Telestream Episode Pro
COW Library : Telestream Episode : Walter Biscardi : Telestream Episode Pro
It used to be so simple in Post Production, especially for an editor. Hand me a bunch of 3/4" or BetaSP tapes, edit them according to the script with the Producer looking over my shoulder, output to another BetaSP tape. Collect the check and go home.
Today it's like we're living in the "Never Ending Format Story." Every week it seems there's a new camera, new VTR, new format, new codec, a new way to deliver the content and so on. As an editor and Post Production company owner, I'm now tasked with the ability to push out high quality content to dozens, maybe hundreds, of digital media formats. So now instead of worrying about meeting the deadline with a single master, my deadline might consist of 20 deliverables from that one timeline.
What I needed was a very flexible and fast compression tool that also provided extremely high quality end products for my clients. Oh and it has to be easy to use because I have multiple editors who will all have to be able to compress files without much training or introduction. Enter Telestream's Episode and Episode Pro. In this review*, I'm using Episode Pro 5.1.1 and I'll explain the differences between the two at the end of this article.
*Ok, this really started out as a straight product review, but quite honestly, the only way to review something like this is to walk the reader (that would be you) through a process. So this has morphed into a review / introduction to Episode Pro. I mean you really want to know how the darn thing works, not just some fluffy article full of straight facts and a bunch of thumbs up at the end, right? There's lot of pictures too, so grab a cup of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, energy drink (all of the above?) and let's check this thing out to see if it will help you in your workflow.
Right off the bat, you can see that Episode is organized to make the end user experience pretty darn simple. Here's a look at the main Episode Interface.
We have the expected pre-built templates along the left side, but notice that they are grouped in two ways; By Format and By Workflow.
By Workflow is a nice touch because not everyone knows exactly what each format is called, but you DO know how you need to output your final product. Need a DVD? Start in the Authoring Folder. Need something for the iPhone / iPod, go into the Devices folder. Need to convert something from one standard to another, you guessed it, the Standards Converter folder. No need to research the file type, frame size, frame rate, etc. there's a pre-built template to get you started.
Now let me demonstrate the incredibly difficult compression workflow.
Step 1: Drag your video file into the Job Batch, where it conveniently says "Drag Source Files Here." Trust me, if you drag your files anywhere else, nothing happens. I tried.
Step 2: Select your compression setting and drag it them over to (you're ahead of me already, aren't you?) "Drag Compression Settings Here."
Step 3: Hit the Play Button on the lower right of the window and Episode will both start the compression and show you the time remaining.
Step 4: Make an espresso to enjoy because you're done.
Ok, I added that last part but there's nothing like a good espresso after all that hard work getting your compression set up. That's basically all there is to setting up a compression. Drag, Drag, Hit Play. But as a famous wise man once said, "But Wait, There's More!"
The Workflow 2.0
Dragging and dropping the pre-built templates get you up and running instantly, but like anything else, Telestream simply can't create every possible setting for every possible scenario. So if you're like me, you want the ability to tinker in the settings. If you're also like me you DON'T read the directions, you just start doing. If you're also ALSO like me, you're kind of set in your ways, used to doing something one way and get perplexed when something doesn't work as expected.
So to make a long story short, at first I had "issues" with Episode Pro because I have been using Apple's Compressor for the better part of two or three years now. Being very familiar with that workflow, which is also all drag and drop, I expected Episode Pro to work exactly the same way. And basically it does, except the fine folks at Telestream realize that we are professionals and as professionals we want full control of everything the software does. When some of us (me) don't take the time to realize that, we gripe (to Telestream) that something is wrong. Fortunately their tech support has a lot of patience and were quick to point out how to fix my "issues" by simply activating or changing settings in the software.
Ok, let's look a little more in-depth at the settings and controls available and we'll use a pretty popular preset as our example, H.264 Quicktime, which is what I use for client reviews. We're going to use a Quicktime Reference file from Final Cut Pro that is 1920x1080 ProRes HQ with 2 channels of stereo audio and runs about 11 minutes.
Looking in the Templates Preset folder I find the H264 Folder and inside of that we find two preset folders for Download and Streaming.
Depending on whether you expect the end user to download the file for local playback or stream it off a server for instant playback, you'll choose a preset of appropriately. In my case I use Download preset because I tend to create bigger files that show more detail to the client that are not well suited for streaming. I'm going with the Widescreen 640x360 preset. This is a good size frame that can still show a lot of detail to the end client. As before we simply drag that preset over. Now here's where the fun starts.
Ok, we double click the setting and it brings me in to the Settings Editor window, of which I'm just showing you the top portion.
This is where my first "issue" occurred because Episode is prepared to output an mp4 file. Now this is nice if I'm going to iTunes or something where a Timecode track is not necessary, but in our shop, we always want TC on our video tracks. Quicktime Player has the ability to read timecode directly off the video track, negating the need for an on-screen timecode window. So my first change here is to switch MP4 to MOV, which brings me to my second "issue."
