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HD Talk
Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond

Transformers in HD
Transformers in HD

Paramount's first major release since declaring HD DVD exclusivity will be Michael Bay's Transformers. To celebrate the release of this 2-disc set on DVD and HD DVD, I took a trip to Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco. The company behind some of the greatest visual effects of all time, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Pirates of the Caribbean, ILM is still the undisputed leader in the effects industry. And Transformers is their greatest achievement yet. With the seamless blend of practical and computer effects, the film is a new landmark. And I got a chance to see how it was done.

Industrial Light and Magic moved to the Presidio in 2005, and as a result, one of the most striking aspects of their operation is the building in which they work. Before you even set one foot in the building, you encounter a fountain. Perched on top of the fountain is that wise old Jedi Master, Yoda. From there you'll find your way into the lobby, which is framed on one side by Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and on the other by...a receptionist desk. I guess even the Imperial Empire needs secretaries. Lining the walls are vintage film posters, culled from the personal collection of George Lucas.

After gaping at the assorted memorabilia, we were lead into an imposingly massive theater. We were introduced to Scott Farrar, Visual Effects Supervisor on Transformers. But that's just the latest credit in his distinguished career, which includes stints on Return of the Jedi, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Minority Report, among others. He had an Optimus Prime toy in his hand, which set the tone for the open and playful round table interview.

The Yoda Fountain and the theater where we met Scott Farrar.

"This little guy," Scott said, indicating the toy, "Has fifty one pieces. Our Optimus Prime has ten thousand one hundred and eight. So, with all those pieces, every one has to be built, modeled, painted, connected...and it takes a lot of computer power to do that. Takes a lot of talent here at ILM to get the levels of complexity and layers so that the stuff looks right." He then discussed Michael Bay's maxim when it came to the robots: "I want them to look like nimble ninja warriors. I want them to look heavy and have mass, but at the same time they have to look cool. So with Michael we studied quite a bit of Hong Kong fighting movies where they use a lot of wire work, where they're sort of anti-gravity. Of course we looked at lots of stunt work, and Michael's guy, his stunt coordinator, produced lots of different stunts for us to copy. So with all that we developed an idea of what these guys would look like."

The first question was the most obvious: Why change the look of the Transformers from the classic TV show? "There was a lot of written things coming from the fans saying, 'Oh, you can't do that, can't do that,' but there's a big difference between doing an animated series with that hand-drawn style of animation versus when you go to making this thing look real. I have to tell you, it just looked strange without a mouth. We tried different mouths. We showed Michael a variety. So I said, let's just put segmented lips, three pieces upper, three pieces lower, so that you can form an O and all the different E's and R's, all the different shapes that mouths have to make, and try it. And we showed Michael and he said it looks great. Emotionally we weren't really keen on doing that. But logically it was the only way to go." Scott also confirmed that all the Transformers planned for the film made it into the film.

"It's a cheat," Scott admitted when asked if there was a realistic transformation from car to robot. "There's scaling up and down, in other words a part may enlarge or may decrease. The upshot was we added tremendous amounts of parts and pieces beyond what our first designs had shown. Optimus got a huge layering of parts and things. Again, you're making a movie and you're always judging your work by what the camera will see. As the camera caresses this guy and moves around him, you start to see that we need a wheel, we need a hubcap, we need a bunch of pieces and just pepper this thing with more objects."

I asked about working with Michael Bay, about how cognizant he was of the computer effects, and how involved he was with their development. "[Michael Bay] is very hands on and we had video conferences just about every day. We see him, he sees us, we talk about the shots, we run the shots. He's the kind of guy that will get really upset about something and our duty is to figure what is it that he's really talking about. It could be the smallest thing but he's very specific. Sometimes, like all directors, he has difficulty expressing exactly what it is about the shot, so my job is to nail that down, figure out what we we have to do. And it's usually something like not enough bling [ILM's term for the small points of light that reflect off the robots and cars], or not enough glint. He's really sharp, visually, about the lighting, about what things should look like. That's why it's a good relationship, because we all want the same thing in the end. He comes up here, and he'll say, 'Oh, oh, who's working on this shot? I want to see him right now!' And we'll take him out to the area where all the artists work and he'll go work right with the artist."

Transformers, available on HD DVD on October 16th.

Scott had a lot to say, but we were on a schedule, and had to keep moving. We wound up in a smaller screening room normally used for viewing dailies. There we were met by Russel Earl, Associate Visual Effects Supervisor on the film, Scott Benza, Animation Supervisor, and Jeff White, the Creature Technical Director. This was a full-on presentation, with slides and videos projected onto the screen behind the participants. Included were early tests, layer passes (adding reflections, dirt, bling and glint, and more), renderings, art department designs, and more. The best part was when they showed us how they were able to model Optimus' facial design off of pre-existing performances by real actors, all without changing the shape of his face or the parts that made up his face. To that end, we saw Optimus aping performances by Liam Neeson (the actor they eventually used as the basic model), Al Pacino, Peter O'Toole, and Robert De Niro. They were hilarious, and also illuminating. It was pretty amazing to see how versatile Optimus' animation could be.

