HARRY POT­TER

Eight movies, UHD Blu-ray res­o­lu­tion, DTS:X sound­track. Buck­ets of ex­tras. This is the Ul­ti­mate Pot­ter movie-fest.

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Binge through 1179 min­utes of Ul­tra High Def­i­ni­tion Blu-ray magic.

It was in­evitable that the Harry Pot­ter movie se­ries would re­ceive the Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray treat­ment. This multi-bil­lion-dol­lar-box­of­fice se­ries de­serves it. So we’re do­ing a very deep dive into this re­lease of what I (and many oth­ers) now con­sider to be an eight-movie mas­ter­piece.

The story

The first time I watched the Harry Pot­ter film cy­cle, I kind of liked the first one — I’m a sucker for ori­gin sto­ries — and then was some­what ‘meh’ about the next few. Of course, I had watched each of them around the time of its re­lease on disc, which means in dribs and drabs over a decade or so. I ap­pre­ci­ated the gen­eral ex­cel­lence of many of the spe­cial ef­fects, but I’m not re­ally much of a fan­tasy guy (hard sci-fi is more my thing).

This re­view prompted me to do it dif­fer­ently. This time around I binged, start­ing with Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone (known in the US as Harry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and work­ing my way through all seven ti­tles — eight movies — in less than a fort­night, through to Harry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows: Part 2.

And that’s the way to watch these movies, as though they are a full sea­son of a first-class TV show. Their to­tal of 1179 min­utes is some 40% of the run­ning time of the en­tire se­ries of Break­ing Bad. In Harry Pot­ter, it’s not al­ways en­tirely clear if some of the char­ac­ters aren’t break­ing bad.

No one needs a sum­mary of what Harry Pot­ter is about, but to re­mind you, there’s a full-cy­cle story arc lead­ing to a fi­nal con­fronta­tion

Harry Pot­ter and the Dark Lord. The cy­cle opens shortly af­ter Harry, as a baby, has sur­vived his first en­counter with Volde­mort. The im­pli­ca­tions of this en­counter are grad­u­ally re­vealed over the sub­se­quent 20 hours of view­ing.

But it is only the last two en­tries, Parts 1 and 2 of The Deathly Hal­lows, in which this con­fronta­tion forms the cen­tral plot. Each of the other six has its own plot (although all plots do in fact re­late to the over­all scheme).

Watch­ing en binge, I was able to see far bet­ter the con­nec­tions be­tween movies, the lay­ing of ground­work in the early en­tries for what was to come in the later en­tries. More im­por­tantly, from a view­ing per­spec­tive, the whole thing was far more ex­cit­ing. Even though I’d seen all the en­tries be­fore, and thus knew the gen­eral out­line of how things would turn out, the sto­ries and ac­tion were still more grip­ping. In­deed, know­ing what was about to hap­pen some­times even height­ened the ex­pe­ri­ence — for ex­am­ple, Hermione’s rather mov­ing pre­cau­tions at the start of

Deathly Hal­lows: Part 1. (Note to my kids: if any of you ever find your­self pos­sessed of such pow­ers, I im­plore them not to wield them on me. I’d rather suf­fer the feared heartache than never hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced you.)

The movies have IMDB rat­ings rang­ing from 7.4/10 ( Cham­ber of Se­crets) to 8.1/10 ( Deathly Hal­lows: Part 2), and they’ve been creep­ing up over the years. The Philoso­pher’s

Stone was 7.2/10 back in 2005. It’s now 7.5/10. But viewed as one gi­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, I’d say the se­ries is nudg­ing 9/10.

Same same but dif­fer­ent

It’s hard to over­state the achieve­ment of all in­volved in one other as­pect of the Harry Pot­ter se­ries — con­sis­tency. Yes, the open­ing en­try was a lit­tle lighter, as seems ap­pro­pri­ate given the ten­der ages of the kids. The first three movies are PG rated, the rest M. And, yes, the act­ing range of the three main chil­dren was quite lim­ited at the start, though it broad­ened ap­pre­cia­bly and rapidly in later movies. But across four di­rec­tors, there was a con­stant vi­sion — for which credit surely goes to J.K. Rowl­ing, and to the screen­writer through­out (ex­cept for Or­der of the Phoenix), Steve Kloves, and to those re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing the same ac­tors com­ing back, al­most year af­ter year for a decade. (Although things like a US$63 mil­lion wages bill for the three no-longer-chil­dren’s work in the fi­nal en­try no doubt helped.)

