Delivering HD Videos Online
Posted Jan 30, 2009

So, you’ve been shooting in high definition for a while now, and you are ready to start posting HD sample clips on the web that actually reflect the quality of the footage you’re capturing in your camera and editing in your NLE. You have two options: Do it yourself or use a service. If you choose the former route, you’ll need to know which codec to use and the optimum encoding parameters. If you go with the latter, you’ll need to know how the various services compare. As they say in TV teasers—all this and more, coming up.

The Security Angle
Perhaps the first question on your mind is not how to transcode your video or who should host it but how to keep online pirates from stealing your work and posting it as their own. The short story is that if security is a priority for you, you’ll have to either install a streaming server yourself or find a hosting company that provides a streaming server with digital rights management (DRM), which will be much more expensive than the options I’ll discuss in this article.

To be clear, if you post the HD files to your website without a streaming server, it’s relatively simple for even a technical novice to capture your files in their original format. Even if it’s beyond the meager skills of the odious videographer who would claim your work as his or her own, odds are your would-be nemesis has a buddy who can handle the dirty (and techie) work. As for the inexpensive online services, they work without streaming servers to keep their costs down and offer no DRM protection whatsoever.

What would I recommend in lieu of server-based protection? There are a couple of precautions you can take. First, a well-placed watermark is always tough for a plagiarist to explain away, so I would subtly brand any video I posted to the web, HD or otherwise.

Second, consider distributing your videos in VP6 format. While H.264 is generally higher-quality, the difference is minor, and both H.264 and VC-1 files are easily editable in Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and most other editors. If you post video in H.264 or VC-1,  you’re handing the virtual keys to the car thief; if you produce in VP6 format, it’s almost impossible to edit the video without time-consuming (and quality-degrading) conversions.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to rolling your own online HD videos. We’ll start with a quick overview of how HD is being used on the web today.

What Does HD Video on the Web Look Like Today?
When I began working on this article, I searched for wedding videographer sites that posted HD video. I quickly found that while many advertise HD services, few actually post HD clips. So I turned to third-party sites to gauge how HD video is currently being used. It turns out that many sites deploy HD on the web today. These sites can be roughly divided into three classes: movie trailers, trophy sites, and real-world production sites. Let’s look at the video produced by each group and see what we can learn.

There are movie trailer sites and then there are movie trailer sites. Apple’s qualifies as the latter. To find popular movie trailer sites, I Googled five current movies. Apple’s QuickTime trailer site was often the first site listed, and it always appeared in the top  five. This tells me that folks like watching movie trailers at the Apple site, which makes the compression parameters of Apple’s files very relevant.

Figure 1 (below) shows the trailer options for the movie Gran Torino, and it reveals several obvious best practices. First, let the viewer choose the resolution; that way, if the download takes forever, the problem is the viewer’s decision, not your implementation. Along the same lines, if you download the trailer from iTunes, you have two additional choices: 480p and 720p. Note that specs for all configurations are shown in Table 1.

Gran Torino HD on apple.com

Second, consider offering an iPod-compatible option for viewers who want to watch (or show off) their videos on the go. A glance at Table 1 reveals a third best practice: Use the H.264 codec, which gives you the best quality, with the aforementioned negative that the videos can be easily edited by third parties.

Looking at the resolutions and data rates shown in Table 1 (below), Apple is obviously being very generous with the data rate, but the quality is flawless. From the perspective of the wedding and event videographer, you have to wonder about the utility of a 1920x800 option, since so few viewers can actually watch this video at full resolution. Still, I like the concept of rewarding viewers who have high-capacity equipment—so as long as you let them know how large the files are, go for it. That said, I don’t think you’ll scare any prospects away if you max out at 720p.

Apple Movie Trailers data rates table

Progressive Download Versus Streaming
How will you deliver such high-bandwidth files to your viewers? Let’s spend a few moments discussing progressive download versus streaming. If you post files to your web server and deliver them without a streaming server, you’re delivering via progressive download. This means the file is stored to the viewer’s hard disk first and then played by the appropriate media player once enough of the video has been downloaded to start showing the clip. Most users who are watching progressive download video may well think they’re watching a live stream since they aren’t prompted to save a file. And even though the download destination for the temporary video file isn’t obvious to the user, the fact that the file is stored locally is what makes it easy to steal.

In contrast, streaming servers dole out video data as needed to support playback on the viewer’s computer, and the video isn’t stored locally, which makes it much harder to purloin. Technically, only video
transmitted via a streaming server is actually “streaming”; everything else (unless you’re actually prompted to save a file) is progressive download.

