The victory of Sony's Blu-ray in the battle of the HD formats is good news for DVD producers in the UK as they buy in new kit and plan a big push for Christmas - but it is a steep learning curve for facilities.

Last year was something of an annus horribilis for DVD authoring. The drastic fall in DVD prices put pressure on production costs while the US studios produced most of their titles in-house rather than farming them out to Europe, as they had done previously. It was a situation which forced many UK specialists to shut up shop while facilities' DVD arms, from Prime Focus' TMR to The Farm's Squash, closed their doors.

While high-definition DVDs promised to give the format a much-needed shot in the arm, the war between two manufacturers' formats - Toshiba's HD DVD and Sony's Blu-ray - proved a massive headache for authoring facilities.

Should those who had managed to survive in a market that was no longer as lucrative as it used to be risk investing in both sets of kit knowing that soon half of it would be redundant, or take a punt on the format they felt was strongest? Many sat on the fence, refusing to invest in a format that most UK consumers were not even demanding yet.

Then in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Warner Brothers, the one major studio to produce for both high-definition formats, announced it was pulling out of HD DVD and backing Blu-ray. By the end of February, Toshiba announced it was halting HD DVD development. Sony had won the war with Blu-ray discs (BD) - now the high-definition standard.

While it's still early days for DVD facilities - HD viewing in the UK has yet to go mainstream - Sony's victory is good news for the UK's early pioneers of the format. Julian Day, managing director of DGP, a London-based facility and affiliate of Warner Brothers, says: “It's made our lives easier from both an investment and technical point of view. Creating the same assets for two different formats took longer and involved many technical constraints.”

Richard Osbourne, a producer at DVD authoring facility Abbey Road Interactive, adds that, post-format war, he has seen a rise in clients enquiring about BD. “We've had lots of interest from studios and music companies and I think this Christmas there's going to be a big push,” he says.

Eyeframe, another early investor in both sets of kit, has now been able to invest in more Blu-ray kit, allowing it to work on two Blu-ray projects at the same time.

Others, including The Pavement and Ascent's DVD arm, Stream, are not only investing in HD kit for the first time, but also reorganising their businesses.

From the beginning of this month Stream was merged into Ascent 142, a new division housed at the post-production group's Wardour Street building incorporating St Anne's Post, Ascent's Wardour Street facility and One Post.

According to Simon Constable, Ascent 142 vice-president, operations, creative services, the move will offer clients a wider ranging service that offers both volume and quality: “We can offer clients the best of both worlds now we're in one building - duplication and audio laybacks as well as the higher end graphics jobs involving menus, special features and more creative elements.”

Of course, Constable adds, the move was also designed to save the facility money and “tackle the budgets that competitors aren't able to”.

142 is also launching its own BD service and is set to invest in authoring and graphics kit as well as a yet-to-be decided encoding system.

Meanwhile, The Pavement, the company behind the hugely successful Peep Show DVDs, is upping sticks from its Shoreditch location to take up residence within Goldcrest Post Production's premises in Soho - where managing director Andy Evans will join forces with his former Stream boss Keith Williams, now Goldcrest's chief executive.

According to Evans, the move benefits both parties. “We will be able to share kit such as HD decks and offer clients lots of additional housekeeping with tapes and audio. Goldcrest also has an HD facility in New York and the idea is to put some of The Pavement's encoding kit over there to offer its clients a Blu-ray service,” Evans explains.

In light of its recent win, Sony's DVD facility arm, Sony DADC, has been boosting its facilities following the£5.9m purchase of two former Deluxe replication and distribution facilities in Southwater and Enfield. In May DADC hired former Technicolor manager Neil Botterill as head of studio, with a remit to expand the head count, as well as services for post-production, DVD and Blu-ray authoring.

Another key player in DVD is manufacturer Sonic Solutions, which produces applications including authoring tool Scenarist, Scenarist Designer for menu graphics and video encoder Cinevision.

Richard Linecar, managing director of Sonic's European professional operations, has observed that while the format war put the smaller companies off, now it's over, companies such as Fremantle and 2 Entertain have suddenly started knocking on his clients' doors again. “We've gone from three or four early customers in the UK and doubled this number in the past couple of months,” he says.

Facilities have also been encouraged by the fact that distributors are increasing their number of Blu-ray titles.

2 Entertain (owned by BBC Worldwide and Woolworths) currently holds the rights to around 50% of all UK-produced TV DVDs. According to managing director of DVD and video Stuart Snaith, the strategy so far has been to release 10 titles in BD that represent “a cross-section of who we are”. So far this has included Planet Earth, Robin Hood, Bleak House and Galapagos, with Doctor Who spin-off show Torchwood, Lark Rise to Candleford and Gavin & Stacey to follow shortly. Planet Earth alone sold 60,000 units in the UK this year. In the US it sold 600,000 units, 30% in BD. Next year, Snaith expects this to rise to 40%.

One drawback for distributors is that not every back-catalogue classic transfers well onto BD, including almost anything shot on a SD tape format because of its much lower resolution. This means that while old dramas shot on film (which possesses a higher resolution than even HD), including Brideshead Revisited and Andrew Davies' Pride and Prejudice, are currently undergoing the BD treatment, strong DVD performers such as Doctor Who, Blackadder and Fawlty Towers, which were shot on SD tape, may never make it onto Blu-ray. “You can enhance them, but it's not true HD,” Snaith insists.

