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Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

El laberinto del fauno—released in non-Spanish-speaking territories as Pan’s Labyrinth for whatever reason—is a fantasy film for people who have no patience for fantasy. It’s a war film for people who don’t like war films. It’s a fairy tale for people who prefer the Brothers Grimm to Disney. It’s allegory that avoids so many of the lazy conventions that made J.R.R. Tolkien such a vehement detractor of allegory. It’s a rich and nuanced, deeply symbolic and personal work that I believe will go down in

history as Guillermo del Toro’s best, topping even El espinazo del diablo (aka The Devil’s Backbone), with which it shares a lot of thematic and narrative similarities.

 

If it weren’t obvious from the above gushing, I’m an unabashed devotee of this haunting little film. But I’ve never really been overly thrilled with any of its home video releases. The 

original Blu-ray from 2007 was excessively smoothed and de-noised, robbing the imagery of much of its grit and impact. It also suffered from lackluster black levels, which is a sin for a film that lives so unapologetically in the shadows.

 

The Criterion Collection release from 2016 was a vast improvement, thanks in part to the contributions of del Toro himself, who supervised a new color grade and a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. But that release dropped at a time when I was already spoiled by HDR, so I couldn’t help but be distracted by the lack thereof, and the richer shadow detail a UHD release would bring with it.

 

Fast forward to 2019, and we finally have that UHD/HDR release—not from Criterion, but rather Warner Bros. Unsurprisingly, this release isn’t sourced from the same regraded transfer as the 2016 Blu-ray, which one has to assume is owned by

Pan's Labyrinth

Criterion. And that’s a bit of a shame, because the superior color timing of that transfer plus the improvements brought by HDR would make for a near-perfect representation of this film.

 

Make no mistake about it: The UHD/HDR is a big improvement over the original Blu-ray release, despite being sourced 

from the same 2K digital intermediate. Black levels are vastly deeper, shadow detail is much improved, depth of field and edge definition are a substantial step up, and the frustrating, plasticky smoothness of the original HD release is thankfully a thing of the past. The grain of the original 35mm negative, though not pronounced or distracting, gives this new transfer an earthiness that greatly benefits it. It’s even an improvement over the Criterion release in terms of contrasts and dynamic range. I just wish a few of the key color-grading changes del Toro made for Criterion could have been incorporated here.

 

I’m picking nits, of course, if only because I adore this beautiful work so deeply. I do need to get a little pedantic about what I mean by “beautiful,” though. While an utter treat for the eyes from a cinephile’s perspective, Pan’s Labyrinth is not videophile demo material. This is, after all, a low-budget Mexican film, shot for less than $20 million. There is some softness to the image, some rough edges and textures here and there, and some compromises that result from the original digital intermediate that could only be rectified by a full-scale restoration sourced from the original film negatives. That would mean

re-rendering the computer-generated effects, which—to be frank—don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny, especially in this more revealing UHD transfer.

 

Thankfully, though, most of the effects work is practical, with heavy reliance on makeup, costuming, and animatronics. (del Toro fans will immediately

Pan's Labyrinth

recognize longtime collaborator Doug Jones beneath tons of latex as both the Faun and the Pale Man—two of the film’s creepiest fantastical creatures—if only due to his inimitable pantomime and distinctive lithe physique.)

 

This Warner Bros. release oddly does carry over the new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack from the Criterion release, which I suppose could be considered a downgrade from the 7.1-channel track of the original Blu-ray in terms of channel count, but is undeniably a subtle upgrade in every other respect. Honestly, you won’t miss the extra channels. But if you comprehend any Spanish, you’ll appreciate the enhanced dialogue intelligibility, as well as the improved clarity and spatial refinement of the mix. And, hey, if don’t hable español, the English subtitles for this film were actually written by del Toro himself, due in large part to his frustration with the awful translated subtitles for El espinazo del diablo.

 

All of the above, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying  if you love El laberinto del fauno and want to view it at its best, this new UHD/HDR release is that, just by a hair. It’s worth the upgrade even if you own the Criterion Blu-ray release, if only because its remaining flaws are less distracting.

 

But if you’re averse to dark parables and are simply looking for demo material to stress every pixel of your 4K display, you can probably safely pass. This isn’t a mindless, feel-good film. It’s a challenging and at times troubling look at the stark realities of 

war (actually, technically, the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as the film is set in Francoist Spain in 1944) and the dual-edged sword of escapism from such horrors. It’s also, though, a wondrous and magical fable that defiantly spits in the face of the notion that fantasy films cannot be serious art.

 

By the way, for those of you who pick up the new UHD release on Kaleidescape, know that you’ll need to download the Blu-ray version included with your purchase if you want to access the bonus features. And you do. Granted, a few key goodies from the Criterion release are missing (I’ll certainly be hanging onto that physical release for the exclusive interview with del Toro and novelist Cornelia Funke), but what’s presented here still counts as a wealth of supplemental material that genuinely adds value and insight into not only the filmmaking process, but also the deep symbolism of the film. Granted, two of those supplements—the short documentary “The Power of Myth” and the audio commentary by del Toro—do rob you of the opportunity to interpret some of the story’s more ambiguous aspects for yourself, so make sure you’ve seen the movie a few times, as least, to solidify your own interpretations.

