Jul 30, 2010

Best Apple Compressor Settings for DVD Widescreen Downconversions

Ever since the first affordable handheld HD camcorder hit the market almost 6 years ago there has been a great deal of misinformation and outright myths about the realities of how to make a great-looking DVD from HD content.

Some people assumed that it simply wasn't possible to do and instead the HD camcorders should be put into mini-DV widescreen mode to shoot the original content, which would make for really good looking DVD's since it would all be in standard-definition anyway.  This also started the myth that since DVD's are SD that a movie shot in SD would simply transfer directly to a DVD, no problem.  Anyone who knows about the DVD/MPEG2 specification knows this is completely false, but to the uninitiated it seemed totally logical.

Before I delve into these "best" settings for use in Apple's Compressor let's first look at the realities of making a proper final encode for a DVD:

First, there are 2 basic DVD capacities, single-layer and dual-layer, at approximately 4GB and 8GB respectively.  A finished movie of any format being exported straight from an editor as a "self contained" movie, even in an SD format will be tens and most often hundreds of gigabytes in size.  Obviously too big to fit into even a dual-layer DVD.  In fact, not even a dual-layer Blu-Ray can take that much data since BR tops out at 50GB!  So what's a movie-maker to do?  You have to "compress" or squeeze your final movie file down to DVD-spec size.

Second, the process of creating a DVD is called, "authoring", and DVD Studio Pro and other pro authoring programs use a split-file architecture whereby the video and audio assets are completely separate files and become linked during the authoring process.  That means when making your final encode from your finished movie you'll always end up with two file types:  ".m2v" which will be the video component and ".ac3" or AAC for the audio half.  (There are other audio formats that will work for DVD authoring but AAC is the best choice because it takes up far less space without noticeable quality degradation.)

While DVD Studio Pro does have the ability to transcode your final movie files into DVD-compatible formats it absolutely is not optimized for the task and has very limited options for doing so.  Basically you DO NOT want to let DVD Studio Pro making your final encodes, you want to manually control the process using Compressor, period.

Another myth is that DVD's can playback at 60p or, 60 frames-per-second in progressive mode.  Unfortunately NTSC DVD's only have 2 playback frame-rates, either 23.98 (24p) or 29.97 (30p) either interlaced or progressive (progressive having much better per-frame quality and looks drastically better on newer HDTV sets).

While Compressor can give you commercial-grade results from your final encodes it is also very slow at doing it's job (creating a Virtual Cluster would greatly speed-up this process and will be discussed in another posting in the future).  So, I'm going to supply you with (2) versions of Compressor settings:  One that is the "Best of the Best" and give you stunning results - but will be painfully long in completing. The second I'll call "2nd Best", the results will be better than if you let DVDSP4 handle the encode - maybe even better than Apple's default "Best" droplet setting in Compressor but will take significantly less time to encode.

And by the way, the best thing to do when you're doing encoding tests is to export a 10 to 30-second sequence from your Final Cut timeline - hopefully one with a lot of motion or scene changes - and put it into Compressor with these various settings, and see what the end result looks like.  Then you'll know which one you want to use.  So onto these settings: (Note - these screenshots have been zoomed up because the default text size in Compressor is too damned small for normal humans to see clearly.  NOTE TO APPLE:  Give us UI FONT SIZE CONTROLS in all the FCS apps!)

First up:  Video Format which is found under the "Encoder" tab at the very top.  Notice the file format is MPEG-2 and the extension is m2v, that's the file you'll see when imported into DVDSP4.  (please disregard the "geometry" pop-up you see - that unfortunately was there when I made the screen-shot)

In each selection you'll notice the "star" button on the right; click it to highlight it which allows you to choose the options to the left.  Video format should be either NTSC or PAL (Yes, DVDSP4 can make either an NTSC or PAL disc image).  Manually select the frame-rate that matches what your timeline settings were in FCP.  If you shot at a frame-rate higher than 24p the select 29.97; aspect ratio should be set to 16:9 and let field dominance be "auto".

The next tab is under the upper Encoder tab is, "Quality":

Do NOT set a bitrate higher than what you see here, mainly because older DVD players would not be able to keep up with a max bitrate of 8Mbps.  Blu-Ray and newer DVD players can handle whatever you throw at them, but play it safe anyway.  Make Motion estimation "Best" here.

Forget about the GOP and Extras tab as they have nothing to do with quality settings and are for advanced use anyway.

