The Future Of Video In Web Design

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Federico was the only other kid on the block with a dedicated ISDN line, so I gave him a call. It had taken six hours of interminable waiting (peppered with frantic bouts of cursing), but I had just watched 60 choppy seconds of the original Macintosh TV commercial in Firefox, and I had to tell someone. It blew my mind.

Video on the Web has improved quite a bit since that first jittery low-res commercial I watched on my Quadra 605 back in 7th grade. But for the most part, videos are still separate from the Web, cordoned off by iframes and Flash and bottled up in little windows in the center of the page. They’re a missed opportunity for Web designers everywhere.

But how do you integrate video into an app or a marketing page? What would it look like, and how do you implement it? In this article, you will find inspiration, how-tos and a few technical goodies to get you started with modern video on the Web.

When Video Leaves Its Cage

Video combined with animation is a powerful tool for innovative and compelling user experiences. Imagine interactive screencasts and tutorials in which DOM elements flow and move around the page in sync with the instructor. Why not combine video with animation to walk new users through your app? Or what about including videos of your product on your marketing page, instead of static JPEGs? Getting carried away is easy — video can become little more than sophisticated blink tags if you’re not careful. But there are plenty of beautiful, inspiring examples of video tightly integrated in a design.

Apple’s new marketing page for the Mac Pro is a stunning example of video reaching out from its cage into the surrounding content. The new Mac Pro is featured in the center of the page, and as you scroll, it swoops and spins and disassembles itself. Supporting copy fades in to describe what you are seeing.


A static screenshot of the new landing page doesn’t do the new Mac Pro justice. (larger view)

Another great example of interactive video is Adrian Holovaty’s Soundslice. Soundslice is filled with YouTube videos of music sliced and diced into tablature (or tabs), which is notation that guitar players use to learn music.


The musical bars at the bottom stay in sync with the video. (larger view)

When you watch a music video, the tabs are animated at the bottom in time with the music, so that you can play along with your guitar. You can even slow down the video or loop selections to practice difficult sections, and the tab animation will stay in sync.

How Do You Add Video To A Design?

If you venture into video and animation in your next project, you won’t have many resources to lean on for implementation. No canonical, easy-to-use, open-source library for syncing video with animation exists, so every implementation is a bit different. Should you use a JavaScript animation library or pure CSS keyframes and transitions? Should you host the videos yourself and take advantage of HTML5’s video tag events or use YouTube or Vimeo? And then how exactly do you tie animations to a video?

Together, we will explore answers to the above-mentioned questions and more as we build our own micro JavaScript framework. Charlie.js provides an easy-to-use API for building pages with synchronized video and CSS3 animation.


Charlie.js, named in honor of Charlie Chaplin. (Image source)

The best way to learn is by doing, so let’s dive in.

What Does Charlie.js Do?

We need a way to create animations and then trigger them at certain moments in a video. We also need to pause the animations if the video stops, and we’ll need a way to handle the user jumping around to different times in the video.

To limit the scope of this article, we’ll have Charlie.js use only CSS animations. JavaScript animation libraries are more flexible and powerful than CSS animations, but wrapping one’s head around the straightforward, declarative syntax of keyframes is pretty easy, and the effects are hardware-accelerated. Sticking with only CSS animations is a pretty good choice for small projects.

To keep it simple, Charlie.js will support only one video per page.

As we go through the exercise of building this library, remember that we’re using the framework just to learn about CSS animation and video on the Web. The goal is to learn, not to create production-quality code.

Define The API

For our little framework, defining the API first makes sense. In other words, we need to figure out how someone would use the library and then write the JavaScript to implement the API.

A video and animation library could work in many ways, but the main interface puzzle is to figure out how to couple the animation to the video. How should a developer specify which animations should appear on which elements and at which times they should start in the video?

One option is to suck down the data in JSON or XML. The opposite solution is to have no separate data files and to put all of the configuration into pure JavaScript function calls. Both are fine, but there is a middle road.

