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HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: The World at War



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#1 of 145 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted November 14 2010 - 10:47 AM

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The World at War

Studio: A&E Home Video
Year: 1973-1974
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 36 Hours, 16 Minutes (including extras)                Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English 2.0 Stereo LPCM
Subtitles: English SDH

The Program

The World at War, originally broadcast on television in 1973 and 1974, remains the definitive documentary about World War II. However, this new Blu-ray version from A&E Home Video is a mixed bag. The good news is that it has undergone a painstaking restoration which has removed most of the damage which was present in much of the original newsreel and combat footage. Purists have complained that the 4:3 television image has been zoomed and cropped to make it fit 16x9 screens, but that turns out to be less of a problem than one might expect. The primary issue that I have is that a direct comparison with the HBO Home Video box set which was released in 2001 demonstrates that the restored version has significantly less contrast and vividness. The deep blacks of the DVD set are now grays, and much of the color footage now has a relatively washed-out look to it. This is not a bad presentation, but anyone expecting a dramatic upgrade from the HBO Home Video DVD release is likely to be disappointed.

Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road and they were driven into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War.

I assume that most readers of this review are already familiar with The World at War, so I will not dwell on the content. Suffice it to say that the telecast was spread out over 26 weeks and is as thorough an examination of World War II and the events leading up to it as a viewer could hope for. Narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier, The World at War has deservedly earned numerous awards and accolades. It covers everything from the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1930s Germany to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the war's aftermath. The success of the documentary even led to the knighthood of its creator, Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Exceptional newsreel, combat, and even home movie footage is interspersed with interviews of subjects such as Marquis Kodo (advisor to Emperor Hirohito), Karl Wolff (Hitler's adjutant and SS General), Traudl Junge (Hitler's Secretary), Alger Hiss (State Department advisor to President Roosevelt), and Paul Tibbets (pilot of Enola Gay, the bomber which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). Also included are the recollections of ordinary soldiers, housewives, survivors of bombings and death camps, and the insights of historians.

The World at War belongs in the collection of anyone who is seriously interested in World War II. Whether owners of one of the prior DVD sets will want to get the Blu-ray version is a decision which will undoubtedly be influenced by the following issues, both good and bad, regarding the video presentation of the Blu-ray set.

The Video
Note: All comparisons to the prior DVD set refer to the 2001 release by HBO Home Video. There also is a 30th Anniversary box set which was released by A&E Home Video in 2004, a set which I have not viewed. It is possible that the contrast and color issues which I mention here are not apparent when compared to the 2004 box set.

Most of the pre-release discussion about the Blu-ray release of The World at War concerns the decision to convert the original 4:3 television image to the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. As it turns out, this is less problematic than I had anticipated. This, after all, is not a feature film or even a television drama. The newsreel and combat footage which makes up most of the program was not, for the most part, framed with artistic expression in mind. The restoration team decided to go through the original footage frame-by-frame and make every effort to retain all essential information. The only way to convert a virtually square image into a rectangular one is to zoom and crop. Depending upon where in the frame the essential information is located, the cropping might be greater on the top or bottom, or it might be equal. In any event, when compared to the original, the high-definition picture contains less information on the top and bottom without adding anything to the sides. This cropping has been done in a very skillful way, and I suspect that a viewer who has never seen the original and is unaware of the differences would not guess that anything has been lost.

The restoration team also has made extensive repairs to the newsreel and combat footage, much of which shows a great deal of damage in the DVD release. Scratches, dirt, and other problems have been painstakingly cleaned up. The results are impressive, leaving us with images which are generally smooth and free of digital artifacts. Still, the overall look is on the soft side. Some of this softness undoubtedly can be attributed to the limitations of the source material, while some of it may be attributable to the zooming which was necessary to change the aspect ratio.

What immediately struck me, and which was driven home when I did a comparison with the original DVD set, is that the producers of the Blu-ray disc have inexplicably turned down the contrast. The deep blacks which are seen on the HBO DVD have been reduced to shades of gray. The color footage, which is generally quite vivid on the DVD set, now has a somewhat washed-out appearance. One needs only to compare the footage of Hitler's home movies to see how the color intensity has changed. The color sequences on the Blu-ray actually remind me of black and white films which were colorized by Ted Turner, so color me disappointed.

