Help! Can’t view video files on my hard drive.

Help! Can’t view video files on my hard drive.

Q. Help!  I hired a video crew and told them to put the video files on a portable drive for me.  I see folders and files, but nothing that looks like a video or photo.  I can’t get any files to open.  What am I doing wrong?

When you think of video files, do you think of Quicktime (.mov) or Windows Media Files (.wmf,.mp4)?  And photos—do you think .jpeg and .png?  Each of these formats is actually a compressed file.

What is a compressed file?

Well, let’s start with the basics.  Every digital file you open contains data.  A compressed file is precisely what it sounds like—a file that has had unnecessary information “squeezed” out. Compressed files are highly popular.  They are, of course, smaller than uncompressed files, which means they take up less space. Whether playing music or looking at photos, no matter what device you are using, these files load fast and look great.

Professional-grade video and photography cameras offer the option to record in what is referred to as RAW.  Raw format is a professional-level uncompressed data file, uncompressed in that it contains detailed data on the files and images that allow the most options for manipulation in Post.  These files can be very large, averaging 1GB per minute of HD video footage shot.  In order to view RAW files, you have two options: either download a professional video player compatible with your files or have the files converted into a compressed video format.

Playing or viewing a RAW file

Option 1: DIY, After the Shoot

Thankfully, there is a free video player that plays almost any video file format.  VLC Player was created by VideoLAN , a non-profit supporter of open-source content.  But before you get too excited, don’t think that you can simply click on a raw file folder or even an individual file and suddenly it will play.  RAW files have a complicated structure.  All the data contained within that file has been stored in a number of ways within that folder.  We all have experienced a corrupt file, i.e., a file that either has missing data or has been misplaced in some way.  RAW files especially rely on that delicate file structure.  Once corrupt, they are often lost forever.  Some camera manufacturers, such as Sony and Panasonic do offer free downloadable viewers so that you can actually view the raw files in all their sizeable glory.

Option 2: CYA, before the shoot

There are professional recorders available that can record compressed files simultaneously while the videographer is shooting RAW.  These devices can be very expensive and therefore are not typically included in camera operator gear.  It also adds one more responsibility to a videographer’s day, as now your camera person is setting up and monitoring two devices. The second method is for the camera operator to pull the files into an editing or conversion program and convert the files to a viewable format.  But not every cameraman is an editor, and therefore this is not a required or expected part of the operator’s responsibilities.  It is also a huge time consumer, which translates into unnecessary crew overtime. Additionally, you will want those files backed up before any compression is attempted.  Any professional operator will want a backup copy of all files.  So now, rather than simply compressing files and handing them off to you, the videographer is now creating a copy as well.  In all, this process can add hours to a day.

So back to Option 1: If you find yourself after a shoot in the position of being left with only raw files and your intent was to pass viewable files to your team or others, you really only have one option.  Call the video company and ask them to convert the files for you. The files you have should be fine and easy enough for any professional editor to open.

Final Word to the Wise

In the future, when hiring a videographer or video company, tell them in your first call that you want raw camera files AND or.mp4 files.  Be sure to request this BEFORE the shoot day in order to assure that the necessary equipment is on site on shoot day to record compressed files as well as raw files.  An experienced crew will be able to hand off the files to you and make it clear what goes to your editor and what is for your internal use.


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