Net TV – Researching video codecs, from all things

Since TV has never been my top priority in terms of media (I haven’t even watched TV for years), I was quite resistant at the start of the project. So instead of digging into the content part of the production, I decided to dive into something more technical – the creepy world of video codecs. The thing is, that’s been something I’ve struggled with since the beginning of the course, and it started to cost me too much time to have 10 different exports every time with my ‘trial and error’ approach. What is more, for my VT producer role I had to work specifically with what was available on the Avid machines, and it wasn’t practical to go into town 10 times for trial and error exports.

Anyway, I started off with a Google search: Introduction to video file formats. I wanted something ‘for dummies’, because I was a complete newbie in that area, and wanted to understand the basics. It turned out one of the best introductions was written by a Google employee – here it is:

A gentle introduction to video encoding

It’s a long 5-part series of blog posts that covers most of the technical aspects of video encoding. There, I found out that file types such as .MOV, .MP4 and .MKV are simply container formats:

You may think of video files as “AVI files” or “MP4 files.” In reality, “AVI” and “MP4″ are just container formats. Just like a ZIP file can contain any sort of file within it, video container formats only define how to store things within them, not what kinds of data are stored.
A video file usually contains multiple tracks — a video track (without audio), one or more audio tracks (without video), one or more subtitle/caption tracks, and so forth. Tracks are usually interrelated; an audio track contains markers within it to help synchronize the audio with the video, and a subtitle track contains time codes marking when each phrase should be displayed. Individual tracks can have metadata, such as the aspect ratio of a video track, or the language of an audio or subtitle track. Containers can also have metadata, such as the title of the video itself, cover art for the video, episode numbers (for television shows), and so on.

Here is a great scheme to illustrate the concept:

File containers and video codecs

File containers and video codecs – click the image for source

Here is the source of the scheme – another very useful article about video codecs and file handling: Video Files 101

Another aspect of video encoding is the picture quality – and the type of information that is compressed to reduce the file size. The different options result in different visual artifacts on the final video – here is an example:

Visual comparison of compression options

Visual comparison of compression options – click image for source and bigger preview

Here is the whole article about compression codecs – with more examples: Video compression codecs – how to compare video codecs the right way

I invested a good day or two reading about video codecs – and it started to pay off straight away! I now make less mistakes when exporting, and I can predict the result while setting the export options. Here is a visual tutorial that helped me find the correct settings for Premiere Pro:

Exporting in Premiere Pro

Exporting in Premiere Pro – click for full image and source

If you are really passionate about the topic and are willing to invest a good week in reading, here is a link to my video encoding bookmarks for a full list of my reading sources (it also includes articles and webcasts about preparing videos for the web, and different paid and free tools):


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