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THX talks 3D, Cameron & Star Wars

THX interview
24 May 2011 13:24 GMT / By Libby Plummer

Imagine you're a passionate film technician who's spent hours laboriously ensuring that the look and sound of your latest feature film is up to date. It launches at the cinema and it looks fantastic - just as the director intended. But what happens when it reaches the home? People watching your movie on DVD, Blu-ray or on TV might not even be able to see the picture tweaks that you've spent hours of your life perfecting. THX is set to put that right, by bringing cinema-quality audio and visuals to your home TV.

In the heart of London's Marble Arch, Pocket-lint settled down with THX senior vice president and chairman of the 3D@Home Consortium, Rick Dean, over a cool glass of water to tell us a little more about it.

"THX first came into being when George Lucas wanted to enhance the entertainment experience. He was frustrated as he was focusing on making great movies but disappointed when he went to the movie theatre and saw them played back. It was at a time when digital sound was just coming out.

"He was in the process of building Skywalker Sound [a division of Lucas Digital responsible for every sound Oscar since 1977] and he hired Tom Holman who helped him create some of the technologies in that auditorium - widely regarded as the best mixing room in the world. Tom made a crossover network and from that they developed a standard for the auditorium that could be moved into cinemas as well."

Holman's initials and the word 'crossover' were used to create the THX brand in 1981, primarily to ensure top audio quality on the third Star Wars film - Return of the Jedi. It's also a nod to George Lucas' first movie - THX 1138. Formed as part of Lucasfilm, THX is now a separate entity, albeit one that still works closely with its original parent company.

Despite a very busy schedule and imminent key note speech at the 3DTV World Forum 2011 event in a swanky central London hotel, Dean is perfectly relaxed and more than happy to field our relentless geeky intrigues about Star Wars and George Lucas and, of course, to tell us some more about THX's new offering.

"THX isn't a sound format. We work with all the existing sound formats, such as Dolby and DTS, to come up with a standard for high-quality audio [and visuals]. We work both in the creative process and then in the rendering process."

THX's new technology is called Media Director and is designed to bring the optimum cinema experince that THX offers in the cinema to home TVs. So, where did the idea first come from?

"It came out of things that I was doing a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...." quips Dean, before apologising. Not a problem - we love a bit of Star Wars humour.

"I worked with Jim Cameron when we mastered Aliens for the first time. We finished up the movie and there were some mistakes that were made in the process which we corrected. And at the end of a long day's work he turned to me and said 'will the consumer ever see this?'. That was back in the days of component video, and I had to say 'probably not, because we can't control the home'.

"Anything that we do in these studio rooms is all about trying to create the best consumer experience, but the consumer's home has always been out of our control, so we've always had to estimate what they should be able to see. There's no reason why we can't have something that's rendered perfectly in a post-production room and transfer that to the home."

And that's the basis behind Media Director. Like THX, it's not designed to make bad content look good. It's there to make sure that films are rendered correctly - as the filmmakers intended you to see them. Although the technology is proprietary, THX is planning to license it out as much as possible so that eventually it will appear on panels from all the big TV manufacturers. It was announced at CES 2011, that several big-name brands were already on board including LG, JVC USA, Epson America and Onkyo. The idea is that the tech will intially appear on top-tier models in each of the manufacturer's ranges, before being ported down to the rest.

"Media Director's first iteration will concentrate on excercising all the settings and presets within the display. Over time we'll be implementing more technologies into the display to work with that. To make sure that when a 14-year old at home plays Xbox, the TV goes into gaming mode. Then when the parents come home and want to watch a Blu-ray movie, it switches to movie mode. We can also do things like independently adjust noise reduction and anything else that could adversely affect the presentation of the film."

While THX and Media Director aim to bring quality images and audio, both to the cinema and home TV, the advent of 3D represents even more of a challenge, and what's the biggest issue for THX when it comes to 3D?
"Crosstalk - we're very bothered by inconsistent screen lumincance over the surface area. Also differences between the left eye and right eye can be a problem as that tends to be what leads to fatigue and headaches while watching. It's easy to make the picture look okay, but to make it look okay and be completely comfortable is another challenge.

