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TV and Movies

Posts related to television and/or movies.

Watch two of the Star Wars Trilogy movies in 4K

Hot on the heels of my weekend post about Harmy's Despecialized Editions of the original Star Wars Trilogy movies, Six Colors maven and all-around good guy (and my ex-boss) Jason Snell pointed me to something I'd previously only seen briefly referenced in a few spots: Project 4K77.

Project 4K77 is, as you might guess from the name, a 4K version of the 1977 Star Wars movie. The group has also completed Project 4K83 (Return of the Jedi), and is now working on Project 4K80 (The Empire Strikes Back).

What's really amazing about the 4K77 project is that it is not an upscale of lower-resolution footage. Instead, as explained on the 4K77 page…

…97% of project 4K77 is from a single, original 1977 35mm Technicolor release print, scanned at full 4K, cleaned at 4K, and rendered at 4K.

Because this is a scan of the original film, it's grainier than the Harmy releases—and there may be some actual film effects like scratches visible at times (I haven't yet watched the full movie, so I'm not sure).

But it is a full 4K, and it's a very different experience than is Harmy's version. As an example, here's the same still as I used in my prior post, but this one was taken from 4K77 (again, click to see the larger version):

Without looking back at the other blog post, it may not be obvious just how different these two versions are…but this composite photo makes it obvious:

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Watch the Star Wars Trilogy movies in their original form

As a child of the 1970s, the original Star Wars trilogy1Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi was—and remains—one of my favorite movie series of all time.

Unfortunately, George Lucas has made it virtually impossible to watch the original unedited versions of the films.2Unedited versions exist on LaserDisc and DVD, but they are low quality transfers. From 1997 onwards, only modified versions have been available—with newly-added CGI effects, deleted scenes that add nothing to the story, changes to sound effects, and even replacement of characters, such as some of those in the cantina in the original Star Wars. He called these releases Special Editions…but to fans of the originals, they weren't so special.

Enter one Petr Harmy and an army of volunteers. Using multiple sources, Harmy and the others pieced together all three original films, doing away with the edits, correcting colors, upscaling imagery, and replacing sound effects. This 20-minute video explains the process, and contains a number of before-and-after comparison shots.

The end result is something called Harmy’s Star Wars Trilogy Despecialized3Because these versions remove the Special Editions' changes—get it? Editions: Amazingly high quality versions of the theatrical releases of all three original movies. As a very brief example, here's one still (click for a much larger version) from Star Wars:

The movies are not at Blu-Ray (1920x1080) resolution, but they're very well done 720p (1280x720) versions which look amazingly nice even when scaled to fill the screen of my 27" iMac. And most importantly, all the cruft added on through the years is gone. No bogus CGI. No replaced characters. No weird sound effects. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) Han shoots first.

So how can you get these Despecialized versions for yourself? That's a bit tricky…

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Travel from the Earth to the Moon in high def

Way back in the late 1990s, HBO aired an amazing miniseries called From the Earth to the Moon. Produced by Tom Hanks, the 12-episode series covers most of the key events in the Apollo program, including the Apollo 1 fire, the first moon landing, the Apollo 13 crisis, and much more. In total, 30 of the 32 astronauts in the Apollo program are represented onscreen during the series.

Each episode runs about 50 minutes; Wikipedia's entry on the miniseries includes a nice summary of each episode that doesn't give too much away.

I've watched it at least a half-dozen times, and up until this summer, every viewing was at DVD resolution—eventually upscaled on higher-resolution TV sets, but still not the greatest video experience.

This summer, however, HBO re-released the series after remastering it in HD. They also reworked many of the special effects to take advantage of advances in that field over the last 20 years. If—like me—you're a physical media person, you can pick it up for only $23 from Amazon…or if you're fully digital, you can get it from the iTunes Store for $30. (Yes, a physical copy with media and packaging and shipping1and it includes a digital copy! is $7 less than a series of 0s and 1s written to a file. What a wacky world we live in.)

The visual changes are dramatic, as you can see in these shots from the two versions.

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Solving a wavy issue with a Sony 4K Blu-ray player

We've had our 4K Vizio M70-C3 TV for about 2.5 years, but we just added a Sony UBP-X800 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player last October. We have a few 4K movies, plus what we watch on the Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video. Stuff mostly looks great, but when watching The Martian the other day, I noticed this odd "wave" effect in the background, whenever the camera panned across a scene. I wrote it off as a one-time thing, until yesterday.

