Home Video Can Now Have

Movie Theatre Quality

“Digital Cinema,” HDTV and BluRay technology

level the difference between going out and staying home

By Christopher P. Jacobs

(This page and those linked are revised and updated from articles originally published in the High Plains Reader in 2008-2011)

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CONTENTS:

Movies, TV, and Home Video

Technology & Formats

Growth & Availability

Home Theatre Options     --          Photos of a Home Theatre Setup

Video Projector Considerations

The BluRay Alternative

Making the Switch

Movies to Show Off an HD System

 

 

MOVIES, TV, and HOME VIDEO

For the first half of the 20th century, in order to see a movie, you usually had to go out to a movie theatre. Television changed all that. While still experimental in the 1920s and 30s, it has been available commercially since about 1939 now, and became widespread enough by the early 1950s that many viewers chose the convenience of home entertainment over going out to movie theatres. (Hollywood responded by switching exclusively to various widescreen formats in the mid-50s and periodically playing with 3-D ever since.) Then the rise of home video in the late 1970s and 1980s made it even more convenient to watch what you wanted whenever you wanted.

However, besides the fact that standard TVs cut off the edges of the movie’s picture, the quality of the image and sound from a television set could never even approach the quality of film at even the smallest local cinema. High-end home audio systems helped force more theatres to install stereo sound, but even the smallest multiplex theatres always had the advantage of wall-sized screens and the superior picture resolution of 35mm film. That is, they did until the “digital revolution” leveled the playing field. Now high-end home video can rival or surpass more than a few commercial cinemas in picture quality as well as sound.

 

TECHNOLOGY & FORMATS

Television broadcast specifications standardized in the late 1940s and modified for color in the 1950s, were made obsolete by late 20th century technological advances and a higher definition standard was devised in the 1990s was expensive and not immediately embraced by the general population. The introduction of DVDs in the mid 1990s showed the public that larger and higher quality TV sets using the already existing standard could display a picture much sharper than they’d been accustomed to, even if the 4x3 shape did not match most films. The so-called “High Definition Television” standard that has slowly (very slowly) been gaining popularity over the past decade changed the shape of the picture to approximate what is seen in theatres for many movies. The HDTV format, besides including much more detail, used a wider 16x9 picture ratio of width to height (1.78:1) that was a compromise midway between the original 4x3 (1.33:1) format and the 2.35:1 “CinemaScope” theatrical widescreen format. It was also very close the two other major theatrical formats of 1.85:1 and 1.66:1, so minimal “letterbox” or “sidebar” (“pillarbox”) margins would need to be visible on most films.

By mid-2009, HDTV was theoretically supposed to be everywhere by government decree. Its two megapixel picture is substantially higher definition than what viewers have become used to watching at home -- six times sharper than “standard-definition” broadcast television (and the best DVD quality). However, this is still only a quarter to a sixth the resolution of a good 35mm movie, which can contain the equivalent of 4000 to 6000 pixels across the width of its image, although HDTV’s 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall is close to the sharpness of a typical mass-produced film print shown in a modern multiplex.

In 2005-06, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers established standards for digital cinema technology. Movies were to be played from a computer hard drive in either a preferred 4K format (i.e., approximately 4000 pixels wide) with an eight megapixel image, or a secondary and cheaper 2K format (about 2000 pixels wide) with a two megapixel image that is barely distinguishable from the new HDTV broadcast standard everyone will eventually be getting at home. For highest quality, the top-level Hollywood films are sometimes scanned to digital video at an 8K resolution and downconverted for theatrical and HDTV/BluRay/DVD use.

Almost immediately after the digital cinema standards were established, a major film equipment manufacturer named Christie invested in digital projectors and made a deal with the large Carmike Cinemas chain and some independent theatres to switch technologies, installing 2K video projectors in place of the 35mm film equipment. Although only 100 screens worldwide were equipped for digital projection in early 2005, there were over 1000 a year later and over 3000 by early 2007. It was in April of 2007 that the Grand Forks theatres all converted to 2K digital projectors (although the Columbia 4 switched back to film when it became a dollar theatre until it closed for good some months later). It’s estimated that most U.S. movie theatres will be running some form of digital cinema rather than real film by the mid-2010s. Photochemical film will likely become used primarily for original production, special exhibition venues, and archival purposes, rather than for mass distribution as has been the case since the 1890s.

 

GROWTH AND AVAILABILITY

During this same period (2007-2011), both HDTV sets and home/office video projectors dropped drastically in price, local TV channels started broadcasting some HD programs, and cable companies added many more high-definition channels to their premium packages. Then came BluRay DVDs, which in early 2008 won the marketplace battle with the rival HD-DVD format, and whose players now cost a fraction of what they did three years ago (under $100 by summer 2009, about the same as high-end standard DVD players).

What does all this technology and price shifting mean? It means that the simultaneous lowering of theatrical standards and raising of home video standards makes it economically practical for the average person to invest in a home theatre that will equal (and perhaps surpass) many commercial theatres. And with a typical window of only three to eight months between a movies theatrical release and home video release, it becomes that much easier to pass up theatrical screenings that wont look or sound any better than you can see and hear at home.

