Entertainment

“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.

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.

Musicals Are My Work—Movies Are My Pleasure

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Gerard Alessandrini

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gerard Alessandrini. Although I am a writer/director in theatre (Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton), it’s little known that I am also a movie lover and have even been called an “expert” in many areas of film. One of the reasons I love movies so much is that I don’t work in film, therefore when I see a movie it’s a totally pleasurable experience because it’s never part of my job. In theatre, I am always looking at things with a critical eye and how they relate to my career. For me, movies are just fascinating fun.

 

I love all genres of films. I still purchase discs of films I would like to see and/or keep. Nowadays, most people watch films streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but if I love a film, I like to have it on hand for repeated viewings. I own a good amount of the Criterion Collection, which sadly is becoming harder and harder to find. Of course, I love high-quality imagery, so I have been buying many Blu-rays recently. Here’s a story of one of my most recent favorite purchases, The Nun. Not the recent horror film but the French classic from 1965.

 

Nearly 40 years ago when I first came to New York, I wandered into a revival house and saw Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (also known as La Religieuse). The film is 

mesmerizing as well as heartbreaking, and I have remembered it for all these years. During all that time, I have never heard mention of it! I wasn’t even sure if the film even existed and wondered if I had imagined the whole thing!

 

Well, you can imagine how happy I was when I walked into the Union Square Barnes & Noble and saw that Kino Classics DVDs had issued the film on Blu-ray. It’s a stunning restoration in 4K from the original film negative. The liner notes point out that The Nun was originally banned in France, I assume due to its controversial religious subject matter. It was not released in the United States until 1971, and eventually became a landmark of the French New Wave. It’s adapted from Denis Diderot’s

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Anna Karina in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (La Religieuse)

novel and it follows a rebellious nun who is forced into taking her vows—but this ain’t The Sound of Music. Anna Karina plays the title role and gives an “incandescent” performance. I’m so glad that I didn’t imagine this movie, and that it is finally available.

 

Some of the other Blu-ray discs that I happily purchased are David Lean’s final film, A Passage to India (one of my favorites of his), Safety Last (Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy filled with thrills and laughter), and two wonderful musicals, Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and Victor/Victoria, starring Julie Andrews. Both of these film musicals have improved with age.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Sergei Bonarchuk’s War and Peace (1968)

On the other end of the spectrum, I was excited to buy the foreign-language Russian epic, War and Peace (1968). This is not the 1956 Audrey Hepburn version, but the 422-minute adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy, and it follows the book so closely and completely that you could make the case that Tolstoy wrote the screenplay. This 2K digital restoration is completely in Russian with subtitles, unlike the over-dubbed English version that has been available for years. Experiencing it in Russian, of course, is the way to go. The film is directed by Sergei Bonarchuk, and is so authentic you would think you were looking through a window at the actual history as it took place.

 

Moving on to Westerns, I recently re-discovered another film from my past. When I was a young boy, I remembered seeing Audrey Hepburn in, of all things, a western! Again, the film was so obscure I thought perhaps I had imagined it, but Kino Lorber has issued a wonderful Blu-ray of this film, The Unforgiven, which stars not only Audrey Hepburn, but also Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish, and, in a fantastic performance, Audie Murphy.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Audrey Hepburn in John Huston’s The Unforgiven

Today, the casting of Audrey Hepburn in this particular role wouldn’t happen, but it’s fun to see this visually gorgeous western with fine performances and hear the great music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. And if those names aren’t enough to impress you, it’s directed by John Huston. It’s great to own this film on Blu-ray, but it’s even better to see it in a movie theater on the big wide screen, where its mood and power will encompass you.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals. He is best known for
creating & writing the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway. Since 1981, he has
written & directed all the versions of FB in New York, LA, London, and around the world. He
has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk
awards. As a lyricist (and sometimes composer), he has written over a dozen musicals—
including Madame X, The Nutcracker & IScaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of
Moon Over Parador. He’s also written many special-material songs for stars like Angela
Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

What You Need to Know About Disney+

What You Need to Know About Disney+

The Simpsons will stream exclusively on Disney+

Even if you pay no more than a middling bit of attention to the streaming-video landscape, you likely felt a great disturbance in the Force in the past few months, as if millions of voices cried out and said, “Take my money!” That disruption, of course, has been caused by Disney+, which was met with skepticism when it was originally announced two years ago. (Yours truly called it a “huge mistake,” words I would like to eat with some ginger and a few shavings of fresh wasabi root, if you don’t mind.) But in the time since, numerous announcements about exclusive content and the service’s price structure have turned it from an inconvenient extra bill to a legitimate threat to Netflix.

