Square TV Art Revisited

22 August 2010

Following up my earlier post on this, I’ve now made a complete move towards square art with a footer containing the name of the TV show. I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier. It looks so much neater than just a screen shot, because it’s always a uniform size and the footer helps with identification.

With screen shots, you’re dealing with either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios (Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a rare exception–it’s presented in 2.35:1). I settled on an 800 x 800 pixel size. This allows me to scale up or down a moderate amount so as not to introduce too many artifacts. I use a footer of 300 pixels high for 16:9 content (576p scales down a little) and 200 pixels high for 4:3 (576p scales up).

I usually use a solid colour for the footer and this is sampled from the artwork that I use for the whole season. Here’s an example:

Frisky Dingo, Season One

Frisky Dingo, Season One (Season Art)

Frisky Dingo, Season One, Episode 4, "XPO"

Frisky Dingo, Season One, Episode 4, "XPO" (Episode Art)

Using a sampled colour connects the season and the episode art visually. When the season art changes, so does the footer:

Frisky Dingo, Season Two

Frisky Dingo, Season Two (Season Art)

Frisky Dingo, Season Two, Episode 8, "The Debate, Part Two"

Frisky Dingo, Season Two, Episode 8, "The Debate, Part Two" (Episode Art)

It’s more work, of course, but once I’ve set up the image as a Photoshop file with the footer and the TV show title, I can then bring in my screen shots as separate layers and save out as JPEG files. That keeps all the working files together in one file, with separate output files.

You can see all the Frisky Dingo artwork on my artwork site, Album-Art.net.


Embracing the iTunes Square TV Artwork Format

2 May 2010

I don’t know why Apple chose a square format for TV artwork. Perhaps it was to distinguish TV video from movie video, for which they use a poster-like 1:1.5 ratio format.

I’ve fully embraced the square TV format because all of Apple’s devices expect it. It helps in my scanning of DVD covers, too, because here in Australia, every cover has the rating label printed on it, ruining the bottom edge. By scanning square, I can omit this section.

I’ve seen a screen shot of video on the iPad and the TV shows are displayed as thumbnails, with no text label. The person who posted it was annoyed because they couldn’t tell what the shows were. This is because he had provided his own video (not purchased from the iTunes Store) and had not used custom artwork. I can understand this. Apple intends that you buy TV shows from the iTunes Store. Every episode on the store has the same artwork. You can tell what the show is, any episode, by looking at the artwork on the iPad.

I’ve taken a different approach to the TV shows I make from DVDs. I scan the cover for the episode art, then take a screenshot from every individual episode. Every episode therefore has unique art. This helps to identify the episode but is also the best possible way to immediately refresh your memory as to the episode content for those you’ve watched in the past, or to pique interest in those you haven’t. Traditionally, I’ve retained the native aspect ratio, i.e. 16:9 or 4:3.

Getting back to Apple’s love of the square art, I’ve begun experimenting with squaring of the episodic artwork:

"American Dad", Season 3, Episode 13, "Red October Sky"

"American Dad", Season 3, Episode 13, "Red October Sky"

This was from a 4:3 screen shot. Cropping seems to work in almost all cases, although my experiments have been limited to American Dad, Volume 4 so far.

I recently picked up an unusual Australian TV show, Stories from the Golf. Each episode is 5 minutes long and I didn’t think that there was much to take a screen shot of, especially as there was a beautiful piece of art for each episode in the DVD menus. I took screen shots of each. None of them conformed to a particular aspect ratio, so I worked them into a 600 x 450 image. Then I had the idea to add a footer, into which I put the TV show’s name:

"Stories from the Golf", Episode 7, "Karaoke Roadie"

"Stories from the Golf", Episode 7, "Karaoke Roadie"

This has started a whole new chain of thought. I’m now experimenting with combining screen shots with a similar footer:

"Very Small Business", Episode 1, "Basics of Team Building"

"Very Small Business", Episode 1, "Basics of Team Building"

I had to crop the 16:9 image slightly to 800 x 500. There is a 300-pixel footer. This gives me the best of both worlds-screen shot and identification, all in a square package. I’ll keep doing this for a while to see if I still like it. It’s a radical change.

