An Interview with the author of the Hollow Man DVD

by Dean McIntosh

    Ask me what movie I watched last week and I probably won't be able to remember. Ask me which film I had most eagerly anticipated a DVD version of, and I will have one answer for you: Hollow Man. With more than 560 special effects shots, many of which were deemed to be impossible as recently as during the theatrical run of a certain special effects juggernaut called The Phantom Menace, this was a film that was practically made for the new-generation video format. Hollow Man's numerous special effects sequences, which include such things as an invisible man immersed in smoke and water, are a perfect example of DVD's sharper resolution and component formatting at its finest. Through some good luck and the miracle of international telecommunications, I was able to speak with Don Eklund, the Engineering VP for the DVD Center at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who oversaw the authoring of the Hollow Man DVD.

How did you originally come to be involved in the process of transferring films to video?

That's a pretty broad question. In terms of going from films to video, there's a number of different departments involved. My involvement has been taking the video masters for DVD, and we started that here about six years ago in testing MPEG encoders to find out how to make an MPEG encoder that could make outstanding picture quality at low bitrates. About two years after that testing had started, there was actually an agreed-to standard that we could start authoring to. So we've been in full authoring operation for nearly five years, really since the inception of the format, since the very first discs were produced.

I was wondering if you had a specific opinion Hollow Man as a movie.

As an engineer, I really like movies like this at lots of different levels, especially where DVD is concerned. When you have a movie that's graphics-heavy and especially has the sort of intensely-saturated colours that Hollow Man has in the special effects, it really is a terrific movie for the DVD medium because DVD, recording colour in component mode rather than in composite mode does a really excellent job at reproducing those scenes, as opposed to the same movie on VHS. You'd just see an extraordinary difference - we're used to seeing VHS look a bit washed-out and not have the resolution. The special effects scenes in this particular movie are so rich that it's a shame to not watch them on a format like this.

The extras on the Hollow Man DVD are rather substantial and take up a lot of room. A lot of movies with this many extras are being marketed as two-disc sets. Is there any particular reason why Hollow Man wasn't?

In working with Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment's wishes, it is desirable to release the product on one disc if it makes sense to do so. In the case of Hollow Man, the movie is not especially long. It's under two hours, so using a DVD9, which can easily hold close to four hours of material, we were really able to comfortably put the movie and the added-value on the disc without making any compromises.

How did having twenty percent more picture information to be encoded for the PAL-compatible version of the disc affect the authoring process?

Typically, the bitrates that are available for our NTSC and PAL releases are pretty similar. We have certain average bitrates that we usually try to achieve and even though PAL does have more information on a frame-by-frame basis, the encoder still does a very good job at a given average bitrate. Although there is twenty percent more in the way of vertical lines, there is in fact still an image that came from an original film frame and can be compressed into something else on the basis of the images on screen rather than on the basis of the number of lines and the number of pixels. So the compression that we've been doing since the very beginning of our PAL releases we think has been very good, coming from the Sony encoder that we've been using since day one. When I've spoken with other videophiles, who have both the NTSC and the PAL releases, they tend to say that they compare very favourably.

The Hungarian dub on the Region 4 version of the disc makes me wonder exactly what decision-making processes there are as to what languages will be presented on a DVD, and what considerations there are in transferring the soundtracks.

Well for our part, we don't actually decide what gets included on the disc, the people involved in marketing at Columbia Tristar would make those decisions, and then just pass on that requirement to us. What I can tell you is that we put into place some programs to make sure that the quality of all the audio streams is very consistent. Such that if you surf through all the audio tracks on the disc, you don't get any sort of obvious changes in quality or level, and regardless of what the audio streams are and what languages they contain, we've been pretty successful in maintaining that. Why they chose to put Hungarian on this particular disc, I couldn't tell you specifically.

Is there a significant amount of difference in the work involved in producing a Region 4 DVD, as opposed to a Region 1 DVD?

Region 4 is not such an issue as much as the difference between making the PAL and NTSC versions. The PAL versions do typically have more subtitles, and they do typically have more dubbed audio. So in terms of our quality-control process, and in terms of the menus on the disc, they are more complicated to make and they do take a lot more time to do quality control on so that we can check that everything included is correct. We do, however, have some North American discs, Region 1 discs, that are also being encoded for South America and parts of Asia, and those discs will similarly have more menus and more subtitles and are similar in complexity to a disc like this PAL version of Hollow Man.

