A year ago, we were excited, but conservatively optimistic about home DVD authoring. High prices and low compatibility loomed large in our thinking. With second and third-generation recorders dropping below $200 and blank media around $1 a disc, price is no longer prohibitive. Software is also entering a new generation, with fewer bugs and greater stability. Fierce competition has also meant better quality, more features and lower prices. This is good news for the would-be home DVD maker, as it means that you can concentrate on the art of making DVDs, and not the technology.

Easier than Editing

DVD authoring software typically performs three functions: encoding video, menu authoring and burning the disc. Perhaps surprisingly, almost all basic applications support all three functions, but some of the more advanced, professional and specialized authoring applications only author and do not encode or burn.

  • Encoding – Most people do not want to deal with the complexities of encoding, so you’ll want to make sure that your authoring app has an encoder (Main Concept’s encoder is the most common). For those of you who are interested in the art of the compressionist, there are advanced applications such as Canopus ProCoder or Discreet Cleaner, as well as MPEG specialists like the Tsunami encoder (TMPGenc).
  • Burning – Burning is even less interesting than encoding and shouldn’t be any more complex than clicking the Burn button. You should make sure your authoring application is capable of burning discs if you need that capability, however. Most do have burning capabilities.
  • Menu Authoring – DVD authoring applications are primarily about creating attractive and functional menus. A typical menu will have a background image, a title and smaller thumbnail images that represent the various chapters or movies on the disc. The focus of authoring is layout and design, which is really pretty fun. For those of us who do not have degrees in layout, many programs offer professionally designed templates. Not only are attractive templates a boon to the artistically challenged, but they can also be huge timesavers. The only potential downside to templates is that they might limit your freedom. For DVD novices, we really like applications like Apple iDVD and Sonic MyDVD that start you out with templates, but also give you the freedom to change anything you want later. Another approach that we like, used in applications like Dazzle DVD Complete, is a software Wizard which can walk you through the DVD menu creation process step-by-step.

    Bells and Whistles

    We’re not going to tell you how to create your DVD (in this article), but we will suggest that once you have a single attractive menu with thumbnails to navigate to the various chapters, that is probably all you need. When you design your disc, always keep your viewer in mind, especially when you consider the extra bells and whistles offered by some programs, such as Ulead DVD Workshop or Sonic DVDit!

  • Submenus – Complex DVDs might need submenus, but you should always count the number of clicks it takes users before they can actually play the movie. Also consider that your viewer isn’t you and a complex disc structure might result in people getting lost or confused when all they really want to do is watch your video.
  • Animations – Many authoring applications allow you to animate the background and the individual menu thumbnails (referred to as motion menus and backgrounds). These features typically add rendering time to the disc creation process and often add nothing to the actual information, content or ease of navigation of the disc. But we must admit that it sure is cool and it is an optional feature we like.
  • Background Music – Background music can also be annoying, but not if it is done well. It can be tricky to get the music to loop properly (making the end transition seamlessly back to the start of the music), but most Hollywood DVDs have a music bed.
  • Start Up Splashes – When you first pop that disc in the player, wouldn’t it be neat to have a logo swoosh in? This is called a "first play" movie and, again, is completely optional. You should make sure that you don’t have a horrible intro before or between every menu. You may personally think it is cool, but trust us: like Web sites with annoying Flash Intros ("Skip Intro"), your viewers will be vexed if they repeatedly have to see your extreme cleverness. Seeing it once as a "first play" is enough.

    Advanced Features

    We consider the previously mentioned Bells and Whistles to be fun but optional extras (unless your client or boss demands them). The following list highlights a number of important advanced features that that might not be a part of more basic authoring applications. Some reasonably priced applications that support some or all of these more advanced features are Apple DVD Studio Pro, Pinnacle Impression and Sonic ReelDVD.

  • Subtitles – If you need subtitles (and widely distributed productions should have them to accommodate the broadest audience), make sure your chosen authoring application allows you to insert them. Subtitling is an extremely labor-intensive task, so you should carefully consider your subtitling needs beyond simply finding an application that supports this feature.
  • Audio Compression – DVD audio compression is more complex than it should be. Uncompressed PCM audio is officially a part of the DVD specification and is widely supported, but this type of audio takes up inordinate amounts of precious disc space. A more efficient solution is MPEG-1 Layer 3 (MP3) audio and you should look for this feature if you decide you want it. Although it is not officially in the DVD specification, it is widely supported in Asia, which is where almost all DVD players are manufactured, which means that most DVD players here in the US also support this type of audio. But it isn’t universal.

    Many applications support Dolby AC-3 (Dolby Digital) audio, but (as of this writing) only a few actually encode Dolby. Even stereo Dolby Digital encoding is rare and still slightly expensive, but this is changing very quickly (see sidebar). Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding is even more rare and also needs an application that can mix six channels (5 main channels + low frequency effects) to take advantage of this very cool DVD feature. Dolby Digital is a very important technology, since basic Dolby Digital stereo audio takes up much less room on your disc than uncompressed PCM audio and is an official format, much more widely supported than MP3 audio.

  • Alternate Video Tracks – Part of the original hype of DVD was that you could include multiple video streams in a single track, which would allow the viewer to press the Angle button on the remote to see the same scene from a different camera angle.

    While this is only rarely used in Hollywood DVDs, it is an advanced feature you might be interested in for multi-camera shoots at concerts, weddings or plays.

  • Multiple Languages – Like multiple video streams, you can also place multiple audio streams on your DVD. This is most often used for multiple languages, but is also frequently utilized for director’s comments.
  • DLT Output – If you need to mass-produce your DVD, duplication houses often require you to submit your project on digital linear tape (DLT). This may change as time goes on, but the reason for this is at least partially pragmatic: home-burned DVDs are limited to 4.7GB while dual-layer professionally stamped DVDs can hold 9GB.

    Almost Perfect

    Home DVD authoring is here and now. From a small handful of first generation products a year ago, DVD authoring applications are now maturing and diversifying. Independent professionals may be disappointed to learn that while we have seen almost every sub-$1,000 application available, we haven’t found one that does everything described in this article. Novices and home hobbyists will be pleased to hear that there are many excellent programs for putting your video on disc to share with your family, friends or small organization. Our recommendation: get the hardware, try out the included software and scour the Web for free trial versions before you decide. Perhaps the best news about home DVD for jaded video veterans: DVD authoring is (relative to shooting and editing) fun and easy. Nothing since the Star Wipe has generated so many "wow, cool" responses from our readers.

    [Sidebar: Dolby Encoding]

    Until recently, Dolby Laboratories was charging premium fees for encoding licenses. By "premium" we mean that you could not find end-user Dolby 5.1 surround encoding software for much under $1,000 and even simple stereo encoding was at least $100. Fortunately, that appears to be changing, with Dolby charging roughly $50 per unit to the software manufacturer (this is still a huge licensing fee per box). As of this writing, proper surround mixing starts at around $350 for Sonic Foundry ACID, plus another $200-300 for the Sonic Foundry 5.1 encoding plug-in.

    [Sidebar: Compatibility]

    During the past year, we’ve learned that compatibility, while important for authors, is largely out of their control. Some DVD players play home-burned DVDs and some don’t, and there is very little you can do to change this. In our tests, we’ve found that the particular piece of software used to create the disc is mostly irrelevant to the final compatibility of the disc.

    [Sidebar: DVD-R vs. DVD+R]

    The short answer for the relationship of authoring software and the DVD format war is that it is irrelevant. Most authoring software just doesn’t care what kind of media you are using. Just make sure your burning software supports the particular drive you want to use (e.g. Pioneer DVR-A05) and you are good to go.

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