Streaming for Videographers
Posted Aug 4, 2004

With a few tweaks on the shoot and in the edit bay, plus a basic knowledge of streaming codecs, video pros can take the next logical step in reaching new clients—getting their work on the Web.

Most of the changes in the early years of what we've come to call "event videography"—the documentation of events on video, rather than film—were on the production end. Cameras changed, recording media changed, but the delivery method—VHS tape—stayed mostly the same. These days, however, when a videographer talks about selecting among a range of media choices, he's just as likely to be talking about how the project will reach the customer as he is how the event will be captured.

Today, of course, the delivery medium of choice is DVD. Nothing on the mass market can compete with the format's picture clarity, sound quality, and navigational capabilities. What's more, as sophisticated DVD authoring has become more accessible—prosumer DVD tools have gotten easier to use, DVD burners and media have gotten cheaper, and authoring tools are built in to most popular NLEs—videographers have found out just how easy it is to author their own DVDs, giving them another step in the process that they don't need to outsource.

More and more, however, videographers also want to make inventive and effective use of the Web to advance their interests. They want to be able to show their work on their Web sites, whether as promotional clips to help entice new clients or as part of the client approval process. What could be easier than sending a new bride an HTML link to the edit of her wedding video, which she can watch on her own time and then consult with you via email or over the phone? She'll still expect the final version on discs and tapes, but streaming video offers unprecedented convenience and accessibility. Streaming video won't replace DVD or VHS, but it puts another tool at your disposal as you go head-to-head with your competition.

Videographers also are finding new opportunities in projects shot specifically for delivery only on the Web: video news releases, promotional clips, and internal corporate training, for instance. You'll need to approach these Web-only projects differently than you do other videography jobs.

Getting Started
Since you'll be encoding or re-encoding your audio and video to a lower-bandwidth format, perhaps the best thing about adding streaming video to your repertoire is that you don't need to upgrade any of your existing equipment: Whatever you're using for your event video business right now likely is more than adequate, as long as it enables you to ingest, edit, and transcode digital video. In other words, if your system is equipped to prepare video for DVD, it can also prepare video for streaming.

Most popular non-linear editing software programs allow you to encode to either progressive download (HTTP) or real-time streaming protocol (RTSP) in formats such as Microsoft's Windows Media Video (WMV), Real Networks' Real, Apple's QuickTime, and Macromedia's Flash Video, so you're likely in good shape on the software side, too. Once you've got your video encoded, however, you'll need to find a streaming server, likely through a hosting provider such as Speedera, VitalStream, or Mirror Image. There are free hosting services available, but most of them have bandwidth and storage restrictions, and some make viewer access more complicated than simply clicking a link on a Web page, says Mike Velte, an Oklahoma City-based video editor and one of the hosts of Creative Cow's Web Streaming forum. Velte suggests starting out with an HTTP host that has proven bandwidth to stream large files. You don't necessarily need one of the big-name streaming hosts, he adds; he uses FatCow's hosting service, which provides 500MB of disk space and a 25GB transfer allowance per month, at a cost of $99 annually.

Of course, we're assuming you've already got your own Web site, as you'll need a place to put all the links to your video. Many hosting services will help you set one up, but Velte recommends doing it yourself with a WYSIWYG HTML editor such as Macromedia Dreamweaver, Microsoft FrontPage, or Adobe GoLive.

The Shoot
For the most part, the same basic rules apply to shooting for streaming as for shooting for any other delivery: manually white-balance every shot; use appropriate UV, fluorescent, or diffusion filters depending on the location; and use a three-point lighting system whenever possible.

You will, however, need to keep several things in mind when shooting video that you plan to deliver over the Web. First of all, remember that no matter what codec you choose—WMV, QuickTime, Real, Flash Video, or any of the MPEG-4 variants—your viewer is going to be watching it on a much smaller screen than you're accustomed to, so frame your shots tighter than you normally would. "Good TV shots are not always good streaming shots," says Steve Mack, one of the principals in Seattle's LUX Media and the author of The Streaming Media Bible. While a frame featuring a singer and her guitar might be perfect for a television screen, you'll want to forgo the instrument for a streaming shot, focusing instead on the performer's facial expressions.

