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Issue: October 1, 2005

KILLER APPS: GOING MOBILE

By: By Christine Bunish

Since its launch on March 24, PlayStationPortable (PSP), from Sony Computer Entertainment America has chalked up red-hot sales of more than 2 million units in North America. Designed to support myriad forms of entertainment, the slim, small PSP enables owners to enjoy games, music, videos and feature films, and to browse the Internet. By August, more than 35 games were available for PSP on its proprietary Universal Media Disc (UMD) format along with more than 125 feature films, TV programs and videos.

PSP has rapidly gone beyond its obvious appeal to gamers to catch the eye of tech-savvy consumers seeking the current state of the art in handheld devices. While it made sense for Sony Pictures to port many of its own releases to UMD, it wasn’t long before Universal, Buena Vista, Lion’s Gate, Paramount, Fox and others were introducing product on UMD. Producers of concerts, comedy, TV series and more also began to issue UMD titles.

“The quick success of this market has been a very pleasant surprise,” says Jeff Stabenau, president of New York City digital-media studio Giant Interactive (www.giant-interactive.com), which launched earlier this year. “People like the idea of a very small, compact format that can play a full-length movie at surprisingly high quality.”

THE GIANT ‘WOW’ FACTOR

Stabenau sees much UMD content analogous to DVDs but with “much more functionality in their menus and programming capabilities like Flash- or Web-based interactivity. There’s more of a ‘wow’ factor.”

That means a skill set different from traditional DVD authoring is required to reformat or create content for UMD, he says. “You need more Web-development expertise, like Java scripting. We intended for Giant to offer creative and technical services for content distributors through digital formats like DVD, next-generation DVD and interactive TV, so from the get-go we were hiring people with computer science and electrical engineering backgrounds. We guessed those skills would be part of things to come.”

Giant has designed and developed UMD titles for World Wrestling Entertainment, due for release this month, and is seeing interest from its traditional DVD clients: the company designed menus for Beavis and Butthead, which is coming out simultaneously on DVD and UMD. “Some DVD clients are saying, ‘We would like to get a UMD title out,’” Stabenau reports. “And we’re asking others if they’ve looked at this new opportunity.”

He thinks “the next area to take off will be music videos — they’re well suited to the format. We’re talking to record labels about projects like compilation discs of music videos.”

Stabenau believes “if [PSP] sales keep going the way they have been, UMD will have its own [original] content, especially short-form content. People will take advantage of its strengths and build to the format.”

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

Offering concept-to-completion services, LA’s Precision Productions + Post (www. precisionpost.com) has “been on the leading edge of finding alternate marketing solutions” for its advertiser and entertainment clients, says VP/creative services Martin Fisher. “With the advent of DVRs like TiVo people now have the opportunity to completely avoid commercial messaging,” he points out. “Vehicles that have performed brilliantly in the past no longer deliver the same results.”

Many advertisers are moving toward creating promotional content as a means of reaching an increasingly elusive and fragmented audience. DVDs, and now UMDs, are becoming prime platforms for promoting motion pictures and TV shows. “The goal, ultimately, is to seamlessly integrate commercial messaging with entertainment content in a way that provides the audience with a value-added viewing experience,” Fisher says.

To that end, Precision produces special features and promotional assets — behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes and cast and filmmaker interviews — with the intent to adapt them for use across multiple platforms, including DVD movie discs, the computer, PSP players and UMDs.

The company has created elements for Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Herbie Fully Loaded, Robots, Fever Pitch and I, Robot and, at press time, Ice Age 2, all of which have or will soon be seen across the entire media spectrum. Precision’s seven Avid Adrenaline offline bays, Avid Symphony and Apple Final Cut Pro HD online suites, Digidesign Pro Tools mixing room and extensive graphics capabilities are called into play to satisfy clients’ needs.

Customization and media compatibility are essential considerations to the production process. “PSPs can barely play an entire feature, so we must be careful not to annoy our audience with lengthy special features that compromise their experience,” Fisher notes. “We want to provide users with promotional content that adds value, so issues like UMD screen size and battery duration must be respected. The goal is to arouse interest and create as much impact as possible.”

A NEW SPIN ON DVD MENUS

Working in conjunction with major studios and production companies, The Studio at New Wave Entertainment (www.nwe.com) in Hollywood supplies menu design for the swelling ranks of UMD feature film titles.

“Studios saw how fast PSPs were selling and said, ‘We’ve got to get product out there. How fast can we get it out there?’” recalls DVD graphics supervisor Paul Miles Schneider. “They were waiting in a long queue at Sony’s authoring house because initially they were the only facility in town that could author UMDs. If a cancellation or delay suddenly came up with another project, they would grab that space in line and call us to see if we could deliver our materials much earlier than anticipated, taking advantage of that window of opportunity.”

The Studio at New Wave Entertainment designed the DVD menus for Fox’s Fight Club and Predator: Special Edition both of which subsequently requested UMD menus. “They don’t necessarily want a redesign,” notes Schneider. “In most cases we’re evoking the DVD menu or using elements from the original DVD release. We still design in Photoshop and After Effects and animate in After Effects as we would for DVD, but the mindset and design approach are different.

“For DVD menus, the buttons are usually pretty stationary but the sky’s the limit for background images,” he continues. “With UMDs, the buttons animate on and off and can fly across the screen at the control of the user. They’re delivered as static PNG files with embedded alpha channels; a background motion loop runs behind them. So you need to think in more abstract design terms knowing the buttons could fly whenever the user decides.”

The company delivers QuickTime reference files to a UMD authoring facility “to show what we’d like them to do in programming,” Schneider explains. The designers have devised functionality templates, which, while allowing menu customization for titles, enable the authoring house to move more quickly.

Schneider, who has witnessed the migration from home video to DVD and now to UMD, notes that the industry is “on the verge of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD early next year. And they will reinvent the market to some degree again.”