MADISON, WI — Sony’s Blu-ray 3D production bundle (www.sonycreativesoftware.com) offers the first “spec-level” 3D Blu-ray authoring application, as well as an impressive array of “wish list” features, including fast high-quality compression, a reasonably intuitive user interface, and full access to the entire Blu-ray Disc Association specification.
"Blu-print 6 is a full 2D and 3D Authoring Application," says Rob Aubey, manager of software engineering from Sony Creative Software. "When combined with the other elements of the 3D production bundle, they create the optimal solution for 3D and 2D Blu-ray creation."
The Blu-ray 3D production bundle includes: Z Depth for 3D subtitling, Dualstream 3D for 3D MVC encoding, and Blu-print 6 for authoring. The package also comes with a full license for Sony Vegas Pro 10, which is necessary to run Z Depth, but not required for Dualstream 3D, or Blu-print 6. Sony also offers Blu-code separately for 2D-only compression, but it's not included as part of the 3D production bundle.
On Q-Create by Ensequence, which provided a development environment for Blu-ray Java application creation, has been removed from the suite. I asked Aubey if Sony had plans to replace On Q-Create with anything and he responded, “Not from Sony at this time. A lot of studios do BD-J Authoring on their own. Either they’ve created their own internal tools to do BD-J Authoring or they have a team of Java coders that are doing BD-J by hand.”
Blu-code, the Blu-ray compliant video encoder, supports AVC/H.264 and MPEG2 (no VC-1). On the hardware end, Aubey termed their system recommendations “fairly heavy.” For Blu-code, the system they recommend is the Hewlett Packard Z800 with dual Intel, Xeon or Neihalem, quad core processors, using a 64-bit OS; XP; Vista; or Windows 7. The application expects to see eight to twelve gigs of RAM and the operating system needs to be installed on a separate hard drive from the drive that stores your working files.
Those working files should live on a RAID-0 array controlled by a separate Adaptech RAID controller card. The separate card, in lieu of the motherboards internal RAID controller, is to insure throughput speeds of 400-450 Mbit/sec. The graphics card they recommend is an Nvidia Quadro FX 580.
The Blackmagic Decklink Extreme card is the only capture card supported in the system. If you want to use other capture solutions, like an AJA or Bluefish444, you’ll need to do the capture in other software and then import your files.
When I asked about cluster encoding — using several networked machines to process one encode job simultaneously — Aubey elaborated, “One of the stronger points of the encoder is that you can set it up on multiple nodes and install the software on as many systems as you want and we don’t charge anything extra for the multiple installations.”
Unfortunately when I brought up the idea of re-purposing old machines to lend a hand on big render jobs, he shot me down. “We’ve had some people try that. We don’t recommend it. [When the software] distributes out the video blocks of a job it needs the same computing power so that the nodes are reading and writing accurately back to the RAID.”
In essence, he says, you may be able to get away with running the cluster with some new machines and some old machines but you’d be doing so at your own peril. There’s a possibility that the slower machines in the cluster could produce errors in your video stream, since their portion of the job isn’t being written to the RAID storage fast enough. Also, you may not notice a substantial performance increase since the newer machines will be slowing down to keep pace with the older ones.
Sony’s Z Depth allows the user to record and edit the offset metadata information needed for the proper placement of subtitles in 3D space; This also allows you to change the Z-axis placement for your IG stream (the menu buttons) to create 3D menus for Blu-ray projects.
Z Depth is not a standalone tool but a plug-in for Vegas Pro, using the Vegas Pro video engine and timeline. Every license of Z Depth Pro comes with a full license of Vegas Pro 10. A new version of Z Depth was just released for use with Vegas Pro 10, which takes advantage of the new 3D output features in Vegas. When I asked Aubey about these improvements to Z Depth he explained, “Previously, Z Depth used specialized video drivers and only allowed you to play from Vegas out to a line alternate capable monitor and see [with polarized glasses] the 3D content and your 3D subtitles in 3D.” Being able to see where you’re 3D subtitles are on the Z-axis is necessary to getting them placed properly. Aubey went on to say, “The update to Vegas Pro 10 allows us to utilize a number of 3D output modes other than line alternate. Such as side-by-side, over under, and even anaglyphic mode... the red/blue glasses style. All without the specialized video drivers that were previously used”
You can now preview 3D using your existing monitor in anaglyphic mode (with red/blue glasses) or in line alternate mode on a line alternate dipole monitor (polarized glasses). You can even preview using the same frame sequential (shutter glasses) 3D display technology that's ultimately used for 3D Blu-ray playback. Even if you're using a different technology for preview than will ultimately be used for playback, Aubey assured me that the differences wouldn’t cause any problems and that Z Depth would, “still create a very accurate offset metadata recording.”