More important, however, is that streaming codecs are extremely sensitive to motion. Keep unnecessary action out of your shot, Mack says, and avoid backgrounds that are moving or changing. The more motion in your frame, the more bandwidth your encoder is going to eat up converting the video, so it's more important than ever to use a high-quality tripod to avoid adding even the slightest camera motion to a shot. And keep in mind that when you're going handheld, whatever stabilization features your NLE may offer, it's always better to stabilize your shot using the controls on your camera. A camcorder with stabilization features always shoots a bigger-frame image than you will ultimately use, and that excess frame real estate gives it wiggle room (or anti-wiggle room, rather) to select a subset of the original frame to stabilize the shot. You can work the same effect in post-production with an NLE like Premiere or Final Cut, but you'll lose resolution in the process.

Mack also warns against adding too much contrast in the video processing stage, as too much contrast adds grain. Likewise over-applying color correction features introduces video noise, giving codecs more to encode.

The old adage "garbage in, garbage out" applies even more to your audio than it does to your video. Needless to say, the on-camera mic, which likely has an automatic gain control that will pick up more background noise than you want, is out of the question. Make sure you're using directional handheld mics (like the Shure SM63) or lavalieres (like the Shure SM11 and Sony ECM-88 wired microphones or the Sony WCS-999 wireless system) whenever possible, and that when you're using a boom mic (and, let's face it, most event shoots rely more on boom mics than any of us would prefer), be sure to remember your windsock. It's also worth investing in good-quality XLR or TRS cables, which give you more noise resistance and a better signal than you'd get with traditional stereo cables with 3.5mm connectors. [See Jan Ozer's "Sound on Site," pp. 40-47.]

Once you've got all your equipment in place, Mack says that setting up a proper gain structure is the most important step in making sure that what goes into your video isn't garbage. Start with the first piece of equipment and work through the signal chain, setting the input and output gain for each element—microphone, compressor, and EQ unit—until your levels are in the proper range. Mack recommends peaks of 0dB for analog and -3dB for digital recording.

The Edit
The bottom line? Keep it simple, and edit with low-bandwidth encoding and its attendant restrictions in mind. Think about what you intend to convey with the streamed version of your project—which will certainly differ in substantial ways from the DVD version—and don't try to do things that don't translate as well to streaming media. For example, you should avoid complex edits and transitions, which eat up a tremendous amount of bandwidth. "Simple splices encode the best," Mack says. "Besides, it's good policy to stay away from wipes and other cheesy transitions. They're dumb, and they make your work look amateurish." What's more, even "tasteful" dissolves can prove problematic with some codecs; a dissolve is a tremendously high-motion effect (think of it in terms of prolonged pixel turnover), and one of the first seams to show in a sub-par low-bandwidth transcode. Throw too many dissolves at the wrong streaming codec, and you'll be drowning in a sea of artifacts that could be easily avoided by no-nonsense cuts.

You'll also want to steer clear of text overlays, which only put extra demands on your encoder and might not be clear on the viewer's computer screen, or large enough to be legible in the box in which the streamed video plays. "Between the screen resolution and the compression, text can be very difficult to read and ends up being more of a distraction," says Mack. "It's generally a much better idea to put text in the HTML page or in the interface than in the video frame."

Velte reminds us that computer monitors typically display much darker video than television screens. Lighting and exposure settings on the camcorder should be used to create as bright of a subject as possible without washing out the whites, he says. When repurposing work that's already been shot and delivered for tape or DVD, both Mack and Velte agree that the biggest challenge seems to be proper gamma adjustment, again because VGA monitors' increased detail tends to make video look dark and washed out. Mack recommends bumping up gamma and color saturation slightly when you optimize video for streaming. Adding a small amount of contrast is usually a good idea, but be careful: adding too much contrast also adds graininess to your picture, and more grain means more work for your codec. Where you do need to apply video and color correction effects, experimentation is your friend—it's not just the extent to which you apply a given effect that impacts your video output, but also the order in which you apply effects. For example, if you apply a noise filter before the color correction that will necessitate it, you'll usually get a better result. But again, it's best to keep effects to a minimum so your codec can focus its efforts on the video rather than the applied effects.

