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Designing Menus for Blu-ray

Van Ling

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#1 of 23 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted July 20 2008 - 12:37 AM

Hi Van!

Have you moved on to designing menus for Blu-ray titles these days?

If so, is there a major difference between designing a menu for
DVD and the same for BD?

 

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#2 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted July 22 2008 - 04:33 PM

The first thing to recognize is that BD is supposed to be a fundamentally different viewer experience from normal DVD in that the format is predicated on menus that can run concurrently with the film. Whereas the DVD format meant you were either in the menu system or in the content but not in both, BD has been touted as “interactive” in having menus that can be called up at will over the content, which means that the menus are less like a separate artform that commands your full attention when you are in the navigation system and more like a supportive “service menu”-type graphic that overlays the image. As a result, the menus tend to be more utilitarian and less flashy so as not to compete with the film content being displayed under it. While there is still room for artistic expression and creative work, the menus are now a supporting player rather than the star of a separate opening act as it was in DVD. You have to take this into account when designing menus for BD-J, and take advantage of the benefits of the new programming capabilities.

There is also a physical limitation in creating menus in BD-J, and that’s the buffer size for the graphics. In DVD, this was generally never a problem, because the bulk of the menu image was contained in video space, not graphic space. When the player loads a set of graphic elements to be used in a BD-J menu system, there is a limit to the amount of graphics that can be buffered at the same time… it’s roughly equivalent to five HD frames worth of elements (5 x 1920 x1080 pixels). This load of graphics is called an epoch, and anything in a loaded epoch can be instantly accessed by the viewer. If your menu graphics in total take up more space than the buffer can hold, it means some of your menu graphics cannot be loaded at the beginning, and must be swapped into the buffer when needed, which currently takes time. You can divide your menu graphics into multiple epochs, but only one can be loaded at a time, and there is a pause (sometimes a significant one, depending upon the player) when dumping one epoch out of the buffer and loading another into it. Since you generally want your menus to react quickly to the viewer’s remote operations, the general goal is to try to fit all of your menus into one epoch. If you have complex menus or a lot of chapter thumbnails, this can be a challenge.

Anything you can do for DVD menus can be translated pretty much directly to Blu-ray (you can easily do a video background with a graphic subpicture overlay), but if you do that, you aren’t really taking advantage of BD-J’s programming capabilities. From an artistic standpoint, you generally want to make the BD menus more than just a higher-resolution port of the DVD menus, but if you want to do it, you’re basically going to be dumbing down the BD menus so that they are compatible with the DVD format.

Another thing to keep in mind is that HD is higher resolution than SD, which means text can be smaller onscreen and still be legible in Blu-ray. If you are trying to make the menus identical between DVD and BD, then you’re going to have to make the text big enough to read in SD, which isn’t always as elegant and efficient on BD. Again, if you want to take advantage of Blu-ray as a format, you should be doing designs that highlight the strengths of the format –like the higher resolution—rather than limit yourself to the parameters of DVD.

Essentially, you have to realize that menu graphics for BD-J are a lot more like doing web graphics than like doing video graphics, so you have to design the menus to cater to the idea of cutting up your graphics into pieces, playing with scaling and translation of graphic elements, and creating button states, all while keeping a close eye on the buffer usage. Don’t create menus that are full-screen in the graphics layer; if you want full screen, do the majority of it in the video layer as a background and only put the buttons in the graphics layer. If anything, I think one of the common design mistakes is as much to oversimplify the menus as to make them too complex. It is imperative to understand the format’s capabilities enough to be able to optimize the use of BD-J. Don’t just make it look like a higher-resolution version of DVD. And recognize that there is a difference between complex and complicated… the former means depth and richness, while the latter means confusion and frustration, so it is important to find where the line is drawn between them. Remember, the point of menus is to give viewers an easy way to get from one place to another, and hopefully get them in the proper mood for the content.

Hope this helps,

V

#3 of 23 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted July 22 2008 - 09:10 PM

Great, insightful answer. Thank you.

Without having to get title specific, are you designing BD menus presently?

