I have written about or referenced a lot of different films in entries prior. That is a given. As I have also written previously, I grew up in a household that was one of the first to have a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) in the house.
I have also seen films on just about every home video format that emerged between 1970 and now. Laserdisc and Betamax, I only saw briefly and indirectly. Mostly because those never attained the critical mass that was necessary to become widely used. People might not realise this now, but after you adjust for inflation, the prices of basic Laserdisc or Betamax (or VHS) systems in 1983 were at least as much as I have expended on a Blu-ray Disc system with fifty-inch television, lossless-capable receiver, and eight speakers capable of sixty watt output. And by basic Laserdisc, Betamax, or VHS, I mean at most a player, a sixty-eight centimetre (twenty-six point seven-seven inch) screen, and maybe a stereo receiver with speakers.
But in the closing months of 2007, the high definition optical disc format war was in its terminal stage. Blu-ray Disc already had a slight majority share of support from the studios at the time. Then Warner Bros., one of the oldest studios still in existence today, announced that from that MoneyMas going forward (roughly), it would be exclusively supporting the Blu-ray Disc format. As per the articles I read about the format war, this would put more than two-thirds of the extant films in Hollywood in the purview of Blu-ray Disc. The site I had been following for news about this format war was straight to the point. The likelihood of HD-DVD winning the war from that point going forward was zero. Either Blu-ray Disc would win, or neither would win. So I scraped together enough money out of the little chunks I received on a fortnightly basis, bought a player, and plugged it into the system I was using at the time.
At that time, I still watched films in standard definition. Every so often, I would go into one of the rental outlets I was living near, rent as many discs as I could get away with, and duplicate the ones that were not too scratched for the DVD-ROM drive in the computer I had geared towards the purpose to read. But this also laid bare all of the weaknesses of both the DVD-Video format and standard definition video in general. Irrespective of whether the DVD in question was manufactured for televisions following the American (NTSC) or European (PAL) television standard, this involved changes from the playing speed of the film. Even in 2012, the vast majority of films are shot at a speed of twenty-four frames a second. Although both NTSC and PAL split the frames in half and update the picture one half at a time, they also have different framerates from twenty-four. NTSC’s rate is sixty halves per second. In effect, this means that in order to transfer a film for viewing on an NTSC television, you have to add six frames every second. This means that motion, especially camera pans, happens in a jerky, uneven fashion. The PAL solution is smoother in terms of rendering motion because PAL’s effective framerate is only twenty-five per second. That means that the film can simply be increased slightly in framerate, without adding any frames. The reason they do not do that in NTSC is the same weakness that the PAL system had. By increasing the framerate, you reduce the running length of the film. In the case of a film running at twenty-four a second, that is an increase and reduction of four percent. If your film originally ran for a hundred minutes, it is ninety-six after that change in framerate. But the more objectionable change is that this change also affects the audio, raising the pitch by four percent. Four percent is about a semitone. Slight by some standards, but enough that you notice if you have seen the film at its original pitch enough times. Given that six goes into twenty-four only four times, I can assure you that a four percent running time cut and pitch increase is nothing compared to what NTSC would produce in terms of running time cut and pitch shift: twenty-five percent. That is a bigger pitch shift than the difference between most adult males and females.
Blu-ray Disc’s biggest selling point to me at that time, other than the word “progressive”, was that when one plugged the player into a television that was capable of syncing to such a signal, the film would play back at its original framerate. No more conversion artefacts. Whilst I am sure some directors or filmmakers (Bruce Lee springs to mind) would have killed for different framerates, being able to sync to the framerate that the film was originally shot for makes a dramatic difference in itself.
I have meandered at some length about how progressive updating also makes a picture far easier to look at. It also means that the lovely folks at the transfer department can transfer the film with all of its detail still included. Interlacing necessitates filtering or “scrubbing” certain amounts of detail out in order to make it possible for the picture to be viewed on televisions of the 195X-2004 generation without the viewer going into seizure. Yes, artefacts like aliasing can make a moving picture that unpleasant to watch. Be that as it may, the improvement that Blu-ray Disc constituted over my old DVD collection also prompted a lot of upgrading of my old audio-visual equipment.
My first subwoofer died about the time that I bought the Blu-ray Disc player. It had been withering away for some time at that time. But I found that when I attempted to play back material from any source at the time, the subwoofer’s output had been reduced to a point where even setting its output volume to maximum left the signal coming out of it so weak that it may as well have not been there. So, through means involving creative money hoarding and a lucky special sale at a JB Hi-Fi branch, I bought a new subwoofer. Then I ended up buying a new audio receiver some months later, using money I came into by means I am not going to describe here. And that was when I fully learned just how much better an experience I had jumped into in audio-visual terms.
