DENVER — I've been looking forward to being able to deliver my high definition projects in a high definition format since I bought my first HDCAM camera almost five years ago. Being an early adopter, it's been a series of challenges, just to work in high definition. I finally realized my dream of authoring to a consumer HD format a couple of months ago.
Although HD DVDs and Blu-Ray discs began showing up in stores with their own sections last fall, there hadn't really been a way for independent studios to author and burn their own Blu-Ray discs (in fact, at the time of this writing, there still isn't an HD DVD burner on the market). In order to author to Blu-Ray discs, we needed both Blu-Ray burners to be available, and DVD authoring programs that support the new format. At this time, there are a couple programs that have implemented at least basic Blu-Ray authoring capabilities, and Blu-Ray burners have been available since mid-2006.
No matter what anybody tells you about Blu-Ray discs being better than HD DVDs, or vise-versa, the truth is that, from an encoding standpoint, the two are virtually identical. The primary differences between the two are in capacity of the discs and minor variations in audio options and maximum data recording rates. HD DVD players are cheaper to manufacture, but Blu-Ray discs hold more data. I chose to author my first high definition disc to Blu-Ray primarily because of the availability and support for Blu-Ray disc burners.
Working with a beta version of Adobe Encore CS3, which supports Blu-Ray disc authoring, I delved into the world of high definition authoring, which I discovered was still fairly uncharted territory. I had hoped that the process would be as simple as taking my already authored DVD project and replacing the menus with HD menus, and the videos with HD videos. It wasn't quite as simple as this, though, as there are more options available for encoding for Blu-Ray. Most of what I state here in this article is also relevant to HD DVD authoring, as the two technologies share many of the same attributes. Both HD DVD and Blu-Ray discs support three different codecs: MPEG-2, H.264 (MPEG-4) and VC-1 (Windows Media 9). At the time of my authoring, Adobe's Encore only supported MPEG-2 and H.264. As to which codec to encode to, the main advantages of H.264 over MPEG-2 is that it is a more efficient codec, so you need less bandwidth to get the same quality, but this comes at a cost, which is that the encoding and decoding take considerably more processing power. It's also important to note that at 25Mbps and above, the difference in quality between the two codecs becomes difficult to distinguish.
The project I authored was an hour-long 1080 60i video, which was shot HDCAM, edited MPEG-2 i-frame 150Mbps (on an Axio HD) and encoded at a 25Mbps target data rate. I was very happy with the results of both MPEG-2 and H.264 quality at these data rates. I tried a variety of encoding rates for both codecs, and finally settled on a two-pass 25Mpbs data rate, which, based on research, was on par with what most industry Blu-Ray and HD DVD discs are recorded at. Other than some normal glitches using any pre-release software, authoring went smoothly. So, now I had a Blu-Ray disc image, which I was ready to test out. I borrowed a friend's Blu-Ray disc burner, which he had just used to create a menuless Blu-Ray disc, so he was excited to see a disc authored that had advanced menu options. The burn also went well, although the costs of discs are a bit steep, with write once BD-R discs costing around $20 each and the rewritable BD-RE closer to $25.
When testing our newly-authored discs on various Blu-Ray disc players on the market, we learned that most don't initially support writable Blu-Ray discs. Only the Panasonic player we tested played the discs out of the box. Fortunately there are firmware upgrades available for most, if not all Blu-Ray disc players, which allow them to read the writable media. I was also initially disappointed to find out that Sony's PS3 was incompatible, but after a fairly simple firmware upgrade, I was excited to find that it played my disc without issue. Of course, even the cheapest Blu-Ray disc players weigh in at around $500-600, so they're not going to be in most people's living rooms until they break the $300 mark. HD DVDs promise to break that price barrier any day, but have yet to make their burners available to the public, and there's always the debate over which format to support.
High definition authoring is here. There is finally a way to deliver high definition content without the need for professional decks. It's still a bit on the bleeding edge, so you can still expect some glitches and minor incompatibilities along the way, but the result is better than HDV quality video, on a format that supports HD's greater dynamic range and phenomenal resolution. We can finally deliver in a medium that does justice to our high definition projects.
Heath Firestone is a producer/director at Firestone Studios. He can be reached at: Heath@Firestonestudios.com.