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Key Frame - Everything You Need To Know

Key Frame - Everything You Need To Know

December 15, 20235 min read


Key Frame | Cover Image.png


In video streaming, a keyframe, or I-frame (Intra-coded frame), is an independent frame that contains a full picture of the scene, unlike P-frames and B-frames which reference other frames. It serves as a starting point for new viewers and enables random access within the video for operations like seeking and fast-forwarding. Keyframes are crucial for video compression and efficient streaming, as they reduce dependency on preceding frames, ensuring that the video stream remains intact even with packet loss or network fluctuations.

What does it really mean?

Think of a keyframe in video streaming as a chapter beginning in a book. Just like a chapter start provides a new entry point into the story without needing to know the previous details, a keyframe holds the entire image data, allowing viewers to start watching from that point without having seen the previous frames.

Between keyframes, like the pages within a chapter, the story (or video) progresses by building upon what has already been established. If you open a book to the start of a chapter, you can understand the scene or setting immediately, just as a keyframe provides a complete picture independently of what came before it.

History of Key Frame

Animation Origins

The concept of keyframes first emerged in traditional hand-drawn animation. Pioneered by animators at Walt Disney Studios during the early 20th century, keyframes were used as the major frames where the critical positions of characters or objects were drawn. These keyframes represented significant points of motion or change, setting the start and end of a smooth transition. The in-between frames, often drawn by less experienced animators, would fill the motion between these keyframes, creating fluid animation. This technique allowed for more efficient planning and execution of complex animations, becoming a standard in the animation industry.

Transition to Digital Animation

With the advent of computer graphics and digital animation, keyframes gained a new dimension. In digital animation software, keyframes became points in time where the animator sets the values for certain properties (like position, rotation, scale). The software then interpolates the values between these keyframes, allowing for smoother and more complex animations with less manual drawing. This method significantly streamlined the animation process and opened up new possibilities in terms of complexity and precision.

Adaptation in Video Compression

The concept of keyframes took on a different role with the development of digital video compression techniques. In the context of video encoding, particularly with formats like MPEG, a keyframe (or I-frame) is a frame that is encoded without reference to other frames. This approach is crucial for video compression, as it allows the encoder to only store the differences (motion vectors) from these keyframes for subsequent frames (P-frames and B-frames), significantly reducing file size. Keyframes in video compression serve as periodic reset points, from which new image information is calculated.

Importance in Video Streaming

In the realm of video streaming, keyframes became fundamental for efficient data transmission over limited bandwidth. They enable random access within the video stream, allowing users to jump to different parts of the video without having to decode the entire stream from the beginning. This characteristic is particularly important for streaming services, as it facilitates functionalities like fast-forwarding, rewinding, and instant playback. The frequency of keyframes affects both the size of the video file and the quality of user experience, requiring a balance between compression efficiency and accessibility.

How does key framing work?

Key framing in the context of video streaming and compression is a sophisticated process that plays a vital role in efficiently encoding and delivering video content. The mechanism involves a blend of compression techniques and strategic frame selection to optimize both the quality and size of the video.

Basic Concept of Key Framing

The core idea behind key framing in video streaming is to reduce redundancy in video data. A video is essentially a series of frames shown in quick succession to create the illusion of motion. Many of these frames contain similar information. Key framing takes advantage of this by selecting certain frames to be fully encoded as complete images, known as keyframes or I-frames (Intra-coded frames). These keyframes serve as reference points for the frames that follow.

Frame Types in Video Compression

In between keyframes, there are other types of frames – P-frames (Predicted frames) and B-frames (Bi-directional frames). P-frames store only the changes from the previous frame (or another reference frame), not the entire image. B-frames are even more efficient, as they reference both preceding and following frames for their data. This hierarchy of frames reduces the amount of data needed to represent a video by only encoding the differences between frames, rather than each frame in its entirety.

Process of Encoding and Streaming

During the encoding process, the encoder decides where to place these keyframes. This placement can be based on a set interval (e.g., every second) or determined by the content of the video (e.g., placing keyframes at the start of a new scene). The placement has a significant impact on the size and quality of the video. Frequent keyframes improve the ability to seek and start playback from arbitrary points but increase the file size. Conversely, fewer keyframes reduce file size but can make seeking less precise and degrade quality after scene changes.

Role in Streaming

In video streaming, keyframes are crucial for functionality such as fast-forwarding, rewinding, and starting playback from a chosen point. When a user seeks to a new position in a video, the playback typically resumes at the nearest keyframe to ensure that the frame is properly and completely rendered. Without keyframes, random access within a video would require decoding from the very start, which is impractical for long videos or in scenarios with limited bandwidth.

Balancing Quality and Efficiency

The art of key framing is in balancing the frequency of keyframes with the overall video size and quality. More frequent keyframes can lead to higher quality, especially in videos with lots of scene changes or motion, but at the cost of larger file sizes and more data to transmit. Fewer keyframes can lead to smaller sizes and less data transmission but potentially lower quality and less responsive seeking behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best keyframe interval for streaming?

The optimal keyframe interval for streaming depends on the content and application, but a general guideline is to set the keyframe interval between 2 to 5 seconds. For fast-paced or highly dynamic content, a shorter interval can maintain quality, while for more static content, a longer interval can be more efficient. Balancing quality, file size, and the need for random access is crucial in determining the best interval.

What is the keyframe interval for 30fps?

For a video at 30 frames per second (fps), a common keyframe interval is 60 to 150 frames, translating to an interval of 2 to 5 seconds. This interval aligns with the general streaming guidelines and optimizes both video quality and compression efficiency.

Is a higher keyframe interval better?

A higher keyframe interval can lead to smaller file sizes and reduced bandwidth usage, but it may compromise video quality and the smoothness of seeking operations. The ideal interval balances file size, quality, and user experience needs.


  • https://blog.video.ibm.com/streaming-video-tips/keyframes-interframe-video-compression/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_frame
  • https://groups.google.com/g/discuss-webrtc/c/OtZKzE3SuWs?pli=1



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