Right Here, Right Now: Authoring and Burning HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc
Posted Dec 14, 2006

Most of us at EventDV, myself included, have been HDV cheerleaders, promoting the new format despite the glaring fact that you couldn't actually play high-def video in your living room on any standard optical media. We'd talk about the ability to losslessly pan and zoom within the video, a technical possibility but efficiency nightmare, or preserving quality for future delivery. But at the end of the day, you had to downsample your gorgeous 1920x1080 or 1280x720 video down to a relatively pedestrian 720x480 for delivery to your client, a frankly depressing process. With consumer high-definition standards hopelessly mired in the HD DVD/Blu-ray format war, I stopped shooting in HDV months ago since DV was easier to edit and all I really needed (or could deliver).

Well, brothers and sisters, I'm here to tell you today that this has all changed, and for the blessed first time, wedding videographers are in a perfect position to exploit HD—from acquisition to delivery. Why, you ask? Because the format war is over and all is hunky-dory in the world of HD optical disc? No, far from it. The reason we can take advantage of it where others can't is because as personal event videographers, we produce for an extremely limited audience. And after a bride or her parents pay thousands for a wedding, forking over an extra $500 for an HD DVD or Blu-ray player to watch the video in high-definition is peanuts. You can even do the legwork for them and build the player into the package (and your price). Sure, you'll have to deliver SD DVDs as well, but finally, you'll have a playback platform that does justice to the high-def video you've been shooting.

Feeling inspired? Well this article discusses three ways to produce high-definition video for viewing on either HD DVD or Blu-ray players—three solutions that will work for us right now. Briefly, these involve using Apple DVD Studio Pro or Pinnacle Studio to burn HD DVD-formatted discs on your current DVD±R/RW burner for playback on an HD DVD set top player, or using Roxio DVDit Pro HD to record projects to a Blu-ray recorder for playback on a Blu-ray set-top player. Yes, since Studio and DVD Studio Pro are using your current recorder, which is limited to 4.7GB single-layer and 8.5GB dual-layer (DL), you can't access the capacious storage available in either high-def format, but you can put about 60 minutes of video on a DL disc with near-perfect quality. Again, since your target for that disc is one or two very current DVD players in a bride or her parents' home, rather than hundreds of players of uncertain ancestry scattered about the city, you should be able to avoid, or at least manage, the still-shaky compatibility associated with dual-layer media.

It's worth noting right up front that all three alternatives extend current DVD authoring capabilities to the new media, and don't provide access to the new features in Blu-ray or HD DVD like pop-up menus, dynamic interactive content, or new codecs like MPEG-4 or VC1. Still, you get high-def video—navigable and on-disc—in the living room, and presumably that's the whole point.

Note that there are some products can burn high-definition discs without menus, providing the quality without the interactivity. There are others that promise BD and HD DVD support when in fact all they can do is burn HD disc images authored in other solutions (like Sonic's high-end Scenarist), which is no help to anyone in our space. All that glitters is not gold, and in new markets, be sure to scratch below the surface to fully understand the HD-related features a product offers.

The Workflow
Before describing the capabilities of each program, let's discuss the workflow for getting your video from video editor to the authoring program (even though Pinnacle Studio is an NLE, I'm assuming that none of you will actually edit in Studio, but merely use it to create your HD DVD-formatted DVDs). On the Windows front, you have several alternatives; probably the easiest is to export your video in HDV format using templates supplied in your editor. In testing, both DVDit and Sonic successfully imported such files exported from both Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro. If you can't produce a file that Studio can import, you can always print your edited HDV video to tape using your NLE of choice and recapture the video in Studio. This isn't an option for DVDit, which doesn't have video capture capabilities.

You could, of course, compress to HD DVD-ready MPEG-2 in your video editor, avoiding the recompression back to HDV, but then you run the risk of either Studio or DVDit recompressing your MPEG-2 files during the disc-formatting and burning process. Both Studio and DVDit imported HD-ready MPEG-2 files produced by Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro, though DVDit produced an error message stating the file wasn't DVD-compliant, probably guaranteeing a recompress. My personal preference is to compress to final format in the authoring program, which is probably both safe and efficient for most producers. In short, export in HDV and let Studio and DVDit encode to MPEG-2.

