Thursday, 4 February 2010

2 Years of User Group Videos

It's rather scary to realise that next month will mark the two year anniversary of when I first started doing video for London-based 'Microsoft developer'-oriented user groups. It seems like only yesterday I lugged my gear across town to record my first user group session and then wrestle with everything that post-production involves.

User Groups I support

My regular 'gigs', when work doesn't get in the way of me attending, are: The Silverlight UK User Group, The Edge User Group (formerly Vista Squad) and The UK Azure User Group. But occasionally I've also got to video other events usually because they're very occasional, or because there's a 'rock star' speaker planned and people have recommended me. Examples include The London .NET User Group when Microsoft VP of .NET Scott Guthrie came over, or The ALT.NET Conference which is only held once a year.

In April and May this year it looks like I'll also be recording some talks outside London for the first time. This will be for the NxtGen User Group in Oxford, specifically to capture a highly-recommended Silverlight talk, and also to record a 'relative'ly well known speaker from abroad.

Pro's and Con's of the job

Demand for 'community' video seems to be rising and last month I actually had to turn away a couple of requests because there are only so many free weekends in a month to deal with post-production.

Fortunately I get to video many more interesting talks than bad ones, and I can recall only one occasion where a talk was so bad that the user group organisers themselves suggested it might be best to 'forget' publication (I was only too happy to oblige!) This weekend I'll be finishing off work on a couple of talks I recorded last night for the Silverlight UK User Group. When the talks are as strong as these were I feel somewhat blessed in having the opportunity to go back and re-view them, enabling the content to better 'sink in' while most of it is still fresh.

Why does it take so long?

I'm often asked how long it will be before a user group talk I've recorded will be available. I aim to get a video published within a week of a talk being given, but in a busy week this can stretch to a fortnight or even three weeks. When I explain to people what's involved or how long the video publishing process takes I tend to get one of two rather extreme reactions: shocked incredulity that something so seemingly straightforward could take so long, or a head-shake as someone pats me on the back while giving me a sympathetic smile.

The first reaction is the most common, and the second is invariably from someone who's done some video publishing on the web themselves, and knows first-hand what 'editing', 'rendering', 'compressing', 'transcoding' and 'publishing' really means in terms of lost wall-clock time. A talk of just over an hour on HD video will equate to many hours of your computer being locked up and unusable doing intense mathematical calculations to create a file which will then typically take at least a day to upload, even on a fast broadband line, only to then fail with some obscure and unclear error when being transcoded to Flash.

And that's before all the 'manual' work you have to do yourself is taken into account.

But things really have improved quite dramatically over the last couple of years. I'm still using the same (maxed-out) laptop I was using when I first bought my camera in January 2008, but the whole process is far more robust and reliable than it used to be.

User Group Video - What's the Point?

All of which begs the question 'Are user group video's worth doing?' Originally I didn't think so. I helped out more to 'get practice' with my video gear while the project they'd been purchased for stalled, than for any altruistic or 'there's a need' reasons. But given that the typical audience for a user group video is 3-4 times that able to attend the original event I have changed my mind. Video tutorial or marketing sites may talk in terms of video needing thousands of hits to be deemed a 'success' but I think the sort of 3 to 4 -fold increase in audience size we're seeing for user group events can only be perceived as a 'win' for the speakers and the user group.

Just occasionally a user group video will totally 'jump the shark' and become almost viral. I'm still trying to work out precisely why it is that Serial Seb's talk on MVC Best Practices (mistakenly published twice) has hit close to 7000 views (and rising) at the time of writing, where the more typical audience figure for a user group video is around 200. It's a great talk, but such a large variance doesn't make sense.

My workflow - and a call to action!

