Andrew Robinson Tag

Streaming and Censorship

Streaming and Censorship

The other evening, my wife and I concluded our holiday binge of the Harry Potter franchise on Vudu when I noticed something that up to that point hadn’t really caught my eye—the presence of an option labeled “Common Sense Media.” Upon closer inspection, the presence of Common Sense Media revealed a deeper—dare I say darker—revelation: The presence of the service Clearplay.

 

Clearplay (aka Vidangel) is aimed at “wholesome families” whereby for a fee you—a presumably God-fearing parent—can enjoy content of seemingly any ilk distilled down so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities. In the case of Harry Potter, that means you can watch the film or films without any “snogging” or “longing looks” (I’m not joking), as well as the usual “dark and intense” moments.

 

A side note: One of the items Common Sense Media and Clearplay look out for and rate is whether a film has any implicit consumerism within it. I point this out because, at least on Vudu, this rating falls just below where Vudu, a subsidiary of WalMart, attempts to sell you Harry Potter toys via a special box labeled “Related Products.”

 

But I digress.

 

By enabling Clearplay (or what Vudu calls “Family Play”), the film you’ve chosen—in this instance, Harry freakin’ Potter—is shown edited to remove any and all instances of what Common Sense Media and Clearplay have deemed inappropriate. While some form of editing for content has been with us since the dawn of television, these edits have largely been relegated to gruesome violence, gratuitous sex, and profanity—all of which are common knowledge and even in some cases 

Censorship and Streaming

democratically voted on by representatives. That is to say, we know what words are not allowed to be said on TV, and we know what type of sex or violence doesn’t fly in primetime. While I could go off on even these acts of censorship, they’re known quantities and something we all sort of just accept.

 

But who decides on the edits put forth by Clearplay?

 

This is where it gets really murky, for both Clearplay/ Vidangel and Common Sense Media give little in the way of transparency. They’re like the Borg, really, in that they appear to be a collective of

values-conscious parents just trying to “save” children from the horrors of violence, sex, and commercialism. What the services do divulge—proudly—are the names of the organizations that donate a lot of money to them, such as Amazon, WalMart, and The Gates Foundation. They also share their goals or mission bullet points, among which you will find gems along the lines of supporting and electing like-minded officials in government who align with their views and values. What. The. F**k.

 

Both companies claim to be anti-censorship, that they’re but providing a service to help parents shield their childrens’ eyes from the horrors of Hollywood, but c’mon. The messaging on their respective websites is very clear: It’s a big, bad world out there, parents are simply out-matched, and they need Common Sense Media and Clearplay to step in and help be their savior to keep their kids’ eyes and hearts pure . .  for the Lord.

 

The fact that so many companies—media companies at that—have signed off on this arbitrary form of subscription-based censorship is worrying. Moreover, it would appear filmmakers such as writers and directors have seemingly no say over whether their content can be altered by these services, since the content is typically owned by the studios or corporations and not the filmmakers themselves.

 

I’m confident there are supporters who will say that viewers, even parents themselves, have a choice whether or not to enable these filters, and that it’s all about choice—to which I say, screw that. Films are art; they are acts of expression and communication put forth by an individual or small group of individuals. Even box-office juggernauts like Harry Potter are art, despite their commercial appeal and ancillary merchandising reach. And when you censor art, for whatever reason, you’re venturing into very, very murky waters, waters we’ve attempted to traverse throughout history only to discover the destination we arrive at was never where we thought we would end up.

Andrew Robinson

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

Why Aren’t Enthusiasts Honest (With Themselves)?

I would like to say AV enthusiasts are a weird bunch, but the truth is all enthusiasts of any genre are weird—present company included. One of the things I find most peculiar about enthusiasts of any persuasion is their—ahem, our—incessant need to “lie” to ourselves. What I mean by that is simple: We often lie or convince ourselves that we require, need, or even have

more than we actually do.

