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DVD SAVANT

When DVD Menus Attack!
How to Annoy a DVD Fan

A Savant Article by Glenn Erickson



New Format, New Interface.


It's already been eleven years since DVDs came on the market. Although business pundits grumble about the current slow growth of the format, nobody disputes the claim that the little silver discs are still the biggest new product of the Millennium years. I remember when Laserdiscs were the hot ticket in Hollywood home theater boutiques. In 1996 the proprietor of the most successful Los Angeles Laserdisc store sent out communiqués from the trade-show front lines, reporting that he'd seen demo DVD discs and that they had serious drawbacks. The image didn't begin to approach Laser quality. DVD playback was plagued by artifacts, weird motion disturbances, etc.. In his opinion the technology was a long way from being ready, perhaps years away.

When DVD premiered the next March, that little store begrudged the format a little rack along the back wall. Only a few months later, they had taken over. Unlike Lasers, DVDs were marketed to a mass consumer base and could be bought cheaply at many venues, including the Internet.

It really was no contest. Although less bulky to store, Lasers were inferior to DVDs in almost every respect. They were big and heavy and needed to be flipped unless one had a $500 double-sided player. Any movie over two hours required two flip interruptions. Although the information on the DVDs was digitally compressed, after a number of miserable early encodings (I've saved an old Image disc of RoboCop to serve as a bad example) DVDs by and large looked far better than Lasers. The use of 16:9 squeezed "anamorphic" encoding pushed the resolution advantage even farther..

Movies with a Computer Control Panel.

Most exciting of all, DVDs didn't play like Lasers. DVDs played like high-tech computer programs, introducing new functions like on-screen chapter search. An exotic new remote function was "Angle." The machines could play back a choice of angles on the same action, if content providers wanted to make programs to fit. That feature was explored almost exclusively by porn discs, but just lately, Legend discs have been using it to switch back and forth between color and B&W encodings of their colorized movies.

As for extra content -- featurettes, commentaries, etc. -- only a couple of studios embraced those immediately. I was at MGM and did my best to promote the idea of special content for discs. The general corporate attitude was that extras were fine so long as they cost nothing and required no legal clearances. We heard speeches about the DVD revolution but putting a trailer on a disc was considered a big deal. Meanwhile, studios like Warners and New Line were going full speed on all kinds of creative and innovative content.

It was fun seeing the invention of basic DVD features we now take for granted. Graphics artist Sharon Braun had a mind for computer work, and laid out the basic menu system for "chapter search" using screen grabs as scene choice buttons. Sharon was soon tapped to oversee the production of introductory menu animations that would "welcome" the viewer to the main disc menu. MGM's first round of fancy James Bond special editions lured many first-time buyers into the world of DVD. Sharon's complicated opening animation sequences were built on the conceit that viewers were entering a special hi-tech digital dossier on 007, through what looked like the opening of some kind of futuristic vault.

DVD menu layouts have evolved in the last ten years, bowing to viewer likes and dislikes but mostly adjusting for the convenience of the studio. For instance, elaborate opening animations are no longer common, not only because they're expensive to create but because consumers got sick of sitting through them, or having to hit five menu buttons just to get to the point where they can watch the movie. On certain of its elaborate special editions, Disney employed a tedious set of animations that moved the viewer through a sequence of opening curtains. Make a mistake, and it was like losing at a game of Myst (remember Myst?). The person manning the remote had to be sober and patient... picking one's way through Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is like filling out a tax form.

The Menu Gripe Menu.

Here are some things we like and dislike about DVD navigation layouts. As most of them serve the general priorities of DVD companies, I wouldn't expect many to change:

Frills are nice, but we want a fast route to playing the disc contents. Opening animations can be exciting, but after a viewing or two it's nice to be able to hit "Menu" or "Chapter Forward" and go directly to where we can start the darn movie we paid to see. At this moment the only company showing particular concern for this issue is Warner Home Video. One can interrupt the Warner shield and fanfare to jump right to a "Play Feature" choice. Warners is consistently user-friendly in this regard. If you're playing a disc for a small child (or an invalid), just loading the disc in the player will get the ball rolling. The Warners main menu will recycle an audio cue a few times, and then start the movie without the need for additional menu commands.

