Dennis Burger Tag

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

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.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

This week marks the one hundredth birthday of Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013), the legendary visual-effects artist, writer, and producer whose name is practically synonymous with the art of stop-motion animation. Even if you don’t know his name, you’re surely familiar with his work from classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Below is an interview I did with Mr. Harryhausen back in 2007, which appeared at that time in a much more abbreviated form in another, now defunct publication. Presenting our entire exchange seemed like a fitting way to pay tribute to the effects master on the centenary of his birth.

—Dennis Burger

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit tongue-tied. I’ll admit I’m quite nervous to be speaking with you.

Well, I don’t have two heads. Just one.

 

I know it’s a question you must have been asked a million times, but how did you originally become interested in special effects?

King Kong, when I saw it at the age of 13 or 14, I think it was, at Grauman’s Chinese. I haven’t been the same since. That shows how a film can affect you. It just overpowered me. I had seen The Lost World in the silent days, when I was four or  

five, because my parents were great cinemagoers, and I had seen the German films—Metropolis and all of those. But somehow Kong, with the music and the sound effects and startling animation, was just amazing.

 

When did you start to develop your own special-effects craft?

Well, I started experimenting with it. It 

took a long time—it wasn’t just “Eureka!” overnight. It took several months before I found out the glories of stop-motion. I started reading about King Kong—there were various misleading articles in Popular Mechanics, assumptions of how it was made. Very few people knew anything about animation at that time.

 

What sort of misleading things were they saying?

Oh, one guy said Kong was a great big robot, and it showed drawings of a big mechanical thing walking through a forest, and big cables coming out of his heels and going to an organ, and there’s a little man in the corner playing this organ, and that was supposed to have made King Kong move.

 

So they were just guessing.

They were just guessing, or else deliberately misleading. They kept it secret how these creatures were made because there was nothing else like them on the screen. Finally, the secret came out in Look magazine and several others. It showed Fay Wray shaking hands with King Kong, and he was small and she was big! 

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Say the name “Ray Harryhausen,” and most people think of those wonderful stop-motion animation models, but your Dynamation process was so much more than that, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was. It was a combination of special photography effects and animation. It was rear-projection, mostly, which was the basis of all my Dynamation. When we first released Mighty Joe Young, the critics would say, “Oh, it had animation in it,” and the word “animation” had always been associated with cartoons. So we wanted to get a separate name for this process. Charles [Schneer] came up with “Dyna-,” because he had a Buick at the time and it said Dynaflow, and we put “-mation” on it and made it Dynamation.

 

You’re kidding. That’s where the name came from? A Buick automatic transmission?

Yes. 

 

I believe that name was first attached to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [1958], but you had been developing the same process for several years, right?

Oh, yes, before that—since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953].

 

So it would have been the same process on 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Oh, yes.

 

Which has been re-released on DVD.

In color! Because, you know, we would have shot it in color but our budget wouldn’t take it. At the time, color was very expensive, so we had to shoot it in black & white.

What do you think of the colorization process?

Oh, I think Legend Films have done a wonderful job. We colorized She—Merian Cooper’s old film. He wanted to shoot it in color originally, but RKO cut his budget at the last minute and he had to shoot it in black & white. The picture wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—it dealt with reincarnation. I’m glad that 20 Million Miles is being released in color. It makes it a new picture. The color really helps things. You know, I worked really closely with Rosemary Horvath in colorizing it. She knew how to push what buttons to get the right shades. I’m not that up on computers.

 

Can you tell me about the process?

Well, it’s all done on the computer. I don’t know the details. I would just say, “I think this should look more bluish, because it’s ice, and this should look that way,” and we worked it out together.

 

It’s amazing how far the colorization process has come, because I remember when King Kong was first colorized, it looked like a child had taken to it with crayons.

I know! Well, this is much better, believe me.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

What do you think about using modern computer technology to enhance a film that’s more than 50 years old?

I think it’s good. It makes it sharper and you can do things digitally that are quite remarkable.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently had you been able to shoot the film in color?

No, not really. Black & white was so much easier to work with at the time, though. This process of rear-projection—there was a big problem in that when you photographed a projected image, the colors would change due to the lamp of the projector. That was a big problem on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when we made it. But we overcame it by various processes.

 

You’re known for working alone.

Yes, I did everything myself—because there were no books at the time about special effects. Today there are a number of them. And everything is exposed about how things are done before the picture comes out. I think that spoils it. I used to keep it quiet, because I know I was haunted for years about how King Kong was made, and I thought it was wise not to divulge everything.

 

So you worked alone to keep your work secret?

Not only that reason. I preferred to work alone because it requires a great deal of concentration. And I didn’t want to be talked out of anything.

 

I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that you, as a sort of lone-wolf animator, had so much creative control over the stories of your films.

Yes, I worked on the stories. I don’t just wear the animation hat. So, many times, I would bring the original idea in. 7th Voyage was brought in by myself, although I was very modest in those days, and I didn’t realize that modesty was a dirty word in Hollywood—it took me 50 years to realize that.

And 20 Million Miles to Earth—that was your idea, too, correct?

That was originally my story, and then I got Charlotte Knight involved, so I gave her the full credit. But it was originally my idea. I had it set in America, crashing in Chicago, in Lake Michigan, but I wanted to take a trip to Rome, so I changed the location before I submitted the story to Columbia and Charles Schneer.

 

What did you think when you saw special effects houses like Industrial Light and Magic start to pop up?

It’s amazing that they made an industrial process of it, because I found it very hard to rely on other people to do things. I’m amazed that they did it, and they did a wonderful job.

 

When you saw ILM’s work with Star Wars and so forth, did you feel threatened in any way?

No, not at all. I think there’s room for every technique, depending on the story. Stop-motion gives a quality to a fantasy film—I think if you make fantasy too real—that was half the charm of Kong: You knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looked real. I get a lot of fan mail saying that they prefer my things to that of the computer-effects guys, who try to make it so realistic that it loses the quality of fantasy.

 

So, what did you think of the remakes of Mighty Joe Young—your own film—and King Kong, the film that inspired you?

Well, it’s another person’s point of view. Merian Cooper was a single producer, and they had five producers on the remake of Mighty Joe Young. They tried to do the concept realistically, and it was a fantasy, you know?

 

What did you think of the special effects in the new King Kong, though?

