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Understanding Video & Audio Formats

With so many different platforms and competing technologies, it's easy to get confused and overwhelmed by digital video and audio terminology. Do you need it in WMV or MP4? How about on a DVD? How about streaming? We won't claim that there's no reason to be confused, but we will try to help you make sense of a few standard things so that you can concentrate on your work rather than the annoying particularities.

To do this, we will attempt to answer some frequent questions and concerns and offer some advice and solutions. If there's an annoyance you're experiencing that you think others would benefit from hearing the answer to, please feel free to suggest a topic for this page.


Working with Different Kinds of Video

What's a "format" and why should I care?

You can tell a media file's format by looking at its three letter file extension, such as .mov, .mp4 or .wmv. When people talk about these video formats, they're talking about that digital "container" for the video or audio content.

Think for a moment about VHS tapes and DVDs. What are those besides "containers" for movies, complete with their own unique features and form factors that make them compatible for some uses and not for others? You can think of formats like .wmv, .avi, and .mov as the digital equivalents to things like that. Just as you're able to recognize a file that ends with .doc is a Word file or .xls is an Excel file, you can get to recognize media file types the same way.

What is QuickTime and what is Windows Media?

The most popular formats you'll run into are Widows Media (files ending in .wmv for video or .wma for audio) and QuickTime (.mov, .m4v or .mp4). Because of their wide-spread use, Windows Media and QuickTime are generally pretty compatible and you should be able to choose either of them for your project, but Macs will usually default to using QuickTime, and Windows to Windows Media.

What other formats are there?

More than is worth counting, really. A lot of recording devices will record in a proprietary format. Panasonic video recorders, for example, often record to a file format ending in .mts. Proprietary files can generally only be edited in the same company's proprietary software. The good news is that you can convert files between formats, so different editing software (like Final Cut Pro or iMovie) will recognize it.

How can I convert one format into another?

You may need to do this if your file format isn't compatible with the computer on which you want to use it. When you convert a file, you can usually also adjust the resolution settings so that the resulting file is smaller, and easier to share. This can be done using media converter programs, such as MPEG Streamclip or Freemake Video Converter (MPEG Streamclip comes installed on the video lab machines). Not all video converter programs will be able to recognize or convert to all formats, so before you choose one it's worth looking at what it can do.

What format should I make my project?

We can't say definitively. Even though they are pretty compatible, if you're going to use your final product on a Mac, choose QuickTime. If you're going to be using it on a PC, choose Windows Media. If you're unsure, more than likely you'll be fine rendering your project as a QuickTime. Remember, if it comes to it, you can always use a video converter program to generate a different version.

What can I do to minimize any chance of compatibility problems?

When you're done with your project and ready to export a finalized version, you may want to think about producing two files: a Windows Media file and a QuickTime file. That way, you have two files to choose from if one gives you trouble later on. However, this does take up twice the amount of space on whatever storage medium you're using.

Why is everything taking so long?

Working with audio and video (especially video) means working with computer files that are VERY LARGE. Unlike text, video takes up a ton of space, and uses a lot of processing power. You can expect a lot of time in your lab will be waiting for files to render, save, or upload, so plan accordingly. Likewise, equip yourself with a large-capacity external hard drive on which to save your stuff.


Working With DVDs

How do "formats" work in regard to DVDs? If I have a DVD, is that a kind of format?

The "container" metaphor from above isn't perfect, and there are two things to know when thinking about DVDs. One, there can be video-DVDs, and there can be data-DVDs. Two, just putting a video file on a DVD does not make it a video-DVD.

This is no different from CDs, in the sense that you can go to the store and purchase an artist's latest album on a CD and later on back up all of your computer's data onto another CD. Two completely different uses for the same medium.

DVDs work like that, too. You can go to the store and buy a commercial DVD that will play in a DVD player, or you can save your video data file onto a DVD. When you save your video file onto a DVD, it's no different from storing any other kind of computer file onto the DVD. In order for the video file to actually be playable on a DVD, you have to burn the file onto the disc as a video-DVD using software that does that.

How do I make a DVD that plays in DVD players?

This is called DVD-authoring, and in the lab there are two programs you can use. Toast Titanium is easy to use and pretty straight forward, while DVD Studio Pro is a lot more advanced. Both will allow you to create video-DVDs, complete with custom menu structures, if you desire.

How can I take or use video from a DVD in my project?

A common desire is to take certain clips from a DVD and either store them on your computer for your own use, or use them for a project. The act of converting all or part of a physical DVD's contents into a video data file is called ripping. This is not as easy as many think it is, mostly because of copy-protection measures taken by the movie studios.

If you previously created and own the DVD from which you want to rip content, you can use a program like Handbrake, which is installed on the lab machines. If it's a commercial DVD you're interested in ripping--good luck to you! You may occasionally get lucky by using Handbrake to do so, but you'll be breaking the law. Circumventing copy-protection or ignoring FBI warnings do not fall under "fair use."


Working with Video from Other Sources

I have a bunch of recordings on a digital video camera. How do I start editing?

Depending on what format (see the first few questions, above) your camera is using, you may first need to convert the files to be recognized by programs like Final Cut Pro or iMovie. You can use a video converter software to do this. MPEG Streamclip is one such converter, and comes installed on the lab machines.

Can I download and use content from sites like YouTube?

Yes. There are websites and software out there that will help you download video files from sites like YouTube. Many software utilities take the form of web browser plugins. A standalone option is Freemake Video Downloader. Doing a Google search for "downloading YouTube content" should present you with a variety of options, but, as warned above, exercise judgment when attempting to download video from the internet. Much of it may be copyrighted or behind extensive copy-protection software that makes it impossible to do so.


Copyright Considerations

Who can I go to with copyright questions?

We often get asked questions about what would and wouldn't be okay to do in the course of a project. All we can say is use your best judgment... if it feels wrong, it probably is. To stay on the right side of the law, do not circumvent or disregard copy-protection notices. The "fair use" doctrine does not include breaking copy-protection measures put in place by the content producers. If you have a legal concern, we urge you to seek out a professional copyright lawyer, or contact the folks at UM's Copyright Office for guidance.


Showing Your Video to Others

How do I get my content out there to be seen?

After you've produced your audio or video file, the next step is letting people watch it! There are many ways to "get it out there." You could upload it to a video hosting site like Vimeo or YouTube (which is part of your M+Google account), or upload it to your own web space. Faculty may opt to upload video files directly to CTools so that students can download them, or host it on the Ross-owned Mediasite system.

Can't I just email my video to people?

Video files will be large. Many email systems prohibit files over a certain size. M+Google limits attachments to 25MB in size. Any video over a few minutes long will likely be well over 25MB. Emailing videos around is generally one of the least efficient ways of distributing your video. Uploading it to a video hosting service like YouTube or Mediasite is a much better way.

What is Mediasite? Can anyone use it?

Mediasite is Ross' video capture, hosting and distribution platform. It's integrated into almost all of the classrooms and makes it easy for people to record what's happening in the room so that others may watch live or replay it later. Mediasite also allows for the manual uploading of files, and the creation of catalogs of content to make sharing easy. Only faculty and staff can upload video files to Mediasite. A walk-through can be found here.