 

The truly great thing about El laberinto del fauno, though, is that it rewards multiple re-watches, even after you think you’ve got it all figured out (in terms of 

Pan's Labyrinth

meaning, that is; narratively speaking, it’s an incredibly simple tale that requires no parsing). I hesitate to recommend buying the film sight-unseen, if only for the fact that some viewers (my wife included) find the ruthlessness of the film’s human antagonists too much to bear. Try as I might, she can’t bring herself to give it a second chance. And that’s fair. But I would argue that none of the brutality on display is gratuitous. It’s thematically, narratively, and emotionally necessary. It’s also, thankfully, infrequent.

 

For my money, El laberinto del fauno is as near to perfection as any work of cinema made in the past quarter century. And while I can’t say the same for any of its home video releases, this new UHD/HDR release gets closer to the mark than past efforts. Quite frankly, that’s enough for me to recommend it as a worthy upgrade for those who are already under the film’s spell.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019)

While it’s tempting to refer to Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King as the latest in the studio’s string of live-action remakes, following in the successful footsteps of Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), it would technically be inaccurate to refer to it as such.

 

Why? Because, well, it’s not live action at all. As director Jon Favreau revealed in an Instagram post, “There are 1,490 rendered shots created by animators and CG artists. I slipped in one single shot that we actually photographed in Africa to see if anyone would notice. It is the first shot of the movie that begins The Circle of Life.”

 

Yup. Following that opening shot, it’s fake. All of it. So, just because it looks like a live-action remake, The Lion King is actually more correctly described as a full computer-generated-imagery (CGI) remake.

 

Call it whatever you want, this film takes animation photo-realism to the next level with animals and landscapes so detailed and real-looking, the lines between “real” and “digital” are blurred into non-existence. In fact, if you were to just walk into the room with the volume turned down, you could be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary on the habits of a dysfunctional lion pride.

 

But the film’s strict adherence to ultra-realism is also a bit of its downfall, as it removes some of the heart and connection to the characters. In the original 1994 animated version, Disney’s animators humanized the characters by giving them human

emotions and expressions. In reality, though, lions—and most jungle animals—only have so many facial expressions, none of which are designed to express sadness or pleasure. So, without the musical and voice cues, you’d often be hard-pressed to know what the characters are feeling.

 

Fortunately, the voice casting is spot on, and definitely helps in connecting you with the animals and understanding the emotions they’re feeling.

 

While the remake runs 30 minutes longer than the animated version, it doesn’t feel like much has been added; rather, scenes just open and develop at a slower pace, giving you more time to absorb all of the glorious CGI realism.

 

It’s hard to imagine the story not being familiar to anyone at this point, but in a nutshell, the movie opens with king of the jungle, Mufasa (voiced once again by James Earl Jones, who returns 25 years after his original performance, and gives the alpha-lion patriarch the much-needed gravitas), introducing new cub Simba (Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino) to the jungle. Mufasa’s outcast brother, Scar

(Chiwetel Ejiofor), is jealous of this new heir to the throne, and he teams up with a pack of ravenous hyenas to overthrow Mufasa and banish Simba from the pride.

 

Young Simba stumbles across the comedic duo of a warthog, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and a meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner), who also take on the role of raising Simba in a secluded paradise-like section of the jungle. After growing up, Simba runs across Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter), who tells him how bad things have become under Scar’s rule, causing Simba to return to assert his rightful claim to the throne. Other notable roles include John Kani voicing shaman and adviser Rafiki, and John Oliver voicing hornbill and jungle gossip Zazu.

 

Part of what made the original so memorable was the score by Hans Zimmer and songs by Elton John and Time Rice, and those remain intact here, with some new songs added, and with the two pop stars, Glover and Beyonce, teaming up to perform “Can you feel the love tonight” and Rogen and Eichner putting their spin on “Hakuna Matata.”

 

As mentioned, the film’s CGI is beyond reproach. Only in a couple of instances (some water splashing and some of the jungle scenes) did the visuals look anything but lifelike. Colors have a golden, natural shade, with lots of sun and earth tones. There are many shots of wide African vistas, surprising me a bit that they opted to film this in a 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the more cinematic 2.4:1.

 

Closeup detail throughout is fantastic, especially of landscape and animals. In fact, closeups look so good, they only add to the illusion that you’re looking at real life. Individual whiskers and strands of fur are clearly visible, as are subtle eye expressions and mouth movements. You can clearly see the claws extend from the lions’ paws as they walk, the wrinkle and texture in elephants’ skin, and individual wisps of hair around Rafiki’s face. The detail and realism are nothing short of stunning, and represent a generational leap in CGI technology on par with Jurassic Park.