They were brilliant. But you know, people don’t go see a film just because of the special effects. I think they stretched it out, the new one. The beauty of the original Kong was that it was so compact. Right from the first word of dialogue, when he said, “Is this the motion-picture ship?” you knew what you were in for. The story was so compact—there wasn’t a superfluous scene in it.

 

Whereas the new one takes a bit of heat for being overly long.

Well, yes, because they go too far into Ann Darrow’s past. And people who go to see a picture like King Kong aren’t really interested in that. I think it breaks it when the girl tries to amuse the gorilla by doing tricks. It gets into the realm of Dino De Laurentis’ remake.

 

Oh, come now. It’s not that bad, is it?

No, it was a wonderful film, but it’s a different point of view. Everybody has a different point of view, you know. And Merian Cooper, being an adventurer himself, he specialized in these adventure films.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

For someone my age, the film of yours that had the most impact was Clash of the Titans. That’s one of the major films of my childhood. But it was your last film. Why?

I don’t know. I just felt I’d had enough in the dark room. After all, I did 16 features, and did nine-tenths of the animation by myself. And most of it is the first take. We seldom had time to do retakes, so unless there was something radically wrong, we would never do a retake. With computers you can go over and over and refine it and refine it without it showing, but when you’re dealing with film, the minute you try to dupe it, it gets dupey looking. So we had great limitations.

 

When you were making Clash of the Titans, did you have any idea it would be your last film?

No, not really. I just felt we’d had enough.

 

What do you think about the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake?

Well, I think it’s a mistake. They’re not going ahead with it, are they?

 

I can’t believe I’m the one saddled with the burden of telling you this, but yeah, unfortunately.

Good heavens. Well, I read somewhere that they wanted to make it realistic. That’s the worst thing you can do to a fantasy film! You know, Greek mythology is not supposed to be realistic. I think that’s their first big mistake. But life will go on, I suppose. You have no control over that.

 

On a happier topic, what are some of your recent favorite films? Have you seen many new films?

No, I’m not attuned to the latest concepts. They forget that there’s supposed to be a story told, and they depend on cut after cut and dynamic zooms and eight-frame cuts, and that’s not my cup of tea. So I don’t see many recent films. The subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, either. They’re usually very depressing. I don’t like to sit for an hour and a half watching someone in the process of dying.

 

Given that so many people dislike CGI, why do you think filmmakers continue to use it?

Everybody wants to do things a little differently than the previous one. If someone makes a successful film, which has been going on for years, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and makes a similar type. And most of them depend on explosions.

 

What about things like Wallace & Gromit?

They’re wonderful, the puppet films.

 

But you never wanted to make them, right?

Well, I did. I worked with George Pal for two years in the early days, and we made puppet films. His films were very stylized. But Wallace & Gromit, you know, it’s a field in itself. It’s not the type of thing we were making.

 

Both the new Wallace & Gromit film and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride contained homages to you. They seem to be carrying the flame of your work.

They’re doing a marvelous job. Wallace & Gromit have been a big success, and I get a big kick out of Creature Comforts. They’re very clever.

 

Mr. Harryhausen, it’s been a real honor to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Well, I’m delighted. Thank you.

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.

King Creole

King Creole

So often when we techie types attempt to explain the benefits of High Dynamic Range to the masses, we fall back on the clichés of “blacker blacks!’ and “brighter highlights!” as if that were the beginning and end of the story. If anything, though, Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR release of King Creole—Elvis Presley’s fourth film and the last before he went into the Army and came out the other side as an amphetamine-addled self-parody—proves that this simple explanation is woefully inadequate 

when it comes to explaining the actual benefits of HDR video.

 

Compare the 4K HDR download of the film to the Blu-ray release (the best you’ll find on disc, since the 4K transfer is a digital exclusive), and you’ll see that the blacks are no more black, the whites no more vibrant. The difference HDR makes is on the journey from one end of the value scale to the other. What the 4K HDR download has that the 1080p disc doesn’t is a proper richness and nuance between those two extremes. Rather than merely cranking the overall brightness of the image to drag it out of the shadows, this transfer allows the bright spots to shine and the darkness to revel in its inkiness, while also allowing for some middle ground. And the result is an image that’s wholly dimensional, with believable depth and oodles of texture that’s lost in the overly contrasty 1080p transfer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film was beautifully shot to 

CREOLE AT A GLANCE

One of the few “good” Elvis movies, thanks partly to Michael Curtiz’ expert direction, atmospheric Big Easy locations, and a provocative turn by Carolyn (Morticia Addams) Jones. 

 

PICTURE     

4K honors Russell Harlan’s evocative cinematography, which benefits greatly from a non-gimmicky application of HDR.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is primarily mono, until Elvis bursts into song, when it blossoms into multichannel splendor.

begin with. Director Michael Curtiz (best known for Casablanca and White Christmas) and cinematographer Russell Harlan (who deserves more credit for the success of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird) approached this musical noir/melodrama as if they were filming Olivier instead of Elvis, and their choice of New Orleans as setting lends the film a gritty verisimilitude that’s positively captivating.

 

It isn’t just the HDR treatment that helps push this download into must-see territory, though. The 4K transfer also reveals fine details—the filigree in the iron terrace railings on Bourbon Street, the fine mesh of screen windows—that simply get lost in the film’s 1080p transfer.

The visuals alone more than make up for Creole’s occasional shortcomings—the uneven performances (especially by Dolores Hart of The Virginian fame) and the often-laughable lip-syncing during Elvis’ barnburner performances. There’s also the weird sexual tension between Presley and Carolyn Jones, who slinks her way through every scene in a way that’s wholly distinct from her turn as Morticia Addams on the small screen just a few years later. When Presley’s down-on-his-luck Danny Fisher and Jones’ gangster concubine Ronnie share the frame, there’s a dangerous energy that’s unmatched by most films of the era. Watching them together, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been—what Presley’s film career might have been like if Colonel Parker hadn’t kept the King on a leash, forcing him to take roles in fluff like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Viva Las Vegas when he returned to the spotlight a couple years later.

 

But go too far down that road and one also can’t help but wonder what King Creole would have been had James Dean lived to play the role of Danny Fisher, which was written for him before it was rejiggered as a musical about a New Orleans singing sensation rather than as a straight drama about a New York boxer.