 

I have been running a YouTube channel aimed squarely at AV enthusiasts since 2013 (I think), and in all that time one “truth” has remained constant: Everyone claims to need or have more, when in reality they often do with less. For example, if I talk about or review an AV receiver, one of the common responses I get is, “Does it have [insert some insane request here]?” When I inevitably reply, “No”, the response quickly turns to, “Well, I would’ve bought it, but . . .”

 

Yeah, right.

 

What’s more interesting is the amount of data YouTube and other services provide creators like me that show just how not cutting-edge enthusiast are—or at least think they are. More often than not, enthusiasts shop solely on price and not on the features or performance they so dearly covet. Depending on what types of links within my videos they click on, I can quite literally see how they shop for AV gear. And I have to tell you, it’s never how they claim to.

 

More often than not, if enthusiasts choose to click on my

links in order to shop for AV gear, they often start by going to the product I talked about. But from there, they go on an exploration of other equipment that I would classify often as comparable, but which is almost always less expensive.

They only really buy what I’ve reviewed when it truly is their cheapest option—for example, Crown Audio’s XLS DriveCore 2 amplifiers (shown at right). These amplifiers cost a few hundred dollars each, but put out Krell-like power ratings. It doesn’t hurt that the Crown amplifiers also sound good, but you get my point.

 

All of this data flies in the face of enthusiasts’ public statements that products must offer the Earth, moon, and stars

Why Aren't Enthusiasts Honest (With Themselves)?

for them to consider purchasing, and that their purchasing decision is always about performance—absolutely.

 

I just don’t understand why we do this to ourselves. There’s no shame in having a $300 AV receiver if a $300 AV receiver gets the job done. There’s no shame in only having a 50-inch TV. I get the need to want to keep up with the Joneses, but the reality is the Joneses don’t even have what you think they do, for we’re all the Joneses.

Andrew Robinson

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

Netflix is Garbage

Netflix is Garbage

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

 

Whatever happened to them? 

 

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

 

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

Netflix is Garbage

Fractured

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Netflix is Garbage

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

Andrew Robinson

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

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

4K is for Fanboys

4K is for Fanboys

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

4K is for Fanboys

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

 

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

 

It never mattered.

 

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

Andrew Robinson

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

The Highest Rated Series Isn’t on TV

The Highest Rated Series Isn't on TV

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

While Dawson may have risen to YouTube fame via 

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

 

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

 

So what does all this have to do with anything?

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Andrew Robinson

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

I Don’t Watch Specs–I Watch Content

I Don't Watch Specs--I Watch Content

Over on my YouTube channel, I am reminded daily by viewers about things I’ve said in the past, and how they (the royal they) believe them to be untrue. Among the most “provocative” things I’ve said recently on my channel has to do with streaming video. I actually cannot recall in what video I said this, but I made a comment to the effect of, the best video available today is on streaming.

 

Now, this little throwaway line was but a single sentiment found within a 20-minute-long video. But it has caused some consternation among my viewers. Mainly, they continue to be up in arms over it because, well, specifications as they relate to

physical media say otherwise. To which I reply . . . I don’t care. I don’t watch specs, I watch content. I take in story, craft, and the complete picture. From which I conclude, the best overall video experiences are on streaming.

 

Never mind the fact that I’ve taken part in countless blind A/B tests that pit physical media against streaming, and never mind that the results are never conclusive with respect to physical media’s “dominance.” What about sound, you ask? Same story. I’ve even matrixed a 2.0 mix to 7.1 and had a room full of golden ears believe they were listening to a Dolby TrueHD track. How can that be? I turned the volume up 6dB over the actual Dolby TrueHD demo. They perceived the heightened volume as clarity, when it was just an underhanded trick that I knew would work.

 

You know when I care about specifications? I care about specs when it comes time to capture said story, because that is something as a creative I have control over. But of the specs of your lowly playback medium I care not, because I had to come to grips with reality a long time ago—the reality that no matter what format you choose to believe is best, you’re still only getting a small percentage of what was actually captured or created.

