It's all in the edit
Once you've shot your footage, the edit determines what viewers really see. It's here that you get your audience to focus on specific things and keep them engrossed. In the internet age, this can be difficult. "People's fingers are itchy and they're always waiting to click on to something else," says Airside's Nat Hunter. "On TV, people will sit and watch rubbish for an hour, but online they'll click away."
Because of this, Hunter recommends editing for short attention spans, generally making your videos short and snappy. ATTIK's Simon Needham agrees: "Online video works best when it's short, sweet and to the point. The market these days is fast-paced, so the content should be as well. The last thing you want is for a viewer to be bored!"
Nevertheless, Vance adds that, although pacing should be fast, it shouldn't be so rapid that the viewer can't see what's being communicated in the shots.
The next major consideration is output, both in terms of format and where your video is likely to be played. As Burgess notes that: "Pictures aren't a problem when you make them smaller, but text is – what works okay on a DVD or TV won't necessarily be fine for a movie that's only 400 pixels wide." Therefore, don't lose elements in small details if you're targeting the smaller screen and consider creating variations on your video if outputting for multiple platforms.
When it's time to delve into formats and codecs, it seems that H.264 has a vice-like grip, offering the best trade-off between file size and quality, along with it being fully supported by iTunes, iPods, iPhones and many set-top boxes.
The type of container to use depends on where a video is being deployed, but Needham believes that Flash Player 9's huge strides in video have made things easier for developers: "Its support for H.264 enables you to compress video into one format that's compatible with multiple delivery mechanisms that aren't restricted to Flash."
Hosting and deployment
Even with the best compression format, the downside to video is that it's bandwidth-hungry. This impacts on your next major decision: how and where to host. "You must identify whether to host directly or leverage an existing delivery service such as YouTube," says Borbet.
"People are often devastated to discover the cost of uploading and streaming video. If you don't have a smart deal in place, one popular video on a user-generated content-based destination can send the best of companies to the kitchen, where they'll be forced to do dishes for 10 years to pay off their streaming debt."
Although he avoided such menial tasks, this is largely what Black discovered when the audience for his online comedies exploded. "We began by self-hosting, but within months it was costing too much," he says.
"We moved to services such as Revver and blip.tv, but despite being free, they have their own problems: poor playback and distracting ads. Our new episodes are available only on the babelgum.com platform, so this isn't an issue. Looking forward, we're starting to explore the options that are available for our new series, Cabonauts, including private hosting companies that can deal with huge audiences."
Even if you're not expecting the entire world to tune in, it's important to settle on the best service for the job. As Black notes, the last thing you want is for your audience to be unable to access your material because they won't keep coming back to try again.
On content delivery networks, Revision3 founder David Prager suggests you read the small print: "There are many options, such as Vimeo and YouTube, and each company has its own terms of service, privacy policies, and other variables. The bigger you get, and the more your content's value increases, the more you'll want to ensure you retain control of those variables."
With those we spoke to, Akamai seemed to be a popular service, while Revision3's videos, when downloaded or streamed, come from BitGravity. As for the actual player, bespoke seems the way to go.
Although off-the-shelf components initially speed things up, they don't provide clean integration with a site's design, and you can come unstuck should you need to customise or tweak code. With bespoke solutions, you can always recycle code for later projects anyway.
Once your video is online, the thorny issue of rip-offs rears its head. Motion graphics expert Rob Chiu has experience of this, with videos he's worked on being stolen and used in places he'd not agreed to.
Despite having access to good representation that's been able to sort legal issues, Chiu admits he remains worried about rights infringement, although not enough to compromise his work. "I'm not prepared to ruin films by watermarking them or lowering compression to the point where you're compromising the viewer's experience," he says.
Borbet adds that, legally speaking, things also change rapidly online: "Agencies must make it their business to understand the legal ramifications wrapped around content because laws change daily and each case sets a new precedent. Every Tom, Dick and Harry looks at YouTube and thinks they can create something similar and make a fortune, but they haven't necessarily heard of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. If creating a YouTube was easy, YouTube wouldn't be the only site out there big enough to be purchased by Google, generate tons of traffic and project a half-billion dollar operating loss for 2009!"
More positively, online success can lead to large audiences and a demand for more content. "If you've a large library, a branded video channel can be a great way to go," claims Black. "When you add new videos, it makes sense to channel them through a branded network that will become synonymous with good content."
Of course, you must still question relevance. Borbet recalls that Skittles "put its neck out there" with the skittles.com video channel, generating tremendous buzz in the process, but its ultimate success is yet to be determined. "Ask yourself whether consumers want access to branded video content," he says. "I don't know about you, but my love for candy won't translate into spending significant time watching Skittles-related videos."
Video's going to be ever more important over coming years. Budgets for online video will rise as companies understand online isn't a poor relation to broadcast and consumers increasingly watch online rather than via traditional means.
The nature of the internet and its being an interactive medium with various kinds of embedded content also provides potential for advancement and evolution. Paul Cripps of Nine Four reckons we'll increasingly see sites "dispensing with large header graphics, instead choosing subtle videos and overlaying a simple typographic message, thereby adding life to otherwise static web pages".
Elsewhere, designer Martin Cajzer reckons live tagging will become prevalent: "This will enable users to click on items of interest to receive information about them, or access shops where the items are in stock." Cajzer also believes static ways of watching videos will diminish, replaced by interactive experiences, and this is an area Odopod has been immersed in.
Directors Tim Barber and Damon Nelson explained to us how a combination of video and interactivity is enabling branching narratives, enabling users to have customised interaction with brand characters and storylines. Examples include Nestea, which enables users to control contraptions and test the super-human powers the protagonist believes he has, and whitegoldiswhitegold.com, which provides an interactive music video with unlockable content and simple videogame-like techniques.
Shooting this kind of video is tough. Footage isn't a static production – it's instead a system of videos with alternate branches and loops, dynamically assembled on the fly for each individual user. Scripts must be honed and user flows rigorously tested to avoid awkward cuts and continuity issues. However, to draw jaded users further into the waters of online video, Odopod considers this effort worth making.
Chiu leaves us with a final thought – that the importance of web video will soon stretch further than such interactive online experiences, even YouTube, and finally escape from PCs. "Online compression, streaming and quality is now at a point where it makes little difference whether you watch video online or off," he points out. "One day the web will be TV – and online video will become the only way of watching anything."
First published in .net Issue 190
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