For the Macintosh, output a QuickTime reference movie from DVD Studio Pro, and import that into DVD Studio Pro, which avoids the whole recompression issue altogether. Now that I've covered this workflow, let's look at each product individually. I'll discuss the products in the order that I tested them, not in order of their availability.

Pinnacle Studio
If you're working for the kind of high-end clients who can realistically expect HD delivery at this point, the big question in your mind is probably, "Do you really expect me to use a $100 piece of consumer software?" My answer: "Heck, yes." Your alternatives are a) do nothing, or b) spend another $1,000+ to buy DVDit and a Blu-ray drive and burn a Blu-Ray disc. Studio will get you in the HD delivery business for $149.

figure 1Just to be clear, I'm assuming that you'll deliver the complete wedding production on SD DVDs, as normal, and a short-form highlight video on HD DVD. In my testing, I burned about 20 single- and dual-layer discs in HD DVD format on three different computers with two varieties of media, Verbatim and Ridata. You can fit about 30 minutes on a single-layer disc while retaining great quality; 40 minutes is a stretch. You can get 60 minutes of HD on a DL disc; for some producers, that's enough for the whole wedding.

As mentioned above, Studio successfully input HDV and HD DVD-formatted MPEG-2 files from Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro, though the initial input time was quite slow, especially for the MPEG-2 file, as Studio scanned the file for scene changes. In addition, though both test computers successfully imported and burned HDV video to HD DVD, one test computer could import, but not deploy the MPEG-2 file to the timeline, stating that it did not have the necessary graphics memory.

Interestingly, the graphics card on this computer, an HP xw4100 with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor with HT Technology (and 2GB RAM), had only 128MB of memory. Both of my other test computers, an HP xw4300 with a 3.4GHz Pentium D (with 2GB RAM), and an HP xw8400 with two dual-core Xeon processors (2GB RAM), had 256 MB of graphics memory. Make sure you have at least 128MB of graphics memory, if not 256, before buying Studio for use in burning HDV video. Within Studio, project complexity depends upon whether you want to insert a menu into your project. If not, the video will automatically play when the disc is inserted into the drive. If you do want a menu, you can probably create the same look and feel as your SD disc by importing the same background graphics and using the same font for your buttons (Figure 1, left).

Burning the disc itself is simple. You click the Make Movie tab to get started, then choose HD DVD as the disc type. I compressed to Dolby 2 Channel audio in all my tests, using Studio's Automatic quality setting for video, which automatically calculates the compression rate necessary to fit all video to disc (and got up to 60 minutes onto a 4.7GB disc, though with obvious quality loss). To burn a DL disc, insert a DL blank and configure dual-layer burning in the Target media drop-down list. You can't manually set the layer-break as you can with DVD Studio Pro, but operation could not have been simpler. You'll notice the "safe option to create disc content and then burn," but I burned directly to disc in all my tests with no problems.

As long as I stayed under the 30 minutes per side rule of thumb, video quality was simply stunning, especially noticeable when there was lots of fine detail in the scene. One viewer commented that he felt like was watching the ballet source video through a window than viewing it on TV. Even the menus, which started life as SD menus, looked fantastic. Interestingly, SD discs played on the Toshiba HD-A1 player used in my tests also looked significantly better than my normal DVD player, apparently the result of upsampling circuitry included in the player.

To produce an SD DVD from the same content, simply choose DVD in the Disc Type drop down, and check your recording settings. No adjustments to your data or menu are required.

No discussion of Pinnacle Studio software is complete with addressing the "stability issue." Briefly, Pinnacle has a history of shipping software a touch early and fixing it in post, so to speak, and version 10 was probably the least stable software release I've ever encountered. Things picked up with version 10.6, however, and version 10.7, which includes the HD DVD capabilities, is by far the most stable version of Studio I've seen, and on par stability-wise with most other programs.

I would definitely download the trial version before buying, though you won't be able to produce HD DVDs with the trial, just SD DVDs. Still, if you burn those without difficulty, you should be able to produce HD DVDs as well.