You can pick up the episodic art for these shows from my album-art website:

American Dad

Stories from the Golf

Very Small Business


iPhone Supports Better-than-iPod Video Quality

10 September 2009

In versions of iTunes prior to 9, videos that are compatible with a device have been displayed with black text, incompatible with grey. In iTunes 9, I was looking at the TV settings for the iPhone and noticed that all of my TV shows appeared in black. I’ve ripped all my DVDs as 768 x 576 (4:3) or 1024 x 576 anamorphic (16:9), 2500Kbps H.264, 160Kbps AAC. Up to this point, I was never able to sync a file greater than iPod resolution.

To my delight and surprise, these PAL-derived monsters synced across and played. Here’s one from Arrested Development, ripped from a Region 4 PAL DVD:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show<br>Click to enlarge

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show

This is the only 720 HD TV show I have, Dollhouse. It’s a rip from a TV broadcast. The iPhone wouldn’t accept it:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

Next I tested an iPod Classic, the true standard. Despite the apparent compatibility (black text), it wouldn’t sync anything above iPod standard:

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

What does it mean? It means less work when preparing DVD content. I can now rip one version of movies, TV shows and music videos, as long as I sync to an iPhone (and presumably, an iPod Touch). This is a pretty major step forward. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to sync 720 HD.


My New Movie Server

13 January 2009
PowerMac G5

Photo © Apple Computer, Inc.

I’m lovin’ my new movie server. The PowerMac G5 is still a good machine for recording and playing back video. Principal advantages are its two drive bays for RAID-striping up to 2Tb and built-in 5.1 audio support over TOSLINK optical audio. Finally mine is doing more than just EyeTV recording and transcoding to MPEG 4 for Apple TV.

For years I had been plotting to use my G5 in this capacity but the problem was the video connection. I tried an adapter to go from DVI to component, as my TV’s best input is component (too old for HDMI), but despite reported compatibility with my video card, I could only get 800 x 600 resolution. Then my friend pointed out the obvious: stop striving for the pinnacle of video quality in favour of something that actually works, and get Apple’s own DVI to Video adapter. Instant solution. Now I’m living the dream.

It hasn’t replaced my Apple TV, which is still the keystone of my entertainment system. I have found that it is notoriously difficult to get good results in converting DVD to MPEG 4, so I’ve limited this process to TV only, for which the benefits of fully tagged separate episodes outweigh any slight loss of quality. Considering that a movie can be stored on a hard drive in the exact same format, and thus with no loss of quality, it is worth keeping movies in this way. I use Front Row, part of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, as my interface to the movies.

To save space, and as the movie itself is the main thing you will want to play, I extract the movie itself from the DVD and discard the rest. I have used MacTheRipper to rip as “main movie only”, but it produces lousy results (often crashes after ripping and the movies crash DVD Player if fast-forwarded), so I have started to use a Windows app, DVDFab Decrypter, exclusively. This app is stable and produces error-free rips. Most impressively, it also overcomes a lot of copy protection that MacTheRipper can’t cope with. Examples: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (ARccOS copy protection), The Dark Knight (Warner deliberately “damaged” the disc to prevent copying). The result is a separate folder for each movie containing a VIDEO_TS folder and sometimes an AUDIO_TS folder as well. In this movie folder, put artwork for the movie from your own scans or the internet. impawards.com is one of the best sources. The image file must be called Preview.jpg (case sensitive). Front Row uses this file as artwork to illustrate the movie. It interprets a movie folder as a discrete unit, as if it were a single file with embedded artwork.