 

While shot in ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. While this doesn’t “doom” a movie to lower picture quality or mean it isn’t “true 4K” (see Dennis Burger’s post for a terrific explanation of why), I did feel that while

closeups had incredible detail and texture, backgrounds didn’t have that next level of detail found in some films. Backgrounds had a general softness and lack of detail that stood out, with forest leaves blending together and lacking sharpness, especially when contrasted with the terrific detail on tight shots.

 

With the sun appearing in many shots, HDR is used nicely to deliver a lifelike image. The sun is bright, with the landscape retaining shadow and detail. I also appreciated that the bright orange hues of the sun or the varied shades of blue in the sky had no hints of banding. Some lightning strikes and a roaring fire at the finale also benefit from the HDR grading.

 

Sonically, I wouldn’t call The Lion King‘s Dolby Atmos track aggressive by any means, but it did offer some nice moments, and served its source material well enough. Dialogue is always clear and understandable (though Simba/Glover does tend to mumble a bit), and music is mixed up into the ceiling speakers to give it some more dimension. The sound mixers took some opportunities to add echo to voices and sounds inside of caves and canyons, to have animals running past your head, or to have some atmospheric sounds in the jungle, but I would have liked them to push these a bit further.

The Lion King (2019)

They get a little playful with Zazu’s voice as he flies around spouting out bits of news, and there are some lightning and thunder effects that crack overhead. While there aren’t a lot of bass-heavy moments, the sound mixers choose the right moments—like the stampede and pivotal lion roars—to push the LFE channel and heighten the emotional impact.

 

While The Lion King offers nothing new from a storytelling perspective, it is gamechanging for its use of CGI, and is a terrific looking film. While there are a couple of scenes that might be intense for younger viewers (my 3½-year old left the room during a couple of scenes saying, “Scary!”), it is mostly family-friendly fare that is nearly as educational as a documentary and likely more entertaining.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

I’d already planned to write a wrap-up post on my journey to get a new projector to update my personal home theater, but Andrew Robinson’s recent “4K is for Fanboys,” makes the timing of this post even more relevant.

 

As I mentioned in “It’s Time to Update My Theater,” technology had passed my previous Marantz projector by, and it had been quite some time since we had used it. Instead, we just watched our 65-inch TV screen full time. (I know, a first-world problem for sure.) Sure, it was still enjoyable, but it actually curtailed the number of movies we watched. When the projector was in action, we would generally watch two to three movies per week, making an evening around dropping the lights and focusing

on the big screen. But with the projector out of action, we went to watching two to three movies per month.

 

After the new projector arrived, I couldn’t wait to see it in action. Instead of waiting until I could get some help to properly install the JVC by retrofitting the new cabling required (sending 4K HDR signals upwards of 50 feet is beyond the limits of my old HDMI cable, and I’ve gone to an HDMI-over-fiber solution from FIBBR) and mounting the JVC, I just set it on its box on top of our kitchen counter, strung the FIBBR cable across the floor, did a quick-and-dirty alignment and focus, and settled in to watch a movie on the big screen.

 

And from the opening scene, I was ecstatic with my new purchase. The blacks were deep and cinematic, colors were bright and punchy, edges were sharp and defined, and, blown up to nearly 10 feet, the projector’s 4K image had incredible resolution and detail. For me, this is what true theater-at-home is all about.

 

Watching movies on a 115-inch screen is incredibly more involving than a 65-inch one. And with the projector, it is an active viewing experience, with the lights down and distractions minimized. In the short time I’ve had the new projector—less than two weeks—we’ve already watched seven films with it, and each time I’m giddy that this is something I’m actually able to enjoy in my own home.

 

Coupled with my 7.2.6-channel audio system, movies look and sound as good as virtually any commercial theater.

I’m not a filmmaker as Andrew is, and I’m not a student of film as site editor Mike Gaughn is. I don’t watch movies to dissect framing, composition, or lighting. And I’m sure there are many subtleties, references, and hat tips in films that I’m completely oblivious to. But, the fact is, most times when I go to watch a movie, it’s to relax and enjoy myself. And I’d imagine that’s what most people are looking to do with their home entertainment systems. I’m not looking for Ready Player One to change my world view, or for Alita: Battle Angel to offer a commentary on anything, or for John Wick to teach me any lessons, well, except for maybe on the benefits of rapid mag changes. 

 

I’m looking to sit back with a martini and be entertained for a couple of hours.

 

At the end of the day, unless you are a filmmaker evaluating your work, or a professional film critic getting paid to review the work of others, all of this “home theater stuff” is really just a hobby designed to be fun and enjoyable. And any technology improvements that can help people to achieve a better experience—be it 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, 3D, or other—is an improvement in my book.

 

To my eye, 4K HDR films look better, especially when blown up to large sizes. And, to my ear, Dolby Atmos (or DTS:X) soundtracks are more exciting and involving. And if I’m electing to spend my precious time watching something—be it Survivor on broadcast cable, Jack Ryan streaming on Amazon, the latest Star Wars, Avengers, or Pixar entry, or just some new release from the Kaleidescape Store, then I’d like to do so in the highest quality possible.

