As the second part of the series “Formats and Moving Image Communication”, the article Video Formats explains basic knowledge of video technology. Here you will find examples, information and delimitations of the different terms used in professional film production.
The availability of technical means should only be a reason to produce a film or video in exceptional cases. But the reverse is also true: without technology there are neither films nor videos.
Everything is everything, one might think when examining which formats are used for videos in marketing and communication. Despite constant technical innovations, this is only half right.
You need to know
- The video format answers the question of how digital video data is technically recorded.
- There are formats which store the data compressed (= reduced, lossy) or uncompressed.
- The type of compression is determined by the type of codec.
- Some of the most popular types include MP4, WebM and OGG.
- Video formats like MP4 contain additional information like pictures, texts. In this case one speaks of container formats.
- It is possible to copy (= transcode) from one video format to another.
This introduction to video technology explains the advantages and disadvantages of the most popular formats. In addition, questions of conversion (the transformation) are also dealt with. The article is intended as an integral supplement to the article film format, page size, aspect ratio and aspect ratio. The difference between film and video is explained in the article“what is a video?“. You can find free software in our video editing article.
This article, like all articles in Filmpuls, can also be read on paper using the PRINT function. Please print double-sided to save paper. Thank you!
What are video formats?
The term explains how video data is recorded or has been recorded on a data carrier. Basically, the type of recording of video data is defined by four different basic parameters. These are:
- the film format (image resolution and aspect ratio). See Part 1 of this article series titled Film Formats.
- the frame rate (also called refresh rate ). The refresh rate is specified in Hertz (Hz) or as fps (frames per second).
- the colour depth, which describes the ability to differentiate between colour values and brightness values
- the soundtrack
Regardless of the purpose for which you want to create a video, the video format helps determine quality and usability.
Data formats are NOT the same as video formats. The data format specifies how video data is represented in a purely technically structured manner and read (interpreted) by software on a computer system for processing.
Data formats have nothing to do with video format, movie formats, frame rates, color depths and sound. The normal user hardly comes into contact with data formats for the communication with film and video as a rule. The situation is different with video data and formats.
Video formats (“formatted videos”) can be identified by their file extensions (for example *.mp4 or *.mov or *.mpg). Video formats can be classified according to different criteria depending on the object of observation: For example, by file size and quality (compression) or by the type of content in a file (container formats).
Difference to film format / aspect ratio
Just as data formats stand for different things, the terms film format and video format are NOT the same. For film and video, film format refers to the size and aspect ratio in which a film or video is recorded on a data carrier. Film format and shooting formats are synonyms, while shooting format, picture format, picture size and projection format as subgroups further specify the term film format.
FILMPULSE has its own detailed articles on 360 films, 360 degree videos and 360 image films. These special formats in the field of virtual reality will only be dealt with indirectly in this paper.
Why is the video format important?
Video format are not important. But only if you watch your videos directly on your smartphone or upload your own videos from there directly to the internet. But if you want to communicate professionally with videos, you will want to edit your films and will quickly have to deal not only with content quality, but also with technical quality.
Even those who “only” want to make their films publicly available via YouTube or Vimeo or embed their social video in their webpage via one of these video platforms will find out at the latest that there is such a thing as a technical framework if the video file is not accepted for upload. YouTube, for example, tersely reports back in this case: “Before you can upload this type of file, you need to convert it to a YouTube-compatible video format. (What this means is explained in the following chapter on conversion).
Video platforms and accepted formats:
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
Vimeo, another popular video platform, deliberately does not communicate which video formats are supported, but requires some expertise or willingness to learn from its users: “We don’t have a list of supported file formats, however we do support most major and popular types. We HIGHLY recommend sticking to our Compression Guidelines, which will give the best possible quality after we transcode the video on our end.”
Facebook recommends using the MP4 or MOV formats, but like all major social media platforms and video portals, it supports almost all popular video formats (and far more formats than YouTube does).
The technical preparation of videos is not only relevant for video platforms, but also for the compatibility of videos with web browsers. This, if the video is not to be integrated into the webpage via YouTube channels, Vimeo or similar.
