Digital Video Revolution: Streaming Video for the Masses
by Reno Marioni 19 Jan 2001
Reno Marioni is the Founder and CEO of a digital travel Adventure Zone
Network entertainment site for world travelers, explorers and adventurers.
The site showcases streaming video, audio and interactive content from
around the globe.
Just a couple of years ago, producing your own short movie
meant going to film school, raising a lot of money, buying
expensive equipment and looking for distribution via film
Basically, it was out of reach for most people. Today, with the
right talent and desire, we all have a shot at being filmmakers
for 1/10th or 1/20th of the cost. A whole new creative world
has opened up, thanks to the advent of several new consumer
technologies: high-quality and low-priced digital video, powerful
desktop PCs, inexpensive and easy-to-use video editing
software and a new distribution channel on the Web.
And as broadband DSL and cable modem access increase, so will
the audience for digital video on the Web. In addition to the
Internet, numerous new devices and appliances will be available
to distribute your work. We are already beginning to see short
videos on airplanes, in hotel lobbies, on handhelds and through
To produce and showcase your own digital video involves
several key steps:
a. Shoot your video footage (use an analog or digital video
b. Capture (input video onto your Mac or PC hard drive using a
Firewire connection or video capture card)
c. Edit (use consumer-level software video editing tool)
d. Compress/Encode (use bundled video editing tool or
dedicated video compression tool)
e. Distribute (to Web, CD, DVD, etc.)
In this article, we're going to focus primarily on the encoding
and compression process with special emphasis on encoding for
the Web, which as you'll find out is a fine art.
Page 2 — Video Encoding
What is video encoding and why is it important?
First of all, digital video files are HUGE. Roughly five minutes of
uncompressed video will consume nearly one gigabyte of space
on your hard drive, and no one - not even your adoring mother
-- is going to download or stream a video that large. So
compression helps you optimize the video while retaining the
highest quality possible for distribution on the Web.
Before compressing/encoding video for the Web, you need to
consider the following settings and criteria:
1. What Video Format/Architecture (QuickTime, Real, Windows
2. What Data Rate?
3. What Frame Rate?
4. What Window Size?
5. Streaming Method: Progressive or Real-time?
The file compression process begins when you take your edited
video clip and encode to a particular video format -- e.g.,
QuickTime, Windows Media, or Real Media -- and compress the
file size to output to either CD, DVD, or the Web. Encoding for
the Web is the trickiest part as there are far more variables to
deal with, such as constrained bandwidth, which results in
jerky, annoying videos on the Web.
In order to encode a steady sample, it's important to have a
well-shot video source. This is why you don't see many
MTV-style videos on the web -- the transitions are too fast,
rapid camera movement doesn't compress well, and you're likely
to have jerky, delayed images, even when compressed at a low
Before encoding your edited video files you have to ask yourself
the following questions:
a. Which streaming method is best for my setup, progressive
(HTTP) or Real-time (RTSP) streaming?
b. What format do I want to use (Real, QuickTime, Windows
Media, or other)?
c. What is my delivery mechanism (Web, CD, DVD, etc.)?
d. If output is for the Web, what Web connections am I
targeting (56k modem, ISDN, DSL/Cable, T1)?
Page 3 — What is streaming video? And which method do I
There are two main types of streaming: progressive streaming
(on demand) and real-time streaming (live or in real-time).
Progressive streaming takes a compressed video file and
downloads it to your hard drive via HTTP over the Internet.
Real-time streaming is usually broadcast to your browser
directly from a server. Real-time streaming uses RTSP (real time
streaming protocol) so you'll need access to a special video
Progressive streaming is the easiest route for beginners as it
requires no special server, such as a streaming server. You can
use a standard Web server to upload your compressed video
file. Quality is generally better using progressive streaming than
with real-time. And once you decide to play the video online,
the whole file begins to download to your hard drive.
