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If You Build It, They Will Fill It

Debbie Galante Block

February 2000 | Trust the title, not the tellers: after months of debilitating debate among replicators about whether anybody will ever want, use, or really need to take DVD to its 18GB double-layered, double-sided extreme, two new titles rendered the questions moot. Artisan Home Entertainment declared its pro-DVD-18 stance in October when it debuted The Stand, and DVD International quickly followed with Aquaria, which hit the streets in all its four-flight glory in early November. These titles instantly demonstrate DVD-18's promised versatility, since they couldn't be more different: The Stand is the DVD codification of a TV miniseries while Aquaria falls squarely in the video wallpaper category, consisting of screen footage of beautiful aquariums. What the two titles have in common is that their wealth of high bit-rate content required the space that only DVD-18 can provide.

Why all of a sudden the demand for DVD-18? According to findings propagated by Warner Advanced Media Operations (WAMO), replicators of the first DVD-18 discs and, not surprisingly, the format's most invested supporters, more and more titles are confronting the capacity limits of DVD-9. Since DVD's mantle has always been raising the bar for video and audio quality, and the higher bit rates that deliver higher quality take more space, it doesn't take much of a stretch to see titles that push the envelope aesthetically increasing their appetite for storage space.

WAMO estimates a desirable DVD movie title's bit budget for "bonus materials" like motion menus, trailers, interviews, additional scenes, Web applications, and the like at 3.5GB. Assuming that's only slightly overestimating the generosity of today's video titles (some might say it's wildly overestimating it), when you add that to 120 minutes (standard full-feature length) of video and audio encoded at a median 5.5mbps, according to WAMO, you're already maxing out 9.4GB DVD. Try encoding epics like The Great Escape or recent monstrosities like Waterworld with the same parameters and you'll kiss DVD-9 goodbye in the second act. Or try encoding a shorter film--say 100-120 minutes--at DVD's maximum 9mbps bit rate, and DVD-9 will again prove insufficient. This is the heart of WAMO's argument for DVD-18, and each point is a topic of some debate. The question remains, though: how desirable is that added video quality, and how many titles will really call for it, now that the first four-tier titles have shown the way?

DVD-9'S STP TREATMENT

The surface transfer step (STP) that distinguishes the two shipping DVD-18s from DVD-9s is a replication-process innovation of Warner's own design. Thus it remains the only demonstrated method for DVD-18 replication. So why hasn't anyone else replicated DVD-18s to date? Whether the issue is market demand or the complexity of the process is hotly debated among WAMO's competitors.

WAMO vice president for DVD operations Bill Mueller says he is confused about the controversy. "Originally, DVD was presented as a suite of products: DVD 5, 9, 10, and 18. We are just fulfilling that promise by providing DVD-18. This now gives customers the complete range of capacity options," Mueller says. Aside from WAMO's STP, for which it has a patent pending, there are other ways to manufacture DVD-18, he says, "but we use the STP technique because of its similarity to standard DVD-9 manufacturing."

Authoring for a DVD-18 is also much the same as authoring two DVD-9s, with no special requirements. Cost is a vague issue. Several factors determine the price: how much detail is put on the disc, how long it takes to design a menu and navigation, and replication. Mueller says, "Cost is very dependent on yield. Since creating DVD-18 is essentially a DVD-9 process plus an STP step, the yields should be very close to whatever your current DVD-9 yields are."

Replicators need not be scared away by the complexity of the STP process, according to Bob Headrick, executive vice president, optical media sales and marketing at Technicolor (formerly Nimbus CD International). It will be a normal learning curve, he argues. "DVD-18 is hard to produce, but so was DVD-5 at first. It takes time to iron all of the bugs out," he says.

ABOUT THE PROCESS

In essence, DVD-18 is nothing more than two DVD-9s bonded together. Replicating DVD-9s is de rigueur at this point--not to diminish the achievement, but given the discs' prevalence in the burgeoning DVD movie market, most replicators have experience with DVD-9. Thus, describing the STP process that makes DVD-18 possible (under the current Warner rubric), WAMO's Mueller emphasizes that DVD-18 discs "affirm current DVD specifications." In other words, it's nothing new. It just builds on what's already known.

