Decked Out for DVD
Posted Aug 11, 2003

In a world of do-it-yourselfers, DVD's top studios boast the skills and the tools to get the job done right. But--skills aside--what kind of gear separates the pros from the pretenders?

October 2002|Over the past five years, DVD authoring has emerged from the exclusive domain of an elite handful of professionals to move within the reach of anyone with a digital video camera, high-powered workstation, and a thousand bucks—or less, even—to spend on software. Indeed, each week seems to bring the release of yet another "consumer" authoring package, each one promising to make the process easier and more user-friendly than the last. As authoring has come to the masses, the professionals have had to keep up with the changes and at the same time stay ahead of the pack, offering their clients hard-won expertise while staying competitive in a market that practically dares content owners to do their authoring in-house.

How do the pros stay on top? We talked to six well-respected, longstanding DVD authoring houses to find out what their studios are like, and were reminded that DVD studios are as varied and different as the possibilities of the format itself. One operation splits its time between feature films, special-interest projects, and corporate work; another specializes in DVD-Audio. There's a self-proclaimed "company of one" and several multi-seat studios with dozens of employees performing a balancing act among three or four projects at once.

The Richard Diercks Company: After many years in the advertising world, Richard Diercks lit out for the video production territory in 1984 with his own company, based in Minneapolis. With eight full-time staffers, Diercks Co. does about 50% feature film work, 25% special interest, and 25% corporate DVD production and authoring.

Marin Digital: Founded by Chris Armbrust in 1988, Marin has had a hand in more than 500 DVD titles, including projects for National Geographic, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Armbrust is the San Rafael, California-based company's only full-time employee, though he works with a handful of contractors who assist with encoding, menu design, animation, and authoring.

AIX Media Group: AIX president Mark Waldrep entered the DVD fray in 1997 with a series of feature films, and while AIX continues to be a full-service studio, it specializes in DVD-Audio. With seven full-time employees, AIX has produced video titles for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, as well as Nitty Gritty Surround, which won an EMedia Discus Award this year for Best DVD-Audio.

Graboyes Compound: A true boutique studio, Graboyes Compound is really the one-man effort of Blaine Graboyes, who founded Zuma Digital, which boasted nearly 40 authoring workstations and authored the Discus Award-winning DVD for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Since Zuma closed in 2001, Graboyes has been flying solo as a self-described "Media Architect."

AlphaDVD: Ralph LaBarge's AlphaDVD specializes in special interest titles like the Discus Award-winning Planet Earth: Australia. LaBarge also runs a solo show, working with freelance graphics artists on menus and packaging.

• Blink Digital: Michael Ory and Jeff Stabeneau left Crush Digital in 2001, creating an 18-person studio that runs the gamut from corporate projects to feature films to music products, primarily working with digital videotape transferred from film.

Six studios, six different stories. We're not out to define an "industry standard" for DVD authoring—after all, in an industry as diverse and dynamic as this one, there can be no such thing. Still, it's instructive to see what the "pros" are up to, how their workflow goes, and which tools they use to get their work done.

There's one thing upon which they all agree: The earlier they're brought into a project, the better the work they can do on the final product. "DVD is not a single process, but rather one of bringing together several different types of media: video, audio, graphics, motion graphics, programming and project management," says Blink VP of operations Ory. So it's crucial to a project's final success that the DVD studio get in the game as early as possible.

"The best possible time is the day before the director started thinking about the project," jokes Graboyes. "The sooner I'm involved, the better the end product is and the less expensive production becomes, as it is not a hunt-and-chase operation to acquire the raw content after the fact." It's also a lot cheaper and easier to get clearances and cooperation from a project's "talent" from the beginning, rather than trying to go back and get Tom Cruise to sit down for an interview or voice-over 18 months after wrapping the film.

The Setup
Few things are as important in creating a successful digital video studio as finding the network configuration that best allows you to get the job done. In the case of Marin Digital, that's a network that allows the staff to work on several jobs simultaneously. Two of the company's workstations are used for hardware editing and encoding, another is used for menu design and tweaking, while another is designated for transcoding video and audio, says executive producer and CTO Armbrust. Marin also uses a dedicated FTP server to exchange files with clients and for project documentation.