 

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Disney+, mind you, and probably won’t know until closer to its November 12 launch date. But for now, here’s what we can say about what makes Disney+ different from the competition, and why you should care.

 

1) It’s got the content you want for a price you can’t refuse

If you’re a fan of, well, pretty much anything, chances are good Disney owns a piece of it. It goes without saying that Disney+ will have a large collection of Disney movies (with none of the Vault shenanigans that we’ve come to know and loathe in the home video era), as well as Pixar offerings, to choose from. It’ll also have every Star Wars movie except for The Last 

Jedi and Solo at launch (those are coming in the first year), as well as original Star Wars programming like the new live-action show The Mandalorian and a brand-new season of the highly acclaimed The Clone Wars animated series.

 

Ditto Marvel. The only movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that won’t be available at launch is Avengers: Endgame, which is slated to hit Disney+ in December. That, by the way, gives us some interesting insight into how long it will take new theatrical releases to stream after they’ve been released to home video. Then there’s the mountain of new, Disney+ exclusive MCU programming in the works, including original TV series based on Hawkeye, Vision & Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier, as well as everyone’s favorite bad boy, Loki.

 

Out of the gate, the service will launch with 300 theatrical films, and by the end of the first year we’re promised 500 films and 7,500 episodes’ worth of TV programming. All of that would be worth $6.99 a month even if the service didn’t also include a ton of National Geographic content to boot.

 

 

2) Bundles will sweeten the pot

Disney recently announced that in addition to its main subscription plan for $6.99, you’ll also be able to drop $12.99 on a bundle that includes Disney+, ESPN+, and the ad-supported version of Hulu without live TV. In other words: Pay for two, get one for free.

 

This makes sense, given that Disney now owns a controlling stake in Hulu (with Warner going its own way soon to launch HBO Max, another studio-exclusive streaming service), and seems to be positioning Hulu as the home for its more adult-oriented programming (including former Fox properties like Deadpool, as well as more mature original shows).

 

Interestingly, that $12.99 price point is also exactly what Netflix charges for its most basic, HD-only subscription tier. That can’t be a coincidence.

 

 

3) Disney isn’t skimping on AV quality

The company has already made some reassuring statements about Disney+ supporting 4K video and HDR. While we don’t know what sort of compression codecs the service will employ, that promise means it’s using HEVC at a minimum. In other words, Disney+ will be in the top tier of streaming providers from a video-quality perspective.

 

Here’s what we don’t know, though: Will you be able to

access 4K HDR video for the aforementioned $6.99 subscription price? Netflix charges for 4K HDR. Amazon doesn’t. So, it’s difficult to guess.

 

What’s more, we also don’t know if opting for the Disney+/Hulu/EPSN+ bundle will force you into accessing all three services from one app. If that app is Hulu, that could also be bad news in terms of video quality. Although Hulu recently re-introduced support for 4K video, it doesn’t offer HDR, which is a bummer since dynamic range has much more impact on picture quality than pixel count.

 

In other words, if you care about video performance, it may be that you’ll need to skip the bundle and just subscribe to Disney+ directly. But again, nobody knows for sure just yet.

 

 

4) They seem to have solved the biggest problem with most streaming services—the user interface

Here’s a fun experiment for you bored masochists in the audience: Load up Netflix and attempt to find all of the existing Netflix-original (but Disney-financed) Marvel TV shows in one place. This is a little easier if you remember the names of all those series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders). But search instead for, say, “Marvel,” and you end up with a mess of unrelated content with no clear indication of which shows exist in the same continuity. (Particularly troubling for nerds, you’ll also find a lot of cartoons based on D.C. Comics properties.)

 

Netflix isn’t alone in this, of course. The user interfaces for all of the major streaming platforms are just terrible.

 

Disney+, by contrast, has developed a user interface that seems to do all the things normal streaming UIs do—track your viewing habits, give you recommendations based on your preferences, spotlight new releases by category, etc.—but it also

curates its content and allows you to hone in on specific universes it owns. Just want to watch some Star Wars but not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for? The Galaxy Far, Far Away will have its own separate section of Disney+. So will Marvel. So will Pixar and NatGeo.

 

If other streaming providers don’t figure out how to do something similar—not 

necessarily segregating their home screens by shared universes, but coming up with some way of streamlining the process of finding something worth watching that matches your current mood—this could be the Number One thing that threatens the competition.

