Paramount Shuns Blu-Ray, Pisses Off Michael Bay - A Format War Primer

by Paul William Tenny

I've read the news and I'm wondering what the downside is here. In case you haven't been following this story, Paramount has sided against Blu-Ray and consequentially virtually every other major studio by exclusively releasing their library on HD-DVD discs. Michael Bay, who recently made Paramount a lot of money with the bad toy-to-film Transformers, has declared his intentions not to direct any future films in that series. As opposed to boycotting Paramount, which would make much more sense.

Like I said, and the downside is where..?
First, how about a primer for the differences between Blu-Ray and HD DVD and what exactly these two formats are. CD-ROMs use a laser in the infrared spectrum to read and write information to discs by burning small pits into them. DVD drives are virtually identical but contain a laser that operates at a different wavelength, which could be described as red. This wavelength is shorter than infrared, therefore allowing the the laser to read and write to smaller areas on the disc's surface.

CD-ROM's can hold about 700mB of data, while a single layer DVD can hold 4700mB. Adding a second semi-transparent layer on top of a regular one (called dual layer or DL) can double storage for a DVD to a bit over 9000mB. Depending on the bitrate used and the length of a given movie, you can easily store an entire film plus lots of extras on a single sided disc this way.

This videos, however, are 720x480 in resolution, which is actually a bit more than a standard television can handle. High definition TV's operate at either 1280x720 progressive (720p) or 1920x1080 interlaced (1080i). What progressive and interlaced mean doesn't matter, just understand that with a greater video resolution comes more data and a better picture. A higher bitrate is required because small compression flaws in a standard definition DVD usually isn't visible at such a (comparatively) small resolution.

It was decided that a new disc format was needed because of the greater size of high definition video, but as was the case with original DVDs, the major electronic manufacturers couldn't come together on a single design. I've heard people say that DVD technology was delayed by a full five years or more, because of this ridiculous infighting bred of greed and ego.

They've clearly learned nothing from the last fight.

Two camps were formed, which developed two incompatible formats to compliment DVDs. I say compliment rather than replace, because nobody seems to be taking advantage of the increase storage space for other applications. For instance, dual-layer DVDs can only hold about four episodes of a TV show per single sided disc, meaning you need a whole box full of discs for a single season. With the potential for increased storage, it is not unreasonable under the right circumstances to expect to be able to fit nearly an season on a single disc.

From one camp comes HD DVD, primarily from Toshiba and NEC. From the other comes Blu-Ray, primarily from Sony. HD DVD is the format officially endorsed by the DVD Forum, the group which brought us DVDs in the first place.

Both of these formats once again moved to a new light spectrum with their lasers in order to gain even higher levels of disc surface density, but they are far from equal in storage capacity. HD DVD tops out at 15gB for a single layer, and 30gB for dual-layer discs. Blu-Ray starts at 25gB and tops out at 50.

Both formats support traditional MPEG2 video, the same used for DVDs and DirecTV's encrypted standard definition satellite broadcasts, but only Blu-Ray supports AVC-1/H264, the newest MPEG4 compression codec that increases quality while at the same time reducing storage space requirements.

In most comparisons, Blu-Ray is the superior format, capable of holding one full season of standard definition television on a single disc. The battle between the two is more about corporate competitive culture than it is technical superiority, because there appears to be no comparing the two.

Paramount's decision to support HD DVD exclusively is a loss for consumers, Michael Bay is right about that, but Bay's decision to back out of his duties for a presumed sequel to Transformers is actually good news for consumers.

Look, I saw the last fifteen minutes of the film and it was exactly what you'd expect from a Michael Bay film. It was visually impressive, and contained basically no story or character development at all. It was one 15-minute long action sequence that was as predictable as it was exciting. You know going in that you don't get movies from this guy, you get 2 hour video resumes for special effects companies.

Having Bay off the potential franchise is actually good news if you want and expect a good film to come of it, and I say that with a fair amount of respect for the man as a director, he's damn good at what he does. For whatever reason though, with all the power he wields as helmer, with uncanny regularity, he'll find a writer that is just barely competent enough to write a script but one with no discernible talent in doing so whatsoever.

I'd be happy to have him direct something of mine if I ever had that opportunity, just so long as his contract is "hands off." He directs, I do the writing, thank you very much.

Really though, this "format war" is about simple greed. Both factions want the whole market, and would rather settle for half of the 30% of people that say screw it and buy into this junk before its ready, than come together and share 100% of the next great format that nobody wants, or even needs.

I also wanted to comment on this, from IGN.

UPDATED: The webmaster for Bay's official site has posted the following on the site's message board: "I spoke to Michael a few minutes ago. He said he just wants people to know that we should be able to view his movies in the format of our choice. Period. Nothing more, nothing less." The webmaster later added, "Keep in mind he quit Pearl Harbor abut 4x during pre-production."

I don't think it's good press to remind people that Michael Bay did Pearl Harbor. If he had quit and stayed gone, it might have turned out to be a good film. See my point now? Pray Bay is serious about leaving Transformers, it could be the best thing ever to happen to the budding franchise.


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