Tutorial: Designing and Checking DVD Navigation
Posted Feb 3, 2006

There's a lot that goes into the perfect DVD, but one of the most fundamental aspects is navigation, or how you control the way the viewer moves through the content on the DVD. In this tutorial, I identify which aspects of the user experience you can control, and how to do so in two leading prosumer authoring tools: Sonic Solutions' DVDit Pro 6 and Apple's DVD Studio Pro 4.

Back when I participated in triathlons, I used to tell folks training for their first race that they would always remember their initial triathlon as the most fun. You trained, you entered, you usually had low expectations, and if you finished, you were both exhausted and exhilarated. Then, of course, you started thinking about how you could shave two minutes off the swim-to-bike transition, 30 seconds per mile off the run, and how you could really do the perfect triathlon. Even if you met your newly minted goals, the fun was never the same, because the cycle simply refreshed and started anew.

Authoring your first DVD is like that. You shoot, you edit, you author, and instead of delivering on grainy VHS tape, you hand over a broadcast-quality DVD. Your client loves it and you love it, because it's like nothing you've ever done before. You're also relieved it's finally over, but once the afterglow subsides, you start thinking about what you wished you'd been able to accomplish the first time out but couldn't, and how to make your next disc perfect.

There's a lot that goes into the perfect DVD, but one of the most fundamental aspects is navigation, or how you control the way the viewer moves through the content on the DVD. In this tutorial, I identify which aspects of the user experience you can control, and how to do so in two leading prosumer authoring tools: Sonic Solutions' DVDit Pro 6 and Apple's DVD Studio Pro 4.

For the sake of brevity, I'll assume you're familiar with one or both of the programs, and won't address basic operations like menu and button creation and content-linking. This will allow me to focus primarily on the navigational aspects of DVD production, starting with the First Play video.

First Play

The First Play video is the video that starts playing immediately after you insert the disc into the player. In Hollywood DVDs, this may be the FBI warning, the studio logo, or previews for future releases.

First Play videos are obviously not a required element of a DVD, and many titles simply start with the initial, or main, menu. Interestingly, if you want to quickly create a DVD without a menu, perhaps as a way to send a draft of a project to a client, simply insert the video into the project, designate it as First Play, and then burn the disc. Your video will start playing as soon as your client inserts the disc in the player.

If you do insert a First Play video, most viewers watching on set-top players will see it every time they insert the disc, so keep it short (usually 10-15 seconds max) and allow viewers to click the menu or title button on their remotes to exit the First Play clip (more on that in a moment). Return viewers on computers will probably have the option to resume at the last played point, avoiding the First Play video.

Setting your First Play video is simple. In DVDit, after importing the video into the project, then converting it into a title, you select it, right-click, and choose Set as First Play (Figure 1, below)figure 1.

Operation is very similar in DVD Studio Pro; you simply select the desired track, right click, and choose First Play (Figure 2, right)figure 2.

After setting your First Play video, ask yourself three questions that will become very familiar over the course of this article. First, where do I want to send the viewer when the First Play video stops playing; that's is usually called the End Action? Second, do I want the viewer to be able to interrupt playback by clicking the menu or title button on their remote control? Third, if so, where do I want to send viewers when they interrupt playback with each button?

Setting End Actions

Simply stated, the End Action (called End Jump in DVD Studio Pro) is where the viewer goes after the video stops playing. Depending on your content, after the First Play video finishes, you probably want your viewer either to jump directly to the Main Menu (with, say, an educational DVD) or perhaps to start viewing the Main Feature (as with wedding or other event videos).

In DVDit, you designate the End Action from the Movie Tab of the Movie Attributes dialog (Figure 3, left)figure 3. In most instances, when you designate a menu as the End Action destination, you can also choose which button is highlighted when the menu appears. In Figure 3, I've selected the Main Menu as the target, with Button 1 highlighted.

In DVD Studio Pro, you set all End Actions in the Inspector in the bottom right (Figure 4, below)figure 4. As with DVDit, when you select a menu, you can also select which button is highlighted when it opens.

DVD Studio Pro also lets you insert a pause between the end of the content currently showing and the execution of the End Jump. This can be used either for effect, such as a long fade to black, or simply to give the viewer time to click other commands.