Also keep in mind that, since television monitor pixels are slightly taller than they are wide (as opposed to the square pixels that make up a picture on a VGA or other computer monitor), you will need to resize your video to a true 4:3 aspect ratio. Even though TV's 720x480 resolution appears to be 4:3, it's actually closer to 3:2. If your video appears to be slightly stretched vertically, you'll want to resize it to 640x480, 400x300, or another appropriate 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Encode
When it comes time to encode your video for the Web, remember that it's all about bandwidth. You'll need to make tough choices depending on what sort of bandwidth you can assume your audience has. Then, look at both the total bit rate and the ratio of audio to video bits within that total. The typical broadband user connects at somewhere between 200-300Kbps, and uncompressed, 30fps NTSC video runs around 237,000Kbps and uncompressed 44.1kHz audio runs at around 1,400Kbps. In other words, getting all that data into a format that delivers between 200-300Kbps (to say nothing of the average dial-up connection of 37Kbps) requires a tremendous amount of encoding power.

Contrary to what you might think, Mack says that good-quality audio is even more important than high-quality video. "People will put up with sub-par video if the audio is good enough," he says. "But if the audio stinks, you'll lose the viewer very, very quickly. You just get more bang for your bandwidth buck by adding more audio quality than by adding more video quality." Though audio codecs and processing continue to improve by leaps and bounds, Mack recommends keeping it simple, sticking with mono delivery between 8Kbps and 32Kbps. "Mono codecs will virtually always have better fidelity than stereo, since they don't have to worry about encoding for two channels," he says. Obviously, a music track added in post-production will benefit from a stereo encode, but you'll need to ask yourself if the increased bandwidth is worth it when you're not even sure if your end-user audience will be listening through stereo speakers.

Codecs are optimized to focus on whatever is loudest, so an audio compressor—such as those available from PreSonus, FMR Audio, or dbx—is well worth the investment. Compression will balance your audio levels by turning down louder sounds, preventing spikes in the audio level that can cause distortion, and will also "fatten" your audio, giving it a more professional sound. Audio compression can be accomplished with software, but Mack says that, for live production, a hardware compressor is crucial to achieving professional results. Mack also emphasizes the importance of using the proper audio codec for your content. Most of the major formats let you select encoding for speech or music. Mack warns that while speech sounds fine through a music codec, music sounds "horrible" through a speech codec. "When in doubt, stick to a music codec," he advises. Windows Media 9 includes a hybrid speech and music codec, so the question is moot for that format.

Once you've selected an audio encoder and budgeted the optimal number of bits for sound, it's time to select a video encoder. While there's still plenty of debate over which video codec delivers the best ratio of video quality to bandwidth, Mack says that any of the major codecs offer sharp enough pictures for most viewers. "The questions of which codec to use becomes more of a business question," Mack says. "What media players does your audience have installed? What servers do you have available? Will this be a streaming application or a downloaded clip? Do you want your clip protected with DRM? The answers to these questions will tend to lead you towards a particular format and its codecs."

Velte, however, warns that encoding to QuickTime video without additional software such as Sorenson Squeeze may not deliver the quality you and your audience expect, and will suffer in comparison to other codecs at comparable bit rates. "Sorenson, for instance, installs its professional codec on your system," he says. "Without something like that, you'll get poor results compared to Windows Media and Real."

Regardless of the codec you choose, you'll get better results if you use two-pass, variable bit-rate encoding, which budgets bits so that more are available for motion-intensive scenes by using fewer bits for "talking head"-type, low-motion shots. Beware, however, that if your video has too many data peaks where high-motion frames are encoded at a higher bit rate, you may run into buffering problems on delivery.

You'll also need to select an appropriate resolution and frame rate for your content. Do you want fewer frames at a higher quality, or more frames and slightly lower quality? Do you have a lot of action, or is the video fairly motion-free? The more motion in your video, the lower resolution you'll want to use in order to maximize your limited bandwidth. "The rule of thumb is that it's better to reduce the resolution than the frame rate," Mack says.

