Beep beep

This weekend was spent rewatching all 8 Harry Potter films. It’s nearly the 20th anniversary of the very first film, and I came onboard at MPC during the second film, the Chamber of Secrets when I was a mere pup of 26.

I own all 8 films on both Blu-Ray (HD only) and iTunes (4K). I bought both because I spent many of my 6 years working at MPC working on a Harry Potter film – in fact, I can’t remember a time when something relating to Harry Potter wasn’t happening. I went to Leavesden Studios a few times to set-up or remove kit too. One time I even had a bite to eat at the Warner Bros. café, sitting outside and looking at the scaffolding that made up half of the Dursley’s house in Little Whinging, Surrey.

No film credit (boo – Warner Bros. are stingy with credit allocation), but MPC did a Nice Thing(tm) by taking out this page in Cinefex

Growing up, the film that got my imagination going most of all was, of course, Star Wars. It was a film primarily aimed at kids, so it wasn’t difficult to get into or enjoy when I was 3 or 4. Harry Potter was very much a series that starts off as a tale for younger kids, but the story grows with them – as do the characters. Star Wars is difficult to place in this regard- these days it’s still very much a PG thing (and so repetitive to boot), whereas the last three films in the Harry Potter series are quite a bit more dark & violent.

The Whomping Willow. Destroyer of Ford Anglias.

As I made my way through the films, it’s intriguing to see the stars of the film grow up as well with each film. The storyline is compelling, and the characters are believable and relatable, even if it’s set in a fantasy world of wizards and witches and other supernatural delights. Hermione, in particular, is the kind of friend everyone should have. She does tend to put up with a lot of shit throughout the entire story, so how she remains sane by the end of it is anybody’s guess (the same could be said of Harry and Ron, though).

Harry Potter is essentially the story of three best friends, along with a vast array of weird and wonderful supporting characters, fighting the return of a dark lord whilst simultaneously attending school and learning the very skills to be able to defeat him. It’s very impressive. J. K. Rowling sets up her ducks in a row with each film (or book) and then presses the FIRE button when it needs to be pressed. She’s not frightened to put her characters in very dark, very risky situations. And not everybody makes it through.

The Prisoner of Azkaban resonates with me a bit because we had a massive model of the werewolf Professor Lupin turns into towards the end of the film in the office. And it had a removable head. And people would wear it like a hat – just because. That said, The Chamber of Secrets was the first film I got my hands dirty with, especially figuring out the ins and outs of the VPN system WB had set-up (against a 512Kbs ADSL line at Leavesden – but thankfully it got better with subsequent films) and other VFX infrastructure matters.

This version does NOT have a removable head

I also went along to Shepperton Studios during Azkaban’s production, though it was for another film called Wimbledon. Somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that many years later I’d be working IN Wimbledon. Anyway, on my way to the office at Shepperton Studios, I came across the trailers for David Thewlis (who plays Professor Lupin) and IIRC, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). But even more interesting was this monstrosity poking out the top of one of Shepperton’s sound stages:

It’s big. Seriously big.

It was all good fun (except I got told off for replacing a broken PC on Wimbledon when the resource manager was away – yet the artist working at the studio had to use SOMETHING and that was the only machine I had listed as a spare – I’m glad to be out of VFX because it was things like that which drove me nuts).

Anyway, it was late on Sunday when I finished all 8 movies. I felt sad because we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of plucky youngsters who risked a lot to get where they were, and now we were going our separate ways. Nearly 10 years in the making. And I was also sad because without J. K. Rowling, and as such without Harry Potter, the British film industry would probably not have had such a resurgence between 2000-2010. VFX companies sprung up around Potter. But within that was darkness.

During the Order of the Phoenix, Warner Bros. essentially made an ultimatum – give us more tax credits or we’ll move to Eastern Europe. It must have been a big deal because when the managing director sends every employee an email that wishes the PM (either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair at the time) would increase tax incentives for the studios, it makes you wonder about whether you’re going to have a job later down the road.

And it’s that reason why I feel that we must do something to get away from tax incentives for major US film studios and move to something fairer for the taxpayer. Fairer for VFX vendors. Stop the race to the bottom, and stop the displacement this causes. Besides, these kinds of incentives can lead to tax dodgers (Just “Google” the following: HRMC film tax fraud). State handouts to corporations, especially the film industry, need better management.

Nevertheless, Harry Potter remains one of the most beloved characters and stories this country has produced. And the films are just wonderful. Here’s to another 20 years (but please – no enhancing VFX like Star Wars did).