Once you start programming in End Actions, you'll see why it's so important that programs make special provisions to test them when you start previewing your project. It's not such a big deal for a 15-second intro, but in the heart of a title, when the video can last 60 minutes or more, having to wait until it finishes playing to check the End Action is obviously unacceptable.

Adobe Encore does a clearer job than DVD SP or DVDit here, with an Execute End Action button in the Preview window. With DVDit, clicking the Next Chapter button in the Preview window to the end of the title should execute the End Action, as does clicking the Skip Track Forward button in DVD Studio Pro.

You'll need to set End Actions for all content in your project (or knowledgeably accept the defaults), but the considerations are different for the main content in your DVD. For that reason, we'll return to discuss End Actions more generally below.

Interrupting Playback

Once you choose the End Action, there are two additional decisions you'll need to make for each piece of content in your project. Will I let viewers interrupt playback, and if so, where do I send them?

If you've watched any Hollywood DVDs, you've undoubtedly encountered some that start running previews that you can't interrupt. Personally, this drives me crazy. Still, there may be some (short) legal or other warnings you feel your viewers need to see, and if so, you can prevent them from exiting the movie.

Typically, these are handled in controls called Remote Controls or Actions. For example, in Figure 5figure 5 (left), you see DVDit's DVD Remote Actions buttons with controls for both the Menu and Title buttons on the remote player. There, I've configured the DVD to take No Action if viewers click the Menu button, essentially forcing them to watch the entire First Play video, while sending them to the Main Menu if they click the Title button.

I'm not suggesting this schema, of course; I'm merely demonstrating how to prevent users from interrupting playback and how to send them to a specific location when they do interrupt. In my titles, at least for the First Play video, I'd send the viewer to the Main Menu if they hit either the Menu or Title button, but it's worthwhile to show you the alternatives.

These decisions are complicated by the fact that all consumer remote players have different buttons. For example, the remote that came with my DVD player has Menu, Top Menu, and Return buttons, which don't precisely map to DVDit's buttons. In this case, I would assume that Top Menu means Title button and plan accordingly. In general, all remotes have at least two buttons that correspond to menu and title, so you should be able to figure things out.

Note that some authoring programs, including DVDit, use the Title button to return the viewer to the First Play video as the default setting. You might agree with this strategy, but you might not; either way, you should investigate your program's defaults, and either accept or change them.

With my projects, I assume that the viewer would never want to see the First Play video after the first time, so I take them to the initial menu if they hit either the Menu or Title button. After that, the general rule I follow is that the Menu button returns them to the menu containing the button they clicked to play the video content they're currently watching (originating menu), while the Title menu takes them to the first menu in the project.

Whatever you decide, remember that with DVDit you'll either have to accept the default setting or change the values for all content included in the project.

DVD Studio Pro has two levels of settings that affect your ability to interrupt playback for strategic purposes. In the Disc Inspector, you can set the defaults for Title, Menu, and Return buttons. If you have only one menu in your project, you're good to go.

If you do have multiple menus, and want the Menu buttons to return the viewer to the originating menu, you'll have to set this in the Track Inspector for each track. As you can see in Figure 6 (right)figure 6, DVD Studio Pro carries the Title and Return defaults through to all content, allowing you to customize the Menu button for each video, as well as decide where to send the viewer when they click the Angle, Chapter, Audio, and Subtitle buttons, which is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Menu Machinations

OK, let's assume your viewer now has arrived at the initial menu, either by watching the First Play video through to the end or by clicking out of it. Now what happens?

You've got several choices. First, you do nothing until your viewer clicks a button. If you have video or audio content in the menu, you can usually elect to loop the content until the viewer takes some action or lets it play once and stop. Or, you can force the menu to "time out" and then designate an End Action.

Most marketing videos, for example, default to the first video after a short timeout, so they can be easily used at tradeshows or kiosks. In most of my concert DVDs, I have an audio or video background, and when that finishes, I jump to the start of the concert. In contrast, most training DVDs simply sit and wait until a user clicks a button.

