Dennis Burger Tag

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don’t Blame Netflix

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

We all take for granted that buying a better video display will result in a better home cinema experience. Ditto speakers and sound processors and amps and control systems and so on. But for some reason, even in an era where streaming has pretty much taken over as the dominant source of AV entertainment, we talk about services like Netflix as if the hardware delivering them doesn’t really matter.

 

This realization has been at the forefront of my mind recently, as I’ve had discussions with videophiles on Facebook and in the comments section of Home Theater Review about the quality of the streamed video experience. Even folks with roughly the same internet speeds as me, similar quality home networks, and comparable displays seem to be watching a wholly different Netflix than the one I enjoy.

 

This absolutely baffled me for the longest time. My first inclination was to write it off as pure bias. Or maybe even ignorance. But then I started asking about a variable we videophiles rarely discuss when we talk about streaming: “How, exactly, are you accessing Netflix?” (By the way, I’m using “Netflix” a bit like “Kleenex” here, as a synecdoche for high-performance streaming

video across the board. You could just as easily plug in your high-quality streaming service of choice, be it Vudu or Amazon or what have you. But none of this necessarily applies to lower-quality streaming apps like CBS All Access, etc.)

 

What I found is that almost none of the commenters who bemoan the quality of Netflix watch it the same way I do, via Roku Ultra. Some use cable or satellite boxes. Some rely on the smart apps built into their TVs. Some even have their laptops plugged into their TVs via HDMI.

 

This makes a difference. Way more than you would think. Way more than I would have ever imagined until I actually sat down for some exhaustive comparisons between the exact same Netflix programming streamed to the exact same display.

 

The first thing I discovered is just how substantially different loading times are between devices. I did all of this testing on my 75-inch UHD TV, installed just above my credenza, which houses my Roku Ultra, Dish Network satellite receiver, Kaleidescape Strato, and my other AV components. All are plugged into the same enterprise-grade, gigabit Cisco network switch, and as such have access to the exact same level of connectivity. If you’re a numbers nerd, you can check the “Netflix by the Numbers” sidebar below for a breakdown of exactly how long it took each device to load the Netflix app (after a hardware reboot), begin playing a title, and reach full UHD resolution and full bandwidth.

None of the above is even slightly shocking. What was shocking, though, is just how different Netflix looked via these different devices. Cueing up my recent favorite, Our Planet, I couldn’t help but notice that via the app built into my smart TV, this gorgeous nature doc looked a bit less gorgeous. A bit smeared. A bit noisy. A good bit less refined. A closer inspection of the screen revealed the cause: Numerous video compression artifacts, pretty much right in line with what all of the streaming detractors have been hollering at me about on Facebook.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

Switching inputs to the Roku Ultra—again, via the same network connection—I was a little staggered to discover a complete lack of compression artifacts. Ignore, by the way, the subtle swirling bands of brightness fluctuation in the image below. Those are a result of moiré, a misalignment of pixels between my TV and the digital sensor in my cell phone.

 

Ignore too the slight softness in the upper row of leopard spots. This frame is from about half a second later than the one above, and as such the cheetah is moving a little faster, so there’s some motion blur. Also, don’t focus on differences in color—my smart TV’s integrated Netflix app is delivering the program in Dolby Vision, whereas my Roku Ultra only supports HDR10, but the camera in my smart phone can’t capture the gamut of either format. This image was also taken a few inches away from the TV, so what you’re seeing is a tiny fraction of the screen, blown up way larger than life-size.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

But I think what’s clear here is that via the Roku Ultra, Our Planet’s image is virtually artifact-free. (As I mentioned in my review of the program, the only compression artifact I could find in the series’ entire run, at least from any reasonable seating distance, was about a second-and-a-half of very minor, almost imperceptible color banding in one early episode.)

 

I sent a series of images to colleague Andrew Robinson, since he and I have been discussing the geeky particulars of compression a lot recently. He immediately started poking holes in my methodology, at my request.

 

“Are you using the same picture profiles?”

 

Yup.

 

“Are you letting the smart TV buffer up to full resolution?”

 

Uh huh.

 

“Is your Roku running through the video processing of your AV preamp?”

 

Nope. I bypassed my preamp and ran the Roku straight into HDMI 1 on my TV.

