Video via the Web
Distributing video on the Web used to be the exclusive domain of QuickTime and RealPlayer, and although Windows Media Player’s WMV format has made some inroads recently it still suffers from being PC-only. The newest kid on the block is Macromedia’s FLV format, but its impact will remain limited until two conditions can be met. First, it must become possible for video producers to create FLV video without needing to either own or understand the Flash 8 authoring system, and second, Flash Player 8 needs to achieve 90 per cent-plus market penetration (which experience suggests could take the best part of a year).
Why version 8? Because while FLV playback was introduced in Flash Player 7, it’s only really in version 8 that the technology is approaching maturity. This latest version replaces the Sorensen Sparc codec with the superior VP6 codec from On2, and as a result video is sharper and compression artefacts much less evident. What this means in practice is that source video can stand much greater compression while retaining quality, the end result being smaller video files that are quicker to download. An uncompressed AVI file can be squeezed down by a factor of 30 with little loss in quality.
So the underlying technology is in place, with an excellent video codec that offers high quality at low bandwidth, but this is of limited use until editors can create FLV files as simply and quickly as they might create QuickTime or RealPlayer files. While plug-ins do exist for a number of video-editing tools, they don’t offer the configuration options necessary to optimise for web delivery. By far the most efficient way to create FLV files is to edit them individually using your favourite editing package (at the semi-pro level, Premiere Elements is hard to beat), save them as uncompressed AVI files and then batch convert them to FLV. Not surprisingly, both Sorensen and On2 offer conversion applications, with the former even supporting its successor’s VP6 codec.
However, if you don’t need the new features added by Flash Player 8, or are nervous about its current lack of penetration, the newly released SWiSH Video2 (www.swishzone.com) offers the simplest, cheapest way to generate FLV and SWF files. At under £30 (inc VAT), SWiSH Video2 is one of a range of products from SWiSHzone that does everything from creating sophisticated Flash animations to converting PowerPoint presentations into Flash. SWiSH Video2, like its sister products, does just one thing and does it well: it lets you select an input video, specify the output parameters and then make a cup of tea while your PC groans its way through the encoding process. SWiSH Video2 sports an attractive interface featuring a tabbed main window and a preview area. Having selected your source video, SWiSH Video2 allows you to specify an overlay image in PNG or GIF format that will sit on top of the final FLV or SWF. This latest version adds the facility to attach a soundtrack, which means it can function as a basic video-assembly package as well as a converter. Also in version 2 is the ability to include events within the FLV or SWF. This will only work with Flash Player 8 and, of course, presupposes that you’re going to control the video from Flash Professional 8. If your interest is simply getting your videos online, SWiSH Video2 offers enough for most purposes.
Here at NlightN, we’ve been using Wildform’s Flix Pro 4 to convert MPEG files into FLV or SWF – it has excellent batch-processing facilities that let us load up a whole sequence of files and have them processed by a spare computer. On2 (www.on2.com) clearly thought it could extract more profit from its video-encoding technologies by providing a fully featured conversion suite, so in 2005 it bought up Wildform and gained access to the Flix product range. The first version released since the acquisition is, at first glance, underwhelming: the dated-looking interface of Pro 4 has been retained and On2 would do well to take a look at SWiSH Video2 to see how a tabbed main screen can look when designed with panache. Hiding within this bland interface, however, is a far more powerful beast, albeit at a much higher price (£140 inc VAT).