Fighting ffmpeg

July 3rd, 2016 • filed under Programming

(Last Updated April 1, 2020)

Before I begin this seriously long-winded article (I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly 4000 words), I want to let you know that after roughly six hours of poking, yelling at myself, yelling at my screen, yelling at Google for not having the answers I need, and wishing I had just bought IP cameras, I realized ffserver doesn’t send mjpeg with the right Content-type header for browser viewing, thus said browsers don’t do the right thing to it.

Typical mjpeg streams are under the Content-type: multipart/x-mixed-replace, whereas ffserver transmits with video/x-mjpeg. That’s fine for players like VLC, but Browsers instinctively download it, versus display it on the screen. What this means for embedding it into a webpage is the stream will download forever, but will only show the first frame. There is no setting for changing this; it’s hardcoded into libavformat/rawenc.c. After All the fuss of figuring out alternatives, I opted to change the value and re-compile.

This means, after the several hours of compiling ffmpeg, I had to re-compile (again)… but will it help? You’ll have to find out.

NOTE : I’ve also added some updates to the end from the day after. With a fresh mind, some fresh ideas came up.


Recently I added a Raspberry Pi 3 to my collection of computing tools (mainly for testing arm builds of remote_syslog2). While it serves that purpose day in and out, such a task isn’t super intensive. While it’s just sitting there, I’d like it to do something Internet-related, and what’s better than something involving cats? If you say whiskey, I’ll give you points. Life is pretty much whiskey, cats, and tacos, for me, as a single guy in his late 20s living in California.

This is where The Cat Cam came to life. I find it oddly amusing to sit and watch my cats (mostly sleep) either from somewhere else in my home or while I’m getting tacos. I figured why not let others do the same, in a not-at-all-creepy way?

Here’s a pseudo-journal of my progress through this project, including what I’ve learned, and why I did things in certain ways.

Motion: An Option

Doing a cursory Google search for webcam streaming raspberry pi turned up but a few relevant search results. I guess most people use IP cameras, these days? Either way, I was directed to this article on how to build a Raspberry Pi webcam server in minutes. Spoiler alert: it took more than minutes.

The idea is that you download motion and run it, tweaking a few things in the motion.conf settings file. The article is largely useful but I found the service didn’t work and I had to run it under sudo to get it to stream; that makes sense given motion has to open and listen on a couple of ports.

A few pointers, here:

Switching to ffmpeg + ffserver

One of the biggest downsides to the configuration I had was the connections to my motion server through my proxy were 1-to-1, meaning there was no relay or retransmission which could save on bandwidth. This would end up saturating my home uplink (capped at 10mbps by my ISP). As much as I’d like to, I can’t devote all of it to cats.

In comes ffmpeg and ffserver. This configuration is similar to motion in that, there’s a process capturing the feed from my webcam on /dev/video0 and sending it to a server but the server that’s broadcasting isn’t also on the Pi. Setting this up is broken into two parts: getting ffmpeg on my Pi (and running) and setting up the server and configuring it to accept the feed and rebroadcast.

Using (compiling) ffmpeg on ARM

This is, by far, the longest step in this process. ffmpeg doesn’t come natively compiled for ARM so you’ll find yourself wanting to compile it. If you’ve ever compiled code on a Raspberry Pi before, you’ll know this takes time. The smartest in the group are already finding other things to do for when the hurry up and wait step is next.

Since there wasn’t any specific article that I could find which accurately depicted how to get ffmpeg compiled and working on arm, I’ll walk you through it.

I’m using a Raspberry Pi 3 with Raspbian. I’m running all my commands as a regular user with sudo abilities.

Update (April 1, 2020): Since this article still seems to be popular in some regard, it’s worth noting that a Raspberry Pi 4 is the same price as a 3, and much more powerful. Use that, instead, if you can.

Before we do anything else, we need to make sure we have the latest package info and install git. Nothing special about installing it.

