Sony ES Press Briefing and Studio Tour – July 1st, 2010

Los Angeles – Sony invited out members of the press to discuss their ES line strategy, display new ES components, and provide a tour of Sony Pictures 3D facilities to help us understand all that goes into this recent transition to 3D for movie theaters and home. The largest change that is happening with the ES line is the transition from being just a high end line that is sold in a variety of places, including many online dealers, to a line that is only sold by specialized dealers that are better prepared to help consumers with the setup and installation of the ES products.

A shift away from online availability might seem like a surprising way to go, but the ES line contains many features that are often oriented towards custom installers, including multiple zone support, IR and 12V triggers, and other features that Sony found were not being utilized by consumers and a shift to dealers that will be able to directly interface with the home user to communicate these additional features, as well as help to install and configure the products.

Sony’s updated ES line consisted for three new ES receivers, the STRA-DA5600ES, STRA-DA4600ES, and STR-DA3600ES, ranging in price from $1,099 to $1,999, and a 3D ready Blu-ray player, the BDP-S1700ES, for $399. All of the models will be available in August, with the exception of the 5600 receiver which will be available in September. All of the receivers feature HDMI 1.4 with 4 inputs, 3D pass through and the audio return channel, three zones (the 2nd zone with component video, and the 3rd with audio only), and have added iPhone support for control of the receiver, Sony’s room correction technology with added Phase Matching, a DLNA client with support for multiple services (Rhapsody, Shoutcast), and in a first for any receiver that I know of, a 4 port Ethernet hub, so the receiver can distribute networked content to up to 3 other devices.

The 4600 model adds a 2nd HDMI output to the 3600, and the 2nd zone also moves from being standard component video to component over Cat5 with OSD and scaling support, to allow for longer cable runs that component traditionally allows. The amplifier section is also upgraded from 100×7 WPC to 120×7 WPC (all amplifier ratings are done at 8 ohm, 1 kHz signal with 0.09% THD). Moving up to the 5600 model (pictured below) adds an additional 2 HDMI inputs, including a front panel input, upgrading from a DNLA client to a DNLA server, support for HATS over HDMI (Sony’s audio rate control over HDMI technology to reduce jitter), an enhanced GUI, and the amplifier moves up to 130×7 WPC. The 3600 model lists for around $1,100, the 4600 for around $1,500, and the 5600 for around $2,000.

The BDP-S1700ES Blu-ray player carries over all of the features of the S770 Blu-ray player including 3D support, 1080p scaling, iPhone control, Gracenote database support for title lookup, DLNA client support, as well at 1 GB of memory for BD Live and WiFi built in. The ES model adds a rear IR input for custom installation and automation, as well as the ES line’s 5 year warranty. The last thing that we got to see was a preview of a 3D projector from Sony. It was an early prototype and there won’t be any sort of announcement until later this year, but it was the largest 3D demonstration I had seen to date, and I think the effect is much better when your whole field of view is occupied, much as it is at an IMAX film.

After the product introductions, we were taken to Sony Pictures Studios to learn more about the work that goes into 3D technology before it gets to consumers, and it was really very enlightening to all the work that has to go into it. We met up with Chris Cookson, the President of Sony Pictures Technologies, who gave us an overview of the move the 3D and the challenges that Sony and everyone else faces. Their main concern is that people will get their first taste of 3D and it will be bad 3D, and they will be turned off from it for the future. As someone that has not seen Avatar at all, or in 3D, this makes sense to me as everyone I know that is in love with 3D got there because of Avatar, which was designed from the start to be in 3D. With some pictures just adding on 3D at the last minute now (to take advantage of the higher ticket prices that can come from being shown in 3D) and not putting as much thought behind it, you run the risk of turning consumers off and that’s what Sony wants
to avoid.

Our first full presentation was from Buzz Hays, the Executive Stereoscopic 3D Producer for the Sony 3D Technology Center. He gave us an overview of the training classes that Sony is putting on at their studio to help teach cinematographers, directors, producers of live events (sports, shows such at the Oscars), and game developers about the challenges of 3D, the additional things you need to consider, and everything else that goes into making a film, TV show, or game in 3D. The first interesting point that was brought up was that an estimated 8-10% of people see in monocular vision and can’t discern objects in 3D. I had no idea that such a high percentage of people were unable to do so, but that is what research has brought out.