The Audio

Thankfully, there are no issues with the audio. The remixed lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very good. The narration and dialogue remain centered, but the new mix gives a larger soundstage to the music. The program defaults to the 2.0 stereo LPCM soundtrack, and I do not detect a great deal of difference between the two. Both soundtracks are more than satisfactory. A complete audio restoration has been performed and the result is clear, undistorted sound. The original audio had inherent limitations, of course, so it is difficult to imagine than anything more could have been done to further improve it.
The Supplements

Most of the extras on this Blu-ray set have been ported over from the previous DVD releases, and all of them are shown at 1.78:1. The most significant new supplement is a 31-minute featurette, "Restoring The World at War." It is a fascinating look at how technicians use sophisticated computer programs to clean up damaged film. A considerable amount of time is given to demonstrating how the original 4:3 images were converted to 1.78:1 and the steps which were taken to preserve the essential information in each frame.

"Experiences of War" is a series of interviews with eight individuals who have different perspectives on the war. Those who are interviewed include former officers, military men, and even a German woman who censored the mail of allied prisoners of war. This featurette has a running time of 61 minutes.

There are some extra features on each disc in the set. They include concise written biographies of the major historical figures who were involved in the war, still photographs from the Imperial War Museum Collection, and direct links to footage from the series which contains famous songs and speeches.

"The Making of The World at War" is, as the title suggests, a conventional "making of" featurette. Jeremy Isaacs explains that he wanted to make a documentary which reflected the experiences of all the countries which were involved in World War II, rather than just looking at it from the British point of view.

"Secretary to Hitler" is an in-depth interview with Traudl Junge, who was a secretary to Hitler up until the day that he committed suicide. When the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary was released in 2002, the filmmakers claimed that it was Ms. Junge's first-ever on camera interview. Presumably they were unaware of the fact that she had been interviewed extensively for The World at War.

"From War to Peace" is a discussion with the late World War II historian Stephen Ambrose. On the HBO DVD set it was known as "Who Won World War II."

"Hitler's Germany" focuses on how the men, women and children of Germany lived under Nazi rule. On the HBO DVD set this featurette was known as "The Third Reich."

"The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler" is a look at the questions which arose about the manner in which the dictator took his own life. Germans preferred to believe that he shot himself, while the Russians insisted that he took the "cowardly" way out by taking poison.

"Warrior" consists of archival footage of and interviews with men who did the fighting during World War II.

"The Final Solution" is a chilling two-part documentary about the Holocaust, Hitler's systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish population.

"Making the Series: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective" was made for the 30th anniversary DVD box set which was released by A&E Home Video in 2004. It is feature-length, with a running time of 128 minutes.

The menu screens are attractive and intuitive, and they can be navigated with ease.

The Packaging

The entire program is spread across nine Blu-ray discs which are secured in two wide Blu-ray keep cases (five discs in one, four in the other). The keep cases come in a rather flimsy cardboard box, a disappointment considering that the DVD sets came in sturdy slipcases. The good news is that the Blu-ray set takes up just half the shelf space of the DVD sets. The original 26-part series takes up five full discs and part of a sixth. Discs 7-9 are devoted entirely to extras.

The Final Analysis

As noted, this Blu-ray set is a mixed bag. The vintage footage has been cleaned up and the audio shows definite improvement. The conversion from 4:3 to 1.78:1 will undoubtedly make it a non-starter for some, although I do not find it to be objectionable. I am, however, disturbed by the low contrast and relatively weak colors when compared to the HBO Home Video set. Those who already own one of the DVD sets will have to decide if this high-definition version actually qualifies as an upgrade. In fairness, it should be noted that other reviewers who have compared it to the prior A&E Home Video set have not been critical of the contrast and vividness of the Blu-ray version. Viewers who have not seen this series before may not be troubled by any of the video issues which I have raised in this review. Regardless of how one feels about how it now looks, The World at War is a superb documentary and remains one of the best war documentaries ever made.

Equipment used for this review:

Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable

Release Date: November 16, 2010


Rich Gallagher

#2 of 145 OFFLINE   JustinCleveland

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Posted November 14 2010 - 11:19 AM

I have had the A&E set sitting on my shelf since I bought it in 2005. I was unaware it was even being made into a BD set. Not sure I approve of the reframing, but it seems you gave it a fair shot and think it works.

