HD For Real or Not?

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Martin French

Over the last few months there has been a lot of talk/buzz/nonsense written about new High Definition (HD) video services available on the world wide web. If you believe the hype then you never again have to watch small, smudgy video clips in your web browser ever again, fame and fortune awaits and world peace is at hand. But what's the truth?

For the sake of this article we will be taking a look at three video services that are offering HD video; Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo. In the offline world we will use the Blu-Ray high definition DVD format for comparison. We've covered Vimeo before on Article19 but the focus wasn't on the HD capabilities of the site.

Is It Really HD?

High Definition video is, to put it simply, a video picture with a lot more visible detail than a standard definition (SD) video picture. SD is a format you will be more than familiar with if you have ever watched television or a regular DVD. The diagram below illustrates the differences in image size from format to format.

To watch HD in your own home you need both an HD capable television and an HD television service or a suitably equipped computer system. In the UK HDTV is provided by either Sky, Virgin or Freeview HD - which will be available later this year. You can also buy a Blu-Ray DVD player and watch HD movies and television shows.

If you have never seen an HD video before then it is very difficult to illustrate the difference but you will know the difference when you see it. It's like everything has been brought into focus after living in Blurry World™ for the last 25 years but is this the video quality you will be getting from the HD video on the internet?

The short answer is no! Not even close!

Talking Numbers

The highest quality HD video runs with a frame size of 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high (hence the term "1080p" that you will see on most things HD). If your video screen or computer monitor is not capable of showing that resolution then the image will be scaled down to fit so, technically, it's not HD.

This means the videos shown on webpages in Vimeo, Facebook or YouTube are most certainly not HD. They do have a "full screen" button on them but this is where the compression problems kick in.

Blue-Ray, the HD video format created by Sony, does use compression to fit video and audio information onto the disc when converted from its original format. When video or audio is compressed the numbers we refer to are called the bit-rate and higher numbers mean higher quality. Hold onto to your hats, it's about to get arithmetical in here. (I don't think that's a word! Ed!)


Blu-ray discs can handle a combined audio/video bit-rate of 47Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second). That's 47 Million bits per second. Remember, higher numbers mean better image and sound quality. In the Blu-ray discs we tested the average rate for the video portion of the disc was about 25Mbps to 30Mbps. With these kind of compression numbers you end up with video that is crystal clear with a stunning amount of detail. You really can see if the cinematographer was doing his or her job!

Contrast that with the average bit rate of an "HD" video on YouTube, Facebook or Vimeo that runs to about 2000kbps (that's Kilo Bits Per Second or about 100 times smaller) and you begin to see the problem.

When you compress a video file by that much you are removing a massive amount of data so when you playback your video using a full screen option things are going to get messy.

The video image becomes soft, fast sections start to smear, a lot of detail is lost and you start to get compression artifacts which means that sections of the video image become blocky or, at worst, completely unrecognisable. How your video was shot and edited is also a factor.

A video we recently completed for All Play Dance Company, shot in HD, has held up very well on both Facebook and Vimeo largely because the camera remained almost static, large portions of it were shot against a white background and the dancers were in dark clothing.

Compression technology really starts to struggle, when compression rates are very heavy, with video images that have a lot of changes, fast camera moves or heavily detailed, brightly coloured backgrounds.

The Facebook version even looks good on a large monitor on full-screen mode (if you stand back a bit) but this particular video, from a technical point of view, is not a huge challenge for the compressors on either website.

Why The Crush?

The above video is a preview video of All Play Dance Company's new work 'Push' embedded from Vimeo using their paid for "Vimeo Plus" service.

You might be wondering why not just keep the compression to a minimum and let us all watch high quality video online? It all comes down to money, time and yet more money.

Uncompressed HD video files are massive in size. The All Play Video illustrated above, in its uncompressed format, is just 2 minutes and 30 seconds long but has a file size of, approximately, 1 Gigabyte (1024 Mega Bytes).

