When dealing with all of the different assets while programming your show, it can become extremely tedious to keep track of all of the settings required to get your files playing their smoothest. That’s why I’ve created this little cheat sheet to help fellow media designers through the dark times. Here are the four basic kinds of playback formats that I always use for video. When one of them is playing poorly on a given system, I’ll try one of the others.

MPEG2
This is the current industry-standard. Both Dataton Watchout and Green Hippo Hippotizer prefer it, and in fact, the Hippotizer converts all of your imported video assets to its own recipe of MPEG2. MPEG2 files are less taxing on the computer than some more modern formats because they are not compressed very much. The trade-off is that you end up with larger file sizes. Another constraint is that these files must be in a size divisible by 16 in both dimensions, so you want to stick with standard sizes. Thirdly, you may need an add-on to Apple Quicktime in order to work with MPEG2 files in a Mac operating system.

Settings for MPEG2

Profile Settings:
(Main Profile)
Main Level for standard definition
High Level for anything high definition
Dimensions must be divisible by 16
Program Stream (audio and video multiplexed)

Frame Rate
Progressive, non-interlaced
30 or 60 fps is the preferred frame rate (If you have PAL original content and if you have a projector that can synchronize at 50 Hz, then 25 or 50 fps will work just as well)

Bitrate
Constant Bit Rate (CBR)
6 to 8mbit for NTSC/PAL size
12-15mbit for 1280x720
20-25mbit for 1920x1080

GOP (Group of Pictures) Settings
Sequence Headers on every GOP
Closed GOP (as opposed to Open)
(in Adobe After Effects, set this to Closed GOP every 1)
15 frame GOP
M=3
N=15

Windows Media Video
The Windows Media Video format often gets overlooked because it is a proprietary format that belongs to Microsoft and is not completely cross-platform compatible. On the PC side, there is a perfectly good encoder available free for 30 days, called Microsoft Expression Encoder, which can also encode to WMVs more advanced format called VC-1 (also known as Windows Video 9 Advanced). On the Mac side, however, you’ll need special software to encode to WMV or VC-1. I use Episode Pro, made by Telestream, but the company also makes a less expensive program called WMV Studio Pro as well as a free WMV viewer that cannot encode, but it will at least let you view WMV files on your Mac. The biggest benefit to using WMVs is that the quality of the video is much higher than that of MPEG2 encoded at similar settings. Compared visually side-by-side, I always prefer the WMV version of a file. The dimensions of a WMV only have to be divisible by 4, so it is easier to make odd ratios, and the file sizes are smaller, because the format is more compressed than MPEG2.

Next Page: Settings for Windows Media Video

Settings for Windows Media Video

Profile
WMV9 Main or VC-1 (WMV9 advanced)
Indexed file

Frame
Progressive, non-interlaced
30 fps or 60fps

Keyframe
Natural and Forced
Keyframe distance: 1 second
Number of B-frames: 0

Bitrate
2-Pass CBR
VBV Buffer size: 1.0
15mbit/s for 1920x1080
12mbit/s for 1280x720
9mbit/s for 720x480

Apple Quicktime Photo JPG
Quicktime PJPG is my old fallback. When I can’t get a format to work for one reason or another, I always go to good old solid Photo JPG. It isn’t a fancy format. It isn’t heavily compressed, and it doesn’t have many options for encoding—just a slider for quality and some options for using it on the web—but it gets the job done. The problem with Photo JPEG is that it is often too large a file at too high of a bitrate to play smoothly on all but the fastest machines, but if you use it sparingly and in small files, it might just be the one that saves your neck when you need it.

Settings
Frame rate: 15 or 30 or 60
Quality: 75-80 or High
Turn off Optimize for Streaming and RFC 2035

h.264
H.264 is the newest format and probably will become the standard of most things for which we use video. It is already one of the formats (along with MPEG2) that is used in Blu-Ray discs, and it is the standard for Apple iPhone/iPad video as well. It is the smallest and highest quality format, but it requires the most out of your computers, so test carefully. While h.264 is (finally) officially supported in version 4.2 of Watchout, it doesn’t always play nicely. On shows that I run entirely on a Mac, using Apple Keynote or Isadora, I use h.264 exclusively. If you have an advanced encoding tool like Episode, more of the advanced settings will be there. If you are using Quicktime Pro, just input what you can, and it will take care of the rest.

Settings

Profile
Main/High

Frame
30 or 60 fps
Progressive (non-interlaced)

Quality
2-pass or Multi-pass encoding
Frame Reordering off

Bitrate
CBR
15mbit/s for 1920x1080
12mbit/s for 1280x720
9mbit/s for 720x480

Keyframe
Distance: 1 second (ie 30 frames)
B-frames: 0
Buffer: 0
Headers on Every GOP

These are the settings that I use on every show, and they haven’t failed me yet. Does anyone else have any settings they use, or are there any codec experts out there that want to share their advice? Let us know in the comments section below, or email us at editor@livedesignonline.com.

Daniel Brodie is a freelance New York-based projection designer and multimedia artist. Recently, he was the assistant projection designer on Rock of Ages and Sondheim on Sondheim. Check out brodiegraphics.com, inc.