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The Blu-ray Festival

Nov 2nd, 2007
And more HD disc news

I spent the early part of the week attending a press event for Blu-ray Disc at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.  The hotel is located within the Hollywood and Highland complex that includes Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Kodak Theater, and a moderately upscale shopping center.  Aspiring actors in elaborate costumes and makeup linger in front of Grauman’s and the Kodak, encouraging tourists to have their pictures taken with them in exchange for a voluntary contribution.  And sitting on the asphalt at the hotel’s entrance was a magnificent beast, a half-million dollar silver Mercedes SLR McLaren.  Both ends of the Hollywood financial spectrum seemed well represented.

The Blu-ray Disc Association, Sony, Panasonic Hollywood Labs, Fox, and Buena Vista supported the event.  Approximately fifty participants flew in or drove in from all over the country.  Now, before you suggest that only sites that have expressed a preference for Blu-ray Disc were invited, allow me to assure you that every disc-oriented site known to me (and quite a few that were not) were in attendance, as well as many print publications.  In fact, one of the pleasures of the junket was the opportunity to meet for the first time fellow editors and writers.  I was amused to discover that most, if not all, are as detail oriented and compulsively anal retentive as this writer.  It’s either an occupational hazard or a requirement for the job.

Day One

The opening session was, pure and simple, a nicely organized and entertaining sales pitch.  It was a presentation by the Blu-ray Disc Association; official spokesman Andy Parsons hosted.  Sales statistics and organizational support were dutifully reported, as were other numbers and factoids that I’ve presented to you in previous columns.  Of greater value was meeting industry insiders and discussing topics not covered in the formal presentation.  For example, as you most likely know, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been processed for 3D and is currently being shown theatrically.  I suggested to Buena Vista that they bring 3D home on Blu-ray Disc using shuttered LCD glasses and 60 fps progressive video, alternating frames between the left and right eye.  It seems that BVHE has been investigating how to produce 3D discs, but I was left with the impression that the studio hadn’t considered that particular technique.  I also had the opportunity to speak with a hardware manufacturer concerning the price differentials between HD DVD players and Blu-ray Disc players.  Alas, that discussion was off the record, but I can’t imagine the Blu-ray Disc camp not reacting to the recent announcement by Toshiba that it’s introducing a $198 SRP HD DVD player for the holiday buying season (see below).  Elsewhere, there have been reports that Sony Electronics president Stan Glasgow said that for the fourth quarter, "Blu-ray will be down to $399 and slightly below that, but not much lower."  It will be interesting to see how Sony responds the Toshiba price challenge.

The next session was held at the Fox studios, where we were sternly warned that photography was not permitted.  We were sat in a theater that would put most multiplexes to shame.  A large screen that afforded the viewers in the first row a viewing angle of over sixty degrees was illuminated by a 3-chip, large-venue, 1080p DLP projector.  Fox presented both available BDs – like The Day After Tomorrow, and some titles to be released between November and January, including I, Robot, Live Free and Die Hard, Sunshine, and Master and Commander.  The sound was excellent, but the images really impressed.  I’ve often written that thanks to HD on disc, I’ve finally reached my goal of reproducing the motion picture experience in the home.  This demonstration made remarkably clear that the source material is not the limiting visual factor.  I saw and enjoyed Star Wars Episodes 2 and 3 theatrically (the Star Wars films are the only movies I’ve seen theatrically since 1994), and since they were shot in 1080p24, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how well a 1080 line format holds up when projected to such large dimensions.  Perhaps it was because we were watching lossy video compressed with the AVC CODEC.  Terrific visuals.  The slant was rather odd; the emphasis was on the BD-J features of the discs, supplements like Fox’s unique index feature and Java-based games.  More importantly, we were given the opportunity to question nearly a dozen Fox personnel.  As you might expect, my question was technical.  I wanted to know if Fox routinely removed X-Curve pre-emphasis from its discs’ audio tracks.  It was the only question of the session for which no one could offer a definitive answer, but after the session, I was approached by one of the technical staff who invited me to contact him to resolve it.  I’ll report the results of the dialog in a future column.

(To the best of my knowledge, only New Line routinely indicates on its discs that re-equalization is not necessary.  Since X-Curve pre-emphasis accentuates frequencies above 2 KHz, THX Re-equalization is needed to avoid a sound that’s too bright; but, applying re-equalization to a track for which the pre-emphasis has been removed will result in a sound that has a suppressed top end.  I feel that all discs and keepcases should indicate whether or not to enable re-equalization.)

The next event was an informal cocktail party sponsored by Sony and delightfully catered by the Wolfgang Puck organization.  This was my first opportunity to talk to a compression specialist.  I was curious to learn how to recognize the failure modes of advanced video CODECs.  We’re all familiar with how MPEG-2 fails: halos, mosquito noise, and macroblocking.  But with the exception of what I perceive as increased granularity, I haven’t been able to identify other symptoms of a stressed advanced CODEC.  Understanding the failure mechanisms is very helpful for any reviewer; it allows us to rate the quality of a transfer by recognizing problems.  I was told that in addition to the granularity I noticed (which is attributed to the equivalent of macroblocking), coring can develop.  When coring occurs, smooth gradients become banded.  That would be the first of two such conversations.  I was also pleased to meet documentarians and DVD producers, Charles de Lauzirika and Kim Aubry, the latter from Zoetrope Aubry Productions.  And since the rest of the evening was social, perhaps I should move on to the next day.

