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