As a projection designer, I spend a lot of time looking at movie files. I don't mean watching movies, but I do a lot of that too. I mean, I spend a lot of time analyzing individual frames and short sequences for details like color mismatches, blockiness, banding, and other artifacts of digital video. At a high enough bitrate these artifacts disappear, but for live playback and cueing we have to compress the video to a format using a specific algorithm called a codec.
Compression is basically a trade-off between quality and performance: the less help you give the computer, the nicer it looks, and the harder it is to play. This is why we have to find a balanced codec that works both for the system that is playing the file as well as the audience viewing it. Finding this balance in your codec can be tedious, and I've covered my preferences before, but once we find the format and codec we want to use, we tend to stick with it, at least for the duration of the current project. This is why I've developed my workflow around Telestream's Episode.
Now in version 6, Episode has been a mainstay of professional video transcoding for a long time, providing high-level tools and conversions to both individual artists like me and to large studios like ABC. Until version 6, I thought that Episode was actually a little too complicated for someone who only does a small amount or a specific kind of encoding. Episode 5 was built in a highly technical interface that, in my opinion, was difficult for someone who didn't know all of the options for their particular codec. Even though I loved Episode 5, and it did include presets to help out new users, I still find the new interface in Episode 6 to be an extreme improvement.
Episode 6 uses a different, more graphical approach to encoding, by dividing the process into three parts: Source, Encoder, and Deployment, and each combination of the three can be saved in templates called Workflows. For the new user, Episode 6 comes with many templates of Encoders and Workflows to jump right in. Converting an entire library of movies to a different format is as easy as selecting an appropriate Workflow and dragging your files onto the area of the screen that reads "Drop Source Here." For me, I recently bought a new toy: an Apple TV.
The only problem is that the Apple TV only accepts a somewhat narrow range of video file formats, so I selected the Apple TV (HD) workflow and dragged in about 50 files, and pressed Submit and I was on my way. For an experienced user, or a team of projection designers working on a tight deadline across many computers, Episode 6 still brings the power. For example, for Bring it On: The Musical, we had quickly decided on a format we wanted to use and saved a new workflow called Bring it On, that anyone on the team could open, drag in their files, and shortly thereafter have their files ready to put into the Watchout media server.
Episode also has an amazing little feature that After Effects users may be familiar with: watch folders. Episode lets you create a folder as the source, and anything new put in that folder, it will automatically encode and put the resulting file in another folder of your choice. Episode really starts getting crazy when you allow it to use multiple processors or even multiple computers to distribute the rendering job.
Again, it's actually very easy; you just open the Cluster Browser from within Episode on your main machine and select create cluster. Then on the other machines, you select the cluster you've just created, and Episode will automatically use all of the computers and processors in the cluster, making the encoding time drop dramatically. It worked great on my laptop, and it was really amazing when we added a very powerful computer to the network.
We were able to take a Mac Pro running Episode, put it off in a corner and create a cluster. Then all four of the team's laptops could be joined to the cluster and send files to the network, retrieving them out of the output folder when they were finished. The best part of the entire process was that it only took 15 minutes or so to set up the whole thing. Using Episode's watch folders takes the time out of setting up a render every time you need to encode; and using the distributed rendering shaves a considerable chunk of the time in general, which allows me to focus on other things, like designing the show.
Episode 6 is not without it's limitations, however, and there is one feature that I would really like to see: support for sequences of still images. I work a lot with image sequences instead of movie files, as do many motion graphic and video artists because having each frame be its own file saves a lot of rendering time later if you need to change just one section or you do a lot of rendering over a network when files can sometimes be corrupted do to network issues. If one frame is bad in a movie file, often the whole file is worthless and the render time has been completely wasted, but with an image sequence, just that one frame is bad and since it is its own file, we can just delete it and start from that point.
Unfortunately Episode only can import movies as a whole and not image sequences, which adds another step to my workflow, hindering the advantage of using Episode's time-saving features. One final note is that I used Episode Pro to review, which allows you to export advanced camera formats such as Sony XDCAM, MXF, DVCPRO, and some advanced MPEG transport stream codecs. I would say most Live Design readers probably only need the standard version, but many of you will also need to export those advanced formats and you should know who you are.