Gimme Five
Posted Dec 30, 2003

With all of Apple's 2003 offerings, digital video pros had the chance to rebuild their studios from the ground up or pick and choose from new versions of old standbys.

Aside from the fact that he resigned the vice presidency when he was fined for income tax evasion, there's not much that's memorable about Spiro Agnew's tenure in the nation's second-highest office. Indeed, Agnew's legacy isn't so much political as it is linguistic: in a 1970 speech that expressed his contempt for both intellectuals and liberals, he called opponents of the Vietnam war both "an effete corps of impudent snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Since then, the latter phrase (which was actually penned by then-speechwriter, now-New York Times columnist William Safire) crops up when people want to poke fun at dissenters and doomsayers. You know, the kind of people who seize every opportunity to criticize Apple's low market share, the Mac's high prices, and Steve Jobs' black turtlenecks. Do a Google search for "anti-Apple," and you'll find dozens of Web sites—many with names that preclude printing in these pages—whose sole purpose is to attack and malign the platform.

So you can't blame Mac users if they get a little defensive, especially after this last year, which saw the introduction of the new Panther OS and the lightning-fast G5, as well as brand new versions of Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro. Unlike their PC counterparts, Mac users have to embrace not only the platform but also its software (so long, Premiere); but in 2003, Apple left behind any lingering doubts that it could compete head-to-head for the digital video professional's dollar (and loyalty) against anything the PC market could bring to the table.

Not every DVD author can afford to upgrade to the G5, which starts out at $1,799 for the single-processor (64-bit) 1.6gHz model (sans monitor), jumps to $2,499 for a 1.8gHz dual-processor, and tops out at $2,999 for the dual 2gHz configuration. Of course, you get a lot of bang for your buck on that top end—a 1gHz frontside bus, 512MB of 128-bit SDRAM (expandable to 8GB), 160GB of Serial ATA hard drive space, and an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro—but even the "low-end" G5 offers plenty of juice for the digital studio.

While you don't need a new G5 to run DVD Studio Pro 2, you'll need have at least a 733mHz G4 to make it work well. DVD SP 2 completely overhauls version 1.5, from the code (based on the old Spruce Maestro) up to the GUI, which now offers three user interfaces from which to choose: Basic, Extended, and Advanced. Other new features include the built-in Compressor encoder and a new Track Editor based on Final Cut's timeline. This is no simple upgrade to DVD SP 1.5, and it carries a $499 price tag. [See Jeff Sauer's review of DVD SP 2, November 2003.]

Then there's Panther, the version 10.3 of Apple's OS X operating system, which introduced a new finder as well as features like Expose and the new Pixlet video codec. For $130, of course, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the other new toys here, but the cost of changing an operating system—especially in mid-project—isn't always measured in dollars and cents.

Combined with an all-new (except for the price, which stayed at $999) Final Cut Pro 4 (and its included LiveType and Soundtrack tools), the nearly simultaneous arrival of DVD SP 2, the G5, and Panther forced Mac-lovin' DVD authors to face the kind of tough choices that technology fiends both love and hate: Stick with what you've got, spend up to $4,500 to upgrade everything, or pick and choose what hardware and software you need to stay on top of your game and within your budget.

EMedia talked to five digital video professionals, all of whom faced these choices and responded in different ways. We were interested in seeing just what Apple's new offerings had for their studios and finding out what they loved—or hated—about the new tools, especially DVD Studio Pro 2. Here's what they had to say.

Action-Packed
VAS Entertainment (previously Video Action Sports) is a San Luis Obispo, CA-based producer and distributor of what DVD department coordinator and lead DVD author Robert Powers calls "action sports and lifestyle" DVDs and videos. (Sample titles include: Double Down, a collection of extreme mountain biking footage, and American Misfits, a skateboarding and stunt video featuring Wee Man from MTV's Jackass.) Powers is one of four authors at the company's new 23,000 square-foot facility, the rest of which is taken up by VAS' graphics, marketing, and sales departments, as well as its warehouse.