Progressive users also can't jump ahead to other sections of the
Depending on the format of the video (such as Real), some
progressive files may require you to download the entire video
before playing it. This creates one of those annoying "hurry up
and wait" scenarios. Thankfully, QuickTime supports a 'fast
start' feature which automatically kick-starts your video player
as it downloads. In an age of instant gratification, this is a
great feature and QuickTime is the only major video architecture
that supports it for now. For that feature alone, QuickTime is
much better suited for progressive streaming than RealVideo 8
or Windows Media 7.
In general, progressive streaming works best for videos under
three minutes, such as movie trailers, and the shorts you see on
sites such as Apple Quicktime TV, iFilm, Atom Films, and on
home video sites such as Share Your World.
Page 4 — Real-time Streaming
Unlike progressive streaming, real-time streaming requires a
special streaming server. This can be a QuickTime Streaming
Server (RTSP), a Real Networks Server or a Windows Media
Video streamed for real-time plays automatically. You don't
need to download the entire video before playing. You can jump
to any location in the video clip. And the clip always resides on
the server. Video encoded for real-time streaming generally tries
to keep pace with the user's connection speed in order to
minimize interruptions and stalling. There's nothing you can do
about general Net congestion, but the streaming server at least
tries to compensate by maintaining a constant connection.
You'll find real-time streaming is best suited for longer videos --
such as live event broadcasts, presentations, training videos
and lectures -- where users can skip ahead to other parts of
the clip and don't have to download a huge video file. It also
offers good protection for your content as users can't download
it to their hard drives and redistribute your work. Unfortunately,
the video quality isn't as good with real-time as with
progressive. But getting quality video on the Web is all about
If you're just starting out, you might want to create a simple
Web page, encode your video using a progressive streaming
method, and embed the clip into your site. Or, if you're
determined to stream the video, you might consider using a
third party and their servers. Companies such as Media 100 and
Sorenson Broadcast Services offer a range of encoding, hosting
and streaming services.
Page 5 — Video Architectures and Codecs
The three main video formats on the Web are RealVideo,
Quicktime and Windows Media. When choosing a video
architecture and format, you need to evaluate current market
trends and also decide which is the best fit for you and your
Currently, RealVideo is the most popular and widespread video
format used on the Web. Real recently released version 8, but
you must buy the server software to use it; the cost after
software purchase is based on connection usage. Windows
Media from Microsoft is also widespread and is currently in
version 7. Although Windows runs its own proprietary server
protocol (not the standard RTSP), it's free and it runs on the
widely available Windows Server Platforms.
QuickTime Streaming Server from Apple, the third major format,
is based on RTSP. It's an open standard and available on
multi-platform servers from UNIX to NT. As Apache is to Web
servers, QuickTime Streaming is to video servers. And the best
part is it's free. Many professionals believe QuickTime offers the
best quality, as well as the elegant interface that Apple
products are famous for.
In order to understand video compression, you first need to
become familiar with "codecs" and how they work. Codec stands
for compression/decompression, and it's the piece of software
you use to compress very large files, such as video or audio,
into much smaller files that can be sent out to multiple media.
Normally, you will choose a codec according to the video format
you are using.
For example, Sorenson Video 3 codec from Sorenson Media is
compatible with the QuickTime format and is the de facto codec
for QuickTime Video compression. Real Video 8 codec runs in
conjunction with Real Server. The same compatibility issues
apply to audio codecs such as Qdesign Music Pro for QuickTime.
Codecs generally come bundled with your video editing software
or with compression suites such as Media Cleaner. Every year,
new and improved codecs are released to make files even
smaller, while encoding faster and producing better quality
You'll probably use one of the following codecs for video
a. Sorenson Video
c. Windows Media Video
d. MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4
Page 6 — MPEG-4
Although Windows Media, Quicktime and Real Media are the
major players, an open format called MPEG-4 holds great
promise and could become the de facto video codec standard in
the same way that MP3 has become the dominant format for
music on the Web. MPEG-4 has momentum behind for several
1. Ubiquity: Streaming video today is mostly viewed on the
Web, but the future in streaming video will be far more prolific
across multiple devices, appliances, platforms and computers.