 

And if that makes me a 4K Fanboy as Andrew suggests, then sign me right up!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

“Apollo 11” Goes 4K

"Apollo 11" Goes 4K

If you’ve read my review of the original HD release of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary film Apollo 11 from earlier this year, you may recall that it was a bit more of a rant than a proper critique. Not about the film, mind you. Apollo 11 still stands as one of the year’s best cinematic efforts, especially in the more straightforward, less editorial approach it takes in capturing this one monumental moment in history.

 

The rant was instead about the film’s home video release, which was originally HD only, with no mention of a UHD/HDR followup. As I said in that original review, this was doubly troubling because Apollo 11 is among a small handful of films released recently to actually be sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. In fact, its original film elements were scanned at

resolutions between 8K and 16K. Given that most modern films, especially Hollywood tentpoles, are finished in 2K digital intermediates and upsampled to 4K for cinematic and home video release, the lack of a UHD option for Apollo 11 was as infuriating as it was puzzling.

 

Thankfully, that mistake has been rectified. Apollo 11 is now available in UHD with HDR on most major video platforms, including disc and Kaleidescape, with the latter being my viewing platform of choice. I know I mentioned purchasing the film in HD via Vudu in my original review, but that purchase doesn’t offer any sort of upgrade path for UHD, the way Kaleidescape does.

 

At any rate, I did a lot of speculation in that first review about the sort of differences I thought UHD would make for this title. And having now viewed it, most of those predictions turned out to be true. UHD does, indeed, reveal a lot of detail that was obscured in the HD release. That makes sense given that the source of so much of this film’s visuals existed in the form of 65mm/70mm archival footage.

 

One of the biggest differences you see when comparing the 

HD and UHD releases is in the textures of the Saturn V rocket. Ribbing in the first three stages of the rocket that dwindle to nothing in HD are clear and distinct in UHD. The little flag on the side of the rocket is also noticeably crisper, and the stars in its blue field stand out more as individual points of whiteness, rather than fuzzy variations in the value scale.

 

As predicted, the launch of Apollo 11 also massively benefits from HDR grading. The plume of exhaust that billows forth from the rocket shines with such stunning brightness that you almost—almost—want to squint.

 

One thing I didn’t predict, though—which ends up being my favorite aspect of this new HDR grade—is how much warmer and more lifelike the imagery is. In the standard dynamic range color grade of the HD version of the film, there’s an undeniable cooler, bluer cast to the colors that never really bothered me until I saw the warmer HDR version. Indeed, the HDR grade evokes the comforting warmth of the old Kodak stock on which the film was captured in a way the SDR grade simply doesn’t.

 

It’s true that the new UHD presentation does make the grain more pronounced in the middle passage of the film—where 65mm film stock gives way to 35mm and even 16mm footage. That honestly has more to do with the enhanced contrast of 

this presentation than it does the extra resolution. HD is quite sufficient to capture all the nuances and detail of this lower-quality film. But the boost in contrast does mean that grain pops a little more starkly.

 

This does nothing to detract from the quality of the presentation, though, at least not for me. And even if you do find this lush and organic grain somewhat 

distracting, I think you’ll agree it’s a small price to pay for the significantly crisper, more detailed, more faithful presentation of the first and third acts.

 

If you haven’t picked up Apollo 11 yet, congratulations—you get to enjoy your first viewing as it should have been presented to begin with. If you already bought the film in HD, I can’t recommend the upgrade to UHD highly enough. Thankfully, for Kaleidescape owners, that upgrade doesn’t mean purchasing the film all over again.

 

It is a shame Universal, the film’s home video distributor, has for whatever reason decided to hold back bonus features. The featurette included with the UHD Blu-ray release, which covers the discovery of the 65mm archival footage, is missing here—although it’s widely available on YouTube at this point (and is embedded above). And only Apple TV owners get access to an exclusive audio commentary. Then again, given how badly the studio fumbled the original home video release, it’s no real surprise that they’ve dropped the ball on making the bonus features widely available.

 

Don’t let that turn you off of the film, though. This is one that belongs in every movie collection, especially now that it’s available in UHD.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

4K is for Fanboys

4K is for Fanboys

I feel as if I might have a reputation around these parts, a heel of sorts. Why a heel and not a hero? Because I find that my opinions are often in opposition to that of my contemporaries. Not because they are wrong, but just because I think their focus is continually on things, topics, and ideas that play to a base that, well, is dying.

 

Dennis Burger wrote a terrific piece on why 4K isn’t always 4K. It is a truly good piece of writing and one that gets 99 percent of the argument absolutely correct. For as someone who has literally filmed a feature-length film for a motion-picture studio in 

true 4K only to have it shown in theaters in 2K, I can attest to the article’s validity. But Dennis, like me some years ago, missed the boat by even framing the argument around resolution at all.