Knowing a few good rules of thumb is helpful, but that doesn't mean that your first attempt at getting good video on the Web will go off without a hitch. When Alexa Lee, chief videographer for the San Francisco firm Big Pookiehead Productions, decided to put her first clips on the company's Web site, she says it took many more skills than she initially imagined. "I knew absolutely nothing about keyframes and data rates," Lee says. It was only after she started making spreadsheets and detailed notes about each clip that she began to understand the cause-and-effects of each compression parameter, she adds. "Now, I do that religiously.

"I just knew that if the clips looked like junk, then I would (look like junk)," she says. "I did not want to have video that looked blocky and pixelated. The challenges came in doing it myself." After first trying to find just the right parameters that would allow dial-up users to watch her video, Lee ultimately wrote those users off. "It was too much of a headache, and it broke my heart thinking they would still see crappy-looking video even after waiting 45 minutes to download a clip."

Finally, you'll want to be sure to crop your video specifically for streaming delivery: there's no "TV safe zone" here; the part of the video that gets cut off on television screens will be visible on a VGA monitor. You may want to use a de-interlacing filter to get rid of the extra frames and artifacts that arise from going from an interlaced TV display to a non-interlaced VGA display, Mack says. If you're transferring from 24fps film to 30fps video, you'll end up with extra artifacts that can be removed by an inverse telecine filter. And if your video is too grainy, a noise reduction (blur) filter will smooth it out, meaning your codec has less to encode.

Lest you think you might be able to pass the encoding process off to a Web designer, Lee warns that it's difficult to find Web designers who actually know video compression and editing, to say nothing of the various codecs and players.

The Delivery
So those are the basics of getting your video onto the Web. But with lower quality, player compatibility questions, and all the evidence indicating that most people aren't going to watch any long-form video on their computer monitors, why would you want to stream your work in the first place?

First and foremost, streaming video can be a tremendously effective promotional tool. When potential clients let their fingers do the walking, they're just as likely to be typing on their keyboard as flipping through the phone book. "A Web site with information, prices, and sample videos can supplement the yellow pages and improve sales," Velte says. You'll want to keep your promotional videos short—15 minutes at most, and even that's pushing it—and be sure to include a variety of projects and treatments to show both your capability and versatility.

"I just put up a ‘video greeting' on the Web, a two-minute introduction of myself and my work," says Lee. "It was a pretty big task, but worth it. I knew that if I wanted to give people a better, more precise impression of who I am and how I work, it had to be in video. That's what I'm about, isn't it?"

More and more videographers find themselves called on to do video news release (VNR) work: short—usually 90 seconds or less—pieces that highlight new products or services in ways that the printed word can't. While PR firms have been sending out VHS tapes and DVDs for years, more and more companies and their publicists are turning to streaming video as the preferred delivery format, since they can now include links to those videos in targeted emailings or on their Web sites. As is the case with much corporate work, shooting VNRs often gives the videographer more control over lighting, sound, and set, meaning that you can really put your "shooting for streaming" skills to work to produce the best possible results targeted specifically for Web-only viewing.

Streaming video also offers heretofore unimaginable turnaround time for client approvals, whether your client is across town or across the country. With a streaming setup in place and confirmation that your client has the proper player, you can get approval in minutes or hours rather than days. Even for local clients, that's a tremendous timesaver. "Here in New York City, ever since 9/11, building security is so tight that even for us to send an approval reel to a client in Manhattan now takes a lot longer than we or they would like," says Carl Levine of Creative Bubble, a video production and post-production house that uses Macromedia Flash Video for its iApprove client approval interface. "The bike messenger can't just walk up to the twelfth floor anymore."

Clients need to be clear, however, that they're not going to be able to approve color, brightness, or SFX. "The quality issues with streaming media will preclude use in mission-critical applications," Mack says. "But for VNR and corporate work, it's a slam-dunk."

Videographer Alexa Lee agrees. "People want instant access. They need to make decisions on very basic things like if they even want to start talking to you or consider you," she says. "Having clips on the Web gives them that preview, but the preview better be good."