I was trying to watch the extras (which are in 1080p) on the new Black Panther 4K disc, and I noticed the exact same problem. This time I filmed a bit of it with my phone:

Needless to say, this makes it really hard to watch anything—it's not only distracting, I actually start feeling queasy after a while. After testing a bunch of settings in both the TV and the Sony player, I found the cause: The Sony player's 4K upscaling. With it disabled, everything looks normal. Turn it on, and any 1080p content gets wavy when panning. Problem solved!

But what about The Martian, which was 4K to begin with, but still had the waves? That was, ummmm, most likely user error: I must have loaded the non-4K disc in the player, as when I tested it yesterday with the 4K disc, everything was fine. Oops!

I have no idea if I have a defective player, or if it's a limitation on the upscaling, or if it's just a strange issue between the Sony player and the Vizio TV. Regardless, if you happen to have a similar setup and are seeing annoying waves when the camera pans, try disabling the 4K upscaling feature.

A neat detail in Star Wars: The Last Jedi [Coded Spoiler]

We saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi for a second time a while back, mainly because a large group of friends was going and we had most of the theater to ourselves, so it was sort of like a private screening. During my re-watching, I spotted a number of things that I'd missed the first time, but one in particular stood out…

Note: The remainder of this post is hidden behind a spoiler-hiding plug-in, as the subject being discussed is a major—really major—plot spoiler. This should keep it disguised both here on the site, and in the RSS feed. However, commenters may not disguise their comments, which means you may not want to scroll down at all if you haven't seen the movie yet.

If you don't want a major plot element revealed, don't expand the hidden spoiler!

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Movies Anywhere (mostly) opens the closed iTunes ecosystem

With the recent unveiling of Movies Anywhere, Apple has—willingly or not, I do not know—opened up the world of iTunes to movies from other places. Stated another way, you can now have movies in the Tunes ecosystem that weren't purchased there, or that weren't digital versions acquired by using an iTunes redemption code with a physical disc purchase.

To put it bluntly, this is huge; I've long wanted a way to get all of my movies into iTunes (and iOS) so that they could sync to devices, easily stream (without the computer on) to the TV, etc. The service goes well beyond iTunes/iOS, of course—the full list of supported players is quite extensive.

Important: As of now, Movies Anywhere is a US-only service. If you're not in the US, hopefully something similar will be coming to your country at some point in the future.

What's really amazing, though, is that you can not only combine purchases from multiple sources into iTunes, but convert and/or upgrade them in the process. Thanks to Movies Anywhere, I've been able to do two seemingly amazing things…

  1. Put an UltraViolet-only (i.e. no iTunes version) digital redemption movie into the iTunes ecosystem.
  2. Paid a modest fee—not to Apple—and converted an old physical DVD into a high-def —digital version.

Note: The original version of this post stated that you could convert a DVD into a 4K iTunes video. That is not the case, based on this article and my own testing. Thanks to @netnothing for the pointer.

How does this magic work? Honestly, I don't really know.

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A deep dive into HandBrake and Video Transcoding

An obvious interest area of mine is in ripping (and watching) movies using my Mac. I've talked about everything from installing the tools I use to how I rip to how to make sure I update the ripping tools. And though I've included some comparison pictures in the how-I-rip article, I've never done a deep dive into the various ripping options and how they compare on three key fronts:

  • Speed: Faster is better; measured in minutes required to rip.
  • Size: Smaller is better; measured in MB of drive space used.
  • Quality: Higher is better; the closer the image quality is to the original, the better.

An ideal rip would be one that happens in seconds, saves into a 10KB file, and has quality matching the original. The reality, though, is far from the ideal. Ripping a movie involves making trade-offs between those three competing measures: Maximizing any one measure requires some sort of tradeoff with one or both of the other measures.

After ripping so many DVDs and Blu-rays over the years, I was curious about how HandBrake and Don Melton's Video Transcoding tools handle those tradeoffs, so I decided to do some testing.

