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Adventures in HD Authoring: From NLE to Blu-ray
Posted May 1, 2008 - May 2008 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

In February 2007 I upgraded my cameras from SD DV to HDV and proceeded to sell upgrades to an HD edit for later delivery. After a year of shooting and editing with this workflow, my archives were starting to fill up with projects archived in HD and ready to be delivered in some HD delivery format. When Toshiba recently threw in the towel with HD DVD and Blu-ray won the next-generation optical disc format war, I knew it was time to start getting some archived projects delivered.

When I had the opportunity to write this article I wanted to approach it from the standpoint of an editor looking to get into Blu-ray authoring without spending huge amounts on new applications. When you are ready to start authoring Blu-ray Discs you have probably just invested a large amount in cameras, edit systems, and other peripherals needed for an HD workflow. And if you’ve already developed your skills set in an NLE other than Adobe Premiere Pro (which ships with the Blu-ray-capable Encore authoring tool), you shouldn’t have to change editing platforms or invest in a new postproduction suite in order to deliver your product on Blu-ray Disc (BD). Naturally, you’ll need a BD burner, but if you’re not already using a BD-capable pro authoring tool such as Encore or Sonic DVDit Pro HD, there are a number of consumer ($129 or less) authoring tools that claim BD authoring capability, although only a few of them support even basic menu creation, which should be a given.

So, with this as a goal—delivering event videos on Blu-ray Discs, with menus, for minimal additional investment beyond my HDV camera, my current NLE of choice, and my HD-capable editing system—here’s the workflow I developed, and how I got there.

Getting Started
I recently took delivery of a nice new Sony BWU-200S 4X BD recorder and started the journey to Blu-ray authoring. What a crazy ride. You have lots of new terminology to worry about—BDMV, BDAV, BD-R, BD-RE—and new issues to address, such as creating BD-compliant files, bit rates, authoring challenges (including applications) just to name a few. I did some asking around in online forums and with others I knew had already started authoring Blu-ray Discs and tried to compile an easy and cost effective workflow to Blu-ray authoring. First let’s clarify some of those terms.

  • BDAV—Blu-ray Discs that have chapter marks but no menus, and start playing automatically when loaded in a player
  • BDMV—Blu-ray Discs with full menu functionality
  • BD-R—Write-once Blu-ray Discs (analogous to DVD±R)
  • BD-RE—Rewritable Blu-ray Discs (analogous to DVD±RW)
  • Blu-ray compliant files—Files encoded for Blu-ray authoring that will not require additional transcoding when working with more ad-vanced authoring applications. It is very important to get Blu-ray-compliant files if you aren’t going to have your authoring application encode the files. If they aren’t compliant, many authoring applications will transcode them to a compliant format and your final product will be encoded twice and suffer the generation loss attendant to multiple transcodes.

    (For more detail on Blu-ray Disc specifications, see EMedialive's The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ.)Creating compliant files is where I spent the most time researching and learning. From creating SD DVDs you are probably familiar with bitrates of between 6Mbps and 7.5Mbps for good-looking DVD video that will play successfully on DVD players. In HD, you get to work with bitrates of 20Mbps and higher. According to EMedialive’s Authoritative Blu-ray Disc FAQ, the BD spec requires Blu-ray players to support video bitrates up to 40Mbps for primary (HD) video streams, but I don’t think we need to be authoring at this high a bitrate. Very good quality can be achieved in the 15–30Mbps range.

    Encoding Tips
    Now we know about bitrates, but what about encoding formats? All BD players can read three formats: MPEG-2, H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC) and VC-1. I have experimented with MPEG-2 and H.264 files, so those are the ones we’ll discuss in the workflow outlined in this article.

    MPEG-2 files take up lots more space on a disc than H.264 files but are quicker to encode and a little easier to work with. With MPEG-2 files you need to encode around 23–25Mbps to get acceptable-quality HD footage without massive pixelization.

    With H.264, because of more efficient compression, you can get the same, or better quality at lower bitrates than MPEG-2. At a bitrate of only 18Mbps, H.264 will give you equivalent or better quality than 25Mbps MPEG-2, meaning more content can go on the disc. If you are in a hurry or have a slow computer, go with MPEG-2, but if you’ve got the requisite encoding time and processor power, then H.264 is your best bet.

