John Higgins Tag

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.

The Expanse

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

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 Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

Sitting back and relaxing with a favorite movie or TV series is a luxury we can all appreciate. High-end picture and sound are the ideal, but getting to the opening credits can be an experience in and of itself. If we own the content, popping in a Blu-ray is a painless endeavor. Doing the same with a streaming service should be just as painless. That’s not always true, however.

 

When the Amazon series Homecoming was released, my wife and I sat down, turned on our home theater, and opened up the Amazon Prime Video app on the TV to start watching. Since the show was new, and Amazon was promoting it heavily, it was right at the top of the menu. No searching necessary. It was a pretty straightforward experience—at least for a few minutes. I knew from advertisements that Homecoming was offered in 4K, but what we were watching was most definitely

1080p. I found that, unlike Netflix, which automatically shows the best level of content available that your home setup can handle, with Amazon you need to actively search out the UHD version.

 

You’d think it would be as easy as typing in “Homecoming UHD 4K” or something similar. You’d be wrong. That search term, in fact, comes up with no hits. Zero. A show produced by the service itself, heavily marketed with billboards (around the Los Angeles area at least), its stars 

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

frequenting late-night talk shows, nominated for multiple awards—and the app search engine is unaware a 4K version exists. In order to find it, I had to scroll down their category listings until I found “Original Series in 4K Ultra HD.” I would have expected that option to be at or near the top, instead of a few scrolls below the fold.

 

I encountered similar problems when I searched for past seasons of The Expanse, a fantastic adaptation of the book series that Amazon recently picked up from SyFy to produce a fourth season. Even worse than my Homecoming experience, there was no way to find the 4K version through the TV app. (I checked the apps that are integrated on my Samsung QLED, a Vizio P-Series, and my Xbox One X.) The workaround (suggested by Dennis Burger) was to find the 4K-version listing on my computer browser, add it to my Watchlist, and then go back to the TV to select it from the Watchlist. Far less than an ideal situation.

 

So, what’s the solution? I’d say burn it down and start from scratch, using Netflix as an example. But considering the vast amount of work necessary for something like that to happen, it isn’t remotely feasible. This past summer, Amazon did announce an update is in the works, but it sounds like it will be limited to the mobile-app search function and won’t be a part of the TV app. Until then, the only option seems to be to grin and bear it. Or just open up Netflix instead.

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.

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Humans are creatures of habit. We fall into routine with our diet, job, schedule and, for me, satellite service. I’ve been with DirecTV for well over a decade for no better reason than they had the best deal for my lifestyle at the time that I got fed up with the local cable company (which has since gone out of business). I’ve grown to appreciate the 4K they offer, the multitude of sports packages, and the DVR service. But as more of my friends eschew the traditional cable/satellite model, I yearn to know and understand the life of cord cutting.

 

Not to sound pretentious or elitist (which means I’m about to sound pretentious and elitist) but generally the home theater experience required by my friends doesn’t quite approach my expectations. Theirs involves uncalibrated televisions with the sound coming from the (gasp!) TV’s own speaker. Nothing like the 4K HDR and 5.1 (minimum) surround sound I’ve grown accustomed to. So while they’re happy with some limitations in their streaming services, I still need to fulfill my desire for high-end content.

 

And therein lies the challenge. How can I continue my indulgence of high-quality material and grow my offerings without losing key programming, such as sports and children’s shows. (I have a three-year-old son.) Is there enough Atmos content available to stream or download, or will I only find suitable soundtracks on UHD Blu-rays? Will relying on a collection of different services wreak havoc with my home automation? Over the upcoming entries, I plan to delve into what’s available that meets my needs, and describe how I overcome the hurdles and roadblocks I encounter. I’ll more than likely learn a few things about myself and the limits of my own sanity along the way.

 

But the big question is: Can I both cut the cord and create an even better home-entertainment experience than I have now. We’ll see . . .

 

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.