 

I’ve done my darnedest to think of any reason why the same UHD/HDR program would look so rough via one streaming device and so flawless via another connected to the exact same network switch in the same room, running the same

streaming service from the same account. The only thing I can come up with is something Andrew touched on in his most recent piece about compression: HEVC (aka H.265), the video codec Netflix uses to deliver UHD/HDR, is very processor intensive. The cost of shoving such high-quality video through such a small pipe is that it makes the device on the playback end do a lot of heavy number crunching. And if those numbers can’t be crunched quickly enough, the results look a lot like the top screen shot above.

 

My guess here is that my Roku Ultra has the horsepower to deliver Netflix practically flawlessly, whereas my smart TV simply doesn’t. (And as gorgeous as the TV is with native 4K video, its middling performance in upscaling lower-resolution video to 4K is further evidence of this. That’s why I use my AV preamp to upscale video.)

 

And look, none of this is intended to be an advertisement for Roku. It may be my streaming player of choice because it consistently delivers the best performance for the streaming apps I use most. But I haven’t tested every single media streamer on the market to compare their video quality. (As our own John Sciacca has reported, though, even the highly lauded Apple TV 4K sometimes struggles on the audio front, and Andrew reported anecdotally in our most recent conversation that he noticed a significant improvement in video quality when he switched to Roku.) Nor do I have a representative sample of smart TVs to confirm that all of their built-in Netflix apps render such poor video performance.

NETFLIX BY THE NUMBERS

A nuts & bolts comparison of different streaming devices

 

I started with a simple load-time test, to see how long it would take for Netflix to launch to the user-select screen via devices that had just been powered up. All of these numbers are, of course, influenced by the speed of my internet connection (500 mbps) and the quality of my home network.

 

Roku Ultra  3.05 seconds on average from the time I selected the Netflix app until it loaded to the user-select screen

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  4.41 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  22.38 seconds on average

 

I then selected three different Netflix programs (Our Planet, Love, Death + Robots, and Test Patterns) and ran numerous tests to find the average time it took each device to start playing the program after it was selected.

 

Roku Ultra  3.20 seconds on average, from the time I pressed Select until the program started playing

 

Dish Network Hopper  9.64 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  13.15 seconds on average

 

Lastly, I cued up the Test Patterns again, specifically the pattern labeled “YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps.” This test gives you a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and also displays playback resolution, which let me gauge how long it would take each device to reach full bandwidth (16 mbps) and full resolution/color bit-depth.

 

Roku Ultra  Played at UHD 10-bit immediately, although it did start at 12 megabits per second and took 4.15 seconds on average to report full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  Switched from 1920 x 1080 resolution to full 3840 x 2160 resolution after 15.62 seconds on average, and took an average of 46.26 seconds to reach full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Smart TV Took 47.18 seconds on average to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and didn’t reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream

All I can say for certain is that the device you use to access Netflix and all of the other streaming services you subscribe to does matter. And it matters way more than I would have predicted just a week ago. Simply put, if you’re streaming Netflix in your luxury entertainment system and notice that the picture isn’t up to snuff, don’t blame Netflix. Start pointing your finger at the device you’re using to access the app.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai has never been a great-looking film. I mean, at least not in my lifetime. Whether via VHS, widescreen VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or even high-definition Blu-ray, it has long been plagued by an overly contrasty, crushed, murky look that didn’t quash its emotional impact but nonetheless seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given the film’s lush setting.

 

Since the biggest problem marring the look of the film has been blacks that are too black and highlights that are too bright, an HDR release may seem somewhat pointless—or even perhaps detrimental. But if anything, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 4K HDR release via Kaleidescape does a wonderful job of conveying the difference between “contrast” and “dynamic range.” Yes, the new HDR grade darkens the darks a little, and brightens the highlights spectacularly. But the most important thing it does is to introduce more steps between those two extremes, breathing subtlety and richness into the shadows and bringing the image to life in ways I never would have imagined possible. In short, it delivers the nuances inherent to the original film that have never survived before now in the transition to home video.

 

That’s not to say that the film now looks perfect, mind you. Kwai was shot with cobbled-together CinemaScope cameras, without the benefit of zoom lenses. As such, the very first scene we see, of a soaring and circling hawk, was quite obviously blown up extensively, resulting in an overly grainy, noisy mess.