Normally, CSS animation is defined in a style sheet. Ideally, that’s where it should be defined for Charlie.js, not in a JSON file. It just makes sense, and doing it this way has advantages. When the animation is in a style sheet, rather than a JavaScript or JSON file, you can test it without loading the entire video and animation library.

The animations are coupled to an element with data attributes. The data attributes define the animation names and also specify the start times.

Let’s say you have a CSS animation named fade for dialing down the opacity, and another named fling for moving elements off the page. And you want a div on the page to use both animations three seconds into the video. Your markup would look like this:

<div class="charlie" data-animations="fade, fling" data-times="3, 3">
...
</div>

Charlie.js will see this and know to run the fade and fling animations once the video hits three seconds.

The fade and fling animations are defined in a style sheet that is linked to the document.

Here is what the fade animation might look like (browser prefixes are excluded here but are required for Chrome and Safari):

.fade {
	animation-name: fade;
	animation-duration: 3s;
	animation-timing-function: linear;
	animation-iteration-count: 1;
	animation-direction: normal;
	animation-fill-mode: forwards;
}

@keyframes fade {
	0% {
		opacity: 1;
	}

	100% {
		opacity: 0;
	}
}

The .fade class is what Charlie.js applies to the animated element, which will trigger the fade animation.

Host The Videos: HTML5 Vs. Flash And Silverlight

With the API out of the way, the next decision is how to host the video. The host will determine what kind of container the video is stuffed into, and the container will determine what is possible with the video.

Video embedded with Flash or Silverlight will limit your design options, so the video-hosting service should ideally support HTML5’s video tag. The video tag is easier to style and move around on the page. You can apply CSS filters and transforms and even use CSS animation on the video itself. Plus, the standard media events are robust and provide plenty of places and ways to hook your code into the video. The big downside of the video tag is compatibility. It doesn’t work in Internet Explorer 8.

What kinds of video-hosting should Charlie.js support? Building a library that supports multiple hosting options is feasible. For example, Popcorn.js (an awesome library for syncing content with video) supports several hosting options and APIs. But to keep it simple, our little library will support only a vanilla video tag. Anything in an iframe or Flash container won’t be supported.

That’s nice for Charlie.js, but what if you are stuck supporting old browsers and have to deal with a video stuffed in an iframe? Most video-hosting companies have decent APIs. At the very least, you should be able to use those APIs to sync up your animation — you’ll just be stuck working with an embedded Flash object. YouTube and Vimeo are the most popular services, and both offer extensive APIs. Wistia is another great option but less well known.

If you want to use a pure video tag but don’t want to host the video yourself, take a look at Vid.ly. Once you upload your video, Vid.ly will encode it in every format you need and give you a universal URL that you can use in your video tag, which will automatically choose the correct video type according to the user agent.

<video id="video" src="http://vid.ly/4m4e2n?content=video" controls="" preload="none">
Your browser does not support the HTML5 video element.
</video>

Heads Up

The JavaScript in most of these snippets uses Underscore; stuff like _.forEach and _.toArray are utility functions from that library. Underscore encourages a functional style of programming that might look strange if you’ve never seen it before, but a little time invested in learning Underscore can save you a lot of time and lines of code. It’s worth checking out. For this article, you’ll find comments in the code to tell you what’s going on, and it should be pretty easy to understand.

One other caveat: The code here will run in most modern browsers, but no attempt has been made to make this completely cross-browser compatible. If your business really needs CSS animation to be synced with video and to run in almost every browser, then this library will not help you out. But for my business, and perhaps for yours, supporting only modern browsers is fine. And even with this restriction, plenty of material here is still worth learning.

Control CSS Animations With JavaScript

JavaScript is the glue between video and CSS animation. There is no way to couple an animation to a video purely with CSS. Animation doesn’t start until a style is applied, and CSS gives you only so many ways to trigger extra styles (such as :hover). In order to sync animation to video, we will need to pause, stop, resume, skip to the middle, and even reverse running animations.

All of this is possible with JavaScript. So, the first step is to get the CSS animation out of the style sheet and into JavaScript. Every CSS animation has two parts. The first part is the keyframe and the properties used to configure how the animation behaves, such as duration, iteration and direction. The second part is what triggers the animation. Charlie.js will need to find both parts in the style sheets.