A common theme of the presentation was Michael Bay's preferred method of shooting. The phrase "Michael Bay likes to shoot dirty" was used so often that day that we probably could have made a drinking game out of it. He would schedule shots without any kind of reference for the special effects, leading to the on-set effects supervisors having to grab shots with the crew while Bay was discussing the next shot with his DP, and that's if they were lucky. If they weren't, they just had to fix it all in post. The fact that the effects do blend in so easily is just a testament to how skilled and talented the ILM team is.

This is just one of the many goodies we got to see at ILM.

After the event, we got to take a tour of the building. And while the Letterman Digital Arts Center boasts some notable architecture and what would have been breathtaking views (were it not for all that San Francisco fog), we were more concerned with the items that filled the rooms. What do I mean? Oh, take Slimer from Ghostbusters for instance. Or vehicles from Star Wars. A bust of Davy Jones, and models for the T-1000 and the Rocketeer, among many others. It was a veritable wonderland of movie making merriment, and our time there was too short by half. Hopefully I'll get invited there again when Transformers 2 is ready to make its high def debut. Until then, I'll have to be content with the Transformers HD DVD when it comes out on October 16th.

You can listen to the full Scott Farrar interview here and the full Earl, Benza, and White presentation here.

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Well, not entirely different. We're still talking about HD DVD, just a different movie and a different focus. The movie? Evan Almighty. The focus? Web-enabled content. I took a drive up the 101 to Universal Studios to have a look at some of the latest features to hit HD DVD. I was joined by Ken Graffeo, Universal's Executive Vice President of high def strategic marketing, and Kevin Collins, one of Microsoft's HD DVD Directors.

Ken opened with a statement of commitment to HD DVD. He felt that the biggest issue facing the format right now is the glut of customer confusion. Many consumers don't actually realize that they need to have HD content to feed into their HDTV, and others don't understand the difference between an upconverting DVD player and an HD DVD or Blu-ray player. To that end, what HD DVD is trying to do is push the technological envelope, so there can be no mistake as to which format is which.

Universal's HD DVD Network.

And where is our technology leading us? To the internet. Without it, I wouldn't even be reporting about this to you. The HD DVD group understand this, and Universal and Warner have taken point to provide web-enabled content. Popping in Evan Almighty, we took a look at the web store that offered eco-friendly products for use around the home. "But we're not interested in opening up a store," Graffeo was kick to mention, "NBC just happens to be a green company. We already had these products available." Next we took a look at Knocked Up, which offered deleted scenes for download that were not available on the DVD. Kevin also mentioned that Heroes on HD DVD offered sneak peeks of season 2 before they aired, though the web.

The heart of the presentation seemed to be in the potential of these features. Sure, a store and some deleted scenes are fun, but they don't have much lasting value. But what the web-enabled features offer is the ability to continually update your discs. If you buy Knocked Up today, and in six months Jonah Hill wants to record a new commentary for it, that commentary could be delivered to HD DVD owners without forcing them to buy a new disc. Or Steve Carrell could do a live webcast while watching Evan Almighty and we at home would be able to interact with him. The features can be played simultaneously with the film, as long as they're coded to work that way. And the web access can be had at any time, just like any other part of the pop-up menu HD DVD features.

Evan Almighty lets you shop for eco-friendly products right from the disc.

The downloaded features are stored in the player. Kevin stressed that since HD DVD requires internal storage space and an internet connection as part of its standard spec, studios can make use of these features and know that every HD DVD owner will be able to run them, no matter what player they're using. To date, Blu-ray has not yet finalized a spec that allows for internet connectivity, and even once they do, players manufactured before that specification becomes active may not be able to access those features.

With the way the technology is progressing, it seems we're only limited by the imagination of the filmmakers and DVD producers. So while the currently available web-enabled features may seem underwhelming, they have the potential to change the way we interact with our home media.

-Daniel Hirshleifer

High Definition Upcoming Releases

In news that is sure to please film aficionados everywhere, New Line Home Entertainment has announced that Pan's Labyrinth will be made available on both HD DVD and Blu-ray on December 26th. Both formats will offer a lossless DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix (annoyingly, only one player in each format can currently play this audio, and the HD DVD player requires a receiver that is capable of decoding the compressed signal) and a video commentary. The HD DVD will also offer web-enabled features (see above for more on that subject). New Line will also be porting over many of the extras from the 2-disc DVD edition.