 

Oh but Andrew, I can hear you start to say—“but” nothing. Because specifications fail to take into account the more important factor when it comes to entertainment, what you actually enjoy watching. Physical media is but a parrot to what is happening elsewhere in entertainment —for example what you’ve already seen in theaters. Whereas streaming is largely giving you a never-before-seen

experience, of which you have nothing to compare it to other than itself. Do you like Stranger Things on Netflix? Great, me too. Tell me how Stranger Things on Netflix doesn’t look great all things considered? I’ll wait.

 

I am not anti physical media, for I know for a lot of you it is still the best way to consume higher-quality content because you may not have blazin’ fast Internet. But to reduce everything you see or hear to specs is so shortsighted and kind of an insult to the creators. Moreover, the real-world data simply doesn’t support the commonly thrown-about notion that physical media is “better.” Convenience may have opened the door for streaming to become mainstream, but make no mistake, if it didn’t look as good as it does now, no way would anyone continue to pay for it. No, it is the better format—specs be damned—because it’s where the more interesting storytelling is occurring now. It also just so happens to look and sound damn good doing it.

 

Andrew Robinson

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

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

It all started with a Sony OLED 4K/UltraHD display, one with Sony’s own AcousticSurface tech. That display, despite being visually brilliant, also was among the first that sounded audibly brilliant, all things considered. Was it as good an aural experience as having discrete loudspeakers? No, but it did rival the performance of most of today’s mainstream soundbars. The display was important to me in my evolution as an enthusiast because, for the first time, a display—a single piece of tech—served as an all-in-one home entertainment solution.

 

All-in-one solutions are nothing new to specialty AV or hi-fi. Many would likely argue that integrated amplifiers are all-inclusive. While I would largely agree, integrated amps still require the end user to have speakers, source components (in most cases), and a display, whereas the Sony required, well, a power cord. The 75-inch display—which is plenty big for an immersive

home theater experience by the way—was all that was required in order to enjoy my favorite films, new and old, via streaming. Oh, and it was “smart,” meaning anyone with vocal cords could operate it to its fullest potential.

 

I cannot stress what an eye-opening experience living with that particular display was. As good as its sound was on its own, I knew there was room for it to improve through the use of third-party speakers. Enter the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo. Not wanting to turn this into a Formation Duo review, what you need to know is this: These are lifestyle, powered speakers designed to work within Bowers & Wilkins’ own ecosystem, but are also compatible with the latest variations of AirPlay and Bluetooth.

While most displays have Bluetooth capability, and can be paired with Bluetooth-enabled speakers, the Sony’s Bluetooth controls allow for finer adjustments typically reserved for AV receivers and processors. It’s because of this that I was able to enjoy a truly seamless sound experience between the Sony and the Formation Duo. No delays. No hiccups. Just quality sound sans any and all cabling apart from power cables.

 

It was jaw-dropping, partially because it sounded brilliant but also because the whole setup experience was largely automated. The biggest decision I had to make was where to set the speakers themselves. This ease of use, lack of

clutter, and resulting fantastic performance was so impactful that my wife even noticed. Some months later, and this setup remains a staple in our home, and one she comments on daily.

 

Unfortunately, enthusiasts online are less enthusiastic about this setup and its implications—proving, once again, that despite all of our technological advances, we worship at the altar of gear rather than absolute performance. And that’s the truth, for I would put the Formation Duo/

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo speakers

Sony combo up against any similarly priced setup and then some, and am willing to bet that most folks would actually prefer the sound of the Duos over traditional speakers, so long as they didn’t know what products they were listening to.

 

And that is the larger issue—one I know I’ve raised in other articles on this site—that as interest in specialty AV dwindles, are the hobby’s own supporters to blame? Because wireless and powered tech is being designed at a breakneck pace to give future generations products that they themselves feel comfortable with, and that speak to them. Problem is, these same products, like the Formation Duos, need current enthusiasts to adopt them as well, which isn’t happening. Powered, wireless, or smart products aren’t bad, or incapable of terrific performance; they’re just fighting against nearly 50 years of “tradition”, tradition that has become borderline religion for some. And it would seem that cutting ties with cables and excess equipment for many is akin to cutting ties with the Almighty Himself.

Andrew Robinson

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

Ep. 9: New Frontiers in Content & Compression

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Episode 9 opens with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger talking about Dennis’s piece
on the surprisingly high quality of 4K streaming when watched using the right device.

