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Is Disney Planning to Bleed Netflix Dry?

Is Disney Planning to Bleed Netflix Dry?

Maybe the biggest story out of the entertainment industry this week is the news that David Benioff & D.B. Weiss—showrunners of the massively successful but ultimately disappointing Game of Thrones TV adaptation—have backed out of developing a new trilogy of Star Wars films, originally slated to debut starting in 2022. In isolation, this really only seems to be a big deal for the geek community. After all, unless you’re a big fan, why should you care who ends up developing the first Star Wars films to have absolutely no connection to the Skywalker saga, which is coming to an end this year?

 

Personally, though, I don’t think we can view this development in isolation. I think it must be viewed in its proper context as the latest volley in a brewing war between Disney (owner of the Star Wars franchise) and Netflix (new owners of Benioff & Wiess). It’s a war that’s been simmering since Disney announced its Disney+ alternative to Netflix back in 2018.

 

The first shots were fired when Netflix canceled all of its shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe owned by Disney (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, etc.). More recent skirmishes involved Disney deciding not to allow advertising for any Netflix series (or the service itself) on its numerous TV channels (including ABC, Freeform, Fox, FX, and National

Geographic). For some reason, ESPN is exempt from this ban, and it’s not clear whether it affects A&E Networks, of which Disney owns half.

 

The point is, the gloves are off. Disney is gunning for Netflix. Netflix is gunning for Disney (with some minor air support from Amazon, which refuses to allow the Disney+ app on its streaming hardware).

 

So, what do Benioff and Weiss have to do with any of this? The statement released by the duo about their departure says it all: “There are only so many hours in the day, and we felt we could not do justice to both Star Wars and our Netflix projects. So we are regretfully stepping away.”

 

It helps to know that the pair was originally picked to helm a new Star Wars trilogy back in 2018. But in August of this year, it was reported that an intense bidding war between Disney, Netflix, and Amazon for the rights to own Benioff & Weiss for the next five years had finally come to an end, with Netflix coming out on top, to the tune of $250 million.

 

If this seems extraordinary, it isn’t. Deals of this sort are 

becoming the norm, with Netflix throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at content creators in an attempt to corner the market on exclusive content that keeps eyeballs on screens (and subscription dollars flowing). But Netflix isn’t alone. J.J. Abrams (also of Star Wars fame) just struck a similar $300 million deal with WarnerMedia, whose own HBO Max streaming service is launching in 2020.

 

But while the Warners and Apples and Amazons of the world are all breaking their necks to make deals of this sort, the real war continues to be between Disney and Netlix. And you could argue that Disney lost this battle.

 

But did it? Did it really lose? To be frank, Star Wars fans haven’t really been all that excited about Weiss and Benioff’s new trilogy since it became clear the quality of Game of Thrones took a huge nosedive once the duo ran out of A Song of Ice and Fire books to adapt for the screen. And let’s face it: If Disney really wanted to win the bidding war for the creators’ souls, it could have, given that it has the one thing Netflix doesn’t—a positive cashflow situation. Netflix hasn’t turned a real profit since 2011, after all, and is expected to go $3.5 billion into the red in 2019 alone.

 

It isn’t wholly out of line to speculate that Disney may be attempting to force Netflix to spend itself to death, perhaps so it can swoop in and pick the carcass clean with little to no effort. That’s certainly one of the likeliest ways for the Mouse to win this streaming war.

 

No matter which corporation is ultimately victorious, though (and let’s be honest here: By that I mean “if Disney is ultimately victorious,” because there’s no way Netflix can win this fight if it keeps fighting on Disney’s terms), I can’t help but think that none of this is good for us, the consumers.