 

 


Add it all together, and it’s really not a question of whether or not you’ll subscribe to Disney+. Because of course you will, especially if you have a kid, know a kid, or remember being a kid. The real question is whether or not you’ll start dropping your subscriptions to other services once Disney+ launches.

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.

Why I’m Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

Why I'm Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

We’ve sung a fair amount of praise on this site for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video, and a lot of the content we review comes from these providers. The convenience of steaming can’t be denied, and the quality is catching up. Netflix, in particular, offers a lot of excellent 4K HDR content that, provided you have the bandwidth to stream it reliably, is almost indistinguishable from Ultra HD Blu-ray. You still don’t get uncompressed Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, but you do get Atmos in a compressed form—so they’re making progress on the audio side, too.

 

I feel as enthusiastic about streaming as everyone else. I cut the cord a couple years ago, and streaming is how I receive most of my video content. Movie night in my house generally begins with a scroll through Apple’s movie rentals or Netflix’s

recent releases. Yet despite my appreciation of all things streaming, I have no intention of getting rid of my disc player, and I can sum up the reason why in three words:

 

The Sure Thing

 

Yes, I’m talking about Rob Reiner’s 1985 comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, a most beloved film of my middle- and high-school years. One recent evening, as I pondered what to stream, I thought of this classic film and decided a rewatch was long overdue. A voice search through my Apple TV revealed no results. Really? Could that be true? A quick trip to JustWatch.com, one of many websites that helps you search across streaming platforms, confirmed that The Sure Thing is not available to stream anywhere. I was out of luck.

 

Or was I? In a bold move, I got up from my couch, walked all the way across the room, and scanned my wall o’ discs that has become more decor than anything at this point. And there it was, right next to other beloved “S” classics like She’s Having a Baby, Splash, Sports Night: The Complete Series, and The Sound of Music that I acquired during the disc era’s heyday. Granted it was the DVD version; the film was never released on Blu-ray either. (I’m not holding my breath on a UHD BD release.) But it’s mine, and I can watch it whenever I want—as long as I hold on to that disc player.

 

This discovery sent me down the rabbit hole to see what other films from my youth are not available to stream. I came across an Engadget story from August 2018 about screenwriter John August, who, upon being equally shocked that he couldn’t stream Ron Howard’s Cocoon, called on the Internet hive to help him create a database of movies that are MIA from the streaming sphere. Here are a few that caught my eye:

 

Better Off Dead

The Cannonball Run

The Cotton Club

Dogma

The Flamingo Kid

History of the World Part 1

Irreconcilable Differences

Jungle Fever

The Last American Virgin

Mask

Prizzi’s Honor

Pump Up the Volume

Rhinestone

Silkwood

Spirited Away

To Live and Die In LA

Wild at Heart

Willow

 

The full list is no longer completely accurate (if it ever was). Some of the films on it are now available through at least one streaming service, although I was surprised that some pretty big names—like James Cameron’s The Abyss and True Lies—are only available through smaller-tier platforms (i.e., not Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Google Play).

Perhaps the above list doesn’t faze you. Perhaps it only fazes Gen Xers like me who grew up with a lot of those films on standard rotation on cable TV, and thus have a nostalgic attachment to them. But there’s another issue with streaming that might faze you: Its glaring lack of consistency, both in quality and content availability.

 

Netflix drops titles all the time. Content providers shift loyalties, so a movie you watched last month on Amazon Prime may not be there today. Disney, which now owns a frightening share of the cinematic universe, is getting ready to launch its massive Netflix competitor, Disney+. How that will affect the offerings now available through the other major steaming platforms remains to be seen, but we know it will affect them. How many streaming subscriptions are you prepared to pay for to ensure access to desired content?

There’s a continuity to the disc experience that I still find comforting. When we’re talking about movies that you know your family will watch over and over again, sometimes it’s better to just buy the thing so you know exactly where it lives. Plus, it took a lot of time and money for me to amass my disc collection, and I’m not prepared to part with it just yet. Even if I don’t partake of it as often as I used to, I know it still serves a purpose.

The other day, I was trying to explain to my kiddo why the phrase “I want my two dollars” will make most people my age laugh. It was time to introduce her to Better Off Dead, another 1985 John Cusack classic that has been mercilessly shunned by the streaming mafia. Thanks to the convenience of YouTube, I could show her just the film segments involving everyone’s favorite psychotic paper boy in one neatly edited montage. That’s the beauty of streaming. And when she’s ready to watch the whole movie, I know there’s a copy sitting on my shelf, eager to satisfy. That’s the beauty of disc.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.