King Creole

We’ll never know, of course. But I do know this: King Creole has never truly thrived on home video until now, until our residential display technology finally caught up with the capabilities of good old-fashioned film stock. Indeed, the film sounds better than ever as well. True, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remains a mostly mono affair except during Elvis’ musical numbers, when the soundstage comes to life thanks the multitrack recordings of those songs. But much like the rest of this wonderfully and captivatingly imperfect film, somehow it just works.

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.

Video Options

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: Video Options
The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms

photo by John Frattasi

Our ongoing series on media rooms has, to this point, focused primarily on audio solutions, and with good reason. When constructing a stereo, surround sound, or Atmos audio system for your entertainment space, you’ve got a wealth of options, from soundbars to in-room speakers and discreet architectural speakers, on to completely (or almost completely) invisible speaker systems.

 

When it comes to video displays, though, the choice seems a little simpler: You either get a big TV or you get a projector, right? Actually, no, it’s not that simple. Once you move beyond media-room setups for smaller spaces like bedrooms or home

offices, where a TV is really the only way to go, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of a TV versus a projector. You might even find that the solution is to have both—as it is for our own John Sciacca.

 

That may spark a few questions for the uninitiated—namely “Why?” and “How?”

 

To get to the why, we need to back up to something I said in the first post in this series: We here at Cineluxe consider home cinema to be a shared experience. So, while a 75- or 85- inch TV may be more than sufficient to give two or three people sitting on a couch a panoramic viewing experience if the screen is a mere six or seven feet away, your room may be far too large for that sort of setup. If you’re 10, 12, 15 feet away from your screen, no reasonably-priced TV is going to give you and your family enough screen real estate to create a truly immersive viewing experience. A projector and screen, on the other hand, can. Quite easily.

 

So, why not just go with projection and forget the TV? To answer that, we need to remember that media rooms are also called multi-use spaces. The same room where you gather the whole family together to watch The Last Jedi may also be the room where you watch Last Week Tonight on Sunday evenings. And far be it from me to besmirch John Oliver’s looks, but do you really need to see his face at IMAX proportions? Because we’re talking about a media room and not a dedicated home theater, it should be able 

to accommodate casual watching but be able to transition to a more focused and immersive experience for more serious viewing. And depending on the size of your room, a single display may not give you that kind of flexibility.

 

Having a dual-screen setup means you can match the display to the needs of the moment. But how does it work, exactly? It usually involves a retractable screen that slides down from a hidden compartment housed in the ceiling (or in the floorspace above a room in a multi-story dwelling). Stewart Filmscreen’s Cascade is a great example, although other screen manufacturers offer their own variations on the theme: Evanesce from Elite and the gorgeous Zero-G from Screen Innovations (shown below), just to name two.

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: Video Options

Mind you, going this route does complicate things a bit, at least in terms of using your system, so you’ll definitely want to add a good control and automation system to your media room budget. This will allow you to drop the projection screen down in front of your TV for movie night at the press of a button (or the uttering of a simple voice command), and still access your source devices with a single remote.

 

And it probably goes without saying that if you’re going through all this trouble to ensure the most spectacular video presentation, you probably don’t want to rely on a soundbar for your audio experience. Instead, you’ll want to spec in all of the speakers and processing necessary for true 5.1 to 9.2.6-channel surround sound, depending on your appetite for aural immersion.

 

So, putting it all together, what would a complete dual-screen media room system look like? Combine a 124-inch SI Zero-G drop-down screen with an 85-inch Sony Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV, and add to that the sound system and sources detailed in our previous post: An Anthem AVM 60 or Lyngdorf MP-50 surround sound processor, driving three GoldenEar Technology Invisa Signature Point Source in-wall speakers, two or four GoldenEar Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls, four Stealth Acoustics SLR8G invisible speakers, and two Stealth Acoustics B30G invisible subwoofers. Throw in a Kaleidescape Strato Movie Player and Roku Ultra streaming media player, and you’ve got the makings of an incredible home cinema system that practically disappears when not in use. If you want to take that ethos to the extreme, you could even add a TV lift and projector lift from Future Automation to keep your gear completely hidden when not in use.

 

Tie it all together with a professionally installed home control and automation system like Crestron, Control4, or Savant, and you’ll have the power to transform your unassuming living room into your own private cineplex at the touch of a button.

 

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.

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

One of the biggest concerns I’ve had about about the home video marketplace in the years since we started to transition from discs to online distribution is the decline in well-made behind-the-scenes supplemental material. We’ve seen some exceptions, like Beyond Stranger Things on Netflix, but bonus goodies of this sort almost seem like a vestige and little more, and they’re far too rare even at that.

 

I’m not sure if Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian is a full-blown reversal of this trend, but it’s certainly a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of content available on Disney+.

 

You know what? Strike that. To call this series a return to the glory days of behind-the-scenes documentaries that flourished during the DVD era would be to sell it short. Unlike far too many of those bonus features, this eight-episode exploration of the 

making of the first live-action Star Wars TV series doesn’t have a promotional or congratulatory bone in its body. Nor does it lean on all of the tropes that practically defined the making-of doc in decades past.

 

Few and far between are the stereotypical shots of creatives or performers answering questions in front of a green screen. In fact, one almost gets the sense that director Brad Baruh has never seen a behind-the-scenes documentary and is making up his own formula as he goes along.

 

That’s actually not the case. Baruh has been involved in the making of a few Marvel Cinematic Universe docs and even had a hand in a couple of the best “one shot” short films set in the MCU. But with Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, he breaks the mold, structuring the series around a series of roundtable discussions, each focusing on a different aspect of the series or its legacy, rather than following the making of the series in chronological order.

 

The first episode takes a deep dive into the directors who worked on the show, and subsequent episodes explore its place in the Star Wars universe from a storytelling perspective as well as a pop-culture phenomenon perspective, along with the actual grunt work of production and post production.

 

But what really makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian 

such a joy is that it’s wildly unpredictable. Rambling discussions that would have been left on the cutting-room floor in the hands of a more seasoned pro instead become the centerpiece of an episode. Actors, directors, producers, and effects artists are allowed to take the conversations in directions that interest them, rather than simply pandering to the voyeuristic tendencies of the viewer.

 

(Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the trailer for this series, which seems intent upon cherry-picking the few shots and discussions in which it does gravitate toward tried-and-true territory, but oh well. Marketing people are gonna market. Don’t let that turn you off.)

