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2019: The Year in Streaming

2019: The Year in Streaming

It might feel like the words “streaming” and “cord cutting” have dominated content conversations for the past few years, but once the dust has settled from the streaming vs. cable vs. disc conflict, 2019 will stand out as maybe the most important year in the shift toward the dominance of streaming content. Many of us still love our discs, but with the exponential

improvements in streaming quality over the past couple years, the end is nigh. The year in streaming wasn’t all highlights, but the bumps in the road look to be remnants of an aging past and not trends of what’s to come.

 

End of the Old Guard?

For decades, HBO was at the forefront of cutting-edge content with shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Veep, and Game of Thrones. But it was Thrones that brought some controversy to the premium cable network at the beginning of the year. The quality of the stream for one of its most anticipated episodes, “The Long Night,” was downright disgraceful. Blame was thrown at the director, the cinematographer, and even the audience, for not properly setting up their TVs. But when it comes down to it, the fault lay primarily with HBO. The network’s antiquated compression algorithm coupled with millions of people trying to watch the show at the same time led to an atrocious viewing experience.

 

While that whole fiasco became fodder for anyone looking for a reason to denounce the rise of streaming, people did learn how to improve their home viewing, and there are plenty of services that do streaming right. If anything, it shone a bright light on the deficiencies of HBO and the other cable services when it comes to providing high-quality content delivery. Hopefully HBO will improve with the release of HBO Max, the streaming service launching early next year from WarnerMedia. It has to, really, because there’s a new kid on the block.

 

The Disney Juggernaut

Right around the same time HBO was failing at “The Long Night,” Disney rocked the streaming world by announcing that its new service, Disney+, would only be $6.99 a month. And deals soon appeared that let you get the service for around $4 a month if you paid for three years up front (which I did). Compared to the competition, the price was surprisingly low for the expected content being provided.

 

What exactly we’d be getting, and at what quality, wasn’t fully known until Disney+ finally launched in November. Many titles are being offered in 4K HDR, including almost all of the Star Wars movies which, until then, had been capped at 1080p. (The two Star Wars titles that had previously been released on disc in 4K HDR—The Last Jedi and Solo—aren’t available yet on Disney+.)

 

The launch had its problems, namely that a lot of people couldn’t log on to their authentication servers and were left waiting for traffic to calm down and a fix to be deployed. But once that was resolved, we were all able to revel in the incredible content, like The Mandalorian, which is being released at one episode per week and not the drop-it-all-at-once-and-binge structure Netflix and Amazon Prime have followed. The Disney+ interface is also better than what other streaming services offer, and provides a good model for the others to follow—which they likely will in response.

 

Moving Away From Theaters

Toward the end of 2018, Netflix made some waves when it released a few of its films (like Roma and Bird Box) in movie theaters first, primarily to be considered for the Academy Awards, which require a minimum theatrical release of seven days. But the movies were only in the theaters from one to three weeks before they showed up on Netflix for subscribers to stream to their heart’s delight. The theaters weren’t pleased and voiced their dissent, but it blew over relatively quickly because the films, while they were awards contenders and included some incredible talent, didn’t have household names.

 

That changed this November when Netflix released Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman after only a month in theaters. Many major theater chains in both the U.S. and Europe refused to play the movie, and because of that it didn’t make anywhere near the money it could have with a traditional theatrical release. But that also was never Netflix’ intention.

 

There is still something to the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater and the magic it can evoke. Just recently, I had the option of seeing Rise of Skywalker in a movie theater on opening weekend or staying home and watching it a screener copy. I chose to complete the 42-year journey in the theater with a group of strangers I didn’t know but was connected to through Star Wars nonetheless. But my motivation to spend the money and leave the house is dwindling when I have a perfectly good home theater and high enough bandwidth to stream a 4K HDR movie with Dolby Atmos through any number of streaming services.

