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Paramount: A Laborious Process Behind UHD Blu-rays

In April, Paramount Home Media Distribution announced Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness would be its first Ultra High-Def (UHD) Blu-ray Discs, hitting retail on June 14. But the work to get the discs made properly for 4K players and TVs began years ago, according to Ed Hoxsie, senior VP of worldwide product production and fulfillment for the studio.

From before a film even hits theaters, studios are already laying the technical groundwork needed for home entertainment, and with UHD Blu-ray, there’s never been as much advanced legwork needed: 4K video, high-dynamic range (HDR 10), next-gen audio codecs, wider color gamut, and a whole new collection of consumer electronics hardware to test the final product against.

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“We’ve gone through about five or six sessions with [that] same number of eyes at Paramount looking at masters, all the way to compression, as well as having third party vendors look at it as well,” Hoxsie said. “And we don’t just give it to a vendor and say ‘do it,’ we actually spend days at these facilities, and we’re integral in the set-up.”

The Star Trek releases — coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the franchise — were re-mastered for UHD Blu-ray to include more than four times the video resolution of the 1080p found on standard Blu-ray, HDR 10 for better contrast, more than double the number of colors found on high-def, and include Dolby Atmos soundtracks remixed for home theaters that can handle the object-based sound technology.

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All those firsts for a home entertainment release from the studio required Paramount to work with the films with an eye on how consumers will see them in the home, with the assumption that they’re taking their new UHD Blu-ray players and 4K TVs straight out of the box and plugging them in.

“At this time, we’re realizing not all TVs are made the same, so we looked at them on studio monitors, and then we’ll pop them on commercial monitors,” Hoxsie said. “In my experience, a lot of this is coming down to power consumption: a lot of these TVs are rated to go a lot higher than they actually show. If it seems very bright, for example, it takes a lot of power, and the TVs are not hitting that high end we expect them to [hit].

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“We figure our discs are future-proofed. We’re making them for the top of the line TVs, and when the technology and CE companies catch up, and the power consumption is better, this stuff will already carry through. We’re not mastering for a 600 nit TV, we’re mastering for a 1,000 [nit TV] in the HDR 10 world.”

Paramount won’t release any future UHD Blu-ray titles without HDR 10, the baseline high dynamic range standard for both content and hardware, and, for now, the studio is avoiding proprietary HDR offerings like Dolby Vision. “They look great, and the bigger the screen the better,” Hoxsie added. “A 40- to 50-inch screen, yes, you’ll see it, but when you get above 65 inches, you’ll see the integrity carry over.”

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As far as Dolby Atmos, Star Trek Into Darkness hit theaters in 2013 with the technology already included, but the studio had the original sound mixers for the 2009 Star Trek release come back and do an Atmos mix from the ground up with the original sound elements for the UHD Blu-ray release. Hoxsie said the studio had previously considered doing Atmos tracks for its standard Blu-ray releases, but didn’t believe the technology was ready yet. “[UHD Blu-rays] are perfect for Atmos. Since we’re doing HDR, we needed to bring up the audio with it,” he said.

As far as the discs themselves, every studio thus far has utilized the 66 GB versions of UHD Blu-ray, with 100 GB format not commercial just yet. That’s why Paramount’s UHD Blu-rays of the Star Trek films are mostly devoid of bonus features, with commentaries only.

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“The reason we have enough room is because we’re not putting anything else on the disc, no special features. We’re not overloading it with 20 audio tracks. We’re keeping it like a domestic, movie-only release,” Hoxsie said. “And it’s more than enough for what we want to do right now. Two years from now, if we want to put UHD bonuses on these discs, the 100 GB will come into play. Or if one day we do a movie that’s three hours long, the 100 will do that. We’re fanatics with our bit rates, and I can say that both are sufficient, and hold enough to adapt the Atmos tracks.”

With both Paramount and Universal Studio Home Entertainment announcing in April their initial slates of UHD Blu-rays, every major studio except Disney has either released titles on or announced support for the format. According to data from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, consumers bought more than 80,000 copies of the 26 UHD Blu-ray Disc movies released in the quarter, double the amount of standard Blu-rays that were purchased during that format’s debut.

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Hoxsie sees the studios — for now — sticking with large-scale action-adventure blockbusters for the format, at least until the technology becomes widely adopted by consumers.

“The people who go out and buy and rent [Blu-ray] tend to want action, the male-testosterone driven content,” he said. “Us being in tech ops, we’re very agnostic: any film that comes through, we spend a lot of time making sure the quality is what the director wants. We sit with them to make sure the transfers capture it, and if someone one day wants to do a small drama, we would do it, but would people buy it? I don’t know.”