The series even treats some of the controversies behind the making of The Mandalorian with unapologetic honesty—like the fact that star Pedro Pascal wasn’t really behind the mask of the titular Mandalorian all that much, and was instead played primarily by stuntmen Brendan Wayne and Lateef Crowder depending on the needs of the scene.

 

The best episodes of the series so far are those that focus on the technical wizardry that made The Mandalorian possible, like the advances in virtual set technology and the reliance on video-game engines for real-time rendering of backdrops that responded to camera movement. But at its heart, what makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian such a pleasure to watch is 

that every story it tells is ultimately a human story. While watching the series, my mind has been blown on several occasions to discover that things I thought were special effects actually weren’t, and things I never would have suspected to be special effects actually were. But instead of treating these technological wonders as the subject of interest in and of 

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

themselves, Baruh treats them as the efforts of creative humans solving problems in a way that no one ever solved them before.

 

And in a way, that’s a bit of a metaphor for Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian as a behind-the-scenes documentary. You’ve certainly seen bonus features that aim for the same end goals. But you’ve rarely seen ones that approach those goals in quite this way.

 

As I write this, three episodes have yet to air, and the last will hit Disney+ on June 19. Whether you dig in now or wait to binge the complete run of eight episodes is your choice, of course, but don’t sleep on this one. Even if you’ve never been a fan of supplemental material, this series is so original in its approach to deconstructing the creative process that you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

 

And if nothing else, its title—not The Making of the Mandalorian, or Behind the Mask, or anything of the sort, but rather Disney Gallery—gives me hope that this isn’t a one-off, that indeed Disney+ will be home to future series of this nature, which maintain the spirit of old DVD making-of supplements by documentarians like Charles de Lauzirika, Van Ling, David Prior, and Laurent Bouzereau, but in a fresh new way that embraces the streaming era of home cinema.

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 We Love “Galaxy Quest”

Why We Love Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest was only a modest hit, partly because it was stupidly marketed as a kids film. But it has earned a steadily growing following from an incredibly diverse group of people in the 21 years since its release. That usualy doesn’t happen with something like a sci-fi comedy. But it happened here.

 

The point of this little opus is to give you a different perspective on the film, if you’re already a fan, or encourage you to check it out if you’ve never seen it before. Given that, anyone looking for a comfortable and considered take on GQ should make a beeline for Dennis Burger’s below-the-fold appraisal, while those willing to first take a swim through an acid bath are encouraged to begin with Michael Gaughn’s more prickly appreciation.

—ed.

Why We Love Galaxy Quest
Michael Gaughn: The Journey Continues . . .

I’m not a Trekkie. I’m not a Tim Allen fan, I’m not a Sigourney Weaver fan, I’m not really an Alan Rickman fan—although he is the only good thing about Die Hard. I am a Tony Shalhoub fan, but who isn’t? Had Galaxy Quest been a Harold Ramis film with Alec Baldwin in the lead, as originally conceived, I never would have gone within a million miles of a stinkburger that big.

 

My love for this movie began with one of those “I’ll give this thing five minutes and’ll probably just turn it off” decisions that sometimes yields gems. It turned out to have enough going for it, well beyond its sci-fi trappings, to keep me engaged for the duration. But I didn’t really begin to appreciate how great it is until it had some time to insinuate itself into my being.

 

Galaxy Quest is the Casablanca of sci-fi comedies—a movie much greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it’s got an incredible cast—but how many incredible casts have gone down with their respective ships? The script—like much of the film, 

apparently—started out pretty goofy and was actively reinvented on the fly. Director Dean Parisot wasn’t exactly a name at the time—and hasn’t been much of one since, which is a bit of a mystery.

 

It’s not a particularly well made film—which is to say it’s as well made as any mainstream Hollywood movie, which isn’t saying much. There are some 

awkward edits and some equally awkward pauses in the performances, which were mostly smoothed over by cranking up the volume on David Newman’s accomplished but often overly insistent score. Which is another way of saying that what the film gets right—often thanks to that Casablanca type of zeitgeist-driven blind luck—helps divert your attention from its manifest flaws.

Galaxy Quest is one of those too rare phenomena where something exceptional gets made despite the system, the circumstances, and even the nuts and bolts of the film itself.

 

It’s definitely a comedy, but it’s not a relentless joke machine like the lamentable and indigestible Spaceballs. Its beauty is that it’s equal parts comedy, drama, and action. Everything is held in balance (somehow), and it all stems from character. The film rarely cheats.

 

Everything good about GQ is based in emotion—deep emotion. That puts it at the opposite end of the spectrum from such cold-blooded exercises as the clinical Airplane! and the smug, nasty Hot Fuzz (and A Million Ways to Die in the West and just about every recent comedy I can think of).

 

That emotion is probably the thing that’s caused GQ to stick with people and ultimately brought them to appreciate it. And it’s never cheap sentiment—the film earns every one of its affects. Which is why even though some films have aped its form, none of its descendants have come close to touching it in the intervening 21 years. (A case could be made for The Office, but The Office always sucked at real emotion. It always lacked the courage to go all the way there.)

 

Every comedian, good and bad, has a go-to Gilligan’s Island joke. It’s pretty much the working definition of a cheap laugh. But GQ’s Gilligan’s Island bit always gets a huge laugh despite its obviousness because it’s simultaneously really funny and deeply ironic and deeply wrenching. You can tell that the empathetic aliens truly feel the 

Why We Love Galaxy Quest
SO, WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH DEAN PARISOT?

Given its production pedigree, the caliber of its cast, and it’s ever-growing reputation, you’d expect to find out Galaxy Quest was helmed by a master of comedy with a solid string of hits to his name.

 

Nope. It was made by Dean Parisot, a director with a journeyman’s resume, but who’s shown enough command of his craft and demonstrated enough brilliance in his work that his oeuvre really should contain some gems besides GQ.

 

But it doesn’t, really. And it’s hard to fathom why.

 

Parisot directed “Arthur, Interrupted,” the second-best episode of the first attempt at a live-action Tick series. (For those keeping score at home, the best episode is “The Funeral.”)

 

“Arthur, Interrupted” stays true to The Tick’s core silliness but is the only time in the series’ unfairly truncated run Arthur even begins to feel three-dimensional. The gags are all motivated, instead of just pasted onto the action. And the performances are solid across the board—especially David Foley as the “licensed graduate student”-cum-superhero fetishist.

