This article is specifically aimed at video producers who are interested in getting the most out of their streaming video productions in terms of video and audio quality. It mainly involves the best working practices for ensuring that your streaming video wrestles well with that dastardly beast, the “compression monster”, which wants to turn all your pristine video to digital mush.
I came from a background in professional YouTube Video Cropper and media production in Perth, Western Australia, shooting TV commercials, independent film, corporate video, and much much more. With the advent of the internet, I became excited about the possibility of using it as a way of delivering quality streaming video advertising for businesses both in Perth and around the world. So I founded my current business, ONLINE AURA, and went into developing video specifically tailored for streaming. The problem was, although I was familiar with the theory of video compression, the most I’d ever come up against this beast was at the level of VHS or DVD production, where it occasionally wrangled but never inflicted serious damage upon me. The reality of video streaming compression was a huge adjustment however, as I watched pin sharp images shredded into digital mud before my eyes, and heard glorious soaring music turned into a horrific sequence of farts and dying bumblebees.
Over the course of time, through experience of testing and producing many streaming videos for local clients, I learnt the best practices and techniques for shooting and editing streaming video. I won’t say I’ve tamed the compression monster, because he still lurks over my shoulder on every shoot, but I will say that I’ve learnt how to keep him under control and make it through the video compression process with just a few scratches here and there. So this articles includes a number of tips and guides to help you battle this beast in your next streaming video production.
- Let there be Light – I’ll start with the most obvious and what can be considered as one of the most crucial aspects in producing quality video streaming. I know there’s a lot of things written about this recommending strongly-lit flat lighting (i.e – no shadows). The theory being that reducing contrast in your image means that it will compress more efficiently and you’ll end up with a higher quality streaming image. This isn’t quite right, as the human perception of “sharpness” relies on contrast differences, and even though a higher contrast image may in mathematical terms be less well compressed at a pixel by pixel level, it will create the illusion of being sharper to the viewer. Basically the rule for best quality is to provide a smooth ratio of contrast, and to favor large soft sources that don’t over light what you’re trying to shoot. Blasting light directly from your camera position over the entire scene is not going to produce favorable results in terms of streaming video quality. The best results come from soft directional sources, but there’s also room for backlighting and other creative approaches.
You have to make allowances for the eventual compression, but that generally means keeping your image contrast within an acceptable ratio. Low light is obviously a problem, and night shooting can be difficult. Any grain is going to play havoc and awake the old compression monster, who will hungrily eat up every little vibrating pixel. You can use grain removing plug-ins, but they can have the effect of softening your image and will compress sometimes even worse. Crushing your black levels entirely can sometimes help, and de-saturating your image and adjusting midtones can also be useful. If you have to shoot in low-light on the street, try not too using the gain controls on your camera, and instead go for a low shutter (if your camera has it). Lower shutter speeds will generally compress better. For interview subjects in the studio, I generally use a soft key and a bit of a kicker or backlight, with just a little bit of frontal fill. For video compression I make sure the background is relatively static and defocused. Using green screen and replacing the background with a blurred still image or slowly moving blurred background works well, and keeping background colors muted helps compression.
- Camera movement – Obviously a lot of fast camera movement is going to require higher rates of compression for streaming video. But different types of movement also have different effects. A smooth dolly shot will actually compress reasonably well but, interestingly enough, the same move-in or out using a zoom instead will not compress well, and generally zooms are to be avoided if possible. Hand-held images will tend to suffer greatly, unless they are stabilized later using a software plug-in such as Steadymove. Steadicam shots can work reasonably well if done well. Unfortunately most steadicam shots contain a bit of ‘float’ which, although barely perceptible to the average viewer, will not compress as well as a genuine dolly or track shot. Locked off shots will obviously compress best, though it is dependent on what’s in front of the camera!