The setup at the Diercks Co. is similar, with two video encoding workstations, but audio encoding on five, "for convenience," Diercks says. The studio also has three 450mHz Mac G4 graphic workstations and two animation workstations (also 450mHz G4s, he says.) The authoring workstations boast 21" CRT monitors, while the encoding and graphics desks hold 19" CRTs. All workstations are networked, but Diercks says he stays away from a centralized server and project coordinator "who orchestrates all production from a master control. We find that one DVD developer or author works better with ownership of a given title or disc. That author can reach out and quite literally access any technology or talent he or she needs."

AIX Media Group runs their five authoring stations on a Fiber Distributed Data Interface network, while Graboyes runs his three Macs and one PC on a 100 Base-T network, with shared FireWire storage on a dozen All4DVD 130GB and 60GB drives among the Apple machines. Graboyes uses 17" flat-panel Apple Studio displays.

AlphaDVD is a PC-only studio, with three NT and three Windows 2000 workstations working off the network. Same with Blink, which has three Dell PC workstations with dual Xeon processors and uses Dell's PowerEdge SC line of servers for their authoring. Blink employs dual Sony PVM monitors for work at the authoring stage, but moves to a Sampo Widescreen and a Panasonic Plasma for screening. Blink also relies on a heavyweight when it comes to storage on their encoding machines: a 1TB Medea VideoRaid system.

Of course, we can't talk about networking or related platform issues without stirring up the old OS debate, but most studios take a purely utilitarian approach to their operating systems, eschewing the religious fervor that holds techno-geeks in its thrall in other fields. "It's really a matter of personal preference," says Graboyes. "There's little operational difference between Mac and PC once you know the system," echoes Diercks. Which is why Diercks and Graboyes—like Armbrust and Waldrep—have both PC and Mac machines in their studios. Diercks and Waldrep run Windows NT and 2000 as well as UNIX-based systems, but both say that it's a horse apiece.

Armbrust says it hasn't always been that way, however. "Before Mac OS X, the Mac environment was not stable or flexible enough to get a lot of work done. NT has been stable and has let us do many tasks on the same computer without hanging the entire network, while loading a DVD on a Mac used to freeze the entire network while the Mac mounted the disc," Armbrust says. Nor were Macs "very good for real-time encoding or DVD-R recording," he adds. With OS X, however, the Mac has become a "good, productive member of the network community," Armbrust says. As is the case everywhere else in the computer world, though, there's plenty of software used in DVD authoring that's simply not available for the Mac OS, particularly DVD utilities such as bit-rate meters, closed-captioning, and emulation, notes Graboyes. So even this Mac addict keeps a Dell Inspiron 5000 around for PC-specific content creation.

Blink is firmly in the PC camp, Ory says. "Our graphic artists often come to us with a Macintosh background, but once they see us running Photoshop or After Effects on dual Xeon processor Windows machines, they fall in love with how fast rendering is, how stable the systems are, and how inexpensive the PC workstations are compared to similar Macintosh setups."

So what about the authoring software? Though there's not exactly a consensus among top studios, just about everybody still loves the old standby, Sonic's NT-based Scenarist, which can be found at Diercks, AlphaDVD, Blink, and AIX. Diercks says he favors Scenarist because of its stability and because of the options it opens up to the DVD author. "With Scenarist, you can concatenate multiple video sources into a seamless stream, and manage each source stream individually (slipping audio, for example), without affecting any other stream or changing the seamless nature of the concatenated video stream." He hastens to add, however, that with every wish there comes a curse: "While you can do almost anything in authoring programming, you can paint yourself into a corner. There's no way out short of starting over."

Marin Digital does its authoring on Spruce DVD Maestro, a direct high-end competitor to Sonic Scenarist. Maestro's once-strong position in the authoring field has been shaken by two factors: the merger of Sonic and Daikin, which brought the leading Mac tool, Sonic Creator, and the leading Windows tool, Daikin Scenarist, under one roof; and Spruce's acquisition by Apple, which cast Maestro into a limbo that persists to this day.

