Adventures in DVD Land:
One Newbie Tells All

by Roger MacBride Allen

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This page is still in progess, but here's what I have so far.

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I have been fooling around with burning my own DVDs for a few months now, and thought it might be worthwhile to note down a few of my experiences so far, for the benefits of others who are just starting out. If you like to see a review of the DVD burner I chose, visit sony-burner.html. If you want to get a quick rundown of what to look for in several DVD authoring programs, and reviews of various products in this category, visit authoring-progs.html. Also see my quick tutorial on importing video and disk authoring.

Herewith, various general observations, in no particular order, on the subject of toasting your own video disks.


Budgets and Money

Once you have decided to plunk down the money for a DVD burner, there are other factors you need to work out before launching into DVDland, some technical and some financial.

As far as money goes, your spending has just begun once you've purchased your burner. Leaving to one side the need to get a honking huge and fast computer, you'll need to budget for blank media -- but you shouldn't buy blank DVDs in lots of a hundred -- not just at first, anyway. While the situation is improving, not every DVD player can read every type of burnable DVD. (There are five distinct types: DVD-R, DVD-R/W, DVD+R, DVD-R/W, and DVD-RAM.) If you plan to send disks to six relatives, and they have six different brands of DVD player, you might well discover that a given DVD type will work in three of their players, a second type will play in two other players, but Aunt Minnie has a player that won't read any of the disks you burn. You'll have to do experiments, and find out what works for you.

(A few notes on this issue: www.dvdrhelp.com has a database that lists compatibilities for various DVD players. Also, I have heard a good-ish number of positive comments regarding Verbatim disks. However, there are a zillion variables that could result in a disk-player combination working for someone else, and not for you, and a given brand of media could work well in one burner, and not in another -- and a given brand of media might have three or four quality grades of disk.) Keep notes on what does and does not work, and who can read what sorts of disks. (I'm working on a database to keep track of it all.)

In line with the above, you might might to budget the purchase of a set-top DVD player that can read whatever media you are using. If you're burning DVD-R/Ws, make sure your player can handle DVD-R/Ws. Better still, get a DVD player that handles ALL the formats: DVD-R/W, DVD-R, DVD+R, and DVD+R/W. And, what the hell, try for one that can handle all the region codes, and both PAL and NTSC. They are out there. A DVD player should be able to read whatever disks you throw at it. Shop around and find one that does. That way, when Aunt Minnie mails YOU a DVD, you'll be able to play it.


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It's Going to Be A Long Time Coming...

"I have wasted time and now time wastes me..." Richard II, Act V, scene v, by William Shakespeare

In other words, it is almost inevitable that, at some stage in the process of creating your disk, your computer is going to be sitting there, working at one conversion task or another, for hours, or (shudder) even days at a time. The biggest time sink is converting video. Typically, at some point, you'll have to convert an AVI file to an MPEG file. On my very very very slow system, a fifteen minute video can take four hours or more to convert. There's no solution to this, beyond getting a big, fast, machine with lots of memory, as little software as possible on it, and nice big empty hard drives. (By the way, it seems to help a lot to have TWO hard drives, one for the input file and one for the output. That way, one disk is doing read, read, read while the other is doing write, write, write. When the files are huge, a two-drive system is much zippier than forcing one drive to shift back and forth from one mode to the other: read, write, read, write, etc.. One other point, TMPEGEnc, discussed below, is allegedly optimized for a Pentium 4, which ought to speed things up some.  But no matter what you do, the computer is going to have to grind through huge files, and that just plain takes time. Hang in there. One bright spot: mostly, you can still do other things while the file conversions are running. Things might get lethargic, but you won't be screwing up the format conversion. However, it's probably wise to leave your computer completely alone, and running as few tasks as possible, when you're actually burning a disk. Otherwise, you get coasters.

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Funky Formats

There's a whole alphabet soup of file formats involved in DVD production. Let me run through what I've learned so far, bearing in mind that I'm new around here and have probably gotten some of it wrong. See also the glossary at dvdrhelp.com.