Speaking of menus, the animation and audio in the main menu is very well done. What's normally involved in creating menus of this style?

There are both in-house and out-of-house people who do the artistic work to create these menus. If there are animation sequences, such as in Hollow Man, those have to be rendered, as we refer to it, to the line standard that we're going to use on the disc, for instance to the PAL line standard or the NTSC line standard. Then we have some fair work to do in order to set up the menu pages with those moving sequences and determine how to program the buttons and how to program the loops, such that the transition as the menu loops back on itself is not jarring or out of the ordinary. I don't know if you've noticed, but on most of the discs where they have moving menus, they'll run for fifteen, twenty, or thirty seconds and then they start over again. That's simply to conserve disc space, you don't want a moving menu that just goes on for minutes at a time. So there is a fair amount of technical work that we have to do, both in hardware and software in order to make those work properly, and we're pretty proud of the discs we've been able to do lately in making those menus look good and not do anything that seems to be peculiar or jarring.

The video stream for Hollow Man must have placed a lot of stress upon the compression with all of its special effects, and the shots that contain such things as water and steam. How exactly are such problems dealt with during the authoring process?

Well, of course, the first task is that when we have a movie like this that we want to allocate the right amount of space for the video to make sure that we don't starve the encoding and cause any undue video artefacts. So that's handled in the planning stages for the disc, but as far as the encoding goes itself, as I started off by saying, we started doing test encoding here quite a number of years ago in order to optimize the video encoder that we use, the actual piece of hardware that does the work. That encoder does a particularly fine job, even on difficult materials like this. If we do find a scene that has something in it that seems to be a visible artefact which we think is objectionable, we can go in on a scene-by-scene basis and make some adjustments. For instance, for a given few frames of video, we can increase the bitrate, or we can apply a filter, or manipulate it in some other way so as to eliminate that particular artefact. The encoder makes certain assumptions, and it can in some instances make the wrong assumption, and we can have a bit of human intervention go in and correct it.

What source materials specifically were used to author the film?

Hollow Man, like almost all of our DVDs, was sourced from a D1, which is an uncompressed component digital master, maybe you're familiar with it. The D1 is provided to us by the High-Definition Centre at Sony, and the High-Definition Centre makes that from a downconverted HD master. The audio tracks come to us on a DASH, which is the Sony digital multi-track format, and the menu and subtitle elements come to us in many different ways. The two principal pieces, the audio and the video, will come usually on D1 and DASH.

Similarly, what source materials were used for the Theatrical and Teaser Trailers that are on the Region 4 DVD?

The element that we receive to compress from is usually DigiBeta in the case of trailers and other bits of added-value material. If there is a multi-channel soundtrack associated with it, then that can come on either DASH or sometimes we'll use the smaller eight-channel, cassette-based multichannel format.

I'm curious about the fact that the theatrical trailer is 16x9 Enhanced, but the teaser trailer isn't. Is there any reason for this discrepancy?

It depends on what's available to us. Sometimes if the teaser or trailer is designed for a television spot, it may be 4:3, and it could be that a widescreen version of that was not available to us. But rather than not include it on the disc, in spite of the fact that the format is different, we prefer to include it regardless so that consumers can get all of the material that was available.

The audio commentary and isolated score soundtracks on Hollow Man are probably some of the most amusing and informative of this type that I've heard on a DVD. What's involved in creating soundtracks of this type, and how much effort does it take to get a director, a writer, and an actor into the same place to record it?

As far as the authoring facility is concerned, we can't take any credit at all for the creation of those materials. There is actually a group in Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment that is directly responsible for that, and that's headed by Michael Stratford. His group is responsible for most of the added features that go on these discs. When they do these commentary tracks, just in anecdotal stories that I've heard from Michael, sometimes they're very successful with the groups from the film, and sometimes less so, but it is always a lot of work. It basically involves sitting the people down in front of a screen and playing the movie for them, then recording the results, sometimes going back to re-record bits that they're not satisfied with. So it is quite a lot of effort, but we're always grateful to the creative people who are willing to participate in that, because it does make the disc much more interesting. Especially in the case of something like Hollow Man, where there's just so much to it, and it's very interesting to hear the details about it being put together.

Okay, thank you very much for your time, Don.

Alright, you're quite welcome.