You and I can both clearly see the little checkbox that says "Create QuickTime Timecode Track" that now appears after changing the Output Format to MOV. Now I thought that checkbox would create a new timecode track starting at 00 or some other preset time. Actually, this is the checkbox that embeds the timecode into the video track. Personally, I would make this an automatic setting, as it is in Compressor, but this is one example of the flexibility afforded you in the tool.
Now we drop over to the Video tab (this is a partial view) and here you find many of the features you would expect and a few you might not. "RGB 10bit to 8bit by using LUT files?" How many of you need THAT in your day-to-day lives? I don't, but if you're doing the type of workflow that can use that type of conversion, there it is.
"Black and White Restoration" (not shown) is another nice feature allowing you to adjust the black and white levels for content that was originally destined for broadcast television. Very often the blacks particularly can be washed out and you'll want to bring them down to sharpen and improve the image for internet or computer playback. The ability to do this in Episode means I don't have to pre-process my video elements in my NLE or color grading software, thus saving some time.
But what I really want to show you here are the codec controls, in this case H264. Telestream has done some very interesting things here to help maximize image quality while keeping the file size down. And YES it will require a little bit of reading and testing on your part, but the results are well worth it. I find reading and testing always go better with a nice warm latte, light on the cinnamon.
There are three tabs for General, Profile & Quality and Advanced Controls. In the General tab you can see we have controls for Bandwidth on the left and Keyframe on the right. Choosing both drop downs you can see we have multiple types of controls to set both the bandwidth and keyframe requirements.
In my case, I'm going to choose VBR-Quality Based for my Bandwidth. VBR is Video Bandwidth Rate and what you're trying to do is find a sweet spot between a file that is too large and stutters when the end user tries to play it back and a video that is smaller but poor quality. As someone starting in Episode, using the Quality Based control is pretty simple, 0% is the lowest quality (highest compression) and 100% is the highest quality (least compression)
Now on the Keyframe side, you need keyframes in order for the Player to properly decode the footage. The more keyframes, the better the quality but also the larger the final file size. Here I'm going with Natural and Forced Keyframes. This is a combination of allowing the software to naturally insert keyframes at shot changes, but also forcing a keyframe at a pre-determined interval.
In the next tab, Profile & Quality, I just want to point out the "Use deblocking filter" option. This is exactly what you think it is. It smoothes out the compression "blocks" so the image appears cleaner. This does make a big difference in creating cleaner video while still keeping the file size down.
Here's where it gets really interesting, the Advanced tab. There's a neat trick in here for keeping the file size down in an almost "hidden" way during playback. This is the one that really got me in the beginning but I've really taken to this one setting to adjust my end file size by as much as 30% or more.
First, for those of you familiar with Apple's Compressor and the Qmaster distributed rendering scheme, you can see that Episode automatically takes advantage of all the cores in your machine using "Slices." The software assigns portions of the video (slices) to each CPU for rendering. You can assign multiple slices at a time per CPU, but it does warn doing that can cause a degredation in the image quality so I didn't use any more than one.
What I really want to show you are the IDR Frames on the right. Technically speaking (and this is from the manual) an IDR Frame is an I-frame whose preceding frames cannot be used by predictive frames. What? Basically predictive frames look at the frames around them for the best compression scheme. They can't do that with an IDR frame, it has to be compressed as its own frame. So, the more IDR Frames, the better the overall quality of each frame, the larger the file size.
So why even point this out since obviously we want to set that to maximum quality, right? We want each frame to look its best right? Not necessarily. Remember I said there's a "trick" here. Check this out.
Here's a still frame of a 1080i/29.97 ProRes HQ project I recently finished. This is the original full quality ProRes HQ image.
Ok, now look at these 2 images.
One of these was rendered with IDR Frames set to every 10th frame while the other was rendered with the IDR set to Every Frame. One of these files is 96MB (IDR every 10th frame) while the other is 122MB (IDR every Frame). One is 1440 kbps and the other is 1100 kpbs. So one of these should very obviously be a higher quality than the other. But I just don't see it.
Look at the girl's shirt on the right, a floral green print that holds up extremely well in both. The girl in the foreground is very clean and even the text looks about equal on both images. This is impressive to me that you can drop file size and even the number of keyframes by 10 times and still maintain a very good quality image. When both videos are playing, they look practically identical.
But of course there is a tradeoff. You can't have a loss of data information and yet maintain the exact same quality on both files. Here's the trade-off.
Now it's obvious the file on the top is the smaller, more heavily compressed file, you can see the big compression blocks. They're obviously not on every frame or you would have seen them in the previous image, but they are there and will appear more often the more you space out the IDR frames. By the way, the first image of the little girl above is the more heavily compressed image.