My video workflow is pretty basic, and has remained relatively unchanged over the last couple of years. Most of MY time (as opposed to the computer's) is spent editing the titles and converting the Powerpoint slides that were used to the right format. This last job is a tedious chore, and a largely manual process. It involves taking a 4:3 format Powerpoint presentation and converting it to a set of 16:9 'widescreen' format bitmaps that can then be injected and animated in the video. Speakers would make my workflow so much easier if they produced their slides to the widescreen format. Powerpoint, which is what everyone uses, has had a Widescreen template for years now - it's just nobody seems to realise it's there! Since the user group venues typically feature wide-screen plasmas (which incorrectly 'stretch' the speaker's 'square-ish' slides) and projectors, most laptops and the A4 paper in printers tend to be widescreen format it seems crazy we all still produce those square 4:3 format slides for our talks! If you're a speaker, regardless of whether you're being video'ed or not, do me a favour and switch to widescreen today - it makes sense all round!

The manual 'slide conversion' process involves using TechSmith's excellent SnagIt product to snap a full-screen copy of the slide presentation running on a PC at HD resolution, and then tweaking it in Photoshop so that the black borders automatically rendered by PowerPoint are more in tune with the colours used on the actual slides. One side-effect of this 'manual' slide editing process is that I have grown to detest speaker slides that feature fussy backgrounds or graduated fills, where before I positively encouraged them!

When I started doing video I used Sony Vegas Pro 8 to produce a compressed render that would get video file sizes down from a typical uncompressed 20GB in HD format to under 1GB for the web. For a 70 minute video Vegas would take anywhere between 11 and 15 hours to produce a render, typically having to deal with about twelve 'tracks' once all the titles, transitions, slide effects, intro music etc had been placed on the timeline during the edit.

One day I'll be able to afford that 8-core processor beast with a huge RAID array that will reduce this render time, but in the meantime my trusty 'maxed-out' Dell D820 laptop with external USB-2 drives will have to do. Given the cost and the time available I think it does a great job.

Sony Vegas Pro is an under-rated video editing package that's powerful, but very easy to use and can even be programmed against in .NET. But in its version 8 incarnation running under Windows Vista it tended to crash. A lot! I also own a copy of Adobe Premier Pro CS4, but I find it just as unreliable, and it loses serious points for usability, intuitiveness and too many years of baggage!

My camera, the Sony PMW-EX1 records video to two hot-swappable PCI Express RAM cards which can then be used directly in the laptop. With two 16GB cards and two 8GB cards and a laptop with a cheap "Passport" external hard drive I've been able to shoot HD video footage at an all day conference (i-Design08 and i-Design09) and I could never go back to recording on tape! On the down-side my camera only shoots High Definition (despite the fact most people won't care and will be happy with 'standard' definition sized video) which is what requires all the horsepower when it comes to editing, rendering and compressing the recorded results. Why bother with HD? Most speakers run laptops at HD resolution and code demo's can be hard (impossible) to make out unless viewed in HD! Interestingly, my camera is the only piece of technology to have significantly gone up in price since I bought it just over two years ago. But it is probably not the best tool for producing SPEEDY video for the web. Sony just announced a newer version of the camera which will also record SD, but ironically I think this is at a time when everyone's insisting on HD.

When I first started producing video for user groups I would re-compress the video for the web using standalone compression software Sorenson Squeeze 5 but this would add ANOTHER 12 hours to the rendering process, and often produced files that were just as large as the original render, but worse looking (for obvious reasons as compression loses data each time it is used). It was all a bit of a nightmare and I'd lose whole weekends failing to get video published: If Vegas Pro didn't crash on Windows Vista (usually 10 hours 50 minutes into an 11 hour render!) then you could pretty much guarantee that the video uploading service's file uploader would repeatedly die on attempting to transfer the file. And if the upload finally worked OK on the fourth or fifth attempt then the server-side software would choke on trying to transcode the uploaded file to the Flash format. When this happens there's typically no support or help available because these video hosting services are providing what limited resources they have for free and already swamped with issues from 'new to video' users who have no idea what 'editing' or 'compression' or 'transcoding' actually means.

