Codecs are an important part of the filmmaking equation, but yet most people have no idea what they are, how they work or why they even exist in the first place. Well, we know that codecs can be pretty intimidating to learn, so we've put together this simplified beginner's guide to help you understand.
When you record footage, your camera will run it through a codec in order to reduce the file size.
What are codecs?
Codecs are pieces of software designed to compress and decompress data – which is actually where the name "codec" comes from. When you record a piece of video footage, your camera will run it through a codec in order to reduce the file size, and then when you need to watch that video footage back, it'll be decompressed for streaming.
Why bother with this process? Video files are big. Uncompressed 1080p HD footage, for example, requires a staggering 400 GB per hour. Then you've got 4K footage (which is twice the resolution size), with 8K footage being even larger. Basically, without compressing these files down, only the most expensive storage can handle them.
So, we compress through codecs, then decompress them as needed. However, when this process occurs, we risk losing some of its quality. But, smaller file sizes are significantly easier to work with on the cutting room floor. So this is a trade-off some people consider when deciding between lossy and lossless codecs.
Lossy vs. lossless: Codecs are not made equal
What is the difference between lossy and lossless codecs?
Quality is also defined by a few other factors, including: Bit depth, chroma sub-sampling, inter- and intra-frame compression, and bit rate encoding. You can find out more about these next-level codec concepts with B&H's helpful video below.
What are containers, and how are they different?
You'll have seen plenty of containers around before without realising what they were. MP4 is arguably the most common container, because it works on so many consumer devices. MKV and AVI are two other examples.
Let's use an analogy to explain how this is different to a codec. If you're going to the beach, you'll want to bring along sunscreen, sunglasses, picnic supplies, maybe even a bucket and spade. But you can't carry all of these individually, so you put them in a bag of some sorts. The bag is a container, also known as a wrapper – a file type that contains more than one type of compressed data – and the beach items consists of video footage, accompanying audio, and even chapter information for DVDs and Blu-rays.
Examples of common codecs
Let's look now at some of the most common codec types, and where you might find them.
While this article covers the basics, if you're ever unsure about codecs – what camera to buy, will it work with your editing software? – make sure you talk to the friendly team at DVT before making any purchases.
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