One of the biggest challenges (and headaches) I’ve had here at MPC design-wise is learning how to create DVD Menus easily. And since I’ve been trained in electronic-production at my first job, I’m always looking for ways to deliver my design work to the people who produce it, in the friendliest and easiest-to-understand way that I can. Whether that involves clean PSDs with extra layers thrown away and fonts rendered out, or written instructions for a print job with a mock-up, or marked-up web pages designed in Photoshop to explain functionality, I think to be a really good designer, you need to make your stuff easy to MAKE. If it doesn’t make it through production, you’ve wasted a lot of time, both yours and other people’s time who are working with you.

That said, let me share a little wisdom in a brief tutorial (with truth be told, will help me remember this and reference it in the future as much as it will help you, i think).

First off, let me share 2 things that will save you MUCH trouble in your menu creation task. We do all of our videos in standard definition, because most people (especially companies that do training, our actual audience) still usually have regular 4:3 TV sets to show videos on. (Our videos, however, are now all shot in Hi-Def – which is fine for a regular screen, it just gets letterboxed in the actual program)

After a lot of experiementation, this is the setting that works best for us (in terms of creating your menu file in the first place):

Another CRUCIAL factor in getting your menus to not look stretched or squished on an actual TV screen is to make sure your pixels are the right shape. (I know, I know, you’d think pixels are square, but NOT on a video screen. They’re actually rectangular, so you need to compensate.) This option is found in your Photoshop IMAGE menu, under Pixel Aspect Ratio:

Now that you’ve got a basic document started, let me give you a template to work from. This is a JPG, but you can add layers to it, or copy and paste it onto the image you just created. It will basically give you what’s called your “action safe” and “title safe” areas. You need to know this, because just because it’s on your menu layout, doesn’t mean it will fit onto the average TV screen of whoever your viewers are using. Here’s the JPG (click on it and then click and Save As):

Any elements contained in your Action Safe area are pretty-much guaranteed to be visible on most TV screens, and this is mainly for buttons. You don’t want the text of an important button going off a person’s viewable screen. So keep it in the box. Anything in the “Title Safe” area are your really important things – such as a Title. Keep all your text within this box, and you have nothing to worry about. You’ll always have more real-estate on a computer screen than you will on a TV screen.

You may have noticed that the template isn’t solid white. That’s because pure white on a computer monitor is TOO bright for a TV screen. You’ll get an annoying buzz if you use colors out of the gamut of a regular TV monitor. So if you stick with the dimmed-down white I have here, on a TV it will look fully white, and you will be safe. If you’ve already created some elements using straight white, I discovered going into IMAGE> Adjust > Hue & Saturation, and turning down the Lightness slider about 5-10% works wonders.

(BTW, you also can’t do 100% red or blue in Video Design either – they buzz too. Basically keep it dimmer than you’d expect to see, and you can’t go wrong)

OK. So you’re designing your menus, and having a grand old time, when you give it to your DVD production fella (if you have that luxury, like I do) and while dropping it into DVD Studio Pro, he comes back and says “Hey! How do we know which option you’re on! You need on and off states!” You slap your head and let out a D’OH that would make Homer Simpson proud, and reload your menu. It’s important (I always leave this part out when i’m in the heat of designing) to create an ON and OFF state for every option ahead of time. (actually with DVDs, you can do 3 hit states – i forget the technical names, but there’s an On and an Off and a Selected (which displays for about a second) but I like to keep my menus easy. (Like I said, I like to deliver files that are easy to work with)

Here’s what my title menu looks like:

If you notice, the arrows are the indicators for what option you’re on, but they’re not actually dark blue stroked with orange. The large orange arrow is the ON and the small blue arrow is the OFF. The end user will only see one of these at a time. Take a look at my Layers pallette and you’ll see what I mean. (TIP: ALWAYS name your layers for your own reference, and that of others)

I’ve discovered that it’s also very important to use the right fonts. Anything too small or too thin (serifs, especially) will get lost on the lower resolution of a TV monitor, or get lost between the scan lines. Use a bold typeface that is easy to read from a distance, and make your fonts BIG. Don’t be afraid to bring a user across a series of screens if you have a lot of text to convey. Better to chunk your content than force someone to get out of their seat and squint in front of the screen.

Some curves and angles in certain fonts will also show jagginess when viewed on TV as well, so always check your work often on a screen representative of how the end user will look at it. I’ve taken to adding close, light drop shadows to pretty much all of my type layers, to really get them to pop and read easily.

These little drop shadows and transparency effects that make my layouts look so pretty on my end won’t do any good if they aren’t also showing up in the DVD authoring program (in this case, DVD Studio Pro). I learned that the hard way this morning. Which means I need to go back to ALL my type layers in Photoshop (ALWAYS keep original, layered, text-object PSDs) and render out all those pretty effects. Quite time consuming, but if you don’t know how, here’s how to do it, in a nutshell:

1. Select the type layer that has the Layer Effect applied to it, in your Layers palette. Right Click (PC or Mac users w/ 2 buttons) or Ctrl-Click (Mac users with 1 button) right on the “FX” icon next to the layer name. On the fly-out menu shown, select Create Layer.

2. Select your original type layer (if it isn’t still selected) and then shift-select the Effect Layer that was just created (in my case, it’s a drop shadow layer)

On your keyboard, you can quickly combine selected layers by hitting Command-E (or Ctrl-E on the PC). (BE CAREFUL that you hit “E” and not “W”, Mac users, or your file will close pretty quickly, and also watch out for “R” because your file will REVERT faster than you can blink!!!)

Once this flattening of layers with their drop shadows is done, your file should be ready to deliver to the production people (or drop into your DVD program yourself). Again, clean up any stray layers or template elements to avoid confusion or production mistakes, and you’re well on your way to creating some great-looking and usable DVD menus!