With DVDit, you force a menu to time out by converting it from an Infinite Still to a Timed Still in the Menu Attributes window, and then setting the duration (Figure 7, below, left)figure 7. If you insert an audio file as background, DVDit inserts that duration automatically—a nice convenience. Note the Subpicture Start control in Figure 8, which I'll explain below when describing DVD Studio Pro's menu timeout features.

Once you've converted the menu to Timed Still, click the Menu tab on top to access the End Action list box to designate which video to play to (or menu to jump to) after the timeout (Figure 3).

DVD Studio Pro uses a similar paradigm; I changed the menu from a Still to a Timeout menu using the At End: list box in the middle left of the Menu Inspector, then selected the target video (avid-deinterlace) in the Action menu (Figure 8, right)figure 8. This menu is set to run for 68 seconds, then jump to the avid-deinterlace video.

Note the loop point setting in the top middle of the Menu Inspector. This lets me hide the button subpictures, or the highlights the viewer sees when selecting or activating a button, until after that duration, usually for design reasons. For example, if the menu were a video menu with text flying in from the left, this would allow me to delay the appearance of the sub-pictures until the text was actually there. This delay occurs only the first time the menu plays; after that, playback starts at the start of the loop point—in the example, ten seconds into the menu.

Button Order

The next step in orchestrating the navigation of your DVD is setting the order of buttons on the menu, or what happens when the viewer uses the arrow keys on the remote. This seems pretty straightforward, but can go awry quickly if you move your buttons around or adopt a circular or nonstandard button positioning scheme.

This is another subjective area where you can make up your own rules, though you can save a bunch of work if you can live with the defaults that the authoring program assigns. Take a look at Figure 9 (left) figure 9and you'll see what I mean.

In this example—which is drawn from a DVD I made to show the test results from our "Battle of the Software NLEs" series—if the viewer is on Button 1 (Complete files) and clicks the right arrow key on her remote, does she want to go to Pan and Zoom (Button 5) or Chromakey (Button 2)? If she clicks the up arrow, does she want button 4 (HDV convert) or Button 8 (De-interlace)?

My choice for this title, primarily to ensure consistency with other screens that weren't this symmetrical, was to assign the same routings to both the right and down keys, and the left and up keys. This is shown in Figure 10 (below, left)figure 10, where I'm on Button 1 (in the middle) and have the same values for left and up (to Button 8) and right and down (to Button 2).

In contrast, DVD Studio Pro chose Button 8 as the destination for the up and left arrows, while jumping to Button 2 with the down key and Button 5 with the right arrow key (Figure 11, right)figure 11.

Overall, the order you choose isn't as important as applying it consistently throughout each and every menu in the project. During preview, this means cycling through all menus using the right, left, up, and down arrow buttons and making sure you end up at the desired location. Also, make sure that navigation buttons such as back, forward, and home are included in the cycle. Otherwise, viewers may be left stranded on a remote menu—definitely a navigational faux pas.

Content End Actions

Let's now revisit End Actions, focusing on the main content in the DVD. With your First Play video, you almost always want jump to the initial menu. With the bulk of your presentation, however, choosing an End Action isn't quite so simple, and you may desire different End Actions depending upon how the viewer accesses the content.

Let's start with a simple example. Say you've created a wedding DVD with five main components: love story; video from the rehearsal dinner, ceremony, and reception; and a photo montage or slideshow. And you've decided to create and render each component into a separate file rather than creating one long video.

You're planning a one-menu DVD with one button to play all contents from start to finish (the Play All button), and buttons for each of the five sections (Section buttons). Navigation-wise, you're thinking that when a viewer clicks a Section button, he should return to the main menu so he can pick and choose the content he sees. You considered the alternative, which is playing the video through to the end irrespective of where the viewer entered, but decided that the return-to-menu approach was superior.

In DVDit, creating the Play All button is easy. You create a button, then link it to the love story video. You then set the End Action for the love story video to jump to the rehearsal dinner video, which jumps to the ceremony, which jumps to the reception and then the slideshow. After the slideshow, you'll return the viewer to the main menu.

Now, what about the Section buttons? Since you've already set the End Action for each specific video, how do you get them to return to the menu? Well, DVDit lets you assign an End Action to a specific link, or Link End Action, that overrides the End Action assigned at the movie level. This is the checkmark on the bottom of Figure 12figure 12 (below).