HD DVD and Blu-ray Reviews

  • Halloween (Blu-ray) by Daniel Hirshleifer. Highly Recommended. - "Halloween is a horror classic. But more than that, it's got some of the best filmmaking you'll ever have a chance to lay eyes on. The majority of the movie is simply breathtaking. Even if the climax doesn't live up to what's come before it, the fact is that Halloween is a must-see film that will stand the test of time. I was very impressed with the film-like image on this Blu-ray disc. It's the best Halloween has ever looked on home video. The sound isn't quite as impressive, and the disc doesn't include all the various extras Anchor Bay has produced for the film over the years, but the strong audio commentary and in-depth documentary are both excellent. Regardless of whether you're a horror fan or a fan of great cinema, you need to own this film."
  • Knocked Up (Unrated) (HD DVD) by Adam Tyner. Highly Recommended. - "Knocked Up isn't the laugh riot that The 40 Year Old Virgin is, but that's by design, really. If you can suspend disbelief enough that someone who looks like Katherine Heigl would let Seth Rogen plunge his man-organ inside her, it's a pretty honest look at unexpectedly being thrust into adulthood and the ups and downs of this sort of tumultuous relationship, peppered with enough vulgarity and pop-culture jabs to keep it from veering too far into chick flick territory. Knocked Up isn't perfect, but it's certainly one of the stronger comedies I've seen so far this year. The HD DVD looks and sounds great, although losing so many of the extras from the DVD collector's edition is a huge drag, enough that I'd bet even a lot of videophiles might pass on this high-def version in favor of the more decked-out DVD set. Even if this HD DVD isn't as lavish as it should've been, the overall package is still strong enough to deserve an emboldened, italicized highly recommended."
  • Jailhouse Rock (Blu-ray) by John Sinnott. Recommended. - "This is one of Elvis' best movies. He does a great job in the dramatic role and showed that he really could act. The movie is filled with great songs, but the energetic title number steals the show. This Blu-ray disc has a wonderful picture and excellent sound. It looks and sounds much better than you would expect from a 50 year old movie. This disc gets a strong recommendation."
  • Viva Las Vegas (HD DVD) by Don Houston. Recommended. - "Viva Las Vegas is exactly what any Elvis Presley fan could hope for; a great looking representation of one of the best movies starring their idol with plenty of catchy musical numbers and the mythic city of Las Vegas as the backdrop. Ann Margaret is more than just the icing on the cake too; the hotty becoming an essential part of the mix that pushed Elvis harder than he had ever been in a movie and doing so in such a way as to share the spotlight rather than compete against one another-the two sharing such chemistry that I almost wonder why they didn't get together back then (which is also explained in the commentary track by the way). The extras rounded out the package nicely and this is another reason for people to upgrade to the high definition world. In short, Viva Las Vegas was not the perfect Elvis movie but it was darned close in many ways so give it a look."
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Blu-ray) by Matthew Hinkley. Recommended. - "Memoirs of a Geisha certainly didn't get the good attention it deserved. There was quite a bit of negative press, but despite only hearing bad, I highly enjoyed Memoirs. The acting was good, the cinematography was stunning, and the score was near perfect. Add a fantastic audio and video transfer and you have a dang good movie. Yes, I understand that some people will be bored, and maybe lost with some of the plot holes, but please, watch this one and decide for yourself if you can believe in the vision that Marshall brings to Memoirs. I recommend this to anyone who hasn't seen it...and if you are like me and have seen it and enjoy it...get out there and pick it up."
  • Deliverance (HD DVD) by Adam Tyner. Highly Recommended. - "More than thirty years later, Deliverance remains one of the seminal man versus wild films, with its lean, focused storytelling, its moral of the mutual distortion inevitable when nature and urban life collide, and a set of strong, natural performances ensuring that it's still powerful and relevant today. The presentation of the video and audio aren't outstanding but suit the intended look of the film well, and the disc's extras are more insightful than usual."
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula (Blu-ray) by Daniel Hirshleifer. Recommended. - "Francis Ford Coppola's vision of Dracula is decidedly different from any that came before it. His visual style, combined with Gary Oldman's stunner of a performance, make this film memorable. It's a little too long and the quality of the cast varies, but the good outweighs the bad. The image quality on this Blu-ray disc initially appears disappointing, but considering how softly the original film was shot, it may be the best we will get. The audio is much better, although not as directional as I would have liked, and the special features in high definition are also noteworthy. Considering that this release aims to represent Coppola's intentions (at the very least his intentions for the film in the present day), I'm going to give it a hesitant recommendation. Certainly the film itself, along with the sound and extras, make this disc worth a purchase."
  • Freedom: Volume 2 (HD DVD) by Adam Tyner. Rent It. - "Freedom's daunting sticker price will likely scare away all but the most rabid anime fans, but those who bought or rented the series' first volume should find this follow-up well worth a look. Freedom holds up well to repeat viewings, and Bandai Visual has clearly taken great care in presenting this second installment at the highest quality possible and continuing with its striking set of next-generation extras. Freedom as a series comes recommended, but because of the hefty price tag of each individual volume, I'd suggest sticking with a rental."
  • Index of All HD DVD Reviews
    Index of All Blu-ray Reviews

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