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install git

Let’s move into the /usr/src directory and pull down the latest version of ffmpeg. (Note: most of what we do in /usr/src has to be done with sudo rights as /usr/src is owned by root.)

cd /usr/src
sudo git clone https://git.ffmpeg.org/ffmpeg.git

I’m skipping sound, but if you need it, grab libasound2-dev.

Now that we have the code pulled down, let’s hop into the folder and compile it.

cd ffmpegsudo 
sudo make
make install

If that fails, for you, you’ll need to install libav-tools, you can pick them up using the package manager:

sudo apt-get install libav-tools

Once those are installed, give the compile and install another go.

This step took a couple of hours. I don’t know how long, exactly, but it was long enough to where I stopped paying close attention and did other tasks.

We’ll need to get source from deb-multimedia.org. This’ll require a few bonus steps, but shouldn’t be too bad. If you’ve ever added extra repositories, you’ll be familiar with this process, if not, no worries. I’ve broken it down.

Add these lines to /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb-src http://www.deb-multimedia.org sid main
deb http://www.deb-multimedia.org wheezy main non-free

Then update, again:

sudo apt-get update

and install deb-multimedia-keyring:

sudo apt-get install deb-multimedia-keyring

It’ll be necessary to get packages from this repo installed properly.

Remove the second source we added earlier because we don’t need it any longer, and it’ll keep things clean:

deb http://www.deb-multimedia.org wheezy main non-free

then download the source for ffmpeg-dmo:

sudo apt-get source ffmpeg-dmo

This will take a few minutes, but once it’s done, you’ll find you now have a usr/src/ffmpg-dmo-xxx folder, where xxx is a version number. Hop into that directory

cd ffmpeg-dmo-xxx

and compile and install it:

sudo ./configure
sudo make
make install

This part will take probably just as long as compiling/installing ffmpeg from earlier, so feel free to move on to other cool things. Just don’t forget we’re here. Those cats need to be seen!

Setting Up ffserver on a Streaming Relay Server

While ffmpeg is compiling, we can work on configuring ffserver, the other half of this setup. ffserver comes with ffmpeg so there’s no extra installation of anything. I’m running ffserver on another server, outside my home network.

ffserver doesn’t come configured for anything (it doesn’t even come with a config file) so we’ll need to set one up at /etc/ffserver.conf, as that’s where it looks. (If you want to put it elsewhere, make sure to start ffserver with the -f argument followed by the absolute path to your config file)

In that file, make it look something like this:

HTTPPort nnnn
MaxClients 250
MaxBandwidth 10000
file /tmp/stream.ffm
FileMaxSize 10M
Feed stream.ffm
Format mjpeg
VideoSize 640x480
VideoFrameRate 10
VideoBitRate 2000
VideoQMin 1
VideoQMax 10

If you’re curious as to what all you can tweak, check out this official sample ffserver.conf file from ffmpeg.org.

Breaking down the config file, here’s what I set and why:

HTTPPort nnnn – This will be the port ffserver is listening and serving on. Make sure it’s not in use by anything else and traffic can flow freely in and out of it.

HTTPBindAddress – only useful if you have more than one IP and want to limit it listening on that IP, only. Using lets it listen on all IPs the system knows about.

MaxClients – This is the number of unique connections. ffserver isn’t slow by any means so crank this up and rely on the next setting as your throttle control.

MaxBandwidth – In kbps, set this to where you feel comfortable.

ACL allow n.n.n.n – set this if you want to only allow certain IPs to send their bits as the feed ffserver will process. In this case, when primetime is upon us, I’ll set this to my home IP address as my Raspberry Pi is behind a NAT.

Feed [filename] – This is super important. Make sure this _ exactly _ matches what’s set inside the opening “ tag and not the file.