The main challenge WAMO faced was transferring the layer 1 information layer to the layer 0 disc. The solution was to create an interim 0.6mm DVD-9 disc, not made of the usual polycarbonate (PC), but of polymethyl methacrylate, better known as acrylic. (Acrylic is what laserdiscs are made of.) The process is as follows: the PMMA layer 1 information surface is molded similarly to the way a PC layer 1 information layer is molded. The PMMA layer is essentially a temporary information carrier which is stripped away after transferring the information surface. Pits are still being molded and sputtered just as with DVD-9. During the STP process, the information surface is then transferred to a standard layer 0 disc with a "special" adhesive. The PMMA disc is separated from layer 1, leaving only the information transferred to the adhesive. What is created, then, is a half-thickness 0.6mm DVD-9.

Also included in this STP stage are several unique steps, including trimming and removal of the bonding adhesive; pre-separation; vacuum separation; and cleaning. "During the inspection process following the STP, the unit must be able to distinguish between any benign 'moire effects' caused by separation from legitimate defects that may increase signal jitter," Mueller explains. "This new task is in addition to the required standard defect, space layer, and tilt inspection." Rebonding, which is similar to current DVD-5 and DVD-10 bonding, is also a must to bring the two half-discs together. "Hotmelt or U.V. bonding are options for this process," Mueller adds.

"As with any new format, the big challenge is in producing higher yields," comments Technicolor's John Town. "When demand for the new format increases and results in more production, processes will be fine-tuned and yields will improve. All manufacturers faced these issues with early production of DVD-5 and DVD-9; the yields increase with production time."

Town's remarks beg the question: How many discs is WAMO actually making? "Obviously, there needs to be a credible manufacturing base installed to support large-volume titles with fast turnaround times," says Mueller. WAMO expects to increase its capacity to 50,000 DVD-18 units/day in first quarter 2000.

YOU CAN MAKE IT, BUT CAN YOU SELL IT?

Other than the complexity of this new manufacturing process, there are other downsides to DVD-18. One particularly popular gripe on the user end is that a DVD-18 has to be flipped over. In a society where people are joining gyms everyday, it's real tough for people to get off the couch to flip a disc, one replicator jokes. But it's not too far afield from the issue many say scuttled VideoCD (at least in the U.S.)--the fact that with two-hour MPEG-1 movies exceeding the capacity of a 650MB CD-ROM, you had to switch discs half way through.

Marketing issues are also of concern to those involved with DVD-18. "We've authored a number of multititle packages, e.g., five titles in one packet," says Blaine Graboyes, COO of DVD production house Zuma Digital. But there seems to be a perception that more on a disc equals less in the box. "Unfortunately, when a package gets to retail, it sells better if it has four discs rather than one DVD-18."

Another area of concern has to do with the format's label. As with double-sided DVD-10, a label cannot be put on the disc. A DVD-18 has to have a thick strip near the center of the disc that covers the burst-cutting area. This can make it kind of confusing to distinguish between the A and B sides. "We've experienced a number of playback issues with DVD-9 that will only get worse with DVD-18, such as players pausing or even crashing on layer breaks, even though they are authored correctly. The spec is so ambiguous, it really leaves a lot of room for interpretation," says Graboyes.

Sean Smith of JVC Disc America agrees that there are still some problems with DVD-9 which will carry over to DVD-18. "The biggest factor affecting DVD-9 is the varying quality levels in the various DVD hardware available. Some players will not play discs which are well within spec. The issue is not the yield or learning curve related to DVD-9 replication, but the various quality levels of some of the low-end players, which may have difficulty reading some discs."

THE MAKING OF... AND OTHER BEHIND-THE-SCENES SECRETS

"We want to try to be ahead of the curve in terms of putting out DVD products," says Jeff Fink, president, sales and marketing, Artisan Home Entertainment. The reason behind the company's decision to move forward with the new format was simple: "We had gotten word that the DVD-18 technology was adaptable and ready to be used." Since The Stand is one of the most popular, most requested miniseries released on video, and it's about six hours long, "we thought it was perfect for DVD-18." In addition to the movie, this DVD offers supplemental material like "The making of..." behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the cast, and a commentary by Stephen King.

"Production and replication went very smoothly. Of course, there's a longer time element involved in terms of replicating the product, and that should be planned for in your timetable," Fink says. He declined to comment on cost factors involved in this project.

