Hurry Up and Wait: Desktop HD Disc Production and the Video Producer
Posted Jul 26, 2007

As the parent of a three-year-old, I don’t see very many new movies unless CGI or talking animals are involved. When I do have a chance to see a new movie, I try to make it count, but probably not in the way you’re thinking—say, by seeing the Oscar winner everyone’s talking about. I basically just watch whatever I feel like watching and rarely regret it.

The last grown-up movie I watched was Rocky Balboa, a surprising return to form for a character that’s gone further off course with every sequel. There’s a nice moment in the movie, shortly before 60-year-old Rocky fights the current heavyweight champ, where the champ talks trash to him. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Rocky says. “What’s that from, the ’80s?” the champ replies, to which Rocky deadpans, “Probably the ’70s.”

It seems like every week, we get some superhyped bit of news from either the Blu-ray or HD DVD camp claiming that the format war is over, and usually there’s about as much truth behind the hype as you’d find in a Don King heavyweight fight promotion. Recently, the HD DVD camp said they'd surged ahead decisively in both player and title sales, and less than 48 hours later, rental/sales behemoth Blockbuster Video announced that its brick-and-mortar stores would stock only Blu-ray. Then we heard that Sony had frozen out the porn market and ceded it to HD DVD—as if they have the power to do that, with 150 other companies backing BD. Next?

In one sense, we’re right to pay attention to such developments, just like announcements earlier this year concerning multiformat discs and players. (And Pioneer's recent announcement of internal BD-ROM/DVD±RW drives is an especially important one--when system integrators started widely adopting that drive's historical antecedent, the DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, it brought DVD to the desktop and was a key precursor of affordable integrated DVD recorders.) If we’re looking to the consumer market for hints on how desktop HD disc production will proceed, we’re looking in the right direction. But I keep coming back to Rocky’s timeworn ’70s cliché, based on what I saw from my ringside seat for the long, slow arc of DVD as EMedia Professional editor in the ’90s: Not only is it not over ’til it’s over—it ain’t even started yet.

Sure, there is a consumer market beginning to emerge, but unless you're plying your trade as a Sonic-based DVD/HD DVD/BD author--rather than a video producer who outputs to DVD--this is not, in any practical sense, a market that's directly impacting your profession at the moment. It's at roughly the same place in its arc that DVD was in, say, 1999--which is to say that desktop disc production, though possible, remains a long way from the mainstream.

Ask most independent video producers and videographers when the first DVD burners came out, and you’ll get a number of different answers, the most accurate of which will locate that date around the March 2001 release of Pioneer’s first sub-$1,000, half-height, internal DVD-R drive, the DVR-A03 (which was, in fact, three years after the first DVD burner hit). But it wasn’t until 18 months later that DVD authoring started becoming commonplace in the videography market, when products like Apple DVD Studio Pro and Adobe Encore began to make DVD an interlocking part of existing NLE and post workflows. Until then, DVD authoring had for the most part been confined to studios that specialized in it--just as HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc production are today--and many videographers who started delivering DVDs in 2002 still outsourced their authoring.

DVD was a huge paradigm shift for videographers who had been producing for VHS, and even with the emergence of NLE-simpatico tools like Encore and DVD Studio Pro (not to mention the likes of Sonic DVDit, which had been around considerably longer and made DVD authoring just as easy), the video industry still needed time to work up to the change.

The good news about HD disc—whether it turns out to be HD DVD or Blu-ray, and whether we like it or not, it will be both—is that for those for whom DVD/HD DVD/BD authoring is a sideline rather than a specialty, the transition will be well-nigh seamless from a workflow and skill-set standpoint. Many videographers are already shooting and editing HD video (most via HDV), and magazines like EventDV have devoted plenty of ink to addressing the challenges of HD and HDV on the acquisition, capture, and editing side.

But even though the HD disc market remains fractured and immature, for video producers who are already shooting and editing HD, delivering an HD disc to a client who asks (and pays) for it will be a simple matter of buying a burner, installing it, and selecting the HD format from their authoring tool’s GUI when it comes time to burn. In other words, an investment of money but not time--except for time spent contending with the frustrations of incompatibility on the playback side, which are real and prevalent but beyond video producers' control, and bound to dissipate (though not disappear) over time.

If you’ve been following the HD DVD and BD markets, you know that the formats are built on brand new specs with brand new capabilities like overlay menus and enhanced interactivity and web connectivity, and you might know that they come in multiple alphabet-soup flavors such as BD-J and HDi. But video producers aren’t going to be dealing directly with any of those formats or capabilities, and their clients aren’t going to demand them. Unless your business is HD DVD/BD authoring, and you're working with high-end pro systems like Sonic Scenarist, your goal will simply be to produce HD discs that do the same things that SD DVDs do, with HD video that plays on HDTVs using HD disc players. And as long as you have the right burner in place and an HD disc-capable tool (like Adobe Encore CS3 or, interestingly enough, any of a number of $100 consumer authoring tools), from an authoring standpoint, you don’t have to know a single thing that you don’t already know from producing years of crowd-pleasing DVDs to create a functional HD disc.

All of which is to say that the best thing to do when it comes to the last mile of HD disc production is wait until your business demands it and don't fall prey to the hype that might lead you to jump this way or that before the time is right. The longer you wait, the faster and cheaper the burners will be, the better the encoders, the cheaper the media, and the better the firmware that will enable consumer HD DVD and BD players to recognize recorded media.

In the meantime, if your job is video production first and disc authoring and delivery second, hone your HD shooting and editing skills (those you’ll need much sooner) and augment your current content-delivery efforts by harnessing the profitability of streaming video on the web. The time for desktop HD DVD/BD production will come, and it will sweep the video market as surely and as thoroughly as DVD did. It just isn't happening yet. And as for the so-called HD DVD/BD format war, tune it out as best you can, and wake me, shake me, when it’s over (that one’s from the ’60s).

Stephen F. Nathans is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EMedialive.