Streaming Video will be seen in hotel lobbies, supermarkets,
airplanes, videophones, TVs and more. MPEG-4 appears to be
the codec and standard for future devices to come.
2. Unified Standard: Today, there are many codecs. The
problems that people face is sorting out which codecs to use
with which video architectures in the encoding process. The job
would be far easier for digital media professionals if people could
encode just once for all platforms and devices.
3. Quality: MPEG-4 appears to be the most efficient encoding
standard and will encode at incredibly high-quality over the
most constrained bandwidth requirements. From what we have
seen, people will be able to have full screen VHS quality video.
Sorenson media is developing an ISO-compliant MPEG-4 codec,
as is Microsoft for use in Windows Media.
The bottom line is that MPEG-4 will be awesome in quality and
will be embedded into many new and exciting devices.
The vast majority of video content creators use Media Cleaner
Pro from Terran Interactive as their full-service
compression/encoding suite. It's an essential software package
and is widely used in the digital entertainment industry. The
Media Cleaner Pro EZ version is priced around $250 per copy,
and more often than not it comes bundled with popular video
Here's how a sample encoding process might go:
Once you've finished editing your video using software such as
Apple's iMovie or Final Cut Pro, Adobe's Premier, Media100
CineStream and Cleaner EditDV or Microsoft's Moviemaker, you
save and export the edited clip to a folder on your desktop.
In some editing suites such as EditDV or Premiere, you can
export directly from the editing tool into Media Cleaner Pro,
removing an extra step in the encoding process. Once your clips
are in a compression suite such as Media Cleaner Pro, you're
ready to prepare the clip for a particular distribution medium.
You then go through a series of check box options, which
determine the size of the clip, the data rate, the frame rate,
etc. Media Cleaner, for example, allows you to select your video
format (e.g. QuickTime), your delivery method (e.g. Web), your
data rate (e.g. for 56k-modem), your frame rate (e.g. 10 frames
per second), and the size of your video viewing area (e.g. 240 x
Page 7 — Real World
At Adventure Zone Network, we use Final Cut Pro as our editing
tool, Adobe After Effects for composing and effects, and Media
Cleaner Pro v5 for compressing and preparing each video file for
output. We also use Real Video 8, Sorenson Developer 2.1, and
Windows Media 7 as our primary video codecs and Qdesign
Music Design for preparing audio files for QuickTime. We also use
We use Apple G4s for editing and encoding our videos. There's
not an Avid system in the house. Everything is done digitally, on
the desktop, and all the software is available at consumer level
prices. To see some streaming video samples that use these
codecs and tools, go to the Channel Zero section and see
videos from around the globe.
We shoot video using mini DV tapes (NTSC) as our source and
capture digital video using a Firewire (IEEE1394) connected to
the Firewire port of our Apple Macs. We don't generally use an
analog source, as it creates an extra step to convert to digital
using a Sony DMA-200 digital converter. As well as the standard
Firewire connection, you can use a video capture card such as
those produced by Osprey to capture video at the source into
your computer for editing. Without a doubt, you get the best
results using a digital video camera hooked up to your computer
via Firewire. All the latest Mac systems include a Firewire port.
Page 8 — The Trade-offs
The optimal goal is to produce the highest quality video that
streams with minimal or no interruptions and a quick download.
For Web delivery, this means trade-offs.
On one hand, if you produce a high quality video with a high
frame rate (regular movies play at 24 frames per second), a
large viewing window, and a high data rate, you will get a video
that looks great but will only be viewable for people with fast
connections. If you encode with speed and delivery in mind, the
quality suffers. In an era of instant gratification, there is no
quick fix for making quality video accessible to a wide audience.