Buzz went over a lot of the technical things that I had never considered when it came to making a film in 3D, such as the differences between putting the lenses close together and further apart, deciding how far out to bring and object from the screen or if you want to push it further behind, working to isolate objects that were in the front from those that are behind and how traditional approaches using bokeh can cause headaches for viewers, and the difference that a camera lens can make in your perspective. I found the camera lens demonstration to be the most enlightening myself.

Using an example from Beowulf with Angeline Jolie, he went between different lenses from 8mm, to 50mm, 85mm, and 200mm. At 200mm, the was almost no depth to the image, with the closest object being almost as near as the background. At 8mm, Angelina Jolie’s head was brought to the very front, and everything else was pushed so far back that it was horribly distorted (8mm is traditionally a fisheye lens). With 50mm and 85mm, there was a definite shift between how much depth there was to the image, and how much the person at the center of the screen was isolated from their background. Having to decide which to use is certainly a hard choice, and not something that you can really go back and fix after you have made the choice on the set. This presentation, which was over an hour long, really showed me all the work that goes into 3D that you didn’t need to think about with 2D, and certainly how it has a learning curve that people will need to figure out. Surround Sound had a learning curve as well, and over the past two decades we have seen how films have gone from barely using the surrounds, or using them for rare effects (I’m thinking of Top Gun here) to using them to really pull the viewer into the picture with the soundtrack.

After out meeting with Buzz, we got a tour of the Sony Digital Authoring Center, including the massive arrays of servers that work to produce the movies we watch at home. In the racks were also a full array of Blu-ray players from all companies so that titles can be tested on most players that are out there to be sure that they will work when they are released into the marketplace. The amount of processing power that is used to take a film master and convert it into a Blu-ray was astonishing, and there was always someone there checking the quality to make sure it looked great. Converting to a 3D Blu-ray takes almost an order of magnitude more processing power than a standard Blu-ray film does, though it is still a process that is in it’s infancy and they are working to improve that. On the monitors in the background I could see them working on the last season of Lost for Blu-ray, which I can’t wait for, and one member of our tour was trying to avoid as he preferred to watch on Blu-ray over broadcast and hadn’t seen it yet.

Next we visited Colorworks, Sony’s new Digital Intermediary facility that is located in the Stage 6 building. Colorworks allows Sony to do daily scanning of all their film negatives at 4K resolution for color correction, editing, special effects, and more. With the ability to scan at 15 frames per second, Sony is able to take the dailies from a set, have them delivered that night, and have the film scanned into the system and ready to be viewed and worked on the next morning. The servers pictured here hold over 500 Terabytes of data, which is only a fraction of the over 3.5 Petabytes of storage available in the building, all connected via fiber. Working at this high resolution ensures that the final product is ready for any display, from a Blu-ray player to a projector in a cinema. One two hour film at this resolution takes up around 12 Terabytes of data to store, so that storage can be taken up quickly but there is a team of people working just to manage the data all of the time.

Working on color correction for a film at Colorworks.

Additionally, they are working to bring over catalog films to 3D that had been shown that way previously. Here you can see someone working on “The Mad Magician” with Vincent Price, which was broadcast on TV in 3D. Of course I can’t tell you what the old version looked like in 3D, but looking at the work-in-progress version, the effect was more to draw attention to what the director wanted you to focus on with the screen, and not to annoy you with tacky effects that would grow tiresome quickly. The transfer looked to be very nice on the studio monitors, and I noticed that they used Genelec monitors for the audio in the rooms, which I would see later on as well.

The scoring stage, used for recording movie soundtracks, was a phenomenal place to tour, and I had no idea that soundtracks were typically recorded in just a couple of days. The musicians will show up that morning, having not seen the movie or the music, be handed their sheet music, and are ready to go as soon as they are warmed up and start recording. We were not able to see them recording live while we were there, but composers and conductors such as James Horner (Titanic, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind) have recorded their film soundtracks in the room. I would love to see a short documentary on this whole process one day, as it’s just fascinating.

Inside the control room, they have the largest soundboard I had seen in my life (72 channels, I believe), once again using Genelec monitors. I was told that certain producers will bring in B&W speakers to listen to the recordings on instead of the Genelec’s, but those were the only two brands of monitor that I heard mentioned or saw on the tour. After the control room we saw the foley room, where a foley artist will create all of the sounds in a movie, from a cup clinking, to shoes on a hardwood floor, to any other sound that you will hear in a film. They had a huge array of props and objects to use to create any sound that might be needed, though I imagine they never have to stop thinking about what else to use when a new film comes their way.