VAS got into the DVD authoring game in early 2001, working with DVD Studio Pro version 1.2. Since then, production has grown to more than 12 DVDs per month, meaning that they need the latest and greatest hardware and software to get the jobs done right and on time. Powers' department has four G4s and three 2gHz dual-processor G5s, all running Panther, as well as a Sonic Creator system with a Sonic SD-1000 encoder card on a G4 running OS 9. For VAS, the benefits of the G5s can be boiled down to one word: speed. "Everything is faster, whether it's editing in Final Cut, making menus in Photoshop, or background encoding within DVD SP 2," Powers says.

Like most DVD authors, Powers spends most of his days (and too many of his nights) multitasking, and he's found Panther's Exposé, which with one click allows users to display all open windows on the desktop (in reduced size, of course), to be a lifesaver when it comes to keeping track of his work. "I was on the phone with a producer discussing the menus for her DVD," Powers says. "I had nine documents open. Each time I needed to look at a different menu, I used Exposé to select the one I needed. In Jaguar and previous operating systems, shuffling through multiple documents was always a pain."

When it comes to DVD SP 2, Powers points to two features in particular as marked improvements over previous versions, first of which is the Track Editor, which is based on Final Cut Pro's timeline and finally brings to DVD SP the kind of linear track viewing boasted by programs on the PC. "It makes setting your chapter points a whole lot easier," Powers says.

An even bigger change has come from DVD SP 2's ability to easily target buttons when setting navigation between menus. "In previous versions, you had to perform a tedious workaround to get the proper button to highlight when navigating from menu to menu," he says. "Now, you can target exactly the button you want." (Nothing's perfect: It only works on still, and not motion, menus.)

Powers says that while he can see how the Basic and Extended configurations would make the learning curve a little less steep for new users, he authors strictly in Advanced mode, though he doesn't take advantage of the scripting options that mode offers. "I'll do more advanced or complicated titles on our Sonic system," he says, adding that having Sonic's Creator on hand means he doesn't miss the eight general parameter registers (GPRMs) that DVD Studio Pro has always reserved for its abstraction layer. Again, he uses the Sonic system when he needs more control over complex projects.

While Powers has found DVD SP 2's Compressor encoding engine too slow to use on the G4, he's started using it on the G5 for all DV-format footage and also for motion menus. "I'm quite pleased with the quality we're getting," he says, "but we tend to encode most material at a high bit-rate, between 6-7.4Mbps."

Like most DVD SP users, Powers augments the tool with Final Cut Pro and Photoshop. "Both provide functionality that I would never expect my authoring system to give me."

Paperback Writer
The author of Digital Video Essentials, iMovie 3 Solutions, and most recently Sybex Books' DVD Studio Pro 2 Solutions, Erica Sadun has been using DVD SP since version 1.5. With a background in digital imaging and computer science, she's got enough know-how to get the most out of DVD SP even on her 733mHz G4, a formerly formidable contender that she acknowledges is "just barely adequate for DVD SP."

As of December, she hadn't even upgraded to Jaguar, much less Panther. "DVD authoring is, in the end, about a million fussy details, all of which must include dotted i's, crossed t's, and so forth," she says. "I think you'll find the DVD audience is very conservative when it comes to jumping onto new operating systems and new equipment. When you're building things that count, rather than just playing with the software, you need tools that work."

She describes her experience authoring with DVD SP 2 while writing her latest book as "marvelous," though she admits she's still coming across bugs. "1.5 is buggy, too, but we more or less know what the bugs are and how to work around them," she says. In particular, Sadun says that Apple hasn't fixed a layer-break problem that first popped up in 1.5 and persists in 2.0, and which results in some players being unable to read the layer breaks on DVD SP-authored DVD-9s. (As this issue of EMedia went to press, Apple announced a DVD Studio Pro 2.0.3 update that it said would fix the layer break problem, as well as several other bugs in the software.)

Sadun praises the way that DVD SP 2 makes it possible for a more general audience, including small business and education, to jump into advanced DVD authoring at an affordable price. "It's got a better interface and better abstraction," she says. "It's really much more exciting software." While Apple is touting the Basic and Extended modes as the best way for neophyte authors to get into the DVD game, Sadun thinks that's the wrong approach. "I don't know what Apple was thinking with Basic and Extended," she says. "DVD SP isn't iDVD. If you're trying to think in an iDVD manner when using DVD SP, you're going in the wrong direction. I think [Basic] hurts new authors more than it helps them."