 

Thankfully, such scenes are rare. A more common occurrence, though, is the optical fade transition between scenes. These have always looked rough, but here they look even rougher, if only by comparison to the gorgeous presentation of the rest of the film. To my eyes, it appears that these fade transitions weren’t sourced from the original negative that served as the basis

The Bridge on the River Kwai

for the bulk of the restoration. They look at least a generation removed, and my guess is that in restoring the film, they had to pull the fades from a print. So, as one scene transitions into the next, you’ll go from a vibrant, gorgeously textured scene into an overly contrasty, noisier fade, then right into another lovely scene.

 

Until you get used to this, scene transitions can be a little more jarring in the 4K HDR presentation than they are in the Blu-ray-quality download also included with this release. So, you’re left with a choice: Do you watch the film in truly lovely quality with the occasional, fleeting downgrade to a second-generation source, or do you opt for a sort of bleh-but-acceptable presentation that’s more consistent from beginning to end?

 

Personally, I’ll opt for the former any day, secure in the knowledge that this is absolutely the best The Bridge on the River Kwai will ever look. I’m guessing that the original negatives for those fade transitions were damaged beyond repair in post-production, and as such there’s no good source for additional restoration. But once you accept the fact that a second or two here and there will look a little less than stunning, the HDR download of the film—released here in its proper 2.55:1 aspect ratio, not 2.40:1 as the tech specs would indicate—is an absolute revelation.

 

The Kaleidescape download is also supported by a 5.1 surround soundtrack that seems to be identical to the 2010 Blu-ray release (which itself was based on the restored and enhanced audio track I believe I first remember hearing on the 1994 LaserDisc release). There are some additional ambient sound effects I don’t remember hearing on the VHS releases, which I 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

no longer have the ability to play. The good news is, this isn’t one of those ham-fisted surround remixes that attempt to make the film sound more modern. Everything in the mix evokes the original (which I think was a four-track magnetic soundtrack).

 

I almost completely skipped the Atmos soundtrack included with this release, since I’m not fond of that format for movies to begin with, much less 60-year-old classics. But I’m glad I gave it a listen on a whim. It sounds like the Atmos mix was mostly based on the 2010 remix, which itself was based on the 1993 reconstruction of the original audio elements, but there are a few key differences. Dialogue that was obviously overdubbed sounds less obviously overdubbed, and the height channels open up the sound field and expand the film’s ambience in a truly subtle but effective way. If you’re looking for a soundtrack that pushes your ceiling speakers to their extremes, keep on looking. But if you’re looking for an audio experience that’s true to the original, just with some extra breathing room, give this one a listen. Even if 

you generally like Atmos less than I do.

 

As for extras, you’ll have to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film from Kaleidescape to check them out, but it’s worth the extra effort. In addition to a trio of period promotional materials and a short documentary about film criticism made for USC film students, there’s a really fantastic retrospective documentary by Laurent Bouzereau made for the two-disc collector’s edition DVD release from 2000. While somewhat glossing over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the doc is a bit more forthright than most retrospectives, and is certainly worth a look.

 

Even if you don’t care about supplemental material, though, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that belongs in any good film collection. This isn’t one you want to wait for TCM to air, since it rewards repeated viewings. Consider, for example, how its complex themes evolve as you shift attention from William Holden, Alec Guinness, and even Sessue Hayakawa, and focus on one above the others as the story’s main driving force. It isn’t really until you watch it again, placing all three on equal footing, that you can get to the heart of what the film is about: The consequences of ideology crashing into principles, when neither completely comports with reality.

And unless you’re still buying discs, Kaleidescape is just about the only way to own this 4K HDR presentation, since for whatever reason Vudu, Amazon, and many other digital providers are limited to the HD release.

 

Again, due to the way it was shot and edited, and the ravages of time, The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a technically perfect film. But Kaleidescape’s presentation so far exceeded my expectations that all of the above nitpicking feels like pedantry. For the first time, the film lives in a form that’s worthy of the best display in your home. And if for whatever reason you’ve never seen it, I must admit, I’m a little jealous that this is how you’ll get to experience for the first time.

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.

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront isn’t Elia Kazan’s best film. I’ll get crucified for admitting that opinion, I know, but compare this effort to Kazan’s next feature, James Dean’s East of Eden, and the uneven performances of Waterfront start to become a little more distracting.

