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Odds and ends – Selecting a Flash 8 video encoder

Odds and ends

Most of you will select an encoder after evaluating quality of output, preprocessing, and batch processing capabilities. Here are a few extra features in the encoders that may give one a slight edge over another for your Flash video needs.

Sorenson goodie bag

Squeeze has unique features like automatic uploading to your FTP account or your VitalStream FVSS (Flash Video Streaming Service) account. Recently added to Squeeze 4.3 is cue-point insertion, which allows Flash SWFs to take their cue from embedded markers in FLV video to sync events in the SWF accurately to the video playhead. This is useful for subtitling and many other uses.

For an alternate solution to embedding cue points in your FLV content, try Captionate.

The stand-alone Sorenson FLV player provides a convenient way of previewing encoded videos and the metadata recorded in them. Squeeze users can also export SWFs with their FLVs, giving non-Flash developers the ability to encode and place video easily into HTML. SWF templates are available and custom templates can be created.

Flix goodie bag

The latest update to Flix added support for cue points that is very similar to the Sorenson implementation. Flix has a handy feature for exporting a JPEG image of the first frame of your footage. The feature could be improved by allowing you to export multiple JPEGs by placing markers on the Timeline to indicate which frames to export.

Another feature available only with Flix is the ability to convert video to vector shapes before exporting. It can also overlay a still image on the video footage—think transparent GIF watermarking with support for one-color transparency. Flix can also export video in a prebuilt SWF file video player with multiple available skins. Another handy feature is the ability to export to an audio-only SWF file player, allowing users without Flash to make audio playing SWF files for their websites.

Personal wish list

Here are some features I would personally like to see integrated into the next generation of Flash video encoding applications:

  • Watermarking with 8-bit transparency: This would be a great timesaver for users who want to apply a watermark to their footage without rendering separate versions of their source footage.
  • Rotation: As video-capture devices become commonplace, people will begin to use them as casually as they use their point-and-shoot still cameras. Flash Player can display Flash video at any dimension, allowing users the freedom to display vertically oriented video if they so choose. In the digital darkroom it should be as easy as possible to prepare and encode video that was captured at various dimensions and orientations.
  • XML cue-point data importing: Although all three tools can add cue points, the process is tedious, particularly when adding cue points for large amounts of dialog. The ability to apply cue-point settings using an external XML file would be a great option. Both Flix and Squeeze save setup configuration files in XML format, and with a little ingenuity users can figure out a way to add cue-point data to XML configuration files for use with the current versions of the software.
  • Built-in keying or ability to use third-party After Effects keying plug-ins: Flix was the first to include a built-in keyer, and others may follow. The ultimate solution may be to allow integrating external keying software from other vendors so that users can select a keyer that is best for them.
  • First-pass profiling: As video delivery over the Internet becomes more popular, delivering video tailored to a wide spectrum of bandwidths will also become more common. To achieve this with Flash video, each video must be encoded multiple times to target a variety of dimensions or bit rates. When users request content, their connection speed can be measured so that the most appropriate file for their available bandwidth is sent to them. Because the time required to encode all these files can quickly add up and become unreasonable, the first thing that’s usually sacrificed in the name of expediency is two-pass encoding. Both Sorenson and On2 discard this first-pass data after it is used to guide the second pass.

    Here’s a better idea—what I call “first-pass profiling.” Whenever you encode a video using two-pass encoding, the encoding application stores the first-pass information as a source file profile on your machine and applies this saved profile to all future two-pass encodings of the same source file. This process would effectively allow all two-pass encoding to be completed much more quickly—theoretically in the same time it would take for a one-pass encode.

  • Histogram and scopes: Recent video editing tools have given prosumer video editors access to great tools for analyzing and adjusting image color and density. Color and density adjustment in Flash video encoders involves a little too much squint-and-nudge. I hope that upcoming versions of the encoders will introduce simple histogram/levels adjustment tools to quantify the process a little more, enabling you to work with single-frame or layered multiple-frame histogram displays.

Most users will be satisfied with the free Flash Video Encoder that ships with Flash. If you are finicky about quality, want two-pass VBR encoding, enhanced preprocessing, and batch encoding capabilities, you should consider a third-party encoder.

If you need to encode in small batches, minimize your compression time, perform basic chroma keying, or if the $99 price difference between Squeeze and Flix blows your budget, you may find that Flix suits your needs best.

If you want maximum control and flexibility of your encoding process including optimized batch encoding, comprehensive encoding settings controls, watch folders, and integrated FTP uploading—Sorenson Squeeze is your best bet.