Format [type] – This can be any one of the following types:

mpeg : MPEG-1 multiplexed video and audio
mpeg1video : MPEG-1 video only
mpeg2video : MPEG-2 video only
mp2 : MPEG-2 audio (use AudioCodec to select layer 2 and 3 codec)
ogg : Ogg format (Vorbis audio codec)
rm : RealNetworks-compatible stream. Multiplexed audio and video.
ra : RealNetworks-compatible stream. Audio only.
mpjpeg : Multipart JPEG (works with Netscape without any plugin)
jpeg : Generate a single JPEG image.
asf : ASF compatible streaming (Windows Media Player format).
swf : Macromedia Flash compatible stream
avi : AVI format (MPEG-4 video, MPEG audio sound)

There are two I would stick with: mjpeg and mpeg. The latter is supported by just about every browser these days and mpeg is a straight up video file. Between the former is easier to embed into a website as it’s just one line:


Your browser will likely know what to do with that. Using mpeg will require a video player. I’d stay away from Flash-based players, these days (unless you have swf as a “, which I’ll cover in a minute) because Flash is garbage, ugly, and has no real purpose in today’s web world.

NOTE: See note number 3 about using mpeg and taking care of your audo stream and note 4 about using non-audio mpegNvideo.

Whatever format you choose, make sure the file extension matches in the opening “ tag.

VideoSize AxB – This is the final frame size, in pixels. Set this to whatever you feel like, keeping within the same ratio of your source. If you have a 16×9 webcam like myself, do some quick math to get a number that’s useful, rounded to the nearest whole number:

width * .5625 = height

You can also use abbreviations for standard sizes:

sqcif, qcif, cif, 4cif, qqvga, qvga, vga, svga, xga, uxga, qxga, sxga, qsxga, hsxga, wvga, wxga, wsxga, wuxga, woxga, wqsxga, wquxga, whsxga, whuxga, cga, ega, hd480, hd720, hd1080

Not sure what they mean? Checkout this Wikipedia article and search for the abbreviation within.

NOTE: See the section below titled Tweaks to the Feed for how important it is to make sure these settings are right.

A Note about Flash & Fallbacks

If you want to have a fallback for non-HTML5 video player support, set up a second “ and configure it for .swf. This might not be necessary as good Flash-based players will play regular video files. It’s worth thinking about.

If you’re looking for Windows Media Player and other streaming app support on older systems, think about .asf and .rm. They’re old, but ffmpeg and ffserver have been around a long time.

Starting ffmpeg and ffserver

Now it’s time to get this s–t started.

We’ve spent all this set up time, and now we’re ready. You’ll want to launch ffserver first. If you put your config file in the default location and gave it the default name (/etc/ffserver.conf), all you need to do is run:


And boom. If something’s not right about your config, you’ll know pretty quickly. Yellow text can be ignored as it’s informational. It’s up to you if you want to do anything about it.

The output will look something like this if you did it right:

root@ubuntu:~# ffserver
ffserver version N-80901-gfebc862 Copyright (c) 2000-2016 the FFmpeg developersbuilt with gcc 4.8 (Ubuntu 4.8.4-2ubuntu1~14.04.3)
configuration: --extra-libs=-ldl --prefix=/opt/ffmpeg --mandir=/usr/share/man --enable-avresample --disable-debug --enable-nonfree --enable-gpl --enable-version3 --enable-libopencore-amrnb --enable-libopencore-amrwb --disable-decoder=amrnb --disable-decoder=amrwb --enable-libpulse --enable-libfreetype --enable-gnutls --enable-libx264 --enable-libx265 --enable-libfdk-aac --enable-libvorbis --enable-libmp3lame --enable-libopus --enable-libvpx --enable-libspeex --enable-libass --enable-avisynth --enable-libsoxr --enable-libxvid --enable-libvidstab
libavutil 55. 28.100 / 55. 28.100
libavcodec 57. 48.101 / 57. 48.101
libavformat 57. 41.100 / 57. 41.100
libavdevice 57. 0.102 / 57. 0.102
libavfilter 6. 47.100 / 6. 47.100
libavresample 3. 0. 0 / 3. 0. 0
libswscale 4. 1.100 / 4. 1.100
libswresample 2. 1.100 / 2. 1.100
libpostproc 54. 0.100 / 54. 0.100
/etc/ffserver.conf:5: No
Daemon option has no effect. You should remove it.
/etc/ffserver.conf:20: Setting default value for video bit rate tolerance = 250000. Use NoDefaults to disable it.
/etc/ffserver.conf:20: Setting default value for video rate control equation = tex^qComp. Use NoDefaults to disable it.
/etc/ffserver.conf:20: Setting default value for video max rate = 2000000. Use NoDefaults to disable it.
/etc/ffserver.conf:20: Setting default value for video buffer size = 2000000. Use NoDefaults to disable it.