 

But only a little. On the balance sheet, On the Waterfront is a powerful and at times shocking work that, while a product of its time—as any good work of art is—remains vibrant and accessible today. Only Leonard Bernstein’s score, which is often heralded as a masterwork but in truth runs a bit too maudlin and sappy in some of the film’s most poignant scenes, really anchors the film in the past. But that was true when it was released in 1954. Simply put, the score is too often a throwback to the melodramatic orchestrations of the late 1930s, and while I love it as a work in and of itself, sometimes it just conflicts too much with the imagery to which it’s attached. (Incidentally, this is another thing that makes East of Eden work better overall. In the year between, Kazan seemed to have learned when to leave music on the cutting-room floor.)

 

If all of the above sounds overly critical, it isn’t intended to be. I absolutely adore this Marlon Brando vehicle, warts and all. In fact, I may love it all the more for its flaws, since the film is ultimately about flawed humans. It’s also a film about honesty and fairness, themes that also ring through in its presentation, especially in Brando’s intense portrayal of former boxer Terry Malloy, who testifies against a mobbed-up union boss at great personal cost.

It’s a film that I return to frequently, but what drew me in for my most recent viewing is Kaleidescape’s Ultra HD presentation. Unsurprisingly, On the Waterfront only seems to be making the jump from high-def to 4K purely in the digital domain (maybe because the Criterion Collection hasn’t kept up with modern AV standards), which means Kaleidescape is the film’s only opportunity, for now, to shine in all its high-

On the Waterfront

bandwidth 4K glory. Frankly, it’s such a grainy and gritty film that I’m skeptical as to whether or not streaming could do it justice without becoming too noisy—even with high-quality streaming formats like Vudu, which often excel with the hyper-slick, digitally assembled output of today’s Hollywood but struggle with the organic nature of old celluloid stock.

 

At any rate, it takes but a few moments of comparison between the Kaleidescape 4K download and the excellent Criterion Blu-ray release from 2013 to see what a difference UHD makes. In the famous “I coulda been a contender!” scene in particular, the 4K really brings out the subtlest, but most important of details, like the sheen of sweat on Rod Steiger’s face, as well as Brando’s, as the scene ramps up in intensity. It’s true, the 4K resolution also brings with it an enhancement of the film’s prominent grain (which was overly sanitized in the streaming version presented on the now-defunct Filmstruck streaming service), but that’s part of Waterfront’s visual charm, and it’s nice to see it maintained here.

 

Speaking of the visuals, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release was noteworthy for its inclusion of three versions of the film, all identical in terms of content, but differing in their aspect ratio. On the Waterfront was shot at a time when movie theaters were transitioning from 1.33:1 (the shape of your old standard-definition CRT TV) to wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 (similar to 

the shape of your new UHD TV). As such, director of photography Boris Kaufman shot the film so it would work on screens of either shape. But he chose to compose the action for the less-common 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray release included all three compositions: 1.66:1 on one disc, and 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 on another.

 

The Kaleidescape download is solely 1.66:1, and if a choice had to be made to include only one version of the film, this was the right call. The

tighter framing enhances the intimacy—and indeed the intensity—of the film, without cutting out key visual details, and the black bars along the left and right of the image are so slight you’ll forget they’re there within minutes.

 

Unfortunately, you’ll still need to download the film twice if you want to see the included bonus features—a short documentary, an interview with Elia Kazan, and a photo gallery—since these are available only with the DVD-quality download. Honestly, though, you’re probably better off skipping these and saving space on your hard drive. Most of the compelling bonus features for the film remain with the Criterion Collection, including the excellent audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, as well as a number of wonderful interviews.

 

The goods news is, you don’t even really need those, either. On the Waterfront stands on its own two legs, and forced to choose between the superior presentation on Kaleidescape and the superior historical perspective afforded by the Criterion release, I would opt for the former any day.

Dennis Burger

On the Waterfront

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.

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Like most of you, I’ve never put a tremendous amount of thought into the work involved in bringing a film from movie theaters to the home. Sure, I know the video needs to be compressed—more so for streaming-video services than for discs or high-bandwidth downloads, the likes of which you’d buy from the Kaleidescape store. But beyond that basic understanding, the process was a bit of a mystery to me.

 

Never one to let an interesting mystery go unsolved, I sat down with Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien, Director of Content Operations, and Mike Kobb, Principal Engineer, User Experience, to pick their brains about the process. I discovered that, in many ways, it’s a far more complicated undertaking than I could have imagined—mainly because there isn’t really

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Luke O’Brien and Mike Kobb

a consistent pipeline from big screen to home screens. Much of that could probably be attributed to the fact that the home video market is ever-evolving, and that what Kaleidescape is doing—delivering high-bandwidth, pixel-perfect presentations of movies, TV shows, and documentaries—is unique in this era of highly compressed streaming.

