The Editor's Spin: Almost Grown
Posted Jun 1, 2003

When I got married last summer, everyone told me it would change my life, despite the fact that I'd been living with my wife-to-be for over a year. Even though we would become homeowners soon, we were only purchasing the house we'd been renting since the previous August—not moving into the suburbs like so many friends who'd swapped landlords and leases for land and new lifestyles. But of course they were right, as I discovered when I renewed my car insurance and found my premium significantly reduced, in recognition of my presumed transformation from leadfoot menace to cautious good citizen the moment I stomped that glass. And I realized it was true—after years of recklessly acting out my road rage, I found myself heroically suppressing it, calcifying it deep in my gut, stopping dutifully at yellow lights, and watching in wonder as my hands magically assumed the 10-and-2 position I hadn't even thought about since Driver's Ed.

But the real metamorphosis happened in the months I spent DVD-ifying my wedding video, shedding layer after layer of cynicism to join the Kodak-moment masses in their rites of self-regard. Obviously, I held onto some of that cynicism, but what I really gained during that time was a better understanding of the digital studio, its core technologies, and how they're used, if only because I took my first leap of faith from the belfry-high windows of my editorial ivory tower and dove into the project with the same sort of passion and commitment that EMedia readers bring to their video production work. Granted, digital studio pros typically have bigger fish to fry than personal wedding videos—that is, unless they're in the event videography business—but the fact that the work itself is their lifeblood rather than just digitized nostalgia only underscores the point.

I'm probably naïve to assume that commercial video work is all lifeblood and passion and revelry in the aesthetics of technology or the technology of aesthetics. After all, a job's a job, and work isn't life, nor commerce conviction, nor business belief—except here in America, where much of our culture is founded on the religion of industry Ben Franklin fashioned aphoristically from the detritus of the Puritans' City on the Hill.

I've never had a head for business, but the business side of the CD, DVD, and video production industry has always fascinated me as much as the technology itself, and it's been interesting to see how the early stages of my voyage into family life have found me explaining to non-initiates some of the basic peculiarities of this business.

Those peculiarities came to the fore as my wedding DVD project trudged from production to DVD output to distribution. First was the issue raised by the existence of writable DVD itself, unfamiliar to the in-laws and aunts and uncles who'd requested copies of the disc. "Can you copy DVD movies with it?" they'd ask. "Some," I'd say. "Why some and not others?" they'd ask. "Because recordable discs are single-layer, which means they effectively have only half the capacity of the discs you see at Blockbuster, which can be dual-layer," I'd explain. "But they'll catch up eventually, right?" they'd ask. "Well, it's complicated," I'd reply, realizing that only because I know something about the engineering obstacles to doing dual-layer writable DVD cheaply enough to sell it, and that the next-capacity writable DVD won't be a DVD per se, is it "complicated" to me. If I didn't know that stuff, it would be as simple as the question of whether cars might someday fly. Why not?

Another issue arose when I distributed the first round of discs, namely, that in some remote locales, they wouldn't play. In one case, the issue was compatibility with a newly bought (ironically, to play that disc) DVD-VCR combo, that would play one copy but not another. Same format, same brand, successful playback in other machines. I chalked it up to the convergence of immature and mature technologies. Mature on the playback side, immature and mature on the recording side, with the "maturity" as much to blame as the "immaturity," as the more prevalent problem demonstrated.

The more prevalent playback problem: sputtering, choking video. The reason: video encoded at too high a bit rate. I recount this here partly as a public service message, partly because the Q & A it inspired points to a sad commentary on the business of technology—specifically, what business does to technology. First, the public service message: more often than not, DVD players will choke on video encoded at high bit rates and recorded to writable DVDs (both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW); save yourself the heartache and go for 6Mbps instead of 8 or 9, no matter what your authoring program says you have room for, or offers as default.

But the real shame is that both problems occur more often on newer players than older ones, which would probably seem illogical to me if I knew as little about DVD technology as I know about cars. When I told my wife I'd need to replace her mother's disc and that she might as well chuck the one I'd sent her, she said, "Won't the next DVD player she buys work better?" The answer: "No, it'll probably be worse. But at least it'll be cheaper."

There's nothing magical about the the precipitous drop in DVD prices—cheaper players come with cheaper manufacturing. At some point, that downward spiral will bottom out—players, then writable media, then writable drives—and we'll know DVD technology has matured. And anyone who's bucked the trend will have been priced out of the business. As an acquaintance in the CD/DVD duplication business once told me, flush with uncharacteristic optimism, "You know the technology has gone mainstream when the price goes in the toilet."

But don't be too impressed by his pithy eloquence. He was quoting Poor Richard's Almanac.