Burn Your Own Movies with Apple's DVD Studio Pro
In January 2001, Apple unveiled its new SuperDrive, a CD reader/writer that can also write to DVD-R media. In addition to providing 4.7GB of data storage, the SuperDrive's facility for creating DVD Video discs offered the promise of affordable, desktop DVD video authoring.
To fulfill that promise, Apple soon released iDVD, a consumer-oriented, drag-and-drop DVD authoring package, and DVD Studio Pro, a high-end, professional DVD authoring tool aimed at corporate, industrial, and professional users.
DVD Studio Pro began life as DVDirector, by Astarte, but Apple reworked the package, giving it a flashier interface, tight integration with Final Cut Pro, and a free software MPEG encoder. Easy to learn and flexible to use, DVD Studio Pro is an excellent first rev and does, indeed, fulfill Apple's promise of affordable DVD authoring. However, authoring a smooth-playing DVD requires a good amount of analysis and tweaking, an area in which the program could use some work.
You can use your SuperDrive for creating 4.7GB HFS+ data discs, but DVD Studio Pro is meant strictly for creating DVD Video discs -- the same type of discs you can rent at your local video store. The DVD Video spec is complex and allows for many different kinds of menus, multiple MPEG-2 video tracks, surround sound Dolby-encoded audio tracks, and even fairly sophisticated scripting. DVD Studio Pro provides full support for all these features.
Before you can perform any authoring, you'll need to gather your media. DVD Studio Pro offers no content-creation tools, so you'll need to create all your media -– video and audio tracks, menus screens, etc. -– using other programs.
The DVD Video spec requires video to be stored as MPEG-2 files with the audio stored separately as AIFF or AC3 files. So, all your video will need to be compressed to MPEG-2 before you can import it into DVD Studio Pro. There are a number of hardware and software tools for performing MPEG-2 compression, and Apple provides a free MPEG-2 QuickTime CODEC with DVD Studio Pro. With the CODEC installed, you can perform MPEG-2 compression from any program that can export and compress a QuickTime movie.
To use the CODEC you simply export from your video editor or from the Apple QuickTime Player. The MPEG exporter includes simple options for selecting NTSC or PAL, as well as field dominance. A Quality slider lets you choose a bit rate between 1.0 and 9.8 Mbps.
The included M.Pack utility's MPEG Export dialog box
Exporting produces two files -- an MPEG-2 video file and an audio file in AIFF format. When you build your final DVD, these two files get multiplexed together before being written to disk.
The MPEG Exporter is reasonably speedy for a software compressor. In our tests, the CODEC averaged around 4 minutes for each compressed minute of video when running on our 400MHz G4 PowerBook. We also found that exporting from the QuickTime player was roughly twice as fast as exporting from Final Cut Pro.
Obviously, as bit rate increases so does file size. So, if you have enough disk space, it can be very tempting to simply select the highest bit rate to guarantee the best quality.
However, DVD players have throughput limitations and, if you set your bit rate too high, the resulting file may be big enough to bog down your player. The resulting disc will not play smoothly. Unfortunately, DVD Studio Pro offers no analysis tools for determining effective throughput. The only way to find out if your bit rate is playable is to compress your video, put it into DVD Studio Pro project, build the project, and test the results. If you find stuttering, you'll have to go back and re-compress. Obviously, this cycle can be somewhat time-consuming given the CODECs long compression times.
Final Cut users will find the CODEC has a maddening tendency to produce very dark video. Apple is apparently aware of this problem and is working on a solution. [Editor's note: Apple's recent update may have fixed this problem. We are researching this and will amend this story with our results very soon.] In the meantime, you can work around the trouble by exporting your Final Cut projects as DV or Animation-compressed movies, and then performing your MPEG compression from the QuickTime Player. (Some users have reported trouble compressing reference movies, though we had no difficulties.)
Finally, if size and throughput issues are a concern, you may want to consider compressing your audio files into AC3 format using the included "A.Pack" audio compression software. A.Pack takes your AIFF files and exports them in AC3 format. We found we almost always had to convert to AC3 format to preserve audio/video sync in our final disk. Using AIFF files resulted in bandwidth troubles.
In addition to handling compression, A.Pack allows you to create Dolby 5.1 surround-sound mixes through a simple drag-and-drop interface. Note that you'll need to use your audio-mixing or video-editing software to create separate AIFF files for each channel. A.Pack can use these to create your surround-sound mix.
With your media prepared, you're ready to start authoring. DVD Studio Pro's interface consists of a Graphical Display window that provides a flowchart view of your project, an assets window where you can access your media, and an assortment of tool and Inspector palettes for creating objects and setting parameters.
You begin authoring by importing your media into the Assets window. Your audio and video files must be imported separately, along with any images or movies that you'll use for menu creation.
Authoring takes place in the Graphical Display window. If you've ever used any kind of visual database or programming package, you'll feel right at home in DVD Studio Pro: You carry out all your authoring tasks by creating different types of objects and then wiring them together to create your disc's logic and structure.
DVDs comprise several different types of components. Track components contain video and audio files and can be divided into chapters to facilitate non-linear playback. Menu components can contain still images or movies, and include button definitions and branching information. Slide Shows can hold a series of still images that can be stepped through, while Scripts allow you to create complex interactivity.
Each of these components can be created by clicking on the appropriate button at the bottom of the DVD Studio Pro main window. This creates a small tile in the Graphical Display window. When you click on the tile to select it, its parameters and characteristics appear in the DVD Studio Pro Inspector palette. You can use this palette to attach appropriate media –- video and audio for a Track object, still images for a Menu object, and so forth.
