The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Byline: Barry Braverman

When it comes to DVD these days, it’s a fact of the marketplace that content owners are king. With DVD’s low per-unit cost for replication and distribution – less than a dollar per disc including the cost of a first-class stamp – those who control the rights to even the most obscure subject matter have the potential to make millions right now. And many folks are doing exactly that.

In a DVD Studio Pro class last year, I had a woefully depressed student who lamented how he had sold the rights to his family’s martial arts film library several years before for $25,000. The seven films were produced in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, and by 1994 it seemed highly unlikely he would realize much additional revenue theatrically or from VHS rentals. So, eyeing the 35mm printing elements clogging his Encino apartment, he sold off the lot for what seemed like a fair amount of money. But then came DVD a few years later, and DVD Studio Pro a few years after that, and suddenly the folly of the sale fell on him like a ton of Amaray cases.

Of course, the California producer who acquired the series rights is delighted, as he has since marketed the ultimate martial arts collection worldwide and has literally earned millions in sales. All this because my student had not anticipated the quantum economic shift soon to be afforded by DVD.

Shooters are in an especially good position to profit from the new DVD-centric marketplace. That is because as image creators, we are also often content owners, who can (with the help of tools like Apple’s new DVD Studio Pro 2) bring many potentially lucrative projects to market. A case in point: If you’re a ’50s Chevy nut like me, you can shoot Chevys until you’re powder blue in the face. You can edit and author the DVD for almost pennies in Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro, and then sell the finished DVDs to other car nuts for $15 apiece. You don’t have to sell 100,000 units to break even anymore. Even if you sell only a few thousand DVDs to similarly afflicted car nuts – well, you can do the math. There’s plenty of gold in them thar discs!

To mine this gold, however, we need smart DVD authoring tools that don’t insult our intelligence as craftsmen. I, for one, am fed up with the proliferation of brainless one-click “solutions” currently flooding the market. As shooters, we are cut from a much finer polymer, so we understand that compelling DVDs require some degree of customization and creative genius.

DVD Studio Pro 2 recognizes the simple fact that DVD authoring is a craft like any other, and while its user interface is easy and inspired, the program also allows for considerable application of the DVD maker’s craft. The degree to which DVD Studio Pro 2 allows users the ability to create highly customized DVD titles is a testament to Apple’s understanding of the digital craftsman. Given the program’s menu-preparation tools, critical “playlist” function, and substantial scripting capabilities, DVD Studio Pro 2 is without equal in the marketplace today. And at $499 retail, when it comes to creating commercially viable DVD titles, there is nothing that comes remotely close on either platform.

Apple’s DVD Studio Pro 2 inspires a passion seldom seen in new (or new versions of) software. In my July class at Video Symphony in Burbank, my overly sedate career students oohed and aahed on several occasions, a sure sign we were dealing with something special here. And when they broke into applause upon being introduced to drop zones inside motion menus – whoa! It was as if they couldn’t help themselves.

So I took a few notes. Here are the things that turned my students on:

Import anything

You can drag pretty much anything into Assets, including any QuickTime movie or any of the more than 225 file types supported by the QuickTime architecture. The power of QuickTime in the new program is the key to DVD Studio Pro’s beauty.

You can also import entire folders of assets – a major improvement in general workflow over version 1.5. Such functionality seldom gets the headlines in press releases, but DVDers working long hours under tight deadlines understand the intrinsic value of such workflow enhancements.

Let it slide

The Slideshow feature is also seriously improved. Since any graphic file supported by QuickTime may be imported into Studio Pro 2, users are no longer limited to PICT files and PSD files with at least two layers. Even more impressively, still images regardless of frame size are properly scaled to fit DVD-Video’s required 720×480 (NTSC) frame dimensions.

The biggest improvement in the Slideshow function is the new ability to run continuous audio under a series of slides. This gives shooters and DVD authors a significant new capability, as many folks today want to include everything and the kitchen sink on their discs.

Slideshows are an excellent way to accommodate such extra material as crew bios without substantially affecting the project’s overall bit budget. For shooters, this means more bits for the DVD’s primary attraction, and thus better-looking images there, which, for many of us on the camera side, is the name of the game.

Hardware integration

DVD Studio Pro 2’s tight integration with the Macintosh hardware is a beautiful thing to experience, as contextual pop-up arrays contribute mightily to the smooth workflow.

This level of integration takes some getting used to, especially for Windows users, as the temptation is to simply drag-and-drop, instead of drag-hold-for-the-menu selection-select-and-then-drop. The fired-up menus are impressive, and this level of user inter-activity is seldom attempted on Windows boxes, where a given hardware configuration, chipset, and graphics card can never be assumed.

This is, of course, one of Apple’s great advantages: that software designed for the Mac OS can be optimized to take direct advantage of the computer maker’s core technology.

The money is in the menus

I often relate to my students the illuminating fact that three-quarters of a typical entertainment DVD’s budget is dedicated to the preparation and encoding of assets, including still and motion menus. Apple clearly recognized the pivotal role of menus in DVD Land by incorporating awesome menu preparation tools in DVD Studio Pro 2.

In DVD Studio Pro 1.5, menu assets had to be finalized, then encoded before importing. That’s no longer the case, as the authoring tool now has powerful graphics capabilities built in. One downside of this is the substantial rendering that may be required prior to building the disc. For those of you laggards, this means a fast late-model Mac is now imperative. Apple specifies a minimum 733MHz G4, and you would be wise to respect this minimum.

As an experiment, several students in my July DVD Studio Pro 2 class tried an underpowered 400MHz G4 and experienced extremely slow performance and multiple crashes during simulation and building of discs.

