It’s Not Easy Being Blu

I bought my Sony Blu Ray player after the HD wars were forgotten.  HD-DVD had become a footnote in home entertainment history and Sony had finally won one of its infamous format wars.  So I went to the source and bought a decent 2nd gen player from Sony.  It has all the bells and whistles I might need- an internet connection, upscaling for my old DVDs, etc.- and a beautiful picture.

Regardless of the criticisms I’m about to level at the format, please understand that picture quality isn’t among the nits worth picking.  It’s truly beautiful, surpassing, in many cases, theatrical exhibition, especially the theatrical exhibition of older films that I saw in crappy mall theatres decades ago.  If you can’t see the differences between DVD and Blu at the store display, I’m not surprised.  I couldn’t either.  It wasn’t until I got my player home and could take in some of my favorites that I began to get spoiled by that spectacular picture.  The question that lingers, however, is how much crap will I put up with to get to that wonderful image quality?

Back when we got VHS (and Beta for you forward-thinkers) we were satisfied.  We could make out the images well enough to see what was going on and we’d never been able to do that before at home.  Bravo!  We were sold.  LaserDisc came along, but steep pricing models along with erudite sales tactics kept it in a niche of its own.  VHS was the family friend and it remained so for many years.  Then we were wooed away by DVD.

The step up from VHS to DVD was a good one.  I’ve tried to come up with ways that DVD is inferior to VHS but I can’t think of even one.  DVDs have random access, better sound and image, extra features (even though the first instances of these were laughable text files), smaller  & lighter packaging, and the players still remembered where you stopped the movie.  What’s not to love?  As DVD players got better (and cheaper) and DVD compression schemes got more efficient, some anamorphic DVDs got so good that many consumers decided that they were satisfied with the quality.  Sated.  The DVD transfer of Revenge of the Sith is so great that it creates the illusion that you might actually be watching a decent movie.

So if DVD was a huge step forward from VHS, doesn’t it follow that Blu Ray would be a similar leap ahead?  Well, it didn’t work out that way, and I blame two entities: Hollywood suits and the music industry.  See, the Blu Ray spec is loaded with bloatware that exists because the film industry fears that it will be the next big thing on the chopping block.  The music industry (who blames Napster BTW) hit the wall of fail because of its own short-sightedness.  It still wants to blame file sharing and thinks it wasn’t diligent enough to protect its arcane business model, so Hollywood thinks so too.  But that wasn’t the problem.  WEA, RCA, et al failed because they refused to embrace a new way of doing business.  Bands didn’t refuse it, most of the smart ones anyway, but the suits did.  They thought building the walls higher was the answer.  It was not, and now those walls are growing on my Blu Ray player, and I, for one, dislike it.

Why are most Blu Ray movies piecese of software that must be loaded and run by the player instead of being read directly off the disc?  Because that makes it easier for copy protection to work.  The player checks out the TV to see if it’s kosher.  If it is, it allows the movie to load.  I just inserted the brand new Paramount release, Morning Glory.  Yes, I enjoyed the movie but I didn’t enjoy waiting for it.  It took 25 seconds of disc chugging before the player menu left the screen to be replaced by…nothing…blackness.  It took another 35 seconds for the loaading animation to play.  Another twenty seconds and i was blessed with a Paramount logo I was not allowed to skip.  Finally, after being held hostage for a total of one minute and twenty seconds, I could press play.   Believe me, this is a best case scenario because this disc has no trailers.  If you’re watching a Disney release, you can add at least ten more minutes to the proceedings, but that goes for Disney DVDs too.

I get it when people say that I’m whining over 1:20 in a world that has homelessness and war and politicians.  But the problem stems from the fact that DVDs worked better.  They also, as mentioned above, held your place.  Most Blu Rays won’t do so unless you “bookmark” your position.  In fact, when loading Morning Glory the first time, I accidentally hit the Power Off button instead of the volume up button on the remote.  That meant a fresh new 1:20 wait.  Joy.

What else has diminished?  Well, you can’t really scan through a BR like you could a DVD.  You get staggered frames here and there like you used to see on LaserDiscs that weren’t top of the line.  Even VHS allowed you to scan to find a particular spot in the film.

And wait til you’ve seen the menus that chug with every button press because they have to load a special sound for the button.  Couldn’t that have been loaded in the background BEFORE I pressed the button?  Almost every BR disc feels like its just trying too hard.  Blu Ray menus are the successors to the Flash web site mentality.

The point is that while overall presentation quality of BR is an improvement over DVD, the format falls short in almost every other category.  This is why some people have decided to forgo this format in lieu of upscaling their still-serviceable DVD collections.  I like the higher definition picture enough to put up with the inconveniences, but they still rankle me every time I play a disc.  The problem is that I’ve been spoiled by the superior picture quality and now my DVDs look like they were shot through gauze.  I’ve been trapped.

While I’d like to believe that this sort of thing will become less frequent in our more enlightened future, I seriously doubt it.  If there is another physical format down the road (4K anyone?) we’ll probably be required to submit a DNA scan to be registered prior to purchase, and even then we may have to start the movie before we go to work, sort of like a crock pot.

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