On Friday afternoon I was handed a CD-ROM containing some movies created by tenth grade students who’d participated in the University of Wisconsin’s Information Technology Academy. My employer is sponsoring a new charity run that supports the Technology Education Foundation, and wanted to be able to show some of the students’ achievements that are being supported by the foundation. But the movies would need to be shrunk in order to become realistic downloads; the current files were much too big.
Since I’m known around work as a Mac guy who dabbles in media, I was a reasonable choice. If my own resources weren’t up to the task, I’d be able to lean on my friend and co-author Marc Loy who has a post-production studio in his attic, and recently finished a book about DVD Studio Pro. How hard could it be?
Well, I quickly discovered that QuickTime Pro wasn’t able to work with the files at all; they were in Windows Media format. So I schlepped them over to Marc’s, where we tried Discreet’s cleaner 6. Surely that would do the trick. Alas, no dice. None of Marc’s professional software was able to extract the movie content.
I went home again, with a determined set to my jaw. I’d already spent more time on this than my colleagues would have wanted, but I can be like a bulldog when technology isn’t working the way I think it should. Time to deploy Google and see what other people had come up with. After a bunch more dead ends, I located a blog posting that pointed me towards Forty-TwoDVD-VXPlus. This “AVI Video Transcoding System” looked promising. And there was a trial download!
I installed it and fussed with it for a bit, but it kept failing to extract anything from my movies. By this point, it was very late at night (well, early in the morning, actually) and I wasn’t thinking too clearly. The trialware nag message said the unregistered product would only extract the first two chapters of DVDs. I wondered if that meant that other capabilities, like converting WMV files, worked only after purchasing a license? Surely it was too late to ask for support, especially during a weekend, but perhaps the e-Commerce system was automated. It would cost $15 to register; I was willing to take that gamble.
Alas, even after rapidly receiving my registration code, I was still unable to convert the files. Looking at the error messages in the console more closely, I determined that the specific format of the impenetrable movie files was WMV9. At this point I was willing to concede defeat. I composed an email describing my hopes and failures to the support address at Ronin no Sakura Kai, thinking that perhaps someone would see it at some point during the weekend, and maybe get back to me with some advice.
Well, much to my surprise, before I could even step away to go to bed, I received a very friendly and apologetic reply. I’d misunderstood the nag notice (as, deep down, I knew all along) and not even this software could read WMV9 files.
Stunned (to have heard so immediately from a real person), I sent back a grateful reply and asked if they had any ideas about other approaches I might take. Once again, I quickly heard back, with a suggestion that I might look into Ambrosia’s Snapz Pro X, again with an apologetic note that it was somewhat expensive by comparison.
As it turns out, I already owned a license for the still capture capabilities of Snapz Pro (it’s incredibly useful when you write technical books and articles, since you always want good-looking screen shots, especially if you can get them easily). I’d never previously needed the movie capture capability. I’d fleetingly thought about it earlier during my Google searches, but put the idea aside in my search for a more plausible approach to extracting movie data. Now, however, no such plausible approaches seemed to exist, and I’d just received a report that other people had successfully used Snapz Pro to capture the content of WMV9 files.
OK, I was off again. Another $40 upgraded my Snapz Pro license to include the movie capture capability. So, to get the WMV9 movies into a form that I could work with, in order to re-encode them at smaller sizes and bit rates, I would have to play them in Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, while capturing a movie of the region of my screen in which the movie was playing.
Talk about a baroque solution! And I wasn’t there yet–for some reason, the option to record the audio from the Mac audio system was grayed out within the Snapz Pro interface. Well, Ambrosia’s an established company, they should be able to help me out… But no! Their FAQ and web forum were down! I sent them a pleading email asking for help, and have yet to hear a single thing back. It seems like a really bad idea to take down your online support forum during a long weekend when you don’t have people staffing your email support lines. I guess sometimes smaller developers still give you better service.
Happily, I eventually figured out the problem on my own. I had recently migrated to a new PowerMac, and used Apple’s new migration tool to move all my software and preferences, including Snapz Pro. It turns out that the Snapz installer adds a new driver to the OS X kernel, and (unsurprisingly) this had not been copied over by Apple’s tool. Re-running the Snapz installer enabled the “Mac audio track” check box, and I was able to capture both the audio and video from the movies.
In order to avoid re-compression artifacts as much as possible, I set Snapz Pro X to capture the screen movie with no compression of audio or video. It had to work hard, and ended up using over sixty gigabytes to store all the captured movies, but it did a perfect job. Snapz is a very useful tool, and works extremely well when it’s properly installed and understood. With more help from cleaner 6 at Marc’s, I was able to produce some nicely reduced versions of the films and burn them on a CD for our web designers.
But I still seethe over all the extra work, and silly hoops I had to jump through, because vendors feel compelled to create proprietary formats for storing information, and make it hard for other people’s software to simply read and write the information to achieve whatever goals their users might be pursuing.
Few people would have gotten as far as I did, and I’m still not sure this time was well spent. OK, it was for a good cause, and I’m glad I accomplished what I set out to do. But how many other worthwhile efforts have been dashed on the shoals of proprietary formats? And how much worse will it get before we demand better?
Have you had a similar experience you’d like to share? Or does anyone know a better way to convert WMV9 movies to portable, editable formats on a non-Windows platform?