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Understanding Formats and Compression

There are so many different types of computer-based editing systems out there that I'm not even going to begin to say which ones you should use. Price ranges vary from free versions you can download off the Internet, to a "lite" version of a product that may come with the purchase of your camera or video card, to full blown, professional editing systems. Whichever software you choose, make sure it has the features you need to get the best quality image. The two big features you may want to look for if you are planning on distributing video content over various platforms, besides the editing capabilities, are the export options and image correction.

Export options include the various formats and other related controls you have in relation to how you can get your video source out of your editing system and into the desired format for distribution. Depending on which format you plan on distributing your content, you will need to choose the appropriate format. Common formats include the following:

  • QuickTime
  • AVI
  • MPEG
  • RealMedia
  • Windows Media

Formats are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to by their compression mechanisms, or codecs (which stands for Compressors/Decompressors). They are not necessarily interchangeable.

The codec is an algorithmic process that shrinks down the original video file from its native form into a form more manageable by the user. This comes with a certain price...not necessarily in dollars, but in image quality. Keep in mind that some of these formats, such as RealMedia, use their own proprietary compression schemes and are therefore the name of the format and the codec. But if you look at QuickTime, there are many different codecs that can be used within the QuickTime format. You can choose Cinepak, Indeo, or Sorenson among others. One of the major differences is the quality of the image. Cinepak will always look more pixilated than Sorenson. The file's size may not even be smaller, and it will certainly be of less quality. So why would anyone in their right mind choose Cinepak over Sorenson?

There's another thing that you need to keep in mind when selecting formats and codecs: Can your end user view a video file compressed in that particular format with that particular codec? Just about everyone can see a QuickTime video file compressed with Cinepak (as long as they have almost any version of QuickTime installed on their computer, even going back to the earliest versions of QuickTime). The average end user may not be able to see a video file compressed with the Sorenson codec. They may need to download and install drivers that allow them to view these files. So it's not always as easy as picking just any format with any compression scheme. You really have to know and understand exactly how you plan to distribute the file and be aware of your target audience. If your intended end user can't easily see your content, you need to re-evaluate how you compress your video files.

Check the exporting features of your software. Many applications, such as Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro, offer the ability to export your video file into various different formats using a multitude of compression schemes. If you really want to step up the options and control you have over your video files, I strongly recommend getting Discreet's Cleaner 5 program. This is one of the most comprehensive tools available that allows you to create and repurpose your video files into any format, using any codec, and have complete flexibility over just about any parameter you can think of (and many that you never heard of or think you'll ever use).

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