The Inspector palette also lets you specify how components are related and linked. Menu components, for example, are usually linked to other menu components or Tracks. Such links are indicated by simple flowchart lines in the Graphical Display window.
DVD Studio Pro's main authoring interface provides a simple visual programming environment along with an intuitive inspector palette for configuring your menus, buttons, and flow.
The Inspector palette displays a pop-up menu for each button on a DVD remote control (the DVD spec requires all players to have certain buttons). From these pop-ups, you can specify how components should link to each other. For example, if you select a Track component, you can use the inspector window to choose other Track components that will play when the user hits particular buttons on their remote. In this way, you can quickly create all links and logic for your project.
For more complex interactions, you'll want to use the robust DVD scripting language, which offers arithmetic operations, conditional branches, and global and local variables. If you've done any scripting in HyperCard or Macromedia Director, you'll have no trouble with DVD scripting.
DVD Studio Pro also lets you specify many global parameters. In addition to creating global remote-control actions, you can also activate digital and analog encryption. DVD Studio Pro provides standard CSS encryption for preventing digital copying, and Macrovision encryption for preventing analog copies (recording a DVD onto a VCR, for example).
At any time while authoring, you can press the Preview button to view an individual track or component, and to test logic and branching. Video is passed through your computer's DVD playback hardware so you can see exactly what your project will look like. However, because your computer has greater bandwidth capability, preview mode won't necessarily reveal any bottlenecks or playback skips.
Authoring in DVD Studio Pro is simple and straightforward and the program's interface is intuitive and efficient. However, there is room for improvement.
Our biggest difficulty when authoring was with DVD Studio Pro's Asset-management controls. When you import media into the program, no actual data is copied into your project file. Rather, a link is made to the external media. Unfortunately, this link is very strong.
On several occasions, we wanted to swap out an imported video file with an alternate file (usually, another copy of the same file compressed with different settings). Because we didn't want to lose the old file, we moved it to another folder and placed our new version in the appropriate location. However, rather than using the new file, DVD Studio Pro managed to find the old file, and continued to use it. The only way to add our new file was to create a new Track component, attach our new video file, and then re-create all of our links and settings. We'd much prefer to be able to freely replace files with new media.
We would also like to see the addition of more robust zoom and navigation controls for the Graphical Display window. With a lot of tiles, your project can quickly become illegible.
You can use any TIFF, PICT, or Photoshop file as a menu screen, meaning you can create your menus using any paint or image-editing program. However, it would be silly to use anything besides Photoshop, thanks to DVD Studio Pro's excellent support for multi-layered Photoshop documents.
DVD Studio lets you access any individual layer within a Photoshop document, allowing you to create a single document with each of your menu's button states stored in separate layers. The ability to work with layered Photoshop files not only makes it easier to create buttons and highlights, it also means you only need a few layered Photoshop documents rather than dozens of separate documents that have to be imported and stacked in a particular way.
If you've spent much time watching DVDs, you've probably seen menu pages consisting of a number of small video clips playing simultaneously. Such menus are actually one giant movie -- the DVD spec doesn't actually support on-the-fly compositing of multiple movie clips. Consequently, to create such a menu, you'll need to build the composite yourself using a video-compositing application such as Adobe After Effects or Apple's Final Cut Pro.
In other words, if you really want to create a complete desktop DVD authoring station, you'll need to plan on using several applications besides DVD Studio Pro.
For creating subtitles, Apple has included a separate subtitling app that allows you to import a movie and enter subtitle text with matching timecode cues. The subtitle editor exports your text into a subtitle stream that can be imported into DVD Studio Pro.
Though the editor is well designed, we had trouble with subtitle sync drifting a bit. Many users have also complained of crashing when using the subtitle editor. If subtitling is an essential part of your authoring process, you may want to consider a third-party utility.
When you're ready to output your project, you simply choose the Build command from the File menu. DVD Studio Pro will then multiplex your video and audio into the appropriate DVD Video format and output the video to a VIDEO_TS folder on your hard drive. With version 2.5 or later of the Apple DVD Player, you can play the contents of this folder, just as if it were a DVD inserted in your drive.
Note that playing the files from your hard drive through the Apple DVD Player will reveal any bandwidth troubles or other playback issues.
As one would expect, DVD Studio Pro can write your project directly to Apple's SuperDrive to create one-off DVDs playable in most console or computer-based DVD players. However, it's important to understand some caveats about Apple's drive.
First, there are two kinds of DVD-R media: DVD-R for Authoring and DVD-R for General. Apple's SuperDrive can only write to DVD-R for General discs, which currently come in 4.7GB sizes. Unfortunately, because neither media supports CSS encryption, it is not possible to create a copy-protected master for mass duplication.
Also troublesome is the fact that vendors are not always diligent about labeling their blank media, so when buying blanks, be careful you're actually buying DVD-R for General. Buying from the Apple Web site is the best way to guarantee getting the proper media, and Apple offers very good prices.
DVD Studio Pro can also write your project to a DLT tape drive. Obviously, if you're creating a disc that's bigger than 4.7GB then you'll need to output to either a tape drive or your hard drive. However, be aware that duplication houses may only accept certain types of media for mastering.
We were very impressed with DVD Studio Pro. Its interface is well-suited to DVD authoring, and its feature set is comprehensive. Though we're pleased with Apple's inclusion of a free MPEG encoder, we were frustrated by the lack of bandwidth analysis tools. Certainly, there are a number of tweaks that we would like to see, and the Subtitle Editor could be more stable, but none of these problems prevents DVD Studio Pro from being an excellent DVD authoring solution.
Read more by Ben Long.
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