Making the Move to Recordable DVD, Part Three

In this final installment of our look at recordable DVD, you'll learn how to record your own DVD movies. As we've previously discussed, the world of recordable DVDs is somewhat fractured into two groups—those that support DVD-RAM and DVD-R/W (DVD-R and DVD-RW) and those that support a rival format called DVD+RW. An industry group called the Recordable DVD Forum, which includes Panasonic, Toshiba, and many other companies, backs the DVD-RAM and DVD-R/W formats, the latter of which are the formats this article focuses on. However, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Sony, and other heavyweights back the DVD+RW format. Which format will ultimately win out is unclear, but the concepts are similar no matter which format you choose.

The format decision is crucial because many mainstream DVD players won't play back movies written to certain kinds of media. Currently, DVD-R has the widest range of support, and most consumer-oriented DVD players should play back DVD-R-created movies. DVD-RW is less compatible, although modern players from Panasonic and other companies are beginning to offer support for this format. Meanwhile, you can use DVD-RAM to write DVD movies, but this format is designed for data backup, and few DVD players support it. Given the varying levels of support, you'll usually want to write final DVD movies to DVD-R, but it's a good idea to test small movies with the players you'll use later for playback. Note that most PC-based DVD players will play back DVD movies in DVD-R or DVD-RW format (although I couldn't get an iBook to work with DVD-RW format, perhaps because Apple supports only DVD-R recording).

In general terms, DVD movie making is identical to any other type of digital movie making except that you write the final product to a recordable DVD disc. You can use your movie-editing software of choice to edit a movie or group of movies to include titles, transitions, and other effects. On the PC, you'll want to save the raw video and finished product in uncompressed AVI format, which offers the best resolution and quality; on the Macintosh, use the full-resolution QuickTime format. You can include as many movies per DVD as the capacity allows (currently about 60 to 80 minutes' worth).

Choosing a good movie editor is key, of course. On the Mac, this choice is a no-brainer: Apple's iMovie 2 is world-class and is all you need to make your home movies look like a professional edited them. On the PC, things are finally improving. In Windows XP, Microsoft offers a bare-bones package called Windows Movie Maker (the Windows Me version is unsuitable for this task because it doesn't support AVI format), but most people will quickly outgrow this tool, which offers one transition type and lame bitmap-based titling capabilities. I've tried just about every Windows-based movie editor on the planet, and none were particularly compelling. Then I came across a little gem called ArcSoft ShowBiz. For the first time, iMovie-style editing is available on the PC, and the product is priced right, too: For about $80, you get just about everything iMovie has, along with VCD support for those of us who don't own recordable DVD drives.

After you create your final movies, it's time to put them on a DVD and create the menus that will drive the user experience. You'll face two issues: transcoding and software selection. You must transcode (or compress and convert) high-quality AVI and QuickTime movies into a DVD-specific MPEG-2 format before you can record and view them on a DVD player. This process takes a lot of time, especially on mid-level hardware such as the Pentium III 866 I'm using, and can hold up the DVD-writing process. Newer DVD-movie software offers realtime transcoding, meaning that you can transcode one second of uncompressed video to MPEG-2 format in one second, assuming you have a fast Pentium 4 processor (more costly hardware-based solutions let you transcode at higher rates).

Given this limitation, I have a few suggestions. First, look into software that will let you transcode your movies, perhaps in batch mode, before you make the DVD movie. Otherwise, every time you burn a new copy of the same DVD, you'll have to transcode the included movies on the fly, considerably increasing the amount of time it takes to make the disc. Second, store your MPEG-2 movie versions (instead of the AVI/QuickTime versions) on your hard disk so you can more easily make DVDs with them. This process requires a lot of disk space, so you'll need a large hard disk or, better yet, a couple of big hard disks (and you can back up to DVD, too).

Regarding software selection, please read our product review of some of today's leading consumer-oriented DVD movie-creation packages below (in the Resources section).

I use Ulead MovieFactory to transcode AVI movies into MPEG-2 format and Sonic DVDit to make the DVD movies, but any of the products mentioned in the Product Review section should work well. The DVDit interface is simplicity itself. Start a new product and then choose the video format (NTSC, typically, and MPEG-2—DVD-compliant); you can then choose between standard TV format (4:3) or widescreen.

Next, you need to set a few options. Make sure the output size is set to DVD-R (4.7GB) in Project Settings and, if you're using DVDit, you can choose to output sound in Dolby Digital.

Then, build the main menu, which consists of your menu items and a background image. Sonic includes several images, but I prefer to make my own with a still frame from one of the movies I plan to use. After you select a background image, drag it into a small "Menu1" well and it will become the backdrop for the main menu.

Then you can navigate to the Buttons or Text interfaces and add on-screen elements to the menu. You can launch movies and sub-menus from buttons or text links. I generally use a simple text heading to describe the menu and then a button for each movie I include.

After you complete this process, you can navigate to the Media interface, which lets you import movies (AVI or MPEG-2 format) and drag them onto the menu. If you drag the movie files onto an unused part of the menu, a new button will appear with a still image that represents the first frame of the included movie. You can also drag movies onto existing buttons or text. After you import and arrange all the movies you want to include, you can use the Play interface to test the menu system in a software DVD player before burning the DVD.

Next, you build, or burn, the DVD. To do so, choose Build, then Make DVD Disc, from the DVDit menu. Select your DVD recorder, and click OK. Then wait. And wait. And wait some more. DVD movie making takes a long time.

After the DVD burning is complete, test the disc in several DVD players, if possible, including both home and PC-based players. I've found that DVD-R disks work fine in three of the four home-based systems I've tried and in every PC-based system. (This is good to know if you plan to send DVDs to friends and relatives.) Also, you can test a DVD on DVD-RW media until you get it just right. That way, you won't waste expensive DVD-R media, which you can't erase after it's written. Just test the DVD-RW movie in your PC and erase it when you're ready to move on.

For the Mac, the process is similar, except that you need a newer G4 system with a SuperDrive to use Apple's amazing iDVD 2 software. I wasn't able to review this system in time for this article but hope to soon. In the meantime, it's worth noting that Apple's digital-movie-making tools—both iMovie 2 and iDVD2—equal or surpass the quality of anything available for the PC. However, the SuperDrive supports only DVD-R media, not DVD-RAM or DVD-RW, which is somewhat limiting.

ArcSoft Showbiz
Apple iMovie 2

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