Dualstream 3D is an MVC encoder that takes your left eye and right eye video source files and encodes them into the base and dependent MVC streams for 3D Blu-ray authoring. The base stream is the full resolution AVC video stream that is also used for 2D playback. The dependent stream is a frame predicative stream that uses the base stream to generate the frame sequential 3D video. It carries all the additional information needed to make a 3D picture from the 2D stream. All 3D Blu-ray discs are backwards compatible with 2D Blu-ray players by only playing back the base stream and ignoring the dependant stream producing full quality 2D playback.
Blu-print 6 offers the features you may have come to expect from a high end Blu-ray authoring application. It fully supports HDMV, BD-J, BD-Script with access to the full range of PSRs, or Player Status Registers, integral to programming complex discs. Blu-print 6 also supports all four Blu-ray-approved codecs: AVC/H.264, MPEG-2, MVC for 3D, and VC-1 (although you won’t be able to create VC-1 with Blu-code). The supported OS is still Windows XP and Vista for now. While hearing Vista may make you wince, stability is greatly enhanced over previous versions, particularly in Vista 64.
I wanted to get a user’s perspective on Blu-print 6, so I asked Keith Prokop, CEO/owner of Radius 60 a few questions. Radius 60 is a Los Angeles-based authoring house that produced the Blu-ray discs for Kick Ass, along with Darjeeling Limited and Thin Red Line for Criterion. Early on he confirmed the new version is fully compliant with Vista 64. “Moving to Vista 64 is the biggest change we’ve made in the last couple of months. It’s made a pretty big difference in performance so it’s nice to have Vista 64-compliant software.“
Even when I went fishing for complaints or improvements he’d like to see Prokop told me, “There’s nothing that stands out as flawed right now. With all the versions of Blu-print they’ve been getting incrementally better. Automation and workflow improvements are important to us and they have been great at implementing them.”
Unfortunately the feature I’ve been looking for — the ability to compile on the fly and simulate projects in realtime — is still out of reach. Aubey notes: “In Blu-ray authoring, the compiling is so much more advanced and resource intensive it cannot be done efficiently enough to allow a simulation to happen while you’re designing.” So for now, he says, projects “have to be fully multiplexed and either burned to disc or, if you’re only working in 2D, opened in a software player.”
Blu-print 6 does not include its own player so Sony recommends Power DVD, Win DVD, and Arcsoft’s Total Media Extreme. However, you can preview your menu animations in what Sony calls the “Raster Editor.” The raster editor will decode any number of streams, but only a frame at a time to allow you to make sure menu elements are placed properly. The raster editor will even decode 3D menu elements, but will only display them in 2D.
Also deserving mention and rounding out a complete Blu-ray authoring workflow is Sony’s BD-ROM verifier software. It’s one of the three verifiers approved by the Blu-ray Disc Association for verification of content streams as well as the file structure of Blu-ray projects. Most replicators don’t do content and file structure verification, but only disc verification. Plainly speaking, they’ll manufacture exactly what you send them and it’s not their responsibility to make sure your disc was authored correctly. It’s not included in the bundle, and the price point of $16,000 for a perpetual license might make you wince at first glance, but when compared against the nightmare of a full replication run of bad discs, it suddenly seems cost effective.
Overall, Sony’s Blu-ray 3D production bundle provides a rich feature set and stable performance albeit at a premium price. It’s an easy fit for houses that have already been using Sony’s software for SD and 2D Blu-ray production. For houses looking to jump into 3D Blu-ray authoring and requiring a powerful, fully compliant authoring solution, the Sony Blu-ray 3D production bundle would be an excellent choice, provided your pockets are deep enough.
From January 1, through April 30, 2011 Sony will be offering a special discounted license fee of $80,000 for perpetual licenses and support on its 3D Production Bundle applications: Z Depth, Dualstream 3D MVC, and Blu-print 6. Blu-code will also be available separately at a discounted rate, but a specific price wasn't yet given.