Like others we talked to, Sadun misses the previous versions' graphical view, which showed the relationship between tracks and menus, and she adds that she hasn't yet warmed to DVD SP 2's new scripting interface. Still, she says she uses scripting in almost all of her projects; after all, she does have a computer science background. "Most of my scripts are 1-3 lines long, though some are more complex," she says. "A short, simple script can often do the job well. I think it's a matter of being a programmer already and being comfortable using registers and such."

Though some authors have complained that DVD Studio Pro's abstract authoring model limits what they can achieve, Sadun says the GPRM sacrifice is worth it. "You can stick with DVD SP and eight GPRMs, or you can pay a lot, lot, lot more to get those extra ones," she says. "The abstraction layer does a lot more for me than the lack of state information takes away."

As for third-party software, Sadun says she uses Photoshop for titling ("a must-have," she says), OmniGraffle diagramming software for overall planning and screen design, and Graphic Converter for batch conversion of images. She also uses MPEG Append, a DVD SP Helper application that modifies Studio Pro's MPEG naming conventions to make sure the files meet timecode requirements for multi-segment files, and says she relies heavily on the bit budget calculator at Jim Taylor's DVD Demystified Web site (www.dvddemystified.com).

School Days
Like Sadun, Alan Edwards has a computer science degree, which let him get into the digital video game early on. Currently, he is an instructor at New Brunswick Community College in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada, where he teaches in the school's Digital Media program. Also like Sadun, he's still working on a G4 (albeit a dual-processor model), though he updated to Panther as soon as it was available. "It seems more stable than Jaguar," he says. "I had a few issues with Compressor crashing early on, but the latest update seems to have fixed that."

A longtime user of version 1.5, Edwards said that DVD SP 2 took some getting used to, but the learning curve was worth it. Edwards says he loves being able to put together quick menus with SP 2's new templates and create motion menus without always having to work in After Effects. Edwards also finds the alignment tools intuitive and easy to use, and says that it's much easier to set markers in 2.0.

Edwards' job is to teach students how to author DVDs, but even the teacher needs a textbook. "The documentation with DVD SP 2 is far superior to the previous efforts," he says. "Many things are now clear that were not explained well in the earlier manuals, such as how to use pan-and-scan."

On the downside, Edwards joins the chorus of voices singing the blues over the loss of the graphical view. He adds that his wish list for future updates includes the ability to do pan-and-scan within the application, rather than going into Final Cut. He doesn't mind, however, going into another program rather than using DVD SP 2's included Peak Express to do his audio editing. A composer himself, Edwards is sticking with Apple's $699 Logic Platinum, which offers more channels and tighter control, as well as a MIDI editor.

Even with his extensive experience, Edwards says he's gravitated toward Studio Pro 2's Extended configuration. "I have a relatively small monitor, and I found that Advanced was a bit of a clutter with all of its windows," he says. "I used Basic a few times for quick and easy projects, and found it very easy to get decent results with very little effort." The menu templates, he adds, are perfect for newbies, letting them make professional-looking projects right out of the box.

Now that it no longer crashes his machine, Edwards has nothing but praise for Compressor, especially the batch feature that allows him to "put a few things on to cook overnight." The split-screen preview window is especially useful, he says, and he appreciates the ability to place i-frame markers in pre-compression, although he usually places all of his chapter markers in Final Cut Pro. In fact, Edwards says he had a number of large Final Cut Pro projects ready before DVD SP 2 was available, but held off putting them on DVD until the new version was available so he could utilize Compressor's variable bit rate compression while maintaining his chapter markers. "Being able to put things straight into compressor from Final Cut Pro is a great way to streamline the project workflow and save time and space."