This is the usual output format for Digital Video, as captured into your computer. The key concept here is that every frame is distinct and independent: as with regular movie film, an AVI file is made of up a series of interleaved still frames and the associated audio track.


A family of file types used for compression of video and audio. (MP3 audio files are a variant of MPEG.) The name stands for nothing more that Motion Pictures Expert Group. There are various flavors of MPEG format, several of which concern us here. The big idea they all share is to compress video by saving, not individual frames, but Groups of Pictures, known as GOPs (I swear I'm not making this up.) A GOP might have 10 or 18 frames in it. One picture holds the basic picture image. The other pictures only store what is different from one frame to the next. If I am standing still, waving my hand, only the differences in the position of my hand will be recorded in these pictures. In the early days, this trick worked best when things don't move around much. When it fails, you get blocky artifacts and odds bits of picture elements floating all over the screen. Run an old software-based DVD player on a slow computer, watch a movie with a lot of explosions, and you'll likely see this sort of thing. (This also happens when digital video transmission has poor reception.) These files might have the extension mpg or mpeg.


A format for compressed video used for VCDs, distribution of short films on the Internet, and what have you. It can be set to various frame sizes, number of frames per second, degree of compression, and so on.


The MPEG video format used in DVDs. To be fully compliant with DVD, an MPEG-2 file must conform to precise standards for frames per second, frame size, and so on.

m2V, etc.

A file format which holds only the video element of an MPEG file, with no audio. Because it only hold one element of the data stream, it is a called an "elemental" file format. You might see the extension mp2 or m2v. I am not entirely clear if these are merely alternate extensions for the same file types, or if they designate distinct file types.

mpa, etc.

The audio elemental stream that corresponds to the elemental video stream above. You might see the extension mpa or m2a. I am not entirely clear if these are merely alternate extensions for the same file types, or if they designate distinct file types.


The preferred and fully standard audio format for DVDs. The free utility Besweet can be used to convert to this format. There is some sort of fuss as to whether BeSweet's AC3 files are fully compliant, but they work. There might or might not be a legal issue involved.


An uncompressed audio format used in computers, and which can be used (sometimes) in DVD as an audio stream.

Other audio types

Files of these types might also be used on a DVD: dts, aiff, pcm. Not all audio formats will work in all DVD situations.


The file format used by DVDs. A VOB file will contain the MPEG-2 video stream, the AC3, wav, or mp3 audio stream, maybe subtitles, and perhaps other data as well. Various software tools can "rip" the MPEG files back out of a VOB, (the process might also be called "demultiplexing" or "demuxing") so they can be fiddled with on your computer.


Digital Video. To be honest, I don't yet know much about DV, but it is another format used in video editing, and is at least more or less equivalent to AVI. It seems to have more than one definition.

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How to Terrify Hollywood

Here's the deal with the above formats: Once you have a given bit of video in a high-quality file in DVD-compliant MPEG-2 format you can do almost anything to it -- copy it, move from the disk to your hard drive, put it in a new complation, with little or no loss of quality. You can even do limited editing, but not with anything like the flexibility of an AVI file. (To do substantive editing, you'll probably have to convert to AVI and then back to DVD-compliant MPEG-2 -- and that will likely mean loss of quality.) It's the ability to make a perfect or near-perfect copy that scares the bejeebers out of Hollywood. (As well it should -- look what MP3s and burnable CDs have done to the music industry (and it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of folks.)

Doing an analog copy of something is far less of a threat, because every generation of copying reduces the quality. Tape a show on VHS tape, then play it back, and store that on your hard drive, and, it seems to me at least, you've got somethng like a fifth-generation copy. The original image (generation 1)  has been sent via cable or broadcast (generation 2) and written to your VHS tape (generation 3) and then played back from the tape (generation 4) before being stored in a digital format on your computer (generation 5). Each stage is a chance for noise of one sort or another to enter the system. If each generation preserves 99% of the prior generation, gen 5 will preserve about 95 percent of the original. If each generation preserves 95% percent, gen5 will be stored in your computer with about 77% percent of the quality of the original.

