DV Authoring Revolution
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 4 (April 2004)

DV Authoring Revolution

It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, of course, considering one is hardware and one is software. But, imagine this: In a two-year span from 1999 to 2001, DVD authoring software went from a high of $10,000 to free (with the purchase of a new Apple Mac OS computer). What has followed is a proliferation of sub-$100, consumer-oriented packages for Windows from a variety of manufacturers, as well as an emerging class of highly capable professional products priced between $500 and $1000.

A general move toward the "abstraction layer" was the trigger for, and major outgrowth from, dramatic changes in the DVD industry. Think of it as the GUI built around the powerful back-end DVD engine code that takes all your assets—video, menus, and navigation instructions—and turns them into a compliant "DVD disk image."

Job One for any DVD authoring software is simply building and organizing a set of files that a very simple (relative to a CPU-equipped device) consumer DVD player can read. The DVD specification lays out surprisingly advanced ways for viewers to interact with that simple player, from scrolling through a menu and choosing a movie to selecting features like parental control, region coding, and copy protection to switching the view between different angles of the same scene with no more than a common remote. DVD discs can even be programmed to save viewer selections in a player's "memory," thus allowing advanced authors to write if/then logic statements that might, for example, jump to a different version of a movie if the viewer answers a question a certain way. However, even the most basic authoring requires sophisticated programming to create that "compliant disk image."

Older authoring programs like Sonic's Scenarist and DVD Creator (for the Mac OS) have a user interface, of course, but those applications were, and still are, built to give DVD authors direct access to the entire DVD specification. At the highest levels of DVD creation, Scenarist's complete control over everything the DVD spec allows is the only way to go, even if the interface requires thorough training to accomplish even the most basic operations.
Adobe Encore's tight integration with Adobe Photoshop, as well as its price/performance ratio, makes it an attractive DVD authoring option.

Yet, DVD's broader success clearly comes from bringing DVD creation to a more accessible level and isolating users from both the complexity and the esoteric jargon that plagued early authoring systems. These days, you'll occasionally see references to things like Video Title Sets, GPRMs, color-mapping, and pre-commands, but abstraction-layer authoring software now shields the user from most of the techno-speak and does the programming needed behind the scenes to accomplish a designer's goals.

The most affordable DVD authoring software available today—including Inter-Video's WinDVD Creator, MedioStream's neoDVD, Pinnacle's DVD Express, Roxio's DVD Builder (a utility inside Easy CD & DVD Creator), Sonic's MyDVD, Ulead's DVD Movie Factory, and Apple's iDVD4—is designed to offer users a very straightforward working environment for creating simple titles, essentially just a couple of video clips with a menu in front, in a very accessible way. Many actually include capture utilities so users can go from camcorder footage to disk directly. Of course, even those applications still need the sophisticated behind-the-scenes programming of the DVD engine.

Almost all consumer DVD authoring software supports splashy functions like motion menus (menu buttons over a clip from the video or 3D animation and/or animated buttons), but do so easily. They also support drag-and-drop links to clips and automatically create button graphics from a still frame of the dragged clip. Many use templates to position buttons handsomely on either a stock or a custom menu background. All that seems basic, and it should. It has gone from very difficult to very easy.

Because the main job of DVD authoring is getting compliant media onto a disk, some design professionals will find as much as they need—a simple "print-to-disk" function—in one of those consumer tools. But, more advanced programming options make for better design possibilities. The industry is settling into a professional-oriented class of products for between $500 and $700 that includes Adobe's Encore DVD, Apple's DVD Studio Pro, Sonic's DVDit and ReelDVD, and Ulead's DVD Workshop. Pinnacle's Impression DVD Pro has some of the same professional features, via a unique timeline work flow, for just $199.

Most of these applications offer the same ease-of-use features that the consumer tools have, including stock templates, buttons, and backgrounds. However, most professionals creating custom titles start with Adobe Photoshop files for menus and buttons. Most higher-level applications support layered PSD files, so you can design menu backgrounds and buttons in one layered file and import it into the authoring environment. Adobe even offers round-trip editing between Photoshop and Encore.

Design professionals also may want access to more advanced DVD features, including the eight audio tracks, 32 subtitle tracks for foreign language support, and the ability to create chapter marks within video clips, affording multiple "scenes" or entry points in a movie. More precise navigation options allow, for example, something other than simply returning to the main menu at the end of a clip. DVD Studio Pro 2 provides access to the memory parameters, the GPRMs and SPRMs, for fancy if/then logic, also a strength of Scenarist, which still commands a heavy price.

Interestingly, image quality is tied only peripherally to the authoring software you use. Today, just about any package, from consumer to professional, will include a software MPEG-2 encoder for your convenience. It's part of the abstraction level idea and allows you to drag non-MPEG clips into a project and let the authoring software worry about creating a "compliant" MPEG at the end. Yet, most software (iDVD is a notable exception) can import ready-to-use MPEG files encoded by whatever tool you think best.
In addition to affordability, Ulead's DVD Workshop 2 offers users ease of use and an intuitive interface.

Yet, in many ways, that flexibility exemplifies DVD authoring as the final piece of the digital video revolution that began with companies such as Avid and Montage fiddling with the idea of editing video on a computer and Apple dabbling with postage stamp-sized QuickTime movies. In the mid-1990s, when nonlinear editing (NLE) system image quality had gone from off-line, rough-cut editing to industrial-quality finishing, postproduction was, more often than not, a digital island. You'd capture and digitize analog raw footage into an edit system and ultimately save to analog tape at the end. Later, with Digital BetaCam, D1, and the liberating introduction of the DV format, digital video moved into the production process with digital cameras doing the digitizing. From there, it's little more than a file transfer to the NLE. Still, delivery meant tape, usually analog.

With DVD, digital media can stay digital all the way through the process, maintaining a very high quality even in deliverables to the client, customer, or collaborator. Of course, for a while at the end of the digital video decade of the '90s, it looked as though the digital answer for distribution would be the Web—and maybe it still will be. But bandwidth limitations, especially to the masses, were and still are a serious bottleneck for full-quality delivery.

Thankfully, the success and proliferation of DVD players, as well as the now consumer-level pricing on DVD record-ers and re-writable burners, have yielded a diversity of authoring software that enables anything from effective print-to-disk simplicity to an entirely new creative process in menu design, custom navigation, and other unique design elements.

It's likely that DVD authoring has finally discarded its early reputation for being hard to accomplish—and that's good. The last thing a creative designer needs at the end of a project is more work, and DVDs' increasing ease of output for basic functions solves a genuine need for simple content delivery. On the other hand, the rich design and programming options for building a DVD offer the creative mind a wonderful new method to personalize and customize. In either case, both methods are better than just printing to tape.

Jeff Sauer is a freelance writer, video producer, and director of the Digital Video Group, an independent testing and research organization for digital media