Operationally, you would click each Section button, and then make sure the Return to Menu End Action is checked in the Button Attributes window. Note that at display resolutions of less than 1600x1200, you'll probably have to scroll down to see the control, which makes it easy to miss. Once checked, this would override the movie-level End Action button when the movie is accessed from that button (and only that button), so the project would return to the menu after the video finishes playing. You would then make sure that this checkbox is not enabled for the Play All button, so the movie-level End Actions would operate to play all videos in sequence.

Here's where it gets funky. Suppose you had produced all five videos on one timeline and rendered them as one long file. You could easily insert chapter points at all the relevant sections to link to your Section buttons, and have a Play All button that links to the start of the video. The catch is that DVDit can only return to a menu at the end of a complete title, not at the end of a chapter point. So even if the Link End Action, Return to Menu checkbox were enabled, the video would play through all subsequent chapter points to the end before returning to the menu.

For this reason, when working with DVDit, to you would have to render each section separately to accomplish the desired navigation. When doing so, fade each section in from black and out to black to hide the short delay that can occur when jumping from one video to another in the Play All sequence.

To be clear, I'm not advocating that all wedding DVDs must return to the menu after each section plays. But sometimes to achieve the desired navigation using a specific authoring tool, you have to render your video appropriately. In a wedding project, it might be acceptable for the video to play through to the end when entered via an intermediate chapter point. However, if you were producing a training DVD in which returning to the menu after each section was essential, you'd absolutely have to render each section separately if you were authoring in DVDit.

Now let's examine the same scenario in DVD Studio Pro, which does not have a link End Action (or End Jump) override, but offers a feature called Stories, which is much more powerful. If you rendered separate videos for each section, you would insert the separate videos into a single track (tracks in DVD Studio Pro can accept multiple videos, while each video inserted into DVDit becomes a standalone title).

Then you would insert chapter markers at the start of each section. Unlike DVDit, DVD Studio Pro can insert End Jumps at the end of a chapter, so here you would insert return-to-menu End Jumps for each chapter (Figure 13, below, left)figure 13.

Link every Section button to the respective chapter, and each would return to the menu after playing. But what about the Play All function?

Here you would create a Story linking all the chapter points into a video that will play sequentially, albeit with very short breaks between the sections. The Story Creation interface is shown in Figure 14 (below, center)figure 14, with the available chapters from the track on the left, and the selected chapters (all of them) on the right. Then you would link the Story to the Play All button, and move on.

What about if I created the video in one long sequence? In that case, I would insert the same chapter points, but would leave the End Jump "not set" so that each chapter would play through to the next. Here's where DVD Studio Pro's Story feature gets really cool.

If you have multiple chapter points in a track, a Story will start to play at the designated entry chapter point, then exit at the next chapter point. In addition, each story can have its own End Jump. To create the desired return-to-menu behavior for each section, I would create a Story for each section, linking to the target chapter point and setting the End Jump to return to the menu.

Note that while DVDit also has a Story-like feature, called Play Lists, it can't exit at a chapter point, so you can't use it to accomplish the same goal with one long clip.

Preview and Navigation-Checking

You've been previewing your work all along, but before you burn your disc, here's a navigational checklist that you should review before proceeding.

Insert disc:
1. Does proper First Play appear?
2. Does it segue to the proper content (End Action)?
3. Does the DVD go to the desired place if you interrupt it with the Menu, Title, or similar Remote button?

For each menu:
1. Click through the buttons backwards and forwards using all four arrow keys. Is the operation logical and consistent? Does the button order list all buttons, including navigational buttons?
2. If you've implemented a timeout, does it execute and do you end up in the right place?

For all navigational buttons:
1. Click navigational buttons on the Main Menu to access all secondary menus.
2. Then return to the Main Menu.

For each content button:
1. Does it play the right content?
2. Does the content have the desired End Action?
3. Does the DVD go to the desired place if you interrupt it with the menu, title, or similar remote button?

Once you've answered all these questions satisfactorily, and confirmed that the disc's navigation is precisely as you've planned it, congratulations—you're ready to burn.