And what that means, is that commercial theatres must stress the service, environment, and overall experience that simply cannot be duplicated at home, or they will evolve into places reserved for special events rather than mass entertainment. There will always be certain movies that require a group experience and the theatre-going ritual for their maximum impact (like the big-budget summer blockbusters), but the average movie may soon need to forego expensive theatrical releases to join all the other direct to video or cable TV titles.

Of course all this is speculative, and depends on a large number of consumers not only investing in decent home HD equipment, but viewing it under optimum conditions. Even though the full HDTV picture is six times sharper than standard television, the typical person with a screen between 20 and 40 inches, viewed from across the room, may notice little or no difference. Even on a standard definition set, from five or six feet away the myriads of glowing dots that make up the TV picture all blend together, looking virtually indistinguishable from a theatrical movie screen viewed from the last few rows of the auditorium.

You can simulate a theatrical experience even with standard television, by getting a bigger TV set or simply by sitting closer to the screen -- say one to three feet away, instead of five to ten feet or more -- but that creates a problem: you will then be able to make out the individual colored dots of the image. What the HDTV format really does is make it possible to have a screen six times larger than you’re used to before you start to notice those little glowing dots. This much larger picture, viewed from your previous standard viewing distance, is what increases the dramatic impact to something closer to a theatrical experience.

 

HOME THEATRE OPTIONS

Prices on high-definition television sets and BluRay DVD players have been steadily dropping and electronics store advertisements promise “we’ll help you build the HD theater of your dreams.” But how many movie theatres have you been to, let alone dreamt about, where the screen is a glowing LCD, LED, or plasma display hung on the wall? And do those “giant” 52-inch diagonal screens they so lovingly describe (which are barely four feet wide and a little over two feet tall) come even close to the theatre experience where the screens are nearly wall to wall and stretch from two or three feet above the floor almost to the ceiling? Watching a movie on a large flat-panel video display is more or less equivalent to looking at a movie poster turned sideways.

The term “home theatre” has been very loosely applied to any living room or recreation room used for watching TV. A 52-inch widescreen LCD, LED, or plasma TV is a definite step up from a standard 20-inch to 32-inch TV and can look pretty impressive in a small room (just as it is more impressive to have full-size 27-inch by 40-inch movie posters on display than 11x14 lobby cards or 8x10 photos). A large flat-panel television may be a good choice for an apartment, or if you have a relatively small room, or need to get a viewable picture in a multipurpose room with windows that cannot be completely darkened. But how many movie theatres have you ever seen with windows in the auditorium? And how many movie theatres use TV monitors as their screens? Even digital theatres project the image from the projection booth. A true home theatre needs a separate projector and screen, and at least two or more rows of seating, or it can really only be called a TV room, rather than a “theatre.”

So if you want a home theatre, forget about getting a big-screen TV set to watch movies on. Save that for watching TV shows and sporting events in an all-purpose rec room, where it doesn’t matter if the lights are on, light is streaming through the window, and people are scattered around at random. A dedicated home theatre needs a standalone video projector and as big a screen as the size picture it can show from the opposite side of the room (from a shelf, table, ceiling mount, or through a projection port from the adjoining room).

Using a projector rather than a big-screen flat-panel TV provides both a larger image for the price and more film-like look, but one of the biggest advantages is that you can keep the same screen height for everything. A good zoom lens actually lets you make the picture wider for widescreen movies (hence the term “wide” screen), instead of being forced to watch it either shrunk to the “letterboxed” image or with the sides cut off, as required on a fixed-size TV set. Note that if you use a projector with anything less than “full 1080p” resolution, you will probably be disappointed in the sharpness of its larger image. Projectors don’t have built-in tuners, but they cost less than the large TV sets and can deliver a much larger picture, larger than a wall in a house. If you need a tuner, just use the one in your DVD recorder or VCR, and connect it to your antenna, cable, or satellite box. Optimal viewing distance is roughly one to two screen widths away from the picture, whatever the size of your screen.

Besides a good projector, to approximate a theatrical experience it is necessary to have a decent-sized room that can be made totally dark, a space maybe ten to twelve feet square, but preferably larger. A basement or garage is often ideal for converting into a home theatre, and a typical garages twenty-foot square space is roughly the size of the a small auditorium in some commercial multiplexes!

The next step to make a room into a theatre is providing seating for more than just a few people. Seating style is up to you and your budget. Some prefer sofas and easy chairs (possibly with built-in cup holders), while others insist on traditional theatre seats. Some people like the flexibility of folding chairs (especially movie-style directors chairs) so the room can be used for other things. Still others do a combination of all of these, perhaps with areas having small tables for drinks and snacks.

If desired, for a few hundred dollars worth of lumber and a few days of labor, you can build platforms to give you stadium seating. Get some three-quarter-inch plywood sheets and two-by-fours to frame and brace it. Use carriage bolts to attach legs if you want risers on more than one level. Depending upon the size of your seats and your room, the distance from one seat back to the one in the next row (and thus the depth of each platform) might range from thirty inches to four feet, and might be anywhere from eight to sixteen feet wide. Depending on the height of your ceiling (a converted garage will usually have more space), each row might rise in increments of four to nine inches from the one in front of it.

