It's the highest-quality video format around and the basis of any home cinema system, but as Team HCC reveals, the bigwigs behind Blu-ray have occasionally dropped the ball...
Why were we waiting?
James Cameron's sci-fi smash Avatar practically kickstarted the 3D revolution, proving that, with the right technology and film-making vision, stereoscopic movies could wow audiences and break box office records. Yet home cinema fans eager to witness the groundbreaking visuals on their 3D displays were left swearing in Na'vi at 20th Century Fox's decision to withhold the 3D Blu-ray release by a staggering two years, only issuing to it to buyers of Panasonic hardware via an exclusivity deal.
The result was that some people got rich selling their rare platters on eBay (with prices at one point reaching around £300), while most people resorted to showing off their 3D hardware with the lacklustre Alice in Wonderland. And the industry wonders why 3D at home hasn't really taken off...
Scrubbed up not so nicely
Hopes were high that Ridley Scott's Oscar-laden swords-n-sandals flick would become an instant Blu-ray classic, but the distributors (Paramount in the US and Universal in the UK) dashed them all with a transfer that quickly earned an imperial thumbs down from fans. Edge enhancement and digital noise reduction were the bugbears – the former making Russell Crowe's Maximus look like he'd actually been etched onto the screen, the latter robbing scenes of all their cinematic flavour and implying that botox was doing the rounds in the 2nd century. Equally annoying was that the automated system employed by the intern/janitor/cleaning lady entrusted with handling this hotly-anticipated disc managed to remove legitimate details – including whizzing arrows and balls of fire – from the image.
Thankfully, buyers were eventually given the option of swapping their platter for one unsullied by heavy-handed manipulation. Explained Paramount: 'While the version that we originally distributed was of the highest quality, some enthusiasts may prefer to view it without the Edge Enhancement and DVNR implemented as standard process in bringing the film to hi-def.' You don't say.
A damp squib
What's the best way of garnering interest in a futuristic new video format? If you're Sony Pictures, it's releasing an initial slate of movies that most cinema fans just shrugged their shoulders at.
Into The Blue joined the likes of xXx, 50 First Dates and Stealth in Sony's Summer 2006 Blu-ray lineup, and like those sported an inferior MPEG-2 encode at a time when VC-1 was already known to be the better bet. As such, the disc offered a picture that sold short the merits of the BD format. It wasn't the worst of the MPEG-2 clan (we were much more disturbed by Hitch), but the movie itself was an aquatic thriller with all the charm and intrigue of a baked cod. The logic here, we suppose, was that the idea of seeing Jessica Alba in a bikini and Paul Walker in his swimming shorts in 'glorious high-definition' would be a great way of capturing the public's attention – but Team HCC would rather have seen something from Sony's Columbia Pictures back-catalogue given an HD makeover.
Take a trip to Madame Tussauds
This science-fiction/action hybrid tells the story of a technologically-savvy alien hunter doing battle with an elite squad of waxwork figures in a Latin American jungle. Well, actually it doesn't, but this is certainly the impression given by Fox's disastrous and DNR-heavy 2010 Ultimate Hunter release, with rugged action stars including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers given such a ferocious polish that they looked like they'd never set foot outside their house, let alone spent years fighting clandestine wars.
Tellingly, this wasn't even the studio's first stab at releasing John McTiernan's '80s classic. Two years before it had issued a Blu-ray with a flat-looking transfer that showcased overt grain and a general softness. Perhaps the following Ultimate Edition was Fox's way of saying 'be careful what you wish for.' Who knows what we'll get from this December's 3D version...
Fox's long-awaited 2009 Blu-ray release of the award-winning crime thriller is now famous for causing a public spat between its director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman. The former oversaw a new digital remaster which tweaked the colour palette to give it a dreamy, pastel feel. The latter quickly damned it, saying 'I don't know what Billy was thinking. It's not the film that I shot, and I certainly want to wash my hands of having had anything to do with this transfer, which I feel is atrocious.' To be fair to Roizman he had a point, as Popeye Doyle now patrols the mean streets of New York looking like he has food poisoning.