Recent Changes that make Video Much Easier to Produce

Thankfully, several things have happened over the last 2 years which have made life a whole lot easier.

Firstly I discovered there is life beyond Vimeo! Vimeo tends to be the first recommendation for video hosting to anybody who hasn't got megabucks to spend on video for the web, but who has reached the limits of YouTube's paltry 10 minute running time limitation. They have a free service, or for those wanting to post HD video without waiting an eternity for transcoding, a reasonably priced alternative that costs about £60/year. The trouble is they're too popular, their software is buggy (and they keep changing it) and their support is .... well, about what you'd expect when there's no income available to support it!

Luckily I discovered an alternative service. Exposure Room is a video hosting community that's second to none. When I had a problem that Vimeo had been ignoring for weeks, ExposureRoom diagnosed it within hours. Admittedly it was an obscure problem: Sorenson Squeeze had a nasty bug which rounded 1280 pixel wide video down to 1278 pixel wide video and Adobe Flash transcoding couldn't cope with a pixel count that wasn't a multiple of 4! When I've had other problems Exposure Room have quickly provided workarounds. For example, when my router seemed incapable of using their browser upload program without stalling before completion, they offered a reliable direct FTP service instead. Now that's what I call service! Other benefits: Their turnaround time is incredibly fast AND they allow you to embed HD versions of your video in your own pages, rather than insisting you direct users to their site. They allow anybody registered on their site to download the originally uploaded file before it was transcoded to the Flash format. They have recently added iPhone support that streams the best looking video I've ever seen on that device. And they've already announced support for the iPad! They are the best, and I still have to keep pinching myself to be sure that I'm not dreaming the fact they're not charging me anything for their services.

New releases of software (Sony Vegas Pro 9 and Sorenson Squeeze 6), both running on the vastly improved Windows 7 operating system mean that the 'run for a long time and then crash' problems of old are now long gone. I render out at 'full fidelity' (35Mbps 720p HD 25 frames per second) in Sony Vegas 9 which now takes about 2-3 hours for a 1 hour video with multiple tracks. Then I use Sorenson Squeeze to render out a compressed 3Mb 'HD' Mp4 version for the web, which takes about 14 hours to run. The most important improvement is that my PC is totally usable whilst this rendering/compression is going on, whereas under the old software on Windows Vista I was 'locked out' of my PC for whole weekends as responsiveness was close to zero and would typically cause a 'blue screen of death' if I even thought about using the keyboard. Uploading the compressed MP4 file, even using direct FTP on a line that BT insist is 8MB broadband, then adds on another 12 hours, and transcoding/publication by the video hosting service on top of that adds a few more.

But this is acceptable when the time can be accurately predicted, the way it can now. It means I can usually have a video available worldwide on the Monday morning after a user group talk has been given, here in London.

One of my new year's resolutions was to be a bit more 'professional' about the way I do user group video. This year I've started publishing all user group video in three different formats. The 'standard size' (640x320) is usually embedded on the user group site or blog that 'owns' the meetings. The HD and iPhone versions are then embedded on a single web page which I host myself at because it enables me to host the Exposure Room supplied script that's needed to auto-detect the iPhone and switch between the two formats appropriately. I've introduced speaker 'permission to publish on the web' forms to keep the legal folks happy. I'm starting to produce a DVD or Blu-Ray copy of the talk for the speakers who want them. I'm promoting those 'sponsors' who give the events I video free stuff for the meetings, as well as those organisations who let us use their buildings or provide free pizza and/or drinks at the event. I've started making regular backup copies of all the video assets (as well as the raw footage, full definition edited masters, and published web versions). I also intend to start remembering to update this blog as new video's gets published!

New Videos This Week

With that last point in mind, this last week saw two video's from the January meeting of The Edge user group being published.. Check out An Overview of Sharepoint 2010 by Dave McMahon or
SOLID Design by Ian Cooper, if the title sounds relevant.

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