Ads burn us up big time. Nothing's more galling than watching TV commercials or public service messages in a movie theater, right? The fact that theater audiences don't boo and throw things has always mystified me. Pernicious studio promos and trailer tie-ins are just as unwelcome on DVDs, where marketing maniacs have seemingly been given free reign. Discs often list these advertising promos as extras. Things like chapter stops are sometimes called extras as well. The practice warrants a George Orwell award for double-talk.

Anti-piracy propaganda is an insult. How would you like stores to greet customers by saying, "Good morning, please don't shoplift anything today" ? That's how I feel every time 20th Fox's "You wouldn't steal a car" piece comes on. The "public service" announcements were eventually discontinued but are still guaranteed to make us angry. The same campaign included theatrical announcements as well, in which studio workers pleaded for us to not pirate discs so they wouldn't lose their jobs. The real message of the ads was that studios were holding film industry workers hostage against profits.

For at least a year Fox placed the 60-second spots on almost everything, beginning every disc with the same grating rock guitar blast. It makes no sense at all to place this teen-oriented plea on the front of a Betty Grable or Don Ameche movie ... how many nascent disc-rippers want to snatch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Get real!

Pal Rocco Gioffre broke us up with his reaction to the anti-piracy ads: "Yes, I'd never steal a car, but what if a friend said, Hey, want me to rip you a copy of my BMW? That would be pretty tempting!"

Forced viewing: welcome to the DVD Gulag. All of the unwanted content above -- ads, trailers, public service spots -- are bad enough, but they become infuriating when the disc encoders disable our ability to skip them. Usually this causes s minor inconvenience, as when the "Menu" button won't work but the "Chapter Forward" button will. But sometimes all user choices are disabled, and we're forced to sit through minutes of captive sales pitches. This practice pops up occasionally on Disney discs -- The Mouse Factory's Ministry of Mind Control (marketing, for short) specializes in inconveniencing viewers. Their misleading "Fast Play" option feeds the DVD viewer a full stack of promos and plugs. But a disc from some other company took the prize a few weeks ago. Every attempt to circumvent its five trailers resulted in being returned to the top of the stack again. It was like being caught in an endless loop at the DMV.

Once again, our hero in this regard is Warner Home Video. It's the only company that seems to believe that FBI threats, copyright entreaties and Interpol harangues belong at the back of the disc, along with the credit for the disc encoding company. Almost every company forces us to sit through cards of legal-speak that regard us as intellectual property thieves instead of customers. The toothless "FBI Warning" cards glare at us from the front position on everything, even lowercase DVD releases of Public Domain movies.

Spoilers. This isn't as big of an issue, but it needs to be addressed in the spirit of Good Disc Manners. We've all watched mysteries where the visuals on the menus reveal the identity of the film's crazed killer. An otherwise visually superb Criterion disc of Fiend Without a Face ruins what is probably the only real thrill in that humble monster romp, the reveal of the film's scary atomic monsters. This happens all the time, unfortunately. The otherwise beautiful disc of The High and the Mighty launches with a John Wayne promo that spoils several of the film's highlights. It takes practice to figure out how to skip over it.

A personal annoyance with this viewer is the ongoing bad practice of underscoring a disc's main menu with the film's main theme, thereby spoiling the impact of the music in the film itself. The Hitchcock movie North by NorthWest begins with an unforgettable Bernard Herrmann theme. Part of the pleasure of the film is anticipating its entrance, looming behind the roar of the MGM lion. But on disc the same cue plays over the menu, spoiling the surprise. Some disc producers understand this issue and employ a secondary theme under the menus instead. DVD producers should design their discs as if they were personally going to audition them before the film's director.