I store the movies in the following subfolders in the Movies folder in my local account:

  • Movies: For movie-only movies.
  • Music Videos: Even though I rip all music videos for iPod so that I can take them with me, some DVDs warrant the respect they deserve in terms of video and audio quality, like concerts. This folder houses the more quality-critical DVDs for home viewing. The folder structure for this folder is Artist/Title. The Title folder is the DVD folder itself, e.g. ~/Movies/Music Videos/Flaming Lips, The/UFOs at the Zoo.
  • Short Films: Some DVDs consist of a number of short films, like Wallace and Gromit. I rip the films separately and put them here.
  • Special Features: When I buy a DVD, I rip the whole of a bonus DVD for convenient access. I delete the DVD folder when I’m finished with it to free up space.
  • _Spillover Video: This is actually an alias. I have 2 x 320Gb drives in the G5 but this is not enough. As a temporary measure, I am using some space on an external FireWire drive on my other desktop. Simply mount the drive as a share, then create an alias to the spillover movie folder in the Movies folder in your local account. The share will be mounted whenever you boot. Of course, the other desktop must be online to be able to access that content. When 1Tb drives drop in price, I will buy two and replace the two 320Gb drives currently in the machine.

There is a caveat with Front Row: If you put a series of movies into a subfolder, such as Dirty Harry, the folder will appear at the bottom of the list. There is no good reason for this, but you might not think to look at the bottom for a movie series. An alternative approach is to rename the movie folders with a prefix, such as Dirty Harry 1 | Dirty Harry, Dirty Harry 2 | Magnum Force, Dirty Harry 3 | The Enforcer, etc. I use a pipe character | instead of a colon as the colon is a reserved character in Mac OS X.

Also, any folder starting with The, A or An will of course be incorrectly alphabetised. I put the article at the end, e.g. Golden Compass, The.

To control Front Row, I use Leopard’s screen-sharing feature with my laptop, then navigate using the arrow keys. This makes the laptop hot as it’s constantly refreshing the sharing window, so I tend to quit Screen Sharing once I’ve got the movie going. I’ll have to get a remote for playback. You can’t totally give up a keyboard and mouse as you need to be able to do operations like copying files, trimming the length of EyeTV recordings, etc. Sharing the screen is perfect because you don’t have to supply a keyboard and mouse for the machine.

In addition to running Front Row, I still use the machine to record TV with EyeTV, but I no longer have to transcode for Apple TV. It’s a revelation to simply play a recording. Sometimes I start watching it before it’s finished recording. Sometimes I even watch live TV!

There’s a lot to be said for the movie server. An older machine with plenty of storage makes a great complement to Apple TV, which can concentrate on movie rentals, TV shows, music and podcasts.


Anamorphic Video on iPod

26 November 2008

I’ve been experimenting with anamorphic video. I read after the 2007 models came out that they supported anamorphic video, so the maximum matrix of 640 x 480 pixels can be used to squash a widescreen video with an anamorphic flag, so the iPod, iTunes and Apple TV would interpret it as roughly 855 x 480 pixels. Obviously the iPod would have to shrink this to 320 x 160 or so for its built-in screen.

Problem is, the results are disappointing. These two screenshots are from the same content and the exact same frame, Lemon Jelly’s ’64-’95 DVD:

'64-'95 DVD (720 x 400)

Lemon Jelly: '64-'95 DVD (720 x 400) (Click to enlarge)

'64-'95 DVD (854 x 480)

Lemon Jelly: '64-'95 DVD (854 x 480 anamorphic) (Click to enlarge)

Lots of ugly artefacts in the anamorphic version. There are also frequent failures to resolve detail, with the effect that spots of the video suddenly go out of focus for a few frames. Movement has the occasional judder or skip. These are all present in non-anamorphic iPod rips, but far less frequent or noticeable.

I also did test rips of Sigur Ros’ Heima. What’s most disturbing about the results is the fact that the source in both cases is pristine, some of the highest bitrate, cleanest, most perfect DVD I’ve ever seen. If I ripped trash as anamorphic, the effect could only be more pronounced.

So I don’t think anamorphic is for me, despite the unassailable coolness this brings, especially as the increased resolution makes it more attractive for both iPod and computer/Apple TV use, perhaps leading to one version, not two.


