Blu-ray Today and Beyond
After dusting myself off from Toshiba's HD DVD implosion earlier this year, I've been lucky enough to work on quite a few Blu-ray projects. At first, it wasn't easy. With several years of web and DVD authoring experience, HD DVD easy for me to understand. It was just an extension of several proven technologies.
However, the Blu-ray spec was new, untested and quite frankly, too expensive to allow independent developers like myself an admission ticket. It also lacked features that had become essential to our HD DVD development. In our office, Blu-ray was voodoo. We often joked about what to feed the elves that lived inside our authoring station: do we use the blue crystal or the red crystal?
The surprising irony is how easy advanced Blu-ray authoring is compared to advanced HD DVD coding. Experienced spec-level DVD-Video authors will have little trouble understanding how it all comes together once they understand how a particular authoring system works and how that system facilitates the BD spec.
This article isn't a deep discussion of the details of that spec, such as its three AV profiles plus one audioonly profile. This isn't exactly a round-up either. It's just an overview of some of the options available.
The first thing that you have to understand is that there are two Blu-rays.
Most titles on store shelves today are authored solely in HDMV, "High Definition Movie Mode."
It allows features like PiP (Picture-in-Picture) and secondary audio; multi-page menu systems used to implement a title's Pop-Up or Top Menus; and five primary menu effects of Position, Color, Crop, Wipe and Fade. Up to two of these can be used together, to create some really interesting button possibilities. A good example would be a revolving globe used as a floating animation within a particular button, or perhaps blood splatter if you happen to be working on a horror title.
To get to the next level of menu animation, as well as overall interactivity, you'll need to move up to BD-J, where the J stands for Java.
In BD-J, HDMV is only a small part of a potentially larger experience, where a Java application takes complete control of the player.
You can combine that HDMV movie with anything - dramatically enhanced menus, streaming picturein- picture, in-movie interactivity, dynamic integration with online and downloaded content, games, and much, much more.
Sony Blu-print seen here, as well in this article's title graphic
There are even tools being developed to convert Flash to Java for BD-J, and a new SDK for integrating BD-J with the iPhone.
The important thing to understand is that these features aren't tacked on as "extras." They're available while the movie plays, something we haven't seen before. These features can even be added to SD material included on BD-J disks.
BD-J menus give the author the ability to design using 32-bit graphics, rather than 8-bit for HDMV. BD-J also has an image buffer size 3 times that of HDMV, so authors can create more and better graphics.
The downsides? BD-J discs take longer to load than HDMV discs and there are a few irritating holes in the BD-J spec. For example, there's no access to the Top Menu button - only the Pop-up menu button is active.
Only about 80 commercial BD-J titles have been produced so far. The reason is simply a matter of economics. Like other forms of software design, BD-J needs time and care. Code needs to be written, compiled and tested, and might take several weeks or months, especially with games or a unique menu design.
BD-J's advantages will be seen when large libraries of code can be used over and over again. Sales of newer players that support more features will make a difference, as will more BD-J titles. This one is happening quickly. In fact, Disney and Universal are almost all BD-J at this point.
While many consider Sonic Solution's Scenarist to be the granddaddy of all SD authoring suites, very few high-definition titles have been authored with Scenarist HDMV or Scenarist BD-J Authoring so far. Sony's Blu-print and a little known proprietary tool from Panasonic have that distinction. However, Scenarist's speed and ease of use bode well for the independent production facility.
Scenarist requires an outboard Photoshop plug-in for menu creation called Designer PS, to allow slicing of images and to gather data coordinates for the menu designs. Navigation commands come in drop down palettes, so there's no confusion over having the right commands in the right place.
A bundle of Scenarist HDMV, BD-J Authoring and Designer runs $39,999, with another $3999 for the support package.
With a sticker price of $50,000 and a support "option" of $10,000, Sony Blu-print is the most expensive, but many authors, including me, find it worth the price. It's designed from the start for high-volume authoring. Several potentially time-consuming tasks like creating clips, playlists and movie objects are all automated in Bluprint.
That's just at the surface. The deeper you go, the more Blu-print shines. Thanks to a high level scripting language similar to C++, programmers can do virtually anything, even if they haven't worked specifically with Blu-ray authoring before.
There are also ways for experienced authors to access lots of power without diving too deeply into programming. Blu-print is especially well-suited for complex designs for advanced interactivity, such as branching constructions containing many possible story lines.
I say that the support is optional but the manual is convoluted and does only a very basic job of explaining workflows. There's absolutely no way to get around the application initially without the helpful guys at Sony.
There are no drop-down menus for the navigation and scripting commands like Scenarist has, but with the aid of IntelliSense - a developer tool that makes references to languages like Java easily accessible -- authors can be assured the code is spec legal. Authors can also add these command codes to a library for reference and later use.
Another option to watch is NetBlender's DoStudio Authoring Edition (DSA). DSA employs an "all BD-J" approach that's different from Scenarist or Bluprint. DoStudio abstracts much of the complexity of the Blu-ray spec and replaces it with a simplified construct of graphic menus and a streamlined playlist editor that will look familiar to anyone who made HD DVDs.
Interestingly, DSA natively creates BD-J pop-up menus. Its abstraction code also builds in limits, but most of the menu functions already seen on current BD-J disks are included in its design, with more being added in every update.
