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More Home Media Expo

Jun 26th, 2008
A second day among enthusiasts of commerce and art

BD Live, Sony Style, and So Much More

Dave reported his BD Live experiences when he attended one of Disney’s demonstrations of those advanced features as only that studio can implement. As I described yesterday, Sony was at the show demonstrating its implementation of BD Live. I was interested to learn that Sony’s approach is to develop the applications in-house and independently. During a seminar in a much smaller venue, Sony's demonstration pretty much duplicated what was shown during the opening session, so I’ll not waste your valuable time with a duplicate description. I’ll only volunteer that Sony was using a PS3 for the demo and it was very fast indeed. This provoked some curiosity among the audience members about Sony’s two new Profile 2.0 players, the BDP-S350 and the BDP-S550, in terms of both speed and availability.

But the demonstrators were the studio’s home entertainment people; not being from the hardware side of the house, their knowledge was limited. Discovering whether or not the new players will rival the PS3’s speed (unlikely) will have to wait for the first hardware reviews to immerge. What we were told is that the BDP-S350 will be available in July and the BDP-S550 will be available in the fall.

Of more interest to those looking forward to high definition releases of Sony’s back catalog was the presentation by Senior Vice President, Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Grover Crisp. He oversees with his staff the chemical and digital restoration of the Columbia and TriStar film libraries. There are apparently two hundred restorations ongoing at any particular time and the pipeline is typically three years long.

With regard to digital restoration, he and his staff evaluate all the commercial tools that are marketed by software companies offering unique solutions to unique problems. To illustrate such software processes, which can range from correcting very obvious visual problems to correcting those that are quite subtle, he ran several sequences from The Bridge on the River Kwai, a current project. The film had recently undergone chemical restoration and had been shown in a retrospective theatrical presentation. His and his team’s jobs are now to prepare the film for a high definition release on Blu-ray Disc.

He brought the audience’s attention to several flaws that were present in the theatrical experience but are considered unacceptable for a Blu-ray Disc release. Among them are: registration problems that cause the image to jitter; performing color correction (preferably with the cinematographer or director, a little difficult since both David Lean and Jack Hildyard are no longer with us); and, removing visual artifacts that are inconsistent with the look of the film. He revealed that past practices overwhelmingly ignored the participation of the director or cinematographer, a practice that is being corrected whenever possible. We were shown before and after demonstrations of the same sequences, and quite impressively, the images had been improved without harm.

This presentation provoked questions from the audience concerning a topic that has weighed heavily on film purists and home theater enthusiasts of late: grain removal. Grover listened to audience concerns and explained that he’s evaluated many grain removal tools but found none to be acceptable. He impresses me as being a true film lover who wants to provide the very best theatrical experience but is not willing to compromise the integrity of the presentation. (I will report in a forthcoming column about my assessment of the Patton BD and my continuing dialog with Fox; Sony was not involved with that title.)

He then ran an excerpt from a western (one of five to be released in a Blu-ray Disc box set) currently being prepared. He pointed out an odd halo that surrounds a principal actor as he walks away from his horse within a desert-like setting. He quipped that he expects the halos to cause some reviewers to accuse Sony of applying edge enhancement. But these were unusually thick and diffuse, not a halo per se, but a halo-like outline that seemed to be transparent and elevated the brightness of the image content behind the halo. (No photos were permitted, so I’m afraid that’s the best I can do; I hope my description is clear.) They are, in fact, present on the film and were apparenty caused by some kind of odd optical or photochemical process that is undefined.

Since halos are my pet peeve, I chimed in. I said that these didn’t have the appearance of edge enhancement, nor did they resemble a failure mechanism of any high definition CODEC (nor, for that matter, a failure mechanism of MPEG-2). I then offered that although Sony Blu-ray Disc releases are for the most part very fine, I have observed what appear to be edge halos on a few of the studio's releases, including the remastering of The Fifth Element (Grover’s first restoration and done under the supervision of Luc Besson) and on the recent release of Men in Black. He was quite emphatic about both the telecine and the restoration processes and insisted that no edge enhancement was applied and no halos should have been produced. However, he couldn’t speak about compression and authoring; that is handled by others.

