Converting Video Formats

There’s an old saying that says, “The good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from!” That’s appropriate when you work with video. There’s no single, universal standard that fits every situation. From the camcorder or compact camera that captures the video (the acquisition side), to the software programs used to edit the video, to the final “end product,” there are many variations.

On the acquisition side, camcorders can produce files that are high definition, standard definition, progressive, interlaced, 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second. To further complicate the situation, the files created use various flavors of video and audio compression, as well as different file formats.

Then there’s the editing program. Although some applications can edit in just about any format, usually there’s a “native” format in which the software likes to work. It may be necessary to convert the original footage to the application’s native format.

Does the editing program use QuickTime, MPEG or WMV movie format? Even that really isn’t the whole story. Just saying “QuickTime” doesn’t address the codec or compression method used for the video and audio. Given two “QuickTimes,” you might find (as I unhappily discovered on a recent project) that one plays back just fine on your computer and the other doesn’t. If your computer’s processing power is inadequate, try converting the files to a less compressed file format.

What’s the best way to convert files from your camcorder to your editing application? First, test what happens if you don’t convert them. Use your software’s import function and see if that works. If it doesn’t, try any other input function like “open.” (This also is a good time to make sure you have the latest updates to your edit software.)

Still no success? You might be able to use the camcorder software to do your file conversion, or there may be drivers or codecs that need to be installed.

As a last resort, there are third-party applications that can make the conversion. A popular program, HandBrake (, can handle most any type of video file. It can work on Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems and is shareware.

Keep in mind that the conversion process can take up disc space—a lot of disc space. Camcorders use file formats designed to get a lot of recording time on the camcorder storage device. This isn’t what edit applications necessarily need. The converted file may be quite a bit larger than the camcorder’s.

Once you’ve imported your footage and edited your show, you’ll need to do another conversion—for output to a format for playback devices like DVDs or for a web browser. Many editors let you export right out of the application. Optionally, your software package may have accessory applications for conversions.

All too frequently, different playback devices require completely different file formats. If that’s the case, rather than export one file and then convert
it to the second file format, export two files directly from your application—one for each device. Often, the compression required for one device is significantly different from another, and compression artifacts can build up quickly.

Overwhelmed yet? Test the whole process—input to output—with a smaller file to make sure you get the results you need. A bad choice on import might cause problems long after you’ve finished editing. And once you’ve discovered your best file-conversion workflow, the steps will be easy to repeat.

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