Anyone familiar with software upgrades knows the pain of staying at the forefront of the technological revolution. The early adopter mentality will certainly keep you on the bleeding edge but it also requires a great deal of patience: patience with bugs, with poor documentation and a lack of availability. At the moment, the MPEG-4 compression codec is in those painful first steps. As discussed in a previous article, MPEG-4 (also known as DivX) promises to make every filmmaker's dream come true: highly compressed video with little quality loss, perfect for Internet distribution. However, the format still has some hurdles to overcome.
The process for creating an MPEG-4 movie is much the same as creating an MP3 file. If your original source is a DVD or VCD, the file needs to be "ripped" (transferred to your computer's hard drive) to be encoded. Another program, like FlaskMPEG, is used to encode video files with the MPEG-4 codec. Note that the resulting file format can be anything (.mpg, .avi, .asf). This is a significant difference from MP3, which acquires its own file extension (.mp3).
A present hurdle that MPEG-4 needs to overcome is inconsistent playback quality. One contributing factor to playback problems is poor-quality encoding. This, for example, can be seen in most of the MPEG-4 content currently available online. Similar to MP3s, most of the DivX content online can be found through Napster-like file sharing programs like Gnutella and is typically in the form of pirated VCD and DVD releases. As one would expect, the inconsistencies and quality control of amateur pirates usually leads to poorly encoded films.
Another major problem that presents itself is the stability of MPEG-4 playback in the two popular playback devices: Windows Media Player and the Global DivX Player. Both players will recognize the movie file formats (.mpg, .avi, .asf) but sometimes encounter problems if they are compressed with MPEG-4. The most common reason is that the player has problems recognizing the codec. This can be attributed to the fact that "The codec is still in very early stages, so performance and stability isn't too great…" (DivX Digest).
Despite these problems, MPEG-4 is making considerable steps forward in gaining support from vendors. One website, PacketVideo is touting the MPEG-4 codec as a means to stream video content to wireless devices such as Pocket PCs and cell phones. In a Jan. 8, 2001 press release, PacketVideo announced that they will "collaborate to bring full-motion video and audio content to mobile devices" with Motorola. Although these plans are in more of a process stage rather than execution, it demonstrates a willingness by big names in the industry to support MPEG-4.
So why, as an independent filmmaker, would you want to deal with all these issues? Because the results can be simply amazing. One of the first independent film projects to be distributed with MPEG-4, the short film "405" by Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, proves to be an excellent example. A high-quality special effects film, "405" loses little in the translation to MPEG-4. The screen size is half that of an NTSC video screen (320x240 pixels) and the resolution isn't nearly as sharp as DVD MPEG-2 but the entire 3-minute piece is only 7.56 MB, a ridiculously low file size. Based on the strength of their Internet only short piece, both Branit and Hunt were able to secure contracts with CAA, one of Hollywood's top talent agencies. Both filmmakers are also currently negotiating with studios to produce a feature film.
Whether or not you decide to wrestle with MPEG-4 at this stage of the game or wait for others to break trail for you, this video format is sure to be the next standard. Its development is definitely something to keep an eye on. For more information on the MPEG-4 codec you can check out DivX Digest.