Decrypting DVDs is trivial with DVD Decryptor or its ilk, and that gives you the chance to put the VOB files on your hard drive and crank out perfect copies of all or part of the disk's contents.

Even worse (from Hollywood's point of view) is  that you could do a digital capture of a high-quality digital broadcast, and have DVD-quality video and audio stored on your hard drive. That would in effect mean generation 1 or 2 quality on your hard drive -- and once it is on your hard drive, you can crank out as many perfect copies as you like.

And if you can do it, so can naughty people who don't might stealing other people's creative work.

The main hope that the powers-that-be have is that making those perfect copies just isn't worth while. In order to make a dupe of, say, SPIDERMAN, you'd need a $300 to $400 DVD burner, two disks that go for about $1.50-$5 each, a $1000 to $2000 computer, lots of space on your hard drive, and, at minimum, an investment of at least as much time as it would take to just sit there and watch the damn movie. Or else, you could buy the disk for $20, or rent it for $2.

Just by the way, most commercial disks hold about twice as much data as any of the writeable DVD formats. That means a fiendish bootlegger will either have to put the movie on two disks, or eliminate some of the commercial disk's features -- or else recompress the files, degrading the image quality that was the reason for bootlegging the thing in the first place. (And then there is the not-so-minor point that many DVD players can't read DVD-Rs, and/or DVD+Rs. That sort of not-quite-compability is a headache when you're making disks for friends -- but would be a nightmare if you were trying to sell them to paying customers.)

Even if the burners and the media get cheaper (as they likely will) and the hardware gets better, faster, and cheaper (also quite likely) the numbers aren't likely to get to the point where it make sense to bootleg vast numbers of disks at home for fun and profit.

However, take it up a notch, to someone who looks to do serious commercial bootlegging, where you've crossed the line from copying disks to manufacturing them, and you've got a problem. It's not so much the Spiderman-obsessed teenager who spends 48 hours to make 12 copies of the file for all his nerdy friends -- it's the guy who make 500 of them in 12 hours, 24 hours after the commercial version is released (or even six months beforehand) and sells them to the street vendors who hawk them in Times Square. That guy is using commercial grade equipment that can crank out double-capacity disks, and he can print labels on the disks and do packaging as well -- if he feels like it.

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TMPGEnc: A Key Piece of Software


Shareware, 30-day trial, $48

It can be a good idea to split the job of producing your disks up between programs that specialize or excel at one particular part of the job.

I use Studio 8 from Pinnacle Systems (www.pinnaclesys.com) to edit my movies. I use Studio to output files in AVI format. Then I use a third-party program with the unlikely name of TMPGEnc do the conversion to DVD-compliant MPEG files. I then import the resulting files into my disk-authoring software, and then use Nero Burning ROM to do the actual disk burning.

In many ways, TMPEGEnc is the heart of the process. It generates high-quality MPEG-2 files that will be fully compliant with the DVD spec. In plain language, the files it produces look a lot better than the MPEGs produced by the all-in-one products. TMPGEnc has a nice, business-like interface, and includes a system of wizards that walk persons such as myself through the process of encoding, more or less. I won't pretend to have the faintest idea what most of the settings for this program do. There is also next to nothing at all in the help menu. There is, however, a lot of information regarding this program at:



and all sorts of stuff if you do a search at www.dvdrhelp.com.

(You're going to be spending a lot of time at www.dvdrhelp.com.)

The (extremely) short form is a lot of people seem to swear by TMPGEnc, and further that it is a Good Thing to get your video files into precisely the right format before you start authoring. Furthermore, it seems to generate far crisper, sharper, and better MPEG-2 files than the all-in-one  (video-capture/edit/disk-author/burn) programs seem to manage.

Equal time department: Cinemacraft makes Cinema Craft Encoder Basic, a competing product which some users prefer. CCE Basic will convert not only AVI, but Quicktime and DV. Both programs have demo versions available for download.

