DVD Studio Pro 3 is the cornerstone of Apple’s Production Suite and is one of the apps capable of actually driving PC users to the Power Mac G5. Alternatives to DVD Studio Pro 3 for professional DVD authoring are scarce. Encore DVD 1.5 simply can’t keep up. While Adobe Creative Suite excels at usability and reliability on Mac OS X as well as Windows XP, the release of Encore DVD 1.5 wasn’t Adobe’s finest hour. Whoever tried to build a DVD project using Adobe Encore DVD 1.5 on a PC, had any reason to be disappointed that this app, while apparently still in the Beta stage, was sold as a ‘final’ product.

After some initial problems with previous releases, Apple is now out of the woods and on the market with a very strong product.

Getting started

Preparing to dive into DVD Studio Pro 3, one last word before you get started. It’s advisable to run Software Update to bring Mac OS X 10.3 to its latest version (currently 10.3.6 build 7R28) and visit Apple to register and get the latest must-have updates.

  • Apple DVD Studio Pro 3.0 and 3.01 to 3.02, an indispensable update which allows you to take advantage of many significant improvements
  • Apple Pro Application Support 2.1
  • Apple Compressor 1.2.1
  • Bias Peak 4.1.1 (the update from 3.x to 4.1.1 is free for registered users)
  • Mac OS X v.10.3.6
Access to must-have updates:
for users of DVD Studio Pro 3
(you must be registered).

The 3.02 update to DVD Studio Pro grants you access to many new features such as:

  • improved Double-Layer Compatibility with DVD+R DL (8.54 GB instead of 4.7 GB) if used with Mac OS X 10.3.6 (build 7R28 or newer) and the latest DVD burner firmware
  • enhanced Simulator for more predictable results
  • improved import of Motion and LiveType projects.

Professional DVD authoring involves five basic steps:

  1. preparing video clips; for best results use Final Cut Pro 4.5 HD to capture and edit your footage and then encode your assets in Compressor
  2. editing and tuning your audio files; use SoundTrack for royalty-free loops, Bias PeakExpress for optimizing tracks, A.Pack for encoding high-quality audio in anything from mono to Dolby Digital 5:1 Surround Sound (quite obviously, you can also use additional software such as Apple Logic Pro or Express 7.x)
  3. importing your (pre-encoded) assets and designing the logical structure of your DVD; now this task is easier than ever thanks to the Graphical View in DVD Studio Pro 3,
  4. testing your DVD (e.g. in the Simulator),
  5. building your finished project to hard drive, a single-sided DVD (4.7 GB DVD+R/-R), a dual-layered DVD (8.54 GB DVD+R DL) or to DLT for mastering.
A.Pack 1.5 generates super-small AC3 audio files which save a lot of space on your DVD which is useful for providing better compressed video
Now you can use the Graphical View
to arrange and edit your project.
Build and format in DVD SP 3.02

Transitions, alpha transitions and video transitions

Among the coolest new features of DVD Studio Pro 3.x are new types of transitions. Transitions are visual effects presented when the user triggers an event such as changing to another menu, selecting a button or the begin of a track (intro transitions). DVD SP 3 supports three types of transitions: 'standard transitions', 'alpha transitions' and 'video transitions'. Let’s start with the obviously most simple case, standard transitions. The idea behind this is to join the end of the menu or object you’re about to leave and connect it with the start of the first frame of the asset you are heading to. Two join those two points in a visually compelling way, an effect such as 'Blur', 'Cube', 'Rotation Blur' and 'Radial Blur' can be used.

Alpha and video transitions

Alpha transitions sport additional visuals based on alpha channels and transparency. DVD SP 3 brings a handful of ready-to-go alpha transitions, e.g. 'Alpha-Leader', 'Alpha-Lensflare', 'Alpha-Theater'.

DVD SP 3 will also accept your self-made alpha transition effects, the so called ‘video transitions’. They are generated from a short piece of video, the ‘asset movie’, containing an alpha channel or accompanied by a so called ‘matte movie’ (if the asset movie does not contain an alpha channel) and an optional ‘background matte movie’. All the elements of an alpha transition must be contained in the same folder.

An ideal tool for creating these effects is Motion. Adobe After Effects will do the trick, too.

Basically there is technically no difference between an ‘alpha transition’ and a ‘video transition’. Alpha transitions are ready to use, predefined effects whereas video transitions are basically custom-built alpha transitions. When choosing the ‘video transition’ entry, you can define your own media files the transition will build upon.

Transition strategies

All kinds of transitions, whether it’s an intro, a menu or a button transition, are set up in a similiar way. You can fine-tune the start and the end manually if the default settings don't fit your needs.

An intro transition usually begins with a dummy, buttonless menu (an 'intro menu') or a track and leads into the real menu. The dummy menu is basically an animated sequence. It plays until the timeout is reached and the user arrives at a predefined menu. An intro transition can also be set up in single menu with a loop, which is simpler but no less sophisticated.

Using a dummy menu when building an intro transition is a particularily straight-forward approach.

This simplicity is an accomplishment which makes the use of DVD Studio Pro 3 an experience of it’s own kind, it just works. Using an intro menu instead of a track wherever possible gives your DVD a speed advantage on slower drives, because menus are accessed much faster than tracks since they are stored closer together than tracks on a DVD.

DVD players like they are available in Apple’s combo drives or Superdrives got a lot faster. In Apple’s PowerBooks the DVD burning speed went dramatically up from 1x to 4x speed and the recent PowerMac G5s come even with an really impressive 8x speed. Of course there is an enormous speed increase for combo drives and Superdrives, nevertheless the speed gap between faster ATA or Serial ATA harddisc drives and much slower combo drives and Superdrives remains.