Note that if you encode video viewed via progressive download at sufficiently low rates—say, 500Kbps–700Kbps—the viewing experience is identical to streaming; the viewer clicks, the video starts playing, and it continues uninterrupted until the end. That’s why even though YouTube video is technically delivered via progressive download (no streaming servers), the experience feels like streaming.

Understand that for delivering HD demo footage, progressive download is actually a better alternative than streaming—piracy implications notwithstanding, of course. While the ultra-high bandwidth clips may not play smoothly initially, once they’re fully downloaded and stored locally, they should play smoothly from start to finish. This is why Apple uses this progressive download scheme to distribute its movie trailers.

These general parameters aside, let’s analyze some more specific encoding parameters using my favorite video analysis tool, Inlet Semaphore. According to Semaphore, Apple used the Main Profile—rather than the High Profile—to encode these movie trailer files, which is not surprising given that Main is the highest profile supported by Apple Compressor. Compressor also doesn’t support a B-frame interval more frequent than 1, which is the interval used in all Apple trailer files. I recommend producing with the High Profile and a B-frame interval of 2–3 if these parameters are supported by your encoding tools.

Judging by the data rate graph beneath the scary Clint Eastwood image in Figure 2 (below), Apple appears to have used variable bitrate encoding and clearly enabled keyframes at scene changes, which are the little red indicators just below the timeline. Most Apple presets use keyframes every 5–10 seconds; in this trailer, which includes multiple scene changes, keyframes are much more frequent.
OK, enough about movie trailers; let’s move to our second category of HD clips, which I call “trophy” sites.

Inlet Semaphore Data Rate Graph

Trophy Sites
By trophy sites, I mean HD showcases such as those made available by Adobe, Akamai, and Apple, whose average encoding parameters are summarized in Table 2 (below). These sites exist to show life at the outer edges of the envelope, and data rates (and quality) are almost surreal. For example, Adobe encoded one 1080p clip at 28.3Mbps—almost three times higher than Apple uses for movie trailers, albeit at a slightly larger resolution. Obviously, the sole criterion used to encode these clips was quality, not responsiveness (how soon the average viewer could start playing it) or bandwidth cost.

Trophy sites data rates

I mention these clips primarily so I can dismiss them as largely irrelevant for when formulating the ideal parameters for your own demo videos. These clips represent the extreme outer boundary of suggested encoding parameters, and I would model my encoding parameters more closely to either movie trailers or the real-world clips discussed next.
 
Real-World Production Clips
By real-world production clips, I mean clips that are posted for dough, rather than for show. These are clips intended for distribution and consumption. As such, these producers have to focus on responsiveness, delivery bandwidth cost, and quality, which is a relevant troika of considerations for wedding and event videographers as well.

I don’t have a lot of real-world examples, but there are three very relevant ones in Table 3 (below), including two feeds from CBS, both for playback of primetime shows, and one from Hulu.com, a site for TV shows, movie trailers, and other gilt-edged content. Some of this is longform content—both TV shows and actual movies—so the data rates are designed so that some viewers with extremely fast connections can essentially stream the content. Note that both sites also have lower-bitrate versions of their videos available, so viewers with slower-speed connections can also partake.

Real-word sites data rates table

I take a couple of data points from this information. First, the 853x480 resolution is an interesting one, that combines relatively big screen real estate with a data rate that many broadband viewers can play in real time. It’s actually pretty close to the 480p parameters in Table 1 (848x352) and may be worth considering if you’re posting clips to your own website. Second, if I’m producing at 720p, 2.5Mbps looks like a good bitrate target that should combine both high quality and reasonable responsiveness.
 
Choosing a Codec for Online Use
We’ve already covered the security aspects of choosing a codec; let’s look quickly at quality and playability. I’ve compared the big three codecs—H.264, VP6 and VC-1—recently for EventDV’s sister publication Streaming Media: www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=10873&page=3&c=4. In all my HD trials, H.264 is the clear winner, with VP6 second and VC-1 third. As for the difference between H.264 and VP6,
I would rate the advantage in the 5%–10% range; if you were producing at the 2Mbps–2.5Mbps data rate, few viewers would notice the difference. At least with my test clips, however, VC-1 needs a lot more bandwidth to look as good as either VP6 or H.264.

In terms of playability, one of the urban legends about H.264 is that it requires much more playback horsepower than the other two codecs. I’ve also tested the playback requirements of the three codecs, which you can read about in the Streaming Media article Decoding the Truth About Hi-Def Video Production.

