This series is written by a representative of the latter group, which is comprised mostly of what might be called "productivity users" (perhaps "tinkerly productivity users?"). Though my lack of training precludes me from writing code or improving anyone else's, I can, nonetheless, try and figure out creative ways of utilizing open source programs. And again, because of my lack of expertise, though I may be capable of deploying open source programs in creative ways, my modest technical acumen hinders me from utilizing those programs in what may be the most optimal ways. The open-source character, then, of this series, consists in my presentation to the community of open source users and programmers of my own crude and halting attempts at accomplishing computing tasks, in the hope that those who are more knowledgeable than me can offer advice, alternatives, and corrections. The desired end result is the discovery, through a communal process, of optimal and/or alternate ways of accomplishing the sorts of tasks that I and other open source productivity users need to perform.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Addendum to the first installment: more on screencasting with ffmpeg

Long time no blog. I got busy with a lot of other things, not least of which was various bicycling trips and associated maintenance projects. Amazing how much time and energy those things can take.

With the academic year approaching, coming up with a resolution to my screencast file-size problems has taken on renewed urgency. To reiterate, a recent major hardware upgrade on my computer led to a twofold increase in the size of screencast video files I produce on this machine--which in turn led to upload problems at my course web site (file size limits). It looks like the resolution may well be provided by ffmpeg.

So I began once again grappling in earnest with the increased file-size issue. I've actually even found a resolution, should I decide to switch over from the more capable recordmydesktop to the nice but somewhat feature-lacking ffmpeg.

Before launching into a description of that resolution, however, I need to make quick note of a new entry into the field of GNU/Linux screencasting applications. The new kid on the block is called Kazam and it looks promising. I've not yet been able to get it running--and I'm not in a big rush to do so, since I favor command-line tools. But it's received some praises and looks like a promising application. That noted, I now return to a description of the resolution I've discovered for the issue of screencast file sizes made using ffmpeg's x11grab.

First and foremost, I discovered a fairly lengthy thread on the Ubuntu forums that deals with screencasting usingffmpeg. It's chock full of all kinds of interesting tips for screencasting with ffmpeg. For example, a switch is documented there that allows you to exclude the mouse cursor from your screencast: you simply add :0.0+nomouse to the command you use to start your screencast. I'd definitely need that in order to use ffmpeg as the utility to record my lectures.

Also described there is a way of doing what might be called "pseudo pausing," which really means you just stop your recording at the point where you need to pause, then start up again with a new recording. You then need to concatenate the files--not anywhere near as convenient as recordmydesktop's pausing capability, but something that'll do in a pinch.

It was from that thread that I derived what seems like a pretty good resolution to my file size issues. What I've discovered is that I can record my files in a lossless format (mkv is recommended in that thread)--which results in pretty gigantic file sizes (ca. 13 megabytes per minute on this system)--then transcode them into flash format while dramatically decreasing the file size: a one-minute test file I made actually came in at about 1.2 megabytes after re-encoding using this method. Since what I need is a file that comes in at about 2 megabytes per minute, this could work well for my circumstances.

The key command that's allowed me to reduce dramatically screencast file sizes to an acceptable level while at the same time converting to a format that works well at my hosting site uses . . . you guessed it, ffmpeg. Here it is:  
ffmpeg -i output.mkv -acodec aac -strict experimental -ab 128k -ac 2 -vcodec libx264 -vpre slow -wpredp 0 -crf 22 -threads 0 output.flv
I do still hope I can find a way of reliably shrinking the files recordmydesktop outputs, but my research on that has, to date, not been fruitful. There's a utility called oggResize that's supposed to allow you to easily resize .ogv files, but it puts the audio out of sync with the video. And it appears that tool is not under active development. It's likely resizing of .ogv files can also be done with ffmpeg, but I've not yet managed to arrive at the appropriate incantation for doing that. I'll keep digging though, and if I come up with a resolution, I'll post it in this blog.

As a final note on things I've learned in this round of screencast research, I should also mention a command-line tool called ffcast someone has developed. This looks like a bash script that first invokes a tool for selecting an area of the screen, then calls ffmpeg to record the screencast. I've also not tried that one but it's on my list to look into in the future.

POSTSCRIPT: I decided to run on an .ogv file created by recordmydesktop the same command I'd used to shrink the lossless .mkv file to see what the results would be. I'm pleased to report that the results are positive: the .ogv file, when re-encoded as an .flv using that method, shrunk to about one third the size (the 1 minute .ogv test file was 4.2 megabytes and it came in as a 1.2 megabyte .flv file after re-encoding). So I can continue using recordmydesktop to record my lecture screencasts--albeit with the penalty of having to do an additional round of encoding/re-encoding (recordmydesktop already takes quite some time to encode a screencast into .ogv format unless you use the --on-the-fly-encoding switch, which I'm now likely to start using). So, the command I used to re-encode the .ogv file to .flv is:
ffmpeg -i output.ogv -acodec aac -strict experimental -ab 128k -ac 2 -vcodec libx264 -vpre slow -wpredp 0 -crf 22 -threads 0 output.flv
MUCH LATER POSTSCRIPT: I've discovered that ogv files work much better at my hosting site than do flv files, so I began looking into ways of transcoding/shrinking to that format. The incantation I discovered, through trial and error, and which reduces screencast file sizes to about 1.5 megabytes per minute (roughly one seventh of the original, lossless, size), is as follows:

ffmpeg -i infile.mkv -r 13 -acodec libvorbis -ab 48k -ac 2 -vcodec libtheora -preset slow -wpredp 0 -crf 22 -threads 0 outfile.ogv
There are two crucial bits here. The -ab 48k option is one of them: that reduces the audio bit rate, which brings the file size down by quite a lot. The other is the -r 13 option, which reduces the frame rate to 13 frames per second and thus shrinks the file size yet further. A 48 minute long lossless screencast I created, for example, was reduced to a 73 megabyte ogv file using this incantation.

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