John Higgins Tag

Why Movie Sound Matters

Why Movie Sound Matters

Oscar season is a strange time for me. I love seeing films recognized and celebrated (especially those that might have been looked over in the past, like Parasite), but I get frustrated that awards viewers see categories like Sound Editing and Sound Mixing as opportune times to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

 

It’s great that both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have separate categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing because they are significantly different disciplines. Quantifying the quality of mixing and editing can be difficult, if not downright stupefying, for someone unfamiliar with the process.

 

It’s first important to understand that, in most cases, most of what you hear when watching a movie was added or modified by a team of sound professionals after the film was shot. And the sounds that are edited into a film need to appear to be coming from the source on screen. The production sound (what was recorded on set by the production sound mixer) is sometimes

RELATED REVIEW

Ford v Ferrari

used in the film, but there are times a scene or entire film is recorded MOS—meaning without sound. In those cases, everything needs to be constructed after the film has been put together by the picture editor.

 

Ford v Ferrari wouldn’t have nearly the impact, especially for car aficionados, if the Ford GT40 Mark II or Ferrari 330 P3 didn’t sound right. But there’s no way the film crew would be able to use the original cars for filming the race sequences. “Those are all kits,” said Donald Sylvester, Oscar-winning sound editor for Ford v Ferrari, during a panel before the Academy Awards. “They probably have Mazda engines or something reliable.”

With only 105 GT40s ever made, the sound team needed to track down one of the remaining ones to record, which turned out to be a difficult, and likely expensive, project. Many owners didn’t want to let anyone anywhere near a car valued at millions of dollars, let alone close enough to record—and possibly damage—it. In the end, the sound crew ended up using a car in Ohio that had been built out of original GT40 parts, but wasn’t one of the original 105. Without that sonic authenticity, the storytelling of the movie would have suffered.

 

But just using the recording of a car engine isn’t enough. On a film I recently worked on, I built layers of sound to create a believable environment inside a car. Door locks and windows, the sound of an accelerator pedal being depressed, gear changes, the clunks from the suspension, turn signals, the noise of tires moving over pavement, and squeaks from the seat leather as the driver shifts position all add realism to the scene that would be missing with the engine sound alone. And those are just the sounds from the car itself and don’t include the other layers of what’s happening outside the car (such as individual cars driving by, birds chirping, the lawnmower of someone cutting the grass at a house being passed, or a distant police siren).

While those car sounds were collected out in the field and then edited together in a Pro Tools edit suite, sometimes sound for a film is created in a studio by foley artists. And very often the materials used to create the sound in the studio have no relation to what is supposedly producing the sound on screen. Classic examples 

of this include squeezing cornstarch in a leather pouch for footsteps in the snow, snapping apart celery for bone breaks, and a watermelon being stabbed or smashed for some gruesome horror-movie injuries. Great foley artists are exceptionally talented individuals, and if you have 14 minutes to spare, I highly recommend the award-winning short film The Secret World of Foley that came out a few years ago and documents the work of some of these artists (one of whom, Sue Harding, worked on 1917).

 

Many times when a sound editor does their best work, it’s imperceptible to the viewer. Take, for instance, difficulties that can crop up when editing dialogue. A set is very rarely a pristinely quiet environment. A production sound mixer can do their very best to record the dialogue as cleanly as possible, but the shuffling feet of crew members, humming of the on-set kitchen refrigerator, or an A/C unit that wasn’t turned off can all make their way on to the recorder. And even if a light gel was flapping throughout the scene, if it’s the take the director wants to use, the sound editor needs to make it sound like the extraneous 

flapping was never there. (That example is from my own work experience.) Even differences in room tone between takes that are put together for a smooth visual scene experience would easily take a viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. But if the dialogue editor does their job well, you’d never know there were any issues.

 

Then there’s the sound designer. Not every movie has a credited sound designer, unless it’s a film that 

includes things that don’t exist in our world and the sounds need to be created from scratch. This could be as low-key as what an iPhone app that exists only in the movie sounds like to the lightsaber sounds created by Ben Burtt or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which were given voice by Gary Rydstrom.