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Lots of Links 

The mention of DVDRHelp brings me to the subject of lots of other links I have found that lead to DVD information. These are in no particular order, and a lot them link to each other.



















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A Blizzard of Utilities

DVD Fab, DVD Decrypter, SmartRip, VirtualDub, BeSweet, AC3 Machine ... and who knows what all. There are zillions of freely available programs that can be used to do all sorts of things to digital video files, and to burn them to disk. You'll find a lot about all of them at the above websites. Most of these programs are completely free. Some are shareware, some ask for a donation, and some are commercial products.

There is something close to a culture surrounding these tools, that, at least to my eye, seems to shape how they are presented, how they work, what they will and won't do, how they are documented, and so on. They are very much tools for early adopters, tweakers, hackers, what have you.

Someone out there might decide he's tired of refrubulating his spim files by hand, over and over, and so he writes spim-refrib for his own use. Then he posts it to a web site. He gets suggestions for how to enhance it, or bug reports, and then posts spim-refrib .09 or some such. There are by now a half dozen web sites where the older version is available, so he sets up spim-frib.net for the purpose of distributing the latest version of his software in a more coherent way. He posts the latest versions there, and it gets up to about version 1.2.33ac before it stabilizes for a while. Users suggests features. Someone writes a front end for it, or a scripting system. Someone else notices there is no coherent documentation for the program, and decides to make that contribution -- but posts it at spim-central.net or whatever other web site has sprouted up in order to support the spimming community. Maybe spim-central.net and spim-frib.net cooperate, or maybe there is low level sniping between the sites.

And then someone studies the source code for spim-refrib version 1.24, which is posted at various websites, and two weeks later releases turbo-spim, with due acknowledgements to the original coding. Turbo-spim blows the doors off all the other spim-refribbers, and so the whole process starts again....

The result is that the programs tend to be very highly focused, and, often, very hard to use and non-inuitive, even as they attract a swarm of true believers.

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Copying DVDs

First the ethical and legal point: It's wrong and illegal to steal. Therefore,  don't use your DVD burner to steal information. There is a lot of legal murk on the question of whether it is legal to make a working or backup copy of a disk, but whatever the legalities, I can't see what's wrong with it. This article on copying DVDs article on copying DVDs from PC Magazine touches on this point, and also discusses various technical issues, and reviews a few pieces of software.

The short form is that virtually all commercial DVDs are encrypted to prevent copying, but that it took computer hackers about 47 seconds to crack the encryption. Various free and cheap programs (I won't mention DVD Decrypter or SmartRipper, or that you can find info about them at doom9.org or afterdawn.com) crack the encryption and/or rip (rip basically means to copy to another type of media, usually while changes the file format in some way) the file to your computer's hard drive. Once on your hard drive, the files are at your mercy. You can do all sorts of terrible things to them -- but mostly what you'll likely want to do is copy some or all of them back onto a burnable DVD. (If you don't want the Croation subtitles or the audio commentary in Cantonese, you can dump them.)  Again, you should not use this awesome power to be naughty, but, at least so far as I can see, you're perfectly within your rights if you want to make a working copy of what you already own.

A few gotchas.

Most commercial DVDs are two-layer disks. What this in effect means is that there are two disks stacked, one atop the other. When it is finished reading one layer, your DVD player switches automatically to the other. In theory (and usually in practice) this switch is completely smooth and seamless to the viewer.

The trouble is that burnable DVDs are all single-layer. This means that, in order to copy a complete commercial disk, you either have to use two disks, or re-encode the content such that it is of lower quality but takes up less room. Alternately you can dump the parts that you don't want, like the aforementioned Croation subtitles and the special making of the documentary of the making of the director's audio commentary video. SmartRipper, DVD Decrypter, DVD Fab, and the commercial products discussed in the PC Magazine article mentioned above, use some or all of these tricks in various ways.

