The check discs are in and Home Theater Forum was there! Earlier this week Kevin Koster, Todd Erwin and I had the chance to take an exclusive first look at the upcoming 3D Blu-ray releases of Coraline and Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs at Panasonic Hollywood Labs (PHL) where they were authored. Kevin and Todd will be weighing in with their opinions over the next few days. Kevin originally reviewed the 2D/Anaglyphic 3D version of the Coraline Blu-ray and Todd recently covered the 3-D: Behind The Hype industry panel, so I look forward to their thoughts.
Panasonic Hollywood Labs is a state of the art facility that was founded in 2002. They do on-site research into technologies like digital film conversion, MPEG-4/AVC codec development, digital cinema and DVD and Blu-ray authoring. In 2009 they announced their Advanced Authoring Center which focuses on 3D Full HD Blu-ray, MVC (Multi-view Video Coding) encoder and authoring tool development. Coraline and Ice Age 3 are the first feature film 3D Blu-ray titles they have authored.
Other than demo material, my experience with 3D Blu-ray has been Monsters Vs Aliens, the only feature film 3D Blu-ray title currently available (as part of the Samsung 3D starter kit). Ron Epstein and I are both very familiar with the disc from our time at Samsung's 3D launch event. At the time we both agreed that it was a good, not great 3D presentation especially (and ironically) on 3D LED/LCD displays. To recap what we said then, there was a lot of ghosting during playback on the Samsung LED/LCD displays, less on the Samsung 3D plasma and far less on the Panasonic 3D plasma, but there was no escaping it on some scenes. Because it’s so easy to pick and choose content that looks great for demo material I think that it’s better to use a full length feature like Monsters Vs Aliens to get a feel for the "real world" performance of 3D Blu-ray technology, and after seeing it I went on the record as saying "I saw some demos that leave me wondering why anyone would want to pay a steep premium for a 3D capable system."
This week isn't the first time HTF has been to Panasonic Hollywood Labs. Several years ago on our last national meet we had the opportunity to visit and see a prototype 3D Blu-ray system that looked fantastic. Unfortunately, all attendees were sworn to secrecy so we didn't make any public comments about it. Talking with attending members throughout the week it was obvious that everyone was clearly impressed. When I got back from the Samsung and Panasonic launch in New York this March I called PHL and asked why my recent 3D experience didn't live up to past demos. I explained the minor eye fatigue problems I had with some of the demos and the amount of ghosting on Monsters Vs. Aliens. Since PHL didn’t author the disc and didn’t see any of the demos I did all they were able to say was “wait”.
This week the wait was over as they showed us the first two full length films they have authored on 3D Blu-ray and to sum it up in a single word….WOW. We watched them on currently available products; the Panasonic 50” Plasma (TC-P50VT25) hooked up to a Panasonic 3D Blu-ray player (DMP-BDT300).
We watched both movies back to back (3D marathon!) and took some time to fiddle around a bit with the menus and switching from 2D to 3D. I saw no artifacts; no ghosting and had no eye fatigue during either film. The original DTS-HD audio from the 2D Blu-ray release was re-used on both 3D Blu-rays.
First up was Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. While I only saw this in 2D theatrically, the 3D Blu-ray presentation looked similar to other animated films I’ve seen theatrically in RealD 3D equipped theaters, except it was a brighter picture. There was nothing “gimmicky” about the presentation. The 3D was put to good use convincingly expanding the depth of field for the entire film. Even the menus and subtitles extended out from the screen for a fun effect. While I didn’t have a light meter, overall color and brightness appeared to be the same watching the film in both 2D and 3D. As I mentioned I saw no artifacting or ghosting. There were no special features on the disc, but the disc menu had options for watching the film in either 2D or 3D. We tested this and it presented a screen asking you to either put on or take off your 3D glassed and then resumed playing from where you left off. It was just as good as the best 3D demos I have seen in the past.
After Ice Age 3 we went right into Coraline. As soon as we inserted a disc there was a popup message from the Panasonic player asking if we wanted to watch in 2D or 3D. After selecting 3D a 3D version of the standard Universal Blu-ray menu appeared. As with Ice Age there were only language options on the disc and no special features. Unlike Ice Age 3 there was no option on the disc menu to switch from 2D to 3D. Coraline has an interesting color palette with a combination of darker tones and very bright colors. The plasma’s ability to produce deep blacks and lots of shadow detail were put to good use on the night scenes in the “other” world. The 3D added an amazing amount of depth and dimension to the viewing experience. It’s something that is really hard to describe. Panasonic’s Advanced Authoring Center proved up to the task with Coraline too. I saw no artifacting or ghosting. It looked fantastic and was a night and day improvement over the anaglyphic 3D presentation included with the original Blu-ray release.
A few other things to note. Since we were in a small viewing room I was pretty far off axis for a lot of my viewing I left the sweet spot to Kevin and Todd. Thanks to the benefits of plasma, the 3D effect was rock solid even when viewing off axis. I would occasionally move around the screen and the image stayed in 3D but would change based on my viewing angle. Todd and Kevin described it as almost like watching a hologram. That’s how real the 3D was. While the bridge of my nose was a bit sore at the end of the movie marathon since my 3D glasses were missing the rubber padding I had no eye fatigue at all. I wear glasses and Panasonic’s 3D glasses fit comfortably over mine. The Ice Age 3 and Coraline 3D Blu-rays will initially only be available by mail with the purchase of a Panasonic 3D capable display.
Now that I have seen three full length movies in 3D Blu-ray I have to revisit my earlier comment about wondering why anyone would pay a steep premium with some new qualifiers. 3D Blu-ray done right is fantastic and worth a premium. I am convinced that to do 3D right you need to have good source material, have it authored correctly like PHL appears to have figured out how to do, and if you are going to be using a flat panel make it a plasma. The greater viewing angle, higher contrast and faster refresh plasma offers are all things that are essential to a better 3D experience. Based on the high quality MVC encoding and authoring that Panasonic Hollywood Labs did on Coraline and Ice Age 3, I can’t wait until I’m invited back to check out other 3D Blu-ray movies that they may be working on.