Entertainment

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.

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

For those of us who grew up in the days of three (maybe four) broadcast TV stations—before the advent of cable and home video, much less streaming—the wealth of available video content today can be a little staggering. 

 

But how much of it is actually worth watching? That depends largely on what you want to watch and how much you care about the quality of the presentation. But even figuring out which sources excel over the others when it comes to quality can be difficult, especially given that streaming video sources (once undeniably the bottom of the barrel) continue to get better and better.

 

For now (and it’s important to stress that this can and will change over time), the pecking order looks something like this, from worst to best:

 

Cable/Satellite
One of the biggest trends in the home entertainment market over the past decade—cord cutting—started largely as a backlash against draconian pricing models forced on consumers by big telecom conglomerates. Simply put, subscriptions to a streaming service like Hulu—or even buying shows à la carte via iTunes or Amazon—just made more financial sense for a lot of folks.

 

These days, though, that’s not the only consideration. Today’s high-performance displays—even cheap ones—are so revealing that watching Grey’s Anatomy via satellite or cable can be downright insulting to the eyes, leading many to switch to streaming just for the upgraded experience.

 

Of course, it’s hard to ditch your subscription-based linear TV service if you’re a huge sports fan—especially on the professional, national level. But there are alternatives.

 

Broadcast Streaming
If you still dig the traditional linear model of broadcast TV (in other words, everything is parceled up into channels and This Is Us comes on at 9E/8C on Tuesdays), but can’t abide the quality of satellite or cable, or just don’t want to pay for all of those channels you never watch, broadcast streaming might be a better choice. Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now allow you to cut the cord but leave it dangling. Most offer some form of cloud DVR so you can record your favorite shows, and most look at least somewhat better than the traditional alternative, assuming you have a decent-enough Internet pipeline.

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast
Yep, you read that correctly. The tried-and-true TV antenna is making its second comeback (its first being the early days of HDTV, when cable and satellite were struggling to catch up). These days, you can buy DVRs that allow you to record content straight from the airwaves, along with new antennas that aren’t as ghastly looking as the whale skeletons of bygone eras. And oddly enough, those broadcast images almost always look better than cable, satellite, or broadcast streaming thanks to less compression.

 

YouTube
Of all the non-linear streaming services on the Internet, YouTube demands its own spot on this list, but figuring out where to put it is a tough one. In addition to the glut of cat videos and Russian dashcams, you’ll also find some really nice-looking regular programming, as well as a wealth of nearly perfect-looking demo material that’ll put any 4K HDR display to the test. 

 

Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and the Like
Whether you’re looking for episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the latest Marvel blockbuster, or even compelling original content like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, streaming services are getting better and better all the time in terms of video quality. In fact, with certain content, it can be difficult to tell a good Vudu 4K UHD stream from the UHD Blu-ray disc. Granted, some of these services look better than others.

 

Some of them (like Netflix and Hulu) offer a vast collection of streaming content for one monthly fee while others are à la carte. And Amazon offers a bit of both. But chances are that no matter which pay model you prefer, you’ll be able to find tons of great-looking 4K HDR video just a few clicks (sometimes a few frustrating clicks) away.

 

UHD Blu-ray and Kaleidescape
While streaming services may be pushing video quality to the point of diminishing returns, there’s no denying that if you want the absolute best picture—and sound—for every movie or TV show you watch, you’re going to have to pick between UHD Blu-ray discs if you’re old-school or Kaleidescape downloads if you want to keep your shelves clutter-free. Granted, as mentioned above, streaming can come dangerously close to matching the quality of these full-bandwidth sources, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough. What’s more, the Dolby Digital+ audio found on most streaming services usually can’t compete with the lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks available only on discs or full-sized downloads, especially if you have a decent-enough sound system.

 

Again, the quality of all of these services is a moving target, and what’s true today may not be true a year from now. And when you look at the various streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, quality can vary quite a bit from one to the other, and even from device to device. So comparing them fully demands more scrutiny—a subject we’ll be digging into more in future posts.

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.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

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.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

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.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

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.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

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.

Demo Scenes: Baby Driver

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"

The demo scenes featured in this series of posts are perfect for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Baby Driver is a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

Using R-rated content for demo material is a very slippery slope since it can easily be off-putting to many viewers and obviously isn’t suitable for families. And the most demo-worthy scenes from R-rated films usually contain gratuitous violence, profanity-laced dialogue, and nudity that can quickly turn showing off your system into a turnoff. But these two scenes from Baby Driver are terrific exceptions you can show to any audience without fear of offending.

 

Both scenes show off the strengths of Dolby Atmos object placement and tracking capabilities—so make sure you have the HDR or UHD version of the film so you can enjoy the Atmos audio.

 

Scene 1: “The Bellbottoms Bank Job”
(0:50–6:25)

 

This scene is an absolute grand slam, checking off nearly every box for “What makes a great demo?” It’s literally the opening of the film, so you not only don’t spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it before, you’ll likely hook them to want to see more. It’s a complete story in itself, with a clear beginning, middle, and finale. And, it’s action packed, with some of the best driving you’ll see on screen, with a fantastic accompanying audio track.

 

One of the brilliant and innovative things about Baby Driver is how director Edgar Wright used music to propel and choreograph each scene. This opening plays loud and proud from the overhead speakers, with vocals that swirl around the room, and features a sub-heavy bass line that drives the tempo.

 

Notice how Jon Hamm’s shotgun blasts fire in time with the music. A potent and well-calibrated sub will have you feeling the Suburu’s engine revs in your chest as Baby pushes the WRX to its limits. As he drifts around the city, you’ll clearly hear tires squealing and protesting the physics-defying maneuvers, with the audio tracking every siren, horn honk, and car that whizzes by. While video isn’t the focus of this demo, notice the stoplight colors, with vibrant yellows and reds that push the color-space boundaries.

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"
Scene 2: Opening Credits/“Harlem Shuffle”
(6:25–9:09)

 

This scene couldn’t be easier to find since it begins right after the first demo scene ends.While the first scene is all about excitement and bombast, this one is just Baby walking to grab some coffee before heading to meet his crew. Notice how amazingly the audio tracks the off-camera action. You’ll hear an infant cry far off camera left, and then see a mother with a stroller pass Baby. Throughout, the audio swirls relative to Baby’s perspective and position, with the sounds of traffic, conversations, and jack hammers announcing their arrival long before they appear on screen, and long after they’re no longer in view.

 

Also notice how the audio changes when Baby walks into the coffeeshop. When he pulls out an earbud to hear the barista, the music volume drops and the sounds of the coffeeshop fill the room, with the music taking over as he replaces the earbud. This entire scene displays how a terrific audio mix along with properly placed speakers can transform a media room into an entirely different environment.

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.