He asked me to send specific examples of observable halos (title and time) so he can investigate and respond. I appreciate the opportunity to have a dialog about one of the most troublesome flaws in visual presentations for the home. Who knows? Maybe the site can make a difference.

The Panasonic Presentation

I was told that the Panasonic presentation was going to concentrate on BD Live. But the presenter from Panasonic Hollywood Labs (PHL), Bhanu Srikanth, explained that she was going to be more general. She took us through a very professional looking PowerPoint presentation that described the nature of PHL, the organization’s work on the Blu-ray Disc format, and her involvement with BD-Java applications in particular.

She began with a general discussion of PHL and its considerable support of Fox; BD player owners who’ve watched Fox BDs will recall the compression and authoring services plaque that comes up after a film’s closing credits. PHL was the first to produce an AVC compressed title, the first to include BD-J code, the first to include the extra layer of BD+ protection, and the first to produce a disc that is BD Live enabled. PHL also is directly involved in the evolution of BD profile standards.

I found it interesting that PHL developed its own MPEG-4/AVC encoder, since I’ve almost always admired the Fox titles PHL compressed. This is a vertical organization that’s developed designs that range from BD spin coating methods to dedicated BD players. I saw the facilities during last fall’s Blu-ray Festival; they include a motion picture theater sized screen on which BDs may be displayed using a large venue, 3-chip DLP projection system. And I also found it interesting that in blind tests and evaluations of CODECs, Panasonic’s golden eyes decided that AVC yielded the best looking high definition presentations, since I had arrived at that conclusion quite independently.

Ms. Srikanth is a manager responsible for and has considerable firsthand experience with BD-Java code development. She described the roles of the code and how it fits into the layered structure of BD digital content. She went through in considerable detail the definitions and functions of all the information layers and subsystems. This, quite naturally, led to a discussion of the interminable load times associated with BD-J applications and the potential for turning consumers off who are used to the brisk load times of DVD. She tried to explain how compressed images that are part of the BD-J application have to be transferred from the BD to the player and decompressed. She noted that the industry is well aware of the load problem and there is ongoing work to find solutions. There was a comparison of the performance of the PS3 with dedicated players and the functionalities that enhance or inhibit speed. But just as the discussion was getting lively, differentiating between disc transfer speeds and the power of the player’s processor, the session had to be called to make room for the next seminar. Sigh. I’ll try to follow up on the issue of load times in a future column.

Parting Thoughts

There is a third Expo day, but it’s dedicated to delivery vectors other than Blu-ray Disc. Rather than cover mechanisms that do not and, for the foreseeable future, cannot deliver Blu-ray quality, I opted not to invest the time.

I’m encouraged by the great enthusiasm I found among studios, distributors, and retailers to ensure Blu-ray Disc’s success. There was another seminar I wanted to attend on Tuesday, “Blu Skies: Assuring the Success of Blu-ray Disc,” but it ran simultaneously with the Panasonic presentation. I requested the PowerPoint slides from that session and if there’s anything of interest, I’ll pass that along to you in a future column.

The overriding theme wherever I looked was everyone’s desire to make BD a financial success. That success will ensure film lovers and home theater enthusiasts wonderful experiences in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. I couldn’t be more pleased. But that wasn't the best part of the experience. Nor was discovering that desirable titles are on the way on Blu-ray Disc, from the less famous (like Ghost in the Shell: Innocence) to the more famous (like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which implies that the original trilogy also is likely on the way). The greatest value of the trip, from my point of view, was opening dialogs with knowledgeable and (I hope) caring people who can, at the very least, act as conduits of information that might improve the quality of the BDs we enjoy.

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