Thursday, April 05, 2007

How to Design DVD Menus Like a Pro

You have created a brilliant video. You have utilized a insightful combination of images, graphics, and sound to truly convey your message to the public. Now it would be nice if they could see it. Out of the many ways to distribute your video, maybe you have chosen DVD. Full Resolution video and nonlinear interactivity make DVD-video a wonderful distribution choice.

If it is executed properly, that is.

One of the major issues with creating graphics for DVD menus, much like creating graphics for within your video, is that they will be translated to NTSC video. This translation is the biggest problem I see when reviewing amateur DVD menus.

The most confusing issue is pixel size. Computer monitors use square pixels. Television monitors, on the other hand, use rectangular pixels. If not handled properly, your final menu may become distorted. You should start with a 720x540 size to design your menu images and then resample the menu to 720x480 when you are ready to take your final product to DVD.

Photoshop Tip: Photoshop CS has a rectangular pixel setting in the pixel aspect ratio selection on the Image pull-down menu. Use this setting and you can keep your size at 720x480.

Another issue arises from safe title. I am sure we all know that, unlike computer applications, video displays cut off a percentage of the edge of the screen. Menu text should always be at lease 10 percent from the edge, all critical elements should be at lease 5 percent from the edge, and the background should extend all the way to the edge. This assures nothing will be cut off when viewed on all television monitors.

Photoshop Tip: When you create a new file in Photoshop CS, you can choose the "NTSC DV with guides" setting. This will provide you with the action safe and title safe guides.

Interlacing can also create problems. Because a video image uses two interlaced fields to create one frame, a distinctive "jittering" effect can be created by using extremely thin horizontal colors. This is particularly important when choosing your text. As a rule, be sure that the horizontal bars in your text are more than one pixel tall. Also, watch the contrast between your text color and the background. "Jittering" or "crawling" can also be limited if you keep your highly saturated reds and blues to a minimum.

Photoshop Tip: Photoshop CS has a video filter called NTSC colors. Use this to limit the saturation on you reds and blues.

How a DVD menu is put together can be just as important as how it looks. A poorly executed DVD menu can be frustrating to understand and to navigate. This can result in a poor experience for the final user. Due to the size and resolution of NTSC video, there is a relatively small area with which to work. This means that it is not desirable to try to squeeze too many buttons on one page. If your buttons have text only representations, I would recommend no more than 12 buttons on a page. If your buttons include a thumbnail of the video, much like chapter menus often do, then 6 should be your maximum. If you have more chapter selections than this, consider splitting the choices between multiple pages with "next" and "previous" buttons. Be sure not to make your text too small, as it will be hard to read.

Next, you have to program the directional controls. Most programs offer an automatic directional programming by trying to figure out the closest button in any given direction. I do not recommend this approach as sometimes the closest button is not the best choice. It is easier for a user to navigate if you minimize the need to change the direction button they are using on their remote. This means that if your menu choices are displayed from top bottom make sure that by continually hitting the down button on the remote that your user visits each choice, even though one of the choices may be slightly to the left or right. This way the user does not have to move their finger to another button on the remote and try to follow a navigation maze to their choice. The bottom choice should then jump back to the top when the down button is selected again. In this manner the final user really only needs one button to go to any choice they desire. This should also apply if, in general, your menu choices have a right to left flow.

Chapter selection menus, as well as any other menu that has a numerical order, should be navigated in that order. This means that no matter how you have the menu buttons arranged on the page, when you navigate right, or down, from chapter one it should go to chapter two. If your chapters are arranged in a grid, navigating right from the end of a row should send you to the first choice in the next row. Sometimes this is not directionally logical, but it make your menu much easier to navigate.

Now, lets discuss auto-action buttons. These can add to your menu that brings it up to the next level of functionality. Suppose you are navigating right to left through your chapter selections and you reach the last selection on your page. The next chapter selection is the first button on the next menu. You can take the right navigation from the last selection on the previous page and link it to a hidden auto-action button that takes the user to the next menu page and the next chapter selection button. This way the user only needs one button to navigate down the entire list of chapter selections.

Finally, here is a little known fact about how menus are put together. There are actually two ways to make a menu work. The first and most common is with a sub-picture. A sub-picture allows for certain areas of your menu to be highlighted with up to three colors. This can result in certain areas to be lit up or change color, or you can make a very simple bitmap image appear next to the menu choice. However, there is a second way that menus can work. You will find this way in use on the Lord of the Rings DVDs or the Loony Tune Gold collection of DVDs. Both these titles utilize many hidden auto-action buttons. Each selection actually takes you to another menu entirely. In this way you can make almost any change happen when navigating through your choices. Whole pictures can change or you can make a very complex image move next to the menu choice. The main reason that I rarely recommend using this second approach is that the menus are incredibly slow. Moving down a list of chapter sections can border on tedious. Menus designed like this can look very flashy, but at what price?

By keeping these few things in mind, you should be able to create an attractive user friendly menu and look like a pro while doing it.



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