 

Both Netflix and Disney are acting like brats. I love them both. I have subscriptions to both (I already paid for three years’ worth of Disney+ in advance, based purely on all of their original Star Wars programming). And I honestly believe the streaming marketplace needs them both to thrive. But it seems that both are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

 

One of my favorite things about the rise of streaming and the decline of commercial cinemas as the dominant source of feature films is that smaller movies like The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Meyerowitz Stories have, at least for a while now, been given room to flourish in a way they haven’t in years. But if the streaming landscape is going to become a battleground for bidding wars like this, I worry that—just as blockbusters have squeezed independent cinema out of actual cinemas—streaming services will soon become a simulacrum of the same phenomenon. (By the way, what would you call the streaming equivalent of a blockbuster? A pipeclogger? Oh well, that’s a topic for another day.)

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.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Eric Thies

This is the first in our series of interviews with people who aren’t just part of but who define and drive luxury home entertainment. Each offers their unique, candid insider’s perspective on both current trends and the likely future.

 

Eric Thies is the owner of Los Angeles-based DSI Luxury Technology, one of the most successful integration firms in the country. He’s also a driving force behind both The Guild, an alliance of elite integrators, and the Home Technology Association, which helps guide people to the most qualified companies to address their entertainment and smart-tech needs.

 

A passionate advocate for holding home entertainment to the highest possible standards, Eric has never been shy about expressing his opinions, and in this interview he offers his straightforward take on topics like 8K, home theaters vs. media rooms, art walls, and the deplorable lack of standards in the integration industry.

RELATED POSTS

Does a Luxury Cinema Really Need a Projector?

Does a Luxury Cinema Need a Projector?

Here’s a pop quiz to start your day with: How big is the TV you see in the image above? If you’re familiar with this specific model (LG’s C9 OLED), the proportions of its pedestal may give you some idea. The rest of you probably think this is an unfair question. You’re trying to look for other clues that could give it away: How tall are those ceilings? How wide is that wall? More importantly, how far away from the screen was the camera when this photo was taken?

 

That’s actually exactly my point. For the record, the image is of a 77-inch display. But if I had told you it was 55, or 65, or even 88 inches, would you have balked? Probably not, because you intuitively understand that a display’s screen size isn’t the beginning and end of the conversation when it comes to how large it actually appears to your eyes. It’s the relationship

between the display size and the distance from seat to screen that determines the degree to which an image fills your field of view.

 

Not to pick on my colleague and friend John Sciacca here, but in his recent piece “Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater,” he says, “Watching movies on a 115-inch screen is incredibly more involving than a 65-inch one.” What John is leaving unsaid there, though, is, “. . . from the same seating distance.” That last bit, that unspoken relationship between seat and screen, was taken for granted in John’s story, because to him it’s obvious. But that fact often gets tossed out the window completely when the gatekeepers of home cinema attempt to discredit the “lowly” TV as a legitimate screen for a proper home entertainment system.

 

I think this outdated perception of projectors as the only valid screens for home cinema systems is probably rooted in the equally outdated notion that commercial cinemas are the gold standard against which the home movie-watching experience should be judged. As I’ve argued in the past, that ship has sailed. 

These days, with a few rare and special exceptions aside, commercial cinemas are simply a way for most people to check out the latest Avengers or Star Wars flick before someone else ruins the plot for them. Or maybe they just want to view those big event movies with a few more subwoofers than their home AV systems can accommodate. But I guarantee you that almost none of the people who opt to go to their local movie theater to see the latest blockbusters would tell you that the allure of seeing an image bounced off a big sheet of perforated vinyl was what drew them out of the comforts of their own homes.

 

And mind you, I’m not claiming there aren’t plenty of valid reasons to install a projector at home. In his own media room, John sits roughly 12 feet from his screen, by his own estimation. He also has two kids at home, so movie-watching is often a whole-family experience. For his needs and his lifestyle, yeah, a projector is absolutely the right screen.

