How to Speak to Media Providers, Pt. 1
"Help!" wrote a friend of mine last week. "I was given these great videos of my clinic from a TV network, and I can't figure out how to get them on my website!" My friend runs a free clinic, and they received a lot of great coverage from the local news but they delivered a strange file that no one knew what to do with.
Sound familiar? I deal with these kinds of formatting questions a lot. The standards for audio and video on the web are not, well, standard, and there are several variables to understand. Here are a few simple definitions to get you speaking knowledgeably with your media providers so you get the files that you want.
COMPRESSION: Media files are really big. Excellent quality video and audio takes up a lot of memory, and can really slow down your website. Compression is taking those enormous files and squeezing them down so they're smaller with as little loss of quality as possible. So with compression, what you really want to tell your media provider is how necessary it is for the video to be beautiful over accessibility and speed. If you're making a film and the video is there to atttract investors, then obviously the video needs to be pristine and so you'd want very little compression for a beautiful picture. If the video is just a record of someone speaking at an event and it's already dark and impossible to see the slides, you can sacrifice picture quality for optimized speed.
ASPECT RATIO: You know how sometimes you're watching regular TV on a widescreen television and people look stretched? That's because the aspect ratio is off. The video is literally being stretched like a piece of Silly Putty to cover more space than it was designed to cover. There are really only two standard video aspect ratios, 4:3 and 16:9. All that is is the ratio of width to height- A video that is 320 pixels wide and 240 pixels high is in a standard YouTube format that is 4:3 ratio (80 X 4 =320, 80 X 3=240). 4:3 is also the standard ratio for regular TVs and 16:9 is for widescreen TVs. Unless you have a really specific need to have your video window appear a certain unusual shape, I'd stick with one of those options.
SIZE: So now that you understand compression and aspect ratio, can you see that size is unrelated? Videos can be big or small on the site without the aspect ratio changing. Compression does have an effect on size, because video compression takes size into account. If it's making a small image, it discards a lot of information that you'd need to see the picture at a larger size. So if you blow up the picture, it can look pixelated and fuzzy. Bottom line - video compressed at a larger size can still look good if you make them appear smaller, but video that is compressed small can't be made to look larger without problems.
More later, but here's my number one recommendation with video: ask for two versions every time. You want a high-quality copy that isn't compressed for the web as your backup/original (a .MOV is probably best) and a ready-for-the-web, compressed version that is ready to go (.mp4s are good for uploading to YouTube, Blip, etc., or a .FLV if you're not loading to one of those services and want to just embed it directly in your site). For audio, you want the original 44.1, 16-bit .WAV file (don't worry about what that means) and a high-quality .mp3.