 

This is a more quantifiable aspect of sound editing. Obviously Rydstrom couldn’t go out into the field and capture the real sounds of dinosaurs, as Donald Sylvester did with the GT40, so it’s easier to recognize the work that went into creating the sound of a dinosaur and how it fits into our perception than it is which extraneous sounds were deftly removed from a noisy dialogue recording.

 

But everything described above only encompasses one of the two awards. Without sound mixing, all of that work wouldn’t matter. Now, this isn’t the production sound mixing I referred to earlier that’s done on set. (The nomenclature can be confusing, I know.) This is done by a re-recording mixer once all of the sound editing is done. In order for the editing to sound believable, all of the layers that have been painstakingly put together by the edit team need to be joined into one cohesive soundscape. Sound levels are adjusted and how the sound moves around in space to match the action on the screen is set.

This is an art in itself and requires a trained ear, creativity, and the use of plug-ins like reverb and compression. Subtle changes in dB levels can completely alter the audience experience. There’s a moment in Logan (shown above) where Charles Xavier has a seizure that causes him to practically paralyze those around him. The high-pitched sound that lasts throughout the seizure until Logan is able to administer Xavier’s medication slowly becomes more intense. It was a genius sound moment, and in the theater I could see audience members becoming more physically uncomfortable as the scene progressed, mirroring the emotions of the characters, until the massive relief once the seizure and high-pitched sound stopped.

 

Both sound editing and mixing complete the world on screen, draw audiences in, and create visceral reactions in those of us watching. At their best, all of this is done without distraction or without us realizing what’s causing it. To remain engrossed and invested in the film, the sound of the GT40 or the roar of the dinosaur must seem accurate enough that we believe it to our core. To feel incredible relief once that high-pitched squeal finally ends, it needs to sound absolutely right. The next time you finish a movie, think back to the moments that worked well and I guarantee you a major reason is because of excellent sound work, even if you didn’t perceive it at the time.

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.

Dracula (2020)

Dracula (2020)

The myth of Dracula isn’t one I think needs retelling. It, and vampires in general, have been done to death over the past couple decades. But whenever Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss write a project together, I’m intrigued.

 

For the uninitiated, Moffat and Gatiss worked together on the sci-fi favorite Doctor Who before continuing their working relationship with the series Sherlockan intricate and deeply satisfying retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle character in modern day with fantastic performances. Even before watching Dracula, I noticed that there were already a few similarities between the two series (both being based on existing material with the season being only three 90-ish-minute episodes). If they could do for Dracula what they did for Sherlock Holmes, it would be an excellent, smash-hit TV show.

 

It certainly is a TV show. Excellent smash hit? That would be a bit of a stretch. There are aspects of the series that stay true to the source material—such as character names, Dracula’s trip to England, and his typical phobias—but the structure of the retelling is different and the purposes of the different characters are often skewed in some way. That said, it doesn’t go far enough in its reinvention to feel distinct and new.

 

The three episodes are incredibly uneven and, while there’s some great writing peppered throughout, there’s an odd mixture of modern vernacular and attitudes that doesn’t fit with the 1800s time period of the first two episodes. (The third episode 

time jumps 123 years to our present day.) The series can be a bit schlocky, and relies too much on trying to reinvent the myth without truly accomplishing the feat. There’s also rarely any subtlety to the acting or directing. It’s very in-your-face throughout.

 

Of the three episodes, I enjoyed the second the most by far. It takes place almost exclusively on the ship Demeter that brings 

Dracula (2020)

Dracula to England. There are some interesting glimpses into Dracula’s past and the relationships between the characters on the ship, and a mystery of who is traveling in one of the cabins that stays locked. It could almost be treated as a standalone story, save for some references to the first episode.

 

Where the show does consistently succeed is in it practical effects and accompanying sound design. There are moments that made my body contort and my brain not want to see what was about to be revealed (although I always did, deep down, want the reveal). The sound mix felt very much intended for someone watching it on TV without a surround setup, as it was almost entirely present in the front channels with only obligatory reverb and music sent to the surrounds.