The first thing we need is a utility function to search through style sheets that are loaded on the page.

findRules = function(matches){

		//document.stylesheets is not an array by default.
		// It's a StyleSheetList. toArray converts it to an actual array.
		var styleSheets = _.toArray(document.styleSheets),
		rules = [];

		// forEach iterates through a list, in this case passing
		//every sheet in styleSheets to the next forEach
		_.forEach(styleSheets, function(sheet){

		//This foreach iterates through each rule in the style sheet
		//and checks if it passes the matches function.
		_.forEach(_.toArray(sheet.cssRules), function(rule){
			if (matches(rule)){
				rules.push(rule);
			}
		});
	});
return rules;
}

The findRules function iterates through every rule of every style sheet and returns a list of rules that match the passed-in matches function. To get all of the keyframe rules, we pass in a function to findRules that checks whether the rule is a keyframe:

// A little code to handle prefixed properties
	var KEYFRAMES_RULE = window.CSSRule.KEYFRAMES_RULE
		|| window.CSSRule.WEBKIT_KEYFRAMES_RULE
		|| window.CSSRule.MOZ_KEYFRAMES_RULE
		|| window.CSSRule.O_KEYFRAMES_RULE
		|| window.CSSRule.MS_KEYFRAMES_RULE,

		...

		var keyframeRules = findRules(function(rule){
			return KEYFRAMES_RULE === rule.type;
		}),

		...

At this point, we have the keyframes in JavaScript, but we still need the rest of the animation styles that define duration, iterations, direction and so on.

To find all of these classes, we again use the findRules function to go through every rule in every style sheet. This time, though, the matches function that we’ll pass in will check to see whether the rule has an animationName property.

	...

	var animationStyleRules = findRules(function(rule){
		return rule.style && rule.style[animationName(rule.style)];
	});

	...

The animationsName function is there to handle the prefixes, because the animationName property still requires prefixes in some browsers. That function looks like this:

...

if (style.animationName) {
	name = "animationName"; }
else if (style.webkitAnimationName) {
	name = "webkitAnimationName"; }
else if (style.mozAnimationName) {
	name = "mozAnimationName"; }
else if (style.oAnimationName) {
	name="oAnimationName"; }
else if (style.msAnimationName) {
	name = "msAnimationName"; }
else {
	name = "";
}
return name;

...

Once the correct prefix has been determined, the name is cached and used for future look-ups.

Once the keyframes and animation styles have been collected, they get stuffed into an instance of a helper class and stored for Charlie.js to use later.

var CSSAnimations = function(keyframes, cssRules){
	this.keyframes = keyframes;
	this.cssRules = cssRules;
};

Get The Timing Information From The Data Attributes

Timing information is attached to the element that will be animated using a data attribute (remember that we decided this when we were defining the API). So, we need to crawl the document and pull out the information. Any element that will be animated is marked with the class of charlie, which makes it pretty easy to find the data attributes we are looking for.

var scrapeAnimationData = function() {

	/* Grab the data from the DOM. */
	var data = {};
	_.forEach(
		//loop through every element that should be animated
		document.getElementsByClassName("charlie"),

		//for each element, pull off the info from the dataset
		function(element) {

			/*
			* Creates an object of animation name: time, e.g.
			*
			* { swoopy: [
			*    { element: domElement,
			*  time: 6522 },
			*    { element: anotherElement,
			*  time: 7834 }]
			* }
			*/

			//     var names = element.dataset.animations.split(/s*,s*/),
			times = element.dataset.times.split(/s*,s*/),

			// creates an array of arrays, each one called a "tuple"
			// basically ties the time to the
			// animation name, so it looks like this:
			//[["zippy", 1], ["fade", 2] ... ]
			tuples = _.zip(names, times);

			/*
			* turn the tuples into an object,
			* which is a little easier to work with.
			* We end up with an object that looks like this:
			* {
			*  fade: [ {element: domElement, time: "1.2s"}, ... ],
			*  fling: [ {element: domelement, time: "2.4s"}, ... ]
			* }
			* So, we can reuse an animation on different elements
			* at different times.
			*/

			_.forEach(tuples, function(tuple){
				var name = tuple[0],
				time = tuple[1];
				data[name] = data[name] || [];
				data[name].push({
					element: element,
					time: time
				})
			});
		});
	return data;
},

This stores all of the timing information in an object with the animation’s name as the key, followed by a list of times and elements. This object is used to create several Animation objects, which are then stuffed into various data structures to make it easy and fast to look up which animations should be running in the big loop.

