Review: Adobe Encore DVD
Posted Aug 1, 2003

Synopsis: In its maiden version, Adobe's Encore DVD will serve a very strong cross-section of users looking to integrate DVD authoring into their post-production workflow. It has enough of a professional workflow—with drag-and-drop menus, a timeline interface for linking audio and video, some advanced navigation, and deceptively powerful project organization—to appeal to most users and most of their projects. It's it easy enough—especially for those with DVD authoring or Photoshop experience—to build titles very fast.

When Adobe announced a new DVD authoring tool this past April, it rightly attracted a lot of interest. After all, just about anyone currently making polished DVD titles already uses Adobe's industry-standard imaging tool, Photoshop, for DVD menu design, if not Illustrator, Premiere, and After Effects as well. The simple idea that Encore DVD would directly integrate with Photoshop, sharing and swapping files and features and thus dynamically leveraging both assets and expertise, was reason enough to make Encore a product with great potential and one to be taken very seriously.

Now, it's time for a closer look. With the arrival of a press beta pre-release version of Encore, we had an opportunity to dig into the details and explore Encore's capabilities and workflow more directly. What's behind that Adobe-style Property Inspector and tool palette? What does mixing with—indeed, relying on—Photoshop really feel like? What about built-in design tools for fast and easy title creation?

In a very real way, Adobe would have had to do a very bad job integrating with Photoshop to dull Encore's pre-release luster, and that clearly has not happened. Familiar Adobe interface conventions, drag-and-drop menu and button creation, and a solid back-end DVD engine licensed from Sonic all give Encore plenty to recommend it. However, Encore is a first-generation product and that invariably means curiosities. More to the point, while Encore is successful in many ways, it's not as easy to use as consumer-oriented tools, nor as capable as top professional DVD authoring applications. But the real question remains: is it right for you?

Consumer versus Pro
Roughly speaking, DVD authoring applications generally take one of two different approaches to building DVD projects. Consumer-oriented products, as well as some business-oriented tools like Ulead DVD Movie Workshop and Sonic DVDit!, focus on the visual creation of menus. Their main interface is effectively the main menu itself, onto which you'll drop media clips to create buttons and links. Most use templates to automatically position buttons and generate picture icons for buttons in order to make authoring as straightforward and painless as possible. While projects with multiple menus and numerous assets may be possible with these products, that's usually not their focus, nor their strength.

Contrarily, the more professional approach takes a bigger picture view of building projects, centering around a project organization view, such as Sonic Scenarist's infamous flowchart or Sonic Producer's List and Palette Windows, thus availing authors of more creative, navigational, and programming options. Secondary windows drill down to create individual menus and media asset timelines. Navigational links are often created manually.

Adobe Encore, built on the same DVD back-end engine as Sonic Producer, ultimately takes this latter approach. Therefore, its workflow should appeal to professionals with potentially more complicated, media and navigation-rich projects. But it does risk a level of inaccessibility for DVD novices. That's not to say that new users will be lost, and there is much to recommend Encore even if you've never authored a disc before. However, Encore will ask you to learn a thing or two about making a DVD title. It's easy enough to use once you've mastered its conventions, but keep in mind that consumer ease-of-use is not the focus.

Let's Take a Look…
Encore's main interface, after you select NTSC or PAL for a new project, is a Premiere/After Effects-like Project window into which you will bring raw media assets. Those files can be any format the Windows Media architecture can read, including MPEG files, program or elementary streams, AVIs, WAVs, MP3s, etc. You can drag and drop files from the Windows Explorer or use Right mouse/Import. Across the top of the window are tabs for "Project," "Menus," "Timelines," and "Disc" to help organize assets and the production cycle. These tabs are undockable so you can customize your workspace, and each tab's window list has several columns detailing asset properties, such as clip duration, file size and type, transcode settings (more on these in a moment), last modified, and the like. The Project window lists menus and timelines that you've created, but these are also separated into dedicated lists under the "Menus" and "Timelines" tabs. The Disc tab gets you to image finalization and disc burning.

There's a little redundancy here beyond those Menu and Timeline tabs that makes Encore's interface less intuitive than it could be, at least at first. In the lower right section of the screen, by default, is another tabbed window, featuring Layers (Photoshop layers), Characters (the text palette), and something called the Library. You can import raw background, button, and menu graphics into either this Library or the Project window, but, awkwardly, if you import a layered Photoshop file directly into the Project window, you won't be able to effectively turn it into a Menu. To do that you need to import it into the Library.

Sonic Producer similarly uses a combination of a Palette, much like Encore's Library, and a List Window, which effectively matches Encore's Menu and Timeline tabs. However, Producer avoids any Project window equivalent, importing media assets directly into Timelines and, thus, the List Window. While Encore's Project Window versus Library split is a little awkward, especially given the relative default positioning of the windows, Encore does leverage the Project window to manage all your project assets. Like an erstwhile Spruce Maestro-like project list overview, Encore lets you quickly scan and amend navigation links, file naming, and other properties.

Since Encore works with both uncompressed AVIs, etc. and pre-encoded MPEG files, even allowing for mixing them in the same Timeline, the Project window also offers an encoding status overview. Then, by right clicking on individual media clips, you can force immediate encode, thus using different bitrates for different clips, or set clips to Automatic encode, which will allow Encore to calculate the highest bitrate for all clips that will fit on the final DVD disc. Unfortunately, manually setting bitrates is far more complicated that it has to or should be. Encore makes you configure "presets" through the main File menu, thus creating an unnecessarily long list of presets, before you can use them in the Project window simply to encode a file. That annoyance aside, both the encoding automation and flexibility are potentially very helpful.

