(Note: This article was written before the move to Sydney, and long before the holiday that I prefer to call MoneyMas. Circumstances have changed somewhat since I wrote it, but apart from a closing note, I will write more on the subject in a later article.)
I love Blu-ray Disc (aww really, I hear you cry). It is not just because the media offers the best home cinema experience money can buy, or that it makes the “cinema” part of home cinema far more literal. (There is a reason that cinemas do not project in an interlaced format, morons.) And it is not even because it is the first home cinema medium where the price seems fair relative to what I get in exchange. No, the reason I love it so is because when I watch older films that I only ever saw on VHS on Blu-ray Disc, I often see those older films in a completely different light. One that DVD cannot hold a candle to.
But I digress. The reason I am writing this latest load of piffle goes something like this. Earlier this year, around September or so, I found advertisements by Warner Brothers online declaring yet another rerelease of Blade Runner. Blade Runner was one of the first films to be offered on high-definition media, and among an ever-declining percentage that were offered on both of the proposed high-definition media. This rerelease coincided with the fact that after much hemming and hawing, a new edit of Blade Runner that really did coincide with what director Ridley Scott had in mind when he made it was released. Dubbed The Final Cut, this edition of Blade Runner is by a lengthy road the best one, not least because it reflects the fact that the man who planned the whole shoot was finally creating it. (And let’s face it. Girlies in minimal clothing and hockey masks always improves a film.)
Now, the advertisement I speak of contained a photograph of the box that this 30th Anniversary Edition was being released in. And in the band across the top of the photographed US edition box, the dreaded format declaration appeared: “Blu-ray + DVD” et cetera who cares. I do not specifically remember if this was the first time that I had seen this with a Warner Brothers title, but I do remember how I reacted. I did a search on Amazon.com, found that no US edition was being released without this forced-in DVD, hoped like hell that this would not be the case with the local release, and posted a message on the Blade Runner Fudgebook page stating this much in extreme terms. As has been the case since a couple of months ago, I made the solemn promise that any Blu-ray Disc I am not able to get in a reasonable time without a DVD shoved in now has a date with the burner I still have yet to purchase.
(Mister Ridley Scott, if you happen to catch sight of this document, know this. This is the same reason that unless Fox stops trying to force me to buy a DVD with the Prometheus BD before I get myself a BD-R drive and learn how to work my magic with it, the royalties from my purchase of Prometheus on BD will never be making their way to you.)
Fortunately, when I walked through a JB Hi-Fi on November 15 and saw Blade Runner standing there before me like a short but curvy naked Italian woman and beckoning, I also checked the box very thoroughly and found one of my worst fears allayed. Whatever was going on with the Region A edition, apparently Warners in Australia had seen the light and seen fit to give BD purchasers an actual choice of whether to get this new release with a DVD.
That brings me to go over the reasons why I will never buy a DVD with real money again, regardless of how much a distributor tries to make doing so a condition of obtaining the BD. The reasons are cellular in nature, but they can be broken down by category to follow three specific groups:
- BD is not inherently interlaced
- BD does not restrict disc authors to lossy audio as a sole option
- BD was not designed around the idea that all films are less than 100 minutes in length
Any one of these reasons is an automatic knockout, or more accurately an impromptu beheading, of DVD. But in order to understand their full impact on my format purchase decisions, it is important to explore each reason in fine detail. So let us go over them one at a time, shall we?
BD is not inherently interlaced
In order to understand what interlacing is, try looking at anything through a series of really small slats or a fine-mesh grille. Being in a moving vehicle at the time helps (although I would advise not trying to do this whilst driving). Watch how the things in front of you change as the car moves. Notice how jagged and incomplete things look through the meshes or slats? (The mesh I speak of, by the way, can be easily found on public bus routes in the Central Western Sydney area.) Notice how it looks nothing like what it really is? How it would be if you were looking at it with your eyes and nothing between? Good. That is basically what interlacing does to the picture you get on your television.
