Using libavformat and libavcodec

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Using libavformat and libavcodec

Martin Böhme ([email protected])

February 18, 2004

Update (January 23 2009): By now, these articles are quite out of date… unfortunately, I haven’t found the time to update them, but thankfully, others have jumped in. Stephen Dranger has a more recent tutorial, ryanfb of has an updated version of the code, and David Hoerl has a more recent update.

Update (July 22 2004): I discovered that the code I originally presented contained a memory leak (av_free_packet() wasn’t being called). My apologies – I’ve updated the demo program and the code in the article to eliminate the leak.

Update (July 21 2004): There’s a new prerelease of ffmpeg (0.4.9-pre1). I describe the changes to the libavformat / libavcodec API in this article.

The libavformat and libavcodec libraries that come with ffmpeg are a great way of accessing a large variety of video file formats. Unfortunately, there is no real documentation on using these libraries in your own programs (at least I couldn’t find any), and the example programs aren’t really very helpful either.

This situation meant that, when I used libavformat/libavcodec on a recent project, it took quite a lot of experimentation to find out how to use them. Here’s what I learned – hopefully I’ll be able to save others from having to go through the same trial-and-error process. There’s also a small demo program that you can download. The code I’ll present works with libavformat/libavcodec as included in version 0.4.8 of ffmpeg (the most recent version as I’m writing this). If you find that later versions break the code, please let me know.

In this document, I’ll only cover how to read video streams from a file; audio streams work pretty much the same way, but I haven’t actually used them, so I can’t present any example code.

In case you’re wondering why there are two libraries, libavformat and libavcodec: Many video file formats (AVI being a prime example) don’t actually specify which codec(s) should be used to encode audio and video data; they merely define how an audio and a video stream (or, potentially, several audio/video streams) should be combined into a single file. This is why sometimes, when you open an AVI file, you get only sound, but no picture – because the right video codec isn’t installed on your system. Thus, libavformat deals with parsing video files and separating the streams contained in them, and libavcodec deals with decoding raw audio and video streams.

Opening a Video File

First things first – let’s look at how to open a video file and get at the streams contained in it. The first thing we need to do is to initialize libavformat/libavcodec:


This registers all available file formats and codecs with the library so they will be used automatically when a file with the corresponding format/codec is opened. Note that you only need to call av_register_all() once, so it’s probably best to do this somewhere in your startup code. If you like, it’s possible to register only certain individual file formats and codecs, but there’s usually no reason why you would have to do that.

Next off, opening the file:

AVFormatContext *pFormatCtx;
const char      *filename="myvideo.mpg";

// Open video file
if(av_open_input_file(&pFormatCtx, filename, NULL, 0, NULL)!=0)
    handle_error(); // Couldn't open file

The last three parameters specify the file format, buffer size and format parameters; by simply specifying NULL or 0 we ask libavformat to auto-detect the format and use a default buffer size. Replace handle_error() with appropriate error handling code for your application.

Next, we need to retrieve information about the streams contained in the file:

// Retrieve stream information
    handle_error(); // Couldn't find stream information

This fills the streams field of the AVFormatContext with valid information. As a debugging aid, we’ll dump this information onto standard error, but of course you don’t have to do this in a production application:

dump_format(pFormatCtx, 0, filename, false);

As mentioned in the introduction, we’ll handle only video streams, not audio streams. To make things nice and easy, we simply use the first video stream we find:

int            i, videoStream;
AVCodecContext *pCodecCtx;

// Find the first video stream
for(i=0; i<pFormatCtx->nb_streams; i++)
    handle_error(); // Didn't find a video stream

// Get a pointer to the codec context for the video stream

OK, so now we’ve got a pointer to the so-called codec context for our video stream, but we still have to find the actual codec and open it:

AVCodec *pCodec;

// Find the decoder for the video stream
    handle_error(); // Codec not found

// Inform the codec that we can handle truncated bitstreams -- i.e.,
// bitstreams where frame boundaries can fall in the middle of packets
if(pCodec->capabilities & CODEC_CAP_TRUNCATED)

// Open codec
if(avcodec_open(pCodecCtx, pCodec)<0)
    handle_error(); // Could not open codec

(So what’s up with those “truncated bitstreams”? Well, as we’ll see in a moment, the data in a video stream is split up into packets. Since the amount of data per video frame can vary, the boundary between two video frames need not coincide with a packet boundary. Here, we’re telling the codec that we can handle this situation.)

