Today I had the opportunity to speak with the folks at THX about their certification program and plans for Blu-ray Disc and the home theater market in 2008.
THX's booth at CES is certainly not the largest, but it is VERY busy. THX has come a long way from when they were under the LucasFilm umbrella and certifying cinemas 25 years ago. They since have added programs to certify home theater components, televisions (display devices), mobile audio systems, home video media (VHS, LD, DVD), and game audio.
Taking a tour of the booth revealed several displays demonstrating various THX technologies, including a car parked there in the booth! You could also get your picture taken with their famous mascot Tex, the little robot seen in the now famous THX cinema trailers. Naturally, I couldn't resist.
Getting down to business, I asked about what kinds of plans THX had for HD media, specifically Blu-ray Disc. While there is one THX certified Blu-ray Disc (Lionsgate's Terminator 2: Judgment Day), getting the studios to pay the additional cost to have THX certify the process is a major stumbling block. It's not a matter of looking at the final master and approving it, all the steps in the process have to be inspected: be it the original film and sound elements, the telecine bay, the monitors used for the picture and sound, and the disc production facilities. T2 required Lionsgate to use two different film elements since either one had certain problems with different scenes, such as visual effects shots. Getting all these elements inspected and approved takes time and effort, and in the end that means money. Interestingly enough, they spoke of a couple BD titles seen by many as 5 star picture and sound transfers that could use tweaking if they had QC'ed them!
Moving on to games, the THX logo has appeared on several games for the Sony Playstation 3. Games like Resistance: Fall of Man, Warhawk, and Blast Factor have had their audio certified by THX to give the best possible sound. THX reps were sure to stress that the program does not cover graphics or gameplay. Just the audio.
THX has started certifying display devices. In the past projectors and screens have received certification, and now it has grown to direct view plasma TVs. The first sets to be THX certified will be available from Panasonic and LG. Not only is it a quality certification, but like their audio equipment it allows the TV to add a THX Cinema mode for movie watching. THX Cinema mode is like a built-in THX Optimizer which presets the display for the correct levels of brightness, contrast, and color temperature. How many of us have wished we could calibrate our display with the push of one button? Now we can. THX certified media can also carry metadata telling devices down the chain what the proper settings are. We also briefly touched on audio: specifically that THX Cinema, THX Surround EX and THX Ultra2 Cinema modes are now available with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio in the latest receivers. This assures that when we are watching our movies on Blu-ray we are getting the best possible sound.
While the current THX Demo Disc II is DVD only, I was informed that a Blu-ray version is currently in production. THX is very excited about High Definition and the future of Blu-ray Disc. I would like to thank Ed Rice, Allan Scholinick, and Warren Mansfield for helping me on my visit.
Update: This article has been updated with certain portions removed because of a possible misunderstanding, we're sorry about this.
Speaking of THX, I can't help but feel underwhelmed by their actual achievement vs. their promise of, as you say, 25 years ago. They entered the DVD arena by giving their certificates to non-anamorphic transfers, and soon enough nobody was looking for their logo as a sign of disc quality; now that it appears on T2 and T2 only, nobody is going to look for the THX logo on Blu-ray as a sign of reference quality, either. They might have made themselves irrelevant on the disc authoring stage of things by charging premiums and delivering results that don't stand the test of time. Which is a pity -- Lucas wanted them to be the industry leaders in all of these areas.
I tend to trust them more on the gear side of things, but then it's also very hard to pony up for the premiums they command.
I'm not into THX certification anymore. I've just seen WAY too many Blu-ray titles that kick @$$ without the certification. How can I justify studios wasting money on this kind of thing? Because we all know the price is always passed onto the customer.
I don't need a THX certified BD if it's going to cost me more $. I am happy with the uncompressed and lossless tracks available on current BD titles which is far better than many THX certified titles I have experienced before on DVD. However if the THX certified are listed on BOGO I wouldn't mind grabbing it.
THX had to overcome stumbling blocks in the early days of DVD - just as everyone in the business did. But there's no question that THX paved the way for DVD, in the digital mastering arena, by "raising the bar" during the final years of laserdisc. -- The whole "certification of non-anamorphic transfer" debate, revolved specifically around one title... "Titanic". But remember, that was neither a THX or Paramount decision... that was a James Cameron decision. Back in 1998, only the very high end consumer had an anamorphic television, and Cameron wanted the mass market consumer to have what suited their current monitor best. - When anamorphic broke through into mainstream, we all got a new anamorphic version of Titanic (certified by THX), in 2005, as was always intended.
If THX is making a studio use two different elements in order to achieve the best possible transfer of a given title... THEN I believe that makes them more relevant (in the world of HD) than ever!
Seen "Robocop" or "Total Recall" on Blu-ray? - Think they put that kind of effort behind those titles. Do you want the same transfer of Warner's "Excalibur" on Blu-ray, that they released on HD-DVD?
Costs' the studio's a little extra cash to have themselves policed into simply INSURING that it's done right the first time(?)... And you likely won't end up with what we got in the first "Fifth Element" transfer, or the mis-framing of shots in "Pirates of the Caribbean", or a 1080p instead of a 1080i version of Terminator 3. (I'd hate to see what might get overlooked in the Indiana Jones films without THX on top of it.)
Every studio needs THX, or something equivalent to them, that's a step-above standardized QC. (Maybe more so, for all of those beloved catalog titles - that seem to get less attention than the newer "day-and-date" releases.)
I think what hurt THX more than anything, was George Lucas - by refusing to release the ORIGINAL versions of the Star Wars trilogy. THX wasn't just about quality. It was about "preserving the intent" of the original film - when, for example, creating a new 5.1 mix for a soundtrack previously existing as mono or stereo. - THX prevented the bastardization of "enhanced" mixes (sound FX replaced by "newer" sound FX) like we got saddled with on "The Terminator", "Superman: The Movie", and "Conan The Barbarian".
(But how can you stand up for preservation - when the guy in charge refuses to preserve some of the biggest films in cinema history?)
In one month's time... Blu-ray has bestowed me with the ORIGINAL director's versions of "Blade Runner", "Close Encounters" and "Eyes Wide Shut"... NONE of which were available on DVD. -- I don't care how much, any of us may prefer "revised" (or Director's) cuts of our favorite movies... the ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION of EVERY movie, should ALWAYS be made available. - DVD seems to have gotten us away from that.
(Am I gonna get stuck with "Apocalypse Now: Redux" or "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" extended versions ONLY, when they get around to releasing those??)
Here's hoping we get those ORIGINAL versions of "Last of the Mohicans", "Highlander", "Conan The Barbarian", "Superman The Movie", and Spielberg's "1941" (to name a few) that haven't seen the light of day (in their original form) since the days of laserdisc.
Why is no one crying out for these? - If the studios won't hire a company like THX (or anyone) to help RESTORE these lost modern classics... then will they be lost forever??
(Will I even get the "original"-"ORIGINAL" (non-altered / non-enhanced) Star Trek series on Blu-ray some day...?)