But Dean, I hear you cry, what about using the television’s or player’s deinterlacing functions? In a nutshell, fukk you. You see, interlacing is a bit like the skin diseases known collectively as Herpes. Once you have one of them, you are stuck with it. There are two reasons for this. One is that converting a picture to any format, no matter how minor or dramatic the change is, creates artefacts. And unless you have an artefact-free master or a conversion-capable video editing suite entailing thousands of dollars handy, once an artefact gets onto the disc you are watching, you are stuck with it.
There are several artefacts that are exclusively the result of interlacing. Next time you hear a “professional” in the video world try to tell you that interlacing makes the picture “smoother”, tell them that. Several artefacts are exclusively the result of interlacing. Most of these are avoidable as long as the person converting and editing the video is not a complete moron, but there is one that pops up in interlaced video like aggravation in Queensland. Aliasing, it is called. You know that effect when you are playing a videogame and parts of the screen appear to flicker as if the little men inside your display unit cannot draw it fast enough to keep up with the rest of the image? That flickering is aliasing. It is not just annoying, distracting, and a strong reminder that you are just sitting in your home watching a film. If a person has the right kind of epilepsy or photo-sensitivity, and there is enough of it in the right specific pattern, it can cause seizures. I know this because I have experienced it on several occasions. And I have never been diagnosed with epilepsy, I might hasten to add.
Interlacing is a bit like the 4:3 shape where DVD is concerned. When the format was designed, finding a television that could display a signal without it was a bit like finding a not-expensive sports car. If you had a lot of money that you did not mind throwing up in the air, you could do it, but people who had to live within certain means had to wait a couple of years. And by a couple of years, I mean the better part of a decade.
BD is different. BD will still offer the television an interlaced signal when no other kind is permissible or available, but it is based around the idea that images updating in the same manner that your eyes collect images, that is one whole image at a time, is a good thing. That means no more aliasing, no more need to scrub out fine detail above a certain level in order to reduce aliasing to a point where it will not induce seizures in a high percentage of the populace, and no more image-doubling from careless processing. (In this context, if you have ever seen a ghost of an image appear in a video, especially when going through it frame by frame, you have seen what I call image-doubling.)
Progressive video means that the full potential of an image’s sharpness, irrespective of its resolution (in BD’s case 1920 by 1080), is achieveable. BD can offer this. DVD cannot. DVD cannot offer a progressive signal because it was designed in a time when progressive signals were considered a Jetsons thing. That is one reason why I will never buy a DVD or anything in which a DVD is a compulsory “extra” again.
BD does not restrict disc authors to lossy audio as a sole option
Like many people online, I truly think that George Lucas is (at least in many ways) a fukking idiot. It took me a little longer than some to come around, but there it is. But there is one thing George Lucas said when he was trying to start a campaign or system to get theatres to improve the quality with which they delivered audio to patrons. Namely, that sound is more than half of the experience in theatres. If you do not believe me, or George, think about this. Imagine watching your favourite film with absolutely no sound at all. Would any of it have the same impact? (I am trying to imagine RoboCop just without Basil Poledouris‘ masterful score music. It is like trying to imagine the feminine portions of the Rosario + Vampire character roll without their breasts. This is the same reason why when I see speech bubbles above Moka’s head in the manga, I “hear” the words as if Nana Mizuki is speaking them.)
Now, audio is a lot like video. How it appears on a given home medium depends on three factors, all of equal importance. One, how well-recorded was it at the time of recording? Two, how well were the recordings cared for between now and then? Three, how are the recordings being presented in the here and now? Before BD came along, every home video format had serious shortcomings in the last of those three categories. DVD is the most relevant one here, so I will focus on that.
When any kind of data, be it video, audio, still picture, or document, is compressed, the people compressing it have two options concerning how to go about compressing it. They can compress it as far down as possible in order to fit a space budget, by using a lossy compression algorithm. Of course, no person trying to compress documents or document-category things like medical records would ever choose this option even in their most wrong mind. But where moving video and (now to a lesser degree) audio were concerned, there is not much other choice. Between video and audio, audio is generally the less demanding of the two data streams coming out of a disc.
