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Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster “Munich” missed out on nominations for the BAFTA (British Film Academy) awards in January this year because of a massive DVD error. Despite being elected to the BAFTA board of governors in 2001, it seems he still hasn’t worked out that the special DVD players, supplied by Cinea to the BAFTA members, only play the encrypted DVD’s if they are mastered for Region 4 (Europe). The screener for Spielberg’s film, not only arrived to the voters late, missing the first round voting deadline, but had been mastered for Region 1 (North America). Very handy if you live in North America, absolutely useless for anyone else, rendering the film completely unplayable for the 3,000+ voting members.
Header images: dvd logo, dvd's, bluray disc
Original publication: Desktop Magazine 2007
Republished with permission
Similar mistakes are being made by filmmakers all over the world. For some, it is a DVD copy error. For others it might be that they have used the wrong DVD format. In some cases the DVD just fails due to any number of hardware errors, or the picture quality is so poor that the film becomes unwatchable. Whatever the issue for the DVD, the ultimate problem resides with the festival Directors who are faced with the problem of chasing up further copies of the film or simply trashing the received disc and notifying the producer that they have been unsuccessful. Most festival Directors are electing for the latter – citing time and cost as significant hurdles in chasing what has become for some, nearly 50% of their received submissions.

DVDs seem attractive

DVD-Video has a number of attractive features for filmmakers. A DVD can hold over 2 hours of high-quality digital video and will support widescreen on standard or widescreen TVs (4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios). A DVD will maintain up to 8 tracks of digital audio (for multiple languages, commentaries, etc.), each with as many as 8 channels. There may be anywhere up to 32 subtitle/karaoke tracks, and up to 9 camera angles (different viewpoints) that can be selected during playback. DVDs are not susceptible to magnetic fields, are resistant to heat, have a compact size which makes them easy to handle, store and ship, replication is cheaper than tapes or laserdiscs and they are non-comedogenic. What more could a filmmaker ask? How about the confidence that the film they just spent months, or more often years, in developing will actually be seen.

Malcolm Turner, Director of the Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF) and program/curator of several other international festivals, says “I receive 1500 entries a year for MIAF. The percentage of DVD entries is increasing dramatically every year and is causing enormous problems. Approximately 1 in 5 simply does not play and now that perhaps half of the entries are on DVD that means that about one quarter of entries never get seen by the jury. The problem is so significant, that I am beginning to wonder if I can actually program the festival to an adequate standard. I can easily envisage, and in fact am planning, for the day when my festival will have to be abandoned simply because unplayable DVDs make it impossible to program.”

DVD has widespread support from all major electronics companies, all major computer hardware companies, and all major movie and music studios. With this unprecedented support, DVD had become the most successful consumer electronics product of all time in less than three years of its introduction. So what goes so terribly wrong?

Physical error

Firstly we need to understand the different types of DVD media available. DVD-ROM is the base format that holds data. DVD-Video (often simply called DVD) defines how video programs such as movies are stored on disc and played in a DVD Video player or a DVD computer. DVD-ROM includes recordable variations: DVD-R/RW, DVD-RAM, and DVD+R/RW. The application formats include DVD-Video, DVD-Video Recording (DVD-VR), DVD+RW Video Recording (DVD+VR) and a number of DVD Audio and Stream Recording formats.

DVD -R and +R cause the most problems for filmmakers. There is a long story about the differences, but the short one is DVD+R was originally designed for computer data and DVD-R was for burning movies compatible with stand alone players. There are a myriad of complaints and issues surrounding DVD+R. The trick seems to lie in changing the “Book Type” bit on each DVD+R disc to “DVD-ROM”. However, the overwhelming recommendation is to toss them and use DVD-R wherever possible.

All DVDs, just as laserdisc did before them, can have delamination problems (movement along the bond between layers of the disc breaking the seal), partly because some cases or players hold too tightly to the hub. Delamination by itself can cause problems, because the data layer is no longer at the correct distance from the surface, and can also lead to oxidation. Delamination may appear as concentric rings or a “stain” around the hub.

The result of deterioration is that a disc which played perfectly when it was new develops problems later, such as skipping, freezing, or picture breakup. If this happens there is nothing you can do to fix it!

Duplication Error

However, most adhoc authored DVD’s suffer video degradation that has nothing to do with any physical fault of the media. Whilst most authoring software makes the process of creating a DVD relatively simple, it is often at the expense of quality and reliability.

Andrew Hagan, Snr Lecturer in Multimedia & Animation at CSU helps explain the problem, “when a DVD is published it conforms to the MPEG-2 standard, which employs a lossy codec in order to fit the media on disc. Like its predecessor JPEG, it bases its compression on perception rather than accuracy. The encoder determines temporal (full) and spatial (between) frames, divides the images into blocks, approximates pixel differences, records colour as chunks, and makes heavy estimations about how the image moves. In short, unless the author understands and can customize the MPEG encoder the chances are they’re using the default bog-standard settings, which can result in poor video transfer.”

Film plays at 24FPS (frames per second), PAL video at 25FPS and NTSC video at 29.97FPS. PAL and NTSC typically contain two interlaced fields to draw each frame but progressive frame display (like film) is becoming more common. Hagan explains, “Animators tend to record at 12FPS or 15FPS and if the conversion is not professionally handled then quality of the new video deteriorates. Sadly, few people are aware of how this affects the print because the process of how many frames are dropped, repeated or blended to make the conversion work is minor to the untrained eye.”