It may seem too obvious to mention, but in a theatre the seats should all be facing the screen, rather than each other as in a living room. The center of the screen should be near the average eye height. A very large, almost wall-size home screen (perhaps three to four feet tall by eight to ten feet wide), should be placed a few inches to a foot below the ceiling, and two and a half to three and a half feet above the floor. You’ll need to consider sightlines and projector location to avoid heads getting in the way of other viewers or casting shadows on the screen.

To achieve the theatre look rather than the home TV room look, the amplifier, BluRay player, and other A/V equipment should be out of sight. They might be covered by black fabric under the screen, located at the side or rear of the room, or in an adjoining room with your projector. You’ll obviously want a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system with a good subwoofer, and may want an amplifier that can handle BluRay’s various uncompressed audio options (through its HDMI inputs), besides the compressed Dolby and DTS encoding that standard DVDs have.

In home theatres, video projectors are often mounted to the ceiling (making it easier to avoid people standing up in front of the lens), but you may prefer the flexibility of setting it on a table or shelf so it can be portable. If your situation permits, you can cut a hole in your back wall near the ceiling and use the next room as a projection booth, just like a real theatre. You’ll need to take into consideration your lens zoom range and projector size, as well as seating arrangement, before settling on your installation spot. The projector should ideally be positioned flat, aimed straight ahead at the dead-center of the screen, but most video projectors have digital keystoning compensation adjustments if it must be slightly off-center or angled up or down. If it’s not dead-center, then changing aspect ratios with a constant height may require both a zoom and a lens-offset adjustment instead of merely a zoom in or out.

Commercial movie theatres have perforated screens so they can mount the speakers behind the screen, but their screens are typically ten to twenty feet tall and fifteen to fifty feet wide, with the front row about fifteen feet back from the screen. At your home viewing distance of only five to twenty feet you would be able to see the holes in the screen, so you’ll need a non-perforated screen with the speakers set up on the sides and/or below it. Some people like the speakers exposed to show off to their audiences. Others prefer to hide them behind the screen masking (you may need a lighter-weight black fabric for your masking if you choose this option, to avoid muffling the sound). Surround speakers may be mounted on the walls near the ceiling, or inside the walls, or inside the ceiling, depending on your room and the type of speakers you get. They might even be placed on shelves or pillars that are ear-level or higher, rather than permanently mounted.

Turning a room into a home theatre does not have to be as expensive as many people (and home theatre supply companies) believe. With a dark room and the increased brightness in today’s video projectors, there is no need to invest hundreds of dollars for a premium screen unless for some reason you need one that automatically rolls up and down. A smooth wall painted matte white makes an ideal low-cost screen for any sized picture. A good substitute is a four-by-eight or four-by-ten sheet of matte white wall paneling, nailed or glued to a wooden frame to hold if flat. That can be mounted directly to the wall or suspended from the ceiling by a couple of hooks and chains. Just buy the lumber and hardware and do it yourself.

For a more professional look, buy some black flannel or velveteen fabric to put up around all sides of the screen and mask off its mounting framework, as well as your front speakers. Be sure that at least your side masking is moveable, so you can adjust it to fit whatever size image you are projecting (see below). If you have the inclination and money to make it more fancy, add some motorized drapes, and/or motorize the top, bottom, and side masking. Dimmers are a good idea for the lights, and youll create a more theatrical feeling with wall sconces and by painting the ceiling a matte black or navy blue (which also makes a black ceiling-mounted projector less distracting). If your ceiling is not already acoustic tile, youll find a rough textured surface better for your audio than a smooth shiny surface.

If you have the luxury of designing a home theatre space into a new construction or unfinished space, its much easier to hide wiring in the walls or above the ceiling. This includes speaker wiring, audio-video cables, and any special power cable requirements. However, before finishing the walls, be sure to look into soundproofing costs, or at least ways to minimize sound leaking into or out of your theatre room. Soundproofing an existing room is likely to be prohibitively expensive, but even minimal acoustic treatment can improve your audio experience to some degree.

For the side and rear walls you can either spend huge amounts for expensive acoustic paneling designed for home theatres, or you could simply hang some drapes to help absorb sound. Partial or complete wall carpeting is another option. If your room is large enough to include a walkway behind your back row of seats, you might decide to install floor-to-ceiling shelves on the rear wall designed to hold your projector, amplifier, surround speakers, and/or DVD/BluRay collection. Drapes covering side and rear walls will give your theatre the modern multiplex look, but incorporating decorative wall patterns and architectural ornaments you like will give some distinctive style to your theatre. Some like the clean and sleek art deco style of the 1930s and 40s, while others prefer the classical Graeco-Roman look, a more elaborate Baroque design, or some theme like American West, Medieval Gothic, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Mayan, etc. Many often also put up framed posters, movie stills, a few old film reels, or other memorabilia around the room. Don’t forget the popcorn!