A small section of my Blu-Ray/UltraHD Blu-Ray collection

With the news that Samsung intends to stop making any more Blu-Ray players, people are wondering whether this is a signal that physical media is gradually coming to an end, particularly with streaming and catch-up services becoming more and more popular. Netflix titles will forever remain on Netflix, right? Providing that you keep paying the subscription?

I would argue that the world still needs physical media. Film and TV studios still haven’t assured consumers that content they buy wholly digitally will remain with them for the rest of the lives (and beyond), and that you can play them in a format that is reasonably open and fair. I can vouch that this is a legitimate worry – I had bought a fair number of titles from the BBC Store when it was alive and well, and even then there was a very big problem:

Access to the BBC Store content was a mixed bag. If I recall correctly, you (eventually) had to use a dedicated BBC Store app. BBC iPlayer apps across different platforms could access it, but for the most part, I couldn’t view the content on my LG TV or any other device that directly connected to my TV. I couldn’t cast content to the TV unless I had a Chromecast. Which I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the platform was more open at the beginning and then slowly killed itself by limiting itself to certain platforms.

By the time BBC Store had decided to shut up shop, at least the BBC had the good grace to provide a refund or voucher for use with a rival service. But this didn’t make up for the fact that not all of the content was available elsewhere. Had I bought the content on DVD or Blu-Ray (albeit for a more substantial price), this situation would never have occurred.

Netflix and Amazon, on the other hand, are available on pretty much everything these days – even ancient Blu-Ray players. The problem that Netflix now finds itself is in interactive content. Its Bandersnatch interactive episode works with modern Netflix apps, with a few notable exceptions – the main one being Apple TV. I seem to recall reading that Apple doesn’t allow the use of Javascript within tvOS apps which is the reason why Bandersnatch isn’t available there.

Another indication that physical media is being looked over is that TV companies are seeming not bothering to make Blu-Ray versions available of their TV show season boxsets. Fox, or as I like to call them, 18th Century Dodo (because they are nearly always stuck in the past) released the first season of their excellent sci-fi/comedy series, The Orville, on DVD only despite broadcasting in HD. DVD is not high definition. Why on earth would anybody want to buy something that’s lower quality than what was originally broadcast?

Channel 4 has done the same with a season 1-4 boxet of their excellent comedy, Catastrophe. Yet you can stream it via HD and buy it in HD on services like iTunes. But there is no Blu-Ray release. Neither is there a Blu-Ray release for Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave. A DVD release, yes, but if you want HD, you’ll need to buy it digitally from iTunes.

Now let’s talk about iTunes for a moment. It’s by far the best ecosystem for non-physical media if you like movies. Not so much for TV programs. iTunes offers movies (many of which now come in 4K resolution – albeit if streamed via an Apple TV – no 4K on Mac, iPad or iPhone) that come with the kind of extras that you’d see on physical media such as behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries. iTunes for TV shows rarely does this – if at all. The only TV show I have bought on iTunes which come with extras and audio commentaries was Breaking Bad – the Deluxe Edition (seasons 1-6), and even that was problematic. I had to disable Dolby Surround to listen to the episodes which have audio commentaries. You can only listen to them when the audio output is set to Stereo. This is not a problem for iTunes movies which set the correct audio channel through the use of a special menu which comes with the movie.

But even after all that, you’re still not guaranteed that the movies or TV shows that you’ve bought through iTunes are yours to keep forever. There is always the chance that a studio or broadcaster could remove their content from the store, and thus your library. A similar situation to Amzon’s Kindle books (which has happened, BTW). And this situation can apply to any digital movie or TV show retailer. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to stop a company from removing content from your virtual library. And nothing to say that you wouldn’t be compensated, either.

So if digital media is on the rise, it seems that it’s because we like the convenience. For me, this is true. I DO like the convenience it offers – especially iTunes. I can stream to my TV, iPad and iPhone without faffing around too much. I have over 348 movies on iTunes along with a few TV shows that I’d like to watch from the iPad or iPhone if I’m travelling. So I am heavily invested in it. But I’m equally invested in physical media too. I have an UltraHD 4K player from Sony which I think is marvellous. I have an extensive collection of Blu-Ray, UltraHD 4K Blu-Ray and DVDs. Some of which cannot be purchased digitally (Studio Ghibli is one such company which has never released its content on iTunes, for example). I did have an Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player which was discontinued as they were moving away from the audio-visual industry. It was the leading 4K Blu-Ray player of it’s time, winning many awards.

