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Our Top Story: Exclusive Interview with Richard Casey.  Click Below for details.
Exclusive Interview:
Richard J. Casey
Executive Producer
R&B Films, Ltd.

1. Are there any specific sales goals you have set for Nature’s Journey (NJ) for each hi-def format?

When we released CHRONOS in both HD and BD formats, we really had no idea how many we would sell.  As it happens, we sold a bit more than I projected on that title. Based on the Sales History of CHRONOS, we would project similar sales results for NATURE’S JOURNEY. 

To be specific, we expect to see approximately 20,000 units in HD/BD within the first year.  This projection is for North America only and does not include any Bundling Deals or Promotions, which I do foresee for this release.

I expect NATURE’S JOURNEY should do well for its unique entertainment value. However, I also see it doing well based on it being a “must have” reference quality showcase presentation that delivers the ultimate High Definition experience.  In addition to pleasing home theater enthusiasts, NATURE’S JOURNEY is a perfect demo disc for selling HDTV Sets and HD / BD Players on the retail showroom floor.

The Super Bit Rate Video & Audio Encodes we used for this title show off the true potential of current High Definition equipment and technology. In addition, we utilized our proprietary DRS strategy which outlines the best procedures, protocols, and practices for maintaining audio and video quality transparent to the source.  We truly pushed the maximum limit of both formats with a 26mbps VC-1 Video Encode and a 96/24 DTS-HD Soundtrack for the HD-DVD and a 37Mbps VC-1 Video Encode and 96/24 DTS-HD-MA Soundtrack on the Blu-ray Disc release.

But even a viewer who knows and cares nothing about specs will enjoy the fascinating content with its gorgeous, rich, colorful, and highly detailed images and superb original score in ultra high resolution surround sound.  Nature’s Journey is the Ultimate Demo disc for demonstrating HD / BD and HDTV equipment to non-believers and those who have not yet made the commitment to High Definition in their home.  Nature’s Journey truly represents how High Definition should look.

2. What are you most proud of with NJ?

I am most proud of the artists, engineers, and technicians that did such great work in helping put this original production together. They all played a key role in the unique creative and technical aspects of this unusual release.

3. How difficult/easy was the encoding process of NJ for each HD format?

As any experienced compression tech will tell you, more bandwidth typically requires less “tweaking” and “handcrafting” of the Video Encode.

Both Video Encodes look great … and I think most people would be hard pressed to see much of a difference between them. 

However, if I had to explain any difference between the two, I would have to say that a 37mbps provides enough bandwidth for the Video Encoder to achieve better results during the initial pass.

I can’t say enough about the efforts of the folks at Technicolor, who worked diligently to assure all encodes were the absolute best possible for the given bandwidth.  I requested that they consult with the folks who designed the VC-1 CODEC at MS, which they did, to assure we were getting the very best Video Encodes possible.  The results, I feel, speak for themselves

4. Do you favor using a specific HD format for encoding? If so, why?

As a Studio, we are format neutral. We have no vested interest in either format or any of the related technologies. In addition, we do not own any interest in the IP Rights, Patents, or Licensing related to any these formats or technologies.  We are in the content business.

With that said, both formats are capable of great performance given their current limitations, such as the inability to play 7.1 Surround at 192/24.

However, as a Producer, I always prefer to have more bandwidth and space on the disc than less.  All of our HD / BD releases feature Super Bit DTS-HD and when we have the bandwidth available, DTS-HD Master Audio Lossless.

Our current content is produced to specifications above and beyond the current capabilities for High Definition playback in consumer’s homes.  For example, Nature’s Journey was produced using color depth ranging from 8-bit to 32-bit while the Video Encoder we used was limited to 8-bit color. Our future releases will use content shot in 4K using 12-bit color and even some 8K source material.

I foresee the need for more bandwidth and more mature and efficient CODECS in the future as technology progresses.  For example, the HDMI 1.3b specification will allow for Deep Color and x.v. Color Support.  In addition, we would like to use 192/24 surround on future titles.  These developments, and possibly others, will put more demands on bandwidth as well as equipment.

5. Which HD format is less expensive to produce for? Details?

Well, if you asked me this question a year ago, the answer would be different. However, from a production standpoint, there is no difference in cost between HD and BD formats.

Also, as the professional tools for production mature, I have seen the cost for HD / BD authoring come down quite a bit.

However, when it comes to replication of the discs, BD clearly costs more money to produce.  We pay approximately 30% more for a BD Replicated Disc than we do for an HD replicated disc. To us, this is a negligible difference at this early stage of the game. 

Blu-ray Disc is a new format using somewhat different technology from HD-DVD.  I expect it to cost more in the beginning.  However, like anything else, pricing will drop on BD replication as the installed base of players increase and some of the R&D Costs are recouped.