I appreciate the review!



#3 of 145 OFFLINE   bigshot

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Posted November 14 2010 - 12:49 PM

I have the 2004 30th Anniversary set and the quality of the archival footage is quite good. On my ten foot projection system the contrast is good, the color is saturated and it's sharp and clear. No problems with distracting scratches and dirt. This DVD set is on sale now for $33 at many retailers online, it's full frame and it includes two hours of supplemental material that isn't included on the bluray. You might want to pick up a copy and update your review. As for cropping, it's no different than pan and scan versions of wide screen movies to fit the old TV standard. If that didn't bother you, neither will chopping off the tops of the heads in every close up in this set. Personally, I can't see a single reason to buy the bluray set. I don't know why people who are paying to own a copy on disk should have to accept compromises made to suit cable TV broadcasters. The reviews at Amazon are pretty consistent for this set... One lousy star. I bet it's going to have trouble finding buyers. It's interesting that online reviewers don't reflect the same sort of concerns about losing a third of the frame that most individuals seem to express. I saw one online review that said, "Who needs to see the foreheads of people anyway?" what a joke. And by the way, the newsreel photographers certainly did concern themselves with compositions. It's amazing how cinematic much of this footage is when you view it projected in the proper aspect ratio. The footage of the Nazi rallies on the first disk is staggering.

#4 of 145 OFFLINE   Adam Gregorich

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Posted November 14 2010 - 04:42 PM


 The reviews at Amazon are pretty consistent for this set... One lousy star.

 98% of the people rating it on Amazon haven't seen it--that is my biggest beef with Amazon reviews. I wish they would limit it to people who have actually purchased the title, or allow you to filter their reviews and only read them from those who have.  I think Justin put it best when he said Rich gave it a fair shot.  While I wish they would have left it 4x3, if you are going to crop if going through shot by shot is the way to do it.  I don't own any version and I have been wanting to pick it up.  Getting the DVD for $37 via Amazon prime or $112 on the cropped BD is no brainer.  I'll take the much cheaper DVD.


Thanks for the review Rich and comparing the versions.  You reminded me that this is a set I need to buy.



#5 of 145 OFFLINE   bigshot

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Posted November 14 2010 - 06:40 PM

To the people reviewing on Amazon, seeing it isn't necessary. The second most cinephiles hear that the bluray has been needlessly cropped by a third, it doesn't matter how good the sound or digital restoration is. Who needs to give it a shot when the product description admits in apologetic double talk that it's been butchered? It amazes me to hear people say things like "If you're going to crop it, reframing is the way to go." I had no idea that there was a proper way to hack up footage. Video distributors don't have the ethical right to significantly alter films that they didn't make. If someone wanted to turn Citizen Kane into a Cinemascope picture, but they kept the lettering on the sled centered on the screen so you could still read it, would that be the best way to do it? We get what we put up with. There is no incentive to do things the right way if we shrug our shoulders and accept the best way to do the wrong way. I hope these Amazon reviews are burning a hole in the backside of the executive who made the decision to crop this show. Reviewers who care about the quality of video releases should be building a fire under idiotic decisions like this, not making excuses for it. Otherwise, we're going to start seeing more Academy format legacy titles being released cropped like this. By the way, under the aspect ratio bullet point at the top of the review, don't you usually indicate when a video has been panned and scanned? Shouldn't this release carry that indication?

#6 of 145 OFFLINE   Ronald Epstein

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Posted November 14 2010 - 11:35 PM

Count me in as someone who was scared away

by all the Amazon reviews.


However, Rich Gallagher's review has the potential

to change my mind.


I have always wanted to see this documentary.
Supposed to be the "grandaddy" of all WWII
documentaries.  I will probably purchase it once

it comes down in price via an Amazon Gold Box deal.


 

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#7 of 145 ONLINE   TravisR

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Posted November 15 2010 - 01:33 AM

Originally Posted by Adam Gregorich 

98% of the people rating it on Amazon haven't seen it--that is my biggest beef with Amazon reviews. I wish they would limit it to people who have actually purchased the title, or allow you to filter their reviews and only read them from those who have.