Compatibility with browsers
|Safari||✔||– / partially||– / partially|
|IE9 <||✔||– / partially||– / partially|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
You can learn more about MP4 tags in the context of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the article: Why metadata is more important than you think! – Cleanly tag movies and videos with the MP4 Tag Editor MetaX
A. Differentiation of video formats according to compression
Video formats can be viewed and categorized by how they are stored:
- Algorithms that compress the data, whereby a certain loss of quality is naturally to be accepted as a consequence of the compression.
- Video formats that store data without loss. Compression always means reduction of data. Reduction of data always means having to do without a part of the originally available amount of data. What information is no longer there cannot be recovered after compression without access to the original file or to a backup copy.
Additionally and complementarily, videos can also be sorted by container properties (what container formats are will be explained later in the article).
B. Comparison of video formats by container/non-container
Subdivision by type of content:
Known video formats WITH container character
|MP4||currently probably the best-known container format. Based on Apple QuickTime. Can play multimedia content with multiple audio and video tracks and subtitles, as well as 2D and 3D graphics via player and stream.|
|ASF||ASF stands for Advanced Streaming Format. The container format was developed by Microsoft and is proprietary. It is, as the name suggests, all about streaming.|
|AVI||AVI (for Audio Video Interleave) also comes from Microsoft. The word “interleave” stands for “interlocked”, because with AVI audio and video data are interlocked. AVI is still widely used, but is considered technically obsolete.|
|MKV||MKV sees itself as a new, better alternative to the existing container formats. In addition to video and audio tracks, it can also contain menus, subtitles, chapters and photos (cover images).|
|MOV||is a container format developed by Apple for Quicktime and professional and semi-professional applications. MOV offers a comparatively lossy compression compared to other, newer, methods.|
|OGG||OGG was developed in response to the legally protected methods. Accordingly, it is often used for Linux environments. The abbreviation OGG was created by the computer game Netrek borrowed. It stands for “kicking something off with power.”|
|VOB||VOB stands for Video Object Block. VOB is the standard for DVDs and was developed not least to be able to keep the medium DVD under the control of the film and video industry in the long term.|
Source: Filmpuls, January 2017
Known video formats WITHOUT container characteristics
|H.264||the H.264 format is a standard format recommended by the ITU for high-resolution audiovisual media and multimedia applications. H.264 is used for Blu-Rays, among other things. Successor formats are H.265, VP9 and Daala).|
|MPEG2||is used for Digital Video Broadcast (the distribution of TV signals via satellite, cable or antenna) and DVD. The format is a generic standard, which means that the file format and decoding are done without specifying the resolution, which has negative consequences for the quality.|
|MPEG4||MPEG4 was developed to support systems with low computing power and narrow bandwidths of smartphones. MP4 is the official container format belonging to MPEG4. Often used as an alternative name of H.264.|
|WMV||Windows Media Video is a proprietary process owned by Microsoft. The format supports Digital Rights Management (DRM) and is therefore often used when copy protection is to be applied.|
Source: Filmpuls, January 2017
Codecs are not only available for video, but also for audio and for images. For example, when software needs to create a video file, it uses a codec for video and audio to create a video file.
What are codecs?
Codecs, the name says it, encode (German = “verschlüsseln” or also “übersetzen”) and decode (“entschlüsseln”) information. So the word codec stands for a system of rules or arrangements. Its origin lies in the English words encode (encoding) anddecode (decoding). The codec “translates” a video from one format, which can be the original or an already encoded format, to other video formats and back again.
The job of the codec is to “know” how data is compressed and can be restored (= played back). Software and playback programs, for example Windows Media Player or the portable and freely usable VCL player, benefit from codecs.
They can often automatically detect the codec of a file and search for the correct codec to play the file. Or to put it another way: as long as a player recognizes the codec and has access to it, it can play the corresponding file. In this case, the user can be indifferent to the video format of a video file.
