Exhibiting video on the Internet can be a quick way to show your work to producers, festivals, and potential audience members. Although the quality cannot even begin to rival the picture and sound of home video or theatrical distribution, Internet video can provide a representation of your work 24/7. As soon as you understand a few relatively simple principles about Internet video distribution it should become apparent that putting a short piece of video on the Internet is a relatively easy task that could have far-ranging results.
Of course, the high-traffic entertainment destinations on the web such as shockwave.com and iFilm utilize highly technical, proprietary methods to optimize their video distribution. But for those who have a small number of short clips to exhibit on their own web site, this primer on Internet video distribution should get you on the way to showing your work on-line.
Just about everything you see on the Internet exists as a file that resides on the hard drive of a server somewhere. A server is a computer running a special program that transfers files over the internet in a manner that can be understood by a web browsing application like Netscape or Internet Explorer. Most content on the web is sent from a server that uses the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), but sometimes video is sent with a different kind of server (more on that later). You can run your own server if you have the right software, but most individuals rent space on a server administered by an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Most web pages exist as files written in a language called HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that are comprised solely of text. HTML files contain some of the elements of a web page such as text and layout information and many times they reference other files such as images and video clips. If you were to create a simple web page with a still from your video, a short paragraph describing the story, and the clip of the video, the web page would be comprised of the HTML file with the text and layout information, the JPEG or GIF image file for the still, and a video file that contains the data that makes up the picture and sound of your clip.
The most basic and bare-bones web site with video requires these things:
1. An HTML file with a reference to your video file.
2. A video file in whatever format and resolution you choose to use.
3. an ISP that sends out the above elements to the rest of the world via the World Wide Web from a server.
Of course, you probably would want to spruce up the design of your site but the above recipe is the basic framework for almost all the video content you see on the Web.
Streaming vs. Download
Although most people use the word "streaming" to describe video they see on the Internet, technically not all video on the Internet streams. As I say earlier, most content on the Web is sent from servers using the HTTP method of delivery. Another method of delivery used by specialized video servers, called Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), exists in order to stream video and audio content across the Internet. Content sent by RTSP servers is "streamed" while video files sent by the more common HTTP servers are merely downloaded by the viewer. The difference between the two methods is technologically significant and a rudimentary understanding will help you decide how to deliver your video.
Streaming video from an RTSP server is sent as a continuous stream of data that is stored very briefly on the viewer’s browser in a buffer, displayed by the player software and then emptied from the buffer. This method is best suited for long-format video or video that is live, such as a speech at a conference. Since the data from a streaming video does not accumulate in the viewer’s browser it can theoretically continue to receive a stream indefinitely. Streaming video is useful for people distributing video similar to a news broadcast, like that of the Independent Media Centers (www.indymedia.org).
Video sent from an HTTP sever is downloaded and stored in the viewer’s browser as one large file. Downloaded video is better suited for short pieces of video where image quality is important. Because the entire video file is stored inside the viewer’s browser a long video in this format will eventually take up the memory available to the web browser and may cause the browser to quit unexpectedly. Downloaded video is only realistic for clips that are less than 5 minutes long.
A rough analogy of streaming and downloaded video would be that streamed video is similar to a broadcast from a TV station while downloaded video is similar to a tape from the video store.
Another important distinction between streamed and downloaded video is that a streaming server can be setup to automatically send video compressed to fit each type of Internet connection while downloaded video usually cannot. For example, if you are connected to the Internet by a 56K modem and watch a streaming video from an RTSP server, it may be able to send you a file that has been heavily compressed for users on a slow connection while someone connecting from a broadband connection would be shown a less compressed file. Typically, downloaded video requires the user to choose which size file they want to download. However, that is not necessarily a drawback to downloading video clips.
While streaming video has to match its compression so that it can playback close to real-time, downloaded video can take as long as it needs to to download and let you watch the video once it has finished. For that reason, downloaded video usually has higher image quality than streamed video. There is also the advantage of letting viewers choose how long they are willing to wait for which size and image quality they want. For example, when the Star Wars Episode 1 trailer was released as a Quicktime download, many people opted to spend over 20 hours to download the highest quality version of it over their slow connections. Streaming video would not have allowed them that choice, forcing them to watch a heavily compressed version that matched their connection.
Compressing the Video
Video on the Internet, by definition, is video that has been digitized and exists as a computer file. This article makes the assumption that you already have access to video that has already been digitized, edited, and exported as a computer file ready to be compressed for the Internet. If you want to put some clips on the Internet but the material only exists as a videotape or film print then you are probably better off enlisting a third party to digitize and compress your video for you. Although the cost may be significant to hire a professional to do the work, it would almost certainly be cheaper than buying your own editing system just to digitize and compress your video for one project.
The process of preparing video for the Internet involves exporting video from your editing application as an AVI or Quicktime file and then changing the specifications of the file so that it can easily fit within the bandwidth limitations of the Internet, a process called compression. Compression is the science and art of shrinking the data of a video file while keeping as much of the image and sound quality as possible.