The good news is that Friedkin and Roizman eventually made up and collaborated on a 2012 HD master that retained some sense of natural colour – with Friedkin then claiming the first BD release had been the victim of poor authoring. The bad news is that the improved version is still not directly available in the UK. Smuggle the disc in from the US.
Captain America vs. Captain Cock-Up
It was the biggest blockbuster of 2012, so there was no way that Walt Disney Home Entertainment was going to mess up the Blu-ray release of Avengers Assemble. Or so you'd think…
Trouble first appeared when the studio confirmed that the UK release wouldn't include Joss Whedon's director's commentary, because it had to deliver its assets to the disc replicator a month earlier than the US pressing in order to hit its chosen release date. A far bigger issue came to light, however, when the UK disc was released and it seemed the death of Agent Coulson has been altered, digitally removing the blade piercing his chest. Initially Disney UK denied any jiggery-pokery, telling HCC that this was the same version that had played in UK theatres. A mere 24 hours later it did a volte face and admitted that it had bungled the UK Blu-ray release, accidentally using a version prepared for a different region altogether. Whoops.
Warner's widescreen woes
There are some directors that frame all their films at 2.40:1 and horror king John Carpenter is one of them – that's why our very own Anton van Beek was surprised to find the pre-release copy of his 2010 movie The Ward offered in an open matte 1.78:1 version. After contacting distributor Warner Home Video – and with Carpenter himself subsequently taking to Twitter to complain – the release was eventually pushed back by six months to ensure the film was released in its proper aspect ratio.
Yet there was no such luck for medieval romp Ironclad, another Warner UK release, which made it to shops sporting a cropped 16:9 image in place of the original 2.35:1. With the shots of the siege of Rochester Castle therefore looking like little more than two men running at a random portcullis, it ranks as one of the biggest botch jobs we can remember.
'I'll be back with disappointing AV'
Warner Bros' 2007 US Blu-ray release of this sci-fi sequel didn't quite hit the heights fans were expecting. Bafflingly, the film could only be viewed in 1080p if the picture-in-picture bonus feature was activated – if not you were stuck with a 1080i encode. And while this mishap was corrected on subsequent pressings of the disc, even these were still serving up a relatively weedy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Those who had imported a copy where finally saved two years later when local distributor Sony Pictures released a UK Blu-ray that featured both a 1080p encode and a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.
Spielberg's pick 'n' mix soundtrack
When Steven Spielberg announced that last year's long-awaited BD outing for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial would offer the original theatrical cut rather than the controversial 2002 re-edit, fans were understandably delighted – and at first glance the disc was an absolute winner.
However, closer inspection made it clear that the new 7.1 mix was derived from the 5.1 track prepared for the 2002 version. So what's the problem? Well, it includes audio cues that don't relate to any onscreen action (such as the sound of the CGI E.T. moving around while the puppet sits stationary on the ground) and omits a line of dialogue. You can check all this out for yourself, as the original stereo mix is also included on the disc – but only in lossy DTS.
The extra feature that no-one really wanted
A frustrating element of the Blu-ray launch was the BDA's insistence on tweaking the format's specification through new 'Profiles'. HD DVD was born fully-formed; Blu-ray arrived with the tagline 'Profile 1.0', then added Bonus View functionality for Profile 1.1 and BD-Live for Profile 2.0. Yet those who held off buying a player until the 2.0 hardware arrived soon discovered that, for all the hype, the 'net-delivered content of BD-Live wasn't worth waiting for.
Want the latest issue of Home Cinema Choice? Use our magazine locator link to find your nearest stockist!
Want to see your home cinema system featured in the pages of HCC? Click here for more info.
Love home cinema? Sign up to our emails for the latest news and special offers!
Home Cinema Choice is proud to be a member of EISA.
Visit www.eisa.eu for more info.