Finding a balance between video quality and connection speed
that best serves your target audience is the key.
A sample encoding settings for 56kbit modem delivery using
NTSC DV source might look like this:
Streaming Method: Real-time Streaming
Data Rate: 40 Kb
Although we may have a 56 Kb modem, our true connection
speed is nearly always lower than 56 Kb. Therefore, setting to
40 Kb or around that rate minimizes the interruptions that occur
due to general Net congestion.
Window Size: 160 x 120 pixels
For 56 Kb, if you increase the display size of your video, quality
will immediately suffer due to the larger file size. You need to
keep the display size to 160 x 120 pixels or only slightly larger.
This is what many people disparagingly call a "postage stamp"
Frame Rate: Use 5 for 6 frames per second (fps).
Uncompressed video typically plays at around 30 fps (NTSC) or
25 fps (PAL). Choose a frame rate that evenly divides into the
above figures. Since many of us use NTSC in the US, you'll need
to select a frame rate such as 5, 6, 7.5, 10, or 15 fps
depending on connection speed. As modem delivery is very
slow, we suggest 5 or 6 fps, then scaling up based on data rate
and Web connection.
Page 9 — Encoding Methods and DVD
If you're encoding for progressive streaming delivery, use the
2-pass Variable Bit Rate (VBR) setting, which is supported both
in Real Video 8 and QuickTime 4 & 5 versions. You won't find
this feature in Windows Media 7. VBR encoding is a great
feature to enhance the overall quality of your video. It works
like a 2-pass encoding approach, analyzing your video first for
choke points, then compressing it. It's a longer process but the
results are better.
Some techniques used in video streaming actually mix encoding
techniques. It's more common now to see companies encode for
modem (e.g. 56kb) delivery using progressive download and for
higher data rates (e.g. ISDN and DSL) using real-time streaming
methods. The mix and match approach works well because it's
hard to do real-time streaming for 56Kb delivery unless you're
streaming a talking head video, which compresses better due to
minimal camera movement.
When you start the encoding process, use a very short clip
because it will take a long time (even with a fast computer).
You can enter different settings into Media Cleaner Pro 5 until
you get the best results for the type of video you are
compressing. Then be sure to save these settings for future
Media Cleaner Pro offers new users a wizard interface, which
takes you through the encoding process to create your own
settings. However, the results are often poor and you have to
go through a lot of trial and error before you really start to see
optimized results. Start with the wizard interface then try the
advanced settings until you find the results you like best. There
is no magic bullet here. The experimental phase can be very
frustrating and time consuming to say the least, but once you
have the settings you like, you can reuse them for future
If you go to a Blockbuster store today, you might notice that
DVD is well on its way to replacing analog VHS tapes. Up until
this point, the main focus in digital video has been on Web
distribution, but producing your own videos and 'burning' them
on DVD is also possible for 'pro-sumers'.
Until recently, encoding and 'burning' DVDs required very
expensive equipment. Apple Computer has introduced new but
powerful consumer level DVD software called iDVD and iDVD
Studio that can deliver professional results.
Media100's Terran Division also has a product called Cleaner
MPEG Charger that helps you create and encode for DVD.
Generally, DVDs use MPEG-2 codecs and you can encode at far
greater data rates than you might for the Web, with a full
screen window size to boot.
Page 10 — Community Sites
There are several useful video community sites that can help
you find further information about video encoding.
See 2-pop, which supports a vast bulletin board for everything
from video encoding, editing and capture to special effects.
Another Site called Streaming Media is a great portal which
offers media talk radio shows, highlights everything from
content and technology to industry trends and news, discussed
by the latest luminaries.
Digital video creation, distribution and communication represents
the next killer app. And it's a very exciting and fun process once
you get the hang of it. Like everything, it requires learning a
few key tools, some perseverance to get them working in
tandem, and some trial and error until you're happy with the
results. And beware -- once you get into it, you might get