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ENCODING TO CD

miniCD-R in jewel case and vinyl sleeveIf you're in or near the boomer generation, it's a good bet that the first time you saw video on a computer monitor it was coming from a CD. For the digital videographer, the aging CD format is more useful than ever for sharing video.Unlike the DVD disks that get all the attention, making video on CD can be done in a variety of ways and costs far less in media and software than DVD. Granted the quality isn't as high but it's as good as VHS, makes small files, and with the new miniCD-R disks available at reasonable cost, can be mailed in a letter envelope with an ordinary stamp. That's a great deal if you like sending videos to relatives and friends.

If you find yourself creating video for commercial purposes, like a promotional piece for a local craftsperson or a facility tour for a service business, CD is an excellent medium for passing the files on to whomever administers the client's site. Prepared in a streaming format (.wmv, .asf, .rm, for example) the files can be transferred directly to the client's web site, something their size wouldn't allow as an email attachment. And, if you have multiple PCs in your home or office not on a network, CDs allow you to conveniently share favourite files within the family or workplace. So, how do you do it? We'll assume you have a CD-R or DVD-R deck in your PC. It probably came with software for burning to disk and quite possibly with a VCD option which does all the conversion work for you.

Encoding Options
When you have the drive and suitable (probably bundled) burning software the question comes down to file format. The VCD (video CD) format much favoured in Asia uses the MPEG-1 codec, producing files with the extension .mpg. If you don't have updated burning software, you can compress high resolution files to this format using the free application called TMPEGenc, easily downloaded from The Videoguys site, along with a bunch of other freebies and trial/shareware apps. TMPGenc converts avi files to MPEG-1, with lots of settings choices to create good quality output. As an example of relative sizes, I converted a 1.57 GB avi project to an MPEG-1 file of 77MB. The same original file converted for web streaming, in Microsoft's .asf (advanced streaming format) was 12.4 MB. Today's version 9 Windows Media Encoder makes brilliant quality video files suitable for CD, but MPEG-1 plays on Mac as well as PC, and is a requirement if you want to make a VCD to play in a recent DVD set top player.
Nearly all modern DVD players will handle VCDs today - just insert the disk and press "play." Since I added a DVD desk to my editing "suite" (in the basement) in July of 2003 I've discovered that using TMPGenc and miniCD-R disks I can put up to about 15 minutes of decent quality video on something I can put in the mail for the same price as a letter. If I'm not sure that my target audience has a new player, I can still put an MPEG-1 file on CD for computer playback in both PC and Mac systems. A simple file on CD just requires the viewer to find and run it.
Today you see another format discussed more often - the SVCD. This is a DVD-authored MPEG-2 file burned to CD. While the quality is superior to VCD, being essentially a DVD on a CD, the running time is much reduced due to the larger size of MPEG-2 files using higher bit rates. A 3.86 GB DV AVI file I made turned into a 145 MB MPEG-1 and a 415 MB MPEG-2. Authoring is the term used to describe the process of both selecting background menus and buttons linked to video, and the related conversion processes which prepare video and audio for playback from DVD disks. There are many key settings choices involved in creating either of these formats and even with the right software no small amount of learning is required for successful output.

MPEG Parameters

In September 2002 Microsoft released beta versions of its new Media Player 9 and Encoder 9, reported to result from a half billion US dollars of investment spending! I downloaded the player two minutes after it's release and I'm very happy with it. I have also installed the encoder and made a number of web-directed compressions with it. The new encoder is a giant step forward in computer video! Files made at 275 kbps play, as one viewer described it to me, like a "diminutive tv". It provides great clarity, handles motion much better than prior versions and can also make a single file containing multiple data rates so that the viewer gets the stream their connection can handle best. You need to host these files on a media server to get this particular functionality, but if your web hosting supplier offers this it doesn't cost any more than the basic service. The encoder also makes DVD quality files at rates too high for streaming but much lower than MPEG-2 and great for CD! In fact, as of November of 2003, at least two Hollywood DVD releases include Windows Media Encoder 9 versions of the movie, in HiDef, and large frame sizes (Terminator 2 and Standing in the Shadows of Motown) Both the encoder and newest player are available for download HERE.

There are many parameters available when encoding DV files for CD and reading plus trial and error will improve results, but the biggest determinant is always data rate. The higher the data rate the more information is preserved from the original material. That's why it's so much more rewarding to watch video on a high speed Internet connection than on dial-up. You can select the 300 kbps (kilobit per second) stream rather than the 56 kbps option. When it comes to encoding for CD, you still have to consider the nature of the machines intended to play back your work. I have tested files right up to 1.5 mbps burned to CD - and a PC at +1 Ghz of processor with a 32 MB graphics card can handle that rate of data, but a PIII 450 with a 16 MB vid card can't. Encoding is always a compromise between the best quality available and the best selection for a given audience.

The place to go for in-depth information on encoding to CD is the VCDHelp web site, renamed in early 2003 to www.dvdrhelp.com. Here you will find hard data comparing the results of various encoding applications, including TMPGenc of course, screen shots of playback quality using different viewers, downloads, and directions on how to burn the quality you're looking for, whatever that may be.

You don't have to stay with the MPEG-1 format to work with CD. Any file type you can create can be burned to CD, provided you stay away from uncompressed material. I don't know of a system capable of playing such files from a CD drive, and even were it possible, a 700 MB CD blank could record only a few minutes at this file size. Apparently there are encoding services which will create a finished file from your source material. One of them operates an interesting VCD FAQ. Select topics from the drop box at upper right.

TRY THIS OUT!
If you know how to create a simple web site you can take advantage of a great idea I read some time back. Build a web site complete with the video, stills, music or whatever content you want to share, then burn it to CD. The recipient, when he or she selects your index.htm file from the Windows Explorer view of the CD directory, will see their default web browser open to your main page, from which your links will allow them to navigate the site, watch the videos and look at the photos, as if you had the collection on the web, but without the limitation of Internet bandwidth. I've made a number of CDs of this type and have been very pleased with the result. Using an autostart file you can add autostart functionality to the CD-R, so that it opens the default web browser and finds the index file upon insertion into the CD drive. This only works where the user's system has disk detector enabled, but you can't control everything, no matter what approach you take to video on CD. For a closer look at how to do it, including screen shots, go here.

And, if you really want to get fancy, look into software called "AutoPlay Media Studio". It takes some learning but makes CDs that open with a selection screen and player, allowing the viewer to pick your movies one at a time. The same software is often used to create installation disks, and has templates for creating mp3 jukebox disks.

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