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Introducing Adobe Encore DVD (9/2003)
by Douglas Dixon
While the world economic outlook in 2003 is rather dismal, it's clear that technology companies are not going to just shut down and stop innovating. For example, Adobe, Apple, and Avid each introduced dramatic new upgrades and even totally new product lines early in the year -- and that's just the A's at the beginning of the alphabet!
As winter turned to spring, Adobe significantly grew its focus in professional digital media, announcing the new Encore DVD product for DVD authoring, providing a sneak peek at a major enhancement to its Premiere video editor, and acquiring Cool Edit Pro from Syntrillium Software to add digital audio production to its suite of products.
The new Adobe Encore DVD was first announced in March 2003, to be available in the third quarter for a suggested price of $549. With Encore DVD, Adobe is leading a new generation of DVD authoring tools -- combining the convenience of drag and drop editing from entry-level automated tools (like Sonic MyDVD), with the full control of menu design and navigation from professional tools (like Sonic ReelDVD) -- and at a mid-range price.
This article provides a walkthrough of the authoring process using Adobe Encore, focusing on the way Adobe has re-thought and redesigned working with DVD menus and projects. This discussion is based on working with beta versions as Adobe was developing the product, so details of issues like performance will need to wait for the final product.
Adobe Encore bridges the divide between entry-level automated DVD creation tools and more professional authoring tools. It combines DVD authoring, in the sense of organizing and linking menu and video assets, with integrated menu creation and video compression.
The lower-end introductory DVD tools like Sonic MyDVD, MedioStream NeoDVD, and Ulead DVD MovieFactory are designed to automatically convert a bunch of video clips into a DVD, at prices around $50. These tools do all the DVD design and conversion work: you drag in a bunch of clips (or plug in a DV camcorder), and they will automatically create the DVD, including converting the clips and creating linked menus with buttons for the clips. The cost for this simplicity, of course, is lack of control: you can choose a general template design, but you really can't customize the button layout, graphical design, and navigational linking. Some of these tools, like Apple's iDVD, do provide more control over the designs, through importing menu and button designs and manually positioning menu elements.
The more higher-end tools like Sonic ReelDVD (at $1000) and up to Sonic Scenarist (in the $10,000's) provide, and even require, much more manual control over creating the DVD design. In addition, they tend to focus on linking together assets to create the DVD, and not on creating the assets. They require that the menu designs be created in a separate application, typically as a layered Photoshop file, and that the video and audio be already compressed into DVD-compatible formats.
The issue for DVD authoring software companies as they design these applications is the tension between simplifying the interface and providing more sophisticated control. In particular, software designers need to choose how much of the full capability of the DVD specification to support, and how to expose and package that functionality by providing an abstraction layer to present an understandable interface to the user.
This compromise is most visible in mid-range tools like Pinnacle Impression, Sonic DVDit! and Ulead DVD Workshop, at around $300 to $500. These make different choices in opening up some DVD capabilities and user customization, including menu editing, navigation control, and video transcoding.
And Apple is pushing aggressively with version 2 of DVD Studio Pro, due August 2003 and reduced in price from $999 to $499. The original DVD Studio Pro included advanced features like programmable scripting, but required that menus and clips be prepared in separate tools. The new version 2 advances into the new generation of DVD authoring, adding integrating menu editing, timeline-based track editing, and Compressor, a batch transcoding tool shared with the new Final Cut Pro.
To create Encore, Adobe licensed Sonic's AuthorScript DVD authoring technology as the underlying DVD engine, and then created the Encore DVD application in the Adobe style, with a familiar user interface and highly integrated with the other Adobe digital media tools. Adobe also included the same MPEG video compression technology from MainConcept that it introduced in Premiere 6.5 for integrated video and audio transcoding.
Adobe Encore provides seriously professional DVD authoring. The built-in menu editor is fully integrated with Photoshop for editing graphics layers, text, and buttons. The Premiere-like timeline interface supports laying out video clips with multi-track audio and subtitles. The tabbed windows and palettes provide convenient access to view and edit the individual DVD components. The navigation controls not only provide the ability to specify links to specific buttons on a menu and chapters in a clip, but also support overrides to link together the same elements in different ways, depending on how the user accesses them.
Adobe Encore also provides powerful project management capabilities for both small and large DVD designs, with sortable tables to review and check the usage of assets, buttons, and links. Even better, Adobe Encore provides the ability to make global changes to settings and links across the entire project, instead of having to manually step through all the menus to make each change individually.