 

Ronald J Epstein
Home Theater Forum co-owner

 

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#4 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted July 23 2008 - 08:55 AM

Not at this very moment, but I'm in the process of getting projects greenlit that will be in need of BD menu design. To be honest, menu design on BD is somewhat less interesting to me than other aspects of BD at this point, because unlike some of the stuff I created for DVD, where the menus could be an artform into themselves and commanded your full attention when they were on the screen, menus on BD are pretty much considered to be supportive service menus, no matter how you look at it... and there are now a lot of folks who can do such menus better than I can! ;-)

V

#5 of 23 OFFLINE   Felix Martinez

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Posted August 21 2008 - 02:07 AM

Very interesting. I'm probably in the minority; while I'm not ultra-hardcore about this like David Lynch (he doesn't like chapter selection menus, but I think he's come around to at least having chapter markers to skip thru), I prefer simple, elegant menus that:

1) load up quickly
2) don't provide spoilers
3) aren't 10db louder than the actual film

I'm also kinda annoyed by WB's Blus in that while I like their feature starting immediately, I hate that I have to change audio options while the movie is running, or pause the darn thing or back skip to the beginning.

Maybe it's just me, but I like as much of an uninterrupted feature experience as possible, with all the menu selections, etc. happening offline.

Which kinda defeats all this wonderful BD-J technology, but again, this is probably just me Posted Image

#6 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted August 21 2008 - 04:33 AM

Felix, there's no reason why BD-J menus can't be programmed to accommodate preferences... some of the BDs I learned the ropes on had a 10- to 15-second timeout menu at the beginning that automatically went into the film after that period, but during which you could tell it to play immediately with the default settings or go to the main menu to make selections. It is also possible (and I've been trying to institutionalize this) to allow the user to press a key or key-combo on the remote to automatically start playing the movie even if that's not the normal procedure... we did this on a number of DVD titles, as I recall.

V

#7 of 23 OFFLINE   Nicholas Martin

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Posted September 01 2008 - 04:05 AM

Having just adopted the Blu-ray format, one of the first titles I absolutely had to have was Independence Day.

The original DVD's menu was a perfect recreation of locations in the film, and because of what you said about having to make BD menus minimalistic in comparison, looking at the new BD version was a pleasant surprise indeed. The film has always been a dear favorite of mine, and I'm glad to see that the menu for it was just as visually interesting as the DVD yet entirely different.

#8 of 23 OFFLINE   Zack Gibbs

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Posted September 01 2008 - 06:17 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Van Ling
As a result, the menus tend to be more utilitarian and less flashy so as not to compete with the film content being displayed under it. While there is still room for artistic expression and creative work, the menus are now a supporting player rather than the star of a separate opening act as it was in DVD.

I was sort of surprised by this when I first got into the format, but I realized I really prefer this and have wanted it for a long time. I think DVD menus were just the result of novelty, and that's worn off and many of them are really overblown.

Anyone remember how the menus for the original "Alien" or "Ghostbusters" DVD's were such a big deal on release?
"Because he's the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now... and so we'll hunt him... because he can take it... because he's not a hero... he's a silent guardian, a watchful protector... a DARK KNIGHT."

#9 of 23 OFFLINE   Charles_Y

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Posted September 02 2008 - 01:21 AM

Well, here is one vote for the DVD menu approach. I couldn't disagree more. I liked having interesting and at times, challenging menus. I considered them the frame to the movie. I do NOT consider the film an interactive experience in the manner that the BD coalition would have us believe.

I really feel the pressure of the gaming community and Sony with its PS3 and such where multiple levels of interactivity are in play behind how this format was envisioned. I consider this a very sad state of affairs. I enjoy special features as much as the next guy but prefer them divorced from the film with the exception of audio commentaries. The newer "video" commentaries where one is looking at people talk about the film rather than focusing on what they are referencing, which you would get with an audio talk, irritating.

I will admit I am old school having come up from years in Laser Disc and then DVD. I simply think the approach and assumptions for this format are wrong headed and fear I am in the minority. I will get used to it but NEVER like it.

I do appreciate some of what you are saying with regard to programming some menu navigation "work work-arounds." I for one cannot stand these "auto-start" BDs. If the user could just have the option to stop the movie from starting and allow those of us users who prefer it this way to access a Main Menu where we could set up Audio Modes and view Scene Selections and such, without having to miss any of the movie as it plays, we would be more than grateful. I honestly think the purchasing public is being done a disservice.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to have the hardware/software vendors poll the customers as to what they want for once. Maybe, they already have and this is the result. Then, I would suppose I am in the minority.