 

You see, I thought people/viewers cared about things like resolution. Back in 2008, when I filmed my movie, the original RED ONE cinema camera just came out, and as a result the “whole world” was clamoring for 4K—or so it seemed. I had the choice of whether or not to film in 4K via the RED ONE or go with a more known entity by filming in 2K via cameras from Sony’s CineAlta line. Ultimately I chose option C, and went with a true dark horse contender 

in Dalsa, who up and to that point, had no cinema pedigree—unless you count being the ones who designed the sensor tech for the Mars Rover a cinematic endeavor. But I digress.

 

We didn’t use the RED ONE because it was buggier than a roadside motel mattress, and I didn’t choose to side with Sony because they were HD, and HD was yesterday’s news. Filming in 4K via the Dalsa back in 2008 was an absolute pain in the ass. (That’s me with the Dalsa Origin II in the photo at the right.) Spoiler alert, not much has changed in 2019, as 4K 

continues to be a bit of a pain, it’s just more accessible, which makes everyone think that they need it—more on that in a moment.

 

What is upsetting is that I do know the monetary difference my need to satiate the consumer-electronics fanboys cost me and my film—a quarter of a million dollars. While $250,000 isn’t much in Hollywood terms, it represented over a quarter of my film’s total budget. The cost of filming in HD you ask? Less than $30,000. Oh, and post production 

4K is for Fanboys

would’ve taken half the time—thus lowering costs further. All of that headache, backache, and money only to have the film bow in 2K via 4K digital projectors from—wait for it—Sony!

 

Now, I will sort of agree with the assertion that capturing visuals at a higher resolution or quality and downscaling to a lesser format—say HD—will result in a clearer or better picture—but honestly, only if you preface what you’re watching as such ahead of time. Which brings me to my point: All of this HD vs. 4K talk is for fanboys who insist on watching pixels and specs rather than watch the damn movie. Not one person, or journalist (apart from me), wrote about my film from the context of being the first-feature length film ever filmed entirely in 4K. They didn’t ask about it, nor care, because it doesn’t matter.

 

It never mattered.

 

What digital has done is remove the magic from cinema and replace it with a bunch of numbers that bored middle-aged dudes (yes, dudes) can masturbate over in an attempt to differentiate their lot from the rest. None of it has any bearing on the story, enjoyment, or skill. It’s an arms race, one we all fall prey to, and one we continually perpetuate, because, well, it sells. We’ve gotten away from cinema theory, history, and storytelling in recent years and instead become infatuated with bit-rates, color spaces, and codecs. And yet, in the same breath, so many of us bitch about why there are no good films being made anymore. It’s because the only thing audiences will pay for is what they think is going to look great on their brand new UltraHD TV.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

The Highest Rated Series Isn’t on TV

The Highest Rated Series Isn't on TV

Times, they are a changin’, and nowhere else is this more evident than online. No, I’m not talking about streaming, for saying streaming is changing the game is so 2018. What I’m talking about is original content being created by people like you and me.

 

We’ve discussed the democratization of media on this site and on the podcast, so it should come as no surprise that I’m discussing it yet again, but something rather huge has just taken place on the tubes of you. A content creator by the name of Shane Dawson just created a video series, entitled The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star, that has garnered CBS-primetime-level viewership.

 

Let’s back up. For those of you who don’t know, Shane Dawson is a filmmaker, producer, and YouTuber. Notice I said filmmaker and producer first, for I feel that the title of YouTuber is seen as a negative in the eyes of older generations, and I’m

not here to take anything away from Mr. Dawson or his achievements. Dawson has been on YouTube for many years, arguably “growing up” on the platform before it became YouTube as we know it today. As a result, he has amassed quite a following—twenty two and a half million followers to be exact.

 

While Dawson may have risen to YouTube fame via 

the production of cheeky skit videos some years ago, it is his new, more personal work that has caught my attention. I say this with all due respect, but Shane has emerged as a sort of Oprah-esqe figure on the platform.

 

Dawson’s latest series, a collaboration with beauty mogul Jeffree Star, is the culmination of everything his past work has been building to, as he follows in Star’s footsteps in an attempt to launch his very own line of cosmetics. While the title of the series may seem like a bio piece on Star, it really is Dawson’s journey that proves the most compelling, for, like the audience, the wild ride that is the life of Star is all new to Dawson. Part One of the series aired this past Tuesday, October 1st, with Part Two set to bow Friday, October 4th, with more episodes to follow.

 

So what does all this have to do with anything?

 

While the reach and power of social media and those we call influencers is undeniable, Dawson’s latest effort has managed to do something few—if any—independent, self-financed, self-created content has managed to do on a free, public platform . . . garner more viewers than many primetime network shows.

 

Ratings darling The Big Bang Theory wrapped this year, and its final episode was viewed by 18 million people in its time slot. 18 million people. Another stalwart (and advertising favorite) Monday Night Football routinely draws about 10 million viewers. Game of Thrones’ final episode drew 13 million eyeballs.

 

In truth, most shows on TV or otherwise fail to put up these sort of numbers routinely, many often doing half on their way to being unabashed “hits.” I’m shining a light on these three figures as examples of extreme cases of overwhelming success

according to traditional media because Shane Dawson’s latest series bested all but one of them with 15 million views (and counting).