 

I, on the other hand, only have to worry about my wife and me. The only other permanent resident is Bruno, our 75-pound pit bull, and more often than not he either leaves the room when we watch movies or curls up in my lap and goes to sleep. We also only sit about six and a half feet from the screen in the main media room. The smallest high-performance home cinema projection screen I’m aware of is an 80-incher that would frankly be too much at that seating distance. A 75-inch display is pretty much perfect for this room, as it takes up a healthy 45.5 degrees of our field of view—a little more than

THX’s recommended 36 degrees, but so be it. We’d rather have a bit too much screen than a bit too little. But we don’t want The Last Jedi turning into a tennis match, either.

 

Interestingly enough, John’s 115-inch projection screen, when viewed from 12 feet away, takes up roughly 38.5 degrees of his field of view. In other words, my 75-inch screen looks bigger to me and my wife than his 115-inch projection screen looks to him and his family.

 

Am I bashing John’s choice of screens? Of course not. What works for him works for him, and what works for me

How to Determine Your Viewing Distance

 

If you want figure out your screen size based on viewing distance, or vice versa, but without having to wade through technical specs or do any heavy math, click this link.

works for me. And I’m sure he would agree. Different rooms. Different families. Different viewing habits. Different solutions. Without a doubt, we’re both enjoying a better movie-watching experience than we would at the local cineplex, and his system gives him one big advantage over mine: He gets to watch ultra-widescreen 2.4:1 aspect-ratio films without any letterboxing.

 

In addition to the larger perceptual screen real estate, though, my TV also gives me better black levels, better dynamic range, better peak brightness, and better color uniformity than any two-piece projection system could. And if for whatever reason we ever decided to watch a movie with the lights on, we wouldn’t have to worry about the screen washing out. (Not that we would, mind you. My wife and I prefer to keep any and all distractions to a minimum when watching movies, going so far as to put our mobile phones away or turning them off entirely. I’m just saying that we could leave a light on if we wanted to.)

 

And yet, the naysayers and gatekeepers would have you believe that for whatever reason my viewing experience is subpar. That I would somehow be better served by lacking black levels, middling contrasts, less peak brightness, and worse screen uniformity, simply because that would be a more faithful facsimile of the local cineplex.

 

To which I say this: The New Vision Theatres Chantilly 13 across town isn’t the yardstick by which I judge my movie-watching experience at home anymore. My home cinema system looks better and sounds better, and quite frankly has a better selection of films from which to choose. Granted, if we had a much larger room, or typically invited large groups of friends over to watch movies, a projection screen would likely be a superior alternative to our 75-inch TV on the balance sheet. If we had two or three rows of seating? No question about it—we would need a projector.

 

The beauty of current AV gear, though, is that you don’t have to change your lifestyle or viewing habits to have a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. You can assemble a reference-quality home cinema that conforms to your lifestyle, not the other way around. And if, like me, that means employing a gigantic TV as your screen of choice, you shouldn’t pay much attention to anyone telling you you’re doing it wrong, or that your system doesn’t count as “luxury.” Chances are, they’re trying to sell you something.

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.

Netflix is Garbage

Netflix is Garbage

Remember back when consumers bought discs? DVDs and Blu-rays, remember those days? Remember when, upon entering the store, there were inevitably bins or large containers with copious amounts of bulk DVDs and later Blu-rays in them? These bins were usually marked ‘Sale” or “Three for . . .” and whatever was thrown in was whatever B-Movie or failed Hollywood attempt had been taking up valuable shelf space. Remember those bins? Of course you do.

 

Whatever happened to them? 

 

They turned into Netflix. That’s right, everything that seemingly was destined for the three-for-one rack at WalMart is now a Netflix Original film—complete with shiny new posters, trailers, and marketing budget. Only beneath the veneer, it’s the same old shit.

