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DVD authoring reminds me of the laugh track - the insipid TV invention that lets you know when to yuck it up, no matter how lame the joke. Without it, you wouldn't know when one of the actors is saying something funny, which maybe means the material is not so funny in the first place.
It's the same with authoring. The video you are putting on a DVD is probably interesting enough on its own; the music, background colors and other additions that give it a context are really just devices to keep you on track. Like a laugh track or movie music, which is cheery, sad or shivery as the mood requires, the background stuff is supposed to lead viewers along.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticizing, just observing. The important thing for you, the prospective DVD author, is to know how to push the right buttons, because we've all been conditioned to react to the signals given off by what we're seeing on a screen. If you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em - meaning that while you would think a simple conversion to DVD format should be sufficient, it really isn't, and authoring - the process of adding menus, subtitles, background music, chapter headings, etc. - is worth knowing.
Obviously, authoring has more of a learning curve than conversion, unless you're doing specialized conversions like PAL to NTSC and vice-versa (to be discussed in an upcoming column). But it doesn't have to be all that complicated, and hopefully this discussion will help keep you from pulling out too much hair!
THERE ARE dozens - maybe even hundreds - of DVD authoring programs. Many provide facilities for converting between formats, and the authoring part often begins automatically after the conversion takes place.
"Authoring" is actually a wide-ranging concept, and the more you pay, the more features you're likely to get. For example, "prosumer" packages costing $200 and up can include things like 16:9 [widescreen] video, surround-sound audio streams [Dolby AC-3 5.1], DLT drives, motion menus, etc., whereas cheaper consumer packages will have few if any of these features. Then there are the fully professional packages, which include features like region coding, subtitles, etc. Apple, for example, has a professional (Apple DVD Studio Pro) and a consumer (iDVD) package.
The field is very broad indeed, but because you can't believe everything you read, and because I don't want to be responsible for you spending thousands of dollars on software and hardware you aren't ready for, we're going to concentrate on the basic, consumer-level programs.
There is one big caveat when considering authoring programs, however. One of the major differences between the more and less-advanced programs is the formatting engine used to create the files and folders that will be read by commercial DVD players. And while any authoring program that can create DVDs will create images capable of being read by DVD players, you may find that some are more accurate than others, producing a winner every time, while others produce DVDs that can't be read by some players. This is an issue that would affect professional producers, so we are going to assume that whatever program you use is going to produce a disc that will play on your DVD - and that if it doesn't, you'll switch to one that will.
Once again, if you're interested in a no-brainer way to author, you've got to get a Mac. iDVD may not be the most sophisticated application, but it is by far the easiest. As with everything in the Mac world, somebody out there in California decided (no doubt after many hours of market research) which canned themes consisting of graphic backgrounds, music, buttons, etc. would go over well, and iDVD 5.x has dozens appropriate to vacations, weddings, family functions, birthdays, and graduations. All you do is click on the elegant and simple iDVD interface's "Customize" button, and you can set the theme, title, background music and menu duration before automatic play begins. You can have up to six elements on a DVD "page" - the opening screen on your TV when you insert the disc into the player - that can consist of multiple movies, a movie and a slide show, etc. Apple is, of course, known for elegant presentation, and iDVD is no different. Almost anything you need to do is controlled from one of seven buttons on the main iDVD window, and you never have to dig down more than one submenu to get to a command, even a relatively esoteric one.
Once your theme is set up, just drag your file - Quicktime, AVI, Mpeg2 (not Mpeg1, though) - onto the iDVD window. iDVD will automatically encode your movie into 4:3 format, and will also show you the "TV safe" area of the DVD "page" - of concern when you move buttons around on a multi-purpose DVD, or when typing a title for a movie. The "TV safe" command is under the Advanced window. One cute touch you can also easily add is a "moving menu" - an actual background of your movie running as part of the button that viewers click on to play the film.
To get that into your production, simply click the "Motion" button on the iDVD interface. You can see what the whole thing will look like by pressing "Preview," which will open a virtual remote control on your screen. Press the "Play" button and your menu, music and movie should start playing.
Then it's time to click on the last of iDVD's buttons - "Burn." If you are using a non Mpeg1 file, iDVD will automatically encode it into proper DVD format. A typical single-layered DVD will hold about two hours of movie, and if the program tells you your movie is too big for a standard DVD, just use the program's lower-quality setting - confusingly called "best quality" on the "Preferences" menu, instead of the higher quality "best performance" setting.
This is my only criticism of the program.
Now just sit back and wait until iDVD does its work (encoding time is somewhat slow, and then it has to burn the DVD). Like I said, it's a no-brainer.
Next time we'll see what the options on the PC side are.