A video or a professional movie, is never tied to a specific compression method or codec and video formats. Depending on the application (distribution on TV, as web content or on Blu-Ray Disc) a film or video can appear in many different ways.
Technically, a codec is a pair of algorithms that encode or decode digital data.
Tech pros will note that some of the formats in this article are called codecs, but strictly speaking they are not codecs. Defined in a narrower sense, a codec is only a codec if there is an encoder on one side and a decoder as a “counterpart” on the other. If only encoding, or only compressing – or vice versa only decoding, or only decompressing – is used, this does not correspond to the scientific definition of a codec. In the everyday world of video formats, however, this distinction is ignored.
Codecs determine how data is compressed.
What does compression mean?
The image information for an average high-resolution feature film is at least 131 GByte with today’s technology standards – without sound. This amount of data makes it impossible for a movie to fit on a standard data medium (Video DVD, Blu-ray Disc).
The smaller the amount of data in a video file, the easier it is to stream, edit, or save that file. At the same time, however, the quality of a film or video should not be visibly reduced. Therefore, the algorithms for compression use sophisticated mechanisms and simplify and summarize the data. From the algorithm’s point of view, “less important” information is not stored. They are lost during the compression process and cannot be reconstructed even by decompression.
The latest codecs achieve sensational compression rates of up to 1 : 500. Older methods of video compression, which are still often used today in the form of older codecs, can conversely “only” achieve values of 1:5 (= 100 x worse!).
Video compression has its origins in single frame compression (so-called still image compression). Frame-by-frame compression codecs optimize each frame individually and sequentially. Modern video formats thus achieve a compression ratio of 1 : 10 over the entire video.
Newer codecs have optimized this process: they make use of similarities between the individual frames wherever they exist, which at 25 frames per second results in a huge savings potential. This is also reflected in the compression rates, which with new processes are far above 1 : 100, and this with hardly any reduction in quality.
Video encoding and compression methods for video formats only become established on the market if the widest possible circle of users can use them. That is why there are not only codecs that are established by global corporations such as Microsoft and Apple, but also codecs that have been standardized by international organizations. The best-known body of this kind is the Moving Experts Group (MPEG). Good to know: Because MPEG cooperates with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), for example, identical procedures are referred to differently by the cooperation partners. This is the reason why H.264, MPEG-4 AVC, MPEG-4/Part 10 or ISO/IEC 14496-10 are one and the same format.
To achieve maximum data reduction with as little loss of quality as possible, current codecs combine lossless and lossy methods of compression. Video formats thus seek the optimal compromise between the lowest possible data volume and the best possible quality of picture and sound.
Formats for compression are not identical with so-called container formats (more about this later in the article). The MPEG-4 format, for example, “shrinks” (compresses) sound and picture. In total, the standardized MPEG-4 consists of 31 parts called standards.
MP4, on the other hand, is a video container format. It consists only of MPEG-4 parts 2, 3, 10, 12 and 14 and combines them into one container. The standards determine how the moving image is stored in the file. Files in *.mp4 format are usually smaller than those in *.mpeg4 format, simply because 5 standards require less storage volume than 31 standards.
1. lossy video codecs
There are two types of compression for video formats: Compression without sacrificing data (lossless compression) and compression with data reduction, called lossy compression.
Lossy compression specifically deletes information. The idea behind it: everything that is not perceptible to the human eye or ear is deleted without replacement for the reduction of the file size. These include extremely subtle color differences or changes at the tonal level, the gradation or frequencies of which are barely perceptible or imperceptible to the human ear.