It must have been a wel­com­ing film set, and the con­tracts drawn up by the en­ter­tain­ment lawyers must have been good. The only ma­jor re­place­ment was Michael Gam­bon be­ing swapped in for Richard Har­ris as Dum­ble­dore when the lat­ter in­con­ve­niently died be­tween Cham­ber of Se­crets and Pris­oner

of Azk­a­ban. Even con­tracts couldn’t help with that, but the beard made it unim­por­tant.

Re­lease his­tory

Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s/Sorcerer’s

Stone landed in cin­e­mas in 2001 and was re­leased to DVD in 2002. The Aus­tralian re­lease was panned and scanned to fit the still mostly 4:3 as­pect ra­tio TVs of the day. Of course, a widescreen ver­sion soon fol­lowed.

There was one spe­cial odd­ity about this ver­sion of the Philoso­pher’s Stone: it had no Macro­vi­sion copy pro­tec­tion. Macro­vi­sion was a sys­tem de­vel­oped to in­ter­fere with the copy­ing of VHS and Be­ta­max tapes, one to an­other. It worked be­cause they were ana­logue sys­tems, so they, like a TV sig­nal, con­tained what’s called the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal blank­ing in­ter­vals, the parts of the sig­nals with no pic­ture in­for­ma­tion, needed to al­low time for the elec­tron gun of a CRT TV to re­turn it point of aim from one side of the screen to the other (that’s the hor­i­zon­tal blank­ing in­ter­val), or from the bot­tom of the screen to the top (ver­ti­cal). Macro­vi­sion- pro­tected tapes had a se­ries of high level pulses blast­ing away in the ver­ti­cal blank­ing in­ter­val, and this typ­i­cally over­loaded any recorder that was try­ing to copy a tape. (It also over­loaded a stan­dard RF TV in­put, which is why back in 1980s TVs, a spe­cific TV chan­nel had to be used be­cause it in­cluded suit­able fil­ter­ing cir­cuitry.)

But DVDs aren’t ana­logue. There is no ver­ti­cal blank­ing in­ter­val on the disc, just dig­i­tal data which is re­con­structed to form a se­ries of bit­map im­ages. So al­most all DVDs were copy pro­tected in two ways. First was the Con­tent Scram­ble Sys­tem, which en­crypted the dig­i­tal data to pre­vent (briefly, un­til the en­cryp­tion was bro­ken) di­rect bit-per­fect copy­ing. Sec­ond, was Macro­vi­sion. The pro­tec­tive pulses weren’t in the data — all it had was a Macro­vi­sion flag. When the DVD player saw the flag, it would in­sert the pro­tec­tive pulses into the ana­logue out­put.

Pre­sum­ably Warner Bros wanted to ex­per­i­ment with whether the sav­ings from not pay­ing li­cence fees to Macro­vi­sion would be worth it. So, tech­ni­cally, any­one with that first re­lease could copy it to VHS or, once they were avail­able, record­able DVD via an ana­logue con­nec­tion. Tech­ni­cally they could, but not legally, of course.

Sub­se­quent re­leases were prop­erly pro­tected and prop­erly widescreen. By the time Or­der of the Phoenix ap­peared I had all five en­tries in... HD DVD for­mat. Later I forked out for the en­tire set on Blu-ray, pur­chased rel­a­tively cheaply from the UK (hooray for Blu-ray re­gion codes, defin­ing both Aus­tralia and Europe as Re­gion B).

Now in Ul­tra HD...

And now we have Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray. Each movie comes as a three-disc re­lease. The Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray in each pack­age car­ries the

