Review: Pinnacle Systems Impression DVD-Pro
Posted Aug 8, 2003

Impression DVD-Pro ($599; $399 upgrade) has several features, like support for two camera angles and multiple-labguage and subtitle streams, that are unavailable on similarly priced products like DVD Workshop or DVDit! If you need these features, you can spend $599 for Impression, or $1500 for ReelDVD. These features are not available on Impression DVD SE, which will be bundled with many Pinnacle products-you'll have to pay $399 for the upgrade. If you're a graphics designer intimate with Photoshop, you'll probably like Impression, and you probably won't find the learning curve all that steep. If you're a sales, marketing, or training professional without a designer, you'll probably find DVD Workshop a better choice, even if you receive Impression in a bundle.

At $599 retail, Pinnacle Systems has shrewdly positioned Impression DVD-Pro as an inexpensive DVD authoring program with features like multiple audio tracks, two video camera angles, and subtitles unavailable on similarly-priced competitors. In addition, Impression makes it simple to produce all menus in PhotoShop, a boon for graphics artists and other PhotoShop aficionados. On the other hand, if you think PhotoShop is the image editor from Hades, and care only about one track of audio and video without subtitles, you'll likely be much happier with programs like Sonic Solutions' DVDit! or Ulead's DVD Workshop. What's Past When we last looked at Impression, it was 1998, Clinton was in the White House, Minerva owned the product, and it cost $9,995, about twice as much as the least expensive DVD-Recorder. Though Impression was by far the easiest authoring program to use among those available at the time, we still had plenty of concerns, like the lack of internal menu creation capabilities, a timeline-based interface that was unintuitive for most branched DVD productions, and persnickety file support that made it difficult to load assets encoded by many vendors. We also lamented its inability to create slide shows easily, the lack of undo commands, and the inability to burn our productions directly to DVD-R.

Of course, a lot's happened since 1998. Minerva exited the authoring business, selling Impression to Pinnacle in 2000. A host of DVD authoring programs, ranging from free added modules to video editing programs and inexpensive standalone programs like DVDit! and DVD Workshop have entered the market, delivering exciting new features and dramatic ease-of-use enhancements. DVD-R drives cost under $500, and, of course, another Bush inhabits the White House.

So when we installed the first major upgrade of Impression since 1998, we didn't know what to expect. After spending a few days with the program, we can only quote master malapropist Yogi Berra and say, "It's like déjà vu all over again." Though some of the minor issues have been addressed, our bigger interface issues remain unresolved.

Of course, this makes perfect sense, since Pinnacle purchased Impression primarily to transplant its low-level authoring capabilities into its range of consumer and professional video editors. And as we observed up front, for the time being, Impression—four-year-old interface and all—offers a unique value proposition that will undoubtedly appeal to a range of users.

So let's dig in and have a look.

The Two Sides of Menu Creation
Impression has three windows, a timeline on top, a library window for clips, menus, and images on the bottom right, and a preview and working area on the bottom left. Overall, menu and asset creation and editing capabilities are extremely limited, so the most efficient workflow is achieved by creating all assets elsewhere, for input and linking in Impression.

For example, with menus, you can select an image or video to serve as menu background and then drag buttons on top of the background, or use video thumbnails as buttons, but you can't create any text. Though you can display both grid and centering marks, as well as title-safe and video-safe areas, there are no alignment or spacing controls, which complicates the precise placement of screen objects.

For PhotoShop wizards, however, menu production is a creative breeze, since Impression recognizes PhotoShop layers and provides a syntax for producing buttons in three states: normal, where the button isn't selected; masked, when the mouse goes over the button; and highlighted, when the button is selected. You start with a 720x480 bitmap as background, and then create text as separate layers, naming the layers according to well-documented syntax like "(#) Button 1" for button one in normal state and "(@) Button 1 Selected" for how button one looks when selected. You can also create your menus in other paint programs, but the integration process within Impression is much more complex, so those working extensively with Impression will be better off using PhotoShop. Note that you can also use PhotoShop LE, which ships free with many versions of Adobe Premiere.

New in Impression DVD-Pro is the ability to create motion menus very simply by dragging the target video into the menu background area on the timeline. However, unlike DVD Workshop and most consumer-oriented programs, Impression provides no templates or other starting points for menu creation, a real negative for left brain-oriented logical types who just want to get the job done quickly.

Once Persnickety, Always Persnickety
Another feature common to DVD Workshop, and, of course, DVD applets within video editors, is the ability to capture and perform basic editing functions within the authoring program. DVD Workshop and programs like Pinnacle Express can actually capture and detect scene changes on DV footage, as well as edit, speeding development significantly. Though Impression does neither, it can now import DV footage in the AVI format, a nice addition, especially considering how difficult it was to import MPEG-2 footage into the program.