The requestAnimationFrame Loop

The heart of Charlie.js is a loop that runs whenever the video runs. The loop is created with requestAnimationFrame.

tick: function(time){
	if (this.running){
		this.frameID = requestAnimationFrame(this.tick.bind(this));
		this.controller.startAnimations(time, video.currentTime);
	}
}

The requestAnimationFrame function is specifically designed to optimize any kind of animation, such as DOM manipulations, painting to the canvas, and WebGL. It’s a tighter loop than anything you can get with setTimeout, and it’s calibrated to bundle animation steps into a single reflow, thus performing better. It’s also better for battery usage and will completely stop running when the user switches tabs.

The loop starts when the video starts and stops when the video stops. Charlie.js also needs to know whether the video ends or jumps to the middle somewhere. Each of those events requires a slightly different response.

video.addEventListener("play", this.start.bind(this), false);
video.addEventListener("ended", this.ended.bind(this), false);
video.addEventListener("pause", this.stop.bind(this), false);
video.addEventListener("seeked", this.seeked.bind(this), false);

As the video plays, the loop keeps ticking. Each tick runs this code:

// allow precision to one tenth of a second
var seconds = roundTime(videoTime),
me = this;

//resume any paused animations
me.resumeAnimations();

/* start up any animations that should be running at this second.
* Don't start any that are already running
*/

if (me.bySeconds[seconds]){
	var animations = me.bySeconds[seconds],
	notRunning = _.filter(animations, function(animation){
		return !_.contains(me.running, animation);
	});

	/* requestAnimationFrame happens more than
	*  every tenth of a second, so this code will run
	*  multiple times for each animation starting time
	*/

	_.forEach(notRunning, function(animation){
		animation.start();
		me.running.push(animation);
	});
}

Everything we have done up to this point has been to support these few lines of code. The seconds variable is just the video.currentTime value rounded to the nearest tenth of a second. The bySeconds property is created from the time data that is scraped from the HTML — it’s just a quick way to grab a list of animations to start at a given time. The running array is a list of animations that are currently running. The requestAnimationFrame loop is really fast and runs many, many times a second, and Charlie.js only supports a resolution of one tenth of a second.

So, if one animation starts at the 2-second mark, then requestAnimationFrame will try to start it several times until the video has progressed to the next tenth of a second. To prevent animations from starting over and over again during that tenth of a second, they get put into the running array so that we know what is running and don’t start it again unnecessarily.

To start a CSS animation, just add the animation properties to an element’s style. The easiest way to do this is to just add the animation class to the element’s classList, and that is exactly what the animation’s start method does.

start: function(){
	var me = this;
	//The name of the animation is the same as the class name by convention.
	me.element.classList.add(me.name);
	onAnimationEnd(me.element, function(){
		me.reset();
	});
}

The name of the animation is the same as the class name by convention.

Pause And Resume Animations

When the video stops, the animations should stop with it. There is a pretty straightforward way to do this using CSS animations: We just set the animationPlayState property of the element to paused.

...

//method on the animation object
pause: function(){
	this.element.style.webkitAnimationPlayState = "paused";
	this.element.style.mozAnimationPlayState = "paused";
	this.element.style.oAnimationPlayState = "paused";
	this.element.style.animationPlayState = "paused";
},

resume: function(){
	this.element.style.webkitAnimationPlayState = "running";
	this.element.style.mozAnimationPlayState = "running";
	this.element.style.oAnimationPlayState = "running";
	this.element.style.animationPlayState = "running";
}

...

