What a compressed video will look like: Compression Preview

Creating a movie, outputting it to the highest possible standard and then distributing it over the Internet. What could be easier? It’s actually a lot less simple than it sounds. Which compression level are you to use? Do you even have to bother? Doesn’t Youtube and Vimeo handle all of this themselves? You should bother and you should decide for yourself, and Compression Preview helps you with this important task. It’s an After Effects plug-in that shows you what your video will look like when compressed to a specific setting.

Compression Preview lets you decide for yourself which quality level you can live with when publishing a video to Youtube, Vimeo or another online streaming service. As we all know, compressing video files to a small file in H.264 or another compression format introduces ugly artefacts, colour “blobs” and other awful looking noise. Until now, the only way to ensure the video looked OK on the web was to compress it with relatively high target bitrates, such as the 8000 Kbps rate Youtube uses in its high quality setting, or even higher if you’re using Vimeo.

The problem with this approach is twofold:

  • You end up with relatively large files to upload of which you’re not certain the service provider won’t further compress the file so it degrades
  • You can’t see which ugliness is already included and, as a consequence you can’t even think about trying to fix them.

These two problems are exactly what the ridiculously low-priced ($49) Compression Preview plug-in tackles and with great success, I might add. In addition, Compression Preview is incredibly simple to operate. There’s only one item not checked off on my wish list: a version of this plug-in for Final Cut Pro X.

When you import footage in After Effects and drag the Compression Preview plug-in to the composition panel, you immediately set the plug-in to work. After a few seconds — sometimes minutes on my old mid-2011 iMac i5/3.1GHz — the compressed result can be admired in After Effects’ composition panel. The plug-in control panel reveals the dimensions (the font looks a bit garbled on my system, but perhaps that’s because I have a font manager installed) of the clip, the size, frame information, segment size, targeted frame rate and true average bitrate, and file size.

Compression Preview Default

There are three presets and one custom controls setting: Youtube Standard Quality, Youtube High Quality, Vimeo. In my example shots, you’ll immediately see the Youtube Standard bitrate is quite low and results in visible “rubbish” — got no other name for it — all across the frame. High Q is better but not ideal. Vimeo is a lot better, which explains why people like Philip Bloom use Vimeo whenever they can.

The custom controls allow you to tamper with parameters like Segment Length, Bitrate, Keyframes, Frame Reordering, etc. Compression Preview does not have all the parameters to work with like Episode or Squeeze, but just the ones that will potentially degrade your footage after compression. That’s also its strength, as it actually shows what you will end up with when changing these parameters to any aribtrary combination.

Compression Preview Vimeo setting

I tried using both Episode and Squeeze to get the best compression setting (lowest file size) for the best visual quality. I could change about every parameter in the book, including some that did nothing to improve (or degrade) visual quality. The point is that these heavyweights have a preview window that doesn’t show you the exact output you’ll get after transcoding. The preview is aimed at showing the effect of filters you set in these applications, not the effect of the transcoding process itself.

Compression Preview Youtube standard

This makes Compression Preview all the more indispensable, for semi-pros as much as pros who have the complete arsenal of transcoding tools available to them, as that is exactly what it will provide you with. If you output video to the web — and who doesn’t, these days? — Compression Preview is one app you won’t want to be without!

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