Artisan is already looking to the future with its plans to produce at least three more DVD-18s in the first part of 2000. They include: the miniseries "Lonesome Dove," "Twin Peaks," and a new millennium edition of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Richard Diercks of The Richard Diercks Co., Inc. not only owns the content of Aquaria, but also authored it. DVD International distributes the title for Diercks. Aquaria features over 20 hours of imagery and sound: video-wallpaper tropical fish images, combined with four different audio tracks, including two Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks. It is a DVD-Video/ROM hybrid, and in DVD-ROM mode there are fishographies of all the fish presented, which can be downloaded and printed from the computer.

Also available in DVD-ROM mode are fish screen savers, a full-function calendar, and Web links to related fish-oriented sites. "I had originally thought about Aquaria as a DVD-9 because DVD-18 didn't exist," Diercks says. The availability of DVD-18 manufacturing technology, combined with Warner's proposed business strategy, however, changed his mind. "Although DVD-18 is expensive, WAMO is not pricing it a developmental product," Diercks says. Out-of-pocket costs for Aquaria were probably less than $25,000, Diercks says. "If someone were to hire us to put together a DVD-18, I'd think we could do the whole project for $75,000. There's not much difference in the final price whether you do a DVD-9 or a DVD-18," he adds.

EIGHTEEN AND COUNTING, OR HDTV BLUES?

Most authoring studios and replicators contacted for this article declined to comment about DVD-18, either because they don't know enough about it, or because they scoff at the idea that anyone will ever need it. Many replicators feel that the next capacity jump will bypass DVD-18's incremental gain for the exponentially wider frontier of blue laser because the forthcoming optical technology can handle high-definition television, whereas DVD cannot. And if on-demand, high-definition television is indeed the next step for video, DVD's key advantage--distributability--won't matter.

Moreover, DVD's maximum instantaneous bit stream data rate of 9mbps (as defined in the video spec) is nearly three times slower than the 19.4mbps required for high-definition television. In March 1999, Technicolor announced plans to manufacture DVD-18s. But, according to Headrick, "there are still some technical issues going on. We've done some test samples," he says, but offers no date of when commercial titles will be in full production.

Despite its limitations, DVD-18 would seem to be the perfect archival format and, according to Zuma's Graboyes, clients looking for back-end video storage are the ones most eagerly awaiting its unveiling. However, WAMO's Mueller says he expects commercial video applications to be the first area of interest, with application software and video games following behind.

Although none of his clients has asked for DVD-18 just yet, JVC's Smith says, "DVD-18 is supposed to be applicable to all replicators, so I believe at some point, every replicator will be involved with the format. DVD-18 will be viable at some point within the next two years, albeit in a very small portion of the market," he predicts. "My forecast would be less than 5 percent until Hollywood starts marketing movies in excess of four hours, or begins releasing boxed sets en masse."

Technicolor's Headrick agrees that there will be a need for DVD-18, and probably not so far into the future as some might think. "Right now, a lot of people are just interested in being the first one out on the block. But, think back a few years: the evolution from floppy to CD and CD to DVD was remarkably short. No one thought they could fill up a floppy or a CD at first. It will be the same for DVD-18," he says.

Diercks puts it this way: "When was the last time you had enough disc space? Three months after you get your new computer, you're already looking for more space. When it comes to capacity, if it is there, they will fill it."


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Artisan Home Entertainment
2700 Colorado Avenue, 2nd Floor, Santa Monica, CA 90404; 310/449-9200; Fax 310/255-3880; http://www/artisanent.com

JVC Disc America
9255 West Sunset Boulevard, Suite 717, Los Angeles, CA 90069; 310/274-2221; Fax 310/274-4392; http://www.jvcdiscusa.com

The Richard Diercks Company, Inc.
420 North 5th Street, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55401; 612/334-5900; Fax 612/334-5907

Technicolor
P.O. Box 7427, Charlottesville, VA 22901; 804/985-1100; Fax 804/985-4625; http://www.nimbuscd.com

Warner Advanced Media Operations
1400 Lackawanna Avenue, Olyphant, PA 18448; 717/383-3577; Fax 717/383-9824; http://www.WAMODVD.com

Zuma Digital
59 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011; 212/741-9100; Fax 212/741-1605; http://www.zumadigital.com


Debbie Galante Block (debgalante@aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Mahopac, New York.

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