Things I didn’t learn in school – DVD authoring best practices, an unfortunately still necessary evil

Another installment in my tirade about useful information that is vital in creating good work for clients that wasn’t even a thought while I was in college. We learned the basics of DVD Studio Pro and how to author a DVD with menus (also in Encore, meh), but there is a lot more to DVD authoring than just slapping together some menus. And while DVD authoring is on the decline – DVD Studio Pro is end-of-life’d and FCP X doesn’t even provide a way to author any sort of advanced DVDs – in some markets it’s still requested (like here). So before you go trodding into some DVD project, you should know some of the ingredients that will make for a successful DVD so that you can design menus correctly the first time and educate clients during the creation process.

1. Understand that DVD specifications are very … specific. And they suck.

First of all, you may have some grand ideas for an inventive way to approach a menu, or you might have a client that wants pristine graphics and a complex navigation. Know this: in authored DVD land, it’s pretty likely that this isn’t possible. DVDs have a very specific set of rules that they work by. Most of them are requirements, some are suggestions. If you break the rules, it probably won’t work. If you break the suggestions, it probably won’t work.

2. Title/action safe unless you want all your crap cut off.

This should be a given, but it’s worth a reminder. Many clients will want to maximize the space in their menus to put loads of copy or buttons or more artwork. Remember that like your videos, you need to respect the title safe zone if you want to be sure EVERYone can watch it as intended. I personally push a bit past title safe anymore and get closer to action safe. Come on people, upgrade your TVs. But if there is some copy that absolutely is vital to the project and the world will end if it’s missing, it goes in title safe.

3. Font size and color

Anything below 18 point gets iffy. Anything serifed or thin is also iffy. Use chunkier fonts that are a bit bigger in your design. I recently worked on a project where the client insisted on a disclaimer that was 8 point Times New Roman. It ended up looking like squigglies. Thin fonts or portions of fonts, bright reds, and 100% white or black can also cause flickering.

4. Limitations of menus, interactions and highlights

Menus are 720×480 and you can’t change that no matter how much you want to. DVDs are 720×480. You cannot design a hugemongous menu and slap it in and expect it to be awesome. It will suck. All menus should be designed to this spec (72 dpi). In fact, there’s a Photoshop preset for it! Yay! Some clients will want you to play around with complex button highlights. I believe this is because they are used to how the internet works in terms of button rollovers and Flash embeds. DVDs don’t work anything like web technologies. Button highlights are based on an overlay that you design with your menu to show where the highlights will exist. This overlay is a black, white, and 50% gray document. Your overlay is a map for where different colors will go. On a simple menu with just a little square that pops up next to each button, you’d have a black document with maybe 4 white squares. Then you’d tell DVD Studio Pro to make the black 0% opacity, then change the white squares to different colors based on if they are actively selected or not. It’s very simplistic, especially if you’re used to more interactive tools. And there are only 3 states to a button – not selected, selected, and activated.

5. Embedding files with DVD @ccess

Don’t do it. It doesn’t work. It’ll seem like it worked because it works decently well on macs but it doesn’t even begin to work on a PC. Look up alternative methods to include files on a DVD that can be accessed when put in a computer. Build your disc in DVD Studio Pro, then add the files you want to include on the DVD alongside the video_ts folder, then burn that whole directory to a DVD with Toast. The files can’t launch from the DVD menu, but they will be included on the DVD so you can instruct users to find them.

6. Video playback for DVD

DVDs are 720×480. They cannot be HD. You can’t get better quality out of a DVD by trying to put a 1080p file into DVD Studio Pro. No matter what, you have to stick your files into Compressor and convert to mpeg2 and ac3 streams (you get 2 files, one for video and one for audio). All you can really adjust is the bitrate of this mpeg. You can’t adjust it too high, though. Even though it looks like you could bring it up to 11 or 12 mbps, DVD players can only handle so much information at once. If you bring it too high, the DVD won’t play. It’s best to have it top out no higher than 8 (pushing it on older DVD players), and keep the average closer to 7.2. Or at least, that’s been my experience. As a sidenote, it is possible to put some videos into DVD Studio Pro and have it transcode to mpeg2 in the background while you design. Don’t do this, it’s always way better all around if you do it manually.

7. Scripting and crazy stuff

Scripting can be pretty cool, but it can also ruin your life. Scripting really makes you realize that DVDs are just another form of rigid programming which explains a lot about the parameters. There’s a lot you can do with scripting – making buttons jump to menus based on previous conditions, for example – but the more advanced scripting you put in, the more likely things are to go up in flames. Older DVD players may ignore scripts, too. It’s always best to simplify as much as you can to assure the majority of viewers will be able to watch as intended. It’s really easy to code something that leads to a dead end, and users don’t like that so much. Learn basic DVD scripting and use it wisely.

8. Don’t use “Burn”

It screws up alllll the time. You should almost always use Build and Format separately. Build the DVD and create all the files in the video_ts folder. Then when that has successfully completed, use Format to point to those files and burn the DVD. Keeping the steps separate assures you’ll have a lot fewer coasters.

9. Seriously, DVDs suck.

When I think of DVDs, I feel like the information is held together on the disc with a thin layer of rubber cement and some popsicle sticks. Keep it simple and put your focus on the content. Talk clients down from grand DVD interfaces and ask them to look at Hollywood DVDs. They’re all very simple. If you want something more, join us in the 21st century, skip the DVDs, and start ramping up your web stuff!

If any of this information is incorrect, please tweet me or comment so I can update it.