If you'd like to see what I discovered about ripping time, file sizes, and—with lots and lots of frame grabs—image quality, keep reading…

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Book: “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales…” by Cary Elwes

Like 95% of the audience and 97% of the critics, I'm a big fan of The Princess Bride. The movie turns 30 this year (special anniversary super-duper Blu-ray extended mega cut, please?), and it stands up well to the test of time. If you haven't seen it yet, well, see it. It's not only full of quotable quotes ("Inconceivable!"), the story is enjoyable, the acting campy and perfect, and certain characters are just incredibly memorable. Well worth the time.

But this post isn't about the movie. It's about a book about the making of the movie, written by Cary Elwes, who starred as Westley, aka The Man in Black. And in the interest of thoroughness, the book's full title isn't As You Wish, it's As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

The book is well written (with some credit to Joe Layden, noted as the "with" on the cover), and details Carey's experiences with the film starting with the original casting call (actually a note under his hotel room door) up through the release and some detail on the inept marketing behind the movie. It's a great read, and very interesting on its own.

But what really made the book for me were all the quotes that Cary secured from others involved in the production. These are present throughout the book, and you seldom need read more than a page before encountering one.

They aren't shown inline, which would interrupt the story flow. Instead, they're presented as asides, like this one:

Each appears near relevant content, so they're applicable to what you're reading. But by separating them, you can read them when you like. These snippets have some real gems, such as the one above, which explains how The Princess Bride book came to be. Since finishing the book, I've gone back through it, just to read all these asides again; they really are wonderful.

If you're a fan of The Princess Bride, Cary's book is well worth your time.

Revisiting ripping Blu-ray discs

A couple years back, I explained how I rip Blu-ray discs. A lot of time has passed, and I now use a slightly different procedure that results in much faster rips—with the caveat that the resulting file will be larger than the "slow" method, and is technically of slightly lower quality, though I can't visually distinguish the two.

The new method uses Don Melton's amazing video transcoding tools, a set of Unix programs that optimize video conversion in ways you cannot do (or easily do) in the Handbrake GUI. If you're new to Unix, but would still like to try these tools, I wrote a detailed set of instructions that should help get you up and running.

Using these Unix programs, you can rip a disc with various parameters, including one to optimize for speed (with good image quality) and another that tries to minimize the file size.

Here's a quick comparison of all three methods, as tested with the three-hour Hamlet Blu-ray. The 'Handbrake GUI' rip was done using, well, the Handbrake GUI as described in my original article. The second and third rows use Don's tools set to quick and veryquick modes, and the final row uses Don's tools set to optimize the file size.

Method Data Copied Convert (hrs:mins) File Size
Handbrake GUI 47.5GB 3:52 6.8GB
transcode - quick 40.1GB 2:20 9.2GB
transcode - small 40.1GB 3:12 6.5GB

Tested on a late 2014 27" iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 and 24GB of RAM.

Using Don's tools in "quick" mode, you save time two ways: 7GB (15%) less data is copied to the hard drive, and the conversion process is over 90 minutes (38%) faster. The downside is that the final file size is 2.4GB (35%) larger. And that's what they call a tradeoff.

Using the "small" mode in Don's tools, you still save the 7GB (15%) of data copy, and still save 40 minutes (17%) over the original method. In addition, the file size is smaller than the Handbrake GUI version.

To summarize, regardless of whether you care more about file size or ripping speed, Don's tools provide an advantage over the Handbrake GUI: Either method is notably faster, and the small option generates smaller (or probably at worst, very similar) file sizes. (There's also a "big" option, if you don't mind somewhat larger files at a higher quality level.)

Keep reading to see some examples of the image quality of each method, and information on how to install and use Don's video transcoding tools.

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Plex and I do not get along

After hearing my The Committed podcast cohosts rave about Plex (a free media server), I thought I'd give it another shot: I'd tried a few months back, but because of the way I store my personal videos (using our own Usher app), it was going to be a big migration project, and I just never got into it. So today, I resolved to try again.

And today, I'm giving up again. I've spent the last few hours fighting Plex, and despite the awesomeness of the streaming (it *is* awesome), it's just not worth the aggravation in configuration and setup—to me, of course. Plenty of others find it works just fine.

But for me, it doesn't work at all, basically. Here's a short list of some of the things that bother me about Plex…

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