Now, I could bore you to death by comparing the sizes of data streams until I am blue in the face, but I will not. What I instead want to make clear is the fundamental difference between how audio sounds when reconstructed from compressed data where either kind of compression has been used.
Now, I have implied it here a few times already, but in compression terms, “lossy” has one very simple meaning. When the picture, sound, image, or whatever is reconstructed from its compressed form, it is not exactly the same as it was before it was compressed. The pernicious thing about lossy audio is that whilst the changes the compression algorithm makes to the audio can be quite dramatic and headache-inducing, bringing them to a lot of peoples’ attention can be quite a task in itself. Ever started to feel a little like your head is aching after listening to your favourite album in MP3 format? That is (often) directly because of the lossy compression. Put simply, the bits that the lossy algorithm have thrown out are the bits you need to listen to the signal without getting a non-induced headache.
Lossless compression is the exact opposite. When the audio signal is reconstructed out of the compressed data, it is exactly the same as it was before it was compressed. Every little nuance that was recorded and kept on the studio master appears in the soundtrack you get on the disc.
Something oversimplistic idiots might want to think about: Some people have tried to explain this as the sound of a voice or an instrument such as a cymbal not being preserved in the compressed data. Wrong. Although earlier audio compression algorithms were fukking terrible in terms of fidelity, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Up to a point, if a Human can hear it, it gets on the recording and ends up in the final reproduction of the sound mix (after editing and so forth). Where reproductions of sound differ is how well the sound is reproduced. The next time you are having a conversation with a person face to face, think about how their voice sounds to you. How the air from within their larynx echoes and their vocal cords vibrate, creating distinct waverings in every part of every word they say. Then imagine the same conversation taking place over the telephone. Think about how telephone conversations sound much harsher and much less clear.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between sound as it should sound and how it sounds after being reconstructed from a lossy compression algorithm. It is there, the “important” parts seem variably clear, but something that gives that “boss”-ness to the waves of sound pressure is missing.
I have watched more than three hundred Blu-ray Discs with lossless audio. In many, many cases, I have also heard the same film’s audio rendered using a lossy compression algorithm. Lossless compression algorithms (at least where cinema sound is concerned) do not make me feel like I have to lie down and put ice upon my head after a couple of hours’ listening. Lossy ones do. It really is that simple.
Now, a little about data rates. The amount of data a lossless audio compression algorithm costs per second for 5.1 channels is somewhere around 4.6 megabits per second. BD is capable of delivering a combined total of 40 megabits per second to the relevant devices for reproduction. DVD tops out at a combined total of 10 megabits per second. In theory, you could put lossless audio on a DVD, but the impact this would have upon the data available to the video would result in something you would not watch willingly. Hence, whilst lossless audio on a DVD is possible, it is not practically feasible.
I happen to like lossless audio. I feel more involved with what I am watching that way. That is strike two against DVD.
BD was not designed around the idea that all films are less than 100 minutes in length
Let me repeat yet another practical reality of disc formats. The video data on both DVDs and BDs is compressed. It is compressed with a lossy algorithm (or a choice between three different ones in the case of BD). Unfortunately, lossless video algorithms do not yet exist so far as I am aware, and the reality of lossless compression is that it cannot achieve the compression ratio necessary to feasibly fit a continuous video stream of any real length onto a shiny disc. But the same reality of disc space versus compression that made me so glad that HD-DVD bit the dust also makes me very averse to DVD.
If there is one thing that today’s disc promoters like to do, it is bullshit about how much data can really fit on their discs. The Compact Disc specification can fit up to 700 real megabytes. Unlike what has happened with DVD and BD, when the promoters said “650” or “700 megabytes”, they were being truthful. But here is the thing. 700 megabytes is 734,003,200 kilobytes, which in turn translates to 751,619,276,800 bytes. So when the DVD consortium tries to tell me that one gigabyte is 1,000,000,000 bytes, my instinctive response is to tell them to go and fukk themselves. In case you were curious, a real gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes.