Blu-ray Burning with DVDit Pro HD
The last time I reviewed DVDit was version 6, and you can find the review here. The Cliff Notes version is that I adored the product, finding it much more user-friendly than Encore and DVD Studio Pro, and nearly as capable. Still, suite pricing (and that whole operating system thing) doomed DVDit to second-tier status for Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro editors, though a customized version is bundled with various Avid editors.

figure 1With version 6.3, Roxio added Blu-ray disc burning capabilities, with HD DVD support to follow once burners are available. Considering that neither Encore nor DVD Studio Pro can produce Blu-ray discs, and that you might be able to run DVDit on an Intel-powered Mac via Boot Camp or Parallels Desktop for the Mac, DVDit now merits a much more serious look.

To burn a Blu-ray disc, you author normally, though as mentioned, DVDit warned me that each video file that I imported was "not DVD and Blu-ray compliant, and may require transcoding." To avoid the risk of double MPEG-2 compression, I recommending thay you output HDV video from your editor, rather than MPEG-2, or at least experiment with MPEG-2 output parameters until you have files you can import without seeing this error message.

After authoring, you set your HD Transcoding settings in the Project Settings tab (Figure 2, left). Unlike Studio, DVDit doesn't offer an "automatic" mode that calculates the compression necessary to fit all content to disc, an omission I hope Roxio addresses in the near term. Still, when you consider that a single-sided Blu-ray disc can store close to 2 hours of video at 25Mbps, it's not a huge concern. Note the SD Transcoding tab; if you plan to burn both SD and Blu-ray discs, you should configure this to the desired settings.

figure 1Once you've set your encoding parameters, you set Disc Type and Write Speed, and you're off (Figure 3, left). Note that Layers is grayed out because I'm burning to the Pioneer BD-101A burner, which can only burn a single-layer disc. To burn an SD disc, just change the Disc type, and you're good to go.


Burning HD DVDs in DVD Studio Pro
Giving credit where credit was due, Apple was the first to incorporate HD DVD authoring into their authoring program, though at the time, the only available player was a Macintosh computer, which meant that Apple had no consumer players to test with. For this reason, it's not surprising that discs burned with DVD Studio Pro play unreliably or not at all with the Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player.

figure 1Apple is aware of this problem, and is working with Toshiba to resolve it. I tested with DVD Studio Pro 4.03 on the PowerPC platform, and 4.1 on the Intel Platform, so it will have to be a version later than these to function normally.

Setting up the HD DVD disc is simple, as shown in Figure 4, left. In the Project Preferences dialog, set the DVD standard to HD DVD.


figure 1Then, click open the Encoding tab, and set your MPEG-2 HD encoding parameters (Figure 5, left). Otherwise, you can edit and author normally.

As long as Apple is working on their encoding settings, I'll make three requests. First, include an "auto" setting that automatically calculates the data rate necessary to fit the video to disc. While some pros will prefer to calculate this themselves, many users merely want the video to fit, which is a much bigger issue when burning HD DVD discs to standard DVDs because of the space limitations.

Second, if the video won't fit on the disc, tell me before you start encoding (and I walk away). DVDit doesn't have an auto fit-to-disc function, but informs you that you have a space problem when you start to burn the disc, so you can adjust your data rate and restart. It also has a much more accurate disc-monitoring function that definitively tells you when your video won't fit. DVD Studio Pro's meter showed 4.5GB of data, but still said (after rendering) that there was too much video to fit on the disc.

Finally, these same disc-space limitations make DL discs a much bigger deal for HD DVD production than for SD DVD. I tried DVD Studio Pro's automatic function for setting a layer-break, and manually inserting chapter points and selecting one of those, and was unable to burn a DL disc in multiple attempts. Again, I realize pros really want control over where the disc break occurs, but many users simply want an "Easy" button (like in those Staples commercials) that finds the best break point and burns the disc. Not sure if I was doing something wrong, or if this was a bug, but in future revs, please make DL burning simple and operational.

All that said, HD DVD burning to DVD±R discs is an amazingly forward-looking feature; I hope Apple will take these steps to make it more usable.