Finally, we got to visit an automatic dialog replacement stage, used to redo, edit, or add lines to a film after production. This took place in a very large, open room with lots of comfortable couches around and a couple of mics in the center of the room. Directors often have to go back to change dialogue after they discover in a test screening that a scene or plot-line isn’t making as much sense, or if they remove one scene they need to fill in details that are no longer in the film with that scene removed. Additionally, they might need to edit a film’s dialogue to be shown on TV or on a plane (Such as the hilarious dubbed lines that appear in the Die Hard series when it’s on network TV) so that it’s appropriate for all audiences.

Once you have all of the score, sounds, and dialogue assembled, someone has to put it all together, and mix it into multiple channels, and for that there are a variety of re-recording theaters on the Sony lot. We visited the Kim Novak theater, where Greg Russell was currently working on the mix for Salt, with Angelina Jolie. Greg has a dozen Academy Award nominations to his credit, including the sound mixing for Transformers, Con Air, The Rock, Spiderman 1 and 2, and Pearl Harbor (I can see that he and Michael Bay seem to enjoy working together) and really enjoyed talking to us about working on the mix. In addition to the 5.1 mix for theaters (with 7.1 mixes starting this year for theaters as well), they will bring in speakers to mimic a home 5.1 setup for doing the mix that might appear on the Blu-ray disc, and for a 2 channel mix they will often use a standard TV, as that’s how most people will watch that mix.

I had no idea that the same team would work on multiple mixes of the same movie for the different environments, or that there could be such a difference on the home and cinema mixes, but when you consider the huge differences in the audio setups of the two locations, you can see where having a new, dedicated mix would be a beneficial thing for the home viewer. Additionally, they will now work on their mix differently if a film is in 3D. If something happens on the screen normally, perhaps you’ll just use the front channels. However if that action is coming out of the screen when it’s in 3D, you would obviously want to bring the surrounds into play to fully immerse the audience and not have a disconnect between the screen and the audio. I can’t convey it in these photos well enough, but the Kim Novak theater was just amazing to be in, and as ideal a theater for watching a film as you could imagine. I’m not sure what projector they were using, though a 4K model would be my guess since they master everything that way, and I’m certain the audio setup was as good as you could get so their mix can be Oscar caliber once again.

I mentioned the training classes that Sony had for cinematographers earlier, and we got to drop in on one as they were working on recording a scene, and how the 3D choices they made would affect that shot. In this case, they were working on the inter-ocular distance for the lenses (how much space is between the dual lenses of the 3D camera) and how changing that will affect the shot. They would run through a scene, watch the playback (3D is almost always shot digitally) on their monitors, and adjust the settings to get their desired result. Sony was offering these classes for everyone in the cinematographers guild, as they want 3D to succeed as a whole and teaching people the best way to use it is the only way that is going to happen.

Finally on my way out of the Columbia Pictures lobby, all of their Academy Awards for Best Picture were on display, and I had to stop and admire the award for one of my all time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. I’d really like to thank Sony for bringing me out as the tour of their facilities was incredibly enlightening, and it made me realize how much more goes into 3D just just adding some special effects and a pair of glasses for the audience. I’m sure everyone in the home theater industry will be interested to see how this develops going forward.

Fellow writer Chris Heinonen and I were priveleged to attend Sony’s unveiling of their new receivers and Blu-ray products in the flagship ES line. The press event took place at the prestigous SLS hotel in Beverly Hills and finished up at Sony Pictures where everyone got a glimpse of a few of the production facilities used in movie picture creation and 3d movie picture creation.

The Sony 2010 ES lineup includes three receivers and one Blu-ray player. The most significant change that Sony will be making this year is that Sony ES products will no longer be available for purchase from mass retailers or online retailers and will only be available through AV specialty and installation dealers. Only those dealers who can uphold a high level of quality in the home experience, will be classified as a qualified dealer.

The goal of this distribution strategy is that Sony will ensure that the home consumer will be getting the level of performance that Sony engineers imagined and that the home consumer will actually get to use all of the many features that these high end receivers have.

The ES lineup includes the STR-DA3600ES receiver priced at $1099, the STR-DA4600ES receiver priced at $1499, and the STR-DA5600ES receiver priced at $1999. Sony’s ES lineup will include only one Blu-ray player which is the BDP-S1700ES priced at $399. All ES products receive the benefit of having a five year limited warranty.

