About HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec)

20th November 2018 | Posted in News, Resources

At Southpoint Films we like to stay on the cutting edge of video production technology – whether that’s live streaming, drones, and even 360° VR video, we’re keen to embrace new formats and techniques that we can use to make our clients stand out from the crowd.

In this post, I’d like to talk about a new video format which is quickly making its way into both our production workflow and a whole host of consumer electronic devices; HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec). 

Like many technical things, video formats are not an exciting topic for most people outside of those who live and breath them every day – like me! – but please bear with me.

A bit of background

Let’s start with going back to the basics and looking at how video actually works. 

A video is a series of pictures which, when shown in sequence, display movement. In the video world, these are known as “frames”. I think it’s fair to say that most people have an understanding of this concept, but it does pose some fundamental technical challenges for people making and managing video content.

In the UK, one second of standard video footage is usually 25 individual frames. For other countries and applications it can vary from 23.97 to 30 frames per second and beyond.

Hypothetically, if one frame of video had a 1MB file size, one second of video would be 25MB, and one minute of video would be a whopping 1.5GB. If that were the case, a 60 minute TV show would be a ridiculous 90GB – imagine trying to stream that to your phone!

To combat these massive file sizes, computer scientists over the years have been able to do some clever work making algorithms that compress video files to make them smaller. This is usually done by analysing a group of frames in a video and only keeping data about the bits change. E.g. data about the frame’s background would only be recorded once, while data about a presenter would change for every frame. It’s very clever.

There is no single “right” way of compressing video, so a variety of compression options are available to video producers in the form of “codecs”, which are used depending on the job at hand. For example, some codecs deliberately contain a lot of information so that professionals like us can do things like colour correction, which a viewer wouldn’t need to do. (So some codecs will strip all of that data out to save space.)

For a long time, the best, most compatible type of compression for corporate videos was a codec called H.264. It’s so nerdy that they didn’t even try to give it a sexy buzzword name!

In my experience with H.264 a typical 3-minute HD promo would need to be about 300MB in size before the average viewer would notice any issues with the video quality. Websites like YouTube would still compress these videos even further for showing them to people on slower networks, but the H.264 encoded video file that we’d create for clients would be plenty enough to provide the quality needed for a variety of situations, like showing the video on a screen at an exhibition, without filling hard drives with unnecessary data.

In fact, H.264 has become so popular and widely adopted that many modern computers, tablets and smartphones contain special chips in them specifically to make playing H.264 video files smoother. At this point H.264 is a universally supported standard, and all was right in the world of video production…

Introduction of HEVC

Then 4K came along. Due to the extra resolution, 4K videos are four times as big as a typical HD video. Suddenly our 3 minute promo videos were coming out at 1.2GB per video, which is a lot of data for such a short film!

Fortunately the computer scientists had been working on a new codec specifically to address this issue; a codec called HEVC. In my experience with HEVC, 4K videos need about the same 100MB per minute as HD to have no noticeable lack of quality.

HEVC Benefits & Challenges

HEVC is a huge step forward in creating usable, high quality 4K video files and support for HEVC is already rolling out to a number of modern consumer devices including smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs.

For us, HEVC is ideal for sharing a high quality 4K master file with clients. The file size is small, the quality is high and once you’ve downloaded a HEVC video file you can upload it to most online platforms such as YouTube, Vimsy, and social media sites like Facebook without any issues. (These platforms will convert the file into a variety of different formats anyway, so using HEVC makes it much easier to download and upload files.)

In theory, you can use a HEVC video file in any situation where you would use any other video file, such as playing the video on a screen at an exhibition or putting it into a presentation.

The only trouble is that HEVC is very new, and only a small number of computers have built-in support for it. This means that some computers won’t play these videos all, some computers will need to install new or updated software to play them, and some software will need to convert HEVC video files into H.264 before it can do anything with them.

In practical terms this means that applications like Powerpoint will try to convert your HEVC video file before you can add it to a slide deck, for example. This might be difficult for less powerful computers to do and could take a while. And if your version of Powerpoint is very old, it might not even be able to do this. In fact, if your device isn’t running the latest version of Windows, MacOS, Android or iOS, there’s a chance the video won’t play at all, even in software like Windows Media Player or Quicktime.

How to tell if you have a HEVC file

Like H.264 video files, HEVC files are usually .MOV, .MP4 and .M4V files. You will need to see detailed information about the file to determine if it’s HEVC or not. You can usually do this in your file browser.

As a customer, if you’re unsure you can contact us and we’ll let you know what format the file is.

Making sure you can play HEVC videos

To make sure that you can use and play HEVC files, please make sure that your computer is up to date. Make sure your device is running the latest version of Windows, MacOS, Android or iOS. 

On Windows you may need to install Microsoft’s HEVC Video Extensions from the Windows Store. 

Apple users need to be running iOS 11 or MacOS High Sierra or later. 

Android users need to be running Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or later.

The free and popular video player VLC supports HEVC for all devices. It can be downloaded here: https://www.videolan.org/vlc/index.en-GB.html 

(If you’re concerned about installing third party software, please ask your IT provider for help with this. This is only a suggestion and we offer no warranty for this third party software.)

Please be aware that even if you can’t play HEVC video natively files on your device, you can still upload the file to make popular video platforms such as YouTube, Vimsy and social media sites lie Facebook where they will be converted into other formats.

If it’s really not working…

To reduce the amount of data we store and send across the internet, we’re planning on using HEVC as our primary format for exporting videos for clients.

If HEVC really isn’t working for you we’d be happy to supply the video in another, more compatible format on request. (Specifically, a H.264 video file.)

You can request this at any time. We will convert the video for you at no cost and send it to you as soon as possible after your enquiry.

Recap

  • HEVC is a new type of video compression for consumer applications.
  • HEVC allows us to provide very high quality 4K video files while keeping the files small enough to transfer them to you quickly and without using loads of your hard drive space when you download them.
  • HEVC video files are compatible with online platforms such as YouTube, Vimsy, and social media platforms like Facebook. You should be able to upload and play your HEVC video files to these platforms without issues.
  • HEVC might not play back on your computer if it is running older software, or if your computer does not support HEVC. You might need to update your software, install new software, or your device may not be compatible at all.
  • Some software, such as Powerpoint, might need to convert your video file before you can use it. Slower or older computers may struggle with this. Equally, some software may not support your video file at all.
  • If you’re having trouble with your video file we can supply it to you in another, more compatible format (H.264) at no cost. It might be a much bigger file size, or we will reduce the quality to keep the file size down.
  • HEVC is great and in a few years we’ll look back at this transition period and wonder why the world didn’t start using it sooner!

We feel that the vast majority of our customers will have no issues using HEVC, but hopefully this guide explains what it is, why we’re using it and what to do if it’s not working.

Want more information?

Hopefully you’ve found our content useful. If you have any questions about it, or if you’d like to talk about anything else related to video production, then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

Email us at [email protected] or give us a call +44 (0) 800 009 6982