Day Two

It began with an entertaining question and answer session with Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, which was being heavily promoted by Buena Vista.  Outgoing and open, after extolling the virtues of Blu-ray Disc as the medium that reveals the film’s dense detail, he amused and educated the audience as he responded to questions.  It was like watching a disc supplement live.  As pleasant as the session may have been, this was essentially a promotional for the release of Ratatouille on BD.  Perhaps the most significant factoid to come out of this session is that Buena Vista is planning other Pixar releases on BD for 2008.

The next session was held at Panasonic Hollywood Labs.  I knew that Panasonic provided compression and authoring services, but until this visit, I was unaware that such tools were being developed in California.  This event was essentially divided between a startling demonstration of the quality of one of Panasonic’s transfers and the product announcement of a new Blu-ray Disc player, the DMP-BD30.  The former challenged the experienced audience to identify the uncompressed master and the AVC compressed transfer for The Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.  Once again, we were ushered into a theater with a large screen that would put any multiplex to shame.  Once again, a large-venue 3-chip 1080p DLP projector created the images.  The image was split diagonally, from the lower left to the upper right; one section was the uncompressed master and the other was the AVC compressed video from the transfer.  Based on the answers I heard both during the demo and afterwards, I’d say the guesses were evenly split.  We didn’t have much time; perhaps with a longer opportunity to view the demo, the differences would have become apparent.  All I can tell you is that I was not at all sure which was which.  This transfer for Fox earned a rare score of ten when I reviewed the title; this demonstration simply reinforced the quality of the video.  Very impressive.  Less impressive was the commercialization of the session.  I was pleased to be present for the announcement; I just wish less time had been dedicated to the product.  I had hoped to be guided throught the process of telecine, compression, and authoring.  That was not to be.  Panasonic’s new player will be marketed in mid-November for an SRP of $499, will offer “final profile” compatibility, HDMI 1.3a for the passing of advanced audio bit streams to external decoders and Deep Color, and a clever interface that accepts memory cards.  Panasonic also demonstrated a remarkably small and light high definition camcorder that will store forty minutes of video on an 8 GB card (more time at two lesser HD quality levels - more compression, same resolution).  The card then plugs into the player for displaying the recording on your HD-ready display.  Alas, I was not able to get a definitive answer to a question about video editing tools.  With regard to “final profile,” it’s my understanding that the hardware will support profile 1.1 and 2.0, but that a firmware update will be required for 2.0.

The last session was another party, and this one was not being thrown for us.  Buena Vista had organized a huge event for perhaps five or six hundred people at Social Hollywood.  When we arrived, spotlights were orbiting, casting columns of light into the sky.  A red carpet had been set up and the press was interviewing and photographing actors and filmmakers, separated only by some velvet ropes.  Clearly, the red carpet was not intended for us.  Now that optical discs make more money for the studios than box office receipts, high profile disc releases are apparently celebrated with as much enthusiasm as theatrical premieres.  This event was to celebrate the release of Ratatouille, and to a lesser extent, Cars and Pixar Short Films, all on Blu-ray Disc.  The keynote address was by Buena Vista Home Entertainment president Bob Chapek, who then introduced John Lasseter, director of the Toy Story 1, Toy Story 2, and Cars, for an interview session.  Once again, the interview was entertaining, charming, and with a decided emphasis on Blu-ray’s ability to reveal detail.  The food was great, with a French slant in honor of the film (yes, Ratatouille was one of the many dishes).  Brad Bird and several of Ratatouille’s voice talent were also in attendance.  Perhaps most significant, a serious rumor was denied.  Warner Home Video Vice President of High Definition Media Dan Silverberg was quoted as saying, “One thing that may be changing is our strategy.  When both formats launched and hardware prices were high, we made a decision to support both formats and let the consumer decide. But now that hardware pricing is affordable for both Blu-ray and HD DVD, it appears consumers no longer want to decide - so the notion of staying in two formats for the duration is something we are re-evaluating now that we are in the fourth quarter.”  He also noted that Blu-ray Disc sales have enjoyed a 2:1 advantage over HD DVD for the last nine months.  That might lead one to believe that Warner is about to announce exclusively for Blu-ray, but when he was approached by one of our group, I was told that he denied any decision has been made, his comments were taken out of context, and Warner will continue to support both formats for the foreseeable future.  With such seemingly contradictory information, we’ll simply have to wait and see whether or not Warner will change its position.

The one aspect of this event that became extremely clear is that Blu-ray Disc supporters are willing to stay in the fight for the long-term.  They are committed and confident that they will win.  As Buena Vista Home Entertainment president Bob Chapek said in his keynote address, “Blu-ray will prevail.”

Will cost or quality prevail?

Blu-ray Disc is facing some very serious price pressures.  In a not-so-secret Secret In-Store Special Sale this weekend, Wal-Mart is offering Toshiba’s HD-A2 HD DVD player for a ridiculously low $98.87.  The sale has begun and will extend through Sunday the 4th; the sale will be at retail stores only.  Clearly, this is a fire sale for an obsolete product that did not sell out its inventory, but it’s an opportunity for consumers to buy a high definition player at an absurdly low price.  There are also reports that K-Mart has decided to stop selling all Blu-ray Disc players, but will continue to sell the PS3.  That’s got to hurt.  And while at the Festival, there was talk of a 1080i Toshiba player that will carry an SRP of $198 in time for the holiday sales.  The rumor is that it’s the HDA2-W and will be sold by Wal-Mart.  This player should not be confused with the $199 Venturer HD DVD made in China.  Is this desperate dumping?  Or has Toshiba managed to reduce the feature set and manufacturing cost to the point that a $198 SRP is possible?  I came away from the festival with the distinct impression that the sponsors view this as an act of desperation, a means to establish enough of an installed base to turn around that 2:1 software sales ratio. 

The drama continues.