6. Why does the Blu-ray version of NJ have superior specs to that of the HD DVD version? BD50 vs. HD30?

As a Producer, I will always use the maximum amount of bandwidth available.  We have always done this … even for our standard DVD titles. We max out encode rates and apply our DRS Mastering techniques for every title we produce, even the ones we do for other labels such as Monster Music. We used the additional bandwidth BD had to offer when producing Nature’s Journey.  Therefore, the specifications are different.

However, we did maximize the capabilities of both formats using the highest Video and Audio Encode rates possible.  If you look at the specs, which are detailed on the printed insert of every HD/ BD disc we release, you will see we went right to the ceiling on HD-DVD and utilized most of what was available on the BD version as well.

7. Does the usage of Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD make a difference in terms of picture and audio quality when creating encodes for both formats?

It makes a difference when calculating Bit Budgets for each disc as well as calculating the amount of disc space available. The combined Audio / Video encode must be 30mbps or less for HD-DVD and 48mbps or less for BD.

8. Please explain the importance of audio in this release and what prompted the decision to use different audio quality on both releases?

When we did this, we knew we might be opening a can or worms related to the format wars.  We tried to minimize that by matching Picture Quality for both HD and BD release.  If you look at both formats, the Picture Quality is superb and most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference.
We decided to maximize Picture Quality because we believed there would be fewer people who would notice the difference between DTS-HD at 3mbps verses DTS-HD-MA Lossless.  I am not saying there isn’t a difference between lossy and lossless because there is. We just felt most people would not really pay as much attention to the audio.  As it turns out, we may have been wrong.  Our future releases will feature DTS-HD-MA on both HD and BD versions.

9. In a thread at AVS Forum (www.avsforum.com), you said you had some bandwidth space left over on the Blu-Ray version while you maxed out the HD-DVD versions bit rate, can you comment on the reasoning behind this?

Yes, you can do the math yourself by looking at the printed insert that comes with each disc.  You will see we were at 29.64mbps total out of 30mbps available on HD-DVD.  On the BD version, we used 44.44mbps out of 48mbps.

I negotiated the bit budget with Technicolor at the time we started production.  Unlike DTS-HD which uses an exact bandwidth spec for encodes, DTS-HD-MA Lossless uses what it needs to achieve best results.  Since we did not know at that time how much space the DTS-HD-MA audio encode would utilize, we settled on 37mbps for the video encode which left us more than enough headroom for whatever the DTS-HD-MA ended up being.  However, looking back … I could have hit 40mbps on the Video Encode rate for this title.  We will try to achieve this on our next release … although I don’t think it matters much once you get to this level.

10. Richard, you said on AVS forum that "we could not use DTS-HD-MA on HD-DVD due to bandwidth limitations on the HD-DVD disc NOT due to a disc space issue." This brings forth the question that divides both camps since the main spokesperson for HD-DVD on AVS, Amir Majidimehr, has stated that both can be included on HD-DVD without any compromise on video quality. How do you feel about Amir's response to this in the AVS thread?

I believe what Amir is doing at Microsoft is very necessary and important work.  He seems to be very focused on video encoder efficiency which is great. All producers like to have efficient encoding tools available for use on HD / BD projects and for certain bandwidth limited applications.

However, there are other great CODECS out there such as AVC and MPEG-2.  I believe that all of the currently available CODECS can serve a purpose.  Each has its own unique set of characteristics and some work better than others with different types of content.  I am happy to have access to them all so I can choose what works best for any given source or application.

We work hard to set our work apart and have set incredibly high standards … demanding that our products meet or exceed all expectations. In addition, R&B Films, along with our artists, engineers, and associates have spent many years developing and fine tuning our proprietary DRS strategy which clearly raises the bar for high performance entertainment. 

I will say that content and source quality do come in to play here. Garbage in still means garbage out.

However, with all that said and based on some differences of opinion Amir and I have regarding what can or can’t be seen or heard, I would have to say that this is somewhat of a subjective argument.  In the end, I believe most respected audio / video engineers, technicians, and industry professionals would agree with most of our theories and practices.

Also, despite claims to the contrary, I believe most professional engineers could easily hear the difference between a lossy and a lossless audio encode. So can most audiophiles.  In fact, most people can hear the difference once they understand what they need to listen for. 

I would argue the same for video encodes.  Given the right content, there are definite differences in quality at various bit rates. As the Video CODECS become more efficient, there may be a point where you can get great encodes below 20mbps that looks every bit as good as a 25mbos encode.  However, at this point in time, that is not typically the case.