 

In short, the files Kaleidescape receives from the various studios vary quite a bit. But they all fall under the umbrella of “mezzanine files”—and if you’ve never heard that term before, you’re probably not alone. To put it simply, mezzanine files are lightly compressed video files that 

are usually indistinguishable from fully uncompressed video. And by “lightly compressed,” I mean that your average movie might arrive in a file that’s ten times the size of a normal UHD Blu-ray disc.

 

So, how does Kaleidescape shrink that amount of data to a file small enough to be downloaded to your hard drive, but not so small that it compromises the viewing experience? How do they ensure that the image you see on your screen looks just as good as—if not better than—the master files delivered by the movie studios? That was my first question.

—Dennis Burger

 

 

Mike Kobb  I think one of the things that is a huge asset to Kaleidescape is the human element that goes into preparing this content. This is done by people who take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into making stuff look really good and ensuring that everything is right. They sweat the details. It’s not, and I doubt that it will ever be, an operation where a digital file shows up from a studio and gets tossed into the hopper and completely automated machines grind it up and out comes the end product.

 

Dennis Burger  How long does that process take? I mean, let’s take a recent mainstream theatrical movie as an example. Let’s say, Captain Marvel, which I think it’s safe to say is being prepped for home video as we speak. How long does it take you, from the time you’re given whatever files you receive from the studio, to the point where it’s prepared and ready to be released once that digital release date hits?

 

Luke O’Brien  Well, we’re constantly doing things to try and make that process tighter and cleaner and quicker, to shorten the windows. And we have a whole toolset we’re working to go wide with this quarter, which I think will speed up this process significantly. But as it stands right now, the average title takes several business days.

 

MK  Yeah, it takes us about two business weeks to prepare a movie.

 

LO  And we’ve done it faster, in cases where we’ve needed to. And we’ve done it much slower in cases where we’ve run into problems that needed to be addressed. But if we don’t think it’s good enough, we just won’t release it. There’s a quality line we have to defend with our products. And mind you, I don’t consider anything in that state forever. There are files that we haven’t been happy where we landed with them, and I consider them to be still works in progress. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are. But it will be a happy surprise when they show up on the service looking as great as they should when they’re on the Kaleidescape System.

 

DB  This was honestly a bit of a surprise for me, and I think it would be for many people who just assumed that in this era of 4K, Kaleidescape simply got a copy of the UHD Blu-ray disc, ripped it to your hard drives, put it on your servers, and delivered exactly the same bits that are on the disc via the internet. It’s nothing like that, though, is it?

 

LO  No. The files we get from the studios are raw files in a variety of formats, depending on the studio. Some of them are going to be ProRes files, some of them are going to be MOV files, some of them are going to be IMFs (Interoperable Mastering Format). There’s a variety of base container files they use to send those over, mostly because these files are 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

ready wildly in advance of when disc files are ready and we’re really aggressive about making sure we’re always hitting the first possible date a digital release can be made available to our customers. So, we need to receive these files in a manner that a lot of the other places in the digital market do take them.

 

But we’re handling them differently, because obviously our delivery method isn’t to create something designed to be pumped out and compressed and uncompressed to varying degrees for streaming. We actually had to create a way to take the base files they give us and to create a Kaleidescape Container File: Something that is a beautiful package that will serve as

the movie on the customer’s system, that they would then download and have locally to watch and enjoy.

 

DB  The process obviously still involves some careful compression, though. Do you also do your own HDR grading? I ask because I’ve noticed that your HDR sometimes looks more cinematic, more subtle than what I’ve seen on other home video releases.

 

LO  We don’t do our own HDR grade. We don’t do that level of file detail correction.

 

MK  We’re not looking to make any changes to the way the filmmakers intended that movie to look. We always strive to get it to be as proper a representation of that as possible.

 

DB  So, what would account for the subtle differences I saw in, say, Incredibles 2, where other HDR home video releases seemed to focus more on stark contrasts, but the Kaleidescape HDR presentation seemed to err on the side of subtlety and richness of shadow detail?

 

LO  Well, we do have a transcode process that we take the files and run them through. And that will not be identical to what will come through when any other person puts their files together. One thing I can say is that you’re talking about a studio that’s very protective of their property, and between us and the studio there’s often an elaborate process to getting our titles qualified.

