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Reflections on a major technological renovation (1 Viewer)

Leo Kerr

May 10, 1999
I guess about a year ago, I started seriously thinking about upgrading to HD movies. I do mean that specifically; we've not had much in the way of broadcast television in this house since it was built, and never had cable, satellite, or anything like that — just movies. Tapes at first, soon gave way to Laserdisc. When it was clear that DVD was not a flash-in-the-pan, and the Circuit City format was not going to be a success, I migrated to DVD. And then after a little while, got a front projector. Slowly, piecemeal, I persued all sorts of cumbersom advances — I built my own front-projection screen, because at the time, if you wanted an Acoustically Transparent screen, it meant Stewart, and I couldn't afford that. But I needed a "disposable" and AT screen because of where the screen itself had to hang — in front of the main computer/gaming center. Right over the keyboards.

And for a number of years, it worked. Yes, it was a 1.33:1 projector, not HD at all (1024x768) and it was compromised in a number of fashions, but it worked pretty well. NetFlix! And actually, the local public library also had a huge collection of DVDs -- particularly also the BBC television things like Margerie Allingham, Agatha Christie, and some of the other 'proper English mystery literature.' And, of course, there was foreign film. But I digress.

About a year ago, I started looking seriously at moving up to HD. The HD-DVD/BluRay war was over, and it looked like hardware was starting to get functional — players that performed almost as quickly as DVD players, with no 10 minute load-times. I almost bought. When the player I was about to buy turned out to be insanely popular — or only had about 100 made. Unavailable. He who hesitates is lost. Early-bird gets the worm? Well... then I saw a advance review for the Oppo player. So much for the early-bird. Early-bird got an inferior unit.

Anyway, after a long period of insanity at work, and the Oppo went into pre-order status, I got notification I could buy one, 'pre-order.' So I said, "why not?" And at the same time, put in the order for a Panasonic PT-AE3000 projector to replace my aging SD projector.
The screen, of course, needed help. Wrong size. Wrong shape. Just wrong. So I built another one. A bigger one. A stronger one. And, of course, an incredibly unwieldy one. An 84" diagonal, with 1x4 framing outside of the screen area makes for a huge screen. And it had to 'go away,' 'cause it was still going to be hung over the computer keyboard! It had some other features that made it not an ideal screen, so I looked around again. And soon found myself ordering and receiving an 84" 1.78:1 Elite Acoustically Transparent motorized screen to add into the mix. It was a whole lot cheaper than the Stewart screens, both then and now!

So where are we now? I still haven't watched much HD. Some, but not much — sadly, most of the stuff out there is, as far as I'm concerned, junk, which is one of the things that attracted me to the Oppo player: it has an excellent upconverter for SD. Really. And it is fast. And it has the magic yellow button, which means I might try watching the Shrek discs again. (At least for SD material, it's a "jump to start of longest title" button, skipping all the garbage that made, in particular, Shrek II unwatchable.)

There were some other glitches and hickups.

Guess what an AT screen is? Well, it's not just acoustically transparent — it also lets light through it. And because the space behind it isn't just a speaker-space, like in the movie theaters, it can't be all flat black. There are computers, CD-ROM cases, shelves, artwork, lights, and all sorts of other things back there. And while some of the time, it wasn't too bad, during something like opening credits in a Star Trek film, well, being able to see the actor's names spread all through space 'cause of the junk behind the screen was a little disconcerting. In my own experimentation, it doesn't need to be a thick layer, it just needs to be 'mostly black.' Theater sharktooth scrim is probably a little thin, but a big roll of black felt that I can quick pull down behind — works. I'm looking for a better solution; I'd like a soft, synthetic French Terry-like fabric and enough contraption made to work like a balloon curtain like one of the old local movie palaces had in their big 70mm halls before they got turned into a Circuit City and a Staples. (Sheesh, what a loss.)

But apart from that? I'm not at all bothered by the fact that within about a month of receiving my AE-3000, Panasonic announced the AE-4000. I'm even not terribly bothered by the fact that some of the calibration wizards here didn't express any real fondness for the AE-3000. I've got a picture I'm quite happy with.

And what a picture.

Okay, to be honest, since I tend to watch mostly SD material, it's really good at showing all of the limitations of the SD format, and whatever processing they did in the path of making said films/television. And while most don't notice it, I'm pleased to recognize that it's actually doing 24fps playback. It's beautiful. Yes, I know the motion isn't perfect, but I guess I wasn't particularly bothered by the 3:2 pull-down process, until I got back to the proper 24 frames. That was a surprise I had not expected.

And given the closeness of my space, I'm impressed that (a) I do not see the pixels of my projector, and (b) I do not see the perforation pattern in my AT screen.

So what, in reality, does this all mean?

Philosophically, I suppose it's the 'chasing a dream' phenomonon. I knew for a long time that I was never going to be a "bleeding edge" type person. It's too expensive, and for what?

I've moved up. It's not to the top of the line, but it's "pretty good." Good screen, good player, good projector, and good, if old and 'obsolete' sound — a Yamaha DSP-A1 from a lot of years ago. Still works, and I don't have space to put any more speakers into the room. The picture can be excellent (with a good mastering.) The sound is good. The infrastructure is quiet. And yes, it was — expensive. Somewhat. But if the system is relatively static for, say, 5 years? Given our typical movie schedule, not counting the Netflix subscription (which is still SD only,) this is still about half the cost of movie tickets — for one person. Never mind 2-5 people!

So what's my great philosophical wisdom and advice? It's simple. Make a mark in the ground. Advance to said mark.

And sit down, shut up, turn off the cell phone, and enjoy the show!

Happy movies, everyone, 'cause when you step back from it all, isn't that what this is all about, anyway?

Leo Kerr

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