Entertainment

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.

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.