Holiday Card Post-Mortem

Ah, the college and university holiday card. Come November, does any other type of project that web developers face bring as strong a sense of dread? If you’re like me, you end up putting it off longer and longer each year.

I think enough time has passed since the end of last year that we can now take an objective look at the holiday card we produced this year and as I watch ours, I’m really, really happy with how it came out. If you would have asked me mid-December, you would have gotten a different answer.

Here’s a breakdown on our card, the process and some tech specs and costs.

After several years of variations on the moving campus images card, we decided to go full video this year. We worked with our friends at Route1a, a full-service agency in Erie, PA. I worked with several of the people there years ago at an advertising agency, and they produced our matriculation video this past fall. They’re great guys who have produced awesome pieces for us in the last year.

First, here’s the alumni holiday video we produced:

After some brainstorming work by our communications and development teams, we spent a day and a half filming students and our college’s President. All the production was done in our alumni house. It has many different styles and looks and I think you’d be hard pressed to say it all was in one building.

The students were great – we filmed each of them saying multiple lines to give us options when it came time to edit. It was getting close to finals time, so we wanted to get them in and out as quickly as possible, and in most cases the students were done in a matter of minutes.

Route1a spent a day or so editing and we spent an afternoon with them making some final tweaks. We ended up making two videos, one with an alumni related message and one for prospective students. At the end of the day, we left with two very large HD files.

Since we shot the video in 24fps 1080p high def video, I wanted the video that people watched to be as amazing looking as the video I was seeing at Route1a and from the super hi-res we were watching on a big monitor in the office.

I ended up sizing the video down to 640 pixels wide by 360 pixels wide and I crunched down the file using VisualHub (RIP) and used the H.264 codec to produce a high quality MP4. In the past, we’ve taken that file and saved out an FLV file, but I didn’t want to do one more compression step, further reducing the quality of the video. The clips ended up being 17 MB and 21 MB, which is large but worth it for the quality I wanted.

I initially was going to use Amazon’s new CloudFront Flash streaming to stream out content, but in my tests I couldn’t get it to start quickly. It would often sit for 10 to 15 seconds before it started playing. If that was the wait time, just about everyone would have given up. I ended up going with regular CloudFront to serve the video files and just vanilla CloudFront was super fast and started serving content quickly and playback started after just a few seconds of buffering.

That month, we served 86 GB of holiday card video and other holiday card assets like CSS, images and our video player code to users worldwide. Our bandwidth bill for December: $14.76 USD. Not bad at all for the peace of mind that this video was going to be served super fast to people no matter where in the world they were.

In the end, I’m really proud of this project. Not only does it look great, the students were great and the message of the videos was different than what we’ve done in the past. A win all around.