          PHOTOS OF A MODEST-COST HOMEMADE DO-IT-YOURSELF HOME THEATRE SETUP

 

VIDEO PROJECTOR CONSIDERATIONS

HDTVs can provide a substantially sharper picture than the old NTSC (North American) and PAL (European) video formats. However, as noted above, their new 16 by 9 (or 1.78:1) TV format was a compromise to get the most efficient pixel use for both the old standard 1.33:1 (4 by 3) images and the theatrical CinemaScope wide format of 2.4:1, while almost fitting the normal theatrical format of 1.85:1. There has never been theatrical standard of 1.78:1 (although the rarely used standard of 1.75:1 is very close). To display as originally intended on a 16 by 9 video screen, every theatrical film format must still either be pillarboxed on the sides or letterboxed on the top and bottom to some degree, leaving some of the screen blank. Movies that fit a 16 by 9 screen exactly will either be cutting off image area originally seen above and below (in 1.33, 1.66, or 1.75 ratios) or showing extra image not displayed in theatres (in the 1.85 ratio or the Super 35 2.4 ratio). A CinemaScope 2.4:1 (or sometimes 2.35, 2.39, or 2.55:1) or a 70mm films 2.2:1 image displayed on a 16x9 screen will have the sides of the picture cut off unless it is letterboxed. A classic Academy Ratio 1.33:1 or a widescreen film in the 1.66:1 ratio will have the tops and bottoms cut off unless it is pillarboxed, with very slight black sidebars for a 1.66 film and much wider black sidebars for the old standard 1.33 (4 by 3) or the rarer and almost square 1.2 film ratio.

With a video projector, all you need to do for any ratio is zoom a letterboxed picture out (and pull out your side masking) so the height stays filled. If your zoom lens doesn’t have enough range (a two to one zoom range should be adequate), you may need to move the projector back a few feet as well (thus ruling out a fixed projector mount). If your screen surface is four by eight feet, you should permanently mask off the bottom so that you wind up with a picture three feet four inches tall by eight feet wide for your full scope picture. Then simply zoom your picture to fit the height and pull in the black fabric you’ve hung on both sides to fit its width.

This will be anywhere from about four feet wide for early sound films to almost four and a half feet for standard films, to various widths between five and a half to six feet or so for typical widescreen movies and about seven feet four for most 70mm productions. A few extra-wide format films will still look letterboxed even at an eight-foot width with that three-foot-four height, so a white wall will be more flexible than an eight-foot wide screen, but that’s still better than being stuck with a pricey 80-inch 16x9 flat-panel screen (which would have the equivalent height and a six-foot maximum width). Note that with picture ratios narrower than the projectors native 16x9 (1.78:1), setting the side masking to match a films 1.66, 1.33, or 1.20 ratio will cover up the sides of the discs menus if those are 16x9. Likewise, zooming out the picture to fit a 2.4:1 screen will cut off the top and bottom of the menus. Also note that there is a good chance you will need to readjust the focus after zooming from one size to another.

Of course when you make the picture larger instead of watching it letterboxed, it has a bigger visual impact but you can also see the much lower image quality inherent in video, compared to actual film. This is where a projector with a high-definition image really shows its superiority over standard 480i television pictures. For regular DVDs, you’ll want a projector capable of at least 1024 by 768 pixels of resolution (which is a 4x3 image). Getting a native widescreen projector that is either 1280 or 1344 by 768, and one with progressive scan, will show noticeable improvement on widescreen pictures or with BluRay DVDs. Those sizes are typically referred to as 720p high definition.

The best, naturally, is the full HD 1920 by 1080-pixel resolution, and you should look for a projector capable of displaying 24p, which will show BluRay movies to their best advantage, at the same frame-per-second rate the films were photographed. (Otherwise, movies must be converted to videos 30 progressive frames or 60 interlaced half-resolution fields per second, like standard-definition video and cheaper HDTV sets.) Then you can see HD movies at home essentially the way they look in digital cinemas, at least in frame rate and image resolution. BluRay discs and especially HDTV broadcasts are heavily compressed to save on computer memory and processing power, whereas commercial digital cinema installations use uncompressed video, but most of the time the difference is barely noticeable, if at all.

Video and movies shot at 30 or 25 frames per second will look best projected that way, and actually have smoother motion than movies and video shot at 24 frames per second, but all footage will look its best when shown at its original speed rather than converted to any other speed, which can result in noticeable jerkiness and ghosting. Also, the higher the image refresh rate (typically 60 Hz, 120 Hz, or 240 Hz, or cycles per second), the crisper the image is likely to appear and the more future advanced features can be displayed.

Some consumers may be reluctant to invest in high-definition and BluRay equipment because they already have a large number of DVDs and resented having to buy new copies of favorite movies on DVD after they’d already bought them on VHS or keeping separate players for each technology. A high-definition projector can display standard DVDs at their highest possible quality, and the advantage to getting a BluRay player, is that all BluRay players will also play BluRay discs as well as standard DVDs and CDs (though possibly not VCDs).

