After dusting myself off from Toshiba's HD DVD implosion earlier this year, I've been lucky enough to work on several Blu Ray projects. At first, it wasn't easy. For me, with several years of web and DVD authoring experience, HD DVD was cheaper and easy to understand. It was just an extension of several proven technologies. However, the Blu Ray spec was completely different. It was new, untested and quite frankly, too expensive to allow independent developers like myself an admission ticket. 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? However, I am happy to say I've come full circle: I realize Blu Ray's full potential for the future of digital distribution. The surprising irony is how easy Blu Ray's HDMV authoring is compared to advanced HD DVD
coding. An experience spec level DVD-Video author will have little trouble understanding how HDMV comes together once he or she understands how a particular authoring system works and how that system facilitates the BD spec. This article will showcase and explain portions of the technology, tools and required workflows.
Blu Ray has two primary authoring modes – HDMV and BD-J.
HDMV. Most titles on store shelves are authored solely in HDMV (Movie Mode). It allows features like: PIP (Picture-in-Picture) and secondary audio; multi-page menus 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 effects can be used in conjunction allowing some really interesting button functionality. In addition, authors can create button animations using a PNG file sequence. 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. HDMV lets authors easily create basic menus. However, when they use its more advanced features, coupled with a good imagination, they can come up with unique and complex designs. If this isn't enough, you'll need to move up to BD-J.
BD-J. BD-J uses Java to let authors create games, highly complex menus, and hundreds of others features waiting to be thought of. One useful feature is the timeline reference in the scene selection portions of a menu. Check out titles like Spiderman or Superbad to get an idea of what I'm talking about. To date, only 50 or so BD-J titles have been produced. 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 upside will be seen when large libraries of code can be used over and over again. With BD-J, an author is limited only by his or her imagination.
One final note is that BD-J cannot live without HDMV (but HDMV can live without BD-J). Since the application needs to be registered within the HDMV index, its necessary to use an authoring tool that allows that. In any BD-J title, the application takes full control of the player's functions, and is entirely encapsulated in the HDMV structure allowing control to be passed to a BD-J object. Once this occurs, the application has complete control of the player. I think one of the most exciting developments regarding BD-J development are the tools currently being developed that allow folks with little or no Java experience to complete a BD-J application. Before looking at those tools, I think it's important to understand your Blu Ray authoring options first: Scenarist, Blu Print, and DoStudio DSA.
Often people think Sonic Solution's Scenarist is the granddaddy of all authoring suites. Now that Blu Ray is the winner of the format wars, one might believe Sonic Solutions was a big part of all that. In reality, very few titles have been authored with Scenarist HDMV. Sony's Blu Print and a little known proprietary system from Panasonic have that distinction. Scenarist HDMV went on sale in 2006 and has proven to be a fast and easy-to-use authoring platform. Scenarist requires an outboard Photoshop plug-in called Designer 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.
Sony's Blu Print is next on the list. With a sticker price of 50K and a support "option" of 10K, it's the most expensive but its ease of use comes in handy. I say the support is optional but there's absolutely no way to get around the application initially without the helpful hands from the guys at Sony. The manual is convoluted and does a very basic job of explaining workflows. Menus are designed 1920x1080 then exported as a full PNG into the application. From there it's easy to add menus and effects to each page while automatically slicing your images. There are no drop-down menus for the navigation and scripting commands like Scenarist but, with the aid of Intellisense, the author can be assured the code is spec legal. An author can also add these command codes to a library for reference and later use. The biggest difference between Scenarist and Blu Print is in the use of the Designer plug-in. This handy tool frees the author from slicing and optimizing images. Since a title's author and menu designer are often two different people, Scenarist might have an advantage here.
Another option to watch is NetBlender's DoStudio DSA. John Harrington, Netblender's CEO, realizes the need for an affordable authoring tool if Blu Ray is to survive. The need for independent development is crucial and Netblender is on track with a $225/month licensing fee. They also offer a free 30-day trial period, so it's worth a try.
Now, let's look at those powerful tools that allow non-Java folks to complete BD-J applications. All are third party tools and require an authoring platform for the HDMV part of the process. The ability to write a Java application provides an almost limitless canvas on which to work. Currently, all BD-J applications are written by hand in an IDE such as Eclipse, so it's clear that something needs to be done to speed up the process and that's why several WYSIWYG design tools are slated for release.
Ensequence, a company out of Portland, 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. The price tag is hefty at 20K, plus 10K for support and will be sold exclusively through Sony.
Sonic has its own answer to BD-J development with the EDGe Program. Not a tool, but a comprehensive collection of developers with growing Java libraries assisting Scenarist HDMV 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. I have yet to see a demo of this product but it's 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 40K to acquire the complete set.
As you can see, Blu Ray can be a little complicated and expensive. Like any new technology in its infancy, there will be hurdles to jump before we get an affordable tool that will achieve the functionality we see in current titles. Tools like Encore and DVDit Pro are a good start, but don't cut it in terms of encode quality, menu functionality or advanced audio support. Another important feature lacking in these two programs is the ability to output the correct image used in replication. I suppose one can see a correlation between DVD and Blu Ray: It took several years before smaller studios began to offer DVD authoring. Once we see tools and the BD specification mature in players, we'll all see production costs spiral downward.
Blu Ray Authoring Tools
BD-J Development Tools