 

On to 2020

The immediate future for streaming could be very interesting. There will be even 

more services coming online in 2020, including the aforementioned HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. The problem is, the existing network services are still locked into 1080p. If they paid attention to their competitors at all in 2019, hopefully they’ll realize it’s time to step up their game.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen (2019)

Shocking. Thats easily the best descriptor to sum up the opening of the new HBO series Watchmen.

 

If the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the Zack Snyder film a decade ago, which was in turn an adaptation of a seminal 12-issue DC Comics series from the mid ’80s. The comic takes place in an alternate version of our world where the point of divergence is 1938. Masked heroes (some might say vigilantes) have won the Vietnam War for the American side, 

thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a god-like character born from a scientific experiment.

 

At its heart, the comic is a murder mystery. One of the Watchmen is murdered at the beginning and we spend the 12 issues finding out the who and why, all with the backdrop of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

The HBO series is a sequel that primarily takes place in Tulsa 34 years after the events of the comic. The location is significant because of that shocking opening scene: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. Its a disturbing moment in 

American history that is unknown, or at least not well known, by most of the population. I know it wasnt covered in any of my history classes.

 

On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsa residents attacked the city’s black Greenwood district, referred to as Black Wall Street” because of the prosperity and wealth of the residents there. Officially, 36 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that number as high as 300, with thousands left homeless. This sets up the racial backdrop of the Tulsa of Watchmen. In it, police officers wear masks to protect their identity from the population they are trying to protect, and from the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.

 

The main characters of the series are new creations by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and The Leftovers fame). That isnt to say the original characters from the comic are absent; in fact, a few are supporting characters (at least through the third episode of the series). But the story is at its heart seen from the viewpoint of Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked police officers who has a murder mystery dumped in her lap in Episode One.

 

The cast of Watchmen is absolutely fantastic, and while its the story of Abar, it really is dependent on its ensemble; Louis Gossett Jr., playing Tulsa riot survivor Will Reeves, feeds the mystery of the story with his cryptic hints to Abar; Jeremy Irons is fantastically peculiar; and Jean Smart (introduced in Episode Three) has an inspiring performance that, I think, should lead to awards talk. The cast as a whole handles the challenging and uncomfortable material deftly.

 

Visually, there are beautiful references to the comic book (for those who are fans), and the breadth of cinematography is very cinematic. But being HBO, resolution is capped at 1080p. Luckily, I didnt experience any of the godawful compression issues found during other HBO shows, even during some dark, nighttime fight sequences.

 

The Dolby Digital surround mix (the highest available through HBO Go or HBO Now) is very good. Action scenes filled my room while keeping my focus forward on the screen where it needed to be. The shining star of the mix, though, is the score composed by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which expertly captures the mood of the show and helps drive its narrative forward.

 

For those who want a deeper dive, there’s a companion podcast, The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and director of Chernobyl), joined by Lindelof. A new installment is released every third series episode, and each one adds some interesting insight into the creation process.

 

Watchmen is not for the faint of heart, and those unfamiliar with the source material might be thrown for a loop at times, but hang in there. The storytelling is top-notch to match the excellent acting and score.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl (HBO)

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

 

It was just meant to be a safety test, but something went horribly wrong. The failsafe button was pushed, the power output spiked to astronomical levels, and then the building shook. Nuclear reactors don’t explode. Nuclear reactors can’t explode. But the terror on the faces around the control room revealed a different truth—a truth that must be, one that defied the tenets of nuclear science believed by these men.

 

That opening line from HBO’s limited mini-series Chernobyl could be as pertinent in today’s politics-vs-science climate as on April 26, 1986. Over five terrifying episodes, we’ve learned about the multiple issues—including suppression of information about the flaws in the reactor design and inadequately trained workers—that inevitably led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

 

Chernobyl went surprisingly under the radar for the first few weeks of its broadcast, probably because it overlapped with the last couple episodes of the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. Average viewership was around 1 million per episode in the US. One can only hope that the number increases via streaming as award buzz grows, because this show strongly deserves it. The script by showrunner Craig “Don’t judge me just by The Hangover” Mazin is excellent, the performances by the whole cast—and especially Jared Harris—are Emmy-worthy, and the practical effects of the radiation exposure victims are perfectly repulsive.