Lossy codecs / types of compression
|WMV||*.wmv||Abbreviation for Windows Media Video. Characteristic is the high compression with relatively good quality, which should make small files and nevertheless films with good resolution possible. The format is now considered obsolete.|
|MPEG I MPEG II||*.mpg||MPEG stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group. Method developed by this group of experts with standardized procedures for compression. The advantages of MPEG movies are the comparatively small files with nevertheless good picture quality.|
|MP4||*.mp4||MPEG-IV movies are compressed much more without any noticeable loss of quality and result in small files with very good resolution. Since the highly compressed data must be “unpacked” again during playback, some computer power is required.|
|AVI||*.avi||AVI for Audio Video Interleaved from Microsoft. Former standard: Even today almost all multimedia programs and DVD players play AVI files without any problems. However, these require an enormous amount of memory (up to 20 times more than WMV and MPEG).|
|MOV||*.mov||MOV stands for Movie and is based on Apple’s Quicktime standard. The format requires little storage space, but requires a high performance of the computer compared to other variants. MOV is mostly found in semi-professional and professional applications.|
|FLV||*.flv or *.swf||FLV is short for Flash Video and is a container format developed by Adobe Systems, which is preferably used for internet transmissions of video content. Playback requires the Adobe Flash Player. Flash video files, embedded in a SWF file, can be easily integrated into a web page. FLV has an extremely bad reputation due to security vulnerabilities.|
|RM||*.rm||Real-Media is the generic name for the file formats of the software manufacturer RealNetworks. Movies compressed with Real Video are lossy, but of comparatively good quality, especially at high compressions. The format is considered obsolete.|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
A list of the most common lossy video codecs and detailed notes can be found at the very end of the article (Appendix 1-3). Click on the link below for more information about intraframes.
2. lossless video codecs
Lossless compression aims to reduce the data for video formats so that no information is lost. This is made possible by optimizing the data rather than reducing it: repeating patterns and series of identical information are stored in short form. Instead of a hundred letters “A”, only one “A” is stored and the software will tell you to repeat the letter A with a factor of 100. This trick alone leads to a significantly reduced amount of data.
A list of the most common lossless video codecs and detailed notes can be found at the very end of the article (Appendix 4).
What happens if a video format is available in one format (e.g. *.mov) and needs to be transferred to another format (e.g. *.mp4) because the *.mov format is not suitable for a particular application? Is the original format always required for this? Or can *.mov be converted directly into *.mp4 in the example? And if so, with what consequences?
Technically it is possible to convert a video anew into another format. This process is called conversion. If the video has already been converted and is no longer in its original version, this requires two steps. First the old video is decoded with the old codec, then the result of the decoding is re-encoded with a new codec and saved as a file with the new specifications.
The computer scientist calls the transfer of a file from one file format to another by means of a file converter also transcoding.
Currently there are 3 ways in which a file can be converted:
- Lossless conversion: All information that was present in the original is retained in the converted new version. In the case of photos or graphics, for example, this is the case when converting a raster image in TIFF format to PNG format.
- Lossy conversion: The new file no longer contains all the information that was present in the old original file. This is the case with the so-called lossy compressions. If the target format is lossy compressed, some of the information is lost when the video formats are converted. However, the loss depends on the “direction” of the conversion: If a color image is converted to grayscale, a data reduction occurs and thus a data loss occurs. Conversely, if an image in B/W is converted to a color image, this is done without any loss of data (the fact that the image is still available in grayscale is not relevant for technical consideration). Other examples would be: WAV -> MP3 is lossy, MP3 -> WAV is not. HTML -> text file is lossy (formatting is lost), text file -> HTML is not.
- Meaningful conversion: This type of conversion can, but does not necessarily, result in a loss of information. Meaningful conversion tries to preserve all the information it considers essential to achieve the best results. For this purpose, it can even supplement and enrich the file with information from external sources during conversion. Well-known application examples of a useful conversion in the office world is the table conversion from Excel to CSV format or back.
A special case is the conversion of videos for smartphones. On the iPhone, for example, NO codecs can be post-installed to this day. A video can only be played if it is compatible with the factory pre-installed codecs. Many conversion programs therefore contain pre-installed settings that take into account the corresponding profiles of the devices and their maximum screen resolutions for the conversion.
HTML video: Video formats for the Internet
HTML Video is a collective term. It includes all videos that can be played on the Internet via an HTML web page. This is done via a video stream. HTML video is therefore not an actual, original video format, but rather the environment (= web page) into which a video format will be integrated.
The playback on the Internet is determined firstly by the web browser and secondly by the actual video format accessed by the browser or the website.