    The first few Blu-ray Discs I created were done in MPEG-2 from an edited HDV source. I encoded the first clip at 18Mbps and experience very noticeable pixelation if the shot had any movement at all. At 24Mbps, the output was much improved, but at this bitrate you will get only about 1 hour on a single-layer Blu-ray Disc. For this reason I decided to focus my tests for this article on the H.264 codec. Now that we have much of the technobabble covered, let’s get to authoring.

    figure 1 Creating a Blu-ray-Compliant File in a Transcoding ApplicationOnce your project is completed in your NLE of choice, you have a few options. You can encode your files with your NLE’s encoder utility or export a master file for encoding and authoring elsewhere. I use Edius for my NLE, and it is possible to make a Blu-ray-compliant MPEG-2 file using the ProCoder Express transcoding application that comes bundled with Edius. If you already have an authoring application such as Encore CS3 or DVDit Pro HD, which can import your Blu-ray-compliant files and author without further transcoding, then exporting from your NLE is a great option.

    When doing so there are certain settings in your encoder that need to be set. The figure on the left shows the settings in ProCoder Express that will make a Blu-ray-compliant MPEG-2 file. This will produce a big file allowing only about 1 hour of footage on a disc.

    A great deal of helpful information on MPEG-2 data rates can be obtained from a user forum on the Roxio’s DVDit Pro HD website.

    This link contains compliant settings for many popular encoding utilities available today. These have been created by other users and are by no means the perfect settings. They have worked for many, but your mileage may vary.

    Thanks to all on the Roxio forums who compiled all this information.

    Choosing a BD-Capable Authoring Tool
    Most other solutions for the authoring process involve exporting a master file from your NLE to an authoring application that will transcode/encode the files for you. My hope with this tutorial was to use a very basic-entry level application such as the Cyberlink PowerDVD solution included with the Sony BWU-200S drive. The Cyberlink authoring utility will create a BDAV disc with no menus easily and quickly.

    You’ll want to import a master file as it will transcode your files for you upon import. Unless you upgrade to a more robust version of the software, you will be tied to MPEG-2 encoding. I created a BDAV disc with this utility, and it proved to be quick and easy. The quality of the video was satisfactory but not stunning. You can create menu-driven Blu-ray Discs with the Cyberlink application, but each of your menu chapters needs to be imported as a separate video file, meaning each segment has to be encoded separately. This is not a solution I want to deal with for a menu-driven disc. For a chapter-marks-only, no-menu disc, however, it is a very capable product. But from a business standpoint, any studio selling Blu-ray as an upgrade from DVD delivery should consider how effective that upsell will be if it means delivering a disc that’s less navigable than the SD DVD version. (Note: At press time, Cyberlink had just announced a new version of PowerProducer that supported BDMV authoring and featured .m2t import-to-burn without transcode. But keep in mind that this is the full retail version of the product, not the OEM version that ships with the Sony burner.)

    Since the Cyberlink product was not quite robust enough for my workflow, I started looking for an alternative. I have a copy of Adobe Production Premium CS3, but for this article I didn’t want to go the Encore route as many videographers who work with NLEs other than Premiere will need to make a significant investment ($799 for Premiere Pro and Encore), just to get this single application. I eventually found Nero 8. You’ll need Nero Version 8 Ultra edition ($79.99) and the HD plugin pack ($29.99). With those two items you are ready to easily author your Blu-ray content with full menu-creation capability.

    Working with Nero
    To get files ready for authoring in Nero you will need to create a master file out of your NLE. The easiest way to do so is to create an HDV file for export (m2t). If you are using Edius or an NLE that will export an AVI file of HD content, such as Cineform or Canopus HQ, then you can export a master file in this format as well, and Nero will recognize it. It just takes lots more disc space to use one of these file types.

    If you have an application for encoding to H.264 before importing, Nero documentation says it will allow authoring and burning without retranscoding your video files. I have found reports online that say Nero still retranscodes your files. I did a small test on an H.264 file I created with another app, and it did re-encode the file. Perhaps a future update will fix this issue. The Nero encoder is pretty good quality and produces good-looking results, so I used the included encoder for the discs I authored with Nero.

    Before we go any further, one important note for installing and working with Nero: You must update the Windows .NET framework to the latest version for Nero to work properly. I experienced problems completing an encode until this was done. You can update by going to Internet Explorer > Tools > Windows Update. This will take you to a page at Microsoft to check for updates. The .NET framework is found under the Custom options. You will need to install all .NET versions from V1 to V3. Do not neglect this step; you can’t author a Blu-ray Disc in Nero without the .NET framework installed.

    Upon opening Nero 8, you’ll find it pretty user-friendly and functional. It’s lots more than just an authoring and burning app, but you are on your own to explore all its features. For our purposes we’ll deal exclusively with the Nero Vision and Burning ROM utilities. (Note: Some users have reported stability problems when they installed the Nero Showtime utility used for playing back content. I use Windows Media Player, so I left this option off the installation.)