The Simulator provides superb testing capabilities for anything from transistions to multi-angle.

Among the good reasons for an intro-menu-to-a-menu transition is the fact that you can let the user return to the menu after it played for the first time. Moreover, on a DVD player you can use the remote control to skip the intro and go directly to the menu without being forced to watch the intro transition all over and over again.

Creating an intro transition as a single loop within a menu is even easier. Such a sequence will loop infinitely until the user makes a choice. All you have to do is define a start point, a loop point and an end point. What’s special about this loop is the fact that it won’t re-start at the very beginning (0 seconds), but at the ‘Loop Point’ (e.g. after 10 seconds).

Menu and button transitions

Transitions provide an easy way of catching a user’s interest and attracting attention towards the ‘real’ content. They can also carry elements of corporate identity. For these very reasons, it is smart to keep transitions short and up to the point in order to avoid that they become a nuisance.

As soon as you start playing around with the different types of transitions and try different constellations of parameters like duration, start and end or transition type, you’ll notice that the functionality DVD SP 3 brings to the party amounts to a mind-blowing number of fascinating combinations.

Interface overview

If you have been working with DVD Studio 2.x before, you will be thrilled to see the great comback of the 'Graphical View' you might remember from DVD Studio Pro 1.5.x. It is detachable and even supports various editing features such as defining connections and adding structural elements.

Defining connections within the Graphical View.

But if you are switching from DVD SP 1.5.x to 3.x prepare yourself for a big change. First you might click on 'Window > Configurations' and choose one from those available options: 'Basic', 'Extended', 'Advanced or 'Advanced Cinema'. Beginners and switchers from iDVD will probably prefer - at least for the beginning - the basic view. Otherwise if you already are a pro, probably the extended- or advanced view will suite you best. And for large(r) display, the advanced cinema view might the perfect.

Apple has put a big effort into making the GUI clutter-free without sacrifying important details. This has been achieved by creating a tab-based structure. Most windows feature two, three or more tabs. So it’s possible to keep the overview and at the same time easily reach all the important details.

Probably you are already familiar with the basic DVD Studio Pro 3 windows and are looking for the more complex details. But even if you are (semi) professional user from other platforms and not already familiar with the concept of DVD Studio Pro 3. Go trough the available windows in the 'Window' menu and get step by step familiar with the logic of the GUI and the program. You'll surely soon succeed in more and even highly complex projects. We will focus on the not-so-obvious details, which can simplify your work.

Squeeze with ease

The key to the quality of any DVD project is, of course, the encoding. Depending on how many assets must fit on the media, quality trade-offs can become an issue (unless you know the tricks).

Obviously, audio tracks and viideo files occupy space along with buttons and transitions, slideshows and other content. You’ll have to decide whether the visuals or the audio portion of the DVD will be given priority. The more visuals you intend to present, the less remains for your sound tracks and vice versa. But that’s not all to it.

You can easily import any kind of files QuickTime can handle, but this subjects them to an automatic encoding within DVD Studio Pro. While this may be acceptable for a ‘burn-and-run’ authoring session, it won’t even let you touch the surface of the superb encoding capabilities of your software. Doing so should never be really an option, except if you need an MPEG-2 encoding in preview quality.

To make the most of the world-class compression capabilities which DVD SP 3 puts at your disposal, encode all video clips with Compressor 1.2 (included in DVD Studio Pro 3.x as well as Apple Production Suite 1.x) prior to importing them into your project. By doing so you will avoid a less-than-perfect semi-professional conversion which DVD Studio Pro 3.x would otherwise perform.

For the sake of both performance and quality you should shy away from the quick-and-dirty automatic encoding wherever possible and send your files through Compressor, the cluster-enabled frontend to Apple’s state-of-the-art encoding engine.

Compressor will ensure that the (hopefully) crisp and crystal-clear colours of your original footage remain as perfect as the MPEG-2 encoding permits. While Compressor delivers several useful presets, all settings are up to you.

The music’s no good (unless it's A.Pack)

With audio tracks you can follow the same 'quick-and-dirty' approach by importing AIFF or WAV files into your project, but it is much smarter to rely on more sophisticated, A.Pack encoded, AC-3 audio files.

Encoding of an AC3 5.1 Surround Sound file
in A.Pack 1.5

While almost anyone can easily spot the difference between Compressor’s highly acclaimed MPEG-2 encoding and the results generated by DVD SP 3 on-the-fly, it may well be hardly possible for an average listener to make out any noticeable difference between an AIFF or WAV and an A.PAck encoded AC-3 audio file, depending on the source media. , Nevertheless, using AC-3 audio files leaves you more free space on your DVD for your video files and other assets. In fact, this is a reason to deploy A.Pack even if you can settle for plain stereo and don't need any 5:1 surround sound at all.

Import preencoded AC3 files.

Both Compressor and A.Pack sport batch processing functionality and make Apple's DVD SP 3 stand out from the crowd. Neither Adobe Encore DVD nor Premiere Pro 1.5 on Windows can come up with a comparable feature for automated processing of video compression.

Apple DVD Studio Pro 3 (review Macworld UK WWDC issue on page 49) is in fact the best choice out there for professional DVD authoring, not only given its price of just £ 349, but even if you were willing to pay more than several times as much. For the time being, there is no comparable choice on the Mac or the PC.