A Step-by-Step Guide to Encoding for the Web

When you started your production, you had a vision; you may have had a simple message to communicate, a joke to tell or a story to share. After shooting, you spent time editing your footage and making your masterpiece come to life. Finally, your work is at an end and your finished production sits in an .avi file on your hard drive. Now what do you do? The only thing left is to output your production so you can share it with others.

How can you share your project with all the people that you want to see it? You could output your project to tape and make duplicates to send to your friends. Or, you could put your finished program on the Web, either as a downloadable file or as streaming media for the entire world to see. In this article you will learn how to take your video file from your hard drive, create a streaming media file and then post it to a Web site.

Although the specific mouse clicks may vary depending on the software you use, the basic steps are the same. Using this article as a guide, you’ll be able to get your project ready for your audience to view.

Video on the Web

You can post video files on a Web site and make them available for downloading just like you can any other type of file. Because video files can be quite large, with correspondingly large download times, many people choose to offer their video as streaming media. Streaming refers to media files that can be viewed as they are downloaded. Since viewers watch streaming video on the fly, they don’t have to wait for long downloads. Only a small part of the file stays on your computer while you are watching the video.

The first thing that you must do if you’re going to stream your video is to convert your video file into a streaming format. There are several different software programs that will perform the necessary file conversions; some will also help you clean up your project and tweak it for the smaller format and lower quality that’s required for the Web. Before you go out and buy encoding software, you might want to check the editing software you now have. Some of the newer versions, such as Sonic Foundry’s Vegas Video, have encoding options built into their output choices. Similarly, encoders from both RealMedia and Microsoft Windows Media are available as free plugins to popular editing packages like Adobe Premiere and even Microsoft’s PowerPoint. For more products you can see a detailed list in the Streaming, MPEG and QuickTime Encoders Buyer’s Guide, on page 9 in this issue.

We have selected one of the products featured in that buyer’s guide, Media Cleaner Pro 4 from Terran Interactive, to illustrate the necessary steps to get a video from your computer to the World Wide Web. Although other programs will operate differently, the concepts will be universal and consistent.

Getting Started

First, make sure you have your finished video project and the encoding software. For our example, we will encode a 60-second video for a project that we shot and mastered on the Mini DV format. The final edit of the video resides on our hard drive as a 720×480, 30-frame-per-second, 32-bit color .avi file with 16-bit stereo audio, sampled at 44.1 kHz. Sound complicated? Don’t worry. These are standard settings for video captured to a computer from a digital camcorder using an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) cable. Your settings may differ, but that doesn’t matter. You simply need to have the video you’d like to stream on your computer’s hard drive to begin.

When you start the encoding program, you will likely have two choices: you can use the program’s wizard to help you customize your project or you can specify all the advanced settings yourself. Choosing the wizard is a good way to start, as it walks you step-by-step through the encoding process. For this article we’ll discuss the advanced settings option.

When you’re ready to begin encoding, you first need to load the video that you want to encode into the encoding program. You can do this by dragging the actual .avi file you’ll use into the Batch window or you can choose Add to Batch from the File Menu. If the Batch window is not available, simply select New Batch from the file menu. Once you have your production in the Process window, you can then go to the Advanced Settings dialog by selecting Advanced Settings from the Windows menu. It is here where you will tell the software how you would like to encode your streaming media file.

Output Options

The first settings in the Advanced Settings window are on the Output tab. The most basic decision is the output file format: do you want a Real Video, QuickTime or Windows Media file? Or do you want all three? Although there are significant differences in the way that each format is encoded, the image quality of each is on par with the others. You may end up choosing one format over another out of personal preference or due to where you will ultimately post your file. Some formats have features that the others don’t, so be sure to read up on each of the formats (see What’s the Difference? sidebar). Depending on the encoder you use, you may not have many choices. Not all encoders output all of the file types. We are using Media Cleaner Pro for this example because it handles all of the common file formats.