 

 

Cable & Satellite

DELIVERY  Really starting to show their age

CONTENT  Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage

You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), ChernobylBillions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.

 

Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.

 

 

Internet TV

DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable

CONTENT  Virtually identical to cable or satellite

Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.

 

As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.

 

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV

DELIVERY  Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K

CONTENT  What you’d expect from broadcast networks

The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.

 

These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can findvia an antenna of one sort or another.

 

 

Standalone Studio Streaming Apps

DELIVERY  Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better

CONTENT  All over the place—but that should improve, too

The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.

 

 

Hulu

DELIVERY  HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again

CONTENT  Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.

 

In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.

 

 

YouTube

DELIVERY  Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?

CONTENT  Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent

Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create 

content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.

 

You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runsstuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.

 

Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.

 

 

Amazon Prime Video

DELIVERY  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

CONTENT  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselTransparent, and HomecomingAnd with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.

 

Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.

 

In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.

 

 

Netflix

DELIVERY  Unmatched for a provider of original content

CONTENT  Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres

Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.

 

What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.

 

 

Vudu & iTunes

DELIVERY  Consistently excellent

CONTENT  No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead

Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not 

yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).

 

Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.

 

These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.

 

 

UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape

DELIVERY  Unrivaled

CONTENT  No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs

While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.

 

Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.

John Higgins & Dennis Burger

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

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.

Demo Scenes: Batman Returns

Demo Scenes: Batman Returns
“The Penguin Visits His Parents’ Grave”
(Chapter 7, 40:24–43:01)

 

There seems to be some sort of weird consensus that a compelling AV demo scene must be action-packed, or at the very least loud. One of my favorite things about the new UHD/HDR release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is that it handily dispels this notion. In fact, it flips it right on its head.

 

Sure, the movie has its rousing battles and feats of impossible athletics, especially in the tête-à-tête throwdown between Batman and Catwoman. But the film’s most compelling sequences, at least from the perspective of audio and visual spectacle, are its quieter moments. Indeed, its weirder moments.

 

One of my favorites comes at the start of Chapter 7 in the Kaleidescape download or UHD Blu-ray release, from 40:24 to 43:01. The Penguin—aka Oswald Cobblepot, played so spectacularly by Danny DeVito—visits the grave of the parents who

abandoned him in his infancy. Plot-wise, it’s such a simple scene: The Penguin waddles through the graveyard, places a pair of black roses on the ground, waddles back to the gate, and monologues in front of the gathered press.

 

The way the scene is photographed, though, and especially the way it’s presented in Ultra HD with HDR, make it a bona fide feast for the eyes. It’s easy to forget that even in its initial theatrical release, audiences never saw Batman Returns presented this pristinely. The limitations of film prints, combined with the shortcomings of commercial projection, mean that we’ve never—until now—experienced the film with its blacks this black, nor its highlights this spectacular.

 

The interplay of dark and light makes each frame look like a chiaroscuro painting. Your eye can’t help but to be drawn to the finest of details—the individual hairs on the Penguin’s head, the little glint of piercing light in the middle of his coal-black eyes. Simply put, it’s a little discombobulating to see such razor sharpness and startling contrasts from a film shot in the analog era.

It’s worth comparing this scene to other nighttime shots in recent shows like Game of Thrones. Rather than pointing the camera into darkness and hoping you get the picture, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky used stark blue lighting, not to repel the shadows, but to give them something to work against. The laser-focused beams of illumination make the darkness look that much darker, the blacks that much blacker, the textures that much more tactile.

 

Not to be outdone by the spectacular imagery, the new Atmos mix also positively shines in this scene. Danny Elfman’s iconic score is delivered with deep, rich, bombastic bass and sparkling detail. And when the music falls away, the howling, haunting whirl of wind that fills the void whips and wanders from wall to wall and floor to ceiling in a way that’s downright spooky, but utterly engrossing.

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.

Why “Game of Thrones” Looked Like Crap

Why "Game of Thrones" Looked Like Crap

If you spent any amount of time on social media this past Sunday night or Monday morning, you were probably inundated with tweets, grams, and posts about Game of Thrones. The episode, “The Long Night,” has been a long time coming. White Walkers and the people of Westeros met at Winterfell in a battle of epic proportions. After two episodes of everyone coming together to protect humanity, the viewing public was aching for a fight. But most of the online feedback wasn’t about the content of the episode. Sure, there was some bickering about who killed who—and for good reason. But the real issue was this:

 

It looked terrible.

