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Will Adult Entertainment Decide The Format War?

Feb 2nd, 2007
And just what does a typical title look like?

There can be little doubt that the ultimate success of VHS as it battled with Betamax for market supremacy was affected in no small part by adult entertainment.  (Let’s call it AE for short; I’m reluctant to call it porn, since it’s subjective and in the eye of the beholder.)  So now the question becomes, will AE have a similar effect on the high definition format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc?

The argument can be made that with the Internet providing so many opportunities for obtaining such content that AE on physical media has become irrelevant.  I reject that suggestion.  Sales figures would refute that suggestion.  The existing market is huge: over $4 billion in AE DVD sales.  So apparently there is something about the presentation on DVD that is more satisfying than content available over the Web.  Which provokes the next question, will AE on HD disc be more satisfying than DVD?

Clearly, there is a downside.  The clarity of HD media accentuates actor imperfections: cellulite, wrinkles, cosmetic surgery scars, blemishes.  In a recent extensive newspaper article Jesse Jane, one of the stars featured in a film I will soon describe, has plans to have more plastic surgery as a direct result of the revealing nature of high definition.  Her six-year-old implants are more clearly seen as artificial.  "I'm having my breasts redone because of HD," she said.  The actress is also a mother, having had a son seven years ago, and must deal with stretch marks that had not been visible in standard definition; she’s reported to hide them with a generous application of tanning lotion.

However, the upside for the viewer may be that the more realistic the presentation the more intimate and titillating it becomes.  If mainstream film is more emotionally involving in high definition than in standard definition, then I suggest that it’s equally reasonable to expect the AE will be more, uh, involving in HD.

Ever one to research the most pressing issues in home theater, your humble servant decided to test this hypothesis.  Digital Playground was kind enough to send me a screener for this article, one of its first four releases on HD DVD: Island Fever 3.  Now, I’ll digress for a moment and mention that Digital Playground had announced for Blu-ray Disc quite some time ago.  Only recently did the studio switch to HD DVD.  There were persistent rumors that the Blu-ray Association or Sony in particular refused to allow AE on BD.  That is not the case, or at least not directly the case.  AE is welcome on BD, only Sony refuses to replicate such titles; it’s Sony’s policy.  That isn’t to say that replicators can’t be located.  Vivid Entertainment is scheduled to release its first adult film on both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD in late March or early April, Debbie Does Dallas... Again.

Regardless, Digital Playground has decided to go with HD DVD and it’s made an interesting marketing choice that will make some releases less affordable.  Similar in philosophy to the Combo Disc that includes a DVD side and an HD DVD side, Digital Playground has decided to include two discs in the keepcase: a DVD and an HD DVD.  This pushes the SRP to $50, but it was most fortuitous; it afforded me the opportunity to compare what I expected to be the usual startling difference between the two formats.

Believe it or not, I haven’t experienced AE since my college days.  My, how things have changed.  The production values are very much higher.  The budgets must be higher.  This film was shot on some of the most beautiful islands in the world: Tahiti and Bora Bora.  The film is essentially a compilation of erotic encounters.  By implication, three women (Jesse Jane, Devon, and Tera Patrick) and three men (Evan Stone, Eric Masterson, and Barrett Blade) are marooned on a deserted island and have little else to do for entertainment but to come together (no pun intended) in various combinations for some sexual play.  The women are beautiful, the men well endowed, and the film is a delight for the voyeur.  Each encounter is briefly book-ended with lovely pans of the exotic locale.  There is no production sound or looping.  There is no dialog.  There are no erotic sounds.  The entire film is simply underscored with some rather pleasant new age music.  Close your eyes and you’d never know what the visuals were like.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is front centric; it's just the score.

I first spun the DVD and immediately noticed that the images are soft and contaminated with edge halos on boundaries of high contrast.  Flesh tones are quite natural.  The lush tropical foliage is vividly green.  The oranges, pinks, and reds of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean mimic my recollection of Hawaiian sunsets.  Contrast is a little iffy.  One very bright sequence suffers from a bit of white crush.  Shadow detail is not an issue; apparently our erotic castaways sleep at night to recharge their batteries.  Jesse had nothing to worry about; this transfer revealed little in the way of finely grained textures.  Her stretch marks are safe.  If I were rating the video on our traditional zero to five scale for standard definition, I would lean toward a three. 

Having experienced this moderate quality standard definition transfer, my expectations were high as I slipped the HD DVD onto the Toshiba’s tray.  What I found was not at all what I expected.  I was hard pressed to tell the difference between the DVD and the HD DVD.  The same intrusive halos ran through the images.  The detail was not improved to any great extent.  Even if the cinematographer had softened the actors' images to hide imperfections, I would have expected to see improved detail in the scenic interludes; the dense foliage of the jungle, the ripples on the calm ocean, and the colorful clouds at the end of the day all should have been conveyed with greater resolution.  Jesse’s stretch marks are still safe. 

Among the nearly one hundred high definition discs I’ve experienced so far, I characterized the Blu-ray Disc transfer of Terminator 2 as being the least impressive improvement over standard definition DVD.  That distinction now belongs to Island Fever 3.  I couldn’t easily directly A/B the discs; I had to unload and reload to compare.  But I have great sense memory and I’m confident as I write that I wasn’t able to detect any appreciable improvement in resolution, detail, or image quality.  I’m forced to assume that the visual limitations may have been within the cameras used to shoot the film.

The AE industry is going to have to do better than this if it expects to capitalize on the transition to high definition.  There is the potential for a more intimate, a more titillating experience in HD than this disc delivers.  Without better visual quality, it’s unlikely that AE will affect the format war in any way.

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