DVD Menu Authoring

Once upon a time, making a video dub was a simple thing. You slapped a tape into a VCR, fed the deck a signal, and pushed Record. While there’s no denying that the switch from a VHS culture to a DVD culture has given us a lot of benefits in such important areas as image quality and signal consistency, there is one area where dubbing to DVD is much more complicated. And that’s the fact that when you go to burn a DVD, you’ll need to do at least some basic disc authoring.

A big part of authoring is structuring your DVD’s menus and linking them to the videos, pictures and other content on your disc in a way that lets the user navigate easily through it.

DVD Standard

The standard DVD interface — at least, as experienced on most Hollywood-style movie DVDs — is that upon disc insertion, a "first-play" screen appears, usually some sort of FBI warning, followed by the main navigation menu with buttons to help users navigate to the content they want to watch. Often, menu screens provide the option to play the entire movie or to jump to various chapter points within the movie. There also might be global options that need to be established, such as screen format (standard or widescreen), audio preferences (Dolby or DTS surround sound, for example, or just plain stereo) and the viewer’s language preference. The underlying reality is that in order for these choices to function, the disc’s author has to make a series of decisions as to what features are appropriate for the viewer.

DVDs are non-linear in nature, which means the viewer doesn’t have to watch the content from start to finish. The format allows the user to jump from scene to scene, or in some cases from video to video, or even to still images or other "bonus" content. So we might find that building a DVD is a bit more like building a Web site than recording a videotape. In order for the DVD to function, the designer must link things together. This often makes the process of menu creation a bit complicated.

Knowing that their chances of selling their software to more users will likely increase if they can keep the interface as simple as possible, software manufacturers often build in as much automation as they can. Still, it’s left up to the DVD producer to make many of the decisions about how the menus will look and function.

Aesthetics

So where do you begin when you approach the process of designing menus for your next DVD project? It’s tempting to approach menu design in the same way you’d approach other artistic endeavors, putting a premium on creativity and working hard to make your DVD unique and special. But the creative approach to menu design is not always the best approach; often, simplicity and common sense win out over creativity and originality. Unless, of course, your goal is to frustrate the DVD’s end user. One comforting thought is that it’s not always necessary to completely re-invent the wheel; there are copious examples of ergonomic menu design in the world today.

Look at a variety of Web sites and DVDs and you’ll discover that menu designers have some established standards for screen layout. Generally speaking, commands for elements like the program title and global navigation are located at the top of the screen. Down the left side of the frame run sub-menus or choices related to page topics, and the lower right of the screen is often reserved for the display of text or other site content. While these are the standard conventions, there are lots of examples of ways that DVD designers can break these rules and still build content that’s both easy to understand and navigate.

But like the old saying goes, it’s better to break the rules after you’ve learned to understand them.


Get Graphic

One of the big successes of modern DVD authoring programs is the use of the graphical interface to make the process of linking DVD assets easier and more logical.

Once upon a time, a DVD author had to write code in order to instruct an authoring system how to playback a video or audio asset or how to jump between chapters or other content divisions. Today’s software allows those same links to be accomplished by simply dropping an icon onto another or dragging a visual line between two boxes representing programming actions. Still, no matter how easy the software designers try to make the process of authoring the typical DVD, it will always remain more complicated than the old fashioned process of popping a tape in the VCR and pushing the Record button.

Aesthetic vs. Technical

DVD authoring will always be a combination of the technical and the aesthetic. In order to do it well, you need to pay attention to both. While you might be tempted to express extreme creativity in your screen designs, there are plenty of DVDs out there that are so clever that it’s nearly impossible to use them no matter how hard you try.

Edgy designers, in their quest to make a hip or edgy title, often bury buttons and menu choices in a forest of design elements, reducing the user interface to a matter of guesswork. Until very recently, authoring DVDs was the province of professionals. Today, it’s a task that is only a DVD burner and some inexpensive (or free!) software away.

The challenge is to look around the world of DVD authoring, learn the techniques that make a DVD successful, then adapt those lessons to your own authoring. If you do, your reward will be DVDs that you’re proud to build and others are happy to use; better still, they won’t become a handy coffee-table coaster instead of a prized DVD.

Links to Nowhere

Back when nearly all DVDs were professionally authored with the goal of duplicating massive numbers of discs, authoring was a complicated process. One necessary part of the complication came in the form of an elaborate series of checks and balances that were put in place to make sure that before the DVD stamping machines began churning out literally thousands of discs, the authoring of those discs was as flawless as possible.

Fast forward to today with desktop DVD burners selling for well under $100 and easily capable of creating "one-off" discs for a variety of purposes — and there’s not the same sense of urgency about getting things just right before you burn your DVD. The downside is that by eliminating the checks and balances steps, more errors tend to creep into the DVD authoring process.

Ask anyone who’s taken the plunge into home DVD authoring how many useless silver coasters they’ve created while learning to burn their own DVDs and you’ll understand why it’s still important to check and double-check your authoring work.

Part of the Check Disc process that exists in most authoring programs is to proof all the navigation functions and make sure that every action leads to another so that the user doesn’t get stuck in an annoying navigational blind alley. With today’s shift to simple DVD authoring programs and home DVD burners, many of those checks and balances have been removed for simplicity’s sake. This, of course, puts a greater burden on the author to make sure things are just right before pushing the convenient Burn button on your DVD authoring software.


Beware the Navigational Black Hole!

Many DVDs have crossed our desks in which the following occurs: we’ve happily clicked on a Play Chapter button, only to discover that the disc stopped cold at the end of the chapter. Try as we might, we could find no way to navigate anywhere. Clearly, the interface designer didn’t link the end of chapter behavior to anything, so when the clip reached the end of its chapter, the only way to get back to a navigation menu was to actually eject the disc and reload it. This is obviously not the way to keep your customers happy. So if you learn nothing else from this article, learn to take every disc that you create and proof and double-proof your navigation.

Trust me, you’ll be glad you did, you’ll save alot of grief and after all, the world is already full of coffee-table coasters!

Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

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