In this way, the new technology is a good springboard to look into the the clinical proof for what makes 3D uncomfortable for some people. We recently signed a deal with the American Optometric Association to carry out some research on how to make content and what makes it uncomfortable. What we're finding is that people have undiagnosed, untreated vision issues that means that they don't find the 3D experience very enjoyable. When these things are corrected  - their quaility of life increases because those same depth perception factors can improve their coordination."

As well as bringing Media Director to the masses, and trying to bring attention to sight problems along the way, THX is currently heavily involved on the Star Wars Blu-ray release which is due to land in September 2011. The famous sci-fi saga has has seen several re-releases in the past, but how easy it going to be to convert it into 3D?

"The way that the Star Wars movies were made [part IV, V and VI, followed by the prequels - I, II and III] means that the three most recently made films will be out in 3D first, as the they're being released in chronological order. We have the option of re-rendering out 3D in the normal process that we use today. All the layers that created the movie to begin with can be separated back out if need be, in order to perfect the 3D experience. There's a lot of flexibility there that other movies don't have.
"However, episodes IV, V and VI [the orginal Star Wars trilogy] are going to be more challenging. As these were originally done on film, we don't have all of the same elements to work with. Obviously these will be coming out at the cinema later, so by that time we'll be further down the line with the technology and we'll have plenty of time to create a good 3D experience."

We couldn't resist asking - will the new 3D releases include any never-seen-before footage like the Special Edition releases did back in 1997 but Lucas has clearly trained apprentice Dean well in the ways of not giving too much away. However, he did hint that there might be some new goodies for us Star Wars nerdlings to look forward to.

"Don't you think that George always does that? He's shown in the past that everytime he gets his movies back up, he changes something else."

Not a definitive statement, granted, but we're willing to bet that they'll be something in the new releases that we haven't seen before (besides from the 3D effect, of course).

Messing around with the Star Wars films has angered some of its loyal fanbase in the past - with elements of the new trilogy, such as Jar Jar Binks, sending some of them into apoplectic rage. Isn't there a danger that the converting Star Wars into 3D may be a gimmick too far? After all, 2D-to-3D conversions don't have the best reputation in the world.

"We've seen some very negative impacts of 3D conversions. I'm not prepared to ever say that 3D conversion is always bad because I've seen some that are quite good. It's very much down to the amount of time you take and the attention to detail, and Geroge Lucas is such a perfectionist, that he wouldn't release anything that wasn't up to standard. Even James Cameron, who has in the past exclaimed his dislike of 3D conversions, is all set to transfer his 1997 record-breaking Titanic into three dimensions.

There's a big difference between a 3D movie and a movie that uses 3D. If you're making a movie and applying 3D to it, it's an artistic and emotional experience and not a technolgy demonstration. I think too many times people want to jump on the 3D bandwagon, which isn't doing us any favours."

Working closely with George Lucas and his crew for many years, Dean has seen some of the most advanced movie effects there have ever been created first-hand, but what's the best thing he's ever seen in 3D?

"I'd have to say Avatar. That was the most comforatable experience I've had in 3D. THX has also certified the 3D Blu-ray disc which looks fantastic, although it's not available to everyone yet [it's currently exclusively bundled with Panasonic Blu-ray decks]. I'm a fan of bigger screens, particularly for 3D. I think that's one of the challenges for the home - if you don't have a big screen, you're not getting the compelling 3D experience. As 3D progresses, I think that we're going to see projectors becoming more popular."

We've already heard about the challenges of converting older 2D films onto three dimensions, but are there are old movies that Dean would like to see given the 3D treatment?

"I've never given it much thought before. I think Indiana Jones would be kinda cool. And The Abyss - the underwater scenes would look fantastic."

And that's what it all comes down to for THX and Media Director - making things look fantastic.

"Nothing has ever bridged the information base that we've collected in post-production with the home, both in video and audio. That's the secret - the home cinema envinronment in the home is currently way too complex. We want people to buy a good quality product, but not have to go through all the complications to get the best entertainment out of it."
Anything that helps to bring the cinema quality pictures and audio into the home can only be a good thing, and we look forward to eventually watching Star Wars in quality 3D from the comfort of our sofa - something that we could have only dreamt about about when the A New Hope was first released in 1977.



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