Not all projects demand the high-end authoring power that Scenarist, Creator, or Maestro bring to the studio. Enter the somewhat simpler "mid-level" tools. Waldrep and Diercks both keep Sonic's Producer on hand, and Marin Digital also uses Pinnacle's DVD Impression Pro, as well as Apple's DVD Studio Pro, Armbrust says, "when we can get away with it." The only house among those profiled here where you won't find Sonic Scenarist is Graboyes Compound, which remains steadfastly Mac-only. Graboyes does his DVD authoring on Creator, Sonic's high-end Mac tool. His Apple allegiance extends to video editing as well. While the Compound uses some Avid equipment for video editing, Graboyes says, in his Mac-dominated studio, Apple's Final Cut Pro does the job more often than not. "Honestly, there is little advantage in using anything else," he says, if you're working on the Mac, "unless you are trying to justify higher costs to your client."

Diercks agrees that sometimes studios use more sophisticated editing and authoring software than they need to. However, he warns that clients need to understand that if they agree to starting an authoring project using what he calls "industrial-grade" (i.e., mid-level) software or even "the cheap stuff," they might not be able to get the end result they envision. So he's finding that many of the early customers he lost when prosumer-level authoring tools became commonplace are returning to have projects done using the higher-end software.

"When DVD started out, there were a couple dozen houses, mostly on the coasts, all using top-of-the-line stuff," Diercks says. He admits that his firm lost a fair amount of business when less expensive and less powerful authoring software became widely available, but the pattern has reversed itself of late. "Eventually, we became DVD doctors, fixing the projects that people had started themselves or at other houses. While DVD isn't rocket science, it's a lot closer to rocket science than video ever was. We love Producer, but we really love Scenarist for all the complex stuff"—and he finds that the "complex stuff" is just what the best projects demand.

Our studio survey finds more Sonic equipment in use on the encoding side, along with a smattering of other professional, high-end systems. Graboyes uses a Sonic encoder, the SD-2000 with 5.1 Surround Sound, while Diercks uses a Sonic Encoder 2; both encode on G4s. AIX use the same, while Armbrust has stuck with Spruce MPX2000 and MPX3000 for hardware MPEG-2 encoding, as well as a Zapex ZP330. Blink also houses a Zapex, but does most of their encoding on the Sony Vizaro. "We run all tape through a Digital Vision unit for noise reduction, scratch concealment, and aperture correction," Ory adds. Given the range of bit-rates allowable within the MPEG-2 standards, and the range of experiences authors may typically have with different encoders, authors are ill-advised to jump into encoding ill-prepared.

Still, the basic questions when choosing an encoder remain simple ones: How does it handle demanding content, and how efficient is it? If you're working on a project that's nothing more than talking heads and static backgrounds, Diercks says, you can compress a tremendous amount of content onto a DVD-9. The devil is in the details; what can the encoder do with images of rain, waterfalls, or explosions? To get the most out of an encoder, variable bit-rate encoding is a must, Diercks said.

On the audio side, it's no surprise that Sonic, a company that first made its name in 1987 with its No Noise noise reduction software, is still a popular choice when it comes to encoding. Now sold by Sonic Studio, an affiliate of Sonic Solutions, Sonic Studio HD is the audio encoding vehicle of choice at Marin, Graboyes, and AIX, though Waldrep augments it with a Euphonix R1 multitrack recorder and System 5-M digital audio mixing board. Diercks says that No Noise is still the "gold standard" for noise reduction, and his audio toolbox also includes DigiDesign's Pro Tools. Blink relies on a SADiE 24/96 digital surround sound workstation outfitted with plenty of hardware and software (like TC Electronics' System 6000 and a Yamaha o2R mixing board) to get its audio encoding done.

When it comes to emulation, most studios find it's better to be safe than sorry. Which is why even though you'll find the Scenarist Informer at Graboyes and AIX, the Spruce Integrated Cinemaster at Marin and Sonic's Proof at Diercks, they're all invested in one pricey emulation system or another.