 

Make no mistake, I love me some Netflix, I do. But lately, its has been letting me down. Case in point, last night my wife and I watched Fractured, a “thriller” that bowed on Netflix last week. Admittedly, I am a complete sucker for films such as Fractured, having once been at the helm of a micro-budget, horror/thriller myself. I get the genre, and I appreciate it. But, like many before me who were swept up in the horror craze that inundated Hollywood not too long ago, we learned that just because you could sell your film, that didn’t make it good.

Netflix is Garbage

Fractured

Case in point, my foray into the micro-budget, horror/thriller genre was a complete disaster on multiple fronts. Thankfully, our platform or home was the upstart Hulu long before it became the go-to TiVo of sorts for all the networks. No one watched my monstrosity, and I’m grateful for it, for, like Fractured, it was bad.

 

You see, Fractured is like a lot of films bowing on Netflix lately—all style and zero substance. Make no mistake, 

aspects of the film look great. It was clearly made by competent people, and it has a solid cast anchored by Sam Worthington (Avatar), but damn if the writing and subsequent editing don’t turn a slick piece of semi-well-acted cinema into a flaming bag of crap that just got placed on millions of virtual doorsteps. And this has been occurring on Netflix a lot lately.

 

In the past 30 days alone, I have watched a half dozen or so Netflix Originals that have been tantamount to virtual kidnapping. Films such as The Titan, What Happened to Monday, The Laundromat,  In The Shadow of the Moon, and Bright (shown

at right) are all perfect examples of efforts that had just enough going for them on paper that someone was bound to throw money at them, but not enough to make any of them good or even watchable.

 

I get it. Netflix is trying to take over our collective streaming-entertainment world, and for a while there it seemed like they were going to pull it off. But an early lack of competition was mistaken for success and a healthy 

Netflix is Garbage

dose of hubris has shown us not what Netflix was supposed to be, but the reality of what it is. Netflix is a modern-day WalMart DVD and Blu-ray store shelf. Sure, there’s some great stuff for sale, but most of it’s trash, so rather than sell you on quality, they’re going to kill you with quantity.

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.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’re looking for a realistic action/heist movie, the Fast & Furious franchise probably isn’t the right one for you.

 

Scratch that. If you’re into realism at all, Fast & Furious definitely isn’t for you.

 

These films frequently involve supercharged cars used to either commit or prevent some kind of crime, and the franchise has grown in both size and scope over the series to now be on the international, world-affecting scale—which often forces you to lean heavily on your suspension of disbelief and just sit back and enjoy the big chases and action pieces.

 

Things like a Russian nuclear submarine chasing sports cars across an icy tundra (Fate of the Furious) or cars racing and jumping parkour style between floors of high-rise buildings (Furious 7) or somebody jumping out of a moving vehicle and catching someone else in mid-air across two freeway lanes on a bridge expanse (Fast & Furious 6) or a Dodge Charger ripping out a massive bank vault and then dragging it down the highway at high speed (Fast Five) abound. So, yeah, the Furious franchise and reality—and things like gravity, physics, and the fragility of the human body— are really more like nodding acquaintances.

 

But if you can look past that and just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and a drink, these movies can be a lot of fun.

 

After eight films that have amassed nearly $5 billion worldwide since 2001, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood looked for more ways to get some gold from this goose. This latest installment, however, isn’t really a Fast & Furious film, but rather a new story set in the same universe involving two spinoff characters: former Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and former British Special Air Service Major, Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham). Of course, making an action film starring The Rock and Stratham isn’t really much of a gamble, as the two have enough star power individually to carry a film.

 

Fans of the series will know there has been little love lost between Hobbs and Shaw, and calling them “frenemies” would be generous as the two have a history of animosity and trying to out-macho each other while wanting to beat each other to death. This movie embraces that, with the two frequently trading barbs and insults to comedic effect. The chemistry between the actors works well, as does the juxtaposition between the Rock’s hulking mass and rough-around-the-edges ways, compared to the posh, stylish, and subtle Stratham. (The film’s opening is literally a split screen highlighting the stark differences of how the two begin their day.)