 

DB  One of the things that prompted me to want to have this conversation was the Kaleidescape presentation of Blue

Planet II. I thought your HDR presentation of that series was just utterly stunning. Does a series like that—a mini-series that was created for broadcast on BBC, rather than a theatrical presentation—go through a different process than your typical movie release?

 

LO  Oof. That one’s a little bit different, because there are a lot more pieces in the supply chain on that particular title, because it was created for UK television presentation. That was really the intended final target. So, we worked with BBC and BBC worked with some external processing houses to have a regraded, transformed file. But they work with them to make sure they’re happy with all the color corrections as everything goes through to get it to a file format that we can take and transcode and deliver to our customers. But on this end, it just goes through our normal process.

 

I love the way that particular title looks as well, and I want to give Kaleidescape credit for absolutely everything I can. But really, you have to give BBC credit for making such a beautiful, spectacular original source file. I don’t know what process it went through elsewhere, but I do think it looks stunning on our service.

 

DB  Would you say the process of something like that, which was intended for TV broadcast, ends up being more complicated or less so than your typical blockbuster movie?

 

LO  I think the important thing to consider here is that we have a human review process. So, it’s certainly more time-intensive. I don’t know if it’s more complicated, but that series is, like, the equivalent of eight movies. It’s 400 minutes of someone’s time 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Examples of video flaws that can appear during the transcoding process.

and a lot of Visine. 800 minutes, actually, because every episode requires two passes—because it will get an initial pass through our tools, and anything we see that we’re not happy with triggers a second pass, so it can be finalized and we can deliver it to our customers.

 

DB  What kinds of things might trigger a second pass?

 

LO  It’s all the stuff that you might imagine could conceivably bother you if you were watching this program on a reference-quality screen: Is there any sense that the black levels aren’t staying true? Is there any banding in the transitions of colors? Is the brightness fading properly when it should? Is there any macroblocking that 

shows up? And if any of that shows up, we work with proprietary tools to make sure we’re filtering out anything that’s not in the source file, that was introduced in the process of preparing it for public consumption.

 

MK  One other thing to consider, getting back to our earlier discussion about Kaleidescape versus discs: One area where we have some latitude is that the optical disc has whatever capacity it has, so when the disc is authored, they’re working with that limitation. We don’t have that limitation. We don’t have to conform our releases to something that could fit on an optical disc. We don’t have to worry about adding a second disc for bonus features. So, if a particular movie or TV series benefits from having higher-bandwidth encoding than a disc would allow, we can do that.

 

LO  Yeah, the result is that our files are big. They’re big because there’s all of that delicious, juicy information stacked up and stored in each one of those files.

 

MK  Exactly. But you know when you’re watching one of our premium movies that someone actually took the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that it’s right.

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.

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

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.

Ep. 7: Theo on Theaters

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Continuing the discussion from Episode 6 of how home theaters are now definitely better
than movie theaters, Episode 7 opens with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger
discussing Dennis’s recent post on how even streaming can be better than a movie theater.

 

At 10:14, Dennis & Michael welcome the father of home theater, Theo Kalomirakis, back to
the podcast to talk about what impact the better-than-movie-theater experience at 
home
has had on both his work and his personal love of movie-watching.

 

At 22:28, the discussion turns to the influence the superior home viewing experience is
having on filmmaking. Theo also provides a brief update on the efforts of his company,
Rayva, to offer simple-to-install luxury home theaters
.

 

Ep. 7 concludes at 32:13 with a survey of what everyone’s watched over the past week,
followed by a guest appearance by Dennis’s son, Bruno.

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Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

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 Movie Theaters Still Matter

Why Movie Theaters Still Matter

I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read Dennis Burger’s piece in which he laid out 10 reasons why home theaters are better than movie theaters because I recently had a movie-going experience that reinforced pretty much all of his arguments. Technically, it was three movie-going experiences all united under one common theme: A child’s love of How to Train Your Dragon.

 

You see, my 10-year-old daughter is completely obsessed with dragons, and that obsession was born the day she watched How to Train Your Dragon for the first time—in our home theater, mind you. For over two years, she has absorbed every detail of this universe—the two films, the comic books, and the DreamWorks Dragons TV series—the same way I absorbed all things Star Wars as a kid.