There are four important points to keep in mind when playing videos:
- Memory format
These four parameters determine whether a video can be played on the Internet by a browser.
For PCs and Windows, the Flash format was the measure of all things for years. This is despite the fact that Apple consistently ignored this video format with its iPhones and tablets. Adobe, the company behind Flash, subsequently announced in 2011 that it would no longer invest in the development of this format for playing videos in HTML pages
In the meantime, MP4 has established itself as the video format for websites. In addition, WebM and OGV continue to play a role.
Because loading speeds and streaming play an increasingly important role, many websites offer videos in different resolutions without the user’s intervention. The smaller the resolution, the smaller the amount of data. The browser delivers the data stream correspondingly faster.
Most web videos (= videos streamed on the web embedded in an HTML page) correspond to a resolution of approximately 1280 pixels x 720 pixels. So you reduce the Full HD format of 1920 x 1080 pixels.
The data rate is also important for the bandwidth. It ranges from 1 MBit/second up to 5 MBit/s. For HD videos a bandwidth of 2 MBit/s up to 5 MB/s is recommended.
In practice, more and more web videos are now being embedded into web pages via a YouTube link. Simply because YouTube Player is the easiest and most reliable way to deliver videos to all devices in all formats. And all that for free, if you don’t consider advertising links and ads as a quid pro quo and know how to hide them and can live with entrusting your videos and user data to a global corporation like the Google subsidiary.
Can a video format combine not only one property and one content, but different properties and contents? For example, add subtitles to a film or video, possibly in different languages? What if a video file should contain not only a movie but also photos?
A container format defines the structure with which individual data streams of different formats can be combined into a single data stream (and thus into a container file). This merging is called multiplexing in the technical language.
Container formats offer widely varying possibilities depending on the type. The simplest use case is to combine different files into a single file, such as the TAR format used for archiving purposes.
A container format must form a meaningful whole with the data it contains as a video format: Video data and audio data should combine to form a playable film with synchronous picture and sound or be additionally enriched with text information (subtitles). Container files are therefore also known as compound documents. Media container formats often appear as MP4 (file extension *.mp4), Matroska (*.mkv, *.mka), DivX (*.divx) or as AVI (*.avi).
Container formats also make it possible to use different codecs for video and audio. This way the best codecs can be combined. Container formats therefore offer advantages for the quality of encoding that should not be underestimated.
Video format capabilities (container/non-container formats)
|Multiple audio tracks||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Free of charge||–||–||–||✔|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
Container formats are divided into two types:
- Media formats
- Video container formats
Media formats: their containers contain data of different formats for various purposes and applications. For example, the still common, but outdated, AVI container can combine an MPEG-4 video track created with the Xvid codec and an MP3 audio track encoded with LAME. Other media formats supplement picture and sound with a menu guide, subtitles in different languages or additional sound tracks (dubbed versions in foreign languages). As video formats, container formats can even transport compressed and uncompressed data in exceptional cases. A RIFF-WAVE container, for example, can transport MP3-encoded audio data along with the original PCM encoding.
The task of merging the contents of a container is performed by the multiplexer. Its counterpart is the de-multiplexer (also called splitter or written as demutiplexer). It separates the tracks and contents again so that they can be processed by the respective decoder.
Audio/video container formats: the size of audio-only or video-only container formats is smaller than that of media formats that contain more individual files than only movies require. Video container formats, however, contain at least one audio and video file. Individual video containers are also designed to embed additional elements and contain subtitles (VOB, MP4, MKV) or a menu structure (VOB, MP4, DMF).
Whenever technical developments come along in rapid succession, this is also reflected in a veritable confusion of terms. This also applies to video formats and film formats. When we talk about video format in the context of TV, we are talking about frame sizes and aspect ratios. This does NOT mean the actual formats of videos in the sense used earlier in this article.