 

Many lamented that the episode was too dark, and it was hard to see what was going on. It was a night battle that lasted 82 minutes, notoriously shot over 55 consecutive night shoots. The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, discussed his approach for the episode with the Vanity Fair podcast “Still Watching,” and that the series in general is shot using a lot of 

natural light. The idea was to be able to “evolve the lighting” and have the “storytelling of the lighting evolve with the storytelling of the characters.” Unfortunately, it led to an incredibly dark presentation that was difficult to follow. (If you remember, there were similar complaints when Solo was released, a dark film shot with natural light that looked awful when shown at improperly-calibrated theaters.)

 

In a way, the experience was heavily dependent on the quality of your display and calibration. If your display crushes black at all, you’re losing detail. If your display has a high black level, you’re also losing detail. And any ambient light in the room at all can make it hard to see.

 

But the most egregious issue of all didn’t have anything to do with the filmmaking. It was due to how the episode was delivered by HBO. Every single shot had banding artifacts caused by the compression. No one was safe from it. Not Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen, not even the White Walkers. It consumed the entire episode.

 

Some articles point to the fact that everyone was streaming it at the same time, causing the system to overload. So far, I’ve watched the episode in three ways: A recorded version from DirecTV, a stream from the HBO Go app on an Xbox One X, and a stream from the HBO Go app on a Sony X950G. All three exhibited the banding and blocky blacks, although the stream from the app on the Sony looked the best.

 

There wasn’t one particular problem that led to the poor presentation of this long-awaited episode, but rather a snowball of issues. The way it was shot was already going to challenge displays—especially those with black-level 

issues (hello LCD!). That HBO didn’t seem to take that into account and used the same compression they use on everything only made it worse. Finally, most home displays aren’t calibrated (or have the aforementioned black-level problems) and had no chance.

 

The last remaining hope for “The Long Night” is that HBO will address this issue when it releases it on (hopefully) 4K Blu-ray. But at the rate they’re releasing the seasons on UHD, we might have a better chance of seeing George R.R. Martin actually finish writing the series.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

VirtualGT: The Ultimate Racing Simulator

VirtualGT: The Ultimate Racing Simulator

When Mike Gaughn mentioned that he was interviewing Paul Stary for a story on Cineluxe, my Spidey senses started to tingle. Why did that name sound so familiar? Before I had time to figure it out on my own, Mike asked me if I was familiar Stary’s work in the field of racing simulation.

Uh, yeah. You could say that I am. As some of you know, I’m an avowed racing sim enthusiast. In a weird twist of fate, it was my love of racing sims that originally led to my writing for Mike in the first place. And I can tell you that in racing sim circles, Paul Stary’s work is the stuff of legend.

 

To understand why, you have to know a bit about the state of racing games and the lengths to which sim racers go to replicate the experience of driving a real car at home, in the living room or office or play room. In my own home setup, I’m using a steel-tube cockpit with a Sparco racing seat and 

a Logitech steering wheel and pedals clamped on. And it works for what it is, but I can tell you from experience that whipping around the virtual curves of Laguna Seca Raceway while sitting in a stationary cockpit with plastic pedals is nothing like manhandling a real car around the real curves of the real track.

Pricier simulator setups rely on motion actuators and such to give you some sense of the experience of G forces and the rumble of a racetrack under your butt to elevate the experience to another level.

 

But none, as far as I know, go as far as Stary’s VirtualGT.

VirtualGT: The Ultimate Racing Simulator

The VirtualGT’s frame showing the D-Box motion actuators

VirtualGT sets itself apart by being, in effect, a complete, self-enclosed AV system, on par with the best media rooms, coupled with the sort of sophisticated motion simulator that graces the best commercial cinemas. Everything about the system—from the birch wood and sheet-metal construction to the advanced audio processing system to the integration of D-Box motion controls (which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever visited a “4D” theater)—works in concert to create the illusion of racecar driving in a way that is, to my knowledge, unparalleled. 

 

Of course, a system this complex isn’t cheap. With prices ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, VirtualGT is well above my pay grade. But if you’re looking for a luxury entertainment system unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced (unless, that is, doing loops around the Nürburgring Nordschleife is just an average Saturday for you), Stary’s work is an absolute engineering marvel that elevates the sim racing experience to an artform.

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.

D&D & the Decline of Traditional Media

D&D & the Decline of Traditional Media

If you heard a clatter coming from the direction of the west coast earlier this week, it was probably the sound of dozens of studio executives kicking themselves for their own myopia. To understand why, though, we need to back up a few years.