 

So, as you can imagine, the theatrical release of How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World back in February was a monumental life event that evolved into our own movie-going trilogy. The epic journey began with a Fandango Early Access showing three weeks before the film’s official release date. Only one theater within 30 miles of my home was hosting a 

screening, and I was lucky to acquire four seats together before it sold out. Then we had to make the 30-minute drive to see the movie in an older but at least renovated theater. No Dolby Vision or Atmos, but, hey, the seating had been upgraded, so it wasn’t too bad. You could tell, though, that the AV system had seen a lot of use.

 

The sequel came on opening night at our local theater. (Yes, we still had to go on opening night. After all, the child had waited a quarter of her life for this moment to arrive.) Did I mention that we only have one movie theater in our town of roughly 100,000 people? It was built just a few years ago (yet, still no Dolby Vision or Atmos), and it’s a very pleasant place to see a movie. The AV equipment is still in good shape, they keep the volume within reasonable limits, the 

seating is well spaced so that it’s pretty much impossible for someone to block your view, and the big leather recliners are very comfortable. It’s reserved seating, too—and since it’s the only theater in town, you’d better reserve those seats well in advance if you want get anything decent on opening night. Luckily I did, so all was well.

 

For the final installment of the trilogy, my daughter wanted to see the movie one more time—in 3D. Only one theater in our local movie house was showing the 3D version, and for some inexplicable reason they decided to show the PG13-rated Alita in that theater all day long and the PG-rated dragon movie once a day, only on certain days, at 9:00 p.m. Now, I told the child that was too late for a 10-year-old to go see a movie, but really it’s too late for a 10-year-old’s parent to stay awake through a movie.

 

Instead, we drove 45 minutes to the next closest 3D showing, in a much older theater: A small screen, the classically awful flip-down seats, and a projector that was so dim that roughly 50 percent of the details in dark scenes were completely lost behind the 3D glasses. It you haven’t seen the standard version of The Hidden World, it’s really quite gorgeous, with rich color and exceptional detail (I can’t wait to see it in UHD!), so much of which gets lost in the 3D version if the projector is not up to par.

 

And there you have it. Three different theaters. Three different levels of quality. Lots of pre-planning and scheduling. Lots of driving. Lots of illegal smuggling of reasonably priced snack items . . . 

 

Oh, and one very happy child. Put the snark aside for a minute, and you’re left with a 10-year-old who loved every . . . single
. . . minute. She loved the surprise of the Early Access screening, of getting to see the film before all her friends. She loved

Why Movie Theaters Still Matter

the commemorative Toothless drinking cup and the Toothless-shaped popcorn holder that will remain a cherished possession for years to come. She loved opening night just as much, sharing in the laughter and tears a second time with a packed house. And she thought the 3D was “super cool.” Our epic How to Train Your Dragon journey is an experience that will stay with her for the rest of her life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

As we adults wax philosophical about the technological superiority of luxury home cinema and all of its conveniences, let’s not forget the joy and wonder that a child gets from 

going to the movies. The joy and wonder that we got from going to the movies. Some of my strongest childhood memories are built around the movie theater. I dare say it doesn’t matter where you’re from, how wealthy you are, or how big and amazing your home media system is, your kid is always going to think it’s cooler to go out to the movies.

 

Don’t get me wrong—I still agree with everything Dennis said. I know that 85 to 90 percent of the movies I watch will be at home, and I absolutely want to watch them through a great AV system, on my terms. But for those “event” movies—like the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, which has me almost as giddy as my daughter was over The Hidden World—I want to go out to the movie theater. I want to share in an experience, just like I do at a great concert. I want it to feel like an event.

 

That means I want the movie theaters to get their act together and catch up to where we are now in home cinema so that we movie lovers can enjoy the best of both worlds. I want more theater chains to adapt to this new movie-watching landscape and figure out creative ways to work with companies like Netflix and Amazon instead of against them. I want theaters to survive so that my grandkids will also get to experience the joy and wonder of going to the movies. I can’t wait to see what story captures their heart and imagination.

—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.

Even Streaming is Better than Most Movie Theaters

We’ve been talking a lot here lately about how a home entertainment system—built with the right components, carefully installed, and properly calibrated—can now deliver an experience that surpasses that of most commercial movie theaters. There’s this persistent and niggling perception in the home theater enthusiast community, though, that achieving such a seemingly lofty goal means that you must eschew streaming formats like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu altogether.