//called on the video "pause" event
while(animation = me.running.pop()){
	animation.pause();
	//keep track of paused animations so we can resume them later ...
	me.paused.push(animation);
}

The only trick here is to keep track of which animations have been paused, so that they can resume once the video starts again, like so:

while (animation = me.paused.pop()){
	animation.resume();
	me.running.push(animation);
}

How To Start An Animation In The Middle

What if someone skips ahead in the video and jumps right into the middle of an animation? How do you start a CSS animation in the middle? The animationDelay property is exactly what we need. Normally, animationDelay is set to a positive number. If you want an animation to start three seconds after the animation style has been applied, then you’d set animationDelay to 3s. But if you set animationDelay to a negative number, then it will jump to the middle of the animation. For example, if an animation lasts three seconds, and you want the animation to start two seconds in, then set the animationDelay property to -2s.

Whenever a user scrubs to the middle of the video, Charlie.js will need to stop all of the animations that are currently running, figure out what should be running, and then set the appropriate animationDelay values. Here is the high-level code:

// 1. go through each to start
// 2. set the animation delay so that it starts at the right spot
// 3. start 'em up.

var me = this,
seconds = roundTime(videoTime),
toStart = animationsToStart(me, seconds);

// go through each animation to start
_.forEach(toStart, function(animation){

	//set the delay to start the animation at the right place
	setDelay(animation, seconds);

	//start it up
	animation.start();

	/* If the move is playing right now, then let the animation
	* keep playing. Otherwise, pause the animation until
	* the video resumes.
	*/

	if (playNow) {
	me.running.push(animation);

	} else {
		me.paused.push(animation);
		animation.pause();
	}
});

The animationsToStart function loops through a sorted list of animations and looks for anything that should be running. If the end time is greater than the current time and the start time is less than the current time, then the animation should be started.

var animationsToStart = function(me, seconds) {

	var toStart = [];

	for(var i = 0; i < me.timeModel.length; i++) {

		var animation = me.timeModel[i];

		//stop looking, nothing else is running
		if (animation.startsAt > seconds) {
			break;
		}

		if (animation.endsAt > seconds) {
			toStart.push(animation);
		}
	}
	return toStart;
};

The timeModel is a list of animations sorted by the times when the animations should end. This code loops through that list and looks for animations that start before the current time and end after the current time. The toStart array represents all of the animations that should be running right now.

Those values get passed up to the higher-level code, which then computes and sets the delay in the setDelay function.

setDelay = function(animation, seconds) {
	var delay = -(seconds - animation.startsAt);
	delay = delay < 0 ? delay : 0,
	milliseconds = Math.floor(delay * 1000) + "ms";
	animation.element.style.webkitAnimationDelay = milliseconds;
	animation.element.style.mozAnimationDelay = milliseconds;
	animation.element.style.oAnimationDelay = milliseconds;
	animation.element.style.msAnimationDelay = milliseconds;
	animation.element.style.animationDelay = milliseconds;
};

The seconds parameter is the current time in the video. Let’s say that the video is at 30 seconds, that the animation starts at 24 seconds and that it lasts for 10 seconds. If we set the delay to -6s, then it will start the animation 6 seconds in and will last another 4 seconds.

Look At The Code For Yourself

We’ve covered here how to use requestAnimationFrame to create a tight, optimized loop for animations, how to scrape keyframes and animation styles from the style sheet, how to start and stop animations with the video, and even how to start CSS animations in the middle. But to get to the point, we’ve skipped over quite a bit of glue code. Charlie.js is only a couple of hundred lines of code, and it is open source and commented thoroughly. You are welcome to grab the code and read it.

You can even use it if you want, with a few caveats:

  • Charlie.js was made for educational purposes. It was made to be read and for you to learn about CSS animations, videos, requestAnimationFrame, etc. Don’t just plug it into your production code unless you really know what you are doing.
  • Cross-browser support for animation is pretty good, and Charlie.js tries to be friendly to all the browsers when it can be. However, it hasn’t been heavily tested.
  • It eats up CPU, even if the video is paused. (This has something to do with CSS animations still rendering.)
  • The user can’t drag the seek bar while the video is unpaused. If they do, then the animations will start and overlap each other.
  • Charlie.js does not respond to changes in frame rate. So, if the video stutters or you want to slow down the rate of the video, then the animations will fall out of sync. Also, you can’t run video backwards.
  • Animations won’t start if the current tab isn’t set to the video, due to requestAnimationFrame not running unless the video tab is active. This could confuse users who switch back and forth between tabs.

