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the editor's spin

Too Long in Exile

Stephen F. Nathans

February 2000 | Back in high school, I used to buy LP records, and one of the great things about those "long-playing" platters is they played just short enough (30-35 minutes) to keep me mesmerized through the entire magical first listen by the cover art and the liner notes. The onslaught of the CD era has all but eliminated this sacred ritual, as album length has increased in inverse proportion to cover art quality (what's the point of squeezing a cool picture or design into that shrunken square?) and inventive liner notes. The best you get these days is a lyric sheet, which seems to miss the point entirely--if we were meant to understand the words, all-time classics like "Louie Louie," "Wooly Bully," and "Tumbling Dice" wouldn't be the marvels of inscrutability that they are.

On '60s records, what you typically got instead of a lyric sheet (before the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, that is) was often some kid-friendly, voice-of-a-generation journalist like Nat Hentoff hammering home the zeitgeist with a maximum of pop allusions and hyperbole and a minimum of subtlety or irony. And I couldn't get enough of it. One that sticks with me was Ralph J. Gleason's essay on the back of Simon and Garfunkel's, Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme. The writer was talking up how articulate and graceful Paul Simon's songwriting had become, and lauded Simon, Bob Dylan, and others for taking popular songwriting "out of the hands of the hacks and reclaiming it for the poets." Of course what he really meant was that by using phrases like "gently tapping litany" and trotting out mope operas like "The Dangling Conversation," Simon was translating pop songwriting into the language of northern, middle class, psycho-babbling white lit majors.

The music that had dominated the pop charts to date had indeed been in the hands of "hacks," in that it was created in "Tin Pan Alley," a corporate office building in New York called the Brill Building, by writers who may have had all the originality, talent, and heart in the world, but were commissioned to crank out formulaic songs assembly-line style in much the same manner as their jingle-writing counterparts on Madison Avenue. And they did indeed produce great songs well into the rock era. What changed in the '60s was that pop songwriting began to transcend the corporate culture of Tin Pan Alley and involve writers as committed to art and ambition as to craft and cash. We could soon find ourselves undergoing a similar transition in DVD authoring, if fortune smiles on us. Remember the heyday of CD-ROM authoring, when terms like "object-oriented" and "media aesthetics" were serious considerations of the talented creative types plying their trade in the burgeoning format? Some of the best minds of a generation were plumbing the possibilities of interactive multimedia, using powerful tools like Macromedia Director, mFactory mTropolis, and Strata MediaForge to push the media's limits in all sorts of inventive ways. There was actually something strongly resembling art to authoring in those days.

But the titles didn't sell. CD-ROM was too slow, processors weren't powerful enough, and there was some fundamental psychological disconnect between interactive entertainment, the computer keyboard, and the clunky operating system that spelled its doom. Given CD-ROM's failure as an entertainment medium (not to mention a training, sales, video, and enhanced music medium), the creative code-hounds who had cut their teeth on it fled to the Web, and poured their energies, efforts, and aesthetic ambitions into Java applets and the like.

So it was no surprise when DVD came out that the new authoring tools and systems weren't really designed or marketed the way CD-ROM authoring tools had been. Object-orientation coding gave way to basic asset management and VOB support. The first was Daikin's Scenarist, a $100,000 system whose initial target audience was the major film studios transporting their major releases to DVD; beyond its prohibitive pricing, its NT orientation ruled out of the interactive multimedia CD-ROM authoring old guard, who were a decidedly Macintosh bunch.

In the last year, the market has diversified, and targeted different types of potential DVD authors. After saturating Hollywood and high-end post-production, vendors took aim on various corporate markets. As well they should have--sales and training and DVD are a perfect match, much as those markets would have been for CD-i if the set-tops had sold.

But that still leaves interactive media's most fertile talent pool untapped. 2000 should be a year of tremendous growth for corporate DVD, as early indications from the post community bear out. But those applications are the province of "presentation" tools and techniques, akin to the flat, elementary asset management authoring class deployed by CD-ROM's hackiest adherents--not necessarily lesser talents per se, but authors who applied what talent they had to essentially functional ends.

Recent conversations with some of the leading DVD authoring system vendors have nearly convinced me that the power and flexibility that challenged and inspired CD-ROM authors in Director and mTropolis is indeed to be found in DVD authoring tools, but nobody has used it yet.

What will it take to attract that kind of talent, and engender title design and development that will do DVD proud? Perhaps it's a different marketing approach from the tool vendors, or perhaps it will be a natural outgrowth of the increasing emphasis on DVD-Web hybrids, with the Web forming the bridge back to physical delivery media. Maybe the answer is to be found in "smart" set-tops that provide the power and flexibility of DVD-ROM in an unintimidating PC-free environment if they do catch on. Perhaps some kind of initiative can be started within the fledgling DVD A, a developer re-orientation program that might re-invigorate that mid-'90s L.A. authoring scene with some DVD desire. However we get them back, it will surely be a welcomed return.


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