Adventures in Encoding

Recently I sent an SD spot to a television station in DG approved MPEG2 specs. I heard from the producer a half an hour later that they requested a H264 QuickTime movie rather than an MP2. I thought, “Really everyone it’s not all that hard to convert a MP2 to a QuickTime movie”.  It seems that many TV stations and others have a set way of doing things and if something is out of their standard operating procedure they just don’t know how to cope with it.

Although my background is TV I now work for an interactive company.  In the proverbial old days if you asked for a “master” tape the client would usually send you a VHS.  To them that was a video, the concept that it was originally made on a higher quality format is beyond their experience and knowledge base.

Today I get all kinds of stuff from clients and the concept is still valid. I’ll get FLV’s, even game formats all very compressed and it’s part of my job to get these diverse file types into a working editable format and then get them encoded again for a variety of end use and still have them look decent. Under these circumstances it can be really tough sometimes to do just that.

If there is a mistake to be made I have made it. I once had our developers tell me that the MP4 I just made for them could not be seen in the web player. I knew a lot less at the time so I slavishly followed a procedure that I was using at the time. It later occurred to me all I had to do was go to the streaming controls in QuickTime Pro and turn them on.

Fielding issues are the main thing one must keep on top of, if your HD project is 1080/720p then keep it no fields (progressive) throughout the project and encoding process. Note when an HD project is fielded and upper field first is the primary setting in use for fielded (interlaced) HD. Most of the time if it’s for web you can encode progressive. Computer displays are progressive. You want to stay interlaced/upper all the way through if you are going to use NTSC.

The concept of the anamorphic file was another stumbling block. The end results are really very simple. If you play it on a 16x9 screen it with meet the edges, if you are playing it on an older 4x3 screen it will automatically letter box while the video stays 16x9 inside the letterboxed screen. I like the ProRez 422 HQ file for clean down-rezing to standard DVD and Encore transcodes it and sees it as an anamorphic.

Years ago we had a web client that wanted 4x3 as the output. As an old TV head I sent them 720x486 and they kept telling me it wasn’t 4x3. Indignantly (but politely) I responded that I had been in the video business for 25 years and 720x486, 720x480 and 640x480 are all NTSC 4x3 formats…well I was dead wrong. In web world when they ask for 4x3 they mean 4x3. 640x480 is the only true (broadcast standard) 4x3 any derivative (320x240 etc.) is a valid 4x3 but 720x486 truly is not 4x3.

I struggled for years to find the best YouTube uploading format. I followed advice I could find at, experimented and obviously it’s a streaming H264 but how do you do it to be sure that it is 720p compatible and the wonderful little HD symbol is on the YouTube list? Adobe Media Encoder CS6 has 720p settings for YouTube, Vimeo and even DG Fast Channel. Use them to look at the settings; it’s quite educational.

Broadcast encoding is a trip. I have the specs sheets from Comcast, Major League Baseball, ESPN, DIRECTV and many more and none of them are the same. It used to be very intimidating. It would put me in a cold sweat imagining our hard work looking like crap on network TV. It was a must learn situation.

I started editing in the linear/analogue tape world. In fact I’ll date myself by stating I actually slammed modules on 2-inch machines as a last desperate try to reduce banding. If you are an old TV person you will know what I am talking about.

I scoffed that computers were going to take over the video world no matter what crazy tricks the Video Toaster could do. Well, within 5 years everything I knew was wrong. I had to adapt and grow with the times and the technology. I highly recommend even if you work for a TV station with a standard set of procedures you make a strong effort to learn encoding. It’s an absolute necessity if one day in the not too distant future transmitters are gone and everything is web based. Don’t be left behind.