 

That episode would have been the perfect audition piece for Galaxy Quest—except Parisot directed “Arthur, Interrupted” three years after he made GQ. How do you go from creating one of the greatest movie comedies ever to doing a one-off episode of an unknown network sitcom?

 

Movie directors slum all the time, but they usually do it between big projects. For Parisot, there really haven’t been any other biggies.

 

I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this little sidebar because I couldn’t even venture a guess as to why his career played out the way it did. But I can’t help thinking of Terry Lennox’s lament in The Long Goodbye: “A guy like me has one big moment in his life, one perfect swing on the high trapeze.”

M.G.

castaways’ distress and have made their plight a centerpiece of their cobbled together culture. That one joke shows exactly how trusting, naive, and vulnerable the Thermians are—and how far they’re in over their heads.


A lot of people rightly point to the scene where Sarris tortures Thermian leader Mathesar as the movie’s pivot. But that moment goes well beyond setting up the final act to being the most extraordinary thing about GQ and the main reason it’s on 

Why We Love Galaxy Quest
NEVER SURRENDER

Galaxy Quest has long deserved a documentary that explains how a seemingly trite space comedy came to earn a reputation as one of the most substantial films of its era. Never Surrender (2019) isn’t that documentary.

 

It’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers just don’t get what makes the movie great or, in an age when everything has to pander to an agenda, couldn’t find a way to both suck up to GQ’s base and actually talk about the film.

 

The interviews with the primary creative forces are all pleasant enough. But they’re mostly gushing and superficial and tainted by the rank air of nostalgia. The absence of any discussion of the villain, Sarris, suggests the filmmakers were too focused on the light and fluffy to dig very deep into the film itself.

 

The greatest crime, though, is all the time wasted on the cosplay contingent. That phenomena is sad enough on its own, but by making it the documentary’s frame, the makers embraced exactly the wrong explanation for why GQ has endured.

 

Galaxy Quest isn’t a great sci-fi or fantasy film. It’s just a great film. Period.   

M.G.

its way to becoming a true exemplar of that much-abused word “classic.”

 

It’s played absolutely straight, and sublimely well. If Enrico Colantoni hadn’t been able to bring convincing depth to the squishy caricature Mathesar, Sarris didn’t come across as a legitimately menacing villain, Tim Allen hadn’t been able to reach way down beyond anything he’d done previously (or has done since), and Parisot hadn’t had the insight and fortitude to stage the scene as unalloyed drama, and hadn’t been subtly and carefully ratcheting up the emotional resonances throughout the film to reach that point, it would have been a disaster.

 

It’s not just dramatic, it’s emotional. And it’s not just emotional—it’s emotionally nuanced and complex. And it underscores the secret at GQ’s core—the reason why it works on its own terms, why it hasn’t just survived but thrived, and why its strengths have practically nothing to do with Trekkies, geeks, nerds, or any of the other arrested-development types who’ve inherited the earth.

 

Everybody in Galaxy Quest is vulnerable—in some cases, to the point of debilitation. And that vulnerability runs the gamut from an actor’s inevitable petty insecurities to the potential extinction of a race. The

film, thankfully, has no superheroes. Everyone in it is just doing the best they can. And the ones who are most armored, most heavily weaponized, most willing to revel in raw power turn out to be the most vulnerable of all. And nobody plays the victim card.

 

Which is why it could never be made today. Which is why GQ is emotionally rich, while virtually every recent film feels stunted.

 

Galaxy Quest deserves to be celebrated because, like its characters, it’s managed to endure despite the odds. But we should also consider what it means that it could very well be the last of its kind.

Why We Love Galaxy Quest
Dennis Burger: The Relevant Conundrum

If you’d locked me in a prison cell and offered me the key if only I could figure out the one movie for which Mike and I share an unbridled enthusiasm, I would have immediately pounded on the door and begged for clemency. I knew where our disparate musical tastes overlap (Bach, Randy Newman, Cake, and that’s about it). I could tell you where our politics intersect (way outside the mainstream, and I’ll say no more than that). I could even tell you in what ways our moral and ethical philosophies are simpatico (surprisingly, given that they’re both wholly our own). But when it comes to cinema, we’re Oscar and Felix. Statler and Waldorf. Martha and Snoop.

So it’s a little shocking (although perhaps it shouldn’t be) that one of the few films we both unapologetically adore is the 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest. Like Mike, I don’t come to this film as a fan of the genre it parodies. I’ve only seen a couple of Star Trek films and accidentally caught a handful of episodes of the TV shows over the years. I’ve always been more of a fantasy geek than a sci-fi nerd, much preferring Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and the like to The Next Generation and The Wrath of Khan and their ilk.

 

But that’s one of the great things about Galaxy Quest: It doesn’t lean too hard on shibboleths or obscure references. Instead, it takes the piss out of tropes so common they’ve permeated the pop culture consciousness. What’s more, it plays with those tropes lovingly, never veering into the cynical, mocking, or mean-spirited territory that would have been so easy to fall into.

 

That alone wouldn’t be enough to make Galaxy Quest a good film, though. We’ve seen other amiable spoofs about fandom—namely 2009’s Fanboys, which takes a shot at my own favorite franchise—fall flat for any number of reasons. What writer Robert Gordon and director Dean Parisot seem to understand that so few others in their position get is that even if your intentions are to have a bit of fun, you still need to make a good movie. And that’s perhaps the most

Where to See GQ

Galaxy Quest is available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services and for download from Kaleidescape. The best you can do, though, is 1080p with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. That makes this classic well overdue for a 4K HDR/Atmos upgrade. 

 

Amazon PrimeGoogle Play / iTunes
Kaleidescape /
 Vudu YouTube

Why We Love Galaxy Quest

surprising thing about Galaxy Quest—it takes itself seriously. The filmmakers and actors seem to grasp that levity is meaningless without gravity. As such, the film doesn’t strive for laugh-a-minute antics. In fact, it’s at its best when it gets really serious. More than anything else, though, what I love about GQ is that it’s actually about something. It strives to mean 

something. And that’s far more than I can say for the aforementioned Fanboys.