    For authoring your Blu-ray Discs you’ll use the Nero Vision application. The functionality is very similar to most DVD authoring apps, so I won’t go into great detail on how to build the disc. I’ll cover only the things you need to do for creating a successful Blu-ray Disc. Once Nero Vision is launched, you are prompted for the kind of project you want to create. Select the Blu-ray Video option. The figure below is a screen shot of the main screen after selecting Blu-ray video.

    figure 1

    The first thing you will want to do is use the "Add Video Files…." option to import your .m2t files. It will take a few minutes for the application to read the files and get them ready for authoring. Be a little patient here.Once the files are imported they will appear in the large white filmstrip portion of the screen. At the bottom of the window you will notice a More >> option. When you select this option, another row of buttons will pop up on the display for further tweaking of your project as shown in the figure below.

    figure 1

    Video Options and BD Encoding Tips

    If you click on the Video Options button, the window shown in the figure below appears. This is where you can set up your encoding options. Let’s spend a little time on this window.

    figure 1Here are some recommended settings that will yield a good-quality Blu-ray encoded video:

  • Video Format: You can select Automatic, MPEG-2, or MPEG-4. For an H.264-encoded disc, select MPEG-4. It will give you great-looking video at lower bitrates, meaning you get more footage on your disc.
  • Quality Setting: Use Custom for this setting. The Custom setting will allow you to assign a bitrate below. If you use one of the preset Quality settings, Nero will assign a bitrate and you won’t be able to modify it. The presets may be adequate for many of your videos, but for this tutorial we’ll do a custom bitrate.
  • Sample Format: Set to Interlaced (top field first). Since 1080i video is interlaced, this is the correct setting.
  • Bit Rate: For our project, we used 17000 (17Mbps H.264) as it gives a pretty high-quality encode and a small file size. Feel free to experiment with this setting if you have the time to do many encodes.
  • Resolution: Set to 1440x1080. You can set it to 1920x1080, but the encoding process will take much longer to complete. Using the 1440x1080 resolution makes encoding easier since it’s the native frame size of 1080i HDV footage. When you watch the video on a Blu-ray player, it will automatically expand to 1920x1080 and look perfect. This is the same principle as plugging your HDV camera into an HDTV and watching the footage played off the tape.
  • Encoding Mode: Typically, this is a speed/quality tradeoff. In our projects, we used Fast Encoding (1 pass). 2-pass encoding works well—and theoretically helps the encoder make better decisions on bit allotments—but will take much longer. The quality from a 1-pass encode is very good. If you have the processing time and desire for a little more quality, then use 2-pass. But before you do, give single-pass encoding a try. You will probably be more than satisfied with the quality.
  • Audio Format: I selected Dolby Digital (AC3) 2.0 since my projects are 2-channel. If you do 5.1 audio files, the option is there. There are also options for Stereo and LPCM.

    figure 1 Creating Chapter Points and Designing a Menu
    Our next step is to set some chapter points. Along the right side of the main screen in Nero Vision, you’ll see an option called Create Chapter Points, as shown in the figure on the left.

  • Click on the Create Chapter Points option and you will see a screen much like ones you’ve used in other authoring apps allowing you to create chapter points for your video.

    After you create your chapter points and click on the Next button, you get to select a menu style. Once you have registered and installed all the Nero 8 components for authoring your Blu-ray Discs, you can go to the Nero website and download a number of premade templates. I’ve downloaded the ones for widescreen and HD content. There are a few of them that will work well for weddings, so I used one called Festive.

    Creating the chapter points and functionality are very similar to any other authoring app, so if you have authored DVDs, you will have no problems creating a menu here. Once you have it working the way you want, click the Next button.

    It’s possible to create your own custom menu looks if you want to spend the time doing so. The functionality isn’t as robust and advanced as Encore or other advanced DVD authoring apps, but you can change backgrounds, create buttons, and apply text navigation links—everything you need for basic DVD menu creation. The figure below shows a sample of the menu after I set it all up.

    figure 1

    Preview, Transcode, and Burn

    After you complete your menu and click the Next button, you’ll see a preview screen allowing you to sample the flow and functionality of the disc you just authored, as shown in the figure below. There is a clickable remote, and you can move through the menus to sample the structure and playback.

    figure 1

    If you’re not satisfied with the disc as you’ve authored it, click the Back button to return to the menu creation screen. If you like what you see, click Next on the Preview screen. This will open the screen shown in the figure below.

    figure 1

    There are some options on the right side of the window that allow you to Burn directly to disc or or Write to a Hard Disk folder. I prefer to write to a Hard Disk folder so I can burn multiple copies later and archive the folders if I want. If you select the Write to Hard Disk Folder, you will be prompted for the location of the BD structure. Once you have everything set to go, just click the Write button and let the transcoding begin.