Blu-ray Menus Go Ballistic.

What Brave New interface innovations lie in the future? The menus for Blu-ray discs have become even more complicated, at least on shows that offer a wealth of extra content. The new Sony Blu-ray of Starship Troopers has a feature called "Blu Wizard", an "extras management page" that allows the user to customize playback, bookmark features and check off those already viewed. Push a button and the HD screen fills with choices. I only wish that more movies had special content worthy of that kind of detailed analysis.

What have I missed? What kinds of "systemic" features do you hate on DVDs, and which would you like to see more of? I have my own preferences for extras (I like to watch films I've seen before with both a commentary and trivia track running simo) but that's another subject. Any disc or company that you think has the perfect menu format? The footnotes section awaits below. 1

August 23, 2008

Republished by arrangement with Film.com

Footnotes:

1. A note from European correspondent Guido Bibra, 9.04.08:

Hello Glenn, Just read your article about the DVD Menu madness and I couldn't agree more. There are lots of beautiful and practical designs, but also lots of nightmares.

The menus of the old Bond DVDs were great, but the European versions had entirely different designs! For some reason the whole lot was redone -- differently, but not bad at all. That's one reason I'm going to keep my old discs: the menus of the new ultimate editions are a huge letdown, because they're all the same.

As for the anti-piracy-ads - they're still in use here in Europe. And it's not only Fox that uses them, they also show up on Warner discs sometimes. Thankfully you can skip over them, but it's a major pain in the behind, especially if you have a multi-disc boxed set like a TV series and every disc has them.

And there's one aspect of DVD menus you haven't mentioned -- multi-language menus! Of course you don't get them in Region 1 since it's not needed there, but here in R2 almost all discs have menus in English, German and sometimes other languages depending on the target market. Sometimes a DVD is made for the whole of Europe, sometimes only for Germany, but all major studios usually include English menus. Only studios which release in Germany exclusively sometimes only put German menus on the discs.

The problem comes when the language has to be chosen: some studios like Warner and Sony read the language presets from the player setup and display the corresponding menus. But with Paramount, Fox, MGM and Disney you actually have to select the language in a menu when you start the disc -- sometimes there are more than thirty menu points to choose from! Not because there are thirty different menus on the disc, but because they're displaying the copyright notices and warnings in the language! It's amazingly silly.

And the forced trailers? Don't get me started. There are ways to skip them entirely and jump to the main menu on a computer, but I'm always getting annoyed when I play the same disc on the standalone player and have to skip, skip, skip lots of stuff. And then you don't know if you can just press the menu button, or need to skip.

The nicest and easiest to handle DVD menus are on the old Indiana Jones boxed set -- they jump straight to the main menu, like nearly all Criterion Menus do. I mean, I've paid for the disc, why do I have to endure commercials before watching the movie? Well, we shouldn't complain -- at least they don't put the stuff IN the movies! Bye, Guido
Return

2. From Richard Kaufman, 9.09.08:

Hi Glenn, Just read your piece about menus and forced previews and so on. You wrote, "Ads burn us up big time. Nothing's more galling than watching TV commercials or public service messages in a movie theater, right? The fact that theater audiences don't boo and throw things has always mystified me."

Well, when studios and theater chains first tried putting TV commercials in front of films in New York City in the late 1980s, early 1990s, we theater goers did in fact BOO very loudly. There was lots of yelling during the commercials, followed by complaints to the management of the theater on the way out later. And then the commercials stopped! But as you know, this story didn't have a happy ending. Commerce usually wins out in the end. -- Richard Kaufman

3. From Chris Rywalt, 9.09.08:

Glenn, I just read your rant about DVD menus. Very mellow rant, by the way. My favorite DVD menu spoiler is on the Planet of the Apes disc where the final image of the Statue of Liberty sits behind the menu. Talk about spoilers!