 

Now, I don’t pretend to know what Dawson’s overhead costs are, but they can’t be as high as the cast and crew costs of The Big Bang Theory’s final season—hell, its final episode. Moreover, Dawson uses off-the-shelf equipment obtainable by anyone within reach of a Best Buy or a laptop with an Amazon account, which only adds (I think) to his content’s appeal. For as produced as it may be behind the scenes, it’s still undeniably real.

 

While many of you reading this may look at YouTube and those who create content on it as little more than children

making videos for children, I assure you it is not. It’s big business, and the more viewers Dawson and others like him rack up, the more folks like you and I will have no choice but to take note. While it may be chic among Baby Boomers to be Team Netflix over CBS, know that it’s an old trope. The future of entertainment is being shaped not by those who presided over the old guard only to repackage it as something new, but rather by a group of individuals like Dawson who said to hell with it all and did their own thing.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

First, let me just put this out there: I’m a huge Pixar fan. Like huge. For years, I felt the studio could do no wrong, as they churned out one brilliant, original, entertaining film after another. In fact, I would put Pixar up there with Lucasfilm as a studio whose next film I am going to see regardless of what it is or what it is about. Pixar makes a movie? I’m going. Automatic.

 

And that Pixar films are animated is almost irrelevant, as they have heart, head and shoulders above most of what other studios are putting out. And they seemed to have cracked the code on how to make films that simultaneously appealed to a wide generation of viewers, offering something engaging for toddlers and grown-ups alike, with characters you truly care about.

 

But recently, Pixar seems to have veered away from its originality roots and has been relying fairly heavily on sequels, with Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc. all getting the multi-film treatment. So, it shouldn’t have come as a real surprise that they would return to their original goldmine one more time with another entry in the Toy Story franchise.

 

When I initially heard about the plans to release Toy Story 4, I was actually upset. Not because I’m not a fan of the franchise—rather, exactly the opposite. It’s because I’m such a big fan, and I felt the story arc had been so wonderfully and perfectly completed in Toy Story 3, that I feared any additional movies would only dilute the emotional conclusion of that film, one that never fails to cause me to tear up no matter how many times I watch it.

 

Sure, give us some further exploits of our toy friends playing with Bonnie such as the Toy Story Toons Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry, and Partysaurus Rex or the longer shorts Toy Story That Time Forgot or Toy Story of Terror, but let Toy Story 3 remain the perfect end note to the main story.

Toy Story 4

However, with its early release in 4K HDR at the Kaleidescape Store (a week prior to the UltraHD Blu-ray), I decided to take the plunge and complete my Toy Story film collection.

 

I’ve watched TS4 twice now, once in theaters and once at home in 4K HDR, and my heart has definitely softened to this latest entry in the series. While much of the story feels more forced than the more organic events of 1—new toy, Buzz, comes in and shakes up things in the toys’ world—2—Woody is stolen and discovers he is a celebrity—and 3—the toys come to terms with Andy growing up and leaving them behind, it gives our toys another great adventure while advancing Woody’s story and ultimately giving his character some nice closure. (And a new beginning.)

 

The movie opens nine years in the past, showing us what happened to Sheriff Woody’s (Tom Hanks) true love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), when she is given away to another child. We then cut back to the present where, following the events of Toy Story 3, young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is growing, and Sheriff Woody finds himself being played with less and less. On the first day of kindergarten, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has a good first day, and while at school, Bonnie crafts a new friend, Forky (Tony Hale), from miscellaneous scraps of trash. When brought into Bonnie’s room, Forky magically comes to life and spends much of the movie trying to throw himself in the garbage.

 

When Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, Woody tries to convince the other toys—and Forky himself—that Forky is important to Bonnie. And when Forky throws himself out of the RV’s window, Woody goes after him, setting the stage for a variety of adventures, and the bringing together of old friends and new acquaintances.

 

All of your favorite characters from the previous films are here, including Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, 

Toy Story 4

Duke Caboom

taking over for the late Jim Varney). Significant among the new characters are Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and ultimate stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

 

Toy Story 4 is Pixar doing what Pixar does best, which is putting a bunch of interesting characters together in humorous situations and milking each scene for maximum humor and heart. They nail the little moments like 

Rex being impressed with how long Forky’s pipe-cleaner arms are, or Snow Combat Carl (Carl Weathers) missing out on a high five. This is definitely not the best of the Toy Story films, but it is still a lot of fun to watch.

 

We’ve been having a bit of a resurgence of Toy Story watching in our house, as my 3 year old has become obsessed with the first three films, wanting to watch them on our Kaleidescape system over and over. She is especially fond of Bo Peep, who plays a significant role in this movie as a surviving tough gal who knows how to stay alive and get things done.

