Why You Need to Be Good at Compression

As an editor, I know you’ve made a special study of compression of your final export, right?  If not, it should be one of your big priorities.  Why?  Because you’re ability to export a properly compressed file for the medium you’re using to broadcast can make or break the visual quality of the project.

Examples: I’m aware of a lot of shortcomings in the first season of Issues.  However, one of the things that I know we did right was our decision to shoot the show in HD.  It gave us a beautiful, crisp, sharp picture, and it allowed me a lot of flexibility to manipulate the footage as I needed to.  All of the Issues footage was shot in high def. except Jared’s web videos, which were shot with the built-in camera on my MacBook Pro because we wanted it to look like a webcam.  Shooting on a webcam was easier than degrading HD footage to look like a webcam.

However, if you go back and watch the first promos that were released from Issues, you see 4:3 picture in relatively poor quality.  Why?  I didn’t compress it correctly.  It’s a mistake that I corrected as the series went on, and the episodes are all appropriately sized for the computer screen with sharp pictures.  It took some trial and error to get it right – I wanted a precise understanding of which format worked best.  I could have taken the easy way out and just compressed for iPhone, and did at the beginning, but I’m now able to custom program the settings I need to get the show up on the web and looking good.

I’ve been thinking of this for a while, and it came back to me forcefully yesterday when watching the first episode of Bleeder, a new web-series about a hemophiliac taken in by a group of vampires.  I found the show because Sarah Croce, who plays Jane in Issues, plays Daisy, one of the leaders of the vampire clan.  The story line is very intriguing and I’m interested to see how it develops over the next several episodes.  My only critique of the show at this point is technical.  For a show shot on a RED One camera, the picture quality appears low in the finished version.  I’ve become spoiled by my own show, and am looking for that same sharp quality in other shows now, especially if the story is engaging and intriguing.  I would love to see Bleeder in HD, because I know several of the neighborhoods they’re shooting in, and I want to soak in all the detail of those locations.

Compression is tricky, and isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.  Online video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo help out by describing what specs. to use for good results on their sites, but in other circumstances, you’re going to need to know what settings will give you the best picture for your medium.  To give you an idea of how important compression is, I constantly exported 3 formats of each episode of Issues, one for our website/podcast channel, one for YouTube, and one of HD DVD quality.  So if compression isn’t something you’ve given a lot of thought to, I’d recommend that you start now.  If you don’t have access to a compression program like Compressor or Sorenson Squeeze, a $30 investment in QuickTime Pro (for you Mac users) will give you much more control over your videos.  Having a properly compressed video will mean that your audience is spending their time more engaged in the story because there are no distracting visual elements to detract from it.

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