Next up is Frame Controls tab up top which has just a single area of options (unlike Encoder which has 4 sub-tabs):

Again, you must manually hit the "star" button on the right to actually turn-on frame controls.  Set all the fields as noted above, make sure you use "Adaptive Details" and for the best all-around image clarity use no-more than a setting of "6" for anti-alias and "12" for details level.  More than that and you'll start seeing moire and macro-blocking from details being over-sharpened.  Rate conversion should be set to "best".

And that's it for the Video portion.  Audio is even simpler:

Set the File format to Dolby Digital (AC3/AAC) and make your settings exactly as above.  Do NOT make your data-rate any higher than 224 kbps as it will not make your audio sound any better it will just take up more space.  (We're only dealing with a stereo audio track here, not 5.1 or 7.1)

In the preprocessing tab uncheck everything; the only time you'll need to use things like a DC filter or low-pass is for very specialized audio which 98% of indie editors do not deal with, so don't bother.

But, remember I said that the "best of the best" might too painful to wait for it to finish it's job?  Take a look at these settings below  - which is video-based only.  Audio encoding takes very little time and reducing the quality there wouldn't be worthwhile.  These settings below will take much less time to encode but will not be nearly as gorgeous as what was listed above.

You'll notice that the bitrate has been lowered and, all the Frame Controls have been lowered to "Better" instead of "Best", and "Adaptive Details" has been unchecked as well as adding any anti-alias or details filtering.

Again, using 10 to 30-second test file encodes will tell you which of these settings best fits your needs.

Now this is far from being an exhaustive listing of what Compressor is actually capable of, in fact there are several other deeper controls that can alter image color, sharpness and a host of other attributes to your finals, but for overall image-quality for HD to SD-widescreen downconversion for DVD, this is what you need.


  1. Thanks for this information. I used the settings that did not tweak the audio, and honestly the DVD looks really good. I am very happy with the results. When one spends a long time tweaking an editing project only to burn to less than ideal results, this is what makes the difference. Thank you again!!

  2. Thanks for the article. I'll give it a try. Been having a good deal of trouble burning DVD's. Our HD footage looks great on the web but terrible when burned to DVD.

  3. Will the quality be compromised if exporting from Imovie '11/Quick Time ? I don't have Final Cut X

  4. I don't use iMovie and can't answer that question.

    Try asking on the forums at either DVinfo.net or, the Apple/iMovie forums.

  5. When you say "painfully long in completing", how long, approximately?

    For a 30 min. program rendered at 10 bit using the latest, most tricked-out iMac on the market, Compressor is telling me it is going to take about 80 HOURS to complete!

    Does that make sense? I'm sharing from FCPX to Compressor.

    Thanks. Great article!

  6. I don't use FCPX either because it lacks most of the professional workflows currently being used in post houses all over the world.

    I will tell you however that Adobe Media Encoder blows Compressor out of the water, both in speed and overall usability.

    If you don't have a copy of Premiere Pro you should check it out, Adobe offers a free full-version trial for (I think) 30-days. You'll be amazed at how much faster, simpler and robust it is compared to any version of FCP>

  7. Thanks a lot for this.
    I tried it on a 15min film and after 2min compressor failed with error 3x Blocage system down.
    Apparently this might be tied to user environment so I tried on different OS and different machine (MacBookPro 10.6 and MacPro 10.7) and I got the same results.
    Don't know what to do, very frustrating.

  8. What you should try is to download a copy of Digital Rebellions "Compressor Repair", here's the link:


    This should get Compressor reset and working properly again. If not then you've got deeper system issues that need troubleshooting.

  9. Hi, Thanks for this information. Can you tell me what length of movie the DVD can take with these settings to produce a smart looking finish?


  10. There are bitrate-to-time calculators on the web to determine how long a movie will fit into either a single or dual-layer DVD.

  11. Excellent article. But where in Compressor4 does one go about making a DVD to endlessly "loop"?

  12. Compressor only creates the encode. You set playback options in authoring programs like, DVD Studio Pro or, iDVD.

  13. I know this an old thread, but for "al pachino" and anyone else getting the "Failed x3 crash service down" message, I found out on another help forum, that one work around is to use all the HQ settings above, but with Anti-alias and Details Levels each set to 0. This has solved the problem many times for me, though it may be an important setting - it's worth turning off (down to 0) when this fail occurs. Hope this helps....

    On another note, has anyone else found the top super high quality options take FOREVER in Compressor? I even found the faster encode option 2 above to be very slow going...