 

In his excellent but uneven collection of essays Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, playwright/screenwriter/author/director David Mamet included Galaxy Quest on his very short list of four perfect films. And far be it from me to argue with Mamet, but I have to protest, if only mildly. Galaxy Quest does grasp that golden ring in only one pivotal moment. It’s a scene late in the film, in which Tim Allen’s character, Jason Nesmith, in a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability, must explain (to an alien who doesn’t comprehend the concept of dishonesty) why humans lie to one another in the process of crafting fiction. Nesmith fails to come up with a satisfying answer. And I can understand why this didn’t bother Mamet, because his fiction is full of characters who fail to recognize fundamental truths about themselves.

 

The thing is, though, Nesmith had already learned this lesson, and should have had a better answer. Because the entire point of Galaxy Quest—at least for me—is that we create such fictions to inspire one another. To motivate one

another. To give hope when there seems to be none. To get straight to the heart of truths about ourselves that non-fiction simply can’t uncover, at least not without seeming contrived.

 

Only one other tale—The Lord of the Rings—so effectively cuts to the heart of why we need fiction, why we tell stories to one another, why effective inspiration so often comes from seemingly the most trivial larks. And to be fair, that’s not even what The Lord of the Rings is about. But it’s a message that’s central to everything that makes Galaxy Quest work.

 

And aside from that one minor quibble, it’s why I think it actually is, very nearly, a perfect film.

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.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (aka Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), makes me long for a time machine. Not necessarily so I could dial back the last 18 years and view the film again for the first time (although that would be a treat), but rather so I could capture my impressions after having just seen the film with fresh eyes.

 

I say this only because I come to Spirited Away with so much baggage that I find it difficult to discuss the film in and of itself. After nearly two decades of reading doctoral theses about linguistic symbolism, of devouring literary and film analyses, of falling down rabbit holes of spiritual, religious, and philosophical themes and the interconnections between those themes—

after all of that, it isn’t easy to simply sit back and consume the film as a self-contained work of art.

 

So I did the next-best thing. I sat beside my wife this weekend as she experienced this weird and captivating journey for the first time, unburdened by even cursory familiarity with its plot, much less its deeper meanings. Glancing out of the corner of my eye to see her giggle and applaud, weep and gasp, I was reminded of that first viewing. And I was also reminded that you don’t really need to know a damned thing about Spirited Away to appreciate it as one of the best animated films ever made.

 

But, then again, of course you don’t. After all, if it weren’t such a wonderful (and wonderfully made) adventure on the surface, would film scholars and critics and folklorists and pop-culture pontificators and linguists and PhD candidates still be struggling to deconstruct it in 2020?

SPIRITED AWAY AT A GLANCE

The anime classic is well served by the Kaleidescape download, which bests the Blu-ray release and provides both the original Japanese soundtrack and an excellent English dub.

 

PICTURE     

The 1080p presentation captures all of the details of the original animation.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix extends the world of the film out into the room, giving both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

So, forget all of the symbolism. Forget the film’s deep ties to Shintoism and Japanese cultural norms (some admirable, some deplorable). What makes Spirited Away work as a two-hour adventure that has the power to capture the heart even if you know no more about the concept of kamikakushi than you do about differential calculus?

 

The animation certainly helps. Not only is this Miyazaki’s most visually stunning work, it also represents perhaps the most artful (and subtle) marriage of hand-drawn 2D and computer-rendered 3D animation ever committed to the screen. The worlds of our ten-year-old hero Chihiro (both the material world and the spirit world) seem more real and more tangible than most cinematic settings captured in live action.

 

It isn’t merely the animation that creates this perception, though. What makes Miyazaki a master filmmaker (medium be damned) is that he understands how to lead the viewer through a story—and through the world in which it takes place—in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a passive viewing experience.

 

Perhaps the best example of this is the film’s denouement, in which Chihiro must travel to confront the twin sister of the sorceress who stole her name and employed her in a bathhouse for gods and spirits. (It sounds like gibberish, I know, but it all makes sense in the context of the story.)

 

In most films—especially fantasy films—Chihiro’s journey would have been written as an epic quest, fraught with danger and excitement. In Miyazaki’s hands, though, this journey is a quiet and contemplative train ride. This shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, on two levels: It gives both little Chihiro and the viewer alike a chance to reflect, to contemplate, to catch our breaths together.

It’s a technique Miyazaki employs in most of his films, and one he describes using the Japanese word ma, which roughly translates into “pause” or “gap,” but which is probably best described as kinetic negative space. But no film—from the oeuvre or Miyazaki or any other filmmaker—makes such effective use of this technique as does this scene. And I think the reason it works so well here is that this ma doesn’t simply work on a narrative level. It isn’t simply a quiet, contemplative break from the action. It also gives the viewer the opportunity to revel in Spirited Away on the level of pure audiovisual experience. It may be the first time most viewers fully appreciate how seamlessly the 2D and 3D animation blend in this film. It may also be the first time you have room to truly meditate on Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic score. (Unfortunately, the clip above cuts this passage of the score short. Fortunately, you can enjoy this movement in its entirety here.)

 

I could go on, but to say more would be to rob you of experiencing—and indeed interpreting—this beautiful film for yourself. Then again, there’s so much to appreciate here even if you have no interest in interpreting a thing. Spirited Away has been likened to stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with good reason. It is, on one level, simply an amazing coming-of-age tale framed through the lens of the fantastical, the mysterious, the inscrutable, and at times even the grotesque. But despite all of that—indeed, despite its deep roots in Japanese mythology and folklore—there’s something uniquely universal about Spirited Away.

 

It’s a film that rewards further exploration, sure. But again, all of that would be pointless if not for the fact that it’s a film worth watching over and over and over again purely on its own terms, with its patently obvious themes about greed and kindness and the nature of the self. Force me to construct a list of films that demand to be owned rather than merely rented (or

borrowed by way of a subscription service like HBO Max, soon to be the temporary home of this and all of Miyazaki’s other animated films in the U.S.) and Spirited Away would be on it.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s download of the film is a wonderful way to own it. We’re presented with both the original Japanese soundtrack and the surprisingly good English-language dub (overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The film defaults to Japanese with English subtitles, as it should. But if you’re watching with younger viewers (or simply refuse to read captions), just know that the English dub maintains the film’s delightful score, as well as its effective and atmospheric sound mix. Both versions use the surround channels and subwoofer alike to extend the worlds of the film out into the room, and to give both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

 

Kaleidescape does present the film without the bonus features found on both Disney’s 2015 Blu-ray release and the 2017 follow-up by GKIDS (after Disney relinquished distribution rights in the U.S.). But that’s honestly of little consequence. Those bonus goodies did little to enrich the film.

