The TV Looks Fine
These days, it seems a lot of people enjoy watching HGTV and the DIY network. We watch as they show us just how easy it is to lay down a floating floor, install a new sink, rejuvenate our landscaping, and maximize the enjoyment we get from our homes. These programs pull back the curtain of mystery and attempt to demystify projects many of us view as too complicated, too hard, or too time-consuming. In short, they show us just how it easy it can (sometimes) be to Do It Yourself - something we may have been reluctant to do before watching Amy Matthews build a deck in less time than it takes me to find my cordless drill. These programs succeed because more and more, we're discovering that a job done right doesn't always require a rocket scientist - unless you're, you know, building a rocket. What it does require is the right set of tools and some education on the task at hand.
This same "better let a professional handle it" hesitation is just as prevalent when it comes to setting up your HDTV and surround sound system. And since the shopping experience at Best Buy and similar big box stores is only sometimes more pleasant than sitting still for your dentist while he performs a root canal, it's no wonder many consumers fail to fully process the techno jargon spewing from your Geek Squad Leader's lips at the time of purchase. Fear of getting hosed on overpriced cables, warranty protection programs, and so-called "calibration services" make many shoppers freeze up and go into survivalist mode. Just get the TV and get out. We'll figure out the rest when we get home. But do you? Or do you just plug it in and decide the TV looks "fine" the way it is? (Meanwhile, Law & Order has suddenly become Short & Fat.)
Split into three sections - Discover, Optimize and Experience - Disney's WOW disc is the company's laudable attempt at explaining the ins and outs of HDTV, Blu-ray Disc and surround sound technologies. After sifting through most of the education segments and examining Disney's take on several tried and true test patterns, there is definitely some good stuff in here - but there's also some content that's downright Goofy. Let's look at each section individually.
Serving as the education portion of WOW, and the place where technophobes will want to spend some time, "Discover" begins with a segment entitled "Home Theater Basics with Goofy." This animated walk-through of your home theater system is at times entertaining, but anyone above the age of 10 is apt to find Goofy's shtick of listening to the narrator and occasionally interjecting with a "Gosh!" or "Gee!" irritating. It's too bad they couldn't get Tim Allen to run through this in Buzz Lightyear mode because it would have been more palatable for both adults and kids. But seriously, how many kids are really going to care about the benefits of HDMI?
The other thing that should be noted here is that WOW lays on the Disney sales pitch pretty heavy at times. One menu item - "The Power of Blu-ray, Simple as 1-2-3" is approximately one minute long and consists of a TV Commercial Voice telling us that all we need to do to enjoy Blu-ray is to buy an HDTV, buy a Blu-ray Disc player, connect it with HDMI, and - most importantly - head out to the store and stock up on Disney Blu-ray Discs like THESE!
The primary reason to purchase WOW is to get some plain talking help in setting up your TV and surround sound system. For that, you'll be spending the bulk of your time in the "Optimize" section of Disc One. And it's here that Disney deserves kudos for presenting a plethora of video and audio calibration information and test patterns in an attractive and well-organized manner. For some time now, Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials discs have been the standard go-to discs for calibration. My biggest complaint with Digital Video Essentials, in its various DVD and Blu-ray incarnations, has been its labyrinthine navigation. Some versions have menus so poorly designed that one has to wonder if it's all part of some grand plan to frustrate the average consumer into giving up and just paying for an ISF-certified calibration. In this department, I'm happy to report that Disney deserves high marks for its attractive, intuitive and consistent menu design and navigation. Well done.
I've sat for the week-long course and I have my calibration certificate from the Imaging Science Foundation. It's a great class and there is just a ton of stuff to digest when it comes to display technologies and the science of color. One thing I learned at the course is that having test patterns at your disposal is only half the battle. The other half is knowing what to do with them and interpreting the results. WOW gives you a bunch of useful test patterns, and it makes an earnest effort to explain the goal of each one and what it can tell you about your system. Oddly enough, one of the best things about WOW isn't on-disc, but rather in-box. Packaged inside the box is a 53-page booklet, loaded with screenshots, containing well-written information and instructions for the on-disc calibration utilities.
After you get your TV and speakers tweaked, the first thing you'll want to do is look at some demo material to see the fruits of your labor. Unfortunately, it's here where Disney truly drops the ball. Of the thirty or so film clips Disney gives us to evaluate our freshly-calibrated displays, the vast majority of them are animated or CGI-enhanced. I love Toy Story 2 as much as the next guy but I'm not going to examine Mrs. Potato Head to make sure my skin tones are dialed in. And Davey Jones' squid-saddled face from Pirates of the Caribbean is not what I had in mind either. Thankfully, we do get a few sample minutes from Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, an excellent film with a spectacular-looking Blu-ray. I would have liked to see more clips like this, demonstrating the new and improved look of real people in the real world.
Disc Two of WOW is a 60-minute nature film entitled "VISIONS: Inspired by Nature." But it's not really a film per se. Instead, it's a 60-minute loop of gorgeous landscapes and tranquil music - basically an extension of the "Experience" section on Disc One. Unfortunately, someone felt that nature by itself was just too boring and once again we're asked to use "natural and digitally created landscapes" as a means of evaluating the accuracy of our displays. I don't know about you, but I've never visited a CGI waterfall in real life, so I can't really say whether or not my TV is now doing a better job of recreating that experience. Very frustrating.
UPDATE: After hearing from Visions Producer/Director John S. Banks in our forum, I wanted to clarify my comments regarding the film's use of digital landscapes. As Mr. Banks rightly points out, "several of these pieces were without any cg, processing or compositing beyond color correction." That is true, and those segments (Flower Fields, Cumulous Day, Forest Waterfalls, and Big Sur Fireplace) do look superb. However, of Visions' eleven chapters - which are neatly organized and described in an included booklet - seven titles are followed by an asterisk where the fine print reads "Digitally Created" or "Digitally Enhanced." Make no mistake: Visions features a beautiful array of imagery and it certainly does a lot to boost your TV's "WOW factor." (Pun intended.) My chief argument here is simply that "digitally created" and "digitally enhanced" video is not the ideal specimen when it comes to evaluating a display's accuracy.
For most folks, discussing the differences between interlaced and progressive video, or the benefits of lossless audio codecs, is far from Friday night nirvana. Said another way, video and audio calibration is a dull subject. And for a long time, the average consumer has had little help (and little interest?) in making sense of the matter. Consequently, it's surprising that it's taken this long for a big company to step up to the zone plate and make it more digestible. And while the "buy Disney movies!" message can be a tad irritating and the selected demo material is frustrating, the education and test patterns offered by WOW make this a worthwhile investment for anyone attempting to get the most out of their home theater system.
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