A third window that you'll see right away in Encore, on the right in Adobe's default workspace, is the Property Inspector. As with other Property Inspectors, Encore's changes context depending on what Project window tab is highlighted. That keeps it neater than those that can expand right off the bottom of your monitor; however, Encore's Inspector can also leave you wondering where you are. For example, if you want to set the project's First Play (to tell the DVD player what to play first), you may need to click around in the Project window until you hit the right context. Of course, once you learn the interface this will be only a minor hassle, but Adobe recognizes the problem of non-intuitive mouse clicks and expects to establish some kind of more direct Property hierarchy in an early 1.x release.

The Property Inspector is where you create any custom navigational structure. Encore does a lot automatically—linking buttons to media if you drag media or Timelines straight onto a menu and automatically configuring DVD remote arrow responses—but the Inspector is where you'll set less intuitive links. For example, if you create a custom button to be linked to a media clip, you'll need to set that. Or, if you like to program a specific End action, you'll do that through the Property Inspector. There's also a feature called "Override," which is as close as Encore currently gets to using GPRMs (it actually does use them, but keeps direct access out of sight). Override effectively creates a second If-Then End action if a clip is interrupted during playback. The Property Inspector is where you can leverage DVD color-mapping for menus, assigning color-mapping palettes to menus.

Leveraging and Forcing Photoshop
All of Encore's organizational and workflow features are ultimately dwarfed by its links to Photoshop. Simply put, you can use Encore without Photoshop, but buying it without having Photoshop would really be a waste of money. Indeed, the price of Encore effectively more than doubles if you need to buy Photoshop. But, just as simply, if you use Photoshop to create professional DVD menus (and most people do) then there's no better way to work with them than in Encore.

While the media related portions of Encore are built around the Window Media architecture, all menu creation functions are literally built on top of the Photoshop design engine. If you bring (appropriately) layered Photoshop files into Encore, Encore will automatically separate the background layers from the buttons and create ready-to-burn menus, save the media linking. Of course, applications like Apple DVD Studio Pro and Pinnacle Impression already do much the same, leveraging Photoshop layers. But with Encore, all those layers are always editable should changes be necessary, and they almost always are in any collaborative creative process.

You can change some things, like button positioning and text, directly inside Encore, but you're always just a click away from taking anything back to Photoshop for more. Open Photoshop from within Encore, make and save changes, and they'll immediately show up in Encore. Imagine making commonplace color edits to match an imported motion menu background, or changing text styles to match a corporate logo or look, or just adding another button or two to a menu to accommodate last minute media additions. It's all very fast moving between Encore and Photoshop. Encore's Layer tab window shows all Photoshop layers and effects.

To make things easy for authoring or design novices and professionals just needing a fast way to create prototype, in-house, or simply straightforward titles, Encore will ship with some 70-80 layered Photoshop stock menu files, complete with pre-positioned button, as well as several dozen simple button graphics. Of course, because they are completely editable, they will serve as easy templates for creating custom-layered backgrounds and buttons. You can start with any one of the stock files and throw away everything excepting the format. You can re-position buttons, delete them, copy and paste to add more, substitute graphics, or change colors to quickly build your own menus. Some of those changes—like the repositioning, deleting, copying and pasting—can be made directly in Encore. Others will require that you toggle to Photoshop.

Of course, you can also start with a blank menu and add your own background and graphics, although it is not terribly efficient, at least not compared to consumer-level tools. You can drag JPEG (or other image-format) backgrounds and buttons right on top of these menu blanks and Encore will create the layers automatically. You can resize and re-position, or use the Text tool and turn characters themselves into button graphics, and you'll need only to set the links. But you'll be building Photoshop files without the shapes, brushes, pencils, erasers, etc. of Photoshop. For fast menus, it'll be easier to use the stock files, mixing, matching, and editing where necessary.

Encore also features reasonably impressive links to Premiere Pro and After Effects. While Encore Timelines cannot open Premiere Pro or After Effects timelines—neither the visual format nor the backend engine is built into Encore—you can export files from either application with project information embedded. Thus, you can open what might otherwise appear to be simple media files and use them in Encore Timelines, but always have the ability to launch either Premiere Pro or After Effects directly from within Encore and "edit original." Media files will open as full project files in Premiere Pro or After Effects, you'll make and save changes and have those changes immediately appear in Encore. Imagine how much easier it will be to get a motion menu just right with this give and take from After Effects.

Finalizing Features
We found some bugs during testing, especially in a subtitle editor that will ultimately both import text files or type directly onto media files in the Timeline view. But bugs are really to be expected or the product would already be shipping, and you can reasonably expect these bugs to be resolved in the final 1.0 version. The features in our beta version are said to be frozen.

With future updates, Adobe's next major pushes for Encore will most likely be in two directions. First, Encore should begin to add more Photoshop-like creation tools—at least simple shape creation and color filling—to increase ease of use for those new to DVD authoring. A Wizard is possible, too, but that would go against Encore's positioning as a professional authoring tool, and there are better ways to increase intuitiveness. Second, Adobe hopes to begin to add more professional features like scripting, GPRM support, and more direct control of Pre- and Post- commands.

Still, in its maiden version, Encore will serve a very strong cross-section of users. It has enough of a professional workflow—with drag-and-drop menus, a timeline interface for linking audio and video, some advanced navigation, and deceptively powerful project organization—to appeal to most users and most of their projects. It's also easy enough, especially if you've had any DVD authoring or Photoshop experience, to build titles very fast.

For now, as long as there's enough programming of the DVD details, and there probably is for most users, Encore is what comes after the round of applause for DVD designing done in Photoshop.

OTHER COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE

Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com
Pinnacle Systems, Inc., www.pinnaclesys.com
Sonic Solutions, www.sonic.com
Ulead Systems, Inc., www.ulead.com