 

The HDR presentation is used mostly in the visually dark moments, such as Dracula’s castle in Episode One or the corners of the Demeter in Episode Two. Not unexpectedly for a creature of the night, most of the scenes are dark. One moment of blaring sunlight at the (somewhat disappointing) end shows off the bright end of the HDR spectrum.

 

The Dracula delivered to us by Moffat and Gatiss feels like it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It doesn’t go far enough to be full-on camp, but there’s too much campiness to feel truly terrifying. Unless you’re aching for more Dracula, it might be best to limit your intake to just the second episode.

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.

Missing Link

Missing Link

There are few storytelling art forms I find more fascinating than stop-motion animation. Perhaps it’s because of growing up watching the documentaries on Star Wars and how Industrial Light & Magic implemented stop-motion for the Rancor and the AT-ATs invading Hoth. Something about the meticulous nature that’s necessary to create a stop-motion sequence, and the stylized look, spoke to my imagination.

 

We’ve all seen it, even if we didn’t know the name—from the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the Wallace & Gromit series, or even just moments in movies that were mostly live-action, like the Star Wars films or Clash of the

Titans. In the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a slight uptick in the number of stop-motion releases, and some have received award consideration, such as Kubo and the Two Strings, Anomalisa, and Coraline.

 

This year, another stop-motion film got an Oscar nod. Missing Link was co-produced by Annapurna Pictures and Laika (who also produced Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline). It takes place in 1886 and follows explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to prove the existence of various mythical creatures in order to be accepted into the Society of Great Men. Fortune smiles on him when he receives a letter claiming to know the location 

of a Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis—yes, it can talk) in the Pacific Northwest. Upon traveling there, Frost discovers he was tipped off to the location by the Sasquatch himself. Encroaching civilization has caused him to want to leave and find more of his kind in the Himalayas. But he needs Sir Lionel’s help in order to get there.

 

The story is a bit lacking. The characterizations can be clichéd (although there are a couple of twists and turns that are unexpected), and while there is a good amount of humor, much of it only elicits a few chuckles or falls flat.

Missing Link

But visually the movie is phenomenal. The 4K presentation (currently available for rent or purchase on Vudu) shows off the incredible detail put into the characters—from the fuzz of a wool jacket to the subtle freckles and coloration of skin. Colors have vibrancy and depth thanks to Dolby Vision. It’s a sizeable step up over the 1080p presentation that can be found free to stream on Hulu.

The sound mix is primarily focused to the front channels with surrounds handling reverb effects and music. There is an ocean storm that uses the surrounds a bit more for dramatic effect, and some low-frequency moments so the sub doesn’t feel left out. But it’s nothing that will stress a system like a Marvel film might.

 

Missing Link certainly isn’t a life-changing story that will stay with you for days, but the visuals are well worth the 93 minutes and seeking out in 4K.

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.

The Witcher

The Witcher

The sword & sorcery fantasy genre was mostly relegated to movie theaters until Game of Thrones came around and busted into popular culture. When it finished its run in May 2019, there was a hole left ready to be filled, and many prophesied that The Witcher would be that successor.

 

In truth, it isn’t, but not in a negative way. There are no question similarities between the two: Both have a rich collection of novels and short stories that were written around the same time, both have the aforementioned sword & sorcery components (although The Witcher has more outward sorcery than GoT), and both have fervent fan bases that were ecstatic to see the stories get adapted for the screen. But where Game of Thrones was a highly complex political intrigue show with an enormous cast of characters supporting that narrative, The Witcher focuses on three main characters: The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Cirilla (Freya Allan), and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra).

 

Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher Saga is a collection of five books beginning with Blood of Elves. But the two short-story collections—The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny—set up the relationships in The Witcher Saga, and it’s from those short stories that the eight episodes pull from, which can cause the storytelling to feel disjointed early on in the

The Witcher

series.

 

The episodes also follow multiple timelines that eventually converge. As viewers, we’re not made implicitly aware of the different timelines, and they only become apparent four episodes in. Add to that a slew of names that are just thrown about, and the potential for confusion is high.

