Christopher Nolan’s Inception is out to own this week, on good ol’ DVD and brandspanking new sexy eye-meltingly gorgeous Blu-Ray. Oh, you must buy it on Blu-Ray. Otherwise you’re missing out. The detail. The clarity. Oh, the colours. It’s almost an insult to everyone who worked on the film not to buy it in it’s purest, most perfect form.
Yes, alright, I’m taking the piss. I lived through the whole VHS-Beta thing, the whole vinyl-CD handover, so excuse me if I’m a little less than whelmed by the urgent push by the movie companies to have me rebuy films I already own. Or worse, pay a premium to watch new material, which would include an investment in new kit that I don’t need or particularly want. I have a halfway decent telly and an upscaling DVD player which delivers lovely results. We watched UP last week (yes, I know, right up on the moment here at X&HTowers) and the pictures were gorgeous.
But a lot of the supposed benefits are down to the way the end user (that’s you, Readership) has set up their telly and player. Are you going in HDMI? A lot of people still use the Scart connection, apparently. And have you calibrated your telly? If you’re now asking what calibrated means, then no, you haven’t. Which means that your lovely pricy digital telly is running with the factory presets. These won’t be right for your room, and in most cases will be waaaay too bright and saturated. Or, if you set up a TV the way my dad does, not bright and saturated enough. He doesn’t own a 3DTV. You just need sunglasses to watch the telly in Mum and Dad’s place. (sorry, pater.)
How do you calibrate a HDTV? Funny you should ask.
My major problem with Blu-Ray is that it is a transitional format. It’s high-density, high-capacity storage, and that’s all. It’s a carrier for content, and it’s the way that content is formatted in the first place that is important. A recent re-issue of Gladiator used exactly the same video files as were on an earlier, carelessly encoded DVD, with predictably horrible results. But very few people either noticed or cared, and as a result that disc is still on the shelves. You have to wonder how many reissues that people are paying a premium for have been put together the same way, with the odd “special feature” whopped on to make it seem bright, shiny and new.
The thing is that a lot of movie content sits on servers and hard drives in high definition quality and has done for quite a while. For DVD, that content has been compressed and down-converted to allow it to fit on a disc. There was a push a few years ago to “cinephile” editions (of such cinematic masterpieces as “I, Robot”) that had the highest resolution version of the movie that could be crammed onto a single disc, with extras either on a separate coaster or excised completely. Then Blu-Ray and HD-DVD appeared, and it seemed that we could have it all. Full, high-quality transfers and hours and hours of supplementary features that no one ever watches. But the fact remains that the content has not changed. It’s the same 1080p file that was originally created.
Which of course makes me look at iTunes, Netflix and the like and start to wonder why we need the disc in the first place. Up until a couple of years ago, a wall of our house was dedicated to our CD collection. In some places, the shelving was beginning to double-stack. At the same time, the books in the back room were making an attempt to break through the wall. We were swimming in content, much of which had been listened to or read once, if at all. I bought a big external hard drive, digitised the CDs, backed up that hard drive at least twice, and stored all the discs in the loft. We now have a lot more room for books we don’t read. But that process changed the relationship we have to music. It’s much less album based. We pick and choose, shuffle, build playlists. A cheap subscription to Spotify means that I rarely ever buy music anymore. I don’t need to.
It would be a more time-intensive job, but I could do exactly the same thing for the DVD collection that now takes up the wall where the CDs used to live. Dump everything onto a cheap media server and a back-up drive, and who knows, I might even start watching the discs that are shelved and still in their wrapping. Build playlists and mood reels with them. As someone in love with the on-demand services that the plusboxes offer, I love that flexibility. As with music, I’d then look at ways to buy my content in a form that doesn’t come in a box.
To my mind, the film companies are missing a trick. I’m usually a bit behind the curve on this kind of stuff. This means there are already hundreds and thousands of people who are not only thinking the same as me, but have done something about it. iTunes is a good first step, but I see no reason why the studios don’t have their own portals, or club together to create something that could do the job as well. I’d love to see something like Netflix’s streaming service in the UK. As a huge advocate of Lovefilm’s disc-on-demand service, this has to be the logical next step, doesn’t it? (I’d note that while Sky Movies and Virgin’s Front Row deliver something similar, they’re still not providing the depth of service and the ability to source esoterica that Lovefilm can. Plus, they’re both crippled by embargoes on when they can start showing movies – usually well after the coasters have hit the shops).
Yes, I know it would be a massive undertaking to get all that material onto servers that can reliably squirt it down the pipe and into your front room, but if it works, it’s a service I’d happily pay for, much in the way Spotify get money off me every month.
Certainly, I have no plans to buy a Blu-Ray player, which means I have no reason to buy coasters. Instead, if I want the absolute best quality image available, I do the right thing and go to the cinema. Project a Blu-Ray next to a 35mm print on the big screen, and you’ll soon see which one’s better. Even when, sadly, projection is done using big hard drives, the image quality of those files will still show that the disc is a massive compromise for the domestic market. Bear that in mind, and the argument that Blu-Ray is the ultimate viewing experience starts to look a bit thin.
And don’t get me started on bloody 3D…
Simon Aitken reminds me that while his most excellent horror Blood + Roses is currently available for rental, it will roll over to digital download and DVD purchase through Amazon in the new year. The metrics on who’s buying what should make for very interesting reading.