If we put that file online not only would it take hours to upload but it would take a considerable amount of time to download when you wanted to watch it on your own computer via All Play's website. It would also cost the company a small fortune in bandwidth charges. Every file transfered over the internet from a website has a cost associated with it. The bigger the files, the more they cost the web site owner to transfer.

The actual size of the online compressed version of the All Play video is just 46MB, about 22 times smaller than the original.

Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo also have these costs, somebody has to pay the bills. Even though Facebook and Youtube are companies backed by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of financing they want to keep their costs down, just like any business, so it is in their interest to compress your video files as much as possible. Nothing is really free, not even on the internet.

User experience is also a factor when dealing with anything online. When you go to a website and click on a video you want it to play. You don't want to wait twenty minutes for it to get going.

Apple's movie trailer website hosts video files in the 1080p format. Because Apple is a multi-billion dollar corporation they can afford to have two and half minute videos compressed to 10Mbps (on the trailers we tested). The video quality is excellent, but it's still not as good as Blu-Ray.

With that level of compression you get a file that is 160MB in size. If we used the same compression method on HD files (like our Scottish School of Contemporary Dance feature) we would end up with a file 640MB in size for an 8 minute feature and an enourmous bandwidth headache!

Is It Any Good?

There is no doubt that the quality of the video in the, so-called, HD formats provided by Vimeo, Facebook and Youtube, is far better than the regular quality each of the sites also offer. In Youtube's case this isn't saying much since their standard quality is probably the worst anywhere on the web.

What kind of quality you get out of these services depends a great deal on how you film your particular video. More complex productions with tricky camera moves and complex locations will almost certainly struggle. Keeping things simple, from a production point of view, is going to help you a lot.

There is also one major issue that no amount of clever editing and planning is going to help you with. Each of the mentioned websites uses Flash technology to play video. HD Flash needs a lot of computing power to play smoothly. A brand new Apple iMac, here in TheLab™, with 4GB of RAM did not play the HD video on any of the sites mentioned smoothly or without glitches or stuttering.

Youtube in-particular refused to play our test video in a watchable manner, that is, at 25 frames per second.

On Macs the Flash player is notoriously poor and has been for years. A brand new version was recently released by Adobe but this has not improved matters at all.

Using Windows based machines, the processor power required to play HD Flash is just as high but the player is more efficient and most modern computers (less than 3 years old) should cope with the HD video on any of the above websites.

By way of contrast, the Quicktime player, used by Article19, uses about 60% less processor power to play the HD sourced video material we have been experimenting with.

Should we use this?


Each of the sites mentioned, and there are others, is offering better video quality than before and they are offering it for free. At the moment only Vimeo allows HD videos to be embedded into other websites if you use their low cost, paid for service. Sadly, at the moment, this is only available in the United States, more by accident than by design! Support for this feature for the rest of the world is "coming soon", or so they tell us!

Vimeo's HD service is now available to anybody, anywhere in the world. For $59 (US) you get a plethora of video hosting options, HD embedding into any website (5,000 plays included in the price or you can purchase more, a maximum of 100,000 for $199 which is a very good deal compared to other services).

If you have a HD video camera then it is worth using the services, especially Facebook which has good video quality and all the built in social networking/marketing tools that can help you push your new piece of work.

Take care in how you shoot the video though and be aware that a lot of computers currently out there, even some shiny new ones, may not be able to play the video properly and you need to decide if that's going to do you more harm than good. To be safe, have another version of your video available in a different format, just to be sure.

As and when we, here in TheLab™, start using HD on a regular basis we will refer to it as HD(s), as in High Definition Sourced. It will be filmed in HD but what we can bring you online, although more detailed than previous videos, will not be real HD. Anyone who says otherwise, is almost certainly lying!

Update: 02-02-09: YouTube now has HD embedding, sort of. If the video is available in HD then it will be an option in the roll out menu on the bottom right of the embedded video. The user has to select the option to make it work and the results are a bit choppy.

[ All Play ]
[ Vimeo ]
[ All Play on Facebook ]
[ All Play on Vimeo ]

[ Top Image Courtesy of Sony ]

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