The Adobe Encore interface is very comfortable for people used to working with other Adobe applications, with the Project windows for organizing assets, Editor windows for editing menus and timelines, palettes for editing object properties, and a small Tools window with editing tools.
The interface also uses tabs to save screen space by nesting multiple windows (and palettes) in a single window frame. You can drag tabs out into a separate window to access their contents, drag them back to nest in the window, or close and reopen them when you need them.
The main Project window is used to import and organize your project assets. It includes separate Menus and Timelines tabs, to access the menus and buttons, and track timelines and chapters, respectively. It also has a Disc tab to check the project and burn it to disc.
The Palette window contains four tabs. The Library palette is used to store reusable menu and button assets. The Properties palette is used to edit the properties of the currently selected object (or group of objects). The Layers palette is used to edit the layered structure of menus, including button highlights. The Characters palette is used to edit text on menus, including titles and button labels. Unfortunately, the Palette window is not resizable in the first release of Adobe Encore.
The Tools window is used primarily for editing menus, with tools for object selection, text editing and zoom.
Adobe Encore opens additional windows for editing menus and timelines. The Menu Editor window provides a full built-in editor for designing menus, including backgrounds, graphics, text, buttons, and highlights. The Timeline window provides a track-based interface for laying out multiple audio and subtitle tracks with each video clip. You can work on multiple menus and timelines at once; both the Menu Editor and Timeline windows also use tabs to organize the open windows.
One of the coolest features of Adobe Encore is that you can do simple things very easily, creating a quick disc with drag and drop ease. Making a simple DVD from a group of clips works much like the entry-level automated tools. First, open a new project, and choose a background image (or video) from the Library palette to use as the menu background. Then, import the clips you want to include on your DVD into the Project window, and drag them onto the menu. Adobe Encore automatically creates buttons that link to the clips, with a thumbnail of the clip.
The button design used for the clips is actually the currently-selected default button from the Library. Buttons can include graphics, thumbnail areas, selection highlighting, and text. Unlike the automated tools, you then can edit each button, change their locations, or use different button designs on the same menu. You also can add title text to the menu, and adjust its character properties.
And that's it! You have a full DVD project, with the menu and its linked clips. You can go ahead and check out your design in the integrated Preview window, and then build the disc. Adobe Encore will compress the video and audio files as needed, and then burn the disc. Soon you will be watching your clips on DVD.
What Adobe Encore does not do is to automatically lay out a large group of clips into a linked list of menus. But it does make it easy to create both a sequence of menus and nested menus. You can drag a menu onto another menu to create a link with a thumbnail of the menu. Even simpler, you even can create a disc with just a video clip, without bothering with a menu.
While you can build menus quickly in Adobe Encore, it also provides a full set of tools for designing professional menus in its Menu Editor. You can import and place graphics and buttons, convert graphics to buttons, and use the layout tools to align the elements on the menu. Adobe Encore will automatically add the routing between button selections (for the up, down, left, right buttons on the DVD remote), or again you can manually define the routing.
Adobe Encore also supports motion menus, both video and audio for the menu background, and small looping video clips for the menu buttons. You can set the segment of the clip to loop and the loop duration, although all the buttons share the same motion settings.
When editing in the Menu Editor, you can view the menu design in the Layer palette like a Photoshop file, with a series of nested layers for each element in the menu. Like some other DVD authoring tools, Adobe Encore uses a naming convention for button layers to identify the components of each button, including the selection highlights and the shape of the region in which to insert a thumbnail of the linked video clip.
Of course, as an Adobe application, Adobe Encore has a tremendous advantage in using the Photoshop format for menus. The Menu Editor in Adobe Encore works in the full Photoshop format, including layers. This provides full round-trip editing between Adobe Encore and Photoshop. You can do a quick prototype of a menu in Adobe Encore, and then export it to Photoshop for polishing. Or you can first create professional menu designs in Photoshop, and then import and use them in Adobe Encore. Unlike with other tools, there is no need to flatten or render the files before importing them for DVD authoring, and you can tweak the menus directly in Encore without having to re-edit and re-import them.
One of the most confusing elements of DVD design is the rules for the DVD subpicture overlays, used for menu selection highlights and subtitles. The DVD specification imposes very strict limitations on the choice of colors for such overlays, which is why entry-level tools do not even try to expose this capability, and professional tools tend to have complex interfaces for assigning color. Encore elegantly addresses this issue by supporting the concept of color sets, so you can define groups of colors and then associate them with menu buttons and subpictures. This also makes it easy to make global changes to a group of menus.