 

What you really notice is the generational leaps in animation improvement from film to film. Whereas the first movie now looks almost like a student project, this one has many moments that border on photo-realistic. The opening scenes look stunningly real, with incredible depth and detail in every frame. Taken from a 4K digital intermediate, there is striking micro detail in every closeup, a testament to the fanatical level of attention paid by the Pixar team. From the ultra-fine texture in Bo’s bonnet, to the detail in every one of Bonnie’s eye lashes, to the scuffs and scrapes on Woody’s hat (visible only in certain lighting and angles, mind you), each frame is bursting with detail. Just sit and watch as each rain drop in the beginning hits, splashes, and ripples. It’s amazing work.

 

The outdoor scenes all look unbelievably real—from the exterior of Bonnie’s school, to the road and landscape while Woody and Forky are walking, to the interior of the Second Chance antiques store, it’s all 4K eye candy. One scene in the antiques 

store where Bo and Woody look at a variety of illuminated chandeliers is especially fantastic looking.

 

I did find the colors throughout to be a bit subdued and muted. Whether this was to give it a more grown-up, film-like, and realistic look or due to some other creative choice, colors aren’t as overly saturated and “pumped up” as they are in many animated titles, including others in the TS series. There are still scenes where colors pop, such as the shimmer of Bo’s deep purple cloak, the flashing colored lights in the secret club inside an old pinball machine, the gleaming chrome on Duke’s cycle, the midway at the carnival, and especially the carnival lit up at night.

 

This film is gorgeous to behold throughout, and reference-quality video in every way.

 

I found the Dolby Atmos audio track to be mostly restrained, with the vast majority of the audio action happening in the front of the room. There were some nice moments where the height speakers were called into creative use to expand the on-screen dialogue—for example Woody hearing things inside Bonnie’s backpack, or Ducky and Bunny talking off screen—or where the audio 

Toy Story 4

soundstage is expanded with a variety of ticking clocks in the antique store. But Toy Story 4 isn’t really an audio showcase. Having said that, this is frequently a dialogue-driven film, and the dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and there is appropriate use of surrounds when called on, but just not aggressively.

 

There are multiple end-credits and a post-credits scene that are definitely worth hanging around for.

 

If you have kids or grandkids, or just want a fantastic-looking movie with a bunch of heart, Toy Story 4 is sure to please.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Choosing My New Projector

Choosing My New Projector

Following up on my last post, “It’s Time to Update My Theater,” I’m going to delve into the thought process that caused me to splurge and finally upgrade my projector.

 

As I mentioned, my existing projector was about 11 years old, and, while it still produced watchable pictures from Blu-ray and DVD discs, it wasn’t compatible with many of the new 4K HDR sources in my system, so we had just stopped using it. I was

toying around with ditching both the projector and my current 65-inch Sony flat panel and upgrading to a new 85-inch flat panel.

 

Why 85 inches? Well, that is about the current size limit before you start getting into ridiculously expensive pricing. For under $4,500, you can get a Sony XBR-85X950G flat-panel that has been universally reviewed as a fantastic display. This would provide a large screen image for viewing all the time, not just at night with the lights down. It would also handle HDR signals (and Dolby Vision) far better than a projector at any price could.

 

As this was a significantly cheaper upgrade option, I really considered it, but ultimately decided I would miss the truly large-screen experience of my 115-inch, 2.35 aspect screen.

 

We use the projector almost exclusively for movie watching, and having nearly double the screen real estate makes a massive difference, and is far more engaging than a direct-view set, even one at 85 inches. (Now, had the 98-inch 

Sony Z-series TV been a tenth of its price—selling for $7,000 instead of $70,000—that probably would have been my pick.)

 

So, having made the decision to stick with front projection, I had to settle on a model. I had a few criteria going in that helped narrow the search.

 

First, I wanted it to be true, native 4K resolution on the imager, not using any pixel shifting or “wobulation” to “achieve 4K resolution on screen.” This ruled out many of the DLP models from companies like Epson and Optoma. Nothing against them, I just wanted native 4K.

 

Second, it had to have a throw distance that worked with my current mounting location. Actually, this isn’t much of a concern anymore, and most modern projectors have an incredibly generous adjustment range on their lens.

 

Third, I needed a model that offered lens memory so it would work with my multi-aspect screen (92 inches when masked down to 16:9, and 115 inches when opened to full 2.35:1.) This allows the projector to zoom, shift, and focus for a variety of screen sizes at the push of a single button, and is crucial for multi-aspect viewing.

 

Fourth, it needed to integrate with my Control4 automation system. Sure, I could cobble together a driver, but it would never offer integration as tight as one that was meant to work with that particular model.

 

Finally, it had to fit my $10,000 budget. Unfortunately, this ruled out brands like Barco and DPI. I was super impressed with Barco’s Bragi projector, but, alas, it doesn’t fit in my tax bracket.

 

Basically, with these criteria, my search was narrowed to two companies: JVC and Sony. And primarily to two projectors: The JVC DLA-NX7 (shown at the top of the page) and the Sony VPL-VW695ES. (Were my budget higher, I would have added the JVC DLA-NX9 to that list, which has the primary advantage of a much higher quality, all-glass lens, but it was more than double the price. And while the less expensive JVC DLA-NX5 also met all my criteria, the step up NX7 offers more bang for just a little more buck.)

