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DVD Authoring: Driven to Abstraction

You may think you're in control of your DVD authoring, but you're not.

Trying to choose the specific programming actions of your DVD authoring software is a lot like the steamship captain yelling, "Ahoy, engine room! Reverse all engines!" into the blow tube as the iceberg looms ever closer. You can make a specific request, but you can't be sure how well it will be accomplished.

LEARNING A NEW MEDIUM

Way back when DVDs were a novelty, there were relatively few ways to authora project. They all invariably involved buying purpose-built hardware, learning how to hand-code the structure and parameters of a disc, and in the process,spending a boatload of money.

If you were actually one of the wizards who could program the operations and actions of the disc, you were indeed a valued professional. You alone could rewire the inner workings of the disc's content, jumping from menu to track atwill, streamlining and tweaking at every step. But that was then.

Today, many of our clients' projects are delivered on DVD, and I have no doubtthat in the near future, DVDs will account for nearly all of our media deliverables. We couldn't afford to send all our work outside for authoring, mostly becauseour competitors were burning their own titles, albeit simple and clunky ones. To remain competitive, we needed to become authors. And so we found ourselves jumping headfirst into an alien technology, claiming expertise to the clientele, but in reality, barely treading water.

Like many folks, we got our first requests for DVD deliverables at about the same time that Apple released DVD Studio Pro (DVDSP) Version 1. This first version was strictly a nuts-and-bolts utility with a little drag-and-drop functionality, but not much else. Still, a program that gave "civilians" the ability to author DVDs without learning Video Title Set architecture was big news, and I willingly invested the time to learn the new app.

Little did I know that Apple already had a team hard at work that woulddemocratize DVD creation. DVD Studio Pro 2 was as unlike its predecessor as any update we've ever seen and, unfortunately, indecipherable to a user of "oldfashioned" DVDSP1.

A similar undertaking was in full swing over at Adobe as well, wherethe DVD gearheads were busy hot-wiring their own authoring app.

Adobe Encore DVD would combine Adobe's various core technologies-editing from Premiere, motion and compositing from After Effects, and, of course, the Photoshop engine-with the media processing and handling routines resident in Windows XP. The result was elegant and powerful. Like DVDSP, Encore will convert and compress video and audio files in the background, while more creative thoughts are being thunk.

Similar, too, are the product families' integrated workflow. A project begun and edited in Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro can be seamlessly handed off to the related DVD authoring solution.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so they say, and it wouldn't be logical to expect that this relatively easy authoring experience came with no strings attached-requests and commands, represented by dragging and dropping and clever icons, are translated into that arcane DVD code by a software engine genericallyknown as the "abstraction layer."

Abstraction? Yes, and it does exactly that. This part of the application tries to abstract, or discern, your intentions regarding the DVD's action and interaction, and spews out programming code of its own based on its best guesses. From a software engineering point of view, it's nothing short of brilliant, and it empowers thousands of noncoders to create professional-looking projects.

But behind every silver lining, there lurks a big ole' thunderhead just waitingfor the right moment. For us, the downside of the abstraction layer became obvious at the worst possible moment-right in the middle of a DVD series for a major textbook publisher. The companion DVDs they hoped to create needed elaborate, nested menus to access a broad assortment of alternate clip versions, and menu latency, whether real or perceived, became a hot button for them. Even worse, they expected that classroom teachers had never seen DVD players before, and insisted on pressing every button on the remote, repeatedly and in random order, during the approval testing of our first few titles. We were in trouble, and we knew it.

Ours is an ingenious and entrepreneurial industry, and at least one enterprising individual had already anticipated our need. I chose to subscribe to a paid Internet forum run by DVD expert Trai Forrester, which offered two prime benefits-the ability to trade posts with, and get answers from, experts and fellow flunkies alike; and of even more value, access to several software tools authored by Forrester and his associates.

These programs figuratively "pry open the hood" of your completed DVD build and allow modifications and rewiring. Using these tools (and a lot of forum advice), I was able to solve problems and put my project back on track.

NOT FOR EVERYONE

One revelation I gleaned from Trai's group was that DVDSP3's abstraction layer routinely embeds all menu information in a data cluster near the top of the disc rather than in the data nearest the current track being played. This means that the player needs to scrub back up to the top whenever the user attempts to interact with a menu, and that means delay. Trai's tricks let you change that scenario, if it's is called for.

To be fair, using Trai's biggest gun-TFDVDEdit2-is no stroll in the park. Before you can change a parameter, you have to know what it means; TFDVDEdit'sdocumentation, supplemented by a library of posts and papers, can steer you to the right area. But a little hard work is worth a superior result, and this workflow-an easy authoring program like Encore or DVDSP-followed by some thoughtful tweaking, seems preferable to coding the whole project by hand and looking for bugs.

For the vast majority of users, Adobe Encore DVD and Apple DVD Studio Pro 3hold more firepower than they can ever use. But for those of us whose clients demand another level of perfection, there's a need to journey beyond the abstraction layer, however perilous that may seem.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.