendliness.
I disliked the "blue-framed" Real Player, but near the end of my testing, I received the prompt to upgrade to the "RealPlayer-9" codec and the "RealOne" player, both of which were improvements.  So I tested again, and the comments from now on are based on these new versions.

RealPlayer-9 with its "2 pass encoding" and "Variable bit rate encoding" options on, achieved a good quality result at the 100Kbps setting, giving a file size of 0.59 Meg.

I found these options of great interest.

"Variable bit rate" takes advantage of the fact that not all movie scenes are created equal.  The codec can compress more for some scenes and less for others to hit that "100" average.  This is probably not a good idea for streaming but makes sense for our downloadable files.

"2 pass encoding" is another plus.  Earlier in these trials I became aware that codecs usually work from "keyframes" which are rendered as complete still images, and sampled about every 2 seconds.  Then from each keyframe, the codec just works on the changes rather than repeating an entire image which may be very much the same.  The film-maker in me was sceptical, as edit cuts can vary very much in frequency and I was already wondering if there was a manual override to select the first frame after each of my edits as the keyframes for the codec to use.  So I was pleased to see that RealSystems have thought of this.  This option causes the codec to do a first pass through the video, looking for edits and other points of major change to map the keyframes, then do a second encoding pass.  In theory, great idea, and especially relevant to the IAFILM material.  Now for the practical test:
"Imagex2", RealVideo-9, 100kbps, 2-Pass ON = 0.59 Meg
"Imagex2", RealVideo-9, 100kbps, 2-Pass OFF = 0.66 Meg
First impression, a worthwhile improvement although less than I was hoping for.  Both files are on the website so you can see if you observe any difference in quality.

RealOne Player
This "green-framed" player struck me as a big improvement on its "blue-framed" predecessor.  The in-your-face advertising of the old player was hidden by default.  I previously observed that the old blue player tried to "jump the gun" ie starting playback while some material was still downloading, but it started too optimistically and needed a lot of catchup pauses.  I observe now that the new "RealOne", very sensibly in my opinion, downloads the entire file first then plays it.

In Summary:

The IAFILM-OnLine Objective: To compress 1 minute of movie to 1 MEG or less of file size while still delivering a recognisable result which conveys the intention of the work.

The following table gives file size results.  Generally: smaller is better:

Movie (Running Time, DV File Size) Windows Media RealPlayer-9
(2-pass On)
RealPlayer-9
(2-pass OFF)
"Imagex 2" (1 min, 202 Meg) 0.74 Meg 0.59 Meg 0.66 Meg
"Flying House" (6 min, 1316 Meg) 4.61 Meg 3.66 Meg 3.67 Meg
"Mum!  I Need Swords and Guns!"
(5 min, 1420 Meg)
3.73 Meg 2.81 Meg 2.91 Meg
"EEL-UP" (4 min, 880 Meg) 3.14 Meg 2.47 Meg 2.52 Meg

"RealVideo-9" gives the best technical result in terms of the objective.

"Windows Media" does have an advantage in that it is readily available to more users and also provides a useful mock-streaming effect for users with reasonably good internet connections.

RECOMMENDATIONS: 
* Windows Media 8 (most user-friendly and easiest to publish).
* RealVideo 9 (techically best in our tests).
If possible offer both.  If standardising on one, use Windows Media 8.
 

The situation with these and other codecs is changing almost daily.  This is a summary of how I found they worked with my particular movies of interest, as at 01 to 13 July 2003. 

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