The HD Advisor's Catch-22

Posted Fri Jul 24, 2009 at 01:00 PM PDT by

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

Projection Screens Revisited

In last week's article, a reader asked about the different types of home theater projection screens. I described the basic differences between matte white, gray, and high gain screens. I also stated that my preference has been to stick by my matte white screen, because I haven't found anything that's thoroughly satisfied me that it would be worth the investment. While a gray screen may improve black levels, it will also make bright parts of the image look dimmer.

In response to this, another reader sent me the following comment in defense of gray screens. He makes some fair points, so I thought it was worth revisiting the issue.

Comment: Your only reference for white in a darkened theater room is what the screen tells you is white. Without a reference, a gray screen will appear to deliver excellent and pure whites, just as good as any "white" screen. There is nothing to compare it to. However, you do have a reference for black in a darkened theater room – the screen borders. Poor black levels are much more obvious in a darkened theater room than dimmed (not dulled) whites. Of course, it is important to remember that the whites are "dimmed" just as much as the blacks in relation to each other. The only difference in white, black and gray is brightness. A high lumen projector on a gray screen can have brighter whites than a low lumen projector on a white screen. Another point – your matte white screen will appear gray if you set it beside a Vutec Silverstar. Since the Vutec has a real world gain of 4.0, it will appear to have much more brilliant whites than your "white" screen. As I said, the only difference between white and gray is brightness. It’s all relative. A perfect analogy in audio is volume – the louder system will almost always sound better.

To me, the screen choice is just as important as the projector choice. I believe a screen like the Stewart Firehawk is worth the money in almost any installation. Greater contrast is always desirable. With even budget projectors capable of delivering excellent contrast, it’s almost always the room and screen combo that limits the performance of the system. My argument is that the higher the contrast ratio of the projector, the greater the need for either a totally dark room or a contrast enhancing screen. As soon as you turn on a light, that "50,000:1 contrast ratio" is totally destroyed. The same is true of washout from white walls.

HD Advisor's Response: In principle, I don't disagree with anything said above. Those are all perfectly valid points. However, I do think that the viewer's specific room environment, equipment, and personal preference will all play a role in the determination of the best screen type. While it's true that lighter black levels may be more distracting than dimmer whites under some conditions (especially when watching a movie with a lot of dark scenes), the inverse may also be true. In a movie with predominantly bright scenes, relative black level is much less noticeable. The brightness of the image contributes greatly to its "pop" and vibrancy. Depending on the circumstances, that may be more desirable than deeper black levels. I know some viewers who are willing to sacrifice almost totally washed out blacks in their room as a trade off for the high gain of a screen like the Silverstar or DaLite High Power.

I don't believe there's just one correct answer to this question. Each viewer will have to make his or her own decision, based on his or her own needs. Without sitting in that person's room and evaluating the specifics of their situation, any advice we give has just as much potential of being wrong as it does of being right. The best we can do is describe the basic fundamentals of what to look for, and try to point them in the right direction.

Who Picks What Movies Get Released on Blu-ray?

Q: Why do the studios release so many movies that are not widely considered great movies? I suppose this is a subjective question, since it is a matter of taste. But why can we buy so many movies like 'Norbit', 'The Scorpion King 2', 'Starship Troopers 3' and the likes, and do we have to wait for 'Braveheart', 'Lord of the Rings', 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Gladiator'? Surely, the "big names" will generate more income and speed up Blu-ray sales more effectively? Also, why are some movies released only in the U.S., while all they need to do for other countries is just stick some subtitles underneath (like the Netherlands, my country), or not even that in the case of the UK?

A: I wish I knew the answer to your first question. In most cases, it's as much as mystery to me as you. I swear, for some of these studios, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they simply pin a list of all the movies in their catalog to a board and have a monkey throw darts at it. I mean, really, did someone actually think that there were tons of buyers out there dying to pick up copies of a forgettable early-'90s actioner like 'Striking Distance', a movie that even its own star has openly ridiculed?

As far as why certain "great" movies haven't been released yet, a number of factors likely come into play. Perhaps the movie's film elements need a lot of restoration work. Perhaps the studio is waiting for the director's schedule to clear up enough to approve a new video master. Perhaps the movie's distribution rights are tied up in legal red tape. Perhaps the studio just isn't convinced that the title will generate enough revenue to justify to expense of releasing it at this time.

Sad as it is to say, catalog titles almost never sell as well as day-and-date releases, no matter how famous or high profile the titles may be. Most consumers are resistant to repurchasing a movie they already own on DVD, even if the Blu-ray represents a significant quality upgrade. That isn't to say that they can't sell well or definitely won't. But when studios are planning their release schedules, day-and-date releases will always take priority over catalog titles.

For what it's worth, most of the titles you've expressed a desire for have either been announced for release later this year, or are known to be in the works for the future.

You also asked why some movies are only released in one country but not another. Generally, this is due to the movie's distribution rights being held by different studios in different countries. Even within a single multi-national studio, different territories may have separate distribution branches that make their own decisions of this nature.

Movies on HD Cable

Q: I have a cable provider that offers about every movie channel in HD. Where do the HD sources for each of these movies come from? Let's say I'm watching 'Sudden Death' with Jean-Claude Van Damme on STARZ, broadcast in 1080i. The movie looks great, but has never been on any high-def format. Where does this HD version of the film come from? Same goes with other networks like HDNet Movies. Where do they get the high-def transfers of these yet-to-be-Blu-ray movies?

A: Broadcast networks license movies from the studios that own them. The network will not perform any film-to-video transfers of its own. When the network licenses a title, the studio will provide a broadcast master for their use during the licensing period.

Regardless of whether a certain movie has been released on Blu-ray or not, the major studios have been mastering their movie catalogs in HD resolution for more than a decade now. In fact, most DVD editions are downconverted from HD masters. Sometimes, just one master will be struck for multiple uses in DVD, Blu-ray, or broadcast. Other times, the studio may strike separate masters for different venues. For example, HBO-HD mandates that almost all 2.35:1 movies be reformatted to the 16:9 aspect ratio. If that's what the network requests, the studio will prepare a cropped or open-matte transfer for that purpose, which may never be used on DVD or Blu-ray.

Many of the high-def movies in rotation on cable come from quite old and dated masters. In many cases, the studio may choose to withhold a certain movie from Blu-ray until they have a chance to remaster it in better quality. Unfortunately, seeing a movie in high-def on cable doesn't necessarily mean that a Blu-ray release is imminent.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

Some questions that the HD Advisor receives 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!

Blu-ray Laptop Recommendations

Q: I'm in the market for a new laptop, and would like one with a Blu-ray drive. Do you have any suggestions for good models under $1,000? I'll be connecting this to a high-res monitor, so it'll need an HDMI output. The size or resolution of the laptop screen isn't as important. What specs should I look for to make sure that the laptop has enough processing power to handle high-def video? I may also wish to do some video editing in HD.

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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