There’s really no need to replace all your old DVDs once you get an HD projector. On a high-definition projector, an upconverting DVD player (which includes all BluRay players) can show well-encoded DVDs, especially those made from recent high-definition masters, with a picture that can look nearly as sharp as a genuine 1080p BluRay image. However, all DVDs are not created equal. A poor or mediocre DVD that looks acceptable or even pretty good on a standard TV set or a medium-definition 1024 by 768 projector, may look pretty ragged on an HD projector. Some projectors and players with excellent high-definition pictures may handle standard-def better or worse than others. Another advantage of a video projector over a large flat-screen monitor, is that virtually all projectors are designed to accept the North American NTSC video signals as well as European PAL video, HTDV, and computer inputs, whereas most monitors tend to be for either North America or Europe only. This lets you see foreign DVDs (with a multi-region player) the way they were encoded instead of converted to the American standard.

Currently (in 2009) a full 1080p video projector costs in the $2500 to $6000 range, with some very good ones available near the low end of that range. This is a price comparable to the large LCD, LED, and plasma TVs but with a vastly greater image potential and portability. Decent 1344, 1280, or 1024-pixel wide by 768-pixel tall (720p) projectors are near $1000. Don’t get an 800 by 600 projector unless you like small pictures or big dots or prefer to watch everything in a 4 by 3 ratio.

Projectors may be either LCD (liquid crystal display) or DLP (digital light processor) units. The DLP projectors often have brighter pictures with wider contrast and more intense color for the price, but unlike the three-chip theatrical versions, the single-chip home DLP projectors produce a color rainbow strobe effect that many people find annoying. Some people do not notice this effect, which is produced by projecting three black-and-white images consecutively through red, green, and blue filters to produce the illusion of full color. Others see it constantly, and still others only when shifting their eye position to look across a wide picture. An LCD projector eliminates this and the newer ones produce a picture just as good as a DLP image.

Your projector may need some adjustment to produce a more film-like image, since like flat-panel TVs many are preset with artificial enhancements for daylight viewing that simply re-enforce their video look. You can adjust the image by eye, or get hold of a DVD or BluRay disc with test patterns for optimum calibration. The brightest picture will probably not be the best. You’ll want dark blacks without shadows going murky and bright whites that don’t burn out highlights or cause black levels to go gray and lower contrast excessively. Nevertheless, contrast must be low enough to reveal shadow details without flattening the overall image. Any sharpness setting should be turned off, as it is really nothing more than an electronic or digital edge enhancer, putting artificially-generated haloes around objects to make them stand out from the background.

 

THE BLURAY ALTERNATIVE

BluRay DVD players, sold for $1000 and up when introduced in June 2006, dropped to the $350-$500 range a year later and down to under $300 in 2008, and briefly stabilized in 2009 in the $130 to $250 range, with some models under $100. Player and disc sales increased drastically after the competing HD-DVD format was discontinued in early 2008.

Still, many people are questioning whether they should make the switch to BluRay from standard DVD only a decade after DVDs started to replace VHS tapes. New movies are being released in both formats. As in the early DVD days, so far only selected older titles have come out on the new format, but this is changing monthly.

More and more classic films are gradually hitting the BluRay market and astounding many viewers that a properly done high-definition transfer from original 35mm film negative elements can make a 50-year-old picture look as good as a brand-new movie. The people surprised by this fact simply don’t understand that today’s modern HDTV video technology is finally catching up to sharpness standards that have already been possible on correctly exposed and processed movie film for over a hundred years!

A few key classics already out on BluRay include Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: a space odyssey (1968), John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959), the original Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), several of the 1960s James Bond movies, the Godfather collection, the original Planet of the Apes collection, a couple of Elvis pictures, and a set of 1950s Ray Harryhausen sci-fi/fantasy films including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In 2008, Warner Home Video’s Casablanca (1942) and How the West Was Won (1962), and Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) came to BluRay, as well as the Criterion Collections now out-of-print BluRay version of The Third Man (1949). Early in 2009 came Pinocchio (1940) from Disney, The Robe (1953) and South Pacific (1958) from Fox, and Quo Vadis (1951), An American in Paris (1951), and Gigi (1958) from Warners.

Some classics released later in 2009 include The General (1926), Its a Wonderful Life (1946), Snow White (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Gone With the Wind (1939), and a few promised upcoming titles include Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Metropolis (1926), King Kong (1933), Stagecoach (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Dr. Zhivago (1965), The Seven Year Itch (1955) Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and many more.

Prices on BluRay titles are typically $5 to $15 higher than their standard DVD counterparts, usually running from $25 to $40 each, but that too is changing. Virtually every retailer sells BluRay discs with at least a 10 to 30 percent discount off the suggested list price, some more often at 40 to 50 percent discounts. After Thanksgiving 2008, stores slashed prices on a substantial selection of titles to $15 each, and after Thanksgiving 2009, some BluRay titles were under $8, most going back up to $10-$20 after Christmas. However, those same movies can often be found on line in the $7 to $12 range. Many mass market standard DVDs have plunged to the $5 to $10 range or less, yet the normal DVD price is still in the $12 to $20 range.