    Note that the encoding process requires the creation of temporary files. If your default location for these files does not have enough disk space, you’ll receive an error message. To change the default location of temp files, use the More option and select your preferred Folders from the pop-up menu that appears. My system drive was nearly full and didn’t have room for all the temp files, so I had to change my default location.

    The transcoding process will take a fair amount of time. The system I used for creating the files used in this tutorial was an AMD x2 4800 with 2GB RAM. The movie encoded for this project was 45 minutes long and took around 4 hours to transcode to a Blu-ray-compliant file using H.264 encoding. I also have a Core2Quad Q6600 with 2GB RAM that transcoded the same project in about 2 hours. A Quad Core (or greater) system will be an asset for encoding. Many editors will find it most efficient to set the project to encode overnight or while you are gone for the day.

    When it came time to burn the disc with the new Sony BWU-200S, burn times were about what I expected. I was only able to get 2X media for testing, so I couldn’t really push the burner to 4X and see how it performed at maximum speed. I burned a few projects at 2X and burn times for a 9.3GB project were around 39 minutes. The 2X speed in Blu-ray burning is rated at 8990KB/sec. The Sony drive performed well, and of the Blu-ray Discs I have burned, there have been no coasters or performance problems with the drive. I have also burned a handful of DVDs with this drive, and it performs equally as well with regular DVDs (this is an important issue, as your BD burner will most likely become your go-to burner for DVD projects as well).

    Playback Testing
    After burning the Blu-ray Disc, it was time to check out the quality of the encoded video and audio, and also to find out if the players available will play the disc. I headed to my local electronics super store and got permission to try out all their Blu-ray players. Not surprisingly, given how young Blu-ray technology is and the reports of playback issues we’ve all seen online, I discovered that not all players would play my disc. For my tests I was using a BD-RE disc. Note that in the CD and DVD days, we never would have attempted a compatibility test with a rewritable disc because the write-once and rewritable specs were developed at different times, and the fact that a given player would play back a rewritable disc was no indication that it would play the same content off a write-once disc, or vice versa. With Blu-ray Disc, by contrast, if a player can handle a BD-RE disc, you can confidently conclude that it will support a BD-R disc burned from the same disc image or authored from the same content in the same authoring program.

    Another key factor to note with Blu-ray playback is that the Blu-ray Disc specification does not require players to support playback of BD-R or BD-RE discs, so some players simply don’t support it. A given player’s ability to play back BD-R/RE discs is a function of firmware that can be upgraded by the user when a new version is available.

    Firmware updates will occasionally disable/enable functionality of the players. This functionality could enable/disable BD-R and BD-RE playback.While the local electronic superstore salesperson I spoke to told me the firmware of each player is kept up-to-date and current, you can’t assume this is the case in your store (or your client’s), and you shouldn’t necessarily take a salesperson’s word on this issue.

    I tested my BD-RE disc on four players: the Panasonic DMP-BD30, the Sony BDP-S300, the Samsung BD-P1400/x, and the Sharp BD-HP20. It played successfully on the Panasonic and the Samsung but would not play on the Sony or Sharp.To be fair, the respective websites of the two Blu-ray players that would not play the discs (the Sony and the Sharp) indicated in the tech specs that Video Compatibility did not include BD-R/RE discs.

    Of all the different brands’ documen tation, Panasonic’s is the only one to specifically state it will play back BD-R/RE discs. The Samsung plays them fine on the machine I tested, but purchase at your own risk. There are other brands and models of Blu-ray players on the market and many may play back BD-R/RE discs. The best advice is to take a disc with you to your local electronics store and try the display models to determine compatibility.I would also recommend producing a test disc for your clients and giving them the chance to review it for playback compatibility before producing the final, printed disc with full packaging.

    Final Thoughts
    Taking your video from NLE to Blu-ray Disc is an adventure, but it’s not much different from standard DVD authoring. If you’re careful in your encoding settings and don’t go crazy with super-high bitrates, it should work fine. If you’re worried about how long it will take to transcode then you may need to upgrade your editing system, or use an older computer to churn out encodes while dedicating a faster system (like my quad-core) to HD editing.

    Philip Hinkle (philip at frogmanproductions.com) runs Frogman Productions, a Madison, Wis.-area video production company. He is co-founder and vice president of the Wisconsin Digital Media Group, winner of a 2006 Artistic Achievement Award Diamond, and was a featured speaker at Video 07-08.

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