Making a DVD in Ten Easy Steps

Over the past two weeks I've been locked in my office tirelessly working on a DVD EPK for Love in the Time of Monsters.  It has been, unequivocally been one of the most frustrating, pain-staking experiences in recent memory.  The hardship paid off though, as the final product looks pretty damn snazzy (if I do say so myself):

Wait.  That doesn't look as snazzy as it should.  Here, check out this bit of menu instead:

There, that's better.  Not bad, right?

So what did I learn from this experience?  I'm glad you asked.  With no further ado, I would like to present to my step by step guide to making a DVD of your own, with the insight of the things I learned about making DVDs via mistakes and miscommunications to help you have an easier time.  Let's get it on!


1- "What are we doing, again?"

The first step to any DVD is figuring out what you want it to be and what it needs to contain.  Do you want pages and pages of text?  Do you just want a movie on it?  Does it even need a menu?  What's the overall purpose of this thing?  And on and on.

Figuring those questions out early will help everything down the line.  Sit down with everyone involved, discuss what the ideal final form of the DVD is, and find an agreement.  There's nothing worse than getting midway through a massive build like this to find out that everyone's expecting something different from the final product.  Lots of meetings might be annoying, but boy are they helpful.

Once you have that skeleton of the DVD in place, it's time to move on to step two...


2- "So what specifically do you want on this?"

Once you, as the designer, have the basic information you can (hopefully) start the process.  While you're doing this, assuming that you have a crew like I did, it's up to everyone else to supply you with the content that will be on the DVD.

From bios to pictures, make the other parties involved find the majority of the content, to help stymie notes later.  Nothing's worse than, on top of fixing graphic notes, being told that the bio you typed up for the lead actor needs to be redone as well.  Spread that burden around, it'll make your life marginally better.

And remember, to those of you giving the information, to make it as specific and as cut-and-paste friendly as you can.  Because while you're working on the content, the designer has more than a few technical issues to deal with....


3- "What in the hell is a square pixel?"

This was actually the bane of my existence for this whole process.  To put it simply, I built each menu 3 separate times and it was the worst thing ever.  I know what you're thinking, "just read up on it and do it right the first time."

Well, yes, that seems like the sensible course of action.  The problem, of course, is that the internet is full of misleading, out of date, or just plain contradictory information.  That is to say, every menu recreation, and subsequent failure, was followed by hours of google searching telling me what I did was wrong.  It was "fun".

Here is what I discovered, condensed and laid out with all the caveats (that I know of)

  •  If you want to make a widescreen menu for a 4:3 display (ie, if you're building a menu for 1996), then make your canvas that's 854x540p with rectangle pixels.  The rectangles are important here, because on a 4:3 display all the pixels are rectangle.  So if you want that circle to remain a circle and not become an oval, be aware.
  •  If you want to make a widescreen menu for a 16:9 display (ie, if you're building it for anyone that's bought a TV in the past 10 years), then make your canvas 1920x1080p (super HD because why not) with square pixels.  For reasons that I honestly didn't care to look up, HDTVs are apparently squared pixels even though the TVs are rectangle.  Makes no sense, but that's how it is.  PROTIP:  Just use the HDTV preset when starting a new menu in photoshop, it'll save you time and heartache.

Regardless of what resolution you're going for, don't forget to add in title-safe lines (if they're not already there).  Nothing's worse than losing half of that precious bio because of stupidness.  Do the math and take off 10% from each side and you'll be fine.

From here, it's all about design.  Do what you gotta do to make it pretty, save it, and get ready to see it in action.


4- "Let's do this!"

Building a DVD in Studio Pro is pretty straightforward.  Lay out the menus, draw on your buttons, make sure all the arrows (on the graphical interface) point both directions, and you should be ready to go.  Honestly, this is the easiest part of the job.  Just make sure all your buttons correspond and you should be good.

Really, just go read the manual if you have any issues here.  It's the one time it'll be able to answer all your questions.


5- "Mo' Layers Mo' Problems"

So, if your anything like me, you like to do fancy things with your menus.  Hidden buttons, graphics that change, buttons that light up, and all those cool things you can do with the combination of Photoshop and DVD studio pro.  It's fun, it's easy, and it's very easy to get carried away.

