Before any video can be shared, it must first be produced. In most video editing software, this is the final step of the creation process. The technical term for the process is “encoding”, and it involves making a few decisions. Decisions that can seem daunting when terms like codec, container, and a myriad of file type names start getting tossed around. This creates needless confusion. The secret about video encoding is that you only need to know a bit of information to get great results. In the post that follows, I’ll tell you what you need to know about video encoding to produce great videos.
First, a bit of history
In 1984 the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed H.120, the first international video coding standard. While H.120 is now obsolete – only a few implementations of it were ever produced – it laid the groundwork for future video standards. These video standards are arguably some of the most important advancements in digital media communication. Without video encoding standards, the streaming video that revolutionized the Internet would not have been possible.
Since the invention of H.120, video encoding has come a long way. In the following decades, a number of coding standards have been introduced, adopted by the public, and ultimately discarded when a more efficient standard was invented. Though the H.120 standard was only lightly used, it inspired the first commercially-successful and widely used video coding standard: H.261. Since then, video coding standards have continued to evolve and become much more efficient. Subsequent standards have been named in succession. So, following H.261 we had H.261 and H.263. The current most commonly used video encoding standard is H.264. The numbered naming convention helps with knowing which standard is the most recent.
Note: I tried very hard to research why the particular letter and numbers were chosen to name these standards. Beyond some cursory information on the names of working groups tasked with their development, I could not find anything clearly stating how the names were designated. If you’re reading this post and know something about the encoding standard names, please share it in the comments.
What is video encoding?
When we produce a video using video editing software, we are encoding the media to a particular standard or format. The purpose of encoding is to compress a video file to a size – MB or GB, not necessarily duration – that is easy to store and transfer over the web. Most video editing software will give you a choice of video encoding formats. Luckily for us, all the progress that has been made with encoding formats has led to an internationally-embraced video coding standard that can be played on virtually any modern web-connected device or browser: H.264.
If you’ve produced tons of videos and never heard of H.264, don’t worry. You’ve probably been using the standard without even realizing it. This is because encoding is only half the picture. Encoding takes care of the first step in production which is organizing the audio and visual data associated with a video. That data still needs to be packaged for delivery. The package, known as a container, most commonly used is MP4, though it is not the only one. MOV is another relatively common container for H.264 video. The container, often referred to as the file type, is displayed in the suffix of a file’s name (e.g. example.mp4 OR example.mov) While MP4 and MOV are not the only formats used to house H.264 video – there a number of others – they are usually the best choice because they are preferred by video hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo along with social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.
Choosing an encoding
Depending on the software you are using, choosing a coding standard and video file format can range from no-brainer to dizzyingly complex. This is because some software offers a wide array of different encoding standards and container formats, while others simplify choices to a few popular options.
Unless you have a reason to choose a different format, don’t venture into the weeds. MP4, sometimes shown as MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, will usually be the best choice. It’s versatile, offers good quality at manageable sizes, and, as mentioned earlier, is compatible virtually everywhere.
What’s the deal with codecs?
A term you may hear when discussing video encoding is codec. Codecs are the technology and programs used to encode or decode a digital data stream or signal (i.e. a video). The word codec is a combination of the words “coder” and “decoder,” because the programs known as codecs do both.
On the horizon: H.265
Now work is being done to implement a new, more efficient standard, H.265, also known as High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). Ultimately, the goal of H.265 is to provide a standard that offers greater compression (smaller file size) with better picture quality than is offered by current encoding standards.
It is likely that H.265 will someday be the chosen standard for video encoding, but work must first be done. Technology companies need to implement the codec in their software and a big part of that is working on patent and licensing issues so that the technology can be packaged and sold to consumers. It also takes more processing power to use this new encoding, and the machines in the hands of consumers have to catch up. It’s an exciting prospect to imagine, smaller video files that load faster with better picture. But, for now, H.264 in an MP4 container is by far our best option.