 

But it all comes together and works. There are some wonderful stories that give 

a sense of how deep the mythology of this world is, and some interesting character study, particularly of Yennefer. There are frequent moments of levity and self-awareness that I found endearing, and multiple instances of a well-placed expletive from Cavill’s stoic portrayal that caused me to laugh out loud.

 

The Netflix presentation is in 4K HDR with a 5.1 surround mix. The HDR is used to great effect with a bunch of dark scenes that are aided by the depth available from the dynamic range. Moments of sunlight felt piercing as it supported the narrative of the scene. Detail is excellent and the magic visual effects look convincing and epic. The surround sound effects mix is subtle and lets the score, by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, soar. The series has been renewed for a second season that is expected at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021.

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.

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.

The Expanse (Season 4)

The Expanse (Season 4)

We might quickly be reaching the saturation point with the number of streaming services available. But until that happens, having a plethora of services that produce their own content allows shows to survive through the whim of executives.

 

As I recounted in my previous review of The Expanse, the SyFy Channel canceled the series after its third season, citing low ratings. Undeterred, fans started an online campaign to find it a new home, going so far as setting up a GoFundMe to charter a plane to fly around Amazon Studios in Santa Monica with a banner emblazoned with #SaveTheExpanse. Jeff Bezos—a

professed fan of the show—received the message, and on May 26, 2018 announced that Amazon would pick up the series for a fourth season.

 

And then the waiting began. A year and a half of it. Thankful messages from the cast and crew were released on Twitter and Instagram, announcements were made at conventions, and production stills trickled out, but the wait was still excruciating. Finally the time arrived, and on December 12, Amazon dropped all 10 episodes in 4K HDR.

 

The primary story follows the fourth book, Cibola Burn, as the crew of the Rocinante is sent through the ring gates 

that were opened in the previous season to check on a conflict between some colonists and Royal Charter Energy, a company with a scientific charter, on the planet Ilus (or New Terra, if you’re part of RCE). But where the book concentrated solely on this plot, the show pulls ideas from the next book and fleshes out the stories of other characters not on the Rocinante. This helps to set up the fifth season and keeps us from losing interest by not staying on just one storyline for ten episodes.

 

The length of the episodes is in line with one-hour TV dramas, ranging from 43 to 53 minutes, and there are generally crossfades between act breaks where you might expect a commercial. But cinematically the creative team broke from norms a bit by changing aspect ratios depending on the location. While much of the show is in 16:9, everything that happens on Ilus/New Terra is 2.39:1, which gives the planet a larger, more expansive feel.

 

It’s the first time in the series that one of the primary locations has been another planet. Most of the action until now has taken place on ships or within space stations and asteroids. The wider aspect ratio shows off this new planet and its vistas. Ilus feels almost like Earth, but with something definitely off and different. The 4K detail is excellent and really shows off the set design, especially of an alien structure with lots of nooks and crannies.

 

Overall the ensemble cast is thoroughly engaging. New cast member Burn Gorman plays the ruthless security chief of RCE, and his chemistry with adversary Amos (Wes Chatham), the mechanic from the Rocinante, is electric. I often had chills when they faced off on screen. There’s also some great character development added for Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) while she tries to make a life for herself on Mars after being dishonorably discharged from the Martian Marines. Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) and Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn), who were the two standouts from Season Three, continue to light up the screen.

 

The sound of The Expanse continues to expertly build the atmosphere throughout the season. The sound mix uses surrounds to fill out the locations without drawing too much attention from the on-screen action. There’s a moment early on where a swarm of some destructive unknown organism flies through the colonists’ camp. The mix could easily have gotten out of control, but instead it helped to draw the focus in while putting the viewer in the middle of it all.

 

Don’t expect to be able to follow everything if you haven’t seen any of the previous seasons. This is definitely a continuation of the story without apologies and handholding to new viewers. Luckily all of the seasons are available for 4K HDR streaming through Amazon Prime. If you’re a fan of sci-fi it’s well worth your while.

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.

The Irishman

The Irishman

It was a big get, even for a company as big as Netflix. Martin Scorsese is one of the most lauded directors in cinema and has, save for a handful of television episodes, directed exclusively for the cinema. So what led him to abandon his primary creative home for the literal home of Netflix subscribers?