 

What’s more important is that the Kaleidescape presentation is superior to the 

Spirited Away

already excellent 2017 Blu-ray. You could, I suppose, complain that Spirited Away isn’t available in 4K, but this better-than-Blu-ray-quality 1080p presentation lacks for nothing in terms of capturing all the details of the original animation. There is, perhaps, a second or two here or there that might benefit from a wider color gamut, but without the ability to A/B this transfer against a hypothetical 4K re-scan of the film elements, I can’t say that for sure.

 

What I can say for sure is that this one belongs in your collection whether you’re a fan of Japanese animation or not. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself so enraptured by Miyazaki’s magical worlds and his talents as a filmmaker that you end up exploring the rest of his catalog almost immediately. If you’re looking for a little guidance, I would suggest next diving into My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which are also available on Kaleidescape, along with rest of Studio Ghibli’s long-form catalog.

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 Best of Tiny Desk

The Best of Tiny Desk

Given how quickly people are burning through entertainment at home right now, we’re hoping to open up some new avenues to explore by highlighting less mainstream content that’s readily available online and will look and sound great on a luxury entertainment system. First up is Dennis Burger’s quick tour of some of the most intriguing musical performances from NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk series.

—ed. 

 

 

I guess I just assumed that NPR’s Tiny Desk would be one of the first casualties of the pandemic. After all, this long-running series—in which artists and bands cram behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and jam their hearts out—doesn’t quite work in this era of social distancing. Turns out, though, like most things these days, Tiny Desk just reinvented

itself as Tiny Desk (Home), with artists from around the world and across all musical genres shooting intimate little shows from the comforts of their own living rooms or garages. I stumbled upon this almost by accident, when the latest Tiny Desk (Home) concert, by nuevo flamenco/rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, popped up on my YouTube homepage.

 

If you’re not already hip to Tiny Desk, you’re in for a treat, since over 

the past 12 years more than 800 of these mini concerts have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. And there really is something for everyone, whether your musical tastes lean more toward roots and folk or rap and rock.

Part of the fun, though, is that since each concert typically runs less than 15 minutes, it’s easy to step outside your comfort zone and explore music you may have not been drawn to otherwise. That’s how I discovered what would end up being one of my favorite bands, Buke and Gass. (Now known as Buke & Gase to make the pronunciation a little easier to grok, I guess.) The duo’s 2011 turn at the tiny desk remains one of my favorites to this day.

If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the amazing 2016 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve seen Derek Trucks live more times than I care to count (starting when he was just a wee 16-year-old playing honkytonks here in Alabama), but I’ve never heard him or his band sound better than this. The controlled environment and lack of screaming crowds put the focus right where it belongs—on the music and the performance.

Speaking of sounding great, if there’s any single Tiny Desk concert that makes the case for listening in a proper media room or home theater instead of hunching over your phone or laptop, that would be Andrew Bird’s incredible show, also from 2016. The performance is stunning, but it’s the recording quality that really makes this one a standout. It’s punchy, dynamic, in-your-face, and incredibly detailed. I’ve seen Bird in concert nearly a dozen times now, 

and I’ve never enjoyed this level of clarity and intimacy in person.

Another fantastic-sounding fav is the 2018 performance by jazz/hip hop/R&B-fusion supergroup The Midnight Hour, formed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge (whom you may know from his work on the Luke Cage score). There’s not much to say about this one other than turn down your lights, turn up your sound system, open up your favorite bottle of wine or cognac, and get ready to groove.

I mentioned above that stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the best things about Tiny Desk. But the series is also at its best when it pushes the performers themselves out of their comfort zones. Take the 2016 performance by Blue Man Group, for example. A cramped little office space is probably the last place you’d expect to see this performance-art group playing their percussive contraptions these days, but this set is every bit as weird and wonderful as any of the 

stadium shows I’ve seen them play over the past couple decades, mostly due to the ways the group is forced to adapt to such an intimate environment.

 

Again, that’s just a tiny taste of what’s available behind the tiny desk, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series, I’ve almost certainly left off 15 or 20 of your favorites. And if you’re new to the series, consider this as more of a jumping-off point for your own exploration than a definitive best-of list.

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.

Invisible Sound Solutions

Media Rooms: Invisible Sound Solutions
The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms

In the previous post in this series, I walked you through some of the ways in which a soundbar can—contrary to conventional wisdom—serve as the foundation of an expandable media-room audio solution with plenty of room to grow. And that’s great if you’re not entirely committed to the idea of filling your room with speakers, or if you want to start small while leaving open the door for more sophisticated solutions.

But what if you’ve already decided to install a high-performance entertainment system and you’re unconvinced a soundbar could deliver the kind of big, impactful, expansive soundstage you’re looking for?

 

In that case, it’s probably best to start from scratch with a carefully selected speaker system that more closely approximates what you’d experience at your local multiplex. That means having dedicated left-, right-, and center-channel speakers (for onscreen sound effects and dialogue) at the front of the room near your display, at least two or as many as four surround-channel speakers (to deliver offscreen sound effects around and behind you) and two, four, or six speakers overhead to deliver the height-channel sound effects of today’s Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersive sound formats.

 

Mind you, that’s a lot of speakers—anywhere between five and 13, even before you add a subwoofer or two to the mix. And I think we can safely assume you don’t really want to see that many speakers. But you don’t have to. In our last post, on expandable soundbar solutions, I put together a hypothetical system using Leon’s Vault in-wall speakers and Axis ceiling speakers to complement the company’s Horizon soundbar. Take out the soundbar and replace it with three Vault speakers at the front of the room, and you have a complete (and almost completely invisible) component surround-sound speaker system that can compete with the best of them.

Of course, there are any number of companies out there offering similar solutions. Another favorite around these parts is GoldenEar Technology. You could combine three of their Invisa Signature Point Source in-walls across the front with two or 

four Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls and two to six Invisa 650 ceiling speakers for a system that rivals GoldenEar’s own massive floorstanding towers. And best of all, all of these in-wall and ceiling speakers feature paintable grilles than can be color-matched to the surfaces of your room.