 

As I’ve written about before here on Cineluxe, one of my favorite TV shows isn’t a TV show at all. It’s Critical Role, a weekly livestream of a Dungeons & Dragons home game, played by eight best friends (shown above) who also happen to be professional voice actors. You may not know all of their faces, but you definitely know their voices, whether you’ve played Overwatch or the most recent Spider-man game on PS4, or perhaps watched Marvel’s current slate of cartoons, or even NBC’s popular crime drama Blindspot.

Their home game started in 2012, and they began streaming it online in 2015, meaning there were three years’ worth of story that we viewers never got to see. So, the cast decided they’d like to adapt some of those early adventures into an animated special.

 

Honestly, this is the sort of gold mine that any studio exec should have leapt at. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many people watch the show every week, since it streams on 

Twitch, then airs on demand on that platform and YouTube. On the latter alone, though, the first episode of the current campaign has been streamed 3.8 million times to date, and that’s not even its primary channel of distribution. Until recently it was also available on Legendary’s Project Alpha streaming service, but when Critical Role severed ties with that corporate entity a few weeks back, the service closed its doors forever.

 

Collect the numbers from various streaming services, though, and account for the fact that Critical Role’s viewer base is growing every day, and it’s pretty fair to guesstimate that the show’s fan base is at least on par with something like AMC’s The Walking Dead. But for some reason, while TWD is considered as mainstream as mainstream gets, Critical Role is still relegated to geeky niche status, due to the establishment bias that permeates the entertainment industry.

 

As of this week, though, that perception has to change. Unable to strike a deal with a studio, the cast of Critical Role decide to crowdfund their animated special via Kickstarter.

The goal was $750,000, which they zoomed past in minutes. Only two previous Kickstarters have managed to make it to the $1,000,000 mark faster. And as I write this, on the second day of the campaign, the project has already gathered more than $4,500,000 in pledged funding—six times its original goal. What was planned as a 22-minute special is now a multi-part mini-series. And with 44 days left to go in the campaign, the projections for how much it could raise when all is said and done are mind-bogglingly insane (not to mention highly unlikely, given that many potential funders were sitting on the Kickstarter homepage, F5ing it in anticipation of the project launching).

 

If this isn’t a massive indication of just how much the media landscape has forever changed, I don’t know what is. We at Cineluxe applaud companies like Netflix and Amazon for taking risks on shows and movies that old corporate media monoliths never would have greenlit, and we’ll continue to do so. But even those streaming platforms are simply tweaking the old studio playbook. And look, I’m not saying that the corporate suits at the big studios should have predicted that a Critical 

Role cartoon would be this successful. Even the cast of the show has been stupefied by its success. What I’m saying is that literally anyone paying attention should have known that it would, at the very least, be financially lucrative.

 

I do have concerns about all of this. For one thing, the history of Kickstarter is littered with scams and failures—projects that were successfully funded and never delivered. I don’t have that worry with Critical Role, but I think this campaign is going to spawn bushels of imitators who have an idea and circumvent the studio system in attempt to get funding, only to find they’ve bitten off more than they can 

chew. Or that their idea only sounds good on paper. The gatekeepers of old may have kept audiences from seeing any number of potentially amazing movies and TV shows because they simply didn’t fit inside some preconceived box. On the other hand, they also kept a lot of worthless crap from flooding the airwaves, movie shelves, and online platforms.

 

So, in the end, despite my excitement for this particular crowdfunding project, I’m not saying that a more decentralized media landscape is necessarily a good thing, nor necessarily a bad one. I’m simply saying that we’re quickly approaching a time in which this sort of thing is the norm. In which the gatekeepers of old have little to no power. In which movie theaters and linear TV channels are a novelty at best. In which we the people have more direct control of what movies and TV shows get produced in the first place.

 

And the changing nature of entertainment funding is also going to have an impact on how we consume our entertainment. Will this Critical Role cartoon end up UHD Blu-ray? Highly unlikely. Netflix or Amazon Prime? Almost certainly not. Hulu or Vudu? (Shakes Magic 8 Ball.) Outlook not so good. I’m honestly just holding out hope that it’s available in some form via the Roku Ultra streamer in my main media room.

 

I can say this with some certainty, though: The media room as we know it (or the home theater, or family room, or whatever you want to call it) is going to adapt to this new media landscape, not the other way around. Because there’s no way the cork is going back in this bottle.

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.