When you go frame-by-frame or shuttle through the video with the IDR frames spaced out, you will see the compression artifacts every so many frames as you move along. However, during normal playback, they simply don't appear. You do not see the blockiness, you do not see the artifacts, what you see is smooth motion video playback. It's like the compression just disappears. Very neat trick and it has to do with Keyframes during playback vs. when paused or scrubbing.
So if your video is intended solely for playback, you can space out the IDR frames and save some bandwidth. If your video is intended for client or colleague review, like mine are, then you might just put each frame as the IDR. You've got options.
So there's a very simple workflow for one format and I've barely scratched the surface of what Episode can do.
What CAN Episode do?
Ok, in a nutshell, with Episode you can encode to all major Web, DVD / BluRay authoring, mobile and portable device formats including Flash 8/9, WM9, Quicktime, H.264, VC_1, 3GPP, MPEG 1/2/4. Step up to Episode Pro and you add unlimited Batch Processing (Episode is limited to 25 items in a Batch) more professional formats like MXF, GXF, DVCPro HD, mobile multi bit rate and support for 5.1 / 7.1 surround sound encoding.
Have I mentioned Standards Conversion? PAL to NTSC and NTSC to PAL. I tried this out and in Standard Def it was quite good going NTSC to PAL. Now in High Def I tried going 1080i/29.97 NTSC to 1080i/25 PAL and for video only, it was quite good. It might even be passable for broadcast as long as it doesn't go into underscan. You can see the fields "dancing" a little bit on the top and bottom edges of the screen. With on-screen text however, it was obvious the fields were not quite right. With a little tweaking on Telestream's end, this would be a VERY powerful feature of Episode Pro. I would use this on a regular basis for programming we deliver to Europe and pay a pretty penny right now for conversions.
All in all, everything that I tested with Episode Pro was extremely high quality. This was especially impressive for a tool that offers so many forms of encoding in one box. Usually when you try to "do too much" with one encoding software package, something has to suffer, but I did not see any of that with Episode Pro.
My favorite feature?
Watch Folders. They automatically run compression schemes that you have pre-set.
Let's say you have a process you repeat regularly. Client ABC requires a DigiBeta master, H.264 download for network review, H.264 streaming for the website, iPhone and 3G mobile files, a DVD, and Flash for a 3rd party website. Ok the DigiBeta is easy, just lay that off to tape. With a Watch Folder, the rest of it is easy too.
Click on "Create Watch Folder" and call it "ABC." You can even assign the default render location and naming convention so you never even have to think about that either.
In Episode assign the appropriate compression presets for everything you need done. The H264, the iPhone, etc.-- all those different files.
From your edited timeline, export the finished master of your project. Drag that onto the ABC Folder (make sure Episode is running in the background). Go get yourself another espresso, you're done. Episode will automatically set up a batch and encode your project in all the formats in that Watch Folder. Very cool.
My least favorite feature?
The one thing I would like to see changed is the Burned In Timecode Window. At this time you cannot turn off the black backdrop behind the numbers. When using Apple's Compressor this is always the first thing I do and I put the numbers themselves in the upper right. This is far less distracting for the client when the black box isn't there. It's a minor thing since we generally use the embedded TC in Quicktime Player, but for times when we do need the TC window, this would be a nice addition.
One thing I will say is taking a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with the various features and workflow BEFORE you get started will go a long way towards minimizing any early frustrations. As I said, I just jumped in and expected Episode to have all the presets set up exactly like Apple's Compressor. For the most part it does, but little things like the Timecode Track and getting all those compression blocks during pause from the default Natural Keyframes and IDR spacing caught me by surprise. Now that I understand exactly how the tool works and why Telestream made some of these decisions, it makes sense.
Who needs Episode?
I think the better question in today's market is who doesn't need an all in one, high quality encoding tool. Have you delivered content to the iPhone yet? You will. Have you delivered Flash video for the web yet? You will. Have you delivered video for BluRay disc yet? You will.
If you're working in post production at all, whether a stand-alone post house, production company, or a one-man band, you will be asked to deliver content in ways you've never even heard of before. Having a tool like Episode in your arsenal can really bring an end-user great piece of mind. Pretty much whatever the client can throw at you, you'll be ready.
Episode and Episode Pro are available for both Windows and Mac. A 30-day free trial is available so you can test this out with your own workflow before you buy. I highly recommend you do this today.Walter Biscardi, Jr. is a 19 year veteran of broadcast and corporate video production who owns Biscardi Creative Media in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Walter counts multiple Emmys, Tellys and Aurora Awards among his many credits and awards. You can find Walter in the Apple Final Cut Pro, AJA Kona, Apple Motion, Apple Color and the Business & Marketing forums among others.