 

Granted, even with perfect paint-matching, ceiling speakers do still draw some attention to themselves. If that’s a concern, you might instead opt for completely invisible speakers for your overhead-effects channels. Companies like Nakymatone and Stealth Acoustics now make speakers that install flush with your drywall that can be plastered or mudded (or in some cases even wallpapered) over. In other words, they don’t just install in your wall or ceiling; they literally become a seamless part of those surfaces.

Stealth Acoustics even makes subwoofers with the same form factor. Or you might opt for subs that install in the ceiling and port out into small circular openings indistinguishable from can lights, like Gray Sound’s S80 and Sonance’s BPS6. Or, your integrator may prefer to install more traditional subwoofers in the floor and deliver their sound into the room by way of openings that look like your traditional HVAC vents.

 

CREATING AN INVISIBLE SYSTEM

So, putting it all together from previous posts, what would a complete “invisible”  home cinema system for an entertainment room or media room look like? You’ll need your display, of course: Something like an 85- or 98-inch Sony Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV. You’ll also need a surround sound preamp like Anthem’s AVM 60 or Lyngdorf’s MP-50. And you’ll need a source or two—our favorites being the Kaleidescape Strato movie player and the Roku Ultra streaming media player—along with a good control system.

 

Add to that three GoldenEar Technology Invisa Signature Point Source in-walls around your display, two or four GoldenEar Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-walls, four Stealth Acoustics SLR8G invisible speakers, and two Stealth Acoustics B30G invisible subwoofers, and you’ll have a home cinema system that not only sounds amazing, but also has zero impact on your interior design.

 

In the next entry in this series, I’ll dig into similarly invisible (or nearly so) ways of upgrading your picture in a correspondingly cinematic fashion.

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.

Expandable Media Room Systems

Expandable Media Room Systems
The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms

When making a choice between a multi-use media room system and a dedicated home theater, it’s important to remember that each approach has its own upsides and downsides. With a dedicated home theater, every element of the room—from décor to seating to lighting and of course the AV gear itself—is selected, engineered, and installed with one goal in mind: An

optimized moving-watching experience.

 

With media rooms, that isn’t the case, of course. Movie night is just one among innumerable activities you’ll likely use the room for. So dialing in that Nth degree of performance isn’t always as predictable a process.

 

On the other hand, media rooms have one big benefit most dedicated home theaters lack: Easy expandability and upgradability. And that’s what we’re focusing on in this second installment of our ongoing series on complete media-room solutions.

 

Last time around, we started with the most basic media room system imaginable: A great TV, a high-performance soundbar, and a single source component. This time, the focus is on similar systems that leave you a little more room to grow.

 

Two Types of Expandability

What does that mean, though, “room to grow”? It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that many luxury soundbar solutions are designed as the starting point of a larger entertainment system.

 

But that manifests itself in two different ways. In some cases, the soundbar you install beneath your TV can be augmented with additional speakers to form a room-filling surround sound home cinema speaker system. In others, 

the soundbar functions as the main speaker in a larger multiroom distributed music system. Which approach is right for you is a discussion you and your integrator should have, but we’ll be digging into both.

 

An Upgrade to Real Surround Sound

In our first post, we mentioned luxury manufacturers like James Loudspeakers and Leon Speakers, whose soundbars require external amplification and sound processing. This may seem like an unnecessary hassle, since most soundbars come 

packing their own amps and decoding and such. But one big upside of the “passive” soundbar approach (so-called because speakers with built-in amps are referred to as “active”) is that you can grow the system exactly as you would any other speaker system.

 

Say you start with a Leon Horizon speaker custom-made to fit the exact dimensions and aesthetic of your TV. Since you’ll already be using a surround sound processor (like Anthem’s AVM 60 or Lyngdorf’s MP-50) and matching amps to power the soundbar, it’s not that difficult at all to add additional speakers now or down the road. You might want to add a couple of Leon’s Vault in-wall speakers near the back of the room for an elegant (and practically invisible) surround sound solution. You could also go one step further 

and add two or four of the company’s Axis in-ceiling speakers for a complete Dolby Atmos speaker system, all without replacing the soundbar under your TV.

 

Granted, your system will start to get a little complicated to operate at this point, so you’ll likely want to add an advanced control system from one of the Big Three automation manufacturers—Control4, Savant, or Crestron—along with an accompanying remote control.

 

The Foundation of a Whole Home’s Worth of Music

If, on the other hand, you read all of the above and thought, “Nah, I’m shopping for soundbars because I want simplicity,” that doesn’t mean you’re totally cut off from future upgrades or expansions. With many luxury manufacturers—Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen, just to name two—the soundbar actually becomes the centerpiece of a wireless multiroom music-distribution system (think Sonos, just a lot fancier).

 

Andrew Robinson has already written extensively about his experience with B&W’s Formation Duo wireless speakers. The Formation Bar is part of that same line, which means you can not only link them together and share music in every room of the house at the touch of a button, but you can also mix and match components in the line. The same subwoofer Andrew used to augment his stereo speakers—dubbed the Formation Bass—can be paired with the Formation Bar to add a little extra kick to the bottom end.

What’s more, the Formation Flex—the smallest speaker in the Formation lineup—can be mated with the Formation Bar to create a complete surround sound setup without the need for any additional wires. Granted, it’s not as expandable as the surround sound configurations listed above, in that you can’t do Atmos or expand past 5.1 channels at all. But given the multiroom capabilities of the system, that may be a tradeoff worth you’re willing to make.

 

Putting It All Together

As you can see from all of the above, things start to get a little more complicated at this level, but not too much. So if you’re looking for a simple soundbar media room setup that’s a little more flexible and expandable than the system covered in our first post, you first need to decide whether you want to expand within the room you’re in or outward into the rest of the home.

 

If it’s the former, a top-tier OLED or LED TV plus a James Loudspeaker or Leon Speakers soundbar, paired with a good surround sound processor and amp, gives you plenty of room to add additional speakers as you see fit. Add an advanced control from the likes of Control4, Savant, or Crestron, and your movie nights will be better than ever.

 

If, on the other hand, multiroom music is more your speed, a good TV plus a Bowers & Wilkins Formation Bar and Formation Bass subwoofer (plus a couple of Formation Flex speakers, if you want surround sound) will not only elevate your movie-watching experience, but will also let you tap into one of the most sophisticated, stylish, and high-performance distributed-music systems on the market today.

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.