DVD may be all the rage, but there is a nearly universal distribution path that has been around for quite a while now.
"You took such lovely video at your sister's wedding."
"Everybody's so excited to see it."
"Yeah, I'll bet they are!"
"I told everybody you'd send them a copy."
"I'm sending you the guest list. Oh, and you should send that funny video you did of Elvis and Moe playing soldier."
Nobody thinks that video is funny, but my mother does.
Two days later the guest list shows up in the mail and I'm horrified to discover that there are 140 people on it. How is it that my family can possibly know a hundred and forty people? VHS tapes in bulk, mailers, postage: this is going to bankrupt me. My own sister's wedding will be the end of my fiscal solvency! And that's not even considering the time it'll take to put this 20-minute short onto tape. Since VHS is a real-time media, it'll be 20 minutes x 140 copies: almost two solid days (assuming I sit by the VCR and change tapes exactly when one is finished). If I don't send this out, my family will disown me and I'll never get another birthday gift as long as I live. I'm doomed.
A Question of Convenience
Apart from wide distribution of players and a practically universal format, VHS doesn't have much going for it. Looking at my ever cluttered media center filled with a yawning array of movies collected over the years, I find myself really wishing that Mini DV had come around a lot earlier. VHS can really be a pain to deal with. Apart from storage, there's also the low resolution. VHS is so twentieth century. Let's face it though, my mom and dad are going to get a Mini DV player about, oh, never, so if I want to send them my magnum opus I need to send it some other way.
The Sneaky Format
Under the radar, a new popular media player has arrived largely unheralded in homes around the world: the personal computer. No, my parents don't have a Mini DV player, but they do have three computers. Apart from VHS, they can easily watch a video file. All new computers out of the box today contain all the equipment and power necessary to play video from the built-in CD-ROM drive.
When is a Computer Format the Best Format?
The most obvious reasons to distribute video formatted for a computer are ease and expense. Postage for shipping a CD-ROM is a third of what it costs to ship a VHS tape, duplication time is less and, in bulk, blank CDs are about as expensive as pumpkin seeds. There are downsides to CD distribution as well, led by the fact that CDs hold no more than 800 megabytes of data or about an hour of VHS quality video or only 20 minutes of almost-DVD quality video. Another downside is that unless you have one of those trendy new smart AV clients, you have to watch the video on your computer rather than your living room TV.
Just because we put a video file on a universal media format does not mean that it can be played back by just any computer. CDs will fit into both Macs and PCs, but the data on the disc might not be compatible with one or the other. How can we be sure that everybody can play back the video? What's the most universal format?
We want to send our video in a way that not only my savvy niece in Shiloh can view, but also my technophobic uncle Rand in Perth Amboy, who uses his computer almost exclusively for e-mail and solitaire. For this reason, it's best if people don't have to download any additional special software to view it.
The two most obvious formats are Microsoft .avi (or WMV) and Apple's QuickTime .mov. QuickTime (QT) is a free download for anyone (about 11MB) and works on both PCs and Macs. The omnipresence of the Windows operating system means that, whether you like it or not, the vast majority of computer users will already have some form of the Microsoft Windows Media Player installed. And although it will make Mac users cranky, they can also download the Windows Media Player (7MB). The free Real player is also an option that works on Macs, PCs and Linux boxes. Of course, you can always include the player software on the CD you distribute. While this will eliminate half of your problem (the downloading half), you'll still annoy the heck out of anyone who has to install the new software. It's not a perfect world, so you're just going to have to hold your breath, pick a format and plunge in.
The raw video you edit is probably in the DV format or, for you analogs out there, some other format that is not suitable for distribution. In order to view the video on another computer, it will be necessary to recompress it with a software codec. MPEG-4 is the latest and greatest and seems to be one of the best options available. Our only caution is that it is, as we mentioned, the latest and greatest. This means you need a fairly speedy (500MHz or better) computer to play it back and one of the aforementioned downloadable players. We'd recommend you try encoding by means of the default Windows Media settings using perhaps the version 7 encoder (version 9 is the newest). This way, you'll be as compatible as possible, while still getting some fine looking results. Select a template in your editing application that hits about a 1-2 Mbps data rate. That would be far too high for the Internet, but it'll be just right for CD.
Burning Your CD-ROM
Your CD-ROM creating software probably came with your CD burner. There are a variety of different programs, but they all work in similar ways: drag the files you want burned from your hard drive to a blank CD-R and select burn or record. Since we are just burning a data CD, it doesn't have to be in any special format.
Packaging Your CD-ROM
If you choose to buy special CD burning software, it'll probably include a label-maker and labels that you can print for your discs. Labeling your CD adds a level of attractiveness to your presentation and allows you to include viewing instructions right on the disc, where they will be very difficult to lose. We are still cautious about putting labels on DVDs, but years of anecdotal stories from our readers suggest that many are happily putting labels on their CDs with no ill effects.
When all is Said and Done
"This is your Aunt Betsy."
"Hi Aunt Betsy."
"I just wanted to call and thank you for sending me the thing of your sister's wedding. Sal said it is a CD and we put it in his thing that plays them. We couldn't hear the wedding at all."
"Uh, yeah, Aunt Betsy, it's a, it's not an audio disk. It has video on it, you need to play it in a computer."
"You don't say!"
Distributing your video on CD-R rather than more traditional means can save you a bundle, though it's not without pitfalls. It's more complex than tape, there are more variables and more that can go wrong. On the positive side, it's cheaper to duplicate, mail and store. And most of your relatives will be able to figure it out eventually.
Kyle Cassidy is a video artist and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia with his cats Milla and Tatiana.
[Sidebar: A Word About Autorun]
Autorun is when you put a CD in, and it starts up all by itself. Lots of people found this incredibly annoying and so disabled autorun on their computers. Macintosh users were so annoyed by it that Apple removed the autorun feature completely in OS X. If you're dead set on having your CD autorun when put in a computer, there are several freeware programs which allow this such as "Karen's Autorun.inf Editor" or "Quick Menu Builder," both of which are on the Internet.
VCD (video CD) never caught on in this country, but it was big in Asia. VCDs use MPEG-1 video and are largely compatible with Macs, PCs, Linux boxes and even some living room DVD players. The quality of MPEG-1 video is not always that great, but we'd recommend you give it a test run on your next project. The only downside is that you will have to pay more attention to the format of the disc and you will need to explicitly burn a VCD with your software. Fortunately, many consumer editing applications will create discs of the proper format for you with just a click or two.