The output options that follow depend on the format you’ve chosen. If you choose RealVideo, for example, you will see choices for RealPlayer compatibility. You can also choose to encode using SureStream, which automatically adjusts to the viewer’s connection speed, or you can choose to encode to a single stream.

Next, you need to choose the frame size. You do not want to use 720×480, as the file size would be enormous and take forever to view. Often, to ensure speedy delivery, Internet video is quite small, sometimes less than 100 pixels wide and/or tall. Generally, the smaller the frame size, the smoother the stream. For our project, we chose to create a streaming file at 160×120 pixels.

Now it’s time to consider frame rate. Each frame adds to the total size of your file and slows down the whole streaming process. The human threshold for discerning motion happens to be 12 images per second. Anything less than that (roughly) will appear as a fast slide show. With this in mind, many streaming media files are lowered to 12 FPS. This reduces file size so that viewers are able to watch your video with less pauses, glitches and stutters.

Keeping in mind that both audio and video travel down that same narrow modem line, let’s turn our attention to the audio portion of our project. Some file formats support different codecs than others. The RealVideo format, for example, allows you to adjust audio gain, low pass, high pass, noise removal, dynamic range (difference between highest high and lowest low frequency), noise gate, notch and oddly enough, reverb. Play with these settings to find what works best for your project. Because Internet audio tends to be low quality, you may choose to cut some corners with the sound quality so you can preserve precious bandwidth for your visuals.

Encoding the Output File

Once you have set all the options, go back through and verify them. Many of these programs have a setting’s summary which you can view before you encode. In Media Cleaner Pro, the summary is always available as another tab in the Advanced settings.

After you verify your settings, click Apply. It is here that you might consider adding alternate outputs, like QuickTime and Windows, so that you can walk away and come back to find several output files finished. For our project, however, we selected RealVideo as our only output file and pressed Start.

It took 10.5 seconds to create the output file for this 60-second project. Encoding speed depends on several factors, including processor speed. Media Cleaner Pro has a cool feature that lets you watch a split-screen view of the before (source) and after (destination). This can be especially helpful to see what you have selected, if you are making adjustments such as cropping or color correction.

After you have encoded your file, you should view it before you put it on the Web. Make sure it looks okay on your computer before you send it to someone else. This step can save you time and trouble later. If everything looks good, you can now upload your file to the Web.

Publishing to the Web

The last step in this process is getting your encoded file to your Web host. You can send it electronically from your computer via the Internet to your Web host, you can send a floppy disk with the encoded file via snail mail or you can send the edited project on tape and have the Web host encode it (see sidebar). For more information on hosting services, check out "Web Hosting," in this special guide.

When you publish to the Web, you’re really just storing your file in a folder or directory on a host computer. That computer runs specialized server-software that allows it to share files to users all over the world. Getting your streaming media file to the server is the same as moving it to another folder on your computer. The main difference is that the folder where you are moving your files might be 3,000 miles away!

Some programs that encode media files also help publish your finished products to the Web. Depending on who your Web host is, you may have some online uploading aids or step-by-step instructions available to you. In either case, consult the host site’s technical support for directions. Typically, you will upload the file via FTP (file transfer protocol) to your Web host. You can almost always accomplish this by using a shareware FTP client such as Cute FTP (Windows) or Anarchie (Mac).

Once you have uploaded your file to your host, you will need to make it available to your viewers. Follow your encoding software’s directions for serving and embedding your streaming media files in Web pages, as the directions will vary between formats.

Surf’s Up

Once you’ve invested your time and effort into a production, you want it to be seen by as many people and as easily as possible. Getting it onto the Web can accomplish that. By learning to encode your original project into a streamed file, you can make it happen in a way that will get more viewers to your show.

Using encoding software can be extremely simple. These encoders can take your finished product and squish it down to the size of a postage stamp, if need be. Their specialty is keeping your carefully-wrought images intact when they squish the file.

If you haven’t already experienced the thrill of publishing on the World Wide Web and having people from all over watch your productions almost as fast as you can make them, you do not know what you’ve been missing!


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