DVD players are the fastest-growing consumer electronics products of all time. The DVD tidal wave is swamping the market, and videotape will soon be washed away. By the end of this year, more movies will be sold in DVD format than in VHS. If you’re not mastering your own DVDs now, you will be soon.

Why all the excitement? There are dozens of excellent reasons, but here’s the short list: DVDs pack twice the resolution of VHS into a much smaller package. They’re interactive, rugged and durable. They sport extra tracks for different languages, subtitles, even multiple camera angles. Plus, you’ll never have to rewind again. Could it get any better?

Now that DVD has worked its way into a quarter of the living rooms in America and the vast majority of new computers, what’s your excuse for not jumping in with both feet?

This article explores the ways that producing for DVD differs from linear productions output to videotape. DVD authoring mandates more than just new hardware and software. From pre-production planning to interactive menu creation, it requires a whole new frame of mind.

What is DVD?

DVD is short for Digital Versatile Disc, but it’s really just a souped-up CD-ROM with greater data capacity. A computer-mounted DVD can be used to archive almost five gigabytes of data. If that data is video, it translates into roughly two solid hours of playtime. Those familiar with Digital Video (DV) on a computer will wonder how they squeeze all that video into a mere five gigs. After all, the comparable size of a two-hour movie in the DV format is closer to twenty-six gigs. The answer is better compression, namely MPEG-2.

However, there is a price to pay for this big squeeze. Crunching bits with MPEG-2 is so computer-intensive that it may take a whole day for some older computers to compress a mere hour of video. On the other end, you need some serious horsepower to decode and play back MPEG-2 as well. Fortunately, newer gigahertz computers can do the job in real-time. And new chips, custom-made to compress video, can do the job at least twice as fast.

MPEG-2 compression technology is not necessarily easy to implement and is even harder to understand. It’s also not the only technical hurdle DVD producers need to overcome, but it is certainly one of the most important.

What Can I Do with DVD?

If you’ve ever played a DVD, you know that it’s much more than just a high-resolution videotape. The first clue is the menu system. When you pop a commercial DVD disc into a player, it typically does not begin playing the movie immediately. Instead, you are usually presented with a menu with a number of different setup options. Often, the movie is broken up into a number of chapters, just like a book. And, like a book, you can jump to any of these chapters and begin watching the movie from any point, instantly, without fast forwarding or rewinding. Random access is the fundamental difference between DVDs and traditional linear videotape. This nonlinearity needs to be at the front of your mind when thinking about making a DVD.

Garden Variety DVD

One of the best uses for the DVD format is nonlinear format productions and applications that do not need a narrative structure. A DVD produced for a public garden could have movie clips highlighting each area of the garden. A simple menu might be:


The Anderson Gardens

Dahlias

Callas

Roses

Lilies

You could have a simple text menu against a solid screen, but that’s pretty boring. Jazz it up with a nice background screen – but not too busy or it will distract from the text. You might use Photoshop to blur your background for a softer effect (Figure 1).

To make it look more professional, place a picture or thumbnail on each button. Many software packages will use the first frame of a clip for a button, but you may want to find a particular shot that illustrates the clip better (Figure 2).

DVD of Local Highlights

Let’s say you want to put together a DVD for your local chamber of commerce. You might list some of the top hotspots in your county on the main menu, with a background map for interest, and let the viewer choose. Use scanned or digital photos for higher quality button images (Figure 3). Like the garden disc, the strength of the format is that viewers do not need to sit through the sections they are not interested in.

Training DVD

There are applications that can follow a linear track and still use the random access capabilities of DVDs to great advantage. Corporate training materials can really benefit from solid and well-planned DVD authoring. The first menu could offer eight lessons, each one a video that explains how to do something the correct way. Each segment could then end with a simple quiz. The quiz is really just another menu. If the viewers use the remote to select the right answer, a movie clip congratulates them and then takes them back to the starting menu for another lesson. If the wrong answer is selected, the menu item could link back to the relevant section of the lesson that teaches the concept.

Unlike the previous examples, the idea isn’t to conveniently allow people to skip sections they don’t want to watch (in fact, that could be a problem), but instead the DVD acts as a simple feedback tool, allowing instant repetition and access to the most important content with the press of a remote control button.

Interactive Movies

These examples are typical, but you could go farther. You could tell several different stories, based on user preferences. This is a tricky business, but it can lead to interesting results and could be the basis for a cinematic game. Again, it is just a matter of authoring menus that occur throughout the DVD, offering branching choices that dictate the flow of the story. This is a very interesting and creative idea that really hasn’t caught on in Hollywood and it is difficult to tell how viewers will receive it.

Web-enabled DVD

Imagine mixing this all together with the power of the Internet. On your DVD-equipped computer, you can have a menu item that points to a Web page for further information (Figure 4). That means that you can keep your burned DVDs fresh with the latest information on the Web. You can even have a Web page that drives the content on your DVD. Or put your training material on DVD and your quizzes online. That gives you automatic scoring and the ability to change the questions anytime.

How do I get started?

You can create your own DVD, complete with menus, using DVD authoring applications. These programs let you create menus and then attach movie clips to the menu selections. Authoring programs allow you to create interactivity and define how the nonlinear navigation menu works.

If your final product is going to be played back on a typical DVD player, your choices are limited. Although you can buy a standalone DVD recorder, it won’t be able to do much in the way of authoring. To author your own DVD, you need a DVD burner for your PC, available now for less than $500 (see the sidebars for some exceptions). And of course you need the authoring software. Keep in mind that the process of actually recording a DVD (sometimes called "burning") is a separate operation from the authoring part. Authoring is a creative and potentially complex task, while burning is something that your computer does at the click of a button.

Computer DVD vs. Living Room DVD

You have more choices and better compatibility authoring for an audience watching on a computer than on a standalone living room player.

You can create and burn computer-based DVD titles on common and inexpensive CD-R media. It is even possible to build in Web interactivity and programmatic interaction with applications on the client computer.

What are you waiting for?

DVD is hot. It can make you look like a Hollywood professional once you have spent the time to learn the ropes. For dynamite presentations, interactive video, kiosks, video catalogs, games and training materials, there is no peer.

Knowing how to author your own DVDs is a rare opportunity to wield enormous creative power with very little work. There is no doubt that this is an area that is going to be in high demand for years to come, from parents who want the wedding on DVD to bosses who need corporate training available in an interactive format. Now that you know the basics of authoring, stay ahead of the curve. Get out there and burn some plastic!

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