Question: Motion Picture File Formats

This week’s highlighted question comes from Dan in NARA’s Motion Pictures (NWCS-M) department. The unit has been looking for some time at new models for delivery of NARA’s film, video and audio holdings as it struggles with keeping the aging analog reference collection alive and well. Given limited resources, the problem requires a multi-faceted solution, and some of this work has already been initiated through digital partnerships. A definitive agreement among many stakeholders thus far is that web delivery of content is highly desirable for our various user groups. The unit will continue to experiment with new workflows and deliverables, and as they get closer to implementing them they’d love to be able to get some user feedback on the process. Dan also points out that NARAtions might be just the place for NWCS-M to get a feel for user preferences that we here at the Archives might not currently be aware of.

Dan’s main question centers around file format preferences for digital video content delivered via ARC. In commemoration of Veterans’ Day, we’ve compiled the following list of military-related motion pictures to give you an idea of the various formats currently in the catalog (hint: click on the “Digital Images” icon to view the video in ARC):

Amazon Trailers (.wmv):
ARC ID 2569716 “Army Medicine” (2:00 trailer provided by partnership agreement. B&W)

ARC ID 69651 “A Day in the War in Vietnam, Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Saigon, Vietnam, 12/1965 – 01/1966” (2:00 trailer for each of five reels; provided by partnership agreement. Color)

SAMMA Project (.wmv):
ARC ID 2569910 “Materiel Readiness” (full length. Color)

Google Project (.MP4):
ARC ID 38957 “U.S. Bombs Japanese from New Base in the Aleutians [Etc.]: 1943” (full length. B&W)

ARC ID 45022 “The John Glenn Story, 1963” (full length. Color)

Each of the above categories have slightly different specs as to how the files are created, so the goal is to pin down what users think and whether they (you!) find them easy to use. Is .MP4 or .WMV easier to work with? What might you actually be doing with the files you’ve viewed/downloaded? Are the frame sizes and resolutions appropriate for that work? Are there other formats that would work better for a significant number of users?

Any suggestions you can give would be greatly appreciated, and would go a long way towards making sure that the new Motion Picture online resources are as researcher-friendly as possible.

8 thoughts on “Question: Motion Picture File Formats

  1. I’m torn…

    While I like Google products, I prefer to use .wmv on my own computer. But I’m gonna root for Google on this one.

  2. WMV is prevalent only on Windows systems. I prefer to use a platform-neutral format, such as MP3/MP4.

    Aside from viewing for historical background, I might want to include excerpts of NARA film footage for presentations I give to genealogical and other groups.

    I would suggest for larger films, a 2 minute or so excerpt be made available as a video “thumbnail” — it is nice to be able to see the quality/content before downloading a large file.

  3. It would be great to see a Government organisation supporting the use of web standards such as the video tag in HTML5.

    Most major browsers now support the streaming of ogg (theora for video, vorbis for audio) directly without the use of nasty third party plugins like flash and Windows media (also, MP3 and MP4 are not platform-neutral).

    It has the added advantage of being patent and royalty free (unlike mpeg, h.264), with great support from free software tools.

    It would also not discriminate and make the content available to every person regardless of operating system platform.

    Use of the video tag also has the added benefit of falling back to various other formats if the end user’s machine does not support it. For example, the video could fall back from ogg to flash, to wmv, etc.

    The good thing about access is that it avoids the issues of long term preservation as it’s just a temporary copy, which can be transcoded into various formats over time. Still, the video tag is the future, supports free and open formats, lowers the bar for entry and can still fall back to other formats if necessary. It would be great to see a Government organisation adopt and support such a standard.

    See “” for more details on the HTML5 standard.

    And see “” for quality comparison with h.264.


  4. I am not an expert in file formats, but I do request that when considering delivery options and user interfaces that original aspect ratios be respected. I have visited so many museums and witnessed wonderful old 16mm films digitized and stretched across widescreen monitors.

  5. We appreciate the thoughtful feedback regarding digital video delivery formats for ARC, and getting a feel for some user preferences. NARA will always continue to explore open source tools (such as Ogg, as recommended); we are also already planning public interface upgrades to the ARC catalog to make the film and video holdings as widely available as possible. We promise to keep our users informed of changes which will strive to improve access to our vast audio-visual holdings. Have a more specific question? Feel free to email us in the meantime at


  6. My friend and I were recently discussing about how we as a society are so hooked onto electronics. Reading this post makes me think back to that discussion we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

    I don’t mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside… I just hope that as the price of memory drops, the possibility of downloading our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It’s a fantasy that I daydream about almost every day.

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running R4i DS Ting2)

  7. A agree with Christopher Smart about Ogg, and would argue that it is more “sustainable” as an online media format than anything else given that it is patent-unencumbered. It is like to be around a good long time, and the codecs (formula used to create high-quality files that are small in size) will keep getting better.

    That said, if you ask what file format would be most useful to researchers now, I think the answer would be mp4. Specifically H.264 with an mp4 file extension, which is readable in just about any player at this point.

    It’s worth adding that digital media formats will continue to change rapidly, and one must be prepared to provide updated files as time goes by. This means preserving your original source files safe and organized so you can migrate and encode them to new formats as needed.

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