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Close Up on Flix for Video in Flash
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, August 2001

Like everything on the Web, video comes in many colors and compression schemes. Among these, Macromedia Flash is better known for vector animations, but it has also become a rather unique video delivery architecture with it’s own unique set of challenges as well as benefits. Wildform Flix is the number one tool for encoding video for delivery via Flash and worthy of a closer look.

As video producers explore their options among the video Web’s many dimensions, of course, there are numerous players to choose from, and then there is the more ubiquitous Macromedia Flash player which comes bundled (in one version or another) with virtually every piece of Web browser software and can be “naturally” embedded in any web page, banner ad or even in HTML e-mail.

In April’s Video Web column, I offered a broad overview of the generic issues and opportunities involved with encoding video for playback in Flash, and introduced a critical new utility, Flix from Wildform, Inc. It’s available exclusively online, direct from Wildform for $99. Now that the Mac version is out (to complement the PC version), I decided to zoom in for a close up. In other words, I think it is time for a more hands-on review.

On the playing field of Internet video, video producers are one step ahead of most people. They either own or at least understand some form of non-linear editing system; and thus, they already know how to capture digital video that is ready for encoding into one of the online video delivery formats. However, video producers are more challenged (than web developers, for example) when it comes to programming, whether HTML or Flash.

Now that video can be delivered within this environment, Flash offers video professionals both a robust opportunity as well as a technical challenge.

This is a strategic distinction because, in general, in my opinion, one of the biggest shortfalls of video on the Web to date is that it fails to be integrated into the Web. In other words, it fails to be interactive. Video on the web is frequently simply stand-alone video clips that are delivered, one way or another online. What makes the Web different is its high degree of interactivity, and without that, I (and I think most people) would rather be watching TV.

But delivering on the video Web’s interactive promise requires extra effort in terms of programming. While almost anybody (and certainly almost any tech-savvy video professional) can compress video for the Web whether it’s in QuickTime, Real, Windows Media, Flash or whatever.

But integrating that within an effective web site or within what might be called a “satisfying online, rich media experience” requires some extra effort. Media 100’s Cleaner calls some of these features “EventStream” and I wrote about them in some detail in my September, 2000, Video Web column. Each of the major multimedia architectures (QT, Real, WM, etc.) are different in how they implement interactivity… and vector graphics for that matter.

Without going into detail, you should know that Macromedia Flash, in addition to its most widely recognized capabilities as a vector animation platform, has extensive interactive media development and delivery capabilities. Now that video can be delivered within this environment, Flash offers video professionals both a robust opportunity as well as a technical challenge. As an illustration of Flash’s highly visual interactive capabilities, I offer the video jukebox that is currently featured on the home page or the interactive authoring environment (discussed in last month’s column).

From the point of view of understanding the basics, you should know that Flash has its own file formats. Just as you would name a QuickTime file with the “.MOV” extension so that it would be recognized on a server, a Flash movie is delivered in the “.SWF” file format. SWF is short for ShockWave Flash, and Flash also has another file format called “.FLA”. FLA files are editable by the Flash authoring tool, while SWF files are play-only.

One of the nice things about Flix is that it does not try to do everything. Like any good utility, it basically does one thing; and thankfully, it does that well. In fact, Flix is the highest quality and most versatile tool that I have seen for encoding digital video in the SWF file format.

  Wildform Flix
  The small version of the QuickTime iMovie splash video clip (on the right) was encoded with Wildform Flix and displayed as a SWF file inside a Flix auto-generated HTML page (on the left).

Thanks to its clear and simple four-tab interface which provides ready access to File, SWF, Audio and Video controls, Flix is very easy to use. It encodes most of the major digital video formats, including .AVI, .DV, .MOV, and .MPEG files as well as a variety of audio formats.

Flix also offers at least one form of simple interactive authoring. Within the main Flix window, you can simply enter a URL and with that small effort, you have made your entire SWF movie an interactive link. The result is basically the same as the fundamental feature of HTML (the web page authoring language) that makes a graphic image into a link. Flix also includes a “target” drop down option. “Target _blank,” for example, will open your movie in it’s own HTML window. In this case, however, the link information appears within the SWF file, rather than within the HTML file.

The program has a total of thirteen encoding presets, but five are audio-only. Among the eight video presets, Flix covers bandwidths from 28.8 modems up to 512K broadband connections. Presets also include “28.8 Banner Ad Video” which reduces the video clip to a very small 80 x 60 window appropriate to put inside of a conventional Web page banner ad. If you choose “56.6 Banner Ad Video,” you get the same small size, but three frames per second rather than only one frame per second.

... different video segments can be in different Flash movies whose length can be combined through interactivity.

By way of comparison, the “512K Video” preset is 320 x 240 pixels and 12 frames per second. But, you can also customize your encoding settings, including frame size, audio and video throughput, and more.

In addition to the Link field mentioned above, you can add simple but practical commands to your SWF video output file without using the Flash application. These include the ability to have the movie loop its playback or not, a “STOP action at first frame” which will automatically pause your movie until it receives a play command (which you would need to program later in Flash), and the ability to insert a black frame at the beginning of the movie. No fade ins or anything like that. You need a more robust tool like Media 100’s Cleaner to do that. However, Cleaner doesn’t yet encode SWF files.

One limitation that is inherent in Flash (but does not exist in the other major Internet video delivery platforms) is a limit on the number of frames in an individual Flash movie. Currently, the SWF file format limits the number of frames allowed in each of its movies to 16,000. This means that when you are using Flash’s default of 12 frames per second, your movies are limited to slightly more that 22 minutes.

However, in the world of the Web where video is usually delivered in smaller, interactive chunks, this is not likely to be a big problem. And, of course, different video segments can be in different Flash movies whose length can be combined through interactivity. Thus, you can certainly publish more that 22 minutes of Flash video by using the Flash convention of inter-linking any number of up to 22-minute movies within your interactive design. For this reason, Flash would probably not be the right format for your online feature film; but it might be just fine, for example, for a long-form interactive training video that could naturally be broken up into segments.

Flash is also a progressive download video delivery platform, not a true streaming format. Thus, Flash is also not applicable for live events.

What’s most important about Flash as a video delivery medium is that it has a larger instantaneous reach because it is already installed in significantly more web browsers than any of the streaming alternatives. This also makes it more viable for the delivery of video via HTML e-mail, in web page banner ads, and in general to audiences that are less technologically literate.

Furthermore, Flash’s natural ability to combine video with vector graphics for both animation and interface design is a significant plus. Authoring these features in Flash without the need to import them or author in SMIL to combine them with video is both simpler and more powerful using the native Flash application.

And, finally, taking interactivity to a more personal level, please send me your recommendations for what you’ve found to be the best uses of video on the Net (my e-mail is in the credit below). I look forward to hearing what you think. And, by all means, stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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