An upcoming release from R&B Films will demonstrate the various differences between Audio and Video CODECS and Bit Rates. I hope this will educate people on the differences and help create demand for higher quality entertainment products from the Major Studios.

In the end, though, I must admit that not everyone appreciates our commitment to quality and presentation. Our ultimate goal is to turn people on to the absolute highest quality entertainment possible so they can decide for themselves whether this experience is something they wish to have in their lives … or not. Those who don’t really care or cannot appreciate what we do … simply aren’t our audience. We accept that.
Questions Part II

11. In the AVS thread, you mention that adding a third layer for HD-DVD as they are attempting to do to create TL51 discs, may be a problem based on experience you have had in the past which may create a jitter in the audio. Please elaborate on that point as it was an interesting point to make regarding this format war.

Yes, we have had this experience with DVD-9 Dual Layer Discs in the past.  Our original Ultimate DVD Home Theater Setup Disc was a DVD-9 with some 96/24 PCM Audio Samples. When playing back the check disc, the audio did not sound right to me.  This was not a subtle difference from the original; it was very noticeable. This was confirmed by my associate, Tom McCarthy, who was in the room at the time.

Ultimately, I called in Pierre Sprey from Mapleshade Records, the engineer who provided me with the content. We had him take a listen as well. After much debate and a lot of testing, we discovered that the 96/24 track sounded better when it was moved to the first layer of the Dual Layer disc.  The difference was substantial enough for us to make note of this phenomenon for all future releases.

Our evaluation led us to the conclusion that the laser was being refracted when reading through layer 1 to layer 2 of the disc. This process was adding some “jitter” to the signal, which is a digital signal’s worst enemy.

I have to assume that adding a 3rd layer will only make matters worse. However, since I have not been able to test this theory … it remains an assumption at this point.

12. Please explain some of the problems you encountered working on both formats.

Our first release in HD / BD was CHRONOS, an award wining Large Format film originally presented in IMAX Theaters. CHRONOS was a very early release, one of the first in development actually.  We had some plenty of issues with both formats at this early stage, but we ended up having a showstopper on BD.

As it turned out, there was a flag in the Authoring Software that was set by default to what everyone believed it should be set to.  When we checked the disc, it played fine on every BD Player we tested it on. However, soon after release, Sony updated their PS-3 System Firmware and set the flag differently.  This caused our CHRONOS release in BD to stop playing on all PS-3 Systems. It did not affect any other BD Player.

We recalled the product, replaced discs (at no charge for consumers), and released an updated version that works great on all PS-3 Systems as well as every other BD Player on the market.

With NATURE’S JOURNEY, we had some challenges with both formats as well.  Nearing the end of production, we had to delay the BD release one (1) month due to several issues with BD-J programming as well as compatibility concerns due to player firmware issues.

We really pushed the limits of the specification with NATURE’S JOURNEY and tripped up a few things while discovering a few glitches in the process.

We worked though the issues and addressed all of the concerns.  Several player manufacturers needed to update firmware, but everyone worked together and cooperated to assure that NATURE’S JOURNEY would be 100% compatible and playable on all systems and players worldwide.

I feel this is a normal course of events for any new technology in the beginning.  As minor issues arise, they are dealt with. I would like to think that Nature’s Journey made a contribution in this way.

13. You have said on AVS that "the lower the Video Encode rate the more
"tweaking" you need to do and when you get to 16mbps to 18mpbs you
need a good compression person on the controls." Does this mean that
Blu-Ray's headroom in the bandwidth area is going to help make encoding a little easier for encoding teams vs. HD-DVD in the future?

Yes, for us at least.  For others, it will only make a difference if they use the available bandwidth.  Most people releasing both formats seem to be using the same exact encode for HD / BD these days.  I am hoping that our releases will have an impact on others and motivate them use separate format-specific encodes on their HD / BD titles

14. On your next project, what will you do differently in regards to your approach for both formats?

Based on feedback from AVS, I will utilize the exact same audio, DTS-HD-MA Lossless for both HD and BD releases. With this approach, the Video Encode will be lower, but we will work diligently to assure that we tweak the Video Encode for maximum Picture Quality at lower encoding rates.

15. Tell us what equipment you used to create these releases?

We actually list all of the gear on the inside panel of the Printed Insert in each release along with the technical specification for each format. I have included the list of equipment at the end of this interview in case you wish to publish it.

16. In the AVS forum, you have been called the "Criterion" for this video era! How do you feel about that?

I take this comparison as a great compliment as Criterion has always been regarded as the producer of premium quality entertainment products. Most important of all, it is very rewarding to know that people appreciate the hard work and effort we put in to creating these releases. Comments like this only motivate us to continue to improve by raising the bar on each new release we bring to market.

Richard J. Casey
Executive Producer
R&B Films, Ltd.

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