the­atri­cal fea­ture only. A Blu-ray disc in each pack­age car­ries the fea­ture only (plus one fea­turette for the fi­nal movie), although all but one ( Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban) have a play­back mode var­i­ously called ‘In Movie Ex­pe­ri­ence’ or ‘Max­i­mum Movie Mode’ which links to ex­plana­tory se­quences, ‘Fo­cus Points’ fea­turettes, on-screen text and graph­ics and such. All but Deathly Hal­lows 2 em­ploy BonusView PIP as part of that pre­sen­ta­tion. There are ex­tended ver­sions, too, of The Philoso­pher’s Stone (159 min­utes vs 152) and Cham­ber of Se­crets (174 vs 161). The third disc in each pack­age is also reg­u­lar Blu-ray with the rest of the ex­tras. The cen­tre piece of each is one por­tion of an eight­part doc­u­men­tary, each part around an hour in length. Most of the ma­te­rial is in full HD, but there are also legacy 480i/60 fea­turettes on the ex­tras disc for some of the ear­lier en­tries. An­other set of fea­turettes for most of the movies is a ‘Be­hind the Magic’ se­ries. This is in 480i/60, ex­cept for the one with Deathly Hal­lows: Part 1 (but not Part 2), which is in 1080p/24.

It’s also worth check­ing out the fea­turette on why Deathly Hal­lows was turned into two movies. De­spite my cyn­i­cism, I think the claim that it was done for artis­tic rea­sons, to prop­erly con­clude the se­ries, is likely right. The re­sult seems to bear that out.

Nerd alert: At the end of an ex­tra on film edit­ing with the Or­der of the Phoenix pack­age there’s a cute lit­tle in­ter­ac­tive fea­ture which lets you choose from three dif­fer­ent film cuts, and lets you ad­just the au­dio as well, to ‘cre­ate’ your own mini cut of one 22-sec­ond long scene. I’ve seen this kind of thing be­fore and usu­ally it in­volves em­ploy­ing the mul­ti­ple au­dio tracks and the ‘an­gle’ fea­ture avail­able on discs. Not this one. There are 27 sep­a­rate files (each around 38MB in size) con­tain­ing all the pos­si­bil­i­ties that can be gen­er­ated. Once you’ve made your choices, the rel­e­vant file is played. Ah, the lux­ury of hav­ing so much space avail­able on Blu-ray.

Also pro­vided for Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hal­lows: Part 1 (but not Part 2) is a Dig­i­tal Copy.

Fi­nally, the main menu on the stan­dard Blu-ray disc for each movie has a BD-Live item. But when you hit it you get a mes­sage say­ing ‘This fea­ture re­quires ac­cess to a broad­band In­ter­net con­nec­tion. The con­nec­tion to the Warner Bros. BD-Live net­work has timed out.’ Since that mes­sage ap­pears in­stantly, and since my Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray play­ers do have broad­band in­ter­net con­nec­tions, I can only as­sume that the BD-Live net­work is not ac­tu­ally there any more.

Sound

Given that DTS:X was an­nounced at least as early as April 2015, we’ve been won­der­ing when the new for­mat would ac­tu­ally ap­pear on a disc. That is now. All eight movies en­joy this new­est of au­dio for­mats — and only on the Ul­tra-HD ver­sions. DTS:X is es­sen­tially DTS’s ver­sion of Dolby At­mos. It in­cludes ob­ject-ori­en­tated sound mix­ing and flex­i­ble re­pro­duc­tion de­signed to op­ti­mise sound for the par­tic­u­lar speaker set in place, in­clud­ing height speak­ers. I was us­ing the Yamaha Aven­t­age RX-A3070 home theatre re­ceiver with a 5.1.4-speaker con­fig­u­ra­tion (four ceil­ing speak­ers), and I was sit­ting in the sweet spot for which the sound was op­ti­mised. So I was well placed to ex­pe­ri­ence the best the se­ries had to of­fer.

The sound was state-of-the-art for the 2000s. It was clear, clean, wide rang­ing, nicely dy­namic and fully en­com­pass­ing. The mu­sic score was smooth and well merged into the ac­tion. Most of the sur­round was used for at­mo­spher­ics, rather than lo­cat­ing spe­cific el­e­ments or pro­vid­ing au­di­ble lo­ca­tion cues. Most, but not all. Even in the first movie, the Quid­ditch match had some sense of things fly­ing around the room. The at­mo­spher­ics could be im­pres­sive too: the kids ex­plor­ing

the darker re­gions of Hog­warts in, again, The

Philoso­pher’s Stone had a nice, dank re­verb com­ing from the back and above. By the open­ing of

Or­der of the Phoenix, the dark Warner Bros logo is ac­com­pa­nied by sense of stormi­ness from all around, the harp of the theme sound­ing be­hind the viewer, the chimes tin­kling all around space.

