I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 4 – Authoring & Distribution 101

Today I’m again departing from my own class syllabus in order to talk briefly about what the hell you’re supposed to do with your movie once it’s finished.


  • Your finished movie
  • Your computer
  • (optional) A DVD burner and a stack of DVD-R media
  • (optional) DVD authoring software (iDVD, Ulead DVD MovieFactory, Encore, DVD Studio Pro)
  • (optional) Apple QuickTime Pro ($30; Mac or Windows)
    • This is for compressing video for the web. More full-featured software titles include Apple Compressor and Sorenson Squeeze.
  • A false sense of hope

And by “out there,” I mean “somewhere you can send your movie so that you won’t be able to work on it anymore.” That’s right, it’s time to let go. I don’t care about the mistake in minute two. I don’t care. You’re done. Put down the keyboard. YOU’RE DONE.

Now pick up the keyboard again, because you’re not done yet. You have been working with your video in a format that most people won’t be able to view. Time to go over a few different distribution media:

MiniDV tape – It’s easy to send your project back out to MiniDV tape at pristine full quality—it’s just like capturing video, only in reverse. You should make two tapes (these are called masters) for your personal archiving purposes. Read your editing software’s manual to find out how.

Unfortunately, as much as we’d all like to just print our movies out to MiniDV tape and let our viewers watch those, it’s not going to happen. Ordinary people don’t just have MiniDV tape decks hooked up to their home entertainment systems. So here are some ways to get the video to them in a format they’ll understand:

35mm film print – This one’s right out. Don’t even think about it.

VHS tape – Of course, if you release on VHS you’ll have to also release on Betamax. You know, just to be fair. Oh, and obviously you’ll also want to put it out on Laserdisc. Have you thought of putting out a soundtrack? You could release it on 8-Track! But if you do that you’ll also have to release it on those old-timey hand-cranked wax cylinders. You know, jut to be fair.

DVD – NOW we’re talking. DVDs are far from perfect and require some intensive compression, but for the time being they’re pretty much the be-all and end-all of home video distribution. And to boot, pretty much every film festival on the face of the planet accepts entries on DVD. We’ll be covering DVD authoring in a bit.

The internet – The internet is a perfectly viable content distribution system, especially if you want to give away your content for free (and that’s no bad thing, especially if you’ve made something really cool and you want to get noticed). There’s a lot to be said about distribution over the internet and I don’t have the patience to say it all, so I’ll just be covering the basics.

HD-DVD – If you shot and edited your video in high definition, you will in the near future have the option of releasing said video on HD-DVD, a next-generation DVD format that supports high-definition video. Of course, if you release on HD-DVD, you’ll also have to release on Blu-ray. You know, just to be fair. Oh, and WMV-HD. And you’ll want to sell your movie on Xbox Live, and…

The internet is a great way to get your video out for public viewing. Perhaps the best way. But here’s the problem: You’ve been working with the video on your computer in pristine, uncompressed, full-resolution 720×480. This is great for editing, but lousy for distributing. You see, the internet is a series of tubes. And when you dump a big file like that into the tube, the tube gets clogged up. And when the tube gets clogged up your internet service provider gets angry at you because they have to get out their special plunger, and those things aren’t cheap. Luckily, there are ways around this.

One way is to use YouTube, so named because their servers employ a special U-shaped tube that traps large videos and squeezes them down to a smaller size. The unfortunate side effect of uploading your video to YouTube is that your video is then posted on YouTube. If you don’t see a problem with this, then by all means, post away!

The other way of avoiding a clogged tube is to compress your video before you put it up on the internet. The term would imply that you stick your video in a vice and squeeze it until it is reduced in size by an order of magnitude, doing all sorts of violence to your picture quality along the way. If you thought that, you’d be about right, except for the part about the vice. That’s just stupid, and you’d probably beak your computer.

Instead of a vice, you use software. And instead of squeezing really hard, you use something called a codec, which is just a little piece of software that compresses video into a small file and then decompresses it when you want to play it. There are many different codecs to choose from.

A short list of video codecs: H.261, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, H.263, MPEG-4 Part 2, MPEG-4 Part 10, H.264, DivX, Xvid, FFmpeg, 3ivx, VP6, Sorenson 3, Theora, WMV, RealVideo, Cinepak, X264, Huffyuv, Lagarith, Sorenson Spark, Apple Pixlet, MPEG IMX, Motion JPEG A, Motion JPEG B, JPEG 2000, DV/DVCPRO NTSC, DVCPRO PAL, HDV 1080i50, HDV1080i60, Uncompressed 10-Bit 4:2:2, Uncompressed 8-Bit 4:2:2, 3G, Planar RGB, OpenEXR and of course XDCAM HD 1080p25 (35 Mb/s VBR). Truly proof that the world is a horrible place.

These are all good codecs, depending on how you want to use your video. The rub, though, is that the codec you use to encode your video must be installed on every computer that wants to watch that video. Which means you have to go with standards. For example, if you were insane and wanted to put up a piece of uncompressed high-definition video on the internet, you might be tempted to just upload it as HDV 1080i60, because that’s probably the native codec (the codec the video was originally recorded in and the codec you have been editing with). The problem is that the HDV codec is very specialized and hardly anybody has it installed on their computer. So you’d have to find a more common alternate codec to use.

For most web applications, I recommend either MPEG-4 or H.264. H.264 makes smaller, better-looking files, but MPEG-4 is a bit more commonplace and puts a little less stress on the viewing computer’s system resources. There’s also WMV, which is short for “Windows Media Video,” but we’ll be ignoring that because WMV is basically Satan in a little blue box. This gets even more confusing when you realize that these codecs are contained in wrappers. QuickTime (.mov) and Audio Video Interleave (.avi) are the two most common. That’s as may be. We’ll be using QuickTime because it’s simple and everyone has it.

