Step1: Encoding your film

Encoding guidelines

You want to produce an hd file under 4 gigabytes for compatibility reasons. The file should be at least 720p, 1080p if possible. The file size will vary from film to film.

 I’ve encoded two of my own feature films. With my film We are the Strange I was able to create a 1080p version that was only 1.7gb and looked really good because the film didn’t have any dust, grain, or a lot of gradients. With my new film Heart String Marionette I was only able to make a 720p version and it was 2.8gb because the film is full of dust, grain and a lot of gradients. 

So the size and resolution you’ll be able to get depends on the film. No matter what you will be able to create a 720p file under 4gb and possible a 1080p version.

Why a 4gb limit?

The most common large file host that most of the companies that you will be selling your film through use Amazon S3 for their file hosting. Amazon S3 has a 5gb file limit. 

So why not a 5gb limit? 

The largest movie file a Ps3 or Xbox360 can play is a 4gb file. Older operating systems such as Windows Xp and any device that uses FAT32 format will not be able to handle a file over 4gb. So for maximum compatibility its best to stay under 4gb. Also you need to factor in the amount of time a customer has to wait for the download. We should try to keep that as short as possible while delivering good quality.

What standards to follow?

If ya didn't know... the movie pirating scene has a set of standards to follow for movies that are released as digital downloads. These standards are in place to maximize compatibility with Pc's and gaming devices and to keep file sizes from getting too big... you can find all sorts of release standards here
No matter where you look H.264 is the codec of choice for movie downloads whether is be from Apple or movie pirates ^ ^

If your looking to release your feature film as a digital download and do it on your own like I'm about to do here's some standard to follow and why... I'm not trying to write some release bible or anything...this is just what I used.

Encoding Software:

To keep it free and simple go with Handbrake (Pc/Mac) which uses the x264 codec

If you’ve got $800 and want something really high quality and easy go for Sorenson Squeeze (Pc/Mac) and use the MainConcept codec

If you want something in between the two thats free for 30 days grab the demo of Adobe Premiere Pro and use the included Adobe Media Encoder (Pc/Mac) which includes the MainConcept codec albeit with fewer options than Sorenson Squeeze includes. 

Resolution: 1920x1080 for 16.9 or 1920x802 for 2.39:1
Resolution: 1280x720 for 16.9  or 1280x536 for 2.39:1 
- If you can encode a nice looking file at 1080p and keep it under 4gb thats great as its more pixels for your customer, but 720p is good too.

Codec: H.264 - both the x264 and MainConcept codecs give great results
Profile: High 
Max level: 4.1 - "High 4.1" profile is the max the Ps3 and Xbox360 can play at this time... so use this profile to maximize compatibility
Type: 2 pass VBR

Video Bitrate: between 2500kbps and 4000kbps 
- at 4000kbps a 2 hour film with be around 3.8gb... with my dusty/grainy source material 2500k was the lowest I could go without introducing major artifacts at 720p... if you have a clean source material you could go much lower as I was able to use 2500k at 1080p with the my cleaner film and the file was only 1.7gb... I decided to go with 3000kbps  at 720pfor my new film as it looked better and the file size was still decent at 2.8gb

Audio Bitrate: between 160kbps and 320kbps

File size: Under 4 gigabytes to maximize compatibility with gaming systems and older operating systems... 5gb is the Amazon S3 limit

To test your encoding settings this is the procedure I used to find the best settings for my film. 

Encoding test procedures:

Step 1: Edit together a one minute clip from your film. Make sure this one minute represents a good cross section of your entire film. Include the darkest scenes, and the scenes with the most movement in them. If you can make this one minute clip look good you can be confident in knowing the whole film will look good.

Step 2: Export this clip which should be from your MASTER and use the master codec/setting when exporting the clip. You want to use the BEST quality possible codec/settings as your encoding source, preferably an uncompressed or lossless source. I use the Sheer Video 10 bit codec for my masters but you can also use Lagarith or Apple’s ProRes for great results.

Step 3: Load this one minute clip into your encoder. Include the bitrate used in the output filename for example “Myfilm_2500k.mp4” so you can compare them later. Encode the clip while taking note of the encoding time for this one minute as it will help you make an accurate estimate of how long the whole film will take using these settngs.

Step 4: Examine the encoded clip making sure to look for blocking, tearing, and other artifacts. 

Step 5xxx: Encode the clip again using different bitrates and/or settings while being sure to include the settings into the output file name such as “Myfilm_deblocking3_3000k.mp4” 

Final Steps: Compare all your encoded clips and decide how low of a bitrate you can go while retaining good quality. Multiply the clips file size by the number of minutes your film is so you know how big the final file will be. 

Does it look good and stay under 4gb? Good! Does it look good and stay under 2gb? AWESOME!

Ideally you want it to be as small as possible but know that some films will need a lot of data to maintain good quality. 

So you might be able to create a 1080p version under 4gb, perhaps even under 2gb if its animated. I expect most will have to go with 720p which also looks great and its still “HD” ^_^

So best of luck with your encoding and your film!