 

At 6:18, Cineluxe contributor Andrew Robinson joins Mike & Dennis to discuss how Netflix
might be a threat to both the TV networks & the movie studios but the really innovative
programming isn’t happening on Netflix but on YouTube.

 

At 33:22, Cineluxe contributor John Higgins joins Andrew, Dennis & Mike to discuss the
controversy set off by the literally unwatchable Game of Thrones “Long Night” episode
and whether we can expect to see compression problems disappear any time soon.

 

The episode concludes at 59:20 with everyone (except Mike) talking about the most
interesting things they’re watched, listened to, or experienced in the past two weeks.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

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

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.

What Did We Learn from the “GoT” Debacle?

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

The impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night”

It was a simpler time before April 28, 2019. The Khaleesi was going to be the savior of Westeros, Disney was on their way to owning all of us, and Joe’s Pizza in the Village had the best slice. While two of those things might still be true, they don’t matter anymore because we now live in a post-“The Long Night” world, a world where terms like H.264 and megabits per second are no longer muttered about only on tech blogs but discussed out in the open around water coolers (is that still a thing?) Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Game of Thrones kerfuffle, what are some of the things that came to light out of the darkness of that long night?

 

 

Lesson 1:  Public Enemy No. 1—Compression

If you haven’t realized it from the discussion here at Cineluxe over the past month, compression has become a hot-button issue—for good reason. GoT fans were confronted with Lego-like picture artifacts for the duration of the 82-minute “Long Night” episode, and they’re not happy about it.

 

While the video quality of home viewing has increased dramatically over the past few years with 4K UHD becoming more mainstream and the latest TVs allowing for great-looking HDR and far more vibrant colors, compression hasn’t always kept up. For years, H.264 (also called AVC) was king, and really, still is. It can compress video all the way up to 8K resolution, and has been tweaked to include support for wide color gamut and HDR, and to produce smaller file sizes. But it just can’t create files small enough for efficient delivery through the current pipelines without leading to the kinds of problems that were amply on display in “The Long Night.”

 

You probably read Andrew Robinson’s take on H.265 (aka HEVC) as the next step forward. With H.265, a 1080p signal only requires a 3 Mbps bitrate as opposed to H.264’s 6 Mbps. And a 4K signal needs less than half of H.264’s bitrate—15 vs. 32 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Mbps. But, as Andrew mentioned, not everything is currently equipped to handle and decode H.265-compressed video. In addition to needing significantly fewer bits per second, H.265 does a better job with motion compensation.

 

I should stress that the Mbps numbers listed above are truly bare 

minimums, and at those rates you’ll likely see image issues. Netflix, which uses H.265 for all of its 4K content, recommends a minimum 25 Mbps connection for streaming.

 

Speaking of Netflix, they’re at the forefront of experimenting with new, better codecs for 4K streaming. As a result, you can expect to hear some new acronyms like VP9 and AV1 in the coming years. AV1 in particular promises to deliver HEVC-level quality while using even fewer bits.

 

 

Lesson 2:  It’s (probably) not your TV

The cinematographer for “The Long Night,” Fabian Wagner, found himself on the defensive after the uproar and, in addition to (rightly) blaming HBO’s compression, also blamed viewers and their TVs. “A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he told Wired UK.

 

Technically, that is correct. The vast majority of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly. Luckily, they don’t really need to. Most TVs over the past couple years priced more than $500 come out of the factory looking really good and don’t

necessarily need to be calibrated. (But I would still recommend calibration for any mid-to-high-end TV, to make sure you’re getting that absolute most out of it.)

 

One thing Mr. Wagner brought up that has some merit is people’s tendency to watch TV with their lights on. Even minimal lighting can have an impact on your ability to see shadow detail in a darkly filmed scene, especially if you have an older LCD TV with mediocre black levels. So one quick fix for a murky picture might be to just turn off any extra light in you room.