To keep a short story short, in all my tests, H.264 proved the most efficient and required the least amount of CPU horsepower on all the computers I used in testing. If you’d like to play the files I used
for these quality or playback tests, visit www.doceo.com/HDcomps.html, which contains the quality comparisons encoded at 800Kbps as well as the VC-1, H.264, and VP6 clips produced at 2 and 3Mbps.

When to Consider an Online Service
I’ve given you my advice for rolling your own. Now, let’s discuss choosing an online provider for those who elect to avoid the DIY route. The interesting first question, of course, is why should you use a third-party provider rather than simply posting files on your own site. There are multiple issues to consider.

First and foremost are the social networking considerations. In the early days of the web, the overarching strategy was to drive traffic to your own website through various marketing techniques such as search engine optimization and the like. In time, most website owners learned that it’s a big, noisy world out there and getting your share of eyeballs is extremely challenging.

More recently, networking sites such as Facebook have evolved from purely social to professional, and if you’re using Facebook for marketing, that’s where your HD videos should reside. Similarly, if you feel there is a benefit from marketing within a community such as Vimeo or SmugMug, where you can build your own commercial channel, you can host your videos there as well.

Interestingly, virtually all video-sharing sites let you embed videos in other sites, including your own website. So if you host your videos on SmugMug, you can still embed them into your own website, doubling your exposure and essentially using SmugMug as your content delivery network. With all these sites, you also get a highly evolved, more attractive player than you could cobble together yourself.

Overview of Online Service Providers
Table 4 (below) contains a list of features for a number of representative video-sharing sites. The list isn’t exhaustive, but between the features table and the mini-reviews that follow, you should get a feel for the comparative features offered by these and other sites.

Features of Facebook, Viddyou, YouTube, Vimeo, SmugMug

Note that I didn’t include the popular video-sharing site Blip.tv in my mini-reviews because of its focus on serial, broadcast-style content. If you plan to launch your own wedding or event video channel, that’s where you should start. If you’re posting sample footage to the web, it might feel out of place on this site.

Facebook
If you’re already using Facebook as a marketing tool, you should consider hosting your HD demo clips there. You can upload an unlimited number of HD videos, each up to 20 minutes long, although the maximum upload size is 1GB. The service is free, though it’s ad-supported.

The maximum supported video resolution is 720p, which Facebook encodes at 2.5Mbps using the H.264 format. The embedded window is a generous 760x340, second only to SmugMug in terms of onscreen real estate. As with other sites, you can expand to full-screen viewing.

Facebook’s biggest negative is that the commercial presence isn’t as attractive or video-centric as other sites. In addition, although you can post business-related information on the site, at its heart, Facebook is still about social networking. It’s hard to imagine that personal comments won’t get posted onto your site, exactly where you may not want prospects to view them.

Moreover, at least from where I sit, Facebook seems more like a lifestyle than a business tool. If you don’t have 652 friends, minute-by-minute details about how you spent your day, and photo albums dating from when you were in diapers, you may not be perceived as buying into the Facebook lifestyle. Finally, sending prospects to view your solemn, tasteful videos on a site containing advertisements for teeth-whitening or similar personal items just seems kind of cheesy. One way to keep business and pleasure separate on Facebook is to have a “fan” site for your business (Figure 3, below), where you sign up “fans” and have a personal page where you connect with your friends rather than prospects. (For more on the marketing and professional pros and cons of Facebook, check out Steve Yankee’s Strictly Business column, Social Networking in the 21st Century.)

Videographer page on Facebook

YouTube
YouTube was first-est with the most-est, but probably isn’t the best choice for promoting professional videography services for a number of reasons. Probably the most important reason is that YouTube is unnecessarily secretive about how to actually produce HD video. Instead of a specifically documented procedure, YouTube offers multiple pages of guesswork.

To a degree, this lack of direction, almost as if by design, seems to have given YouTube the ability to experiment and change direction on a dime, which is good if you’re YouTube but bad if you’re relying upon the site to deliver high-quality videos to your prospects. You also have to wonder if well-heeled brides-to-be are trolling YouTube to find a wedding videographer, especially when they could more easily separate the wheat from the chaff on more professional sites such as Vimeo, SmugMug, and Blip.tv.

With all that said, YouTube’s H.264 quality is very good despite an aggressive data rate of approximately 2Mbps video, with audio at 109Kbps. Though the embedded display is a relatively compact 640x360, as everyone with access to an internet connection knows, you can boost display resolution to full screen, which really looks great. As near as I can tell, the 10-minute/1GB limitation that applies to all YouTube videos from nonpartners appears to apply to HD videos, and YouTube is definitely transcoding videos and discarding the originals.
 