 

So, I did what a lot of people do prior to making a big technology purchase: Research. I read a ton of forum posts, read all of the reviews on both models, and watched video comparisons. I also reached out to a couple of professional reviewers and calibrators who had actually had hands-on time with both models.

 

The CEDIA Expo is a place where manufacturers often launch new projectors, so this past month’s show coincided perfectly with my hunt. Since both companies had models that had been launched at CEDIA 2018, I was eager to see what announcements they might have regarding replacements or upgrades. Alas, there were no model changes, which, in a way, can be a good thing, since it means both models are now proven, have had any early bugs worked out with firmware updates, and  are readily available and shipping.

 

I really hoped to check out both projectors at the show, but, unfortunately, no one was exhibiting either. (Apparently, CEDIA is not the place to show your sub-$10,000 models.)

 

Ultimately, two announcements at the show swayed me to pull the trigger on the JVC. First, the product manager I spoke with said the price was going up by $1,000 on October 1, so buying sooner than later would actually save me money. But more importantly, JVC introduced new firmware at CEDIA that would add a Frame Adapt HDR function that will dynamically analyze HDR10 picture levels frame by frame, automatically adjusting the brightness and color to optimize HDR performance for each frame.

 

Projectors historically have a difficult time handling HDR signals, and this firmware is designed to produce the best HDR images from every frame. This used to be achieved by using a high-end outboard video processor such as a Lumagen Radiance Pro, but that would add thousands of dollars to the system. When I saw this new technology demonstrated in JVC’s booth, I was all in.

 

In my next post, I’ll let you know if the purchase was worth it. (Spoiler: It totally was!)

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

It’s Time to Update My Theater

 Some views of my home theater space, pre upgrades

photos by Jim Raycroft

The first home theater component I ever purchased was a subwoofer back in 1995. It was a big 15-inch black cube Definitive Technology model that I drove into San Francisco to buy after researching everything I could find for weeks in all the enthusiast magazines at the time. From there, I bought a Yamaha digital surround decoder and Dolby Digital RF demodulator

for a laserdisc player, connected it all to some speakers and a 25-inch Proton tube TV, and voila! I had my first home theater system.

 

It didn’t have a lot of style or elegance, and it certainly wasn’t luxury, but I was on the cutting edge of 5.1-channel technology, and it sounded better than anything my friends had.

 

And I was hooked.

 

Over the years, my system has seen a lot of upgrades, most frequently in the preamp/processor section, as I chase the technology dragon of trying to stay current with surround formats, channel counts, and HDMI processing. (For the record, the 13.1-channel Marantz AV8805 is currently serving processing duties in my rack, and doing a very fine job of it, thank you.)

 

Speakers get upgraded the least often, as a good speaker rarely stops sounding good, and, if cared for, rarely breaks. Sources come and go as technology improves. Gone are the VCR, and the LaserDisc and DVD players. Currently in use are a Kaleidescape Strato and M500 player, Samsung UHD Blu-ray, Apple 4KTV, Dish Hopper 3, and Microsoft Xbox One.

 

Lying in the upgrade middle ground is my system display. Long gone is the 25-inch Proton, having been replaced by a 35-inch Mitsubishi, then a 61-inch Samsung DLP, then a 60-inch Pioneer Elite Plasma. Currently, my primary display is a Sony XBR-65X930D, a 65-inch 4K LED. However, it’s a D-

generation, and Sony is now on G models, so it might be due for replacement next year.

 

One device in my system that has never been upgraded is my video projector.

 

I always wanted a truly big-screen, cinematic experience, and this meant a projector and screen. So I purchased the best projector Marantz made (the VP-11S2, shown below) back in 2008, along with a Panamorph anamorphic lens and motorized 

sled system. This setup fires onto a Draper MultiView screen that has masking to show either a 92-inch 16:9 image or a 115-inch 2.35:1 Cinemascope image.

 

The first time we dropped the lights, powered on the projector, and lowered the screen, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have this amazing system in my own home, and we essentially stopped going out to the movies.

 

I continued to feel that way about my projection system for years. It 

It's Time to Update My Theater

provided an amazing, truly cinematic experience that made me happy literally every time we used it. And use it we did, generally watching two to three movies per week on the big screen.

 

But then, technology moved on.

 

Principally, HDMI went from 1.4 to 2.0, resolution went from 1080p to 4K, and video went from SDR to HDR.

 

While the Marantz still worked, it was now by far the weakest link in my theater chain, and it no longer supported any of the sources we wanted to watch. In fact, just watching a Blu-ray on the system via our Kaleidescape meant going into the Kaleidescape’s Web setup utility and telling the system to “dumb itself down” to output HDMI 1.4 signals. A huge hassle.

 

So, a couple of years ago, we basically stopped using the projector at all.

 

But, some things changed in the projector world at the recent CEDIA Expo in Denver that inspired me to finally make the upgrade plunge, and that’s what I’ll dive into in my next post!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

 

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart 

or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.