 

But the unsung star for me is the haunting score by Icelandic composer and cellist, Hilder Guðnadóttir, who incorporated recordings she collected with collaborator Sam Slater from a power plant in Lithuania, near the filming location, in her composition. They add a creepy, otherworldly element to the terrifying story presentation.

 

Chernobyl also has its own podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, with episodes devoted to each episode of the series. Sagal speaks with Mazin about the show’s themes, characters, and where the creators chose to take poetic license. (Chernobyl is a narrative show, after all.)

Chernobyl (HBO)

Since the only way to currently see Chernobyl is by streaming it through HBO, presentation is limited to 1080p and Dolby Digital. There are some compression artifacts notable in dark scenes. Two examples that come to mind are during the opening when the reactor explosion is seen from a distance against the night sky, and also when three workers descend into the darkness of the plant days after the explosion to open water valves. The sound design incorporates the 5.1 channels well during both of those scenes.  But this is primarily a dialogue-driven series, so about the only time any amount of information is sent to the surrounds is during the disaster.

 

Hopefully sometime soon— after Chernobyl presumably wins some awards—HBO will release the Blu-ray UHD version the show deserves. Although at the rate they network’s going, we’ll be lucky to get it before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deemed safe for the living.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Why “Game of Thrones” Looked Like Crap

Why "Game of Thrones" Looked Like Crap

If you spent any amount of time on social media this past Sunday night or Monday morning, you were probably inundated with tweets, grams, and posts about Game of Thrones. The episode, “The Long Night,” has been a long time coming. White Walkers and the people of Westeros met at Winterfell in a battle of epic proportions. After two episodes of everyone coming together to protect humanity, the viewing public was aching for a fight. But most of the online feedback wasn’t about the content of the episode. Sure, there was some bickering about who killed who—and for good reason. But the real issue was this:

 

It looked terrible.

 

Many lamented that the episode was too dark, and it was hard to see what was going on. It was a night battle that lasted 82 minutes, notoriously shot over 55 consecutive night shoots. The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, discussed his approach for the episode with the Vanity Fair podcast “Still Watching,” and that the series in general is shot using a lot of 

natural light. The idea was to be able to “evolve the lighting” and have the “storytelling of the lighting evolve with the storytelling of the characters.” Unfortunately, it led to an incredibly dark presentation that was difficult to follow. (If you remember, there were similar complaints when Solo was released, a dark film shot with natural light that looked awful when shown at improperly-calibrated theaters.)

 

In a way, the experience was heavily dependent on the quality of your display and calibration. If your display crushes black at all, you’re losing detail. If your display has a high black level, you’re also losing detail. And any ambient light in the room at all can make it hard to see.

 

But the most egregious issue of all didn’t have anything to do with the filmmaking. It was due to how the episode was delivered by HBO. Every single shot had banding artifacts caused by the compression. No one was safe from it. Not Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen, not even the White Walkers. It consumed the entire episode.

 

Some articles point to the fact that everyone was streaming it at the same time, causing the system to overload. So far, I’ve watched the episode in three ways: A recorded version from DirecTV, a stream from the HBO Go app on an Xbox One X, and a stream from the HBO Go app on a Sony X950G. All three exhibited the banding and blocky blacks, although the stream from the app on the Sony looked the best.

 

There wasn’t one particular problem that led to the poor presentation of this long-awaited episode, but rather a snowball of issues. The way it was shot was already going to challenge displays—especially those with black-level 

issues (hello LCD!). That HBO didn’t seem to take that into account and used the same compression they use on everything only made it worse. Finally, most home displays aren’t calibrated (or have the aforementioned black-level problems) and had no chance.

 

The last remaining hope for “The Long Night” is that HBO will address this issue when it releases it on (hopefully) 4K Blu-ray. But at the rate they’re releasing the seasons on UHD, we might have a better chance of seeing George R.R. Martin actually finish writing the series.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.