But in the end, none of them relies solely on emulation to test their masters, agreeing that testing DVD-Rs in DVD players—whether consumer set-top boxes or software-based DVD players like WinDVD and PowerDVD—provides the best evidence as to how the product will perform in the real world. Of course, you can't use a 4.7GB DVD-R to test a DVD-9, but for DVD-5s, at any rate, there's nothing like popping a disc in a standard or even substandard player to test its playability. "We've got one DVD player we bought in Japan in 1996," Diercks says. "If a disc plays on that machine, it's usually OK on all machines." (As for Blink? They're not talking, except to say they use a "proprietary custom" emulation solution.)

As far as compatibility goes, the so-called "format wars" haven't really touched studios and authoring houses, where DVD-R remains the format of choice. The studios we talked to end up doing most of their work on DVD-9s because of their capacity and cost-effectiveness. Put simply, you get the most bang—or bytes—for your buck on a DVD-9. "With the replication cost differential between DVD-5 and DVD-9 narrowing, and in some cases disappearing, DVD-9 is becoming almost standard on the entertainment side of our business," Diercks said. "In spite of the fact that we produced the first DVD-18"—the "video wallpaper" title Aquaria, distributed by DVD International—"we don't see much future in it."

Of course, not all of the work a digital studio does will end up on a DVD, and preparing a project for streaming delivery over the Web or a LAN presents a different set of challenges, says Armbrust. "Getting a video to look good and play well for streaming might end up being a very different video than what you were able to do with DVD," he adds. Again, it's important to know at a project's outset how it will be delivered.

Both Diercks and Waldrep say that their approach to digital content remains fairly constant, regardless of whether it's DVD or streaming. "We still want a high-quality base, usually MPEG-2, which can be transcoded to any of the dozen or so streaming formats," Diercks said. "But if something is being created from scratch for streaming, it should be shot and lit for streaming—i.e., video or film that compresses well."

Ory agrees. "From a technical standpoint, we have different encoding stations that are more desirable for creating different products—MPEG-1, QuickTime, etc. But the same level of quality control and project management has to go into any level project."

All six studios outsource the majority of their replication projects, and it's not just a matter of dollars and cents, though most find it's just more cost-efficient to job it out—even for DVD-R-compatible DVD-5. "We have found a strong trend to separate authoring and replication," says Diercks, whose firm offers limited DVD-R burning in-house but outsources all glass mastering and stamping. "That way, you get people doing what they are best at, and they can negotiate the best price for each service, especially since the margins have eroded so much in replication. Besides, authoring versus replication is a very left-brain versus right-brain thing, and you don't want left-brainers doing right-brain functions, and vice-versa." Marin Digital, Graboyes, and AIX also partner with outside replicators to get the job done.

Of today's replication scene, Graboyes says, "There are really only a few major players, and most of the minor players just mark it up and send it to the majors, anyway." He adds that he does have access to in-house duplication on a Rimage DVD duplication and printing system at bitMAX, the digital asset management company where his office is located.

Just as their clients can do some of their own authoring in-house, most DVD authors could do their own duplication. Part of being an expert in any field, though, is recognizing which tasks are better left to the real pros, and with the right combination of skills and tools, the DVD authoring pros find themselves more in demand than ever. "It's like it's come full-circle," Diercks said. "People are going to be migrating back to higher-end systems, the kind of systems that only the professional houses have."

Companies Mentioned in This Article
All4DVD, Inc.

Apple Computer, Inc.

Avid Technology, Inc.

Daikin U.S Comtec Laboratories

Dell Computer Corporation

Digidesign, Inc.

Dolby Laboratories, Inc.


Medea Corporation

Minerva Networks

Minnetonka Audio Software

Pinnacle Systems, Inc.

Rimage Corporation

SADiE (Studio Audio Digital Equipment, Inc.)

Sonic Solutions

Sony Electronics, Inc.

Zapex Technologies Inc.