SmugMug
SmugMug (Figure 4, below) is a photo-sharing/selling site that recently added video. It’s the only site I’ve included that doesn’t offer a free service: You’ll need to spend $149.94 per year for the Pro version to upload an unlimited number of HD videos, with a maximum duration of 5 minutes. Pro and Power users ($59.95) can upload SD videos up to 10 minutes in length, but the maximum upload size for any single  video is 512MB. The site is advertising-free for all membership levels, including Standard, which is photo-only for $39.95 annually.

SmugMug

SmugMug recompresses all uploaded files to multiple resolutions depending upon your membership plan and the resolution of the video that you upload. At the Pro level, if you upload a 1080p video (1920x1080), the site will encode lower data rate copies at that resolution at a combined data rate of 7.34Mbps, as well as an HD version (1280x720 at 3.38Mbps), Mid Def (960x540 at 1.9Mbps), DVD (640x480), and web (320x240). If you upload an SD video, the site won’t up-sample and will only create videos at the original resolution or lower. SmugMug encodes all videos into H.264 files with the .mp4 extension, viewed within the site using the Flash player.

The thing that impressed me most about SmugMug was the size of the embedded videos within the page: a full 720p with no advertising. Most of the other sites use a much smaller window for embedded display, relying on full screen for larger display, which SmugMug also supports. You can create your own custom gallery on SmugMug, with more than 37 theme selections to choose from. SmugMug uses Akamai’s heralded content delivery network for video delivery, which should provide a high level of worldwide service.

Vimeo
Vimeo offers a free service, but most pros will opt to spend $59.95 to eliminate advertising from their pages and boost upload capacity to 2GB a week, with a new 1GB per file limit (up from 500MB). Vimeo converts all uploaded HD video to 720p using On2’s VP6 codec, with a combined data rate of 1.56Mbps with 128Kbps audio. At your option, Vimeo will retain the original file that you uploaded and make it available for viewers to download (Figure 5, below).

Vimeo

Vimeo starts HD playback in a 640x360 window, which you can expand to either full screen or 720p. Vimeo has a nice ability to create custom channels, and you can even customize the controls on your video player (Figure 6, below). One hidden cost, however, is that if you embed your video in other sites, you only get 1,000 high-resolution plays with your Vimeo Plus membership. After that, playback drops to SD until you buy additional plays, which cost $9.95 for 1,000; $49.95 for 10,000; or $199.95 for 10,000 HD plays.

Vimeo custom channel

I had a quick scare when I glanced at Vimeo’s community guidelines and saw (caps Vimeo’s): “BUSINESSES MAY NOT USE VIMEO TO PROMOTE THEIR BUSINESSES IN ANY WAY.” However, the site’s instructions later state, “Video makers may upload demo reels of their work. Musicians may promote their
own music/music videos. Independent Production companies may promote the videos they create. Writers may promote their books.” That seems to cover any relevant bases for event videographers.

Viddyou
Viddyou (Figure 7, below) is an advertising-free video-sharing service that lets you create channels that can showcase your wedding videography practice and demo reel. Though the service is free, you’ll have to spend $34.95 per year to upload a limitless number of movies of unlimited length, though any single download can’t exceed 1GB.

Viddyou

The site converts all uploaded videos to FLV format using the VP6 codec at the same resolution as the upload, and you can make your original file available for download. In general, Viddyou is the only site I reviewed that seems too aggressive on the video data rates. For example, the one 1080p clip I was able to find, “San Francisco in HD,” was rendered at 2.86Mbps; and it showed obvious smearing and other loss in detail. In comparison, SmugMug rendered its 1080p clip at 7.33Mbps (in H.264 format), and it looked pristine.

Even some 720p clips, which were rendered at a video data rate of 2.63Mbps, showed degradation, most notably a clip called “The Ghosts of Autumn.” There were some very good quality HD clips—don’t get me wrong—but with other sites, quality seemed a given, while with Viddyou it was more hit or miss.

I also didn’t like the tiny embedded player (414x216) with its “too cool for school” playback controls, which, as far as I could tell, didn’t include stop or pause buttons. You can, of course, scale the video to full screen, toggling scaling on and off to display the video at its native resolution (scaling off) or full screen.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a contributing editor to EventDV and Streaming Media magazines. He is currently working on a book on marketing your business through video on social networking and other online content aggregation sites.