Starting from the STR-DA3600ES features will include Faroudja 1080p upscaling, 100w x 7, DCAC (Digital Cinema Auto Correction), HD DCS (Digital Cinema Sound), and BD Codecs. Digital Cinema Sound is a feature common to all of the Sony 2010 ES receivers that ensures the surround sound heard in the home environment is as close as possible as to what the Sony sound engineers hear in production facilities such as the Cary Grant Theater. Since Sony studios is involved in the final sound mixing of many motion pictures including those from other production companies, there are many movie releases that can benefit from this feature.

Seen here in this image of the back panel, an intelligent feature common to all 2010 ES receivers is an integrated ethernet hub. This eliminates the need for an external ethernet hub in a system with multiple networked devices. and also enables the STR-DA3600ES to operate as a DLNA client, and enables network features such as Rhapsody and Shoutcast.

All of the 2010 ES receivers will continue to focus on increased control from iPhone apps as we can see here in this very blurry picture.

Sony’s version of room calibration software is called DCAC which stands for Digital Cinema Auto Correction. In the past, DCAC would change the signal based on speaker distance and frequency response but now, in the 2010 ES lineup, DCAC will also include automatic phase adjustments to the calibration software. This is helpful for systems where the front, center, and surround speakers are of different sizes and have different crossover frequencies.

All 2010 ES receivers are HDMI 1.4 compliant and feature 3D pass through and audio return channel. Audio Return Channel is a feature that allows one to play the audio content from a networked television device through the receiver rather than the speakers built into the television. The STR-DA3600ES also features 4 HDMI in and 1 HDMI out, IR source control, Quick Click, 2nd Zone AV component and 3rd zone Audio.

In addition to these features, the DA4600ES features include 120w x 7 and a second Faroudja chip. This enables 2nd zone Faroudja upscaling as well as an OSD for the 2nd zone. It has a second HDMI output, which can be used in dual or switched mode, and 2nd Zone CAT5 for any rooms which are a considerable distance from the receiver.

Finally, when you move up to the DA5600ES, features include 130w x7, HATS for HDMI (addresses jitter over six channels of audio), an improved GUI, and 6 HDMI inputs including a front panel HDMI and 2 HDMI outputs. For network features, the DA5600ES can act as an audio DLNA server as well as a DLNA client. The DA5600ES also features an improved version of DCAC called DCAC EX which takes into account the angle of the various speakers.

Sony will offer two single disc Blu-ray players in 2010. The BDP-S770 and the BDP-S1700ES. Features on the BDP-S770 include BD/DVD/CD/SACD, 1080p upscaling, BD Codecs, 3D ready, Iphone App control, GraceNote, DLNA Client, Bravia internet cideo content, 1gb internal memory, front USB, Wi-Fi, and a backlit remote. When you step up to the BDP-S1700ES you get all the features of the BDP-S770 plus the better internal components and quality criteria of the ES series, the 5 year ES warranty, and an IR input on the rear of the unit for easier integration.

Sony’s distribution strategy for the 2010 ES products will focus on specialty AV and installation dealers and the ES lineup will have features that enable advanced integration. Since the ES line was very early to be Control 4 certified there will be excellent driver support and continued compatibility moving forward with Control 4 as well as other control companies such as Crestron, Savant, and AMX. The 2010 ES receivers also feature an AMX device discovery beacon for simple integration. As Amy Lloyd, product manager for Sony describes “Not only will the drivers be made available for those control companies, but they will also be complete.” Finally, the 2010 receivers feature 2 way RS232 and control over both IR and IP input jacks. Having control over the IP jack means potentially saving customers a lot of money for service calls because the proper information needed to resolve an issue can be generated remotely.

From left to right, Jon Lin, Brian Siegel, Michael McCole, Amy Lloyd, and Greg Belloni (not pictured) head up Sony’s Home Entertainment group for North America.

In this slide, Sony demonstrates their 3D world which encompasses 3D movies, 3D movie production facilities, 3D display equipment such as Sony displays and Blu-ray players, and the Playstation 3 which can play 3D enabled games. Since Sony has so much of a stake in how 3D develops they take a very active and responsible role in making sure the community gets to experience “good” 3D instead of mediocrity.

With that being said, the tour continues to Sony Pictures where we all get a glimpse at a few of the incredible production facilities and all the efforts being put forth in experiencing great 3D.

The Sony lot, which can easily double as a set if you need a Main Street with some stores.

