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By Dan Moren

Adventures in DVD authoring

I had to burn a DVD recently.

Christmastime was rolling around, and I was looking for a gift for my mom. It occurred to me that there was a particular video she’d wanted in DVD form. (A digital file would have been easier, to be sure, but her setup doesn’t make watching that super easy, and there were other considerations, which I’ll go into in a bit.)

I probably haven’t burned a DVD in a decade, but back in the day, this was pretty straightforward. You authored some content in iDVD, popped in a blank disc, and burned away.

But that was then—these days, iDVD is long dead and Apple barely even ships a Mac with a DVD drive. Fortunately, I have a 2011 iMac that may be getting a little long in the tooth otherwise, but turns out to be just the right age for this little adventure, so I didn’t have to run out and buy an external drive for this project.

Hardware, however, was only part of the battle. As optical drives have waned on Macs, so has software to support them. Turning a video file into a DVD that you can pop into a set-top player is increasingly esoteric and surprisingly complicated.

Conversion

The video file in question was an AVI, with an MPEG-4 video stream and MP3 audio, so the first step was converting it into a format compatible with DVD players. There are plenty of conversion tools out there, but the one that I settled upon is a shareware tool based on—albeit kind of dated—open-source software: ffmpegX.

ffmpegX

Even though the tool doesn’t seem to have seen a single update since 2011, it’s still available for download and, somewhat amazingly to me, it still launched fine on a system running El Capitan. You have to jump through a couple of hoops to grab further components for encoding video, but ffmpegX itself provides URLs for downloading them, and I had no trouble installing them either.

One of the other reasons I chose ffmpegX was that it actually provides a handy walkthrough for this whole process, including one particularly troublesome part: subtitles.

Subtitles

Ah, yes, subtitles. If you thought creating DVDs was a lost art, adding subtitles into the mix is even more off in the weeds. But my mom doesn’t hear as well as she used to, so subtitles were going to be a necessity.

More to the point, what I wanted to do was create a DVD with a selectable subtitle option—à la the DVDs we all know and love—rather than simply burning the subtitles permanently into the video track.

VLC

Turns out that ffmpegX can actually handle that, too. First, though, you need to make sure that your subtitles line up with your video. VLC is your friend there, since it lets you add a subtitle file1 and tweak the timing. Select Track Synchronization from the Window menu and adjust the numbers there until you have a result you’re happy with—it may take some work to get things just right, and make sure to check the entire video, in case there’s any drift.

Once you’ve got them lined up, you can select the subtitle file in ffmpegX’s Filters tab, and it’ll add them in as a selectable track.

Burning

Okay, you’ve got the video file converted to a DVD compatible format and added the subtitles. Great. Now comes time for the old DVD burning.

Just to be sure I wasn’t screwing anything else up, I decided to use one of ffmpegX’s built-in tools to turn the whole shebang into a disc image. Selecting the Tools tab, I chose the “img” option and picked the folder created by the conversion process to create an image file.

In the good old days, I’d have then fired up Disk Utility to burn that image to a disc, but as you may have discovered, Apple’s removed a whole bunch of functionality from the app in El Capitan, so that’s a non-starter.

Fortunately, burning a DVD is still pretty easy, as long as you have a blank DVD.2 A little searching led me to an Apple support doc all about burning discs in El Capitan, including this handy little tidbit:

To burn a disc image (.dmg file) to a disc, Control-click the disc image file, choose “Burn Disc Image [disc name] to Disc” from the shortcut menu, then follow the instructions.

El Capitan disc burning

A little while later, I had my freshly minted DVD, which I popped into my set-top DVD player and sure enough, it worked and let me select subtitles.3

From start to finish, including the lengthy conversion and burning processes, the whole project ended up taking me a few hours, and I ended up with a one of a kind Christmas present—and learned more than a few things along the way. Now here’s hoping I’ll never have to do it again.


  1. That’s a .srt file, which is essentially just a plain text file with timecodes.  ↩

  2. I honestly could not believe that I still had a stack of blank DVDs in my house. I think I need to clean out my office… ↩

  3. Though it worked in VLC as well, using the Open Disc option, OS X’s own DVD Player app wouldn’t play back video. And I couldn’t get it to play on my Xbox One either. I suspect there may be some copy-protection-related reason on that, but I’m not sure.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]