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What to Do With a Super-Sized Disc

29 Mar, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

How much does size matter in promoting the development of the next generation of high-definition discs?

Blu-ray Disc, at 50GB, and rival HD-DVD, at 30GB, promise content storage capacities that dwarf the current 4.7GB single layer and 8.5GB dual layer DVD formats.

With enhanced picture and sound quality, a feature film in HD requires six times the disc space of a conventional DVD movie. Add bells and whistles such as the potential for interactive pull-down menus, access to game options while the movie is playing and commerce interconnectivity, and its clear that the hi-def disc represents not only a technological challenge, but also a veritable Holly Grail for content providers.

“HD-DVD promises a number of improvements over the current generation of DVD technology, which we believe will provide consumers with a significantly more robust home entertainment experience,” said Craig Kornblau, president of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. “The new format's extra storage capacity offers the potential to include much more content on a single disc. That could translate to more feature content, more extensive bonus materials or both.”

Buena Vista Home Entertainment's Bob Chapek, in announcing his company's support for Blu-ray last December said that the disc's greater capacity, among other improvements, will lead to innovations in interactivity that will expand the home entertainment experience.

“Right now you've got two planets in orbit — you've got the movie orbit and the bonus material orbit, and those two orbits never intersect.,” he said. “Their functionality has to be two separate things because of the limitations of [existing] DVD technology. But now, as the Blu-ray group adopts this application layer, the line between bonus materials and movie dissolves, so you have one interactive, integrated entertainment experience. It really gives the consumer more of a lean-forward experience.”

Field of Dreams
For DVD producers who replicate feature films and TV shows into elaborate box set releases flush with bonus materials, high-def discs hold promise for artists in search of a bigger canvas.

“Having additional room for special features is always appealing as we would like to continue exploring ways to extend the behind-the-scenes experience [and] provide additional [historical or creative] background to the original filmmakers in the development of their film,” said Jeffrey Lerner, senior producer with New Wave Entertainment.

With bonus material credits for “Nip/Tuck,” “Friends,” Harry Potter, Friday Night Lights, Troy and, recently, Constantine, New Wave recently acquired a Sony HDR-FX1 HD-DV camera in anticipation of the HD format.

Regardless of the number value-added commentaries, deleted scenes, alternate endings, vignettes, related soundtrack and music video options that can be put onto a HD disc, DVD producers contend the picture and sound quality remain paramount to selling the product.

“We fit about four [42-minute] episodes of ‘The Dead Zone' [Lions Gate Home Entertainment] on each disc [excluding 25 minutes of bonus material] and we have to compress each show quite a bit,” said DVD producer Rob Chynoweth. “The HD format would allow you to release content with improved aesthetic qualities without having to compress [the content] as much.”

Producers said the format would be a way for studios to amortize costs for TV DVD programming that often exceeds 22 episodes and includes a substantial amount of special features.

Others believe the format would be wasted on TV DVD considering that many of the shows were originally produced to tape and studios are often reluctant to pay for new transfers.

“We've already seen problems with certain shows going to DVD — the flaws are more apparent and HD isn't going to fix this,” said Gord Lacey, president TVShowsOnDVD.com, an online barometer to the medium's appeal on DVD.

Trade Secrets
Sources familiar with studios that support HD-DVD said few films or TV shows repurposed in HD require the immense capacity touted by rival Blu-ray.

They said that regardless of a movie's running time, encoding rates (which absorb much of a disc's capacity) fluctuate depending on the graphics and audio complexity of a film.

Using an advanced compression rate, sources said an average HD-DVD disc holds about eight hours of programming. Take venerable classic Gone with the Wind, which at 3 hours and 43 minutes is one of the longest feature films available on DVD, and there would still be space for nearly 4.5 hours of bonus material on HD-DVD.

Sources said much of TV DVD product doesn't require huge disc capacity in HD and there is a limit what you can put on a disc economically, especially with children's programming where flexibility on pricing is a key marketing tool.

“You don't need a Rolls Royce when you are taking the baby around the park,” said one source.

Victor Matsuda with Sony Corp., a principle Blu-ray proponent, admitted the format's capability to ultimately deliver an 8-layer disc with 200GB capacity presented a formidable challenge to content providers.

“Everything is under consideration, including interactivity,” said Matsuda.

He said Blu-ray's inclusion in Sony's nascent PlayStation 3 video game console, backward compatibility with current DVD and CD formats, and the anticipated high adoption rate among gamers, should give the company early feedback on the new format's appeal.

“It is almost frightening the way movies and video games can be combined in a single HD format,” said Matsuda. “Immediacy for the consumer is just one of the areas we are starting to investigate.”

Digital media analyst Phil Leigh agreed that video game producers would likely be the first content providers to take advantage of HD capacity because they tend to innovate more quickly than the studios.

Many video games currently incorporate music tracks and mini-movies into a title's theme — the latter underscored by PlayStation's ability to play DVD movies, which helped jumpstart the format in the late 1990s.

Blu-ray backers tout the format's interactive prowess that promises unparalleled user navigation that all but turns watching a movie into playing a video game. In fact, at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal Games came out in support of Blu-ray, emphasizing its greater capacity for space-hogging video games.

A spokesperson for Electronic Arts last week said the company would not be ready with specifics on capacity use for a few weeks.

“Currently, a video game console is limited by a single disc as opposed to a PC game that comes on six or eight CDs,” said Richard Dougherty, director, personal AV with Panasonic Hollywood Labs in Los Angeles. Panasonic supports Blu-ray. “Current DVD games for Playstation and Xbox are filled to capacity in terms of the content.”

Blu-ray backers also tout the format's interactive prowess that promises unparalleled user navigation that all but turns watching a movie into playing a video game. Opponents counter that [interactivity] doesn't consume much disc space, and that both HD-DVD and Blu-ray have agreed to iHD, a joint proposal within the DVD Forum that allows advanced navigation in movies whereby users can go interactive without stopping the movie or going back to the menu.

Peter Bracke, founder of DVDFile.com, a self-billed resource for DVD enthusiasts, said Sony's understanding of the video game market is significant, but he wondered if the mainstream market was ready for HD capacity.

“It is nice to have this grand vision of merging video games and high-def DVD content. It sounds cool, but what does it really mean?” Bracke said. “Will being able to interact with a movie while it is playing be important? No, I don't think so. A movie ultimately is not a video game. Kids will watch a Disney movie 5,000 times but they still want to be told a story with a beginning, middle and end.”

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