Video formats confusing to this newspaper designer

by Kevin Slimp, June 2009


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Charles, a newspaper designer from Kentucky, just sent a question via Facebook asking how to convert files from his Sony camcorder to a format he could use in Adobe Premier CS3, an application used to edit videos on both Macs and PCs. It was a good time for Charles to ask that question because I recently faced a similar challenge after purchasing a Hitachi high definition (HD) Blu-ray camcorder.


Let me tell you about my problem, Charles. The Hitachi would record in several formats, depending on the type of disk being recorded on. For instance, when using a DVD, the camcorder would record a Quicktime file. Fortunately these files are compatible with just about every video editing application. However, the resolution (or definition, as it is referred to in the video world) isn’t nearly as sharp as the high definition I get when recording on a Blu-Ray disk. Plus, because the capacity of a Blu-ray disk is so high, I could record for much longer periods of time without having to change disks.


OK. Back to Charles’ question. Sony camcorders generally use the AVCHD format for recording HD videos. If that’s not confusing enough, the file extension (the letters at the end of the file name) is generally m2ts after the files are copied to a computer.


The first obstacle I faced was copying the video files to my computer from the camcorder. After using my Hitachi the first time, I was able to simply download the files from the camcorder Blu-ray disk to my Macbook Pro’s hard drive. However, when I tried to do this on my iMac, I received an error message. Eventually it dawned on me that my Macbook was loaded with the 10.5 (Leopard) operating system, while the iMac was loaded with 10.4 (Tiger). Fortunately, I purchased the Leopard upgrade several months ago and never took the time to install it. After upgrading the iMac to Leopard, I was able to download the m2ts files.


After downloading the files, I quickly learned that iMovie 08 wouldn’t import m2ts files. You might be surprised to learn that I don’t keep every version of every application on my computer. A quick trip to Google and I learned that these files were compatible with iMovie 09, but not iMovie 08.
At this point, I was ready to purchase an AVCHD converter I found online for $39. Then it dawned on me, “I wonder if Adobe Premier Pro will import these files?” Sure enough, using the latest version of Premier Pro (CS4), I was able to import the freshly downloaded m2ts files.


Now for a side note: I have most of the professional video editing applications installed on my computer. Premier Pro and Final Cut are both in my Applications folder. However, for most videos I find it’s a lot faster to edit and export movies from iMovie (or Sony Vegas, if I’m working on a PC). To complicate matters even more, I prefer to work in iMovie 06. In later versions of iMovie, many of the tools I like to use were removed to make it more user-friendly to amateur video editors.


I was just about ready to throw in the towel and spend $39 for the converter when I decided to do one last search online for alternatives. Sure enough, I found several folks around the world facing the same dilemma. A recent post indicated that the latest (9.3) version of Handbrake would convert m2ts files to AVI. AVI is a file format commonly used on PCs. If you use a Flip camcorder, you’re probably familiar with AVI files.


A little about Handbrake. Handbrake is an open source (translated “free”) application used to convert files from one format to another. It’s often used to convert files from DVDs into formats that can be used on an iPod or MP3 player. Fortunately for me, Handbrake 9.3 converts m2ts files to AVI.


I faced one last obstacle. Quicktime doesn’t play AVI video without a little help. Basically this means iMovie wouldn’t play the AVI videos. There are several free utilities which can be installed to give Quicktime AVI compatibility. I’ve found Perian to be dependable in the past, so I downloaded the install file from perian.org and within a couple of minutes was able to import and view the AVI files in iMovie. Once that was done, I could use the videos like I would any other Quicktime video in iMovie.


Apparently, Charles and I aren’t the only newspaper techies who have faced this dilemma. And like so many times before, I learned that my problem could be solved without spending a dime. It just took a little (OK, maybe a lot) of investigation.


You may be asking yourself, “Why did Kevin buy a Blu-ray camcorder instead of a HD camcorder with a hard drive?”


I’ll answer that in a future column titled, “Paying more attention to the fine print when purchasing a camcorder.


For more information on Handbrake, visit handbrake.fr. Perian can be downloaded from perian.org.