Editor's Note: Each Friday, High-Def Digest's own HD Advisor will answer a new round of questions from our readers. If you have home theater questions you need answered, send an email to HDanswers@gmail.com.
Answers by Joshua Zyber
'Last of the Mohicans' Playback Problems
Q: I purchased 'Last of the Mohicans' on Blu-ray. I can't see what I could be doing wrong as I have watched many other Blu-rays without issue. I have a 720p projector and the signal is sent from my receiver via Component Video. This is the only Blu-ray I have ever seen that insists on playing the movie in 480p resolution. It seems that some of the initial screens are in 480p, and I have a feeling either this is a bad idea, or there is an error in the Java code. I am assuming the reason why there is a problem is due to the ridiculous rules governing DVDs not being upconverted. Have you heard any similar complaints? I doubt there would be many, as most people use HDMI. Any ideas on something stupid I may be doing to cause this? Any suggestions on a remedy?
A: Unfortunately, I don't have the 'Last of the Mohicans' disc handy to check myself. (Perhaps some readers can chime in if they've experienced this problem?) However, I have a couple of thoughts that may help.
As you mention, the Blu-ray format specs prohibit Blu-ray players from upconverting standard DVDs to higher resolutions over analog Component Video. You can only do that using HDMI. The Blu-ray spec also contains a provision for something called the Image Constraint Token (ICT), which would prevent Blu-ray video from being transmitted at high-def resolutions over Component too. The intent is (allegedly) to prevent piracy, but really it's all about driving people to purchase new HDMI-equipped hardware. A disc authored with an ICT flag can only be watched in true high definition if connected by HDMI. A Blu-ray player will downconvert that signal to standard-def over Component.
Outcry about this from early Blu-ray adopters (many of whom owned Component-connected equipment) led the Blu-ray supporting studios to make an informal agreement to hold off using the ICT. Up to now, to my knowledge, no discs have been restricted from transmitting Blu-ray over Component at full resolution. However, there has been talk over the past year that several studios are pushing to finally implement the Token. While I haven't heard any specific announcement about 'Last of the Mohicans', it's possible that 20th Century Fox issued the disc as a test case, or possibly even turned on the flag in error.
With that said, there's another possibility that may be even more likely. Fox is a studio that frequently authors discs with BD-Live enabled, and programs them to automatically stream trailers from the internet before the main menu. Sometimes, these trailers are only 720p resolution (as opposed to the rest of the 1080p content on the disc), and sometimes they're only 480p standard def. I wonder if these trailers are causing your Blu-ray player or receiver to lock into the wrong resolution output (due to a compatibility problem), even after the disc gets to the main content? One easy way to test this theory is to unplug the Ethernet cable from the player and turn off BD-Live in the Setup menu, then try the disc again. Give that a shot and see if it fixes the problem.
If that still fails, try the disc on a friend's or family member's Blu-ray player if you can. It may also be that your player has a compatibility problem that the manufacturer will need to issue a firmware update to resolve.
Why No Anamorphic Enhancement on Blu-ray?
Q: I wonder why the movie studios use anamorphic widescreen transfers on DVD but not on Blu-ray? I just don't like that my Philips Cinema 21:9 TV has to crop and upscale Blu-rays because of the higher native resolution of 2600x1080. If a Blu-ray had an anamorphic transfer, my TV could just stretch it horizontally instead of cropping the image. All of this is of course about Cinemascope aspect ratio. I think everybody would win. Owners of 16:9 TVs would add black bars, and owners of 21:9 TVs would retain detail and clarity.
A: I touched on this topic some time back, but it's worth revisiting. When the DVD format debuted in 1997, the majority of viewers were still watching movies on traditional 4:3 TVs. However, widescreen 16:9 sets and HDTVs had already begun to appear on the market, and it was widely known that the industry was at the start of a major push to make 16:9 the new TV standard. Thus, DVDs had to accommodate both aspect ratios.
The solution that the founders of the DVD format came upon was to use anamorphic enhancement. NTSC DVD has a resolution of 720x480 pixels, but those pixels are not square. Depending on the type of content on the disc, those same pixels can be used to create either a 4:3 image or a 16:9 image. In the case of the latter, the movie picture is authored in a vertically "squished" fashion, which a 16:9 HDTV will stretch horizontally after-the-fact to correct the picture geometry. Of critical importance, DVD players have the ability to downconvert a 16:9 "anamorphic" content to 4:3 letterbox for viewing on a standard-def TV.
So, why didn't the creators of Blu-ray implement a similar feature that would allow for the anamorphic enhancement of 2.35:1 movies? Frankly, the possibility of 21:9 TVs or Constant Image Height display was on few people's minds at the time. In 2006, 16:9 was the one and only HDTV standard. All content, and all hardware specifications, were created with only that aspect ratio in mind. Movies wider than 16:9 need to be letterboxed within the frame.
Unfortunately, this isn't something that can be rectified after-the-fact now. Although it's technically possible for a studio to author a 2.35:1 movie in vertically squished fashion to use all the pixels that 1080p offers, that movie would then appear geometrically distorted on all 16:9 HDTVs, projectors, and displays – in other words, the screens that 99.99% of all Blu-ray viewers are watching on. Blu-ray players do not have the ability to downconvert such 21:9 anamorphic video to standard 16:9 letterbox.
If you're hoping that a hardware manufacturer could issue a firmware update to add this anamorphic downconversion, keep in mind that every Blu-ray manufacturer would need to do this for every Blu-ray player ever made, including old discontinued models. And they'd somehow have to find a way to ensure that every Blu-ray owner follows through by updating the firmware. All to add a feature that less than 0.01% of consumers will ever use. I'm afraid that's just not a realistic expectation.
So, can't the studios issue separate discs – one in standard 16:9 letterbox for regular viewers and another with anamorphic enhancement for the hardcore enthusiasts? Again, it's theoretically possible, but unlikely. The expenses of authoring, packaging, distributing, and marketing special anamorphic discs don't seem financially viable, considering the very tiny niche market that they'd be aimed at.
As a Constant Image Height projection viewer myself, I also wish that this feature had been implemented in the Blu-ray format specs from the beginning. But it wasn't, and (sadly) it isn't going to happen now.
The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!
What the Hell is Steve Jobs' Problem?
JZ: I'm stretching the definition of the "Homework" assignment this week. While digging through my eternal backlog of reader questions, I came across this one that was submitted more than a year and a half ago. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted that this is still an issue, even today on the brand new fancy iPad. I doubt this question is actually answerable, but it should be interesting to discuss. Why does Steve Jobs hate Blu-ray so much?
Q: When is Apple finally going to support Blu-ray across the board in their Macintosh computers? I, like many consumers, am dismayed that Apple, a Board of Director member of Blu-ray Disc Association, continues to introduce new laptops and desktops with absolutely no support for Blu-ray movie playback. It is even more astonishing that Apple receives support from Blu-ray for its Digital Copy, which allows iTunes users/Blu-Ray disc owners to get a digital copy to enjoy on their computers, iPhones or iPods.
Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.