 

MAKING THE SWITCH

Unlike the VHS to DVD technology revolution, there is no need to replace old DVD copies with BluRay copies. Not only do standard DVDs play in all BluRay players, but they usually (thought not always) look better than they do in standard DVD players. Comparing the situation to the audio recording industry, it is more comparable to the switchover from 78 rpm records to LP records (old players couldn’t play the new format, but new players could play both formats) than to the more drastic technology switches from LP records to tape cassettes and then from tape cassettes to CDs.

The question of compatibility and what is available to watch is no longer a deciding factor. Prices have dropped substantially since the BluRay format was introduced, but they are still dropping as the format becomes more widespread. The only reason to spend the extra money on a BluRay player right now instead of waiting, is if you already have a full 1080p high-definition TV or video projector, or plan to get one soon (especially one that is capable of displaying films 24 frames per second as well as videos normal 30 frames/60 fields per second). A BluRay disc cannot possibly look any sharper than a standard DVD if it is played on a standard-definition TV monitor.

On any TV set, whether SD or HD, if it is smaller than 40 inches, the average person will probably see no significant difference in picture quality from a typical viewing position several feet across the room on a sofa. The picture must be very large and/or the viewer must sit within approximately one screen-widths distance away in order to notice much difference.

On a 720p HDTV, especially one smaller than 40 inches, many people still will not notice a substantial improvement between a BluRay disc and a standard DVD that is played through the component inputs with progressive scan. Even on a 1080p HDTV it may be hard to see enough difference to justify going blu on many movies that are transferred to standard DVD in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio or in a 1.66 to 1.85:1 anamorphic 16x9 format. This is thanks to the upconverting capability of BluRay players and many standard DVD players, which electronically soften the jagged edges between scan lines and interpolate picture information to make a well-authored DVD look nearly as sharp as if it were actually high definition. (Ironically, they often look sharper than the standard-definition content included on many BluRay discs!) Some people apparently mistakenly believe they have HD-DVD players, when what they actually have is an upconverting standard DVD player. These will not play the discontinued (and thus often very cheap) HD-DVD format discs, nor will they play BluRay discs. But they will make most standard DVDs appear sharper by doubling the existing scan lines and sending out a 1080-line signal through an HDMI cable to an HDTV monitor. People with 720p HDTV sets may be perfectly satisfied with their image quality, especially if they mainly watch older movies in the 4x3 ratio. Those who have 1080p HDTV sets, and who see what BluRay discs are capable of, on the other hand, can quickly become spoiled by the much shaper BluRay image.

 

MOVIES TO SHOW OFF AN HD SYSTEM

As people gradually upgrade their TV sets to high definition models, those who get big-screen displays (40 inches or larger) at the full HDTV 1080p standard, and especially 1080p projectors with wall-size screens, will naturally want to show off their equipment at its best. High-definition cable or satellite reception can provide a certain amount of programming, but the convenience of DVDs means HDTV owners will ultimately need to switch to a BluRay player and start collecting and/or renting BluRay discs. And if movies are what you prefer out of all the HD channels now available, a BluRay player is a cheaper option than subscribing to any of the HDTV services.

While the larger HDTVs are still moderately expensive, there have been enough drops in prices on players and discs to move BluRay products from high-end technophile luxuries into the standard consumer realm. Many prices tend to drop even further just in time for Christmas, so BluRay versions of favorite movies might make perfect Christmas gifts for anyone with a 1080p HDTV set.

Several BluRay releases are especially good for demonstrating an HD home theatre systems picture and sound capabilities, with a variety of suitable titles for different tastes or moods. Some are notable for the unbeatable combination of entertainment value, image and audio quality, and high-definition supplementary materials, all on top of a recently reduced price to $20 or less. These would make great additions to any growing Blu Ray library.

Arguably the best single BluRay disc released in the first three years after the format’s debut is Lionsgate’s 2007 remake of the taut psychological western 3:10 to Yuma (although its sometimes intense R-rated violence may turn off sensitive viewers). Russell Crowe and Christian Bale head a strong cast in a powerful story well told. The picture and sound quality are superb, and there is a directors commentary, a few outtakes, and a wide range of featurettes and documentaries (all in high-definition) about the making of the film as well as the historical context of various story elements and Elmore Leonard’s original story itself. There’s also an extensive interactive timeline covering historical events from the 19th century. But this disc uses the BluRay format to do even more with its interactive feature Inside Yuma. This allows the viewer to watch the movie with a superimposed side menu that lets you see your choice of the appropriate screenplay page, storyboard page, multi-screen display of alternate angles for some scenes, or behind-the-scenes footage (taken from the featurettes) for some scenes, all while the movie plays in the background. About the only things missing are the classic 1957 film version (although that’s been released on a separate DVD worth tracking down) and a copy of the original short story.

