Encoding H.265/HEVC for QuickTime with FFmpeg

This weekend I experimented a little with re-encoding video as H.265/HEVC, now that the codec has good support on both hardware and in Mac OS/iOS. The FFmpeg wiki estimates that you should be able to produce video files of similar video quality as H.264 that are about half the size. That sort of space saving should be interesting to everybody, but especially for those who carry videos around on laptops, which still tend to come with SSDs of modest size even in the advanced year of 2019.

I wanted to produce something that was QuickTime compatible, which means complying with Apple’s very specific rules around encoding. It might seem crazy to want to do this, but I still find that QuickTime is in the unique position of being simultaneously the best and worst video player ever made. While its narrow versatility makes it incredibly frustrating to work with, there’s never been another video player in history that scrubs as well, or uses laptop CPU/battery as efficiently.

For the copy/pasters out there, here’s the FFmpeg invocation that worked well for me:

ffmpeg -c:v libx265 -preset fast -crf 28 -tag:v hvc1 -c:a eac3 -b:a 224k -i <source> <target>

Or for GPU-based encoding, which is much faster, but produces a larger file size:

ffmpeg -vcodec hevc_videotoolbox -b:v 6000k -tag:v hvc1 -c:a eac3 -b:a 224k -i <source> <target>

The invocations above are all you really need to know, but I’ll walk through some caveats and explanations for those interested.

libx265 encodes via the CPU while hevc_videotoolbox uses the GPU. libx265 produces a much smaller file size, but hevc_videotoolbox runs significantly faster (5 to 10 times the speed on my box).

You might have noticed that for hevc_videotoolbox I specified a target bitrate with -b:v 6000k. I tried to get away without doing that, but found that regardless of the selected video profile (main or main10), unless I forced a higher bitrate, the output video quality would be garbage. And when I say garbage, I mean garbage; as in totally unwatchable, with visual artifacts and blurriness everywhere. Specifying a target video bitrate works around the problem, at the cost of producing an even larger final video.

From what I can tell, the right compromise is to use libx265 for any videos that you want to keep around, but for videos that you’d prefer encoded quickly and will probably delete (say you want them for a single trip), hevc_videotoolbox is perfectly fine. Output videos are still small enough, and the significantly faster encoding speeds mean that FFmpeg finishes far more quickly.

The samples above use -c:a eac3, which QuickTime seems to handle more easily than AAC.

QuickTime will play multi-channel AAC, but it’s more finnicky, and a video with even a slightly “wrong” audio configuration won’t be openable. I’ve had luck forcing 5.1 with channel_layout:

-filter_complex "channelmap=channel_layout=5.1" -c:a aac

If your input sources are only stereo anyway, or you never expect to watch the output video on anything but a stereo device (i.e., headphones, TV minus sound system), FFmpeg can trivially downmix to stereo AAC, which QuickTime will play with no trouble:

-c:a aac -ac 2

The libx265 preset setting accepts the wide array of adjectives ultrafast, superfast, veryfaster, faster, fast, medium, slow, slower, veryslow, and placebo. Specifying a faster setting means that encoding speed will be preferred over file size. Both ends of the spectrum have extreme diminishing returns.

I found that there was very little file size difference between fast, medium, and slow, but some encoding speed difference, so I just default to -preset fast for everything.

The argument -tag:v hvc1 tags the video with hvc1, which is purely for QuickTime’s benefit. It allows this Very Smart Player to recognize the fact that it will be able to play the resulting file.

1 I don’t even want to admit how long I spent trying to figure out why QuickTime wouldn’t open my encoded files. I combed through my video settings about a hundred times before realizing that it wasn’t the video Apple didn’t like, it was the 5.1 AAC.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.