Some non-linear editing software compresses video for the Internet from within the application itself. However, many people still turn to a separate application or ask someone with compression experience to compress their video for them. Most people who compress video for the Internet on a regular basis choose a specialized video compression application called Cleaner (formerly called Media Cleaner Pro) with a variety of sliders, checkboxes, and settings that allow for the compressionist to create the best looking video that fits within a target data size. Cleaner is designed for professionals and is priced for them too. Fortunately, Cleaner has a smaller sibling that is designed for regular people and is distributed freely with many popular non-linear editing applications. CleanerEZ does the same thing as the full version of Cleaner but does it with an interface that is a lot friendlier. CleanerEZ uses a "wizard" interface that compresses video files based on a few simple settings you select. CleanerEZ asks you questions about what type of server, which format to use, and what connection your viewer’s have. Once you have compressed your clips, test them out yourself – over the Internet. If you are using a broadband connection, dial-up over a phoneline and test your video that way—you may be amazed by how slow it is. Also, if you are not streaming your clips consider putting up a big and a small version so that people on slow connections can see the clip without having to wait a long time.
Three major formats dominate the world of video on the Internet. Real Network’s RealPlayer, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, and Apple’s Quicktime each have their own proponents who claim they offer the best quality and features but my own experience has shown that all three provide similar levels of image quality. Some technical differences exist between the different formats but the biggest reason to choose which format to use depends more upon what resources are available to you and your intended audience. If you can, provide a choice between at least two of the formats to allow your audience the greatest amount of flexibility.
Windows Media and Quicktime both have the advantage that they are included as part of the operating systems made by their respective manufacturers. People with Macs can view Quicktime content without having to add software while people with PCs running Windows can watch video in Windows Media format. Despite the apparent disadvantage RealPlayer has by not being included with an operating system, RealPlayer is the most popular format for delivering video over the Internet.
Since many of your viewers are not likely to have all three players installed, it is a good idea to include more than one type of format. Providing Quicktime along with either RealPlayer or Windows Media is a popular tactic because virtually all Mac users have Quicktime and most Windows users have both RealPlayer and Windows Media installed.
If you would rather only serve one video format, which one you choose should depend on what will be most convenient for your audience and which fits in best with the method of distribution you implement. Specifically, Quicktime has an advantage over both RealPlayer and Windows Media when delivered by download instead of streaming.
Video downloaded with Quicktime has the advantage of being able to start playing before it is completely downloaded while RealPlayer and Windows Media require the user to wait until the entire file has been downloaded before they can watch it. HTTP delivery of Quicktime is popular for demo reels, clips, movie trailers, and short films because it provides the high image quality of downloaded video along with the convenience of starting playback right away. For those with long videos, videos of live events, or continuous broadcasts streaming video is the way to go and RealPlayer is the most popular type for that. Be aware that any ISP can serve HTTP video, but not all ISPs offer streaming media servers—particularly not to lower-cost web serving options that you may have subscribed to. Your ISP’s capabilities will be a factor in your decision to stream or provide clips for download.
Building and serving your web page
Once your video is compressed and saved as the type of file appropriate for the method of distribution you have selected, the next step will be to create the web page that will hold the video. Creating a web page that can hold a video clip is a little tricky to pull off with basic web editing tools such as FrontPage or Netscape Gold. Probably the easiest and most effective method for adding video to a web page is to use a multimedia oriented web development tool like Dreamweaver or GoLive. Both programs allow you to drag video content into your layout page and automatically program most of the settings in the page’s HTML code. If you don’t have access to those applications but have some HTML writing skill, I suggest finding a simple web page with the type of video content you plan to use and looking at the page’s source code. The video file’s information will be contained within either an <object> or <embed> tag and will contain information about the size of the picture and location of the file. Unfortunately, putting video in a webpage is still a relatively complicated procedure for the uninitiated so those without the software tools may want to hire a consultant or web designer to help them.
Once a web page is setup, you need to upload the page and video files to your web server in order for people to access the material. If you are using streaming media that requires an RTSP server, you may want to contact your ISP to find out exactly where the video file must go. If your ISP does not give you access to a server that can stream media, then you can still provide your files as an HTTP download. However, there are ISPs out there that explicitly offer streaming media servers as part of their services, such as Free Speech TV at www.freespeech.org.
One irony about video exhibition on the Internet is that you may not want to garner too much attention. ISPs usually set a limit on the amount of bandwidth used by your site and charge for however much you go over the limit each month. Video files take up much more bandwidth than regular web pages so they eat up that bandwidth much faster. If your material is very popular it may take you way over your limit in a short amount of time, leaving you owing an unexpectedly large sum of money to your ISP. Most ISPs provide tools to track bandwidth usage, and it is wise to check yours periodically to make sure you don’t go over. Web sites that go over their bandwidth allotment that cannot pay their bills immediately are sometimes taken completely offline by their ISP. Be careful and make sure you don’t lose your online presence!
Finding the best ISP depends upon what services you require and how much you are willing to pay. If your site is currently hosted as a free service then your options are probably limited to downloaded video, if any video content is allowed at all. For those on a budget who also have a Mac with Mac OS 9 or X installed, you might want to check out Apple’s free iTools web hosting. iTools provides users with an "iMovie Theater" template that makes it easy to add Quicktime content to a webpage. See www.apple.com/itools for iTools services.
There are entire books written about the serving video over the web, but hopefully this article has provided a fair introduction to the process. Video serving is becoming more commonplace, and offers a great opportunity for media makers to show their stuff. It’s good to know the basics, even if you feel you’ve gotten just enough information to convince you to work with a consultant!