Excursus: Video formats in the TV sector
For television, binding agreed standards define the type of frame sizes and aspect ratios (and other parameters) used. The most popular formats on TV, which are also used in the entertainment industry and for home use, are:
Specifications for TV, Industry and Home Electronic
|HDTV||Collective term for a whole range of television standards. Currently, a vertical resolution of 720 lines and 1080 lines is common.|
|NTSC||standard defined by the USA, which was also used in East Asia. Replaced by ATSC for terrestrial broadcasts since 2009.|
|PAL||stands for Phase Alternating Line and was an analogue colour television transmission standard. It was a further development of the older and today also obsolete standard NTSC.|
|SECAM||was the television standard used in France and Eastern Europe.|
|DVB||stands for Digital Video Broadcasting. DVB comes in different subtypes. For DVB reception, most TV sets require an additional digital receiver (set-top box).|
|ATSC||are American standards for digital television and include specifications for high-definition digital television (HDTV) and other formats.|
|ISDB||stands for “Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting”. ISDB is based on MPG-2 as the standard for digital media transmission.|
|UHDTV||Ultra High Definition TV exists in two different picture resolutions (4K and 8K). Super Hi-Vision in Japan is identical to UHDTV.|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
In addition to the four key values mentioned above (film format, frame rate, color depth and audio track), video formats can also contain additional information. For example, there are types that contain information (or specifications) about the compression method used.
So formats for videos and data formats are two pairs of shoes. They signify completely different things. The situation is different in the audio field: In audio technology, it is common to use the term audio format as an abbreviation for the audio data format. Audio format and audio data format here irritatingly stand for one and the same.
Video codecs: Overview of common codec with technical specifications
Listing of common codec/video formats incl. their technical details
(1) Lossy MPEG video codecs
|MPEG-1 Part 2 (ISO 11172)|
MPEG-2 Part 2 (ISO 13818) or H.262:
|Video CD (VCD)|
For MPEG-2 Part 2 (ISO 13818) or H.262, the following applies: 8-bit color depth, 4:2:0 color subsampling, limitation to 25 Mbps data transfer rate, typical uses are: SuperVideo-CD (SVCD), MVCD, KVCD, DVD, DVB, HDTV
|MPEG4 Part 2 (ISO 14496):||This codec is often used in AVI files created with DivX or Xvid.|
|MPEG-4 Part 10 (AVC)/ H.264||Typical uses as a video format are: HD DVD, DVB-S2, HDTV, iTunes, in Flash video files as of Flash 10.|
|MPEG-H Part 2 (HEVC)/H.265|
|MPEG IMX 525 and MPEG IMX 525)|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
VC-1typical for internet streaming
- FFmpeg (only decoder for VC-1)
(2) Other lossy video codecs
|BBC Dirac:||patent- and royalty-free codec|
|Microsoft Windows Media Video or RealVideo||typical for internet streaming|
|Sorenson (SVQ)||typical use as video format: formerly in Quicktime and Flash video files|
|Google (formerly: On2) TrueMotion|
|Theora Open Source Video Codec||Further development of VP3.2|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
(3) HD video codecs
|Apple Intermediate Codec||8 bit color depth, 4:2:0 color subsampling, intra-frame codec|
|Apple ProRes 422||10 bit color depth, 4:2:2 color subsampling, intra-frame|
|Apple ProRes 4444||12 bit color depth, 4:4:4 color subsampling, intra-frame, with alpha channel|
|Avid DNxHD||8 or 10 bit color depth, 4:2:2 color subsampling, intra-frame, with alpha channel|
|JVC D9-HD||8 bit color depth|
|Panasonic DVCPRO HD||8 bit color depth, 4:2:2 color subsampling, low compression|
|Panasonic AVC-Intra (H.264 Intra)||10 bit color depth, 4:2:2 color subsampling, intra-frame codec|
|Panasonic HD-D5||10 bit color depth, low compression|
|Sony HDCAM||8 bit color depth|
|Thomson HD-D6||8 bit color depth, uncompressed|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
(4) Lossless video codecs
|Ben Rudiak-Gould HuffYUV||under free GNU General Public License|
|CoreCodec/Jory Stone CorePNG||under free GNU General Public License|
Source: Filmpuls, February 2017
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