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Making Compilation DVDs

There's nothing stopping you from putting together your favorite episodes of a given TV show and saving them to a DVD. Nothing, that is, except common sense. It is going to be a long, laborious process. You have to capture the video, import it to your hard drive, edit it, convert it to MPEG-2 format, run the disk authoring program, and then burn the disk. It will take hours to get it all done, and at the end, what have you got? Four episodes of Friends without commercials. Also, as seen under How to Terrify Hollywood, you are likely to wind up with about a fifth-generation copy. The best way to improve your ultimate quality is to make as few generations as possible, and to avoid analog formats during the process. Capture directly to your hard drive using a video capture/TV-Tuner card, or capture to a digital camcorder. If possible, capture from a digital satellite signal (though I don't know much about that yet). And, if possible, stop obsessing on Friends.

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Fun with Region Codes and Broadcast Standards

The following is mainly for people who travel too much, or have too many friends sending them odd DVDs from strange parts of the world. I fit into both of these categories.

DVDs can contain a region code, which is a cute little bit of computer code that only lets you play the disk if the region code in your DVD player matches the code on the disk. The region codes are as follows:

1: U.S., Canada, U.S. Territories
2: Japan, Europe, South Africa, and Middle East (including Egypt)
3: Southeast Asia and East Asia (including Hong Kong)
4: Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean
5: Eastern Europe (Former Soviet Union), Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia
6: China
7: Reserved
8: Special international venues (airplanes, cruise ships, etc.)

A "region 0" disk is one that does not have a region code on it, and it should be able to play in any DVD player.

There are also lots of DVD-players that are region-free. Either they have been built to deal with all region codes, or some hacker has come up with a way around the coding controls. (These modifications might involving opening up the player and swapping out a chip, or might be something as simple as running a series of commands with the remote control, or loading a CD-R disk with the appropriate code on it into the DVD player.) There are various region-free DVD players available. I got one from Sampo, a company that, as soon as I bought mine, sprang into action and ceased production for the U.S. However, as of this writing, they might jump back into the market. Visit the Sampo true believers website at www.area450.com to learn far more than you should.  Search the web for "region-free DVD player" or some such, and you'll see lots of places that sell such.

Fair warning: there's a pretty fair market in people buying DVD players than can be modified, doing the 30-second modification, and then selling the unit for two or three hundred bucks more than they paid for it. Certainly it's fair enough to charge something more for this service, but doubling the price is a bit much. Because I can't say for sure who is and isn't playing far in this regard, I am not going to post any links to places that sell these players just now. You should also be aware that such modifications, whoever does them, will almost certainly zorch your warranty.

On a somewhat related topic, there is the issue of broadcast standards. The main standards are PAL, NTSC, and SECAM, but for the most part people worry about PAL and NTSC. NTSC covers North America and Japan. PAL and variants cover most of Europe, South America, Australia and other bits, with SECAM in France, the former Soviet Union, East Bloc,  and some bits of Africa. Only an extremely strange person would make a PAL DVD disk with a Region 1 code, but I suppose it could be done. There is no technical connection between the two. However, if you want to watch DVDs from all over, you should be sure to get a DVD player that can read at least PAL and NTSC. Watch for a player that does the broadcast standard conversion itself (so that you don't have to get a multi-system TV). In other words, if you slap a PAL-format Region 2 disk into your DVD player that's hooked up to your NTSC televsion, your player should be able to convert to NTSC internally before it outputs the signal.

While you're shopping, watch for players that say they are VCR friendly, and/or that disable macrovision or that disable copy protection. Oversimplifying a bit, all these more or less mean the same thing: that the DVD player won't in effect jam any attempt to make a videotape copy of what's on it.

How does this play into burning your own DVDs? Well, first off, don't be annoying. Don't put a region code on your DVDs, even if your burning software allows it. Second, be aware that many DVD players and burners allow you to change their playback region codes a few times -- typically five times. There are various freeware and shareware programs out there that spoof the region codes, such that your computer's DVD drive thinks it's still playing a region 1 disk although it is reading a region 2. I'd suggest doing a little research and finding out how well the program has worked for other people with DVD drives similar to yours. You don't want to turn your DVD burner into a paperweight.

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