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

While a team of MI6 agents is attempting to retrieve a super virus named “Snowflake” from a terrorist group, they’re overrun by another group of terrorists from an organization known as Eteon led by a cybernetically enhanced super-agent named Brixton Lore (Idris Elba). Not wanting the virus to fall into enemy hands, MI6 agent and Deckard’s younger sister, Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) injects herself with the virus and goes on the run. Lore kills the remaining MI6 agents and frames Hattie for the crime and virus theft, and from there the story takes us around the world—from London to Moscow to Ukraine to Samoa—in search of clearing Hattie’s name and finding a way to extract the virus before it kills her . . . along with everyone else on the planet.

 

Two big stars, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart, make uncredited cameos in the film, and their scenes are some of the best and most hilarious, showing that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. Reynolds plays CIA agent Locke, responsible for getting Hobbs on board to help track down Hattie, and his dialogue is fantastic, reminding me of a PG-version of his Deadpool character. Hart plays Air Marshal Dinkley, who desperately wants to join Hobbs and Shaw in their mission and get involved in something bigger and get out of his “can of farts.”

 

The movie has a 2-hour 17-minute runtime, and while it never feels slow, it does feel a bit long. I mean, there are only so many fights and chases one can handle, no matter how well they look, how many people are in the fray, or the weapons and choreography involved. Though even the most jaded car-chase viewers will find it tough to not feel a bit of an adrenaline rush during the terrific London chase with Shaw behind the wheel of a McLaren 720S being chased by Lore on a Triumph Triple Speed motorcycle.

 

Filmed in ArriRaw in a combination of 2.8 and 3.4K, Hobbs & Shaw is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Detail in closeups is always sharp, clear, and detailed. There are plenty of opportunities to see fine details, like the well-groomed stubble on Shaw’s face, individual drops of sweat glistening on The Rock’s significant dome, or the texture and grain in Lore’s black-leather uniform. The image is always totally clean and noise-free, with blacks that are deep and pristine.

 

What really makes the image look great is the use of HDR throughout. Many of the film’s big scenes are at night, and really come to life with the HDR grading. This is apparent from the opening nighttime robbery in London, with bright lights against deep blacks, along with vibrant greens, golds, and reds, and near the end when lightning flashes and huge fireballs had me squinting, while the image maintained lifelike, deep-black levels. In contrast, the non-HDR Blu-ray version just has a flatness to it that is especially noticeable on larger screens like my new 4K projector and 115-inch screen.

The disparity in picture quality is apparent in the opening when we watch Hobbs and Shaw walking through clubs in LA and London surrounded by lots of bright lights and neon. The 4K HDR version makes these lights glow brightly like neon, where the 1080p non-HDR version just looks like blue, red, and purple lights without any pop or vibrancy to them. The 4K HDR version has far more depth and realism throughout.

 

Sonically, H&S is a big film, with a big and dynamic soundtrack with some significant bass when called for, which is often, due to the fights and explosions throughout. Unfortunately, NBCUniversal continues to refuse to provide Kaleidescape with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, so the digital download only contains a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix. While not as impressive as a discrete Atmos or DTS:X mix, the H&S soundtrack sounds quite exciting and immersive when run through an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural.

 

Drones zip past overhead, cars screech along the sides of the room, glass shatters and debris falls all around, and even the gentle outside wind, ocean, and bird sounds fill the room.

Fast & Furious Present: Hobbs & Shaw

If I had one quibble with the audio. it’s that the dialogue was a bit difficult to understand during some scenes. Whether this was due to the music and effects levels, the British accents, or just poor dialogue recording or mixing I can’t say. Fortunately, these moments are infrequent.

 

If you can look past some moments that defy credibility—like Hobbs lassoing and holding down a Blackhawk helicopter —Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw can make for a fun night at the movies. It’s available for full 4K HDR download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store now, a full three weeks before its release on physical media November 5.

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.

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.