So cool!

Launching ffmpeg is almost as simple. We’re going to pass the raw webcam feed so all we need to do is:

ffmpeg -i /dev/video0 https://example.com:1234/stream.ffm

This’ll tell ffmpeg to that what’s coming in from /dev/video0 and pass it to the feed ingestion point on ffserver. If /dev/video0 isn’t available, check for another video device. If you have more than one, they’ll be numbered in the order they were plugged in, in most cases. You can also ask ffmpeg to tell you what devices are plugged in by running:

ffmpeg -devices

The output from ffmpeg will look something like this if you did it right:

pi@rpi3-01:/usr/src/ffmpeg-dmo-3.1.1 $ ffmpeg -i /dev/video0 https://example.com:1234/stream.ffm
ffmpeg version N-80908-g293484f Copyright (c) 2000-2016 the FFmpeg developers
built with gcc 4.9.2 (Raspbian 4.9.2-10)
configuration:libavutil 55. 28.100 / 55. 28.100
libavcodec 57. 48.101 / 57. 48.101
libavformat 57. 41.100 / 57. 41.100
libavdevice 57. 0.102 / 57. 0.102
libavfilter 6. 47.100 / 6. 47.100
libswscale 4. 1.100 / 4. 1.100
libswresample 2. 1.100 / 2. 1.100
Input #0, video4linux2,v4l2, from '/dev/video0':
Duration: N/A, start: 278280.554691, bitrate: 147456 kb/s
Stream #0:0: Video: rawvideo (YUY2 / 0x32595559), yuyv422, 640x480, 147456 kb/s, 30 fps, 30 tbr, 1000k tbn, 1000k tbc
[swscaler @ 0x21bc770] deprecated pixel format used, make sure you did set range correctly
[ffm @ 0x21a7e70] Using AVStream.codec to pass codec parameters to muxers is deprecated, use AVStream.codecpar instead.
Output #0, ffm, to 'https://example.com:1234/stream.ffm':
creation_time : nowencoder : Lavf57.41.100
Stream #0:0: Video: mjpeg, yuvj422p(pc), 640x480, q=1-10, 1000 kb/s, 30 fps, 1000k tbn, 15 tbc
encoder : Lavc57.48.101 mjpeg
Side data:
cpb: bitrate max/min/avg: 2000000/0/1000000 buffer size: 2000000 vbv_delay: -1
Stream mapping:Stream #0:0 -> #0:0 (rawvideo (native) -> mjpeg (native))
Press [q] to stop, [?] for help
frame= 1227 fps= 15 q=24.8 size= 17500kB time=00:01:21.73 bitrate=1754.0kbits/s dup=0 drop=1207 speed= 1x

When I first wrote this, I was concerned about drop= being anything more than zero, but as it turns out, dropped frames are any that aren’t converted and transmitted. If you’re transmitting at 1fps, you’ll have 29 dropped frames.

If ffserver isn’t running or isn’t listening on the port, you’ll get this message:

[tcp @ 0x18e7410] Connection to tcp://example.com:1234 failed: Connection refused
https://example.com:1234/stream.ffm: Connection refused

You’ll get a similar message, but about a broken pipe if ffserverwas running and ffmpegwas sending to it, but it subsequently disappeared, was killed, or the connection was otherwise terminated in a ungraceful fashion.

