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04-18-2004, 08:04 PM
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The Future Of The DVD

April 18, 2004
600 Macs, 4,000 Lines, One Giant Leap for DVD's


ON the second floor of an unassuming office building on the edge of Burbank, John Lowry is forging what might be the future of the DVD and, with it, the way that classic films will be stored, preserved, telecast and watched.

Mr. Lowry, who has worked for decades at enhancing video imagery, is responsible for some of the best-looking DVD restorations in recent years, including transfers of "Casablanca," "Singin' in the Rain" and "Once Upon a Time in the West."

Since last November, he has been immersed in a project that promises to advance the state of the art and that has been kept secret, even among most industry insiders, until now.

What he is doing will make a DVD look nearly as sharp and detailed as a 35-millimeter film print. It will produce images with six times the resolution of today's high-definition television sets. In video quality, it could turn home theater into a true rival of the neighborhood cineplex.

Walk into the suites of Lowry Digital, the company that Mr. Lowry started six years ago, and the first sight that strikes you is the computer bank rack after rack of Macintosh G5 computers, 600 of them, holding a combined memory of 2,400 gigabytes.

Beyond this room is a super-sanitized, temperature-controlled chamber. Inside, a technician wearing a white smock and cap monitors a pair of machines called the Imager XE-Advanced, made by the Imagica Corp.

The Imagica machines are ultra-sophisticated digital film-scanners. They are loaded with reels from the original negative of the 1967 James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice."

The spools advance slowly, one frame every four seconds, which is how long it takes the Imagica to scan across a frame 4,000 times a process known as 4K scanning.

During the scan, the machine creates a digital replica of the frame, consisting of 4,000 horizontal lines of data. A cable then transmits this data to a hard-drive server in an adjoining room.

To put the magnitude of 4,000 lines in perspective, a television displays broadcast signals as 480 lines. High-definition televisions have up to 1,080 lines. (The greater number of lines, the more detailed the image the more closely it resembles a seamless, lifelike picture.) Impressive as HDTV looks, 35-millimeter film has far more color and detail. Engineers calculate that 4,000 lines of data would be needed to reproduce all the visual information in a frame of film exactly as many lines as the Imagica delivers.

So, if it scans an original camera negative, as it's doing with "You Only Live Twice," it creates a data file that's a virtual duplicate of the negative.

By contrast, most DVD's these days good as many look begin with a compromise: they're scanned at just 1,080 lines, at most 2,000 (sometimes as few as 480), and the source is almost always not the original negative but a copy. When you start with a copy, Mr. Lowry said, "you're immediately losing lots of details. Colors are less pure, too."

In other words, a DVD that's scanned at 4K from an original negative should look better than the best DVD's today. That's the theory, anyway.

MGM has hired Lowry Digital to make 4K digital masters of nine James Bond films, including all of those starring Sean Connery. I have watched scenes from a high-definition transfer of these masters on monitors at Lowry Digital. I've also seen a DVD, which Mr. Lowry gave me, on my TV set at home.

The scenes look as brilliant as anything I've seen on a video disc and better than any video of a color movie that was shot 35 to 40 years ago. Colors are saturated and natural. Gardens have dozens of shades of green. Flesh tones are uncannily lifelike. Shadows look like shadows, not gray blots. Motions are smooth, not jumpy.

MGM executives decline to say when they'll be releasing these Bond DVD's or anything else about the project, except to confirm that it exists. The new discs won't be out until next year at least perhaps in part to avoid angering consumers who bought the 20 Bond films in three boxed sets that MGM put out just last year. Those discs (which Mr. Lowry had nothing to do with) tend to look grainy, blotched and flat.

They were made with the materials at hand faded film stock and high-definition (sometimes standard-definition) scanners. Studios frequently use 4K scanners for computer animation and special effects, but few have even considered 4K-scanning of entire movies for DVD. It's an expensive operation. An Imagica scanner costs about $300,000. The G5 computers cost $3,000 apiece. The software, servers and so forth aren't cheap either. All told, mastering a DVD in 4K costs two to four times as much as doing it the usual ways.

The attraction of going this route is that it produces not just better-looking DVD's for now but a foundation for formats of the future.

In its current format, an image on a DVD consists of about 500 lines no more than a DVD player can "read" or a regular TV set can display. Even a 4K master has to be reprocessed to fit the DVD format. (It will still look better, just as a photo taken by a Nikon looks better than one taken by a disposable camera, even on newsprint.)

Some time in the next decade, though, DVD's will probably be supplanted by high-definition DVD's. High-definition TV may evolve into ultra-HDTV. (Engineers in Japan have built prototype discs and monitors that display 4,000 lines.)

A hard-drive master that contains a 4K scan could serve the same function as a film negative a source of copies, for whatever medium. Unlike film, it won't fade; and as video technology improves as its resolution becomes higher and higher there will be no need to make new masters; 4K is high enough to accommodate the changes.

"We're making an archive for DVD, film, digital cinema, HDTV, TV, whatever that will last the next two or three generations of technology," Mr. Lowry said.

Thirty-five years ago, Mr. Lowry, who is now 71, patented a method of cleaning up NASA's live televised transmissions from the moon. Six years ago, as the DVD took off, he set up Lowry Digital then a two-man R & D shop to apply his techniques to digital restoration.

He hired a photographer to make a short 35-millimeter film clip of some children playing soccer on a lakeshore. He paid a local lab to transfer the film to digital video, using a 4K scanner. The picture was clear, sharp, detailed. He then processed the images with his film-restoration software, which he'd programmed onto some Macintosh G4 computers. (The effort took months, as the faster G5's weren't out yet.) The processed picture was clearer, sharper and more detailed still. He could see every divot on the turf. What had once looked like a smudge in the background was now recognizable as a boat on the lake.

In January 2000, some executives from Warner Brothers saw his demo. They were so impressed, they faxed him an order the same day to restore the masters for three DVD's: "Gone With the Wind," "Now Voyager" and "North by Northwest." With the advance money, he bought the computers he needed to do the job.

Since then, he has bought hundreds of computers, hired a staff of 30 and worked on 80 DVD's including the long-awaited DVD of "Star Wars" erasing wear, tears, dirt, scratches and other ravages of age. (In the early days, he sometimes erased too much. By his own admission, his restoration of "Citizen Kane" is too clean; the natural grain of film is gone; it looks like a video. He later figured out how to fix flaws while preserving grain.)

Many restoration specialists do this sort of work manually, often frame by frame. Mr. Lowry may be the first to do digital restoration while the images are still in a digital format a bunch of 0's and 1's inside a computer before they're transferred to video.

Not long ago, MGM sent a camera crew to interview him about his restoration techniques for a "special feature" to be included on the Bond DVD's. The question now is how long it will take MGM to release these DVD's and how long it will take other studios and digital-mastering houses to catch on in short, how long it will take for the future to begin.

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