One important piece of information that is stored in the AVCodecContext structure is the frame rate of the video. To allow for non-integer frame rates (like NTSC’s 29.97 fps), the rate is stored as a fraction, with the numerator in pCodecCtx->frame_rate and the denominator in pCodecCtx->frame_rate_base. While testing the library with different video files, I noticed that some codecs (notably ASF) seem to fill these fields incorrectly (frame_rate_base contains 1 instead of 1000). The following hack fixes this:

// Hack to correct wrong frame rates that seem to be generated by some 
// codecs
if(pCodecCtx->frame_rate>1000 && pCodecCtx->frame_rate_base==1)

Note that it shouldn’t be a problem to leave this fix in place even if the bug is corrected some day – it’s unlikely that a video would have a frame rate of more than 1000 fps.

One more thing left to do: Allocate a video frame to store the decoded images in:

AVFrame *pFrame;


That’s it! Now let’s start decoding some video.

Decoding Video Frames

As I’ve already mentioned, a video file can contain several audio and video streams, and each of those streams is split up into packets of a particular size. Our job is to read these packets one by one using libavformat, filter out all those that aren’t part of the video stream we’re interested in, and hand them on to libavcodec for decoding. In doing this, we’ll have to take care of the fact that the boundary between two frames can occur in the middle of a packet.

Sound complicated? Lucikly, we can encapsulate this whole process in a routine that simply returns the next video frame:

bool GetNextFrame(AVFormatContext *pFormatCtx, AVCodecContext *pCodecCtx, 
    int videoStream, AVFrame *pFrame)
    static AVPacket packet;
    static int      bytesRemaining=0;
    static uint8_t  *rawData;
    static bool     fFirstTime=true;
    int             bytesDecoded;
    int             frameFinished;

    // First time we're called, set to NULL to indicate it
    // doesn't have to be freed

    // Decode packets until we have decoded a complete frame
        // Work on the current packet until we have decoded all of it
        while(bytesRemaining > 0)
            // Decode the next chunk of data
            bytesDecoded=avcodec_decode_video(pCodecCtx, pFrame,
                &frameFinished, rawData, bytesRemaining);

            // Was there an error?
            if(bytesDecoded < 0)
                fprintf(stderr, "Error while decoding frame\n");
                return false;


            // Did we finish the current frame? Then we can return
                return true;

        // Read the next packet, skipping all packets that aren't for this
        // stream
            // Free old packet

            // Read new packet
            if(av_read_packet(pFormatCtx, &packet)<0)
                goto loop_exit;
        } while(packet.stream_index!=videoStream);



    // Decode the rest of the last frame
    bytesDecoded=avcodec_decode_video(pCodecCtx, pFrame, &frameFinished, 
        rawData, bytesRemaining);

    // Free last packet

    return frameFinished!=0;

Now, all we have to do is sit in a loop, calling GetNextFrame() until it returns false. Just one more thing to take care of: Most codecs return images in YUV 420 format (one luminance and two chrominance channels, with the chrominance channels samples at half the spatial resolution of the luminance channel). Depending on what you want to do with the video data, you may want to convert this to RGB. (Note, though, that this is not necessary if all you want to do is display the video data; take a look at the X11 Xvideo extension, which does YUV-to-RGB and scaling in hardware.) Fortunately, libavcodec provides a conversion routine called img_convert, which does conversion between YUV and RGB as well as a variety of other image formats. The loop that decodes the video thus becomes:

while(GetNextFrame(pFormatCtx, pCodecCtx, videoStream, pFrame))
    img_convert((AVPicture *)pFrameRGB, PIX_FMT_RGB24, (AVPicture*)pFrame, 
        pCodecCtx->pix_fmt, pCodecCtx->width, pCodecCtx->height);

    // Process the video frame (save to disk etc.)

The RGB image pFrameRGB (of type AVFrame *) is allocated like this:

AVFrame *pFrameRGB;
int     numBytes;
uint8_t *buffer;

// Allocate an AVFrame structure

// Determine required buffer size and allocate buffer
numBytes=avpicture_get_size(PIX_FMT_RGB24, pCodecCtx->width,
buffer=new uint8_t[numBytes];

// Assign appropriate parts of buffer to image planes in pFrameRGB
avpicture_fill((AVPicture *)pFrameRGB, buffer, PIX_FMT_RGB24,
    pCodecCtx->width, pCodecCtx->height);

Cleaning up

OK, we’ve read and processed our video, now all that’s left for us to do is clean up after ourselves:

// Free the RGB image
delete [] buffer;

// Free the YUV frame

// Close the codec

// Close the video file


Sample Code

A sample app that wraps all of this code up in compilable form is here. If you have any additional comments, please contact me at[email protected]. Standard disclaimer: I assume no liability for the correct functioning of the code and techniques presented in this article.