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Gimme Five
Posted Dec 30, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 3 next »

With all of Apple's 2003 offerings, digital video pros had the chance to rebuild their studios from the ground up or pick and choose from new versions of old standbys.

Aside from the fact that he resigned the vice presidency when he was fined for income tax evasion, there's not much that's memorable about Spiro Agnew's tenure in the nation's second-highest office. Indeed, Agnew's legacy isn't so much political as it is linguistic: in a 1970 speech that expressed his contempt for both intellectuals and liberals, he called opponents of the Vietnam war both "an effete corps of impudent snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Since then, the latter phrase (which was actually penned by then-speechwriter, now-New York Times columnist William Safire) crops up when people want to poke fun at dissenters and doomsayers. You know, the kind of people who seize every opportunity to criticize Apple's low market share, the Mac's high prices, and Steve Jobs' black turtlenecks. Do a Google search for "anti-Apple," and you'll find dozens of Web sites—many with names that preclude printing in these pages—whose sole purpose is to attack and malign the platform.

So you can't blame Mac users if they get a little defensive, especially after this last year, which saw the introduction of the new Panther OS and the lightning-fast G5, as well as brand new versions of Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro. Unlike their PC counterparts, Mac users have to embrace not only the platform but also its software (so long, Premiere); but in 2003, Apple left behind any lingering doubts that it could compete head-to-head for the digital video professional's dollar (and loyalty) against anything the PC market could bring to the table.

Not every DVD author can afford to upgrade to the G5, which starts out at $1,799 for the single-processor (64-bit) 1.6gHz model (sans monitor), jumps to $2,499 for a 1.8gHz dual-processor, and tops out at $2,999 for the dual 2gHz configuration. Of course, you get a lot of bang for your buck on that top end—a 1gHz frontside bus, 512MB of 128-bit SDRAM (expandable to 8GB), 160GB of Serial ATA hard drive space, and an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro—but even the "low-end" G5 offers plenty of juice for the digital studio.

While you don't need a new G5 to run DVD Studio Pro 2, you'll need have at least a 733mHz G4 to make it work well. DVD SP 2 completely overhauls version 1.5, from the code (based on the old Spruce Maestro) up to the GUI, which now offers three user interfaces from which to choose: Basic, Extended, and Advanced. Other new features include the built-in Compressor encoder and a new Track Editor based on Final Cut's timeline. This is no simple upgrade to DVD SP 1.5, and it carries a $499 price tag. [See Jeff Sauer's review of DVD SP 2, November 2003.]

Then there's Panther, the version 10.3 of Apple's OS X operating system, which introduced a new finder as well as features like Expose and the new Pixlet video codec. For $130, of course, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the other new toys here, but the cost of changing an operating system—especially in mid-project—isn't always measured in dollars and cents.

Combined with an all-new (except for the price, which stayed at $999) Final Cut Pro 4 (and its included LiveType and Soundtrack tools), the nearly simultaneous arrival of DVD SP 2, the G5, and Panther forced Mac-lovin' DVD authors to face the kind of tough choices that technology fiends both love and hate: Stick with what you've got, spend up to $4,500 to upgrade everything, or pick and choose what hardware and software you need to stay on top of your game and within your budget.

EMedia talked to five digital video professionals, all of whom faced these choices and responded in different ways. We were interested in seeing just what Apple's new offerings had for their studios and finding out what they loved—or hated—about the new tools, especially DVD Studio Pro 2. Here's what they had to say.

VAS Entertainment (previously Video Action Sports) is a San Luis Obispo, CA-based producer and distributor of what DVD department coordinator and lead DVD author Robert Powers calls "action sports and lifestyle" DVDs and videos. (Sample titles include: Double Down, a collection of extreme mountain biking footage, and American Misfits, a skateboarding and stunt video featuring Wee Man from MTV's Jackass.) Powers is one of four authors at the company's new 23,000 square-foot facility, the rest of which is taken up by VAS' graphics, marketing, and sales departments, as well as its warehouse.

VAS got into the DVD authoring game in early 2001, working with DVD Studio Pro version 1.2. Since then, production has grown to more than 12 DVDs per month, meaning that they need the latest and greatest hardware and software to get the jobs done right and on time. Powers' department has four G4s and three 2gHz dual-processor G5s, all running Panther, as well as a Sonic Creator system with a Sonic SD-1000 encoder card on a G4 running OS 9. For VAS, the benefits of the G5s can be boiled down to one word: speed. "Everything is faster, whether it's editing in Final Cut, making menus in Photoshop, or background encoding within DVD SP 2," Powers says.

Like most DVD authors, Powers spends most of his days (and too many of his nights) multitasking, and he's found Panther's Exposé, which with one click allows users to display all open windows on the desktop (in reduced size, of course), to be a lifesaver when it comes to keeping track of his work. "I was on the phone with a producer discussing the menus for her DVD," Powers says. "I had nine documents open. Each time I needed to look at a different menu, I used Exposé to select the one I needed. In Jaguar and previous operating systems, shuffling through multiple documents was always a pain."

When it comes to DVD SP 2, Powers points to two features in particular as marked improvements over previous versions, first of which is the Track Editor, which is based on Final Cut Pro's timeline and finally brings to DVD SP the kind of linear track viewing boasted by programs on the PC. "It makes setting your chapter points a whole lot easier," Powers says.

An even bigger change has come from DVD SP 2's ability to easily target buttons when setting navigation between menus. "In previous versions, you had to perform a tedious workaround to get the proper button to highlight when navigating from menu to menu," he says. "Now, you can target exactly the button you want." (Nothing's perfect: It only works on still, and not motion, menus.)

Powers says that while he can see how the Basic and Extended configurations would make the learning curve a little less steep for new users, he authors strictly in Advanced mode, though he doesn't take advantage of the scripting options that mode offers. "I'll do more advanced or complicated titles on our Sonic system," he says, adding that having Sonic's Creator on hand means he doesn't miss the eight general parameter registers (GPRMs) that DVD Studio Pro has always reserved for its abstraction layer. Again, he uses the Sonic system when he needs more control over complex projects.

While Powers has found DVD SP 2's Compressor encoding engine too slow to use on the G4, he's started using it on the G5 for all DV-format footage and also for motion menus. "I'm quite pleased with the quality we're getting," he says, "but we tend to encode most material at a high bit-rate, between 6-7.4Mbps."

Like most DVD SP users, Powers augments the tool with Final Cut Pro and Photoshop. "Both provide functionality that I would never expect my authoring system to give me."

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