The power of Adobe Encore is what is happening behind the scenes, even as you are doing drag and drop editing. You can quickly bang out a basic design of a DVD project, and then drill down with the advanced tools to customize and enhance the design.
For example, Adobe Encore automatically creates timeline objects for clips that you drag onto a menu. You then can open the clip in a Timeline window, and add tracks for up to 8 audio streams and 32 subtitle streams (but not alternate video tracks). The Import Subtitles window lets you define subtitles by importing a file with time codes and text strings, and then format and position them on the screen. You can tag the alternate tracks with language codes to create a multi-lingual DVD.
The Timeline window also is used to set chapter points within each clip. Adobe Encore provides a Monitor window to play through the contents of the timeline. You can step through the frames, or move directly to a specific time code. You also can import files from Premiere with markers set to use as chapter points.
Once chapter points are set, using them is as simple as dragging the chapter marker onto to a menu so the user can jump directly to different points in a long clip. You also can use the Timeline window to organize a group of still images into a slide show, along with background audio.
Once you have imported your assets, designed your menus, and laid out your timelines and tracks, it's time to link them all together to create the navigation between the different elements of your DVD. As you might expect, you can easily create links by dragging and dropping elements between the Project and editor windows. Or you can use the Properties palette to select link targets from a drop-down menu. To change multiple links at once, you can view the menus and buttons in the Menus tab of the Project window, and then set the link in the Properties palette. Adobe Encore includes a built-in Check Links feature to identify missing links and orphaned assets in your project.
Adobe Encore lets you set the First Play action for the disc to play an initial clip or immediately display the main menu when the disc is first inserted. You then link the menu buttons to different clip timelines (or specific chapters in a clip), or to other menus. You also set the end action for each timeline, for play to continue after the clip finishes playing. You even can specify that a link to a menu highlight a specific button (to have a menu step through a series of clips), or that a link also select a specific track (so a language menu can set a new audio or subtitle stream for the disc).
Instead of exposing the DVD scripting language to program the DVD behavior, Adobe Encore supports the concept of link overrides. You not only can specify a navigation link, but also the link that will be taken when the destination of the link finishes playing. In this way, you can re-use assets on a disc, for example, by having a group of clips play continuously by default, linking one to the next, but also providing a clips menu that links to an individual clip and then has an override to return to the menu after the clip finishes playing.
After you finish authoring your DVD, you still need to transcode any assets that are not already in DVD-compatible format. You can edit your clips in a tool like Adobe Premiere, and then compress them into MPEG format before importing them into Adobe Encore. Or you can import AVI and other formats into Encore, and it will transcode them for you. Encore also can transcode audio clips to MPEG audio and Dolby Digital stereo formats. You also can specify custom settings and transcode assets on demand. Be warned that transcoding is not done as a background process, so plan to take a break while it is running.
When you build your disc, you can burn it directly to a DVD disc, or save it to a disc folder so you can test it out using a DVD player application. Adobe Encore also supports professional DVD options for replication, including dual-layer and double-sided discs, region codes, and copy protection.
Adobe's new Encore DVD is an impressive and interesting step forward in DVD authoring tools. It leverages the familiar Adobe user interface style to provide both a convenient drag and drop approach for quickly creating a simple disc, and much deeper controls for setting advanced professional features. Even better, Adobe Encore provides a smooth progression between simple and advanced. You can drag and drop to create a quick prototype, and then refine and expand it. You can create professional assets in Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects, and then import and assemble them in Encore DVD.
Adobe Encore also provides a very flexible interface for setting object options and properties. You can work directly in the Menu Editor and Timeline windows, set fields in the Properties palette, or access individual and groups of assets in the Project windows. The Adobe Encore project management features are particularly helpful when working on larger projects. If you are consistent in naming your assets, you can use the Project window tables to sort the elements in your DVD design and review them for inconsistent and missing links.
The good news with this new generation of professional DVD authoring tools is that you don't need to give up the convenience of integrated menu creation and file transcoding while still having access to professional DVD features. Adobe Encore makes it easy to do simple things, offers a clean interface for doing more sophisticated things, and provides intelligent trade-offs in packaging advanced features such as subpicture color sets and programmable links, to provide advanced capabilities without exposing the full complexity of the DVD specification.
Adobe - Encore DVD
Sonic Solutions - DVD
MainConcept - MPEG