I could make some tasteless joke about your dead grandmother here, but I won’t. Instead I’ll give you a lesson in the history of analog video, because that’s SO much less painful.

The big thing that editors talked about during the age of analog video when the beer ran out and they couldn’t think of anything interesting to say was generational loss. You see, even back when cameras used vacuum tubes and video tape was an inch wide and only recorded in smeary black-and-white, people wanted the best quality they could get, and this was accomplished by always working from an original master tape and never making copies of copies. In the olden days, editors would sometimes go as far as physically cutting the video tape like you would a film negative. Crazy, huh?

If you have free access to a Xerox machine, try this experiment. Get a photograph and make a copy of it. Now make a copy of that copy. And make a copy of that copy. Do that ten or twenty times. Actually, keep doing it until you start getting suspicious looks and have to flee the scene. Now take the last copy you made, and compare it to the first copy you made. Big difference, right? This is caused by generational loss. In other words, every time you make a copy of something, you lose some quality.

This problem has mostly gone away now that we’re in the digital age and can make exact, bit-for-bit (lossless) copies of video files. But it’s still relevant when we talk about compressing video. You see, video compression works by examining your video and throwing out information that the codec doesn’t think is too important. This is, by definition, a lossy (not lousy—lossy. The opposite of lossless) process. It’s okay to do once because it’s necessary to get the video down to a reasonable size. It’s maybe okay to do twice, as long as you’re moving from higher quality to lower quality. But it’s not okay to do three times because you won’t be able to see a damn thing. So when you compress or re-compress your video, make sure to always work from the original timeline or uncompressed video file, or your audience will live to regret it.

NOTE: For this example, I will be using QuickTime Pro. It’s only $30 bucks and a good investment if you don’t already have some way of compressing video for the web.

Let’s say I’ve finished working on the example I was using last week, of Betty Jo talking about motor torpedo boats. Let’s say that I want to put this up on my web site, which happens to be all about motor torpedo boats. I would first need to compress this video.

To do this, I would export a full-quality uncompressed video from my editing software and open this file in QuickTime Pro. I would export this file to a QuickTime movie, and I would use the following settings to obtain a video of decent quality and reasonable size:

Dimensions: 320 by 240 pixels
Bit Rate: 220 kbps
Frame rate: No lower than 15 fps, no higher than 29.97
Audio: Mono, 80 kbps

Experiment from there to see what you come up with. Try to keep file sizes under 20 megabytes, depending on how long the video is. Remember that over a dial-up connection, it takes about 10 minutes to download a single megabyte. Consider how long you want to make your audience wait, and weight that against how good you want the video to look.

Of course, to get this video up for the public to see, you need to have server space. The best option is to get your own domain name and server space, which all told can cost anywhere from $30 to $200 dollars per year, depending on the features you need. I won’t cover all the ins and outs here because I’m bored of this topic. Get in touch with me if you need further assistance.

I love simple, extensible technologies that work exactly the way they’re supposed to. That’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for DVDs. Sure, they’ve got quality issues and they’re not as reliable as tapes, but gosh dang it, they just WORK.

Of course, there’s things you’ve got to do to MAKE them just work. The first thing is that you have to get the audio into either uncompressed AIFF or compressed Dolby Digital format, and you’ve got to compress your video as MPEG-2. The good news is that every DVD authoring software title on the face of the planet has a built-in encoder for precisely that purpose, and it usually happens automatically when you bring in the video you want to use.

The other thing you have to do is build a menu system. Well, that’s not exactly true. You CAN just have a disc that automatically plays your video once and then stops. I actually use that a lot and it’s a great way to show around rough cuts of your work. But if you want a menu, or you want to include multiple videos on a single disc, they’re pretty easy to create, especially with a non-expert program like iDVD. Just experiment. You’ll figure it out.

When you’re done, you have to build the disc. While this is happening, you may get a message that your computer is “muxing” your tracks. This is perfectly normal. I have no idea what it means, but for some reason it must be done. My theory is that it’s just an excuse to use the word muxing. Then, once the disc is built, you can burn it. Put a blank DVD-R (never use DVD+R media for anything other than data storage) disc into your DVD burner (oh yes—you need a DVD burner), and let it do its magic. If it says the burn was successful, go and test it in a few different DVD players. There you go. Now you know how.

We’ll be covering more advanced distribution later in the semester when you have something worth distributing. For the time being, you’re done with the assignment.

Write a pitch for a more complex short, clocking in around five to ten minutes. What is a pitch? It’s a production concept and synopsis all rolled into one, and all in no more than a couple sentences. It should explain why the movie is worth making, and if possible, you should explain why you yourself are not just a waste of oxygen. It is important that you are able to present ideas to peers because otherwise nobody will listen to you and they won’t be able to offer you helpful advice. That’s why I’m asking for a little participation here. Get a pitch ready and post it in the comments here by Friday. We’ll get a discussion going and see if we can generate some useful feedback. Then next week we’ll talk about lighting, and the logistics of working on a more complex project.

Mr. A. D. Gingerich (non-union)

6 thoughts on “I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 4 – Authoring & Distribution 101

  1. You’re one to talk, Ethan. You wrote a 90-page script about a man in a dog suit who thinks he’s God!

    All I did was write 10,000 words (and counting, admittedly) on a rudimentary film class.

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