In any case, I will close by saying I definitely enjoy your work and look forward to more in the future!

#10 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted September 02 2008 - 10:16 AM

Thanks for the kind words, Nicholas... I try to make the menu presentations interesting and thematic where I can. To Zack's point, menus started as a navigational necessity for DVD, which I personally felt could be more than just utilitarian like a "service" menu. I felt menus could be an artform in itself, as long as they complemented the feature presentation, much like a good "preshow" when you're waiting in line at a theme park attraction. It can get you into the mood for the film... but yes, sometimes people can go overboard with it (as I have been accused of doing on numerous occasions!). You may recall that at the very beginning of DVD, there was a movement to standardize all menus (at least per studio) for ease of use, so that they all looked the same and had the same buttons except for a shot of the movie art. I'm glad to say we've moved away from that, although some might say we've gone back in that direction on Blu-ray because of the "service menus" aspect of the popup menus.
On BD, menus are more relegated to being just service menus, so they aren't as bold or interesting sometimes. I think the golden age of hero DVD menu designs (at least of the kind that I used to do for T2, ID4, SW and such) may be on the wane.

To Charles' point about the influence of games, I think that "interactivity" gets bandied about too much, a lot like "morphing" was in the early 90s after T2 and "bullet time" was after The Matrix... they are only gimmicks unless there's a good reason to use them. There's nothing wrong with having that kind of interactivity in menus during the film, as long as we remember that the first and most important aspect of the disc is the presentation of the film itself, and that viewers should be able to set the rules for their home presentation. The reason auto-play came about was that there were folks who liked the VHS model of having no menus at all and just going into the film (as well as a lot of apocryphal stories of VHS-familiar seniors who put in a DVD and waited for hours in futility for the movie to start playing!), or people who had DVD carousels and wanted to have discs just play one after another continuously. It was a choice on a number of early BDs because it was a differentiating feature from regular DVDs, and because they could do it.

My belief is that there should be a player preference for defaulting a "automatically skip everything and play movie" or "go directly to the main menu" choice, and have all discs authored to check that preference and behave accordingly. I've always tried on my DVDs to have a way (usually a key combination or just skipping forward) to go to the film directly, but that often isn't allowed by the studio's mandated functionality stylesheets.

As for what customers want, that's one reason I'm doing this message board, but I also recognize that there is generally an even split between menu-lovers and menu-haters, and a huge gap between what home theatre enthusiasts want (less extraneous crap, higher bitrates on video and audio), what studios want (more distinguishing features and extras to get you to buy the discs), and what general consumers want (cheaper prices, period). And everyone has a different definition of "extraneous" material... for some it's games, for some it's commentary, and for others it's anything that isn't the movei itself. So all we can do is make sure that doing one thing doesn't mess up the ability to do something else... there should be enough room on the discs to make a number of different types of viewers happy... because it is going to take ALL of us, in our different demographics, to make this format a success.

V

#11 of 23 OFFLINE   Charles_Y

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Posted September 03 2008 - 01:08 AM

Thanks very much Van. I would think that with the much vaunted capacity of BDs having BOTH "direct to movie" or "direct to menu" approaches a no brainer. When the ability to give us the choice for both is put forward, everyone wins.

I hope you can pass this along to the companies you work with. Take care.

#12 of 23 OFFLINE   Brian McHale

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Posted February 05 2009 - 07:16 AM

I've only recently gotten into Blu-ray and have only watched 10 or so movies in the new format. However, if the ones I've viewed are representative, I think that the designers on many BDs are making a mistake; on the majority of the discs I’ve watched so far, the menu text is too small. Yes, Blu-ray offers higher resolution, so smaller text can, theoretically, be used. However, that doesn't mean that smaller text should be used.

I have a 50" 1080p set and sit about 11 or 12 feet away. I realize that, in order to take advantage of the 1080p resolution, I should be sitting 7-10 ft away. However, I don't have a dedicated home theater room and I am married (in other words, I think the closest I'll get away with is maybe 10'). At my viewing distance, the text on most of these BDs is very hard to read. In some cases, I have to get out of my seat and walk a few feet closer in order to read the selections.