 

As with everything, it came down to money. The Irishman is a slow burn of a movie at 209 minutes (that’s just shy of three and a half hours). With a budget of $159 million, it’s both the longest and most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.

 

Before principal photography began, a few different companies worked out distribution deals to finance the movie, but as the budget grew, those companies balked and withdrew their funding. In this day of expensive blockbuster action films, a long, introspective film about the life and possible redemption of a mob hitman doesn’t fit the current studio model. Netflix swooped in and bought the film rights, agreeing to finance the film.

 

Movie theaters weren’t left completely out of the equation since there was a theatrical release, but the terms of that release caused controversy in the world of the big theater chains. A traditional release window puts a movie in the theater for at least few months before going to the home market. For The Irishman, Netflix held fast to four weeks (a week longer than they

conceded for Roma last November), with a theatrical release date of November 1st before coming to Netflix streaming on November 27th.

 

This rankled the major theater chains, which chose to sit out of the theatrical release in protest. And while Scorsese defended Netflix’s decision and acquiesced to the

The Irishman

realities of getting The Irishman made, he also lamented that people wouldn’t be able to have the communal experience of watching his movie in a theater:

 

There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem, though. We have to make the film. . . . Having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want, the tradeoff being it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take on this particular project.

 

The question is: Is the enjoyment of The Irishman hindered by relying almost solely on the home market? I’d argue no, and add that maybe it’s even aided by a more intimate viewing experience. The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, and follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets and starts working for mob boss Russell Bufalino. This eventually leads to an introduction to controversial Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, for whom he becomes chief bodyguard and close friend.

 

As with any Scorsese film, there are moments of mob violence, some beautiful, long single-take tracking shots, and a lot of dialogue-driven drama. By putting this all on our home screen instead of an expansive movie-theater screen, the presentation feels more personal. It’s easier to be drawn in.

 

And even at three and a half hours, there aren’t any points of lag in the story, which is a testament to Scorsese; his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; and an extraordinary cast, including Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and, for the first time, Al Pacino. All three actors deserve the accolades they have received, in particular Pesci as Russell Bufalino.

 

The 4K presentation is excellent and really shows off the fantastic CGI de-aging of the actors. The story takes place across six decades, and an incredible amount of attention was put into how De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino looked as time marched on. There were a few moments of digital effects that were less convincing and entered the uncanny valley (there was also some slow-motion blood splatter that looked suspect to me), but overall it was quite a technical achievement.

 

The 5.1 sound design is meticulous and subtle. Cars sounded authentic to the period, there were moments of bone crunching that made me squirm, and nothing distracted from the story, only added to it. There’s a gunshot towards the end of the film that perfectly captures the starkness and emptiness of the scene, and is in essence the culmination of where Frank has come as a character. Surrounds are primarily used for music and to fill the space with reverb for larger locations.

 

It will be interesting to see how The Irishman being a streaming release ripples across the industry, with such high-profile names as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci attached. The more our home theaters have improved over the years, the less the need for movie theaters. Yes, the communal experience Scorsese refers to is missing, but I’ve found that seeing a film with a bunch of people can detract from my own enjoyment. Getting a 4K presentation with excellent sound and no uncontrollable external distractions (plus the ability for bathroom or snack breaks without missing anything) is shifting the importance of viewing from the cinema to the home.

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.

Klaus

Klaus

We’ve been inundated with new origin stories over the past few years. We’ve had Spider-Man, the Joker, and now . . . Santa Claus? There is, of course, the historical origin story, which likely begins in what is now Turkey, with influence from Scandinavia and Coca-Cola. In movies, Santa pops up quite a bit, although there are only a few notable films that address

where he comes from (the most popular being the stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970).

 

Klaus, the first original animated movie Netflix has released, is a brand-new take on the Santa story. It was conceived, written, and directed by Sergio Pablos, who is best known as the animator and creator of the Despicable 

Me franchise. The Klaus story follows the privileged son of the head postmaster, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), as he is tasked to establish a post office in the remote island town of Smeerensburg (an intentional misspelling of the actual Dutch town of Smeerenburg) and postmark 6,000 letters or risk being ostracized from the family and his indulgent lifestyle.

