Now, this is a blog post! Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer for Netflix, has just put up a great blog post talking about their encoding workflow for their video streaming services.
It’s full of awesomeness, but I wanted to excerpt the section describing their 1st gen, 2nd gen, and HD encoding settings and workflow.
First Generation Encoding
Our first set of encodes are based on WMV3 and WMA in ASF with WMDRM10 (Janus). We chose these standards because the Janus components have been widely adopted by our CE partners such as Roku, LG Electronics, Samsung, TiVo, and of course Microsoft Xbox.
We encode most content at 500, 1000, 1600, and 2200kbps VBR, but some titles whose source quality merits it have also been encoded at 3400kbps. The highest bitrate encodes are fit into 720x480 non-square pixels (the usual 1.2 PAR for widescreen content, 0.9 PAR for 4:3), but optimum encoding at lower bitrates is achieved with fewer pixels. Encoded films are normally at 24fps to match the source, while shot-to-video and mixed material is de-interlaced to 30fps (or 25fps for PAL content).
Netflix has been using anamorphic video all along, which I think is an underused feature of Windows Media and other formats. When you’re limited to 720x480 pixels, you want to encode all the pixels you’ve got, without having to synthesize any extra.
Second Generation Encoding
The new Silverlight player (that some users are helping us test as I write) uses VC1 Advanced Profile encoding with PlayReady DRM. A key property is that each GOP header includes frame size and resolution, which allows us to assemble a stream on the fly from different bitrate encodes as your broadband bandwidth fluctuates. (Another key feature is more coverage, including Intel Macs and Firefox users.) We expect to switch completely to the new player later this year.
The VC1 encoders are more efficient than the WMV3 encoders, so we are currently encoding VC1AP at slightly lower birates: 375, 500, 1000, and 1500kbps, all square pixel. At some point we are likely to add a couple more resolutions of non-square pixel encodes capturing the original pixel-aspect-ratio of the source.
We are also re-wrapping the VC1AP encodes in WMDRM10 for CE devices, which will gradually switch to the more efficient encodes in future firmware upgrades.
This is a great example of the improved efficiency of the VC-1 Encoder SDK and tools based on it. Not all Windows Media/VC-1 encoding is equal; the latest tools can offer a very meaningful reduction in bitrate required for a give quality level, improving user experiences and the cost of delivering the content.
The new encodes are backwards compatible to older hardware and software encoders, so even older devices can take advantage of the improvements.
High Definition Encodes
Today we have rights to deliver about 400 streams in HD (720p). More titles will be added over time. We experimented with first-generation WMV3 encodes at 4000kbps and 5500kbps, but settled on second-generation HD encodes with VC1AP at 2600kbps and 3800kbps, which extends their accessibility down to lower home broadband connections. As with SD, encodes of film material are at 24fps, and encodes of shot-to-video material are at 30fps (or 25fps for PAL), rather than the 60fps that would come from a Blu-ray disc - we judged the 60fps content as too expensive of bandwidth for now. In general, these encodes are definitively better than SD, but won't challenge well-executed Blu-ray encodes - that would require a bitrate out of reach for most domestic broadband today. We believe Moore's law will drive home broadband higher and higher enabling full 1080p60 encodes in a few years.
There’s codecs for you – a good 720p experience at 3800 Kbps, which is probably a little below the average 480p bitrate used for MPEG-2 on the DVDs that fly around the nation in those Netflix envelopes.
I’m not that worried about 1080p60 encoding myself. The vast majority of fictional content is shot 24p, including 99% at least of Blu-ray discs. While Blu-ray players may output 1080p60, the encodes, and hence bitrate requirements, are still 1080p24. I find that typical film content in VC-1 wants around 6-8 Mbps for a 1080p24 experience enough better than 720p to be worth the trouble.
I just got my Xbox set up to handle the Netflix streams – now I’ve got to go check out some of those 400 HD titles! Hmm. Pan’s Labyrinth and Heroes.
Anyway, it’s great stuff. I love it when partners can share this kind of detail about what they’re doing.