There are no com­men­taries as such, out­side the In-Movie Ex­pe­ri­ence/Max­i­mum Movie Mode pre­sen­ta­tions, and in those they form in­ter­ludes rather than on­go­ing sound­tracks. A mix of lan­guages is pro­vided, vary­ing from movie to movie. Only English scores DTS:X.

Pic­ture

The pic­ture qual­ity of these re­leases on Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray de­pends al­most en­tirely on the qual­ity of the source ma­te­rial. And that could be vari­able. Quite vari­able. Some of the darker scenes in

Philoso­pher’s Stone seem to have a slightly soft fo­cus. The worst mo­ment comes at the start of

Or­der of the Phoenix when there’s a slow pan from the sky over a yel­lowed, heat­wave-stricken Eng­land to what should be a strik­ing aerial shot, di­rectly down on a golden field. But its im­pact is all but de­stroyed by the soft fo­cus. This is clearly a cin­e­matog­ra­phy is­sue, its flaws faith­fully pre­sented by the H.265 en­cod­ing.

Weak­nesses in some of the spe­cial ef­fects in the ear­lier movies tended to be more ex­posed on the UHD ren­di­tion. The fly­ing Ford Anglia looks at times to be pasted on the back­ground. The green-screen work dur­ing the Quid­ditch match in The Philoso­pher’s Stone also has some of that feel. The rel­a­tively prim­i­tive spe­cial ef­fects in the early en­tries can be ex­posed by the trans­parency of UHD res­o­lu­tion. It presents, for good or ill, what­ever is in the source.

That source con­sisted of two things — film and post-pro­duc­tion ef­fects gen­er­a­tion. Dobby the house-elf was im­pres­sive through­out. Fly­ing stuff, not al­ways so. The en­tire se­ries was shot on film, largely from the same Ko­dak film fam­ily. This is an­other part of the con­sis­tency I men­tioned above. Had they gone dig­i­tal for the last few, I think that might have suf­fered.

Film means film grain, of which there is a mild sprin­kling through­out. This, in my view, does not de­tract at all from the pic­ture. It’s film. It looks like film. As it should.

Ap­par­ently 2K dig­i­tal in­ter­me­di­ates were used. I’m not clear on whether that was through­out, or just for scenes with dig­i­tal ef­fects. I sus­pect the lat­ter. It’s per­haps the half-res­o­lu­tion of the ef­fects work, com­bined with the nec­es­sar­ily high con­trast of the edges in some of the fly­ing scenes, that re­sults in their rel­a­tive weak­ness.

What’s be­yond dis­pute is that the HDR and BT.2020 colour ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Ul­tra-HD Blu-ray have de­liv­ered a glo­ri­ously smooth and deep ex­pe­ri­ence in both colour and con­trast. There is none of the colour band­ing in­her­ent in eight-bit en­cod­ing (apart from the start of the clos­ing cred­its on one of the movies — per­haps they were gen­er­ated in eight bits).

The reg­u­lar Blu-ray pre­sen­ta­tions have the first six movies en­coded us­ing the VC1 codec (MPEG4 AVC for the other two), which sug­gests that those ver­sions have not been re­mas­tered since their orig­i­nal Blu-ray/HD DVD re­leases in the late 2000s. A pity some of that Blu-ray space is left un-used for the stan­dard Blu-ray ver­sions of Gob­let of Fire and

Or­der of the Phoenix and Deathly Hal­lows: Part 2, with their very low av­er­age video bit-rates of just 12.87Mbps, 13.79Mbps and 13.02Mbps re­spec­tively. The rest are a low­ish 17-20Mbps. Hap­pily, we’ll just skip all of them and go straight to the UHD BD ver­sions!

Con­clu­sion

If you al­ready have the se­ries, then I’d sug­gest in­vest­ing any­way in this new set in Ul­tra HD. It’s the de­fin­i­tive ver­sion. And I’d also sug­gest watch­ing them binge-style to the ex­tent that you can man­age. You know, I think I’m about ready to do that again my­self.

The video bit-rates (Mbps) of the main fea­tures on the Blu-ray discs vary from low GobletofFire, ( top) to bet­ter ( Azk­a­ban, above). It doesn’t much mat­ter, as you’ll hope­fully be watch­ing the UHD Blu-ray ver­sions!

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