In my opinion, you should not have to sit within the recommended “1080p” viewing distances to read the text on a menu. Text should be readable on a 37” TV viewed from 15 feet away. Who the heck would buy Blu-ray and then sit 15’ away from a 37” set? Right now, not very many people. However, if Blu-ray becomes mass-market (which it looks like it will), this will become more and more common. People will buy Blu-ray because it’s what they think they should buy, even though their setup doesn’t take advantage of the higher resolution. In my opinion, these people shouldn’t have to walk across the room to figure out what they’re trying to select on a menu.
Brian

#13 of 23 OFFLINE   Michael Rogers

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Posted February 05 2009 - 09:05 AM

Elaborate menus on DVD I do like, but if they throw up a lot of twists and turns to get to the wanted movie or show, then they are a pain.

The reason why I say show is because the key violator of making access to a program simple is the Star Trek series DVD's (especially both regular and remastered original Star Trek).

Going through what are really nice, clever and pretty CGI of the ship and settings to get to the actual shows (which has no "play all" option but does each have a sub menu to go through) can be tiresome to the point where I have favorite episodes from the sets I own ripped over to DVD-R's that just play upon insertion.

The BD way of interface is nice, for the most part. There are some things that need improvement. For instance, Planet Of The Apes's menu seems a bit clunky, especially in the selection of special features. Instead of show them all at once they show a few at a time with an arrow up,arrow down deal and the first showing of features fails to show an arrow up graphic even though there are choices going up.

#14 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted February 06 2009 - 02:46 PM

Brian, your points are well-taken. But one of the things we're trying to do is to take advantage of the higher-resolution of the screen and get the most out of it; especially in BD where the menus are considered "service graphics" that only take up a portion of the frame, the choice between having to have more separate menus with bigger text or fewer menus with smaller text so you can see more of the choices at once is not cut and dried. I think it also depends on your vision; I for one am near-sighted and need glasses to see anything farther away than a computer screen, but if you have good specs or contacts, you should be able to read the text on an 50" HD screen at 12 feet away with no problem. As you said, no one would probably watch a 37" screen from 15 feet away; they'd likely be closer, making the text size even less of an issue. But making the text as relatively large as it would be on a DVD at standard-def seems to me to be a waste of the HD resolution. Your general point makes sense, though: don't make the text too small!

Michael, you're absolutely right about elaborate menu transitions; they can get old fast, which as you can imagine I get told ALL the time! ;-)
This is one of the reasons I try whenever possible to build a utility Easter Egg into the menus that allows you to tell the player to skip all transitions. This is on all of the SW movie discs I produced, where during the "Attention" warning card at the beginning of the disc you can press 1 on the remote and it will turn off all transitions and just pop from one menu page to the next.

V

#15 of 23 OFFLINE   Michael Rogers

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Posted February 06 2009 - 02:51 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Van Ling
Brian, your points are well-taken. But one of the things we're trying to do is to take advantage of the higher-resolution of the screen and get the most out of it; especially in BD where the menus are considered "service graphics" that only take up a portion of the frame, the choice between having to have more separate menus with bigger text or fewer menus with smaller text so you can see more of the choices at once is not cut and dried. I think it also depends on your vision; I for one am near-sighted and need glasses to see anything farther away than a computer screen, but if you have good specs or contacts, you should be able to read the text on an 50" HD screen at 12 feet away with no problem. As you said, no one would probably watch a 37" screen from 15 feet away; they'd likely be closer, making the text size even less of an issue. But making the text as relatively large as it would be on a DVD at standard-def seems to me to be a waste of the HD resolution. Your general point makes sense, though: don't make the text too small!

Michael, you're absolutely right about elaborate menu transitions; they can get old fast, which as you can imagine I get told ALL the time! ;-)
This is one of the reasons I try whenever possible to build a utility Easter Egg into the menus that allows you to tell the player to skip all transitions. This is on all of the SW movie discs I produced, where during the "Attention" warning card at the beginning of the disc you can press 1 on the remote and it will turn off all transitions and just pop from one menu page to the next.