The thing to remember here, the thing that opened my eyes, is that for each new layer you create, DVD Studio Pro draws a new menu.  So when I designed this page:


And had separate layers for the name, the character name, the bio, the picture, AND the selector, I was really creating five new menus every time the button was activated.  It doesn't seem like a big deal, but on the back end it's making your DVD slower than it should be and ultimately lessens the user experience.

Just, do yourself a favor and merge down any frivolous layers and/or similar layers before using them as menus.   Save them as something else, of course, because you'll want the unmerged versions for edits.

Once that's all done, it's time to simulate and hear the most common question about menus on DVD studio pro....


6- "How did my beautiful menu turn into a pixelated POS?"

Remember back a few steps when I said I had to recreate my menus three times?  This is why.

There's a litany of reasons why your menu is going to look shitty DVD Studio Pro.  It might be the pixel shape (so make sure your looking at it through the right display option).  It might be the resolution (SD won't get much better than 540p, but you can ekk out some more pixel information if you make the menus in HD, or at least I was).  Or, it might be your file type.

I find, as a general rule with DVD Studio Pro that Tiffs look a whole hell of a lot crisper, cleaner, and generally better than PSDs.

So you might want to consider saving some of your menus as this higher level image type.  Some, not all.  Let me tell you why...


7- "What the hell is a Quicktime Picture?"

What's great about DVD Studio Pro, is its flexibility with menu types.  You can have a video background, a static background, or a layered menu and it's awesome.  The problem is, you can't mix the different types.

If you have a video playing for your menu, you can't layer on some sweet Photoshop Menu that you made.  It's one or the other, and more times than not, it'll become a problem for you.  Assuming, of course, that you're as ambitious as I am when it comes to DVD menu design.

What's this have to do with Tiffs?  Well, apparently Tiffs are considered a 'Quicktime Picture', which is DVD Studio Pro for 'no layers'.  It's such a tease too, because the image is so clean AND you can save the files with layers.  Unfortunately, it's the way it is.

It's just something to keep in mind.  What I did for my DVD was make all the static menus (the main page and the contact page) into Tiffs with buttons (and highlights) drawn on in DVD Studio Pro.  It's not perfect, but it does look pretty damn sharp.


8- "You want me to fix what?"

So okay, you've sweated and bleed over this damn disc to get it to the powers that be, now comes the tough part:  Notes.

There's no way around this part.  Regardless of how good you think something is, inevitably there are things that just aren't right from design tweaks ("I hate that font!") to content tweaks ("that picture is terrible!") and it's your job to be gracious, take the note, and implement it.

Receiving notes is never fun, but the sooner you understand that it's a natural part of what you're doing AND stop pushing back on all of them (it's okay to push back on a few of the dumb ones), the easier the process becomes.  And honestly, if you've done the foundation work (coming to an agreement, having them supply the information, sending them proofs of menus as you work on them), hopefully the notes will be light, and easily accomplished.

Once the whole thing is in it's final phase, it's time to do the most annoying part of all:  Quality Control


9- "Are people really going to notice that missing period?"

I'm not going to lie, I hate detail stuff.  The reason I'm a director is so I can be all big picture and work in broad strokes.  The smaller and tweakier the detail, the less and less I care about it.  It's just the way I am.  However, as a designer, I can't be that way.

The QC process, ideally, is sitting with an impartial, preferably (slightly) OCD third party and going through each part of the DVD to examine every detail.  Little things like missing punctuation, bad formatting, or just missing words are easy to miss and ultimately separate great projects from mediocre ones.

I hate it, but I'm so glad we did it.  The end result is worth it, I promise.


10- Finishing

With everything all together, approved, checked and rechecked, it's time to make that final master.  Figure out how the copies are being made (from a disc or from a disc image), generate that final form, get in the right hands, and go get a drink.  You deserve it.

Congrats, you just finished your DVD.




There it is, ten steps to making your great DVD.  I hope it helps, and more, I hope it keeps you from experiencing half the issues I had making ours.

Of course, you could always sidestep all of this and just hire a designer to make the DVD for you.  But where's the fun in that?  Right?

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