Macs bring Lord of the Rings, other DVDs to life

Given their complexity and breadth of scope, typical Special Edition DVD releases often begin production well before their movie counterparts are complete. The head start gives DVD producers time to shoot and assemble bonus materials so that the disc is ready for store shelves several months after the movie opens in theaters. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that DVD producer Robert Myer Burnett, a self-described "Mac boy all the way" since 1984, has been visiting the set of Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in New Zealand despite the fact that the film will be released in December 2005.

What may be a surprise, however, is that Burnett told MacCentral that the set is "Mac'd out," complete with AirPort wireless networking covering a set the size two football fields, a Cinema Display for the director of photography to check color balance and even an iSight camera for the second unit director to use when showing director Andrew Adamson the progress of his shots. Feeling right at home, Burnett pulled out his PowerBook, clipped his iSight to it and began showing and telling his employees at Ludovico Technique in Los Angeles what was happening on the set, including impromptu conversations with the cast and crew.

"I have Avid Xpress Pro, After Effects, Illustrator and Photoshop loaded in my PowerBook," said Burnett, who knew many of the Narnia crew from his work on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers Extended Edition DVD sets. "I can shoot stuff and dump it into the laptop for editing right there on the set. It's a one-stop shop -- I can start and finish all the content for a DVD on Mac."

One Man in a One-Stop Shop

Not all DVD producers head to the set to complete their work. It's an impossible task for some, considering that movie studios are putting a lot of effort into releasing classic films on the format. But most of them share one trait in common: They use Macs.

Witness Van Ling, who recently completed work on the upcoming box set of the original Star Wars trilogy and who has produced many other best-selling DVDs, including the two Star Wars prequel releases, Terminator 2: The Ultimate Edition and more. "My Mac evangelism is perhaps a bit less zealous than in the early days," he said, "but I still find the Mac more elegant [than the PC] in its interface and design.

"What I really like, though, is that Mac and PC users can trade files with much greater ease than in the old days, when people thought you were nuts for using a Mac in a PC-dominated world. When it comes to high-end studio DVDs, the professional facilities we DVD producers often work with are mostly PC-based in their authoring and compression pipeline, but almost always Mac-based in their creative departments."

A one-man shop, Ling currently employs a Power Mac G4 and a Power Mac G5 with 2GB and 2.5GB of RAM, respectively, as he uses Adobe Photoshop, After Effects and Illustrator, along with Electric Image, to bring his menu designs and other graphic creations to life. When necessary, he pulls out Final Cut Pro for video editing.

Final Cut Pro or Avid?

Many in the DVD business use Final Cut Pro or its competitor, Avid, and those applications form the common thread that ties these producers to the Mac, which all acknowledge is well-suited for working with digital video. For example, Charles de Lauzirika, who produced last year's massive Alien Quadrilogy set for Fox and recently completed work on Spider-Man 2 Special Edition, with Ridley Scott's epic Kingdom of Heaven on the horizon, works with a Mac-based team that edits with Avid while he runs Photoshop and Illustrator on his Power Mac G5 to create on-screen graphics for his documentary materials. He also uses Imagination to create flowcharts that show how a disc's navigation will work and occasionally launches Ultimatte to place backgrounds in interviews shot in front of green screens.

"I welcome the warm, fuzzy comfort of a Mac to get me through the day," Lauzirika said. "It's not that you can no longer create the same content on a PC. You can. It's just that Macs allow you to do it a bit easier, in style, which in turn inspires you to new heights."

"I've been using Macs since the beginning of my career," added Automat's Jeffrey Schwarz, who recently put together the Martin Scorcese box set for Warner Bros. and is working on the upcoming release of Elf for New Line. "When I started my company in 2000, I stuck with Mac because I was an early adopter of Final Cut Pro and the people who were working with us were comfortable with that set-up."

Like Lauzirika, Schwarz has made the move to Power Mac G5 computers -- Dual 2GHz models with 2GB of RAM occupy Automat's five editing rooms. "Most of my business is post-production," he observed, "which means we do a lot of rendering. I need machines that can behave as quickly as our editors can think." When necessary, he uses DVD Studio Pro to create demo discs of the company's output for personal use.

The efficiency theme was echoed by David Naylor, who has produced all three seasons of the TV show Alias for Buena Vista Home Video, among other projects, with Final Cut Pro and other applications. "I've almost completely phased out Avid," he said. "We've been using Macs for two years because they're affordable and they're easy to use."

The ROM Problem

Despite the Mac's ubiquity in all these producers' offices, however, it's ironic that they can't play the DVD-ROM content found on many DVD releases. Look at the vast majority of DVDs with such files and you'll find this warning on the back of the case: "DVD-ROM features are not available on Apple Mac OS." Much of this content uses InterActual Technologies' InterActual Player, which only worked on Windows until the release of Mac OS X v10.3, enabling InterActual to produce a player that allowed playback of some DVD-ROM content. The Mac version continues to lag behind, however, and many ROM-enhanced DVDs still only work on Windows.

"It's certainly a bone of contention with me," acknowledged Burnett. "It's hard to work in an industry where I'm on a Mac all day and then I have to create ROM content that doesn't support the Mac. The iPod, though, has gotten to people who don't use Macs, so maybe there's still hope."

"When I produced the Independence Day Special Edition in 2000," added Ling, "I made a big stink about how Apple's PowerBook could save the world in the movie but couldn't play back the DVD-ROM content. My understanding is that there were cost and programming spec issues with Apple that were preventing the kind of open process that made it possible for PCs to take point in that area. I know that the studios really don't care as much about ROM features as they do about getting a link to their Web site working. And some studios stay away from ROM content because they don't want the tech support calls."

Ling continued: "The only way [complete compatibility] is going to happen in earnest is if there are people who figure out how to at least make a small profit doing it, and Apple is willing to do more than concede this segment of the market to PCs, at least for now. Apple seems to have this frog-like propensity to sit there as incremental developments on the PC leave the Mac further and further behind, then make this giant leap forward that smokes the competition, gets the publicity, sets consumers abuzz and lands them ahead of the pack."

With the next generation of DVD media, whether it will be Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, around the corner and technology inexorably marching forward, only time will tell how Macs and home video continue to converge in the future.

This story, "Macs bring Lord of the Rings, other DVDs to life" was originally published by PCWorld.

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