Don’t Underestimate the Mac Mini

21 April 2008

Last year I upgraded my G5 to improve iTunes performance. As noted in that post, I achieved only moderate performance gains. The G5 was always pretty good at encoding with Handbrake, but now that I have added a number of tweaks to get better quality output, it was taking a very long time to encode video (about 18 hours for a 22-minute TV episode). That’s a little non-viable.

I was impressed that my MacBook Air was ripping video slightly faster than the G5. It’s Apple’s slowest machine, at 1.6GHz. I started to think that a Mac Mini would give me modest improvements on that, and because I appeared to have some hardware issues on the G5 with USB ports going offline, system lock-ups, etc., I decided to replace it now with a Mac Mini rather than wait for the next update to the line.

Given that I have plenty of external storage and an external DVD drive, I decided to save a little money and bought the entry-level 1.83GHz model, with 80Gb hard drive and combo optical. This is the slowest desktop Apple currently produces, so I wasn’t expecting it to be much better than the G5. It turns out that with most operations (opening windows, navigating through iTunes, etc.) it isn’t much different. I was starting to get a little buyer’s remorse when I ripped a TV episode to test it.

I had to check very carefully that it had produced a playable file of the entire episode because it ripped it about 5 times as fast as the G5! I was astonished at the difference, so impressed in fact that I considered buying another one just to rip video. It turns out that the MacBook Air was turning off one of its cores under the load of ripping, thus accounting for the lacklustre performance compared to the only slightly faster Mini.

Of course it comes five years of development time after the G5, so that dampens the surprise a little, but I think this proves that the Mac Mini is a pretty good performer despite its position in the product hierarchy, and you should consider it.


Music Video: Why Can’t Artists Get it Right?

20 February 2008

Time for one of my infrequent rants.

Why is it that artists (or their technical people) constantly make a hash of music videos? Case in point: the independent, Karmacoda. They’ve just released a new video on their website. I downloaded the iPod-ready version and it looked funny. The native aspect ratio of the video, 16:9, had been squashed horizontally into 4:3 and was between QVGA (320 x 240) and the iPod standard VGA (640 x 480). The slightly larger version (“for computer”) looked correct (heads not squashed) but even it was 3:2. Here’s the real kicker in this case: it was shot in HD. That means the trouble and expense of 720 or 1080, which should look amazing, has been squandered on a lousy postage stamp. A prior music video, also shot in HD, was made available on DVD, which I bought. I knew it was going to be NTSC (480 pixels vertical), but was unpleasantly surprised to find that it was 4:3 letterboxed. This just should not be. It’s not hard to make anamorphic video these days. Again, the quality of HD was wasted on this 720 x 400 video (after cropping).

My frustration with Karmacoda stems from the poor responses to emails I sent. The first, after I received the DVD, was extensive and contained a breakdown of the technical issues with the DVD and the free version and offered solutions. I also said that I would like to buy a HD version from their site. The response was a mere acknowledgement that I had sent something. I tried again after getting this new video. Same thing. I’m giving valuable feedback and advice. As they are an independent band, I expected a meaningful two-way conversation with the artists themselves but seemed to have been screened by a manager.

It’s not just independents at fault. Prior to the release of Daft Punk’s Alive 2007, I downloaded a teaser trailer in VGA resolution, H.264 video, AAC audio. Looked quite good. When the album arrived, the enhanced CD included a music video. The specs? QVGA, MPEG 1 muxed. What is EMI thinking? When will record companies wake up and start providing iPod-ready video on enhanced CDs? Nobody is going to want to put the CD in a computer to watch the video.

So why aren’t they done right in the first place? A possible solution is to make the video available on iTunes–after all, they’re giving it away for free on their site, and we know that free often doesn’t mean quality. If they package it for sale, the consumer can be assured of a certain level of quality.

Music video is being denigrated by ignorance or unwillingness to produce a good product. In the past, it’s been used solely as promotional material, where marginal quality would be a non-issue. It’s only been since the iTunes Store started selling them as a product in their own right that quality should be something that artists are aware of.

Am I alone in thinking this?