Understanding Video Tech Specs and What They Mean for Your Animation

  • March 29, 2015

    Talking to professionals steeped in their craft can be confusing for us lay folk. Does my flooding carburetor need a nitrophyl float or a brass one? No idea. Oh, an amicus curiae has submitted a brief on my court proceedings? Well… is that good or bad? My glycohemoglobin levels are static? …uh, cool?

    You could care less about the terminology—you care about what it means for you. It’s easy to assume everyone understands your jargon, but it can be frustrating to be the client on the other end. While we always emphasize engaging, understandable language in our animations, when we’re talking shop behind the scenes, we can be as guilty as anyone of spewing technobabble upon clients’ deaf ears. (Sorry about that.)

    That’s why we’ve developed this handy guide to illuminate all those inscrutable tech specifications we may inundate you with. Enjoy, and never hesitate to reach out if you need further clarification.

    Coming to Terms with File Types

    The final product of your animated video can be a range of file types, also known as “containers.” Spotting the file type is pretty easy: just check the extension at the end of the file name: “.mov” is a Quicktime file, “.wmv” is a Windows Media Video file, and “.mp4” is a MPEG-4 Part 14 file (or simply MP4 for short). Rest assured, there are a million other video file types, but for your purposes, we only really need to worry about these three.

    Quicktime is perhaps the most common video file you’ll run into. Developed by Apple, it’s easy to work with and widely supported. While some players (particularly Windows-based ones) may need a plug-in to be able to read them, it’s a simple download.

    MP4 is perhaps the most preferred file type if you’re looking to host your video on the web, as it’s truly universal across platforms and browsers—particularly on mobile, an online audience that’s growing exponentially.

    We’re happy to deliver your video in WMV, Microsoft’s video container, though we recommend MP4 over it in almost every case. WMV was originally built for the online streaming, as a competitor to the almost-forgotten RealVideo. For better or worse, the sun may be setting on WMV as well.

    Let’s take this opportunity to clear up another minor confusion: we don’t produce Flash videos (.swf), a file type which was once ubiquitous on the Internet until Apple’s hardline refusal to support it on iOS devices pushed it to the fringes. You’ve probably been told to stay away from Flash, so don’t be alarmed if you overhear us talking about working in Flash; that’s simply the animation software we use. Same name, different thing—no need to worry.

    Decoding Codecs

    Chances are good you already knew what a file type was. A type of file, got it. Easy as pie. But what in the hell is a codec?

    Well, first understand that video files are big. Like, really, really big. So to make them more manageable, they’re normally compressed—the information in the file in condensed into a smaller package that gets rid of the redundant data. However, this also makes the file temporarily unplayable when it’s in its compressed form.

    “Codec” is a portmanteau of “code” and “decode” (or “compress” and “decompress”), and it’s what does the work coding your video file into a manageable size and unpacking it when it’s time to play it.

    H.264 is the most common codec, and it’s what we usually use for animations videos. Lightweight, efficient, and quick, H.264 is perfect for web videos that need to load fast. The tradeoff for that high compression is that you do lose a small amount of data in the process. Stuff gets a little fuzzier, but not enough to notice on a computer screen, and certainly unnoticeable on a mobile device. We can even deliver broadcast quality in H.264, but it’s still best for us to know how you plan to use your video (small screen vs. big screen) at the beginning of a project.

    Figuring Out Frames Per Second

    You’ve seen a flipbook, right? Even today, with all our 3D printers, self-driving cars, and comet-chasing spacecraft, animation still works by showing a series of static image at a rapid pace with incremental changes form image to image.

    Each one of these images is called a frame, and as you’ve probably already figured out, frames per second (or FPS) is a measurement of how many still images you manage to cram into a single solitary second.

    We almost always deliver animations at 24 FPS, the standard for media online and analog (movie theaters, for example, typically show films at 24 FPS). Televisions, though, run at 30 FPS. Actually, they run at 29.97 FPS (and there’s a totally fascinating, if extremely geeky, reason why). Upon request, we can create animations for broadcast at 30 FPS, either by adding in extra frames after production via a three-two pull down process, or by producing it at 30 FPS from the jump.

    Sizing Up Size

    This is the most self-explanatory technical specification. Size simply refers to the resolution of your video, or how many pixels it contains. We almost always deliver videos at 1280 x 720, also known as 720p HD.

    This comes in a 16:9 aspect ratio, the familiar shape of almost every modern television and computer monitor.

    Lingering Questions?

    Did we spit out some new tech terms you’ve never heard? Never fear, you can and should always ask us if anything’s unclear.

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