An AVCHD Update

The Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD) format is one of the most popular video formats around. And, it’s one that we’ve written about quite a bit since it can be found in every corner of our video production craft, whether you’re a shooter or an editor. We can take a closer look at the format, see what’s new and where we see it heading in the future in this year’s update to AVCHD.

AVCHD Editing Basics

AVCHD is a data format that is used for recording, editing and delivering high definition video. It uses the uber efficient MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 codec to compress HD video into smaller files without jeopardizing a lot of quality. It’s so good at compressing video that it has become the standard recording format for many consumer and prosumer video camcorders. Most all legitimate video editing software packages have adopted the AVCHD format natively so that video editors can work with these files seamlessly, and many video sharing sites will accept this format when submitting your video to their sites.

New editors shouldn’t be weary of the format, but it can pose a few challenges. AVCHD video can be stored on all sorts of media: DVDs, hard disk, a variety of memory card types, etc. As an editor you’ll need to be able to take a client’s footage no matter what it’s stored on, or preferably be able to borrow the clients camcorder to extract the footage.

If your editing software does not support AVCHD natively, you’ll need to log and transfer your footage to a different format. This process adds another step to your post production workflow, adding more time to completing your project. Make sure to factor that in if you are new to the format.

If you’re lucky enough to avoid the log and transfer step you may still experience a challenge or two. As with any advanced data format, your editing computer will need a decent processor to do most of the computing. This becomes even more evident if you’re applying special effects to your native AVCHD video. Less may be more in this situation. If you happen to need to apply a lot of special effects, you can also use the log and transfer process to side step the format altogether. Many professional editing software suites offer an alternative editing format that works better when applying special effects. Even then, whatever format you use, it will most likely be demanding of your workstation. If there’s any lesson to learn here, it’s that your processor plays an ever-important role in your productivity as a video editor.

Then and Now

Despite these challenges, AVCHD and the H.264 codec have matured nicely in support for the format. Many of the compatibility issues that existed just a few years ago are no longer a problem. Most editing suites support AVCHD natively or at least give you an option for dumping to a new format. And while there hasn’t been a lot talk lately in terms of new developments, it does appear that there’s more potentially on the horizon.

A New View for Two

In 2010, the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 codec within the AVCHD data format was updated to handle 3D video distribution (Blu-ray 3D). Keeping in line with the newest trend in video production, MVC (Multi View Coding) was added to the codec. This new technology allows two different views (i.e. stereoscopic video) to be united into a single data stream so that Blu-ray Disc players and TV sets can display 3D video more easily.

Currently, there is not a lot of encoding support for this yet. Although the technical specification is there, the most common disc authoring tools haven’t jumped onto the 3D bandwagon with MVC. Like most new technologies, that should be expected. You can find it in some high end tools, like Sony’s Blu-code version 4, but the vast majority of us will need to wait before we can put this new technology to use in our next Blu-ray 3D release.

An Eye on the Future

The future of H.264 on the Web is now being questioned as major players in the HTML 5 standard debate the merits of supporting H.264 in favor for open standard alternatives. This has sparked some debate. The H.264 codec has been such a successful and popular compression technology for web video that it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be well supported in the HTML 5 standard. However, working against H.264 is the fact that this compression technology is not an open technology. While it’s currently free to license H.264 decoding (playback of H.264 video) there is no guarantee that the patent owners (MPEG) will keep it that way. Imagine if MPEG decides to charge a licensing fee. YouTube would have to pay patent owners for every video that any one of their users playback on their site. That’s why many authors of the HTML 5 standard have argued for Ogg Theora and WebM formats over H.264. Major web browsers Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, (Google owns YouTube by the way), have decided not to support the H.264 in their HTML 5 browsers for now.

Is this the end of H.264 and AVCHD? No. Absolutely not, but its future use as the predominant web video codec is in question. It’s a shame, really, for video editors. First off, H.264 offers superior quality and it’s well adopted among consumers and the top online video sharing sites. And second, moving away from a H.264 encoded file would mean a significant break in many of our post workflow: record in H.264, edit H.264 and deliver to the Web in H.264. Keeping it all, H.264 helps maintain a superior visual quality. If we change to another format, then we risk losing some quality at the end of this workflow.

Nevertheless, Web standards are generally considered better when they’re open. Open standards give the authors of the technology and the users a greater chance at improving and innovating the technology and making it better. More importantly, free access to the technology means that more people can use it to share their voice. That’s something the Videomaker staff can get behind.

Only time will tell what the future of Web video will bring. We editors are used to changing with the times, especially when it comes to working with different data formats. So when it comes to working with Web standards, we should feel right at home with the pace of innovation.

Contributing columnist Mark Montgomery is a web content specialist and produces instructional videos for a leading web application developer.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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