He wishes, however, that Compressor was more integrated with DVD SP 2's A.Pack, which encodes audio to Dolby Digital (AC-3). Right now, you have to take an AIFF file into A.Pack to convert it to AC-3. "It would be great to have a simple version that gives you the option of a 2.0 AC-3," he says. "It would just be a convenience for those simple stereo jobs."

Though he's been impressed with DVD SP 2's menu and motion menu capabilities, Edwards says he's always got Photoshop and After Effects ready to go so that he can customize his projects more than DVD SP 2 will let him.

Most of All
You don't have to go to college to get a good education in DVD SP. All4DVD is an Apple-certified training organization that offers courses in both DVD SP 2 and Final Cut Pro 4, as well as production services like authoring, duplication, and encoding. Led by CEO Adrian Ramser, the company has trained DVD SP users since the software was introduced, and its staff members authored Apple Pro Training Series: DVD Studio Pro 2, published by Peachpit Press.

Ramser views the changes in DVD SP 2 from a holistic perspective, saying that the new software's benefits transcend any individual changes within the product's functionality. "DVD Studio Pro evolved from an assembly tool into a design tool with DVD Studio Pro 2," he says, though he can't help but point to one of the new features to illustrate his argument. "I really like the fact that you are not required to use Photoshop to design your menus anymore."

While he says the Basic configuration is great for someone making the transition from iDVD to DVD SP, he says he and others at All4DVD stick with the Advanced mode. "We typically do more complex projects including DVD-9s and scripting," he says. "So I use customized views (in Advanced mode), depending on my monitor configuration and the tasks I need to accomplish."

As someone who does high-end DVD work, Ramser isn't entirely pleased with the results he gets when he uses Compressor for encoding, saying that while the results are fine at lower bit rates, the encoding speed could be improved in future versions. And while he stands by his belief that DVD SP 2 is a design tool, All4DVD still falls back on a combination of Final Cut Pro 4's LiveType and Soundtrack, as well as Photoshop, for creating most of its menus.

All4DVD uses several different Macs for DVD authoring, including a 1gHz G4 laptop, a 1gHz G4 desktop, and two G5 1.6gHz desktops. Like Powers, Ramser points to the G5's speed as its greatest asset, and he praises both Panther's stability and its new Finder, which allows you to organize your most used folders into one place, regardless of whether they reside on your local disk, peripheral hard drives, or servers.

Amigos em Portugal
Nuno Pereira says DVD Studio Pro is like a "one-man show." He should know; he does it all—from Web page authoring to DVD authoring—at his Imagens @ metro studio in Portugal, and he does it on a shoestring, authoring with DVD SP 2 on a 500mHz G4 while he waits to purchase a G5. He says that Panther "breathed new life into my G4," but found that network integration and hardware compatibility was better in Jaguar.

Of course, loading DVD SP 2, which recommends 733mHz minimum, onto a 500mHz G4 has slowed him down, but Pereira still found plenty to praise. "For the price, it's terrific," he says. "I love the simplicity, the templates, the preview, the ability to highlight target buttons, and the subtitling capability," he says (Pereira is Portuguese and often called on to produce multi-language titles.) Even on the G4, Pereria sticks with Advanced mode, though he says the basic configuration is great for simple projects. And, proving that Mac devotees' enthusiasm knows no national boundaries, he says he hopes the Basic mode will "bring more of those PC guys to the Mac platform."

Because he does projects for delivery via both DVD and the Web, Pereira says he's thrilled with Compressor, praising both the encoding quality ("much, much, much better than 1.5") and its background encoding capability, which lets him encode in many formats at the same time. He used to use third-party encoders, but says that Compressor has taken their place.

How Do You Like Them Apples?
The verdict on the G5 is no surprise—who's going to argue with a faster workstation?—and users' feelings about Panther are equally positive, save for those who would change operating systems only under extreme duress. And if the praise for DVD Studio Pro 2 isn't exactly shocking (let's just say that once you've bought a ticket to the Apple show, you're part of a captive audience), it's nonetheless satisfying to the Mac faithful to know that their faith has been rewarded with a product that offers new users an entry point into advanced DVD authoring while giving the pros more of what they need. Time will tell whether Apple wins many digital video converts, but the size of its congregation appears in no danger of shrinking.