The ability to modify menu graphics inside Studio Pro 2 is a major time-saver. A Back button, for example, may be easily added to a pre-existing background graphic without the need to leave the application. What a godsend!

Formerly, the beleaguered DVD author had to toggle back and forth between Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to make such routine changes. The constant shifting between applications was laborious, not to mention time-consuming, as it interrupted the author’s concentration and smooth workflow. Of course, most menu designers will still want to use the more traditional workhorses in conjunction with DVD Studio Pro 2, but for many tasks, the application’s built-in menu capabilities may be sufficient.

Check out the menu specials

DVD authors-turned-menu designers should take advantage of the powerful drop zone feature, which, in the tradition of iDVD, permits the multiple layering and mortising of still and motion graphics. This is a killer feature, as an entire suite of Apple and user-defined templates can be modified in seconds with great sophistication.

Putting on the squeeze

For the shooter, there is probably no greater DVD concern than the quality of MPEG-2 encoding. After all, substandard, ugly, artifact-laced images are easily recognized by even the most unsophisticated viewer, and thus reflect poorly on both the shooter and the overall professionalism of the DVD title.

The included Compressor application offers decent but not great performance. Since DVD Studio Pro 2 will accept any DVD-compliant MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 streams, more image-obsessed shooters may want to check out Innobits BitVice, which offers considerably better performance but at much lower speed.

Still, Compressor represents a major improvement over the old QuickTime transcoder. The new software features one-pass, constant bit rate encoding, which, along with a closed GOP structure, is essential for multi-angle titles. The variable bit rate modes include one-pass and two-pass options; in both cases, an analysis ahead of the actual encode helps to identify complex scenes, thus providing a far more efficient allocation of bits.

Owing to the superior results, especially at low and moderate bit rates, shooters should consider Compressor’s slower two-pass mode de rigeur. Unless the FedEx man is already pulling up to your door, in which case you have to do what you have to do. Again, a faster Mac will reward you with substantially faster encoding times. The latest-generation speed demons cut required waiting time by 50% or more.

By far, the biggest news in Compressor is the built-in 24p support. This is a huge step forward for shooters working in this preferred format. Shooters can take advantage of 24p native video (shot with the Panasonic AG-DVX100, for example), capture in Advanced mode into FCP 4, and export to DVD Studio Pro 2 via Compressor at 24p.

Dear shooters, consider what this means: The aliasing artifacts associated with NTSC’s interlaced images are averted throughout the filmmaking process; we save 20% of disc space encoding at 24fps; and we’re not creating ugly artifacts of redundant fields and frames (which would be the case encoding at 29.97 NTSC).

Today, 24p production makes ultimate sense, as every DVD player in the world is natively a 24p playback device. Apple’s new Compressor application is one of the first DVD tools to recognize this new reality, which allows shooters to maintain a high-end 24p film look throughout the postproduction and DVD authoring process.

Scripting your future

With one brainless DVD authoring program after another seemingly flooding the market, it is refreshing to see Apple considering the needs of the DVD craftsman. The ability to assign values to variables (GPRMs) and frame arguments is an absolute requirement of any authoring tool that dares to call itself a professional application. After all, the essence of building a compelling DVD depends on one’s ability to control the DVD player’s 16 General Parameters, and it is essential that one has access to these critical controls in the authoring environment.

The execution of proper submenu navigation, “smart” buttons, tests and quizzes that keep score, and secret codes for limiting viewer access are all predicated on one’s ability to utilize scripts and manipulate GPRMs.

Critically speaking, the advanced command programming used by the Hollywood studios is possible and achievable in DVD Studio Pro 2, from the DVD player’s built-in calculator and timer controls to BitWise compare and randomizing functions. It’s all there – well, almost. The author actually has access to only eight of the 16 GPRMs in DVD Studio Pro; the remaining eight GPRMs are used by the application’s substantial abstraction layer.

A few minor quibbles

Working with any version 1 program over the course of a five-day class can be revealing, and that was certainly the case at Video Symphony in late July. This Apple software is not without a few minor shortcomings.

First, there is no built-in storyboarding feature, which for most of us means continuing to use such flow-charting tools as Inspiration, OmniGraffle, or Microsoft Visio (on a PC). A storyboard and flow chart are more than a luxury, as they help build credibility with the client while serving as the basis for efficient workflow. Let’s lobby for such a tool in a future update. And while we’re at it, how about a bit-budgeting utility? Even better, how about a smart one that considers such factors as a strategic bit reserve or multi-angle?

One omission in DVD Studio Pro 2 is a graphic overview. Those accustomed to version 1.5 or high-end authoring tools like Sonic DVD Creator and Sonic Scenarist understand the value of seeing a DVD’s layout in a single view. Maybe we’ll get used to not having such a perspective, but for now I believe a graphic overview of the entire project makes sense.

Other quibbles: The Properties Inspector sometimes falsely reports Closed GOP assets as Open GOP when importing encoded files with a GOP size other than 15 frames. (This was also a problem in version 1.5 of the software.) Also, the names of buttons and drop zones do not update properly, and the Show Inspector menu option is in the wrong place. It should be in the Views menu. Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed in the next revision.

Designed for the craftsman

Needless to say, one can work with any DVD authoring tool to create a simple title. That much is no longer an issue. But creating a compelling DVD is a whole other matter. By use of a superb workflow, advanced menu-preparation features, a vital story/playlist function, and virtually unrestricted scripting capability, DVD Studio Pro 2 lends itself well to the needs of today’s digital craftsman, from shooter to DVD author.

And it does so elegantly, intelligently, and with oh-so-many oohs and aahs.

Barry Braverman is director of DVD training at Video Symphony in Burbank, Calif., where he teaches Sonic DVD Creator, Sonic Scenarist, and Apple DVD Studio Pro.

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