I certainly understand your point but my expectation would be that this was OAR (like 99.9% of other titles) so I like that Amazon allows people to 'warn' others. That being said, reviews that are like "tHis movei sux!!!!!!!! Jams Camrin hasnt made a good movie sinse Alien part 2" should be dumped because they add nothing and exist solely for morons to vent their rage.



#8 of 145 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted November 15 2010 - 03:44 AM



Originally Posted by bigshot 

By the way, under the aspect ratio bullet point at the top of the review, don't you usually indicate when a video has been panned and scanned? Shouldn't this release carry that indication?


The cropping is mentioned in the first paragraph of the review, so no one is going to read it and leave with the impression that the BD is OAR. The purpose of the bullet points at the top of the review is to describe what the disc is, not what it should have been or what the reviewer might wish it were.


For another take on this set, read Bill Hunt's review at The Digital Bits:


http://www.thedigita...ews110210c.html


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#9 of 145 OFFLINE   cafink

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Posted November 15 2010 - 04:20 AM


Originally Posted by Adam Gregorich 

While I wish they would have left it 4x3, if you are going to crop if going through shot by shot is the way to do it.


I have to admit, I'm shocked to be reading this here on the HTF.  This certainly isn't the reaction we normally see when a widescreen movie is released in pan-and-scan only on DVD.

 

 


#10 of 145 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted November 15 2010 - 04:32 AM



Originally Posted by bigshot 

And by the way, the newsreel photographers certainly did concern themselves with compositions.


I don't see me going anywhere near this set due to the cropping.

Stephen's right.  These guys knew how to compose shots.


It's just a bad decision all the way around.  Can't imagine why it was even considered.  Posted Image


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#11 of 145 OFFLINE   Todd H

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Posted November 15 2010 - 05:10 AM

PASS! No way I'm touching this set knowing it's been cropped. I think I'll hang on to my DVDs.



#12 of 145 OFFLINE   Steve Christou

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Posted November 15 2010 - 06:46 AM

Include me out. Cropping and zooming into actual WWII footage to fill our screens is disgraceful, isn't it? Whats next, colorisation?


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#13 of 145 OFFLINE   MatthewA

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Posted November 15 2010 - 07:07 AM

This set is a disgrace.


The people who buy pan and scan DVDs or would buy tilt-and-scan Blu-Rays would never buy "The World at War."


So to whom exactly is this being marketed?


Enough is enough, Disney. No more evasions or excuses. We DEMAND the release Song of the South on Blu-ray along with the uncut version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks on Blu-ray. I am going to boycott The Walt Disney Company until then.


#14 of 145 OFFLINE   bigshot

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Posted November 15 2010 - 07:23 AM

I think they figure they can repurpose the mutilated cable TV version and fool a few people who aren't familiar with the series into buying it on bluray. I don't know why they didn't just restore the full frame a bit larger and crop in post. Then they would have been able to give Discovery a chopped widescreen version and still have a full frame to release on bluray. Hopefully other distributors of legacy titles don't get the brilliant idea of saving a third of the cost of restoration by cropping a third of the image.

#15 of 145 OFFLINE   cafink

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Posted November 15 2010 - 08:23 AM

Now that's more like what I expected from the HTF!  Posted Image


 

 


#16 of 145 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 15 2010 - 10:16 AM

I'll pass as well. If it was in it's original OAR, I probably would of bit since watching another WW2 doc this past Remembrance day got me itchy to watch this one again.


Great review though!



#17 of 145 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted November 15 2010 - 10:37 AM

I'm curious about something. Did people here rip Ken Burns for cropping newsreel and combat footage for his series THE WAR?


Burns also zooms and crops still photographs in all of his other documentaries.

From a composition standpoint, the way the newsreel and combat footage looks in the BD of The World at War is likely how it would look if it were being made today for the first time.


It also should be pointed out that the creator of The World at War, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, has approved of the widescreen version.


That said, I have no problem with those who would prefer to see an HD version of the documentary in OAR. The point I was making in the review is that zooming and cropping newsreel/combat footage is not the same as zooming and cropping Citizen Kane, which would be sacrilege.


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#18 of 145 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted November 15 2010 - 10:44 AM


Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher 

I'm curious about something. Did people here rip Ken Burns for cropping newsreel and combat footage for his series THE WAR?