Specifically, you can still input only MPEG-2 files as separate audio and video streams, a problem since many MPEG-2 encoders no longer create separate streams. In testing, Impression couldn't load streams produced by Ligos' MPEG-2 encoder, which enjoyed near-universal compatibility with other authoring programs, another problem since Ligos' encoding engine is widely licensed by video editor developers.

Of course, since Impression will be primarily distributed with Pinnacle cards like the Pro-ONE that output MPEG-2 files, we trust that Pinnacle will ensure compatibility among their own products. Other users can always default to AVI files.

In addition to MPEG MPA audio files, you can also input AC3 and WAV files, but the only image files you can input are BMP files. JPEG files would have been nice, since this is the format used by virtually every digital camera on the planet.

On the Timeline
Once the video is successfully input into the program, the timeline becomes your primary working area. The timeline itself has two basic sections, the top track for menus and subsequent tracks for audio, video, and subtitles.

You start by dragging a menu to the timeline, and then your media assets. In your videos, you can create chapter points by positioning the time code tab at the desired point and selecting "insert chapter" from the right mouse click command palette. As mentioned earlier, you can easily create thumbnails to serve as buttons for each chapter, though the process is manual, not automatic as with DVD Workshop.

Clips separated by chapter points play back smoothly through the chapter points. You can also split a video track into separate cells on the timeline, which allows you to jump to another video or menu at the end of the initial segment.

Impression lets you add tracks for multiple angle video, multiple language audio, or multiple subtitles with simple right mouse click commands, naming the audio and subtitle tracks via drop-down boxes in the property window. Subtitle tracks are graphics files created in a paint program, rather than text files, which would have been much simpler, with timing dictated by a subtitle text document that lists each graphics file with a time code-based in-point and out-point. Buttons on the preview player allow you to toggle through the various angles and language options.

You create slide shows by dragging multiple images to the timeline, which start with a default duration of five seconds, which you can later modify. Unfortunately, you can't add one audio background track to multiple slides, so the only way to create background audio is to divide the audio file into separate chunks, a major hassle compared to programs like Workshop that can apply one background audio file to the entire slide show.

Linking
Once all of your assets are on the timeline, you link menus with content by highlighting the menu to bring it into the preview window, and then dragging content down to the proper buttons. A handy View Button Links identifies which assets are linked to each button.

Each asset on the timeline has an arrow pointing to the next subsequent asset, whether menu or video, signifying that after this asset plays, it segues directly into the following asset. You can easily override this by dragging other content into the arrow, creating a hyperlink to that asset represented by a thumbnail of the asset on the menu bar.

Operation is simplest if you segment your content by menu, first dragging the menu up to the menu bar, adding all associated content longitudinally on the timeline, then linking assets to the menu. Then add subsequent menus and their associated content to the timeline, link these menus to their content, and then subsequent menus back to the previous menu from which they are called.

This is where the timeline breaks down for us, a longitudinal representation of an essentially branched operation. Other programs, like DVDit! and DVD Workshop, make the menus the prime focus of navigation, usually collecting all menus on a bar that resembles a slide show, which functions almost like a storyboard, simplifying design.

That said, though the timeline creates a steeper initial learning curve, it's certainly not insurmountable, and once the cobwebs blew out and we got reacquainted with program operation, we started liking certain aspects, like the way Impression visually represents where the program jumps to after our assets stop playing. It certainly helped that Pinnacle added unlimited Undo commands, and the ability to drag-and-drop assets on the timeline, two major issues from our previous review. In addition, a product re-release that should have occurred by the time you read this review will add a sample project and tutorial to the mix, further reducing the learning curve.

Rendering and burning our disk was straightforward, and Impression synched perfectly with our trusty Pioneer A03 DVD-R burner. One of the benefits of Impression's mature code base is player compatibility, and as expected, all discs played perfectly on all tested players and drives.

We tested Impression on a Dell Precision Workstation 530, equipped with a 2.2gHz Xeon processor and 1GB RAM, and running WindowsXP Professional. Operation was generally snappy throughout, and very stable, though Pinnacle has not yet certified Impression to run on Windows XP.

Conclusion
So what's the verdict? It really depends upon your needs and starting points.

First of all, as we pointed out initially, Impression DVD-Pro has several features, like two camera angles and multiple language audio and subtitle streams, unavailable on similarly priced products like DVD Workshop or DVDit! So, if you need these features, you can spend $599 for Impression, or $1,500 for Sonic Solutions ReelDVD. Note, however, that these features are not available on Impression DVD SE, which will be bundled with many Pinnacle products—you'll have to pay $399 for the upgrade.

If you're a graphics designer intimate with PhotoShop, you'll probably like Impression, even for more prosaic projects, and you probably won't find the learning curve all that steep. On the other hand, if you're a sales, marketing, or training professional without designer skills, you'll probably find DVD Workshop a better choice, even if you receive Impression in a bundle.

Pinnacle Systems, Inc. www.pinnaclesys.com