The HD Advisor's 39 Steps

Posted Fri Dec 11, 2009 at 11:02 AM PST by Mike Attebery

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 [email protected]

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Answers by Joshua Zyber

Forced Trailers via BD-Live

Q: Your recent answer about playback issues with 'Starship Troopers' reminded me of something that I've seen happen with a growing number of BD-Live discs. I have a Samsung BD-P3600, which is connected to the Internet but is set to prohibit BD-Live connectivity. My housemate has a Panasonic DMP-BD60, which isn't connected at all. With two separate recent Universal discs – 'Battlestar Galactica: The Plan' and 'Funny People' - we've experienced freezing on our players unless we allow connectivity, at which point the discs will stream additional trailers over the Internet at the point where the freezing occurred. I assume they're being streamed because they come in at 480p and aren't there otherwise. I find it hard to believe that the majority of BD players are connected to the Internet at all, and discs somehow being unplayable on them unless they are connected seems ridiculous. And, of course, I'm not exactly filled with enthusiasm at the BD-Live experience expanding to more advertising before I get to the movie that I've paid for, which is something I'd actually become more amenable to when the trailers were 1080p. Could you shed any light on the issue?

A: I've also noticed this trend of streaming trailers before the main menu on recent Universal Blu-rays. Specifically, I've found it on 'Drag Me to Hell' and 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'. What I find truly ridiculous is that one of the ads is the studio's Blu-ray promo trumpeting the superiority of the high-def format over DVD, which usually streams in 720p resolution at best, and sometimes downgraded all the way to standard-def!

I've long been critical of studios that force trailers before the disc menus. We pay to own these discs. We shouldn't have to endure advertisements before we can watch the movie. And the notion that a Blu-ray owner needs to be told how great Blu-ray is really strikes me as pointless and absurd. However, if the studio is intent on doing this, I suppose that BD-Live at least allows them to refresh the ads so that we don't have to watch the same old trailers every time. Theoretically, we should also be able to skip the trailers altogether if we disable BD-Live in the Blu-ray player.

Unfortunately, as you've discovered, the complexity of Java programming often causes compatibility problems with many Blu-ray players, especially if the disc is searching for but doesn't find a BD-Live connection.

To test this, I tried both 'Drag Me to Hell' and 'Lock, Stock' in four different BD-Live capable Blu-ray players, first with the internet connection enabled, and then again with the Ethernet cable disconnected. The players were an OPPO BDP-83, a Playstation 3 (original model), an LG BH200, and a Philips BDP7300. Luckily, in my case, I was able to get both discs to play on all machines regardless of whether BD-Live was active or not. (Obviously, both loaded faster without BD-Live.) Oddly, even with BD-Live connected, it seemed to be a crapshoot as to whether I'd get forced trailers or not. Sometimes I didn't.

I don't write this to discount the problems you've had. It's a sad reality of the Blu-ray format that Java and BD-Live frequently cause an inconsistent user experience from one player model to another. Considering how dull and frankly worthless most BD-Live features have been to date, I think we'd all be better off if the studios would just drop them and make their discs simpler.

Why Don't All Movies Have Reference Quality Video?

Q: Obviously all films do not have the same picture quality. What can be done during filming and post-production to ensure that a movie has the best picture quality possible?

A: Your question is more complex than it seems at first glance. I'd like to answer your specific query first, and then expand a little to the subject of why not all movies look the same as one another in the first place.

What we in the home theater community typically define as "reference quality video" usually consists of a picture that's bright and sharp, has vivid colors, rich contrasts, and very little grain. When all these factors come together, they can create that so-called "3-D Pop" quality that looks so appealing on an HDTV screen.

Filmmakers who wish to photograph their movies in this slick and glossy style do so with a combination of the right cameras, the right lenses, the right film stocks, and (perhaps most importantly) a whole lot of light. A good cinematographer will have plenty of experience testing each of these components to create the image characteristics he's looking for. For example, different film stocks have different "speeds" (which determine how much light they require to expose an image), as well as different grain, color, and contrast properties. "Fast" film stocks are better at producing a visible picture in low-light situations, but are generally grainier. "Slow" film stocks have a finer grain structure, but require more light, and thus are better suited for brighter shooting conditions (such as daylight scenes).

You'll notice that very often the movies most likely to give you that "3-D Pop" are big-budget studio productions. That's because the slickest, least grainy photography requires that a tremendous amount of light be exposed onto the film. This usually means rigidly-controlled lighting conditions. You need a lot of big lamps and precise command over where they're placed and how bright they are. Shooting on a studio soundstage helps. You'd probably be amazed at how much light can be needed to shoot a "dark" nighttime scene. What you see by eye on set may be very different than what gets exposed onto the film. Even daylight scenes are frequently augmented by additional lamps. Of course, the more lighting you have on set, the more restrictive your shooting conditions are. You certainly don't want any of those lamps to appear in a shot.

Modern film stocks have much more latitude in this regard than those used in previous decades. Today's filmmakers can get away with much looser shooting conditions and still produce a relatively slick image. Nevertheless, these general rules still apply. And they're just as true with digital video as with celluloid. Video shot in low light causes noise rather than grain. The principle is the same, but the texture of the image is different. For an example of a digitally-shot movie with a lot of low-light noise, see 'Miami Vice'.

With all that said, what you need to keep in mind is that not all movies are meant to look the same as one another. Nor should they be. If they did, cinema would grow very stagnant and boring. In some cases, photographic quality is dictated by budget. Many low-budget movies can't afford fine-grained film stock or intensive lighting design. In other cases, it may be a factor of the director's desire to shoot in a looser, free-wheeling style unencumbered by soundstages and massive lighting rigs. Or, he/she may wish to shoot in locations that can't support large film crews. Practical considerations like these can play a big part in how a movie looks.

Above all else is the subject of artistic intent. Even with the biggest budgets and all the studio resources in the world at their disposal, some movies are simply not meant to look "clean" or "slick." Different filmmakers will use different stylistic techniques to convey specific tones and emotions. Would the battle sequences in 'Saving Private Ryan' be anywhere near as effective if they'd been shot with glossy, grain-free photography and popping comic book colors? Certainly not. Film grain is to photography what brush strokes are to a painting. They provide texture to the image, and can be very beautiful when employed purposefully. For a movie with a lovely, painterly use of film grain that has been accurately captured on Blu-ray, I recommend 'Wings of Desire'. That noisy video in 'Miami Vice' is also used to create a specific mood that the director felt wouldn't have been the same if shot differently. Control over these textures is an important tool that a filmmaker uses to tell his story.

In the end, what we define as "reference quality video" is largely subjective. What's truly important in a good Blu-ray transfer is that the disc accurately captures what the filmmaker shot, whether that gives a lot of "pop" on an HDTV screen or not.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

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!

Connecting a Computer Blu-ray Player to an External Display

Q: I saw your question regarding hooking up a Blu-ray player to a laptop, and it made me think of the issue I have. The issue I have is when I connect my Blu-ray capable laptop via HDMI to my TV, the sound is not part of the deal. Some digging got the answer that because the audio and video are processed separately on a computer, there is no way for the sound to be transmitted to the TV through HDMI. Something like the sound card and video card are separate entities, and the video has the HDMI video output only. The laptop in question is an HP Pavillion dv6880se bought in 2008. Do newer systems have this solved? What about on a desktop system, are there similar issues?

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.

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