Simply put, this is silly.

 

And mind you, I’m not saying that such streaming formats are perfect. Consider the fact that your typical 4K movie, which is only compressed down to roughly 250 megabits per second at your local cineplex, is squeezed into a 15- or 20-megabit-per-second pipe for Vudu streaming. It’s pretty obvious that something is lost along the information superhighway. (A UHD Blu-ray release or Kaleidescape download, by the way, runs at more along the lines of 60 to 100 mbps).

I’m merely arguing that when viewed in the right environment, on the right system, the quality of the experience you can get via streaming can far exceed the quality of most movie theaters.

 

How is that possible given the above admission about compression? It all boils down to the way our eyes prioritize certain elements of an image over others. In short, the most important aspects of an image, at least to our eyes and our brains, are black level and dynamic range. The closer the darkest parts of an image are to true black, and the more steps there are between the darkest and lightest areas of an image (to a point), the more pop and impact an image has.

Streaming Better Than Movie Theaters

Need an example? Here’s a screen grab from the 2017 Pixar film Coco. The top image is a direct screen grab in all its high-contrast glory, with inky blacks and sparkling highlights. And this doesn’t even capture the high dynamic range you’d get from the Vudu stream of the film, with its enhanced sparkle and superior shadow detail.

 

The bottom image? I simply tweaked the contrast to make the blacks a little less black and the whites a little less white, in line with the limited brightness and dynamic range capabilities of most commercial cinema projectors and screens.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “What about the vibrancy of the colors? The glow of those magically lit leaves? The pop of Miguel’s jacket? Surely you toned down the colors of the bottom image a bit, too!”  Nope.

The perceived loss of saturation in the bottom image is simply a byproduct of tweaking the relationship between black and white, to illustrate the differences between a good home display and Screen 3 at Jim Bob’s Continental Cinema 16 down the street. That’s literally the only thing I manipulated here.

 

Actually, I lied. The top image was also subjected to roughly four times as much lossy compression as the bottom before I combined them and compressed them again.

And hey, maybe you don’t like the DayGlo color palette of Coco as it was originally intended to be seen. That’s valid. But what’s true of this example is true for any other film. Even via a streaming source like Vudu or Netflix at home, you’re getting an image that’s more vibrant, with truer-to-life contrasts and oodles more brightness. And at the end of the day, that’s far more important to our visual cortices.

 

And that’s not even taking into account the films these days that were color graded and mastered with the superior brightness and dynamic range of home displays in mind, with no thought given to the compromised theatrical experience. I’ve never seen a theatrical presentation that came close to capturing the contrast, shadow detail, and highlights of Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just to name one example.

 

Maybe if more commercials theaters converted to Dolby Cinema, with its vivid laser projection and higher dynamic range, this argument would carry less weight. But of the 250 Dolby Cinema theaters in the US of A, the closest one to me is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. So, for me, the very best commercial cinema experience is defined by the

limitations of IMAX Digital. And if you bother to venture out to your local cineplex with any frequency, the same is likely true for you, as well.

 

In his most recent post, our own John Sciacca made the point that Kaleidescape is the only sure-fire way of ensuring that you enjoy the absolute best picture and sound that you can at home, short of buying UHD Blu-ray discs. That’s absolutely true. No arguments from me on that point. If nothing less than audiovisual perfection will suffice, streaming hasn’t reached that level
. . . yet.

 

But if we’re simply talking about enjoying a better experience than you’re likely to get at your average local megaplex? I would argue that streaming, in the era of 4K and HDR, and when viewed on a properly installed and calibrated home display, has already crossed that Rubicon.

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.

Ep. 6: Home Theaters are Better Than Movie Theaters

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Hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger open Episode 6 with a brief discussion of how Dennis’s favorite show, Critical Role, recently made headlines by becoming the most successful video-production Kickstarter campaign ever. Dennis & Mike talk about the impact of alternate forms of production on TV & movies.

 

At 11:28, Cineluxe contributor Andrew Robinson joins the podcast for the first time, accompanied by fellow contributor John Sciacca. Everybody discusses how a home theater with the right gear, properly installed, can easily top the performance of a typical movie theater. But it turns out the biggest contributor to a better-than-movie-theater experience at home might not be the tech.

 

The show wraps up at 39:14, with a quick survey of what everybody’s watched during the past week, which runs the gamut from They Shall Now Grow Old to Love, Death, and Robots.

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