Lossless audio is not possible on DVD-Video. Sorry folks, hate to break it to you, but it is the simple truth. Lossless. Audio. Is. Not. Possible. On. DVD-Video. In order to understand why, you need to understand something about how video and audio works in digital formats. On both DVD-Video and Blu-ray Disc, there is a certain amount of data that the player can decode and transmit through its ports every second. On DVD-Video, the maximum combined data rate for video and audio is ten megabits per second (10 mb/s, most players would put it). The MPEG-2 video compression format that DVD-Video depends on to be able to store a feature film can be varied up and down in bitrate, but the maximum it can output at a given moment is 9.6 mb/s. And you had better believe that in a scene where what is on the screen changes very rapidly (scenes involving fire or large amounts of rapidly-moving water are the worst in this respect), in order to produce the better picture DVD was famed for upon first release, it needs every bit of that 9.6 mb/s.
The bitrate of lossless audio compression codecs can also be varied up and down in order to cope with the needs of the original audio stream. Scenes with lots of people yelling at and shooting one another need higher rates. So let us do a simple math calculation. 48,000 Hz times 24 bits times eight channels equates to 9.216 megabytes. Usually, the lossless audio codec cuts the total amount of data that the audio takes up per second in half. So as a place to put our feet, let us just say 4.6 mb/s for audio. DVD-Video cannot accommodate this. Oh wait, it can, but if you keep in mind what I just said about how much data each second a video stream needs, you should not be surprised when I say that you would not want to watch the resulting video. Thankfully, with Blu-ray Disc’s dramatically increased storage space, it can output a total data stream of 40.0 mb/s, so an average of 4.6 mb/s for audio is not too much of a hardship.
Now, in order to understand what I am getting at here, you have to look at this in context. When I was a child, the fidelity of audio on every home video medium left something to be desired. At best, the soundtracks on VHS were a faint approximation of what the director intended the film to sound like. Some films, such as Aliens or Terminator 2, fared well on the format in audio terms. Most, however, did not.
DVD-Video offered digital audio and video. Laserdisc, as I understand it, offered digital audio, but the limitations of the format meant that the video was a digital rendering of an analogue transfer. So anyway, DVD-Video’s audio, being digital and allowing a maximum of six discretely encoded channels, was an improvement. When I say discretely encoded, that means the audio signal sent to each speaker was encoded specifically for that speaker in the original soundtrack information. The opposite of this is called matrixed, where signals are mixed into the main channels, and the receiver is expected to “steer” these signals toward the appropriate speaker. Needless to say, this makes the result vary according to the quality of the receiver that the end user is using.
Anyway, aside from the lossless audio that I have just mentioned, another improvement that has been added to the Blu-ray Disc specification, one that unfortunately is still grossly underutilised at this stage, is the addition of two channels to the audio specification. That is, a Blu-ray Disc soundtrack can include up to eight channels. Typically, this means two front channels, a centre channel, a low-frequency effects channel (aka a subwoofer), and four rears. The option also exists to give a soundtrack four front channels and two rears, but to date I have only encountered one disc where this option has been taken, this being Hellboy II: The Golden Army. All other discs I have encountered with 7.1 channel soundtracks, to my knowledge, have been configured with the two fronts and four rears option. This worked brilliantly on what remains my favourite 7.1 channel soundtrack to date, TRON: Legacy.
When I was a child, the refrain sung by the media and society at large was that in the future, we would be seeing improvements in everything we do to a degree that boggles what were then present-day minds. And to some extent, they are correct. To say that the Internet is an improvement over copper wire telephony and paper mail is an understatement. To say that the synthetic Human insulins being made today are a drastic improvement upon the porcine and bovine derived insulins that were the expected norm around the time I was diagnosed with diabetes is an understatement on the level of saying that the film studio decision makers of the pre-television eras were remarkably short-sighted.
But we have entered a time in which people seem to have shifted to a mentality that near enough is good enough. It is not. Industry knows this all too well, even if they display a bad habit of forgetting. Every time that the film industry has faced competition for the almighty dollar in past eras, they have sought changes and “innovations” to improve the cinematic experience and get people back into theatres. Multi-channel audio, widescreen projection, and digital audio are all examples of this. The problem today is that the film industry today is led by one of the kinds of people that I like to refer to as conservative shitheads. Instead of looking at what might lead the way to a better experience for all and how to implement it, they are focused on what is “hip” and “now” to the exclusion of all else. Digital might work wonders for audio and for video in the home, but for projecting images onto a screen measuring more than two hundred inches, it is still woefully inadequate, and will remain so until a digital solution that can project at forty-eight frames a second in a resolution of at least four thousand vertical pixels emerges.
According to some writings I have seen online, films are being projected in cinemas at a resolution of “2K”. This means two thousand pixels wide. Given that feature films are always at least slightly wider than they are tall, and televisions are now capable of displaying a picture in 1920 by 1080, the old statement about how people went to cinemas in the 1980s and earlier 1990s because the picture and sound quality were superior there no longer applies. Maybe this is a deliberate effort on the part of the studios. As I have written elsewhere, studios have a view of the theatrical circuit similar to how we Humans view intestinal worms. But their insistence with some titles that in order to buy the BD, we have to buy the DVD, too, is just another example of this conservative shitheadism. Look, studios, I went to great expense to upgrade to Blu-ray Disc, and may well have been the first person in the entire town to do so. Insisting I buy a DVD with my BDs is simply not on.
I will not watch a DVD for leisure ever again. If this writing does not make you understand or better yet grok why, then FOAD, please.
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