In addition, for those distributors serious about releasing titles on BD, facilities are currently advising producers to plan for much longer lead times. One reason for this is that video encoding for Blu-ray is a slower process. Evans explains: “The picture quality is higher which leaves more detail to be misinterpreted. It can take a week, rather than a day, depending on the quality of the master.”

James Greenwall, head of sales and marketing at DVD authoring outfit Eyeframe, believes producers should allow at least “six or eight weeks” for BD, which includes the design, encoding, authoring and quality control. By contrast, it takes around two weeks to make a SD disc.

Distributors also need to factor in lead times for the DVD presses where mass batches of discs are replicated - “at least two months,” according to Greenwall - because there are only around eight in Europe which offer a full BD service. This means distributors hoping to release BD titles for the Christmas market need to start planning between now and August.

And time is money. Simon Roue, managing director of DVD facility 24/7, estimates that a BD disc can be around eight times more expensive to produce than an SD disc. “By the time it's in a box you're talking 45p per disc on SD compared with around£2 on Blu-ray,” he adds.

Investment costs in kit, staff and training also need to be considered. Some estimate that the cost of setting up a BD facility can come to as much as£1.4m, while others say the outlay is as little as£60,000 for a basic offering. Much depends on the facility's existing infrastructure - it helps if you are a DVD facility with the support of a bigger HD-based post house or studio behind you.

Staff training and recruitment costs can also mount up, although Sonic's Linecar adds that it depends on the type of BD disc you are producing.

High Definition Movie Mode (HDMV) discs are similar to SD discs. However a key difference is that pop-up menus appear as overlays, allowing users to access them at any time. According to Linecar, “around 90% of HD-MV workflow is reasonably similar to SD authoring, graphics and encoding.”

The other type of BD disc, BD-J, allows for much greater capabilities. The user can listen to, and download the soundtrack, connect to websites or interactive TV applications or play complex computer games. “This is a much more advanced interactive style of playback and requires Java programming - an utterly different skillset from standard DVD authoring. Staff [working with BD-J] are more likely to come from the gaming side of the industry or to have worked on interactive TV red-button applications,” says Linecar.

While some may balk at the outlay involved in BD authoring, particularly as the credit crunch starts to bite, many think that this is outweighed by the potential of BD as a format and the opportunities that it is set to offer.

Many facilities are welcoming the chance to get back to a more specialised and creative form of authoring, as opposed to just churning out volumes of SD discs. As Abbey Road's Osbourne notes: “The factory mentality has disappeared - for now. When we started in DVD there was a really good dialogue between the production company and the authoring house. Blu-ray has brought this back now, we are all on the same learning curve again. It's an exciting time.”

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The First Series / Ascent 142
Earlier this year Ascent 142 (formerly Stream) was commissioned to produce a standard-definition disc for the whole of the first series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, the children's drama from the makers of Doctor Who.

In the pilot disc, which was also authored at Ascent, the main focus for the disc's menu design was the attic in Sarah Jane's house. For the box set, due out in November, this 3D environment was elaborated.

Designer Matt Patience was given full access to the show's attic set at BBC Wales, where he directed the photography for the 3D modelling.

Patience constructed the attic at the design studio in 3D Max using the reference photographs and schematic diagrams. He went on to create camera moves providing the viewer with different sections of the attic to explore within all the menus on the disc.

Ascent 142 head of design Peter Halata explains: “We used custom 3D plug-ins to integrate all the 2D design elements within the 3D scene. This allowed us to be really flexible and allow for changes up until the last minute, without having to rerender any of the time-consuming 3D.

DVD glossary

BD: Sony's Blu-ray disc

BD-J: Blu-ray disc Java. The interactive platform supporting advanced content for BD. Allows bonus content on BD discs to be far more sophisticated offering internet access, games and music downloads.

Duplication: The process of “burning” data onto a recordable DVD. Most facilities offer this service for small runs of DVD or BD discs. Not to be confused with replication, which requires a glass master and a larger space to churn out big runs.

HD DVD: Toshiba's now defunct rival format to Blu-ray.

High Definition Movie Mode (HDMV): Part of the Blu-ray disc specifications, offering similar features to standard DVD-Video. It also offers improved navigational and menu features, graphics, animation and subtitling support and new features such as browsable slideshows.

Profile 1 player: Players that support BD-J with no internet connection. Most of the current players on the market fall within this category.

Profile 2 player: Players that can handle BD-J with internet connection. These are only just starting to be introduced to the market but will offer the user a much higher level of interactivity with the format.

Replication: The process of pressing or stamping data onto a DVD from a master disc to churn out larger runs. Some of the larger UK facilities offer replication services although there are specialised replication plants (sometimes known as “presses”), which cater for large runs. Currently there are only around eight BD presses across Europe and distributors are being advised to allow a two-month lead-time for replication once their disc has been authored.

UMD: Universal Media Disc. An optical disc format designed for use in Sony's portable PlayStation, the PSP. Users can watch movies by inserting these discs into the device. The format never really took off, although every now and then a new batch of movies is authored on this format, keeping DVD facilities busy. Those familiar with authoring for this platform are more likely to be familiar with the BD-J format.