But it’s disheartening that TV studios – and maybe even some film studios – don’t seem to care about what the consumer wants. I understand that mastering and duplication of physical media is expensive. But the consumer deserves a choice. A choice I didn’t have when HBO’s Silicon Valley stopped being made available via Amazon on Blu-Ray. DVD only. I had collected seasons 1 and 2 on Blu-Ray, and now future seasons weren’t going to be available in the definition that I want? Outrageous.

What I don’t understand is that it is easier to rip the likes of DVDs than Blu-Rays – they don’t take up much space. So why hasn’t efforts been made to phase out DVDs and replace them with Blu-Rays? Much effort has gone to publicise Blu-Ray as a superior quality format. It’s backwards compatible with DVD, so people’s collections will continue to work. Is it case that people don’t really care about resolution or quality? Why bother with 4K at all in that case? Should we just laugh at 8K and future resolution updates?

Are we in the battle of VHS versus betamax again? It sure as hell feels like it at times. In any event, I express my bitter disappointment at the likes of 18th Century Dodo (Fox), Channel 4 and HBO for their decision to release content on DVD only. I doubt they will be the last to do so, but one can hope the industry gives itself a bit of a kick up the arse to show commitment to all formats. I despise piracy, but I know that piracy isn’t going to stop regardless of whatever efforts are made. But if the TV and film studios don’t do something, the pirates are not only going to give people what they want, in the format that they want, but they’ll probably do a better job at presentation too.

Alas poor Xbox One X, I didn’t use you as much as I’d have liked. You became a bit of a brick sitting underneath the TV gathering dust. Hence it was off to the local CeX for you, and in with a Sony UDB-X700 mid-range UltraHD (4K) Blu-Ray player.

The problem with modern console gaming is not only having to buy the console in the first place, but you also have to factor in:

  • A Multi-player subscription (Xbox Live in the case of the Xbox, or Playstation Plus for the PlayStation) – an extra monthly or yearly cost.
  • Cost of the games. This varies – but usually between £40-£100 depending on the game and publisher. The alternative is a subscription service such as the Xbox Games Pass or PS Now for PlayStation.
  • In-game purchases. Extra skins, weapons, whatever.

I’ve determined that given the overall level of gaming I do versus the number of movies I watch via Blu-Ray or UltraHD Blu-Ray, I’d be bettter off with a dedicated player. A player which didn’t have a hard drive in it which would be a pain in the neck to replace if it were to fail.

So the Xbox One X has gone and has been replaced by a Sony UDB-X700 UltraHD (4K) player. I’ve always been a big fan of Sony products, and the UDB-X700 is no exception. It’s a mid-range device which has won many awards – including a coveted What Hi-Fi? 2018 Award. One of the things that attracted me to it was a decent remote control (you try finding a decent remote with the Xbox One X), HDR->SDR conversion (my LG 4K television does not have HDR because I bought it too early – frigging technology, eh?), and built-in app support for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc.

The Sony UDB-U700 in all its glory

Actually, the last thing doesn’t matter too much to me – the Apple 4K TV does pretty much all of the “smart” TV stuff (alongside the Sky Q box and even my LG TV’s ageing WebOS which doesn’t see anywhere near the same level of commitment in updates from TVs from 2017 onwards). The Sony apps are decent enough, though I found that when it first streams content the picture is all blurry until it’s had a chance to play catchup and buffer enough data to continue. The Apple TV and Sky Q box does not do this. But’s nice to have a backup, just in case. And besides, I DO like the big Netflix button on this player’s remote control.

The picture quality is excellent regardless of whether or not you have an HDR TV. And the HDR to SDR conversion thing is a new feature I’ve never come across before, but does – I suppose, having not seen HDR before (thanks, LG, thanks) – do a good job. Adjusting the setting during playback allows you to adjust the conversion. Apparently setting it high will result in an image that is closest to HDR, but you pay for it in reduced picture brightness.

Audio is fine. I don’t have any Dolby Atmos speakers or even a surround sound system. I usually pipe all audio through my TV to drown out the neighbours (especially their frigging noisy dogs). But very good stereo reproduction from what I’ve played so far. Very sharp, very crisp.

All in all, an excellent player at a decent price. Having owned the super pricey and now utterly defunct Oppo UDP-203 a few years ago (sold to somebody who truly appreciates the Oppo line of devices despite they’re leaving the audio-visual market), this unit certainly gives as good as it gets. And Sony isn’t about to give up making audio-visual devices any time soon!

9/10