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I would look in to Flash video. Very web friendly and nice quality.
You are most likely going to have to abandon the Quicktime lossless compression schemes. They look great but not very web friendly...
I believe AECS3 will render out directly to .flv format, you'll just need to find away to generate the .swf file
If you already have Flash you are all set (maybe as part of a Creative Suite), if not, it won't break the bank and if you're doing lots of web video it'll be worth it!
Any which way you look at it, you shouldn't be using AE to compress your footage unless you absolutely need to. Your best bet is to render out a losslessly compressed, or uncompressed version first, and then use a dedicated compression app to generate the web/other compressed version. Quicktime Pro is a steal @ $30 for good VBR H.264 compression.
The way AE renders is sequentially (one frame, then the next, then the next, etc...). Compression schemes can utilize information from the previous, current and next frames to provide the best possible compression. With AE, since the "next" frame doesn't really exist yet, it can't possibly provide the best compression.
finding the right settings for good quality is sometimes a long way of trial and errors.
But there are encoders which have settings templates for all kind of situation.
ON2 Flix Exporter (Flash only)
Adobe Media Encoder
just to name a few. most of them have a trial for testing quality.
Quicktime's PhotoJPEG has a reasonable tradeoff between filesize, color fidelity, and compression. But it doesn't use interframe compression, so files aren't as small as other modern codecs.
You do understand that Vimeo is recompressing everything to h.264, right? Flash 9 and higher all default to h.264. It's where everything is going. So the question is finding a really good h.264 encoder.
>Can anyone tell me the best compression software (or way of >rendering direct from After Effects) to maintain quality and reduce >filesize significantly?
As per the others' suggestions: Export a Photo-JPEG encoded file from AE, then use external tools. Additional programs not yet mentioned include ProCoder, SUPER©, TMPEG Enc., but QT Pro would be a good investment to start with and probably the cheapest solution to the immediate problem. It also provides additional ways of embedding extra info in the clip and adjust a few problems post-encode, if necessary.
>With AE, since the "next" frame doesn't really exist yet, it can't
>possibly provide the best compression.
That's a bit oversimplifying the case. If exported via the specific MPEG-2/MPEG-4/H.264/FLV writers, the frames will be buffered in the writers themselves until valid (sub-)GOPs can be written. The only thing it doesn't do, is to analyze beyond the bounds of such a packet, hence the efficiency of the underlying algorithms is impaired. And of course it depends on what you plan on doing with the stuff. Even with its limitations, the process works quite well for DVD/BluRay work for instance...
Mylenium, I wasn't aware that AE did that. So, you're saying that during the rendering process, for those specific formats, AE actually renders the next frame before compressing (holding it in a cache), and then provides compression for a GOP? How many frames does it hold in cache? Good info. Thanks.