In this article, we will take a look at 4 common types of codecs that you will work with in the video editing process.
Video production terminology can get a little too overwhelming pretty fast. While some of the things might sound familiar, they usually turn out to be a little more complex than you thought.
One of these terms that often confuse is codec and how it compares to containers and file formats. Casual users normally refer to all these things as video file formats, but technically speaking, they’re all different.
In this article, we are going to discuss what codecs are, what types of codecs you can find, and how to pick the one that would be the perfect choice for your current video project.
Codec, Container, File Format
These three are seemingly similar, but these terms are not exactly inter-exchangeable. Let’s start with codecs since they are what the article is about.
The name itself comprises two essential words in the world of video production - encoding and decoding. As you might have guessed, a codec has two major components - an encoder and a decoder.
The first one is responsible for the compression of your video files while the second one prepares the file for viewing. Compression is a crucial step and before you choose your codec, you need to think about the purpose of your video and your ultimate goal.
Compression can be lossy or lossless, and they both have their pros and cons. Generally speaking, lossy compression is the best choice when you need to reduce the size of your file significantly, while lossless compression is great when preserving the quality of the original video is your top priority.
Because today most videos are aimed at web players, the most widely used codecs are all lossy, though some offer near-lossless compression. The reason behind this is that as video resolution increases, file sizes grow and with a lossless compression you might end up with hundreds of gigabytes of footage which is not very convenient to store, let alone upload on any website.
To be fair, lossless compression still has its major perks - unlike lossy compression, it is reversible so you can always go back to the original state of your video file. Plus, because it keeps the video quality untouched, you will not end up with any annoying artifacts, no matter how many times you encode and decode your video.
With lossy compression, the main disadvantage is loss of quality, especially if you encode and decode the file many times. As a result, you might have to deal with the problem of image artifacts.
Containers are also known as wrappers that allow us to compile all the data for our video into one file. This involves not just the video itself but the audio track and the metadata as well.
There are different types of metadata, including descriptive metadata, administrative metadata, and some others. It is all of the additional information about your video file, from title and description to video chapters, usage rights, and everything in between.
Containers are the final touch that makes your video complete, however, every container is compatible with specific codecs. So you need to check codec/container compatibility before you begin working on your file.
Ultimately, your codec and your container determine the format of your video file. Though generally speaking, when we say “file format” we almost always mean containers.
The file format is a more universal term used both by regular users and those who deal with video editing daily. Some of the most common container formats include QuickTime, MP4, MPEG, and AVI.
Common Types of Codecs
H.264’s successor that supports 8K video resolution is one of the most popular codecs you can find today. It is known for being capable of delivering impeccable quality at a higher degree of compression than the one you get with the H.264 codec.
It is perfect for optimizing huge high-resolution video files for the web. The only big issue with H.265 right now is compatibility because not every device can handle HEVC’s advanced video compression algorithms and decode them properly.
To make sure your PC would be okay with a HEVC video file, you need a powerful CPU or graphics card - the minimum would be, for instance, an Intel 6th generation Skylake CPU or an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950 graphics card.
Though more advanced codecs are being released, H.264 is still the most widely used one. Compared to MPEG-2, AVC is much better at compressing video files while keeping the image quality high.
Compressing with H.264 results in lower bitrates and smaller file sizes. On top of that, you get a video with lower bitrate requirements making AVC an ideal choice for streaming.
Because H.265 is a little too demanding and requires more processing power, H.264 is still the safest choice for video editing. Both H.265 and H.264 have lossless versions for compression without sacrificing video quality.
This codec released in 1996 was developed by Moving Picture Experts Group and while AVC and HEVC are taking over, MPEG-2 is still often used in video production. MPEG-2 also known as H.222/H.262 is a popular codec of choice in over-the-air digital TV broadcasting.
It is also a go-to for DVD video format, but when it comes to the web, MPEG-2 is not the top choice, which is why some browsers do not support it without a special plugin. MPEG-2 offers resolutions of 720×480 and 1280×720 at 60 fps and is great at reducing file sizes. Needless to say, it does not require a high-end GPU or a last-generation CPU.
AV1 is one of the codecs that supports lossless compression. What makes it so awesome is that it’s open and royalty-free.
AV1 is AVC, HEVC, and VP9’s main competitor as it can deliver higher compression rates at comparable image quality. AV1 also needs a lower bitrate to achieve the same picture quality, proving its superiority as a video codec for streaming. The main downside is that AV1 is one of the newest codecs out there and software support issues are a common trouble.
Just like AV1, VP9 was developed by Google and is an open and royalty-free codec that supports lossless compression. It is very similar to the almighty HEVC in terms of bitrates and video quality.
Though VP9’s main profile supports 8-bit color depth at 4:2:0 chroma subsampling levels, its profiles also offer support for the full range of chroma subsampling modes and more color depth. It is one of the most powerful codecs for compressing high-resolution videos for the web. Note, however, that Apple devices do not support VP9.
The Size Vs. Quality Dilemma: What Else You Should Know
As impressive as the compression rates of your codec of choice can be, there are some more factors to take into consideration when working on a video file. It’s not just the resolution that affects the size of your file - color depth, frame rate, and motion are what can either make your video extremely heavy or relatively compact.
Higher bit depth (or color depth) results in much better image quality and more accurate color representation, but this also means that more color information has to be stored in your video file. Frame rate is essentially the number of images captured to represent motion.
When you take screenshots from a video with a low frame rate, they appear blurry but when you make screencaps from a video with a high frame rate, they are usually well-defined, smooth, and clean. A high frame rate gives you a more natural flow and makes motion look organic. However, it inevitably makes your video much bigger.
The complexity and diversity of motion are one more factor that can add to the size of your final video file. When the difference between the frames in your video is high because of how much is going on, your software needs to create intermediate frames to update the shots swiftly and ensure their cohesion. If there’s a lot of motion, you’re going to have lots of large intermediate frames in your video and that will increase the size of your file.
How Do I Decide What Codec Would be My Best Choice?
If you’re working on a personal project, you can choose whichever codec and file format you find the most convenient. Because no one else is dependent on the result of your work, you can pick any option that meets your creative needs.
However, when you’re working as part of a creative team, you need to make sure you understand what the next checkpoint for your video file is and how it is going to be used further. Everyone must be on the same page both artistically and technically, otherwise hours of working on video footage might go to waste.
When we’re talking about large-scale production, a single video might go through encoding/decoding numerous times so you might want to be careful with compression. Though as we’ve already mentioned in one of our previous articles, for VFX production, the smartest option would be to stick to the original codec straight from the camera.
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