 

As he arrives, he is made aware by the sardonic boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) that the dreary, snowy, northern town is inhabited by two extended families that have been feuding for centuries. They have no interest in speaking to one another, let alone carrying out a lengthy written correspondence. But moods in town begin to change, starting with the children, after Jesper meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons) and the two brighten up the lives of the children by delivering toys. This must be done in secret, lest they be discovered spreading joy and goodwill by the angry adults.

 

As their mission continues and they evade capture, the legend of Klaus grows, giving explanation to all the traditional Santa Claus lore—flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, Santa’s elves—in new, interesting ways. While most of Klaus is based in the expected rules of our own world, there are some mystical elements that keep the story of Santa magical. The movie is beautifully heartfelt with some lovely tear-jerking moments, and shows how ingrained negative philosophies can be changed with just one new generation of open minds. Speaking as a father, there are moments that toddlers might find scary, but the overall message is an excellent one.

Klaus

The 4K animation is gorgeous with excellent detail in the character design and scenery. The 2D style is beautifully shaded to give a feel of 3D, and the use of color throughout serves the story and helps to drive the narrative. While the HDR doesn’t deliver the bright highlights you might see in something like Blade Runner 2049, the increase in bit depth and color gamut add to the intensity of the animation. Even if the story is of little interest to you, the animation will completely draw you in.

 

The 5.1 Dolby surround mix supports the storytelling without being obtrusive. There were a few moments where the dialogue moved away from the center channel to follow whoever is speaking that were a bit more drastic than I expected. For most of the film, though, the sound did an excellent job conveying the changing atmosphere of Smeerensburg.

 

Klaus is a joyful new take on Santa and, at least in our house, has already earned its place in our list of yearly holiday movies.

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.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There isn’t anyone (my parents excluded) who made quite the same long-term indelible impression on my life as Jim Henson did. Fred Rogers is close, but with Henson I’ve continued being entranced by his work, and the work of his company, far beyond my formative childhood years. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol every December, Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I’ve recently introduced my four-year-old son to Fraggle Rock. And of course he loves the lessons learned on Sesame Street.

 

But there was something about the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982 that had an even deeper impact. Maybe it was the fantasy setting or the incredible world-building of Thra, the world of the film. Or maybe the painstaking detail put into the terrifying Skeksis or the relatable Gelfling named Jen. Whatever it was, when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was announced as a prequel to the movie, I was part ecstatic and part scared. Would the Netflix series be able to capture the magic I felt from the film? And prequels can be problematic, as we already know what the outcome is going to be—at least in a broad sense.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There was no need for me to worry. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautifully-crafted example of storytelling that builds on the mythology of the movie. The first couple episodes are a bit slow moving as there’s a decent amount of exposition covered and there are multiple storylines that need to be addressed and followed, but things soon get moving. And all the while we are treated to the expansive landscape of Thra, more so than what was presented in the movie.

 

Landscapes are full and lush, with intricate detail that’s on full display in the 4K Dolby Vision presentation. The characters are wonderfully unique—from the Skeksis to Gelflings to Podlings—and the HDR highlights the depth of the puppet designs. The

characters are brought to life with an all-star cast that includes Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Lena Headey. I was fully invested in their stories. The voice acting and puppetry kept me engaged throughout.

 

The vast majority of the series uses practical effects, but there are a few 

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

moments when CGI is employed that don’t quite match and can be mildly distracting when viewed in 4K HDR. Luckily these moments are few.

 

The Atmos audio is done tastefully. For the most part, surround channels are used to enhance the atmosphere with ambient effects sent to the rears. There are a couple choice moments with motion through the Atmos height channels that could draw your attention from the screen, but I didn’t find the mix to be excessive in any way.

 

Considering that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is building upon an existing mythology, I could understand some concern that someone coming to the series fresh might feel lost. Luckily that isn’t the case. There’s plenty of information to bring in new visitors to Thra while keeping those of us who have spent years there enthralled. It’s an adventure for new and old alike.

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.