What does all of this mean? Well, the little discs that the DVD consortium loves to tell you can fit nine gigabytes in reality can only fit 8.5 DVD consortium gigabytes. Which in turn are about 7.9 real gigabytes. Got all of that so far? Now, with all of that reduction in real-world terms, you might have noticed something. Namely, that 7.9 gigabytes, the true capacity of a two-layer DVD, is a very tight space to cram three or more hours of video with multiple soundtracks and subtitle streams. And you are right. Countless times during my career as a “home theatre semi-guru”, I have written of how feature films with epic lengths seem hazier and more prone to burst into pixelisation when reviewing their DVD representations.
Blu-ray Disc’s designers took notice of that, and did something about it. Whereas the HD-DVD morons really thought just (nearly) doubling the capacity… no, let me start over. Their stated capacity was 15 gigabytes per layer. That is only six or six and a half more than the stated capacities for a two-layer DVD. And they seriously expected to be able to fit feature films of all lengths in high definition (in other words, five times as many pixels) into that. Yeah, sure, whatever you reckon, Toshiba et al. Sony and their partners, however, did the smart thing. Instead of just adding a teensy bit to the existing disc specifications, they went all out. They increased the disc space of Blu-ray Disc to a comparatively garantuan 23.28 (and change) gigabytes per layer. That is real gigabytes, by the way (their stated is 25 a layer). A two-layer BD can fit more than 46.566 real gigabytes. * Small wonder then, that even super-mega-epic films like Das Boot can fit on the one disc without compression-related complaints.
(* Notice a theme with these numbers? That’s right, they are around five times as large as the actuals for DVD. (In a calculator, the math comes out as 5.3517 and change times. About what I would like if I am putting in five times the dots and ten times the aurals.) I am no fan of Sony as a collective, but hats off to the home entertainment and infomedia divisions for doing something smart enough that I would have done it myself.)
Although I have seen a Blu-ray Disc where the feature was visibly overcompressed, the disc in question (Region B’s edition of Young Guns) is on record as being one of the worst examples of Blu-ray Disc in the world. I have more than three hundred Blu-ray Discs in my hoard, and have yet to see a genuine (visible at normal viewing speed) compression artefact within the feature on a single one. Small wonder then, that I would rather watch an expensive BD than a free DVD.
Three strikes, DVD. You are out.
Oh, and if you are thinking of moaning at me that HD-DVD was the better format because of trivial things like the lack of Region Codes, do not bother. Many of the first generation of HD-DVDs, and subsequently a lot of BDs that are of films offered on both formats, were offered without lossless audio. When you only have 15 pseudo-gigabytes per layer to spare, squeezing in that lossless audio, especially on longer films, is that little bit harder. Strike one, HD-DVD.
Another problem with HD-DVD that was not so important to we consumers but very important to distributors is that HD-DVD took mere days for problems with the security of offered content to show. Hacks, cracks, and workarounds came up so thick and fast that many producers were understandably reluctant to release content on the format. This might seem like a bad reason to support the other camp to people who enjoy copying discs and sharing them with others, but an important point must be understood. When pirates find it easier to mash and mangle content and distribute it in a given format, that means a lot of low-quality representations of the content will find its way into the hands of the unwary. And whilst I might like to make copies of content for various reasons, quality trumps quantity and measliness every single time.
(That second point also means that content owners are going to be very reluctant at best to support the format. If this content security cluster-fukk had also happened with BD, then high definition home video discs would still be a faraway dream.)
So please, home video distributors, note this: I took one look at the box for E.T. when it was released at the end of October, and I said loudly: no. I will not buy this because I am done with DVD. You still do not attempt to force DVD-buying neandrathals to buy BDs, so quit doing the reverse to us.
(Oh yeah, and DVD, people have put our first years side by side for comparison and noticed a very funny thing. Our first year outsold yours by a factor of more than ten to one. So if you send around your defenders trying to tell us we need, or ever needed, daddy DVD to hold our hands, they will get their faces punched in. Consider this a warning.)
(Endnote: Thanks to someone being surprisingly generous this MoneyMas, I now own a BD-R drive. This is going to change the game a bit in the coming months. More on this in the coming days.)