Pining for open file formats

by James Elliott

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?


2004-09-07 19:47:46
Don't know if it would help
But I have used ffmpeg with success in the past for decoding various WM files:

I seem to recall having to get the version from CVS and doing a custom build with all of the patent encumbered/risky/illegal stuff turned on in configure. Seems kind of silly that getting at your own information, of which its only fault was being saved with the wrong program, requires you to skirt the law. Your mileage will probably vary.

2004-09-07 23:25:31
Snapz Pro X 2.x
Yes. The program used to work quite well. Now, post OSX 10.3.5, it will not record sound at all. The Ambrosia FAQ has been down for several days and emails are not answered. Is Ambrosia still in business?
2004-09-08 07:32:12
Snapz Pro X 2.x
Have you tried reinstalling? I had audio working fine in 10.3.5 after doing that. I wonder if the upgrade to 10.3.5 blows away the kernel extension in the same way as migrating to a different machine does?
2004-09-08 08:20:07
Correct me if I am wrong...
Isn't Quicktime a proprietary format as well or at least some of the commonly used encoders for Quicktime video?

I don't like format problems as well, but being a Linux user, both Quicktime and WMV cause problems for me.

2004-09-08 08:35:43
Correct me if I am wrong...
QuickTime isn't a file format, it's an architecture for supporting a variety of time-based media. That said, I wasn't trying to let Apple off the hook in this diatribe, although at least they are working with standards bodies like MPEG now. There are a number of QuickTime-supported formats that are open, and there are others that are not.
2004-09-09 03:01:56
Snapz Pro X 2.x
After three tries at getting assistance, I have received this missive. It works.

My apologies for the delay and your understandable frustration. We are
in the middle of moving offices across town, so things are very hectic,
and connectivity is not reliable.

As for the specific problem, this is a problem we are aware of. The
developer is looking into a permanent solution.

In the meantime, when you get to the Save Movie Dialog, click on the
Settings button in the Audio panel. Then simply click the Okay button
to dismiss the dialog, and then go back to the Save dialog and save out
the movie.

This should get audio to save properly.

Let me know if the problem persists.

2004-09-13 08:23:35
A forthcoming commercial solution
I saw this on MacInTouch today:

Telestream announced Windows Media for the Mac, which will enable exporting or importing Microsoft Windows Media format files on Mac OS X from any QuickTime-based application, including Final Cut Pro, iMovie, and QuickTime Player. Scheduled for release in the fourth quarter of 2004 with prices starting "under $100," the component will enable export in Windows Media 7, 8, or 9 Series formats, creation of files in standard and high definition using Windows Media in either stereo or 5.1, and import of those formats for playing or editing.

2004-09-13 08:24:37
A forthcoming commercial solution
Of course, to be clear, this would have been an (even more expensive) way to get past my immediate challenges that weekend, not a solution to the underlying proliferation of proprietary formats that I am bemoaning.
2005-02-19 15:23:08
I can't read WMV9 files under Linux PPC
I'm using Linux on an iBook, and I can read WMV7 and WMV8 files whith MPlayer, but it's impossible to read WMV9 files.

MPlayer can only use FFmpeg to decode such files (on PC's it is possible to use Windows Codecs under Linux), and there is no support for WMV9; and WMV8 support is not yet complete: some videos play great, but others don't with some frames that cannot be decoded.