Roger Ebert has lamented the stupidity of the FBI warnings and asks how many cumulative hours of human lives have been wasted waiting for them to clear off the screen. I don't know if your DVDs do it, too, but I've had a number of them display in English and French (presumably for Canada), doubling the display time.

Personally I wish more DVDs just started in on the movie. God forbid you pop a disc in and get interrupted by a phone call -- you'll have to hear the menu music loop endlessly! -- Chris.

4. From Mike Smith, 9.09.09:

Hi Glenn, I enjoyed reading your recent column on DVD menu excesses, and agree with everything on your list. I find it particularly annoying when you cannot start watching the movie until a long animated sequence has finished. There is hope however: my Oppo DVD player has a direct play feature that (usually) permits you to skip all introductory material and jump directly to the main feature.

The only thing I would add to your list is packaging that makes it difficult to even get to the disk to play it at all. Some companies put three strips of security tape on the outside of the case. What's worse, sometimes the tape(s) will not come off without leaving sticky goo behind. I guess this comes under the general belief that "All our paying customers are thieves". Yours, Mike Smith

5. From Bob Gutowski, 9.09.09:

Neat and overdue article. I dislike it when the music under the menu is at least five times as loud as it needs to be. That reminds me -- I could do without hearing the THX plane take-off/nuclear rod incident motif for the rest of my life. It alerts too many neighbors that I'm home.

One of my gripes is when I can barely make out the color of the cursor I'm moving around, thereby getting the wrong scene, or moving to another menu entirely.

Do you know the Monsters Crash the Pajama Party DVD, in which the menu is unlabeled and is strictly intuitive? And that's okay when you first buy it and are watching it a lot. But when you pull it out to watch a certain track, it stinks having to learn the game all over again. Yours, Bob

6. David Fletcher:

Thanks for your article. I prefer menus to be a single, non-animated graphic, with no music, and an easy way to choose. Sometimes I can't tell when I've picked "play" or "features."

I've become increasingly frustrated with the interactive menus on HD DVDs and Blu-Rays. My first HD DVD was The Searchers, still my favorite HD DVD and my favorite movie in high definition.

That HD DVD's menus originally worked, but not any more. I can watch the movie, but not even access the features on my Toshiba with the newest firmware. I don't ever remember a DVD player which wouldn't actually play the disks, but there are several HD DVD and BD players which completely freeze up. Ultimately, simpler is better. In particular, I thought the WB special edition DVDs, with all extra features except commentary contained on a separate disk, was the best idea. Your friend, D. Fletcher

7. From Marc Bessette, who really doesn't like adhesives. 8.29.08:

Hi Glenn, Let me first start off by thanking you for your in-depth reviews. I look forward to every one of your insightful installments.

I don't know if you have this problem in the US however, in Canada, by far the absolute most annoying thing about DVD's are those damned security sticky tape things that seal the DVD's here. Most have 2 (top and right side) but some even have 3 (one on the bottom)! I frankly don't see the point however they are the most un-Godly things that have ever been created. They rarely come off like they are supposed to and they stick to everything. If you manage to get them completely off, you have probably scraped half the cover off of them. I don't know how many times that I have cursed the inventor.

I have said to myself many times (I Know, I know...they really do drive me to talking to myself) that I would love to get into a locked room with the inventor for just 5 minutes ... just 5 little minutes. I would put him through the torture that he has put everyone through over the years. Now, I say ''him'' but, on second thought, it is probably a ''she''. Only a woman could torment us so very effectively.

Whoever he or she is, I am convinced that when they get to the pearly gates, St-Peter (or Allah) or (Whatever) is going to send them straight to hell! (along with the guy who invented Beta, HD disks and the Lada).

I have been driven to buying my movies ''pre-viewed'' or in box sets just to get away from these sticky little monsters. Thanks again for your great work. Best Regards, Marc



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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