Some may consider it ironic that some of the best-looking and sounding films to be released on BluRay are over a half-century old -- notably Paramount Home Video’s release of the recently restored Cecil B. DeMille 1956 version of The Ten Commandments and Fox Home Video’s release of the classic 1958 musical South Pacific. Universal Home Video also did a superlative job in its high-definition transfer of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho (1960). Another excellent BluRay release to show off picture and audio quality (and a more recent film) is Columbia’s offbeat 2007 musical, Across the Universe, which created a story inspired by the songs of The Beatles. Sort of an alternately realistic and heavily stylized rock opera, its a must-have for any fan of the Beatles music or for anyone interested in the decade of the 1960s, whose atmosphere it lovingly recreates. The disc includes a directors commentary and a nice selection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, plus some of the artwork created for the film, again all in high-definition.

More family-friendly is Disney-Pixar’s 2007 Oscar-winning animated romantic comedy hit, Ratatouille. This has one of the sharpest pictures currently out on BluRay, with excellent sound quality. While unfortunately there is no audio commentary, it brings over all of the standard DVDs bonus features but in high definition, including two funny animated shorts, and adds some interactive BluRay-only features plus some deleted scenes (in storyboard form). Disney-Pixar’s 2009 Up is also an outstanding example of digital animation on BluRay for picture, sound, entertainment value, and interesting bonus features (all in HD), and not too difficult to find at $20 or less. A bargain when you can find it for under $20 is Paramount’s Iron Man double-disc BluRay release of the 2008 hit superhero adventure with a strong sociopolitical message designed to appeal to both left and right-leaning viewers. Again with superlative picture and sound, its packed with mainly HD special features, but alas no audio commentary. Warner Brothers’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of its relatively few BluRay discs to have most of its ample bonus features in HD, although again has no audio commentary. Still, Tim Burton’s eerily appropriate vision for Stephen Sondheim’s gory musical melodrama is a bargain at $15 and will provide a good test of a home theatres ability to handle dark scenes effectively.

To show off fine picture details and audio dynamics, any of the recent historical epics are perfect additions to a new BluRay collection, and the following titles can be found for $15 or less. Zack Snyder’s 300 from Warner Brothers is less realistic and more graphically stylized, but has a director commentary and several worthwhile bonus features in HD. Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy is better for both plot and image variety but almost all its bonus features are standard definition. Peter Weir’s fine sailing epic Master and Commander has outstanding picture detail and delivers an incredibly immersive audio experience, but has very few bonus features, all in standard definition except the trailer. Oliver Stone’s double-disc final directors cut of Alexander (Revisited) likewise is an ideal demonstration of high-definition image and sound, but its bonus documentaries are all standard definition (although it does have two different audio commentaries).

Universal’s fun 1999 and 2001 Mummy movies have also come down in price substantially, but also have only SD bonus features. Warners has an attractively priced four-disc set of Christmas movies on BluRay, The Essential Holiday Collection. This includes such seasonal favorites as A Christmas Story (1983), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Elf (2003), and The Polar Express (2004 in 2-D only), each with a few SD bonus items. Several of Lionsgate’s flashier genre films from the 1990s and early 2000s typically sell for $10 or less each, including Reservoir Dogs, Stargate, Terminator 2, Total Recall, and the first two Saw movies. Most of these have few, if any bonus features, and not always in HD.

Many other recent theatrical releases and some earlier catalog titles have recently dropped to half or less from their original list prices on Amazon.com and other on-line retailers. These can sometimes be found locally for the same or even cheaper rates by checking your local BluRay dealers weekly (they often rotate titles on sale). Quite a few of the heavily discounted BluRay titles include only the feature in high definition, with few if any bonus features, and those they do have are often only in standard definition. Theyre still a bargain if you like the movie and want to see it with the same quality seen in digital cinemas although any given film may or may not demonstrate the full capability of your picture and sound system.

 

BluRay home video technology has been on the market since June 2006, but sales were unimpressive until the competing HD-DVD format was discontinued last year. Now, as high-definition TV sales gradually increase, not only are dropping prices helping BluRay to cut into standard DVD sales of recent titles, but more and more older films are finally showing up in BluRay versions. Many can now be found in the $10 to $20 range comparable to standard DVD prices a few years ago, and causing DVD prices from major studios to plunge into the $5 and $10 range. Even though new releases on BluRay are still usually marketed at substantially higher prices than standard DVDs, within a few months of their release a surprising number of major titles drop to the $10 to $20 price range on BluRay, sometimes as part of box sets but often individually. A website called Blu-ray.com keeps track of new releases and daily price changes with a separate page for the latest top bargains. For example, the same Hallmark made-for-TV movies that were once selling at the bargain pricing of $15, are now as low as $4.99 on BluRay.

 

The Criterion Collection has long been noted as the gold standard of home video distributors. One reason is for their consistently high technical standards, from laserdisc to DVD, and now to BluRay. Even more important is their focus on titles that represent significant works of major directors, styles, and movements from around the world, covering the silent era through the present day. Anyone who might decide to watch every film released by Criterion on DVD would wind up with a broad understanding of international world cinema, and would recognize the major influence of numerous specific films of the past upon later generations of filmmakers (especially today’s film-school graduates). In addition, the generally excellent picture and audio quality on Criterion releases (which is usually higher than most other companies’ releases, often including major studio releases of the very same titles) will demonstrate the capabilities of a good home theatre setup, as well as how good older films can look and sound.