V

I'll have to remember that next time I pop in a Star Wars movie. I do remember all the stuff (not exactly what to do, but that it could be done) about making the player go to the version menu you wanted (for those that are unaware, Star Wars menus have several different versions representing the locales in each movie).

#16 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted February 06 2009 - 03:20 PM

Michael, on the SW discs you can select the menu's planetary theme by pressing 1, 2 or 3 on the remote during the first Fox warning card at the head of the disc, and then choose to skip all menu transitions by pressing 1 on the remote during the second Fox warning card. This should be true of all six films.

Hope this helps,

V

#17 of 23 OFFLINE   Michael Rogers

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Posted February 06 2009 - 03:24 PM

Thanks Van Posted Image

#18 of 23 OFFLINE   Brian McHale

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Posted February 09 2009 - 02:26 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Van Ling
Brian, your points are well-taken. But one of the things we're trying to do is to take advantage of the higher-resolution of the screen and get the most out of it; especially in BD where the menus are considered "service graphics" that only take up a portion of the frame, the choice between having to have more separate menus with bigger text or fewer menus with smaller text so you can see more of the choices at once is not cut and dried. I think it also depends on your vision; I for one am near-sighted and need glasses to see anything farther away than a computer screen, but if you have good specs or contacts, you should be able to read the text on an 50" HD screen at 12 feet away with no problem. As you said, no one would probably watch a 37" screen from 15 feet away; they'd likely be closer, making the text size even less of an issue. But making the text as relatively large as it would be on a DVD at standard-def seems to me to be a waste of the HD resolution. Your general point makes sense, though: don't make the text too small!

Van, thanks for taking the time to respond to my post.

Blu-ray is going to be viewed by many people as the “next thing” and many of these people will buy it even though they view their TV at distances better suited for SD material. It seems that many (not all) menu designers assume that people are viewing at HT recommended viewing distances instead of the real world distances that many average families use.
Brian

#19 of 23 OFFLINE   Van Ling

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Posted February 09 2009 - 06:43 AM

Brian, to me it's a matter of do we try to raise the awareness of folks about the best practices in a new format and get them to adapt, or do we perpetuate inefficient or outdated "triage" ideas (pan and scan, anyone?) by dumbing down what we do to appeal to the real world? Obviously, it ends up being a combination of both, but we should strive to raise the standards of the real world if possible.

Just my two cents,

V

#20 of 23 OFFLINE   Brian McHale

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Posted February 09 2009 - 08:33 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Van Ling
Brian, to me it's a matter of do we try to raise the awareness of folks about the best practices in a new format and get them to adapt, or do we perpetuate inefficient or outdated "triage" ideas (pan and scan, anyone?) by dumbing down what we do to appeal to the real world? Obviously, it ends up being a combination of both, but we should strive to raise the standards of the real world if possible.

Just my two cents,

V

Van, I’m certainly in favor of educating the masses. I’ve had the OAR argument with many a fullscreen advocate (usually to no avail; at least I can take solace in the fact that those FS DVDs are not going to be very satisfying on their new WS TVs).

However, in this case, who are we educating and with what information? And who is doing the educating? If the studios or hardware manufacturers would make it clear that you shouldn’t bother to buy a Blu-ray player unless your viewing conditions justified the purchase, I’d feel better. However, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

I’m afraid that the “education” is going to be self-learned, by figuring out after the fact that their TV is too small or they sit too far away from their set. Maybe they can fix this by moving their seating closer (in which case the “education” would have worked) or buying a new TV (expensive lesson). However, that’s not always going to be practical. In many cases, they’ll probably have only learned that they bought something they didn’t need and, in many ways, is a step back from what they had (higher price, unreadable menus, longer load times, etc.).

I do understand that, as technology marches on, the public must (to some extent) move with it. Sometimes, however, technology marches over the people it should be benefitting when it isn’t really necessary. Just getting you to consider the points I’ve made makes this a valuable exchange in my eyes.

Also, I’d like to add that I really appreciate the enthusiasm and diligence with which you approach this forum. It’s a rare occurrence when “regular” folks can interact with industry insiders in a fashion such as this.
Brian


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