Region Lockout

Technically there is no such thing as a region zero disc or a region zero player. There is such a thing as an all-region disc. There are also all-region players. Some players can be “hacked” using special command sequences from the remote control to switch regions or play all regions. Some players can be physically modified (“chipped”) to play discs regardless of the regional codes on the disc. This usually voids the warranty, but is not illegal in most countries. In general, region codes don’t apply to recordable DVDs. A DVD that you make on a PC with a DVD burner or in a home DVD video recorder will play in all regions. As an interesting aside, on Feb. 7, 2001, NASA sent two multiregion DVD players to the International Space Station.

Venues wont play DVDs

More and more venues now simply ban DVDs from being used in public screenings. Turner remarks “apart from their utterly atrocious reliability, they are next to impossible for the poor projectionist to use in a festival such as MIAF, which is made up of programs featuring 12-20 short films. A betacam tape can simply be cued to the right spot (generally with the timecode as a marker) but DVDs have no uniform method for cueing and starting. Some go straight into the film the instant they start, some require the operator to go through multiple menus, some repeat automatically at the conclusion of the film, some simply stop.”

Festivals can’t afford to accept DVDs

Since universal technical standards don’t yet exist for burning and copying DVDs, the Sundance Film Festival, along with many major festivals, have needed to stipulate conditions upon which a DVD may be submitted, which include the following:
  • DVDs should be submitted in plastic safe cases. These are the industry standard push-button hub, literature clip, full sleeve for artwork, dark plastic cases. Size is 5 ¼ “ by 7 ½”. No other cases of any kind will be accepted. If you do send an alternate case it will be discarded and replaced. Please don’t waste money or efforts on artwork that fits other cases.
  • DVDs must be formatted for Region 1 or 0/North America. No other regions are accepted in the submission process, including international projects.
  • DVDs must be formatted in MPEG video using the codec of your choice. Neither QuickTime (.mov) or Microsoft (.avi) DATA files are accepted.

Turner says of his festivals in Australia and the UK “we plead with people not to send us DVD submissions. We’re currently trying tough love – if you submit on DVD and it fails it will simply be binned forthwith without further correspondence.” Unfortunately even this strategy doesn’t seem to be working. “I had one significant school send me their graduates compilation on a DVD that failed. I contacted them, told them about it, asked for a VHS tape and they immediately sent me another DVD – which didn’t really work either – it worked better, but I’ve spent perhaps 8 hours trying to grab one film at a time off it.”

Festivals are being financially crippled by the conversion costs. The venues wont play DVDs so they have to be converted onto a betacam. Turner explains “My program dubbing costs have gone from $0 to about $6,000. For a festival like MIAF that’s a huge hit. That represents a couple of great guests, renting some rare archival footage, more marketing to make the festival more successful, staff to get more stuff done, but DVDs are single handedly crippling my budget, diminishing my ability to program the festival, reducing screening opportunities for filmmakers and reducing the potential that the festival offers its audience.”

Archival problems From an archival point of view, DVDs provide a combination of ongoing problems. For MIAF05 Turner explains “..some time between when we selected and when I packed up the shelf that contained the copies of all the films in competition (i.e. the visual record of our festival) about half of the copies on DVD had become unplayable. I doubt that in 2 or 3 years any of them will be playable and the record (or the archive) of the festival will be lost.”

Similarly, saving a segment from a DVD can be a horrendous affair. Firstly, the MPEG-2 file is no longer easily accessible because it’s been muxed down into one stream commonly referred to as a VOB file. The process has to be reversed through the difficult extraction of the VOB file and usually some form of demuxing and splitting the file to get an exact MPEG-2 copy. Hagan comments, “If the person authoring the DVD was foolish enough to employ region encoding on non-conventional DRM then you’ve got another world of hurt.”

Hagan surmises, “When DVDs work they are absolutely perfect and when they don’t, utterly useless. There are no shades of gray in the digital world; it’s either one or zero. There are hundreds of desperate anecdotal remedies to salvage data from a corrupted disc but in virtually all instances you are best to contact the original author rather than hope for miracles.”

The future

“In a colossal display of ignorance, many journalists have recently spread the marketing hype that DVD is officially dead and we should embrace a new era of HD” comments Hagan. “Yes, HD is coming but DVD isn’t going anywhere. Unlike the CD and DVD format preceding it, there are two camps at war over the next generation of HD standard. Early adopters will be badly burnt as Blu-Ray and HD-DVD causes the biggest consumer headache since Betamax versed VHS.

HD technology virtually eliminates legacy analogue equipment. There is no contest for a BetaSP tape with 768x576 resolutions against HD material in full 1920 x 1200 glory. This monumental leap in viewing quality is now readily accessible to the average consumer with the main brands allowing HD capture and editing at modest prices. New TV’s, Plasma, LCD’s, and projectors dominating the home theatre scene expect higher resolution. Computing technology can more readily adapt but analogue equipment remains locked into the specifications of the day.”

Finally, the advice Spielberg’s PR company should be marketing fairly heavily, “If you absolutely, positively want to be sure that anyone and everyone can view your film, no matter how old their DVD player, what brand of DVD player they have, whether they are using a DVD player at all or playing DVDs on their computer and what technology they use .. send them a VHS.”

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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