What Makes DVDs Go 'Round

When it comes to making your own DVD, the only thing more important than the movie is how the viewer gets to see it: will you start with an animated splash screen? Or will it go directly to the main menu? Will you have all sorts of buttons to select from? Or will you use just a few straightforward panels with text? These are the decisions to consider before you make your DVD. Let’s look at some commercial DVDs and how they handle the menus.

Animation: The Lion King 1 1/2

Most discs start with some type of start up animations, previews or warning screens, and Disney’s The Lion King 1 1/2 is no exception. After the Disney logo and a spate of video previews (which you can skip), the screen goes black and then changes into a frenzy of activity. The main menu is quite active and busy. Our old friend Timon the merekat looks on as various animals move all of the scenery into position on a movie stage. Once all the action is complete, the title appears on a static screen, accompanied by music and random animation of Timon popping up from the tall grass.

Animation can add a lot to a menu. In this case, the opening is so entertaining and goes by so fast that it only enthralls the viewer. And, since the main audience for this disc is children, a little bit of craziness is probably appropriate. For most adults, the animation is cute once, but could quickly become quite annoying to watch over and over again. When you select a feature from the main menu, there’s another brief animation featuring Timon that takes you to a new screen. The new screen features its own animation and music and quickly shows you the choices you can now select.


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These animations require you to watch until they finish, but they move very fast. Since DVD menus are just MPEG-2 movies, anything you can encode for a DVD you can use as a menu. Basically, this means you have unlimited creative possibilities. An important consideration is whether the viewer must wait for the animation to finish before pressing a button to continue.

Theme music from the movie is constantly playing in the background of the menus, but it changes depending upon which menu you are on. It’s fairly long, so it doesn’t become too repetitive. Music clips can be short or long, but the only reason for having a lengthy audio track is if you have a lot to look at on a particular menu screen. If you do not have an animated or video background, music can increase the amount of space the menu takes up on the disc.

Using Photos: The Maltese Falcon

Children’s discs are colorful, loud and fun, but a classic movie, such as The Maltese Falcon, would take a very different approach. Humphrey Bogart stars in this classic tough guy detective film and the opening splash screen is as subtle as our detective ain’t: it’s just a simple, static photo of Bogey at a desk with the Maltese Falcon perched before him. The black and white image has been colorized and the menu buttons highlight when pressed.

This is a good example of a straightforward main menu page. Taking this as an example, you have all of the choices presented right there in front of you without any distractions.

Pressing one of the buttons takes you immediately to other screens which also use photos. There’s a consistency that keeps you in the era and mood of the movie. It’s important to maintain a consistent feel throughout your DVD’s various menus, whether using artwork, video clips or photography. Theme music from the movie plays during the opening menu, but disappears once you go to the other menus. The menus are also a part of the content of the disc, as a series of menus superimposed over photos serve as a history about detectives. The photo here is very stylized and simple, which keeps the text from being lost and so remains easy to read. When you place text over a photo, strive to make sure the photo isn’t competing with the text.

Motion Video: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD jumps right in (after the obligatory Paramount logo) and hits the ground running. The action-packed splash screen goes on for quite a while, but what’s really cool about it is that the text seen at the bottom is active: you can navigate to any part of the disc during the splashy introduction. Once the main menu appears, you’ll still have access to the same choices, of course. This disc really has two menus that serve the same purpose as far as navigation is concerned. This is not a bad idea at all and allows the producers to present some exciting footage without interfering with disc navigation.

When the main menu finally comes up, it continues the theme of motion video by having a moving map rotate in the background. And after about 30 seconds, if you don’t touch anything, the splash video starts up again. If you select a feature, animations appear as a transition between menu screens (a plane flying you from one screen to another, for example). The new screen also features different music to suit the mood.

Suddenly going back to the splash screen can be annoying, and the transition gets old quickly as well. If you have a cycling screen, it’s a good idea to make sure that there’s enough time for the viewer to digest everything before it starts up again and the viewer can get out of it quickly. Still, Raiders is a fun action film, so there’s really no reason the DVD can’t be fun as well. If your movie falls into a genre where this sort of excitement is appropriate, menus like this can be quite fun.

Video: National Lampoon’s Animal House

Comedy flicks are another genre that often have unusual menus that are more than just navigational aides and National Lampoon’s Animal House (Double-secret Probation Edition) is a good example. Following the Universal logo and a series of previews that you can’t skip, the Animal House splash screen begins. It’s a riotous blending of video and text and music that really sets the mood for what this comedy is all about.

You might not need to run previews on your DVD for marketing purposes, but if you have any splash screens that come up before your main menu, you should seriously consider whether you want to prevent viewers from skipping them. Advanced DVD authoring software allows you to disable remote control button presses like stop, fast forward, next and menu. Be very cautious about doing this however. If you do want to force your viewers to watch something (e.g. an FBI warning screen), keep it short and make sure it really is vital.

Once on the Animal House main menu, the music cycles through selections from the film, as do the video clips on one side of the screen. The right side is static and changes only when making a selection. Then the text flies off the screen as everything blurs and becomes a new screen with new selections to make. Having motion video on one side and text and the selection buttons on the other can be very effective. It lets you show something while at the same time the viewer can decide to move on to something else. Sometimes, however, all a menu screen needs to work is plain text, accompanied by a plain background or a simple photograph.

Animation and Photos: 24 – Season 2

The television show 24 Season 2 DVD also has a sharp menu. Similar to the fast paced action of the show, a high-tech surveillance map of the world unveils itself at breakneck speed as a set of moving cross-hairs track back and forth before dissolving into the main menu. Background music begins and ends with this splash video.

A quick moving splash opening can intrigue the viewer, especially if there’s a sense of urgency involved. The main menu itself is static and features a photo of the main character, Jack Bauer, tinted in blue. When you select an episode, the menu immediately switches to a sub-menu which features a new photo interwoven with Chapters of the episode.

At this point, it’s up to the viewer to decide what to watch. Sometimes it’s good to let people feel they’re the ones in control.

While the disc gives you access to a lot of content, moving from a menu to a sub-menu and then playing the episode might be too much clicking.

Before You Burn

Unlike VHS, DVD isn’t linear and you can create links between how a video plays, and that changes the viewing experience. Creating the way your DVD starts and how it’s going to let the viewer move through the selections does require thought, but don’t forget that a menu system isn’t just pragmatic. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. The movie may be your primary concern, but the menu is the first impression folks will get.

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology and entertainment writer whose experience in the industry spans more than 20 years.

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