A Pain In My CODEC

A colleague recently asked me:  “Do you have problems in your office with third-party video files?”

I answered with a resounding:  “Yes!  They are the #1 pain in my CODEC!”

Video technology has changed since I started in litigation support.  In those days it was easy.  You had a VHS tape and you digitized it (convert into an electronic format).  Today, those VHS tapes are collecting dust in old case files while today we are under siege from digital file formats.  They come from many sources such as convenience store surveillance cameras, undercover recordings, bank videos, etc.  Unfortunately, many of these videos can only be played using proprietary players or some other form of player.  It is a huge headache and I am expected to figure it out.

Here are some common issues with video files today:

  1. Wrong CODEC.  Okay, what exactly is a “CODEC”?   The computer nerd definition is:  a device or computer program for encoding or decoding a digital data stream or signal.   So for normal people this is a video that won’t play because the player doesn’t have the file needed to play it.  For instance, if someone says “I can play it fine on my computer” but when you play the same file you encounter an error message, it usually means you are missing a CODEC.  So you have to find that little rascal somewhere but how do you know exactly what CODEC is missing?  One program that I have found useful is called GSpot.  Yes, go ahead and get your high school giggles out of the way but this is for real.  GSpot is a free Windows-based program that can identify the codecs used in video files it can also check to see what’s missing.   Click here to download GSpot. gspot
  2. Proprietary Video Players.  Most of me and my colleagues frequently have attorneys or their support staff drop a disc or flash drive on us and ask us to make it work or that they don’t know how to play it.  I have done this job long enough to find the executable file (.exe) and click around the program to figure out.  The first thing I look for is a way to export the file to a common format such as .mpg, .wmv or .avi.  If that option isn’t evident, I will click on the “about” menu and Google the software version I have.  Sometimes I have been able to locate a user guide or a software add-on that will help with exporting files.  When none of that works, I give it back to the source and tell them they need to provide some instructions on how to play the video files.  Yeah, they never like this last resort answer.
  3. AVIs are from the devil.  AVI files have to be handled very delicately.  They are wild and very unreliable.  I have found that TrialDirector doesn’t handle them very well, especially if you make clips and want to export the clips.  Forget that.  AVI stands for Audio/Video Interleaved and contains both audio and video together in a playable format.  (Insert chuckle here)  If you have a choice, export to any other format than AVI.  They are great when they work but they are too much of a wildcard.
  4. How is the jury going to play the videos?  This is something I preach to our legal staff.  You HAVE to think ahead to the jury room and think about how are they going to play the videos.  Are you going to gamble that someone on the jury will be tech savvy enough to be able to play them?  This is why it is so vitally important to do everything possible to export third-party video files to a common video format.  It doesn’t matter if I can figure out how to use the proprietary video software, I can’t be in the jury room.

Another issue with playing video files is actually playing them even if they are in a common format.  Windows Media Player is the common player on Windows PCs but you can also download the VLC player which can sometimes play video files that Windows Media Player cannot.  VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player that plays most multimedia files and various streaming protocols.  Click here to download it.  Going back to the subject of those nasty missing codecs, VLC has a wide variety of codecs.  Click here to view the various codecs available in the VLC player.  The VLC player also has place where you can get information about the codec.VLC

If you have a problem with opening video files with Windows Media Player and are unsure about the codecs available on your Windows Media Player, click on TOOLs menu > OPTIONS > PLAYER tab > select Download codecs automatically check box > click OK.

There are other codec apps available but be sure to check them first and verify they are safe to download.




Name That CODEC

It happens pretty frequently that someone in the legal staff will encounter issues when attempting to play an audio or video file.  They will come to me asking why the file won’t play.  If they are trying to use Windows Media Player, the error message will usually be:


I will try to attempt an explanation on what a CODEC is and why they need it but their eyes quickly gloss over.  They don’t really care what it is, they just know that it isn’t playing and they want you to fix it.

So what exactly is a CODEC?

A CODEC is a file that codes or decodes audio and video files such as MP3, WMA, WAV, etc.  In other words, the file format needs this CODEC file to translate the transmission of audio or video.  Yeah, I know, I can’t say for sure that I still understand it or can dummy it down to explain it to my attorney.

So how to you know what CODECs are needed?

I usually try to play the file on different computers.  When I am able to get the file to play, I then compare the CODECs.  For Windows Media Player, you can do this by going to the “About Windows Media Player” and click on the link for Technical Support Information:


Then you will scroll down to the list of audio and video CODECs on the file:


So now you can print this out and take it with you to the computer that does not have the CODEC.

Another nifty thing you can do to identify the CODEC if you have TrialDirector is to run a command at your command prompt:

“C:\Program Files (x86)\inData Corporation\TrialDirector 6\TrialDirector6.exe” graphedit

This command will open up a window then you drag your file into the window:


So what if you can’t play the file to compare the CODECS?  How can you identify the missing CODEC?

If you can’t play the file anywhere in your office then you will need to download a third party software to find out what’s missing.  There is a freeware called GSpot that can help with this.   GSpot is a Windows-based freeware program designed to identify the codecs.  Of course, as always, be careful when you download any freeware programs.

Another alternative to using Windows Media Player is using a program called VLC which is a media player that is a free and open-source, portable and cross-platform media player.  Many times VLC will play files that Windows Media Player will not.

If you have worked in litigation support any length of time, you already know that sometimes you need to find more than one software or solution to programs we encounter in the legal world.  Many times it isn’t a quick and easy solution and in a world of digital audio and video files, it can be challenging.  Networking with other litigation support professionals is important as well.  If you have any solutions that work for you, please share in the comments.