Burns also zooms and crops still photographs in all of his other documentaries.

From a composition standpoint, the way the newsreel and combat footage looks in the BD of The World at War is likely how it would look if it were being made today for the first time.


It also should be pointed out that the creator of The World at War, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, has approved of the widescreen version.


That said, I have no problem with those who would prefer to see an HD version of the documentary in OAR. The point I was making in the review is that zooming and cropping newsreel/combat footage is not the same as zooming and cropping Citizen Kane, which would be sacrilege.


I think the difference is, Ken Burns The War was always adapted and presented widescreen, where as World At War clearly wasn't.  the critism of the cropping of the WW2 footage itself being the deal breaker, to me, is a bit fanatical as far as being the deal breaker.  My issue is that this documentary isn't being presented in it's original OAR, and as a result we are not seeing it as intended.  That WW2 footage was shot under duress, and I'm not sure I entirely trust the film makers views on what is important in those shots.  If they had always cropped them for this format, I'd be a little more forgiving.  And if this was "Citizen Kane", and Orson Welles did the cropping, I'd also be a little more forgiving.  World At War though is a bit of a special case.

They should of presented both versions if they had too, Original OAR and the revised. Or the proper OAR.




#19 of 145 OFFLINE   BobO'Link

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Posted November 15 2010 - 10:50 AM

Thanks for the honest review, Richard!  Your comments further convince me to pick up the OAR DVD set ASAP.  To me this is no different than butchering a WS film to P&S for the "Joe 6-Pack" crowd.  While you feel the cropping done is relatevily non-intrusive I'm also concerned with your mention of the decline in contrast/color.  As far as the cropping is concerned, with a 21 year stint in TV as a Director/Videographer/Cameraman, cropping "talking heads" in a way that keeps the titles at the loss of proper framing is also a concern.  I could *possibly* live with the re-framed war footage but would cringe anytime a cropped interview appears.  Even if it's for only a few seconds I'd distract me enough to pull me out of the story.


As it's been mentioned in several places the producers have a FS copy of the restored product "in case they need it".  My question is why did they not shop the WS version to broadcasters who feel no one will watch FS content on a WS TV (anyone remember how distributors felt no one wanted B/W product following the introduction of color?) and release *both* FS and WS versions to the consumer and simply let the market decide.  After all, we have David Attenborough narrating "Planet Earth" and "Life" along with the bastardized US versions with Sigourney Weaver and Oprah...



#20 of 145 OFFLINE   Adam Gregorich

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Posted November 15 2010 - 10:55 AM



Originally Posted by bigshot 

Hopefully other distributors of legacy titles don't get the brilliant idea of saving a third of the cost of restoration by cropping a third of the image.


Excerpted from an article about the restoration on techradar.com http://hcc.techradar...lu-ray-12-08-10


They restored the 4:3 print prior to the crop


Some controversy surrounds the release though following the news that it had been decided to crop the original 4:3 visuals to 16:9. As Fremantle's Anthony Thomas revealed, this was the result of not only numerous comparative tests, but also commercial pressures such as the fact that when it comes to worldwide broadcast rights, 'there simply aren't any HD TV channels that are willing to consider 4:3 material. However, it's worth pointing out that all of the grading and restoration was done to the original 4:3 material, before it was cropped to 16:9. So, if for some reason we ever need it, we do have the restored version in its original aspect ratio'.


While purists will undoubtedly moan, the new framing has the approval of series' producer Jeremy Isaacs and supervising editor Alan Afriat. And as Glaridis [Director of Eyeframe Christos Glaridis] is keen to point out, 'it's not an automated process - we're adjusting the image manually, moving it up and down, left and right to ensure that the focus remains on the most important part of the image. You are going from 4:3 to 16:9 so, unavoidably, you do lose a little of the original image. But back when all of this material was shot, even then it was pretty much on the fine line, there weren't many rules going on with framing anyway. So while some people might look at the 16:9 version and think that it's cropping a little head and that, if you go back to the original, it's often shot like that anyway, or it's blurred, and it's like "No, no, this is how it is anyway". Hopefully it won't be judged that much because if you did go back and compare it's really not far off from the original'.











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