Some of these limitations can be fixed pretty easily, but Charlie.js was made for a very limited use case. I’ve put together a demo of Charlie.js in action so that you can see what it can do.

The future of video in Web design is filled with possibilities, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens.

Additional Resources

(al, ea, il)

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Sean Fioritto is the author of Sketching with CSS: Learn how to design in the browser and write CSS as fast as you can sketch. He also writes about Web development at planningforaliens.com.

  1. 1

    Firefox on a Quatro? I don’t think so. Firefox was never release for anything prior to OS 10.0 and a Quatro only went up to 9.1. That would also have been around the mid 1990s — a good 6 years before the first release of Firefox. Perhaps you meant Netscape?

    0
    • 2

      I wondered if anyone would notice this. :-) Indeed, it was the Mozilla Project, not Firefox, on my Quadra 605 running OS 9. An editor changed it to Firefox right before publishing. But I figured most people would think “Mozilla” is a mistake and would probably gloss right over the anachronism.

      Of course, I was really young so I could be remembering it incorrectly. But the point is, it was a long time ago!

      0
      • 3

        The last version of Mac OS for the 68040 processor found in a Quadra 605 was 8.1, unless you had a PowerPC upgrade and done some hacking.

        And you were probably running Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer.

        Just sayin’ :)

        0
        • 4

          Doh! You’re totally right! I had to check with my dad on this because it was driving me crazy. I definitely had a Quadra 605, (the little pizza box guy), but at some point I got an upgrade. I must have been using the new machine when I was doing this.

          Well, this was a fun little trip down memory lane. :-)

          0
  2. 5

    Cool demo of what you’re talking about with charlie.js

    0
    • 6

      Thanks Jafar. I really like making tutorials like that. I think the format is really engaging and great for teaching.

      0
  3. 7

    Useful, learned a lot!

    0
  4. 8

    Autoplaying video on a website is evil. The user should always be presented with the choice whether to watch the video or not. Not just for their bandwidth and quota implications but also so they don’t have to flip through 30+ open tabs to work out where the noise is coming from. I hate autoplaying video with a passion. Please web devs, do the right thing and have your video paused when the page loads.

    0
  5. 9

    @Henry, auto-playing videos are not really that evil, just as much as watching a gif animation is not evil.

    But playing *sounds* without some sort of interaction or warning ahead is really bad; Especially playing sounds without offering an easily reachable volume control is ignorant or downright malicious.

    Thankfully newer versions of Google Chrome will display a speaker icon on tabs playing sound. Not sure if Firefox or other browsers already have or will adopt this simple feature.

    0
  6. 10

    Great example source code, very useful :) Thanks

    0
  7. 11

    The whole intro is whacked up: On ISDN you could perhaps download 150 MB in 6 hours – early computer videos were not using encoding that would require 150 MB for a short 60 second clip. The popular Video CD (up to 800 MB) held 60-80 minutes in still “ok” quality, better than a lot of the stuff you see on YouTube today.
    Before you tell stories of “the old west/the early www days” please remember some who were adults in the 90s are still alive and kicking and remember a bit more correctly… :-)

    0
  8. 14

    This is a really cool tutorial. I am excited to get a chance to work on the video animation and know that you are on the brink of cutting edge technology and I want to be ahead of that curve.

    0
  9. 15

    As a web developer, it would be crazy to do anything video related without the benefir of youtube or vimeo

    0
  10. 16

    Great news as a web developer I am very excited to do video task. Thank you very much for sharing this exciting and informative post.

    0
  11. 17
  12. 18

    Great news as a web developer I am very excited to do video task. I hate autoplaying video with a passion. Please web devs, do the right thing and have your video paused when the page loads.

    0

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