Tweaks to the Feed

Sending the raw feed could be a bit bandwidth-intensive if you’re on something like a DSL connection. My 1280×720 raw feed transmits at about 220KB/second. That’s about 17% of my uplink (10mbps). Depending on what you set for quality, size, and bitrate in the “ portion of your ffserver config will reflect the rate at which ffmpeg transmits.

That Damn Buffer

The buffer might be large, so there could be a significant time shift. In my testing, 720×405 at 30fps yielded close to one minute behind live. This might not be a huge deal for you, but it was, for me. I suspect this was because of my Raspberry Pi’s inability to encode and transmit quick enough.



Bandwidth was a huge issue for me in the early days (read: a few days ago) so this was something I wanted to definitely pay attention to, now. I tested a few different combinations of sizes and frames/second. A few examples I saw in terms of bandwidth needed:

Dimensions Frames/second Quality Bitrate Observed buffer underflow
1280×720 1 min: 1/max: 20 ~520kbps no
1280×720 15 min: 1/max: 20 NaN yes
720×405 30 min: 1/max: 20 ~2100kbps no

In the beginning, there’ll be a spool up as ffmpeg tries to get the feed to ffserver and get it caught up to live.

Embedding the Stream

This is where we run into trouble. If you read my Pre-Introduction, you’ll know I had to recompile ffmpeg/ffserver to change the Content-type header to multipart/x-mixed-replace.

Real-Time Streaming Protocol

I tried this, too. I won’t mention all the specifics but I could never get this to work. I’m not sure what I was doing wrong but ffserver wasn’t ever able to connect to it’s own stream to push it out via RTSP. I suppose you can’t win them all.

Re-compile ffmpeg for the Custom Content-type

I thought all I’d need to do was re-compile ffmpeg on my Pi and I’d be set. I was partially on-target, there. I definitely needed to recompile to change the header, but on the relay server (where I’m running ffserver, instead. Instead of installing via apt-get, I had to follow the same instructions as I outlined for the Pi.

For my system, I had to install a few extra packages:

apt-get install build-essential gcc yasm pkg-config

Replacing the Content-type in libavformat/rawenc.c wasn’t enough, though as the server still responded with video/x-mjpeg. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what to do. I’m thinking about finding another route.

At the End of the Day

Ugh. This turned out to be more complicated than I originally anticipated. In my mind, it seemed easy to transmit the data from the webcam to a relay server.

Content-type, Content-type, Content-type! I’m going to have dreams about HTTP headers.


After originally posting this, I started searching for new options. I found stream-m and might give that a shot.


If you see anything I might have missed, let me know in the comments, below.

Update: The Day After

After thinking about this some more (#showerthoughts), I remembered we had also installed ffmpeg-dmo, which likely was still configured improperly. After updating and re-compiling it, I was able to get the new header, but the browser didn’t display the video as a video, but rather binary garbage. VLC was still able to play it.

This led me to look into the boundary= attribute for the Content-type header. After flipping this on using -strict-mime-broundary true on the sending side, it didn’t help. I suspect having the Content-type be multipart/x-mixed-replace isn’t actually helping. It seems odd that’s the case, though, as Motion returns as that content-type. I’ll have to look into it, more.

I swapped the mime-type back to video/x-motion-jpeg and re-compiled on the Pi. While this was going on, I looked into other options. I mentioned stream-m earlier, and originally liked the idea, but in order to make it work I still have to use ffmpeg as the sender and compile it, myself. There’s no instructions on how to do that and I’ve never compiled Java before. Today isn’t going to be the day that I learn.

With all that being said, I’m scrapping the ffmpeg + ffserver idea. Be on the lookout for a follow-up post where I give RTMP streaming a shot.