The 3D Sony demo on this set, including the video game segments, was pretty impressive. I think video games benefit the most of what I’ve seen in 3D so far.

An entire bank of Blu-ray players just for testing titles to make sure they’ll play when the consumers get them.

Another image of them working on Priest for release in early 2011. I certainly wouldn’t mind a home theater that looked that good.

If you look into the corner of the scoring stage, there is a bike hanging from the ceiling. I’ve no idea how it got there.

Of course the entire scoring stage is wired up and ready for everyone to show up, plug in, and get to work as quickly as possible. More artsy photos of the scoring stage following!

Here is an example of the props that they will use on the foley stage to get the right sound effect for a film.

We began our tour with an introduction from Chris Cookson, President of Sony Pictures Technologies, and Chief Officer of Sony 3D Technology Center. Chris describes Sony’s active role in the motion pictures industry and how Sony enriches the 3D motion picture community by giving aspiring digital director’s the chance to get hands on experience and education with costly 3D motion picture camera equipment and related technology. This is all done through a free class that is taught on the Sony Pictures Studio. The principle objective is for the community of movie watchers to get a great experience with 3D content when they go to the theater or enjoy the technology from the home.

Don’t be tempted to put on your 3D glasses when viewing this image, it’s actually just a bit blurry. Here Buzz Hays, Executive Stereoscopic 3D Producer of the Sony 3D Technology Center gives us the chance to dive into some of the theory and key components behind making good 3D.

Interocular distance refers to the distance between the eyes of any species and relates to the relative scale of objects seen in the world. We learned how in a 3D camera system featuring two cameras, the distance between the cameras, called the Interaxial Distance, controls the relative distance of objects on the screen. If the cameras are too far apart from each other, things can look completely miniaturized and conversely if they are too close together, things can look very large. In any regard, producers have to decide and stick with an interaxial distance for the camera system during production and any issues that arise after the shoot are very difficult to fix in post production. It’s one of the challenges that 3D movie producers face.

One of the things I find especially challenging for 3D media is that it seems it takes a fair amount of effort to sit down and watch something in 3D because the eyes seem to work so hard to stay focused. We learned from Buzz about the concepts of vergence accomodation and vergence accomodation conflict. These concepts relate how the eyes not only rotate and follow objects with varying depths but also how the eyes automatically focus to adjust for the movement. A conflict arises when a 3D illusion tricks the eyes to rotate and converge on object as if it really existed in front of them but the actual focus point for the eyes is further back where the screen exists. If sequences are done in rapid succession and the eyes need to do this too much, this can really cause eye fatigue. Buzz further described techniques the Sony 3D technological center teaches to minimize this problem.

A work in progress, a horror movie called The Mad Magician originally shot in 3D in 1954 starring Vincent Price and Eva Gabor undergoes restoration for a future release. Note the notepad sticky in the bottom right corner of the right screen that the technician uses as a reference point for depth. Even though this was shot in 1954, the 3D effects in our short demonstration of this film were really good and just about everybody started squirming when we came to a scene with the magician’s buzzsaw trick. I’m really looking forward to this when it’s released.

Next up was a stop to Colorworks , which is Sony’s amazing digital intermediate facility that features real time 4k scanning at 15FPS and enough storage to access any of the material at any time. Once the material is scanned in at 4k it’s very easy for the studio to then create 2k scans for a HD workflow.

Here, Tony Beswick, Senior Vice President of Operation and Technology of Sony Pictures describes the data backbone that enables the 4k workflow. The building features over 3 Pedabytes of storage and there is a staff soley dedicated to the task of moving data around for projects during the day.

We continued our tour by visiting some of the Sony soundstages. Here we got a glimpse at the soundstage used for orchestral scores. The acoustics were so good in this room that Sony often gets the request to “not change a thing”.

Inside, we get a view of a massive mixing board and are then told the legend of a sound mixer who operates this behemoth by himself using only one arm.

Finally, a fun stop at a foley stage where they create all the sound effects for a motion picture. The only thing that is recorded during shooting is the performer’s voices and all sound effects are recorded and mixed in after the fact. This room was filled wall-to-wall with stuff.

Thats a wrap!

All in all, this was an enlightening event that we greatly enjoyed. We were able to get an advanced introduction of Sony’s new flagship ES receivers and ES Blu-ray player and also got to see the Sony Studio grounds and the responsible position that Sony takes in the emerging subject of 3D technology.