 

If you want to make sure your TV is in the best viewing mode—and you haven’t had it calibrated—don’t, for the love of Werner Herzog, ever put it in Vivid (aka “Torch”) mode. Go for Cinema, or Calibrated, or Movie. These will generally have the best color accuracy and contrast/backlight/ dimming zones setting, and won’t include the bane of video reviewers everywhere—the “soap opera effect.”

 

 

Lesson 3:  The apps you use (and the device they’re on) matter

You can expect the quality and user experience to differ from one app to the next, since they’re all made by different companies that generally aren’t keen on sharing development secrets. But there can even be performance issues with the same app on different platforms—as Dennis Burger recently described in his article about the Netflix app. I have to admit, that revelation was a bit of a shock to me. The idea that a seemingly identical app could perform vastly differently through different platforms was a big surprise. Some variation is to be expected, but I would have thought it would be more of an academic argument than a bunch of extra artifacts on one app version over the other. Trying the Netflix app on a different platform could help clear up any artifacts you might be experiencing.

 

But this piece is really about how HBO screwed up. And if you’re watching HBO through your cable or satellite service, you’re dependent on the hardware they provide, which might not be offering state-of-the-art resolution support. For instance, if you haven’t replaced you DirecTV HDR in the past couple years, it might still top out at 1080i resolution. Signing into the HBO GO app (or the NOW app, if you’re streaming only) should guarantee 1080p support.

 

 

Lesson 4:  Choose your viewing window wisely

“The Long Night” had 17.8 million viewers when it initially aired over all delivery media, including cable, satellite, HBO NOW, and HBO GO. That was a new record for HBO, so 

congratulations are in order, I suppose. But with such a concurrent draw on the servers, the quality of the stream suffered. This severely exacerbated the already present compression artifacts, to the point of making the show unwatchable—hence the Twitter eruption that night and the next day. I watched portions of the episode a few more times that week after the viewing tide subsided to see if there was any improvement, and while the artifacts weren’t gone, they were much less obvious.

Lesson 5:  Aesthetic choices matter too

Why did the Internet hordes descend on Fabian Wagner? It’s rare that a cinematographer needs to come out from behind the camera to defend himself, but that episode was dark—intentionally so. It was his conception (in collaboration with the director) that was on the screen, after all, and people were upset they couldn’t see it. A hugely anticipated battle scene where you can’t see anything? Preposterous. In contrast, take a look at another famous nighttime battle—The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That place was lit up like a Christmas tree—or, more accurately, a huge amount of blue light that gave the feel of the moon. The whole sequence was masterfully shot.

 

That doesn’t mean “The Long Night” was shot wrong, just different. In fact, the move toward really dark seems to be a bit of a recent trend. In the spring of 2018, a little movie called Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, used a low-light approach much like Fabian Wagner’s to accentuate the shadows and grime of Han Solo’s earlier 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Solo: A Star Wars Story—into the darkness of the Maw

years. Complaints on the Internet were everywhere (for a Star Wars movie, go figure . . .) because many theaters, even in major markets, weren’t properly calibrated, which led to a lack of shadow detail. I happily didn’t run into that issue here in Los Angeles, and now regularly use Solo as a test disc for the gritty sabacc scenes and the darkness of the Falcon flying through the Maw.

 

 

What’s next?

Now that “The Longest Night” has brought the conversation out into the open, everything is solved and we don’t need to worry about encountering these problems ever again, right? Nope. Not by a long shot. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about what went wrong, but it’s going to take a while for the technology and the people who implement it to catch up.

 

Even though the first version of H.264 was completed in 2003, it didn’t really achieve widespread adoption until a decade later. The HEVC standard was ratified in 2013, and Netflix implemented it for 4K delivery in 2016, but it’s only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. If all of that is any indication, AV1 (which was released last year) won’t be in wide use for at least a couple of years.

 

And low-light cinematography isn’t going away, nor should it. But for HBO and their use of H.264, it does mean that grayscale banding in dark scenes will continue to be apparent. (We’ve already seen it again at the end of Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl.)

 

The most we can do is make sure our TVs aren’t in Vivid mode, the lights are all turned off, and we’re using the best version of our streaming app we can.

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.