Since December 2008, Criterion has gradually been releasing new titles and re-releasing some of their previous movies in the BluRay format, starting with Carol Reed’s brilliant noir thriller The Third Man (1949, British), Wong Kar-Wei’s touching Chung King Express (1994, Chinese), Wes Anderson’s offbeat Bottle Rocket (1996, American), and Nicolas Roeg’s peculiar sci-fi artfilm The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, British). Since then fine BluRay versions from Criterion have included such major international titles including The Seventh Seal (1957), The Wages of Fear (1953), The 400 Blows (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1960),  (1963), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Lola Montes (1955), Repulsion (1965), Playtime (1967), Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Days of Heaven (1978), and more.

Criterion’s select and growing group of arthouse classics were once staples of film societies and revival theatres, and must be considered required viewing for any serious devotee of cinema. Seeing these now in high definition from carefully restored original film elements, after having only seen previous video editions or beat-up 16mm film society prints, is like seeing them for the first time. The remastered BluRay discs often look and sound better than they did in their original U.S. theatrical versions. Typically higher-priced than popular mass-market studio releases, Criterions BluRay titles are usually in the $20-$30 range yet can sometimes be found on sale (especially through Amazon) for under $20, cheaper even than the DVD versions of the same titles! Starting in 2010, Lionsgate has started BluRay releases of a number of international classics once handled by Criterion, including Contempt (1963), The Ladykillers (1955), and others.

 

Unfortunately, except for the James Bond pictures, Disney cartoons, and a few westerns and war films, it is rare for any pre-1970 titles to be carried by retailers in a market this size, so local BluRay player owners must order most of them on line (often at substantially lower prices than local retailers have, anyway). For example, in Grand Forks at least two stores carried the new BluRay edition of Woodstock (1970) on its release date, yet the new BluRays of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), or George Stevens multi Oscar-winning The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) were nowhere to be found. Strangelove turned up a month or so later at one retailer.

Also, other than a few token major classics (barely a dozen available by the end of 2009, including Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, etc.), all of the older titles to hit BluRay are from the widescreen era of 1953 and later. One reason for this, besides a somewhat lower demand, is that many people with widescreen TV sets do not understand why there must be black bars on the sides of the picture for non-widescreen movies (the same people who dont grasp the concept of letterboxing on standard TVs). More important, however, is that the widescreen films display the most obvious image improvement from BluRay’s hi-def capability.

As noted above, a 4x3 image on a properly encoded standard DVD can look nearly as sharp as the BluRay version when played with a DVD player that upscales the resolution to simulate HD (which every BluRay player can do); but widescreen films squeezed into the standard DVD format show obvious degradation when blown up on a hi-def TV set, compared with their HD versions. Hence, studios are choosing to put out fewer of the old film rarities that DVD collectors have been enjoying the past several years, and are sticking more to pop hits from the past 55 years for BluRay. There are a few 1.33:1 classics on BluRay, however, that have a breathtakingly sharp image only hinted at in their already-impressive standard DVD versions. The beautifully transferred BluRay versions of An American in Paris (1951), Quo Vadis (1951), The Third Man (1949), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The General (1926), among others, prove that even 4x3-format films can benefit from the full-HD treatment. So far, most of the older titles coming out on BluRay are from the 1970s and 80s, and only occasionally the 1960s or 50s.

Still, its nice to get the chance to revisit movies one saw while growing up (or never saw in theatres because one was too young or not yet born) with a visual clarity and audio quality equal to, and possibly better than they had in their original theatrical presentations. Its also great to catch up with films missed due to short runs or that never made it to local theatres. Of course this has been possible to do for some 30 years on tape, laserdisc, and then DVD, but never with the potential to rival a commercial theatres presentation until BluRay and hi-def home projectors became affordable.

 

Anyone who still has only a standard-definition television or a hi-def TV that is only 720p resolution and/or is smaller than 40 inches really has no reason to upgrade to a BluRay player or to bother replacing DVDs with BluRay versions. An upconverting DVD player with component or HDMI connections will do just as well. Many of the older classics and special-interest DVD releases may take years to receive BluRay version and may never get any BluRay release at all, so those with large collections of DVDs will need to be satisfied with upconverted standard-definition on many titles. The best DVDs, properly encoded from high-definition masters, can still look amazingly sharp through an upscaling player and a high-definition TV or projector. However, the same movie on a properly mastered BluRay will look and sound noticeably better. People who have a 1080p (so-called full HD) TV that is larger than 40 inches, especially those with a 1080p projector, a wall-size screen, and a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system, will quickly become addicted to the theatre-quality experience they can get at home with well-encoded BluRay copies of movies. They’re also more likely to devote a room to a dedicated home theatre, rather than watch movies on TV.

Below are links to reviews of selected BluRay releases, plus few notable BluRay releases of older catalog titles that have appeared throughout the short history of the format, including The Terminator, Robocop, Baraka, Saturday Night Fever, some Criterion releases, and more.

 

OLDER MOVIES AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY (an ongoing listing)

 

SELECTED BLU-RAY REVIEWS

 

A MODEST-PRICED DEDICATED HOME THEATRE SETUP