The most attractive thing about DSA is the cost: $250/month. Aside from the cost, the most obvious difference between DSA and Scenarist or Blu-print is the smaller learning curve and speed of development. You can get comfortable in DSA in a matter of days and create professional looking discs in a fraction of the time compared to its more expensive competitors, even with new versions of DSA coming quickly.
You still have to do your Blu-ray homework to use DSA, and there are inevitably limits to what it can do, but you don't need to digest the entire Blu-ray spec to get good results.
The ability to write a Java application to drive a Blu-ray disc's features provides an almost limitless canvas on which to work, but currently, BD-J applications are primarily written by hand in a development environment such as the open-source Eclipse.
That's why several WYSIWYG design tools are becoming available - powerful tools that allow non-Java folks to build BD-J applications. Many are from third parties, and all require a separate authoring platform than the HDMV part of the process.
Ensequence, an interactive television company, has provided on-Q Create. Very similar to earlier versions of Flash, on-Q Create allows an operator to place objects into a canvas and tell those objects to react to commands. It even gives authors the ability to see the source code and make custom changes.
It's also among the tools that's designed for authors without advanced knowledge of Java, including those without any experience with BD-J at all. It comes complete with a Blu-ray wizard for its drag and drop interactivity tools.
The price tag is $20,000, plus $10,000 for support. It will be sold exclusively through Sony, who also recently announced integration between on-Q and Blu-print.
Sonic has its own answer to BD-J development with the EDGe Program. This isn't software, but a comprehensive collection of developers with growing Java libraries assisting Scenarist HDMV and BD-J Authoring owners in custom title development. Companies like Metabeam, Rivetel and Clickteam are currently involved. No pricing is available yet.
Finally, there's Kaleidoscope, from the German company Sofatronic, a suite offered in several different modules. For example, it has an application for making games, one for creating bookmarks, and another for online chatting and bookmark sharing.
Sofatronic offers several other modules for different kinds of BD-live functionality as well. Since each is sold separately, you might see yourself spending upwards of $40,000 to acquire the complete set.
WHAT'S UP, MAC?
All the programs so far have at least one thing in common: they're Windows-only. So among the most intriguing questions on the BD front is, "Where is Apple's BD authoring tool?"
Currently the only authoring option on OS X is Adobe Encore. Its interface is exactly like its previous SD-only form -strange, since BD authoring is nothing like SD authoring and probably a good reason why some of its most basic features are still currently inoperable.
No doubt, Steve Jobs is right that some day, we will all be downloading HD movies like we do music, but the question remains: what can we expect from Apple in the meantime?
Although he was talking about including Blu-ray drives in Apple computers, Steve Jobs was quite clear: "Blu-ray is a bag of hurt. I don't mean from the consumer point of view. It's great to watch movies, but the licensing is so complex. We're waiting until things settle down, and waiting until Blu-ray takes off before we burden our customers with the cost of licensing."
Apple VP of Worldwide Product Market Phil Schiller added "We have the best HD movie and TV options in iTunes."
Regardless of Apple's future decisions about Bluray authoring, there is some exciting BD news on the Mac front. Rivergate Software is currently working on a tool called BDAfterEdit. Based on the same code as HDAfterEdit (built for the now defunct HD DVD format). BDAfterEdit is primarily a Blu-ray analysis and verification tool, with some spot editing abilities.
Rivergate's publicly stated intention is to create the equivalent of DVD Studio Pro for BD authors on the Mac platform, with its own muxing engine and templated HDMV pop-up menus. BDAfterEdit is seen as the means to reach this goal, and eventually to form the code base for more comprehensive authoring as well.
Rivergate has just announced their first Blu-ray product, BluStreak Navigator, to be released by the end of the year. BluStreak Navigator is a pop-up menu design and navigation tool to be used in combination with any Blu-ray authoring application, including Encore and DVDItHD. BlueStreak Composer, the fullfeatured authoring system, is targeted for release in late spring or early summer of 2009.
Rivergate Software BDAfterEdit for OS X
Another important point to consider regarding Rivergate's contributions to BD is the fact they have the finest DVD pre-mastering tool on the planet. DVDAfterEdit allows an author to view a completed project at the spec level, which makes things like choosing a legal layer break much easier than in prosumer tools like DVD Studio Pro or Encore.
It also fixes time map errors and allows you to completely re-author a title if you so choose. It would be tough for me as a DVD author to live without DVDAfterEdit. In fact, it's one of the two reasons I own a Mac, even though I do all my authoring on a PC. (The other is being able to play with FCP.) I look forward to Rivergate's contributions to the Blu-ray world.
As you can see, Blu-ray can be a little complicated and expensive. Like any technology in its infancy, there will be hurdles to jump before we get affordable tools to create the same features we already see in current SD DVD titles.
Tools like Encore and DVDit Pro are a good start, but don't ultimately cut it for encode quality, menu capabilities or advanced audio support. Sony Creative Software's DVD Architect is getting warm, but early announcements focus on its integration with Sony Blu-print for spec-level authoring. We've clearly got a long way to go before BD-J development is widely accessible.
I suppose one can see a parallel between DVD and Blu-ray: it took several years before smaller studios could offer meaningful DVD authoring. Once we see easy-to-use development tools and the BD specification mature in players, we'll all see production costs spiral downward as creative options increase.
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