The newest Trek films are part of the first wave of movies Paramount will release on the new UltraHD Blu-ray format. There are no new special features, they’re the same as The Compendium deluxe two-movie release from a couple of years back, but at least nothing is left out (I’m looking at you first versions of Into Darkness). Into Darkness is an especially good fit considering parts of it were filmed in IMAX and had a theatrical Dolby Atmos mix. Read on to find out how the movies look and sound with the next generation video and audio formats.
A few words about UltraHD Blu-ray and HDR
UltraHD Blu-ray is the next generation version of Blu-ray, since it is made for UltraHD resolution (4k) it has to hold quite a bit more data, and so it is not backwards compatible. To play an UltraHD Blu-ray Disc (UHD BD) you must have a new player made for it. UHD BD is much more than just a resolution bump, since the increase in resolution alone is often not really discernible for people at typical TV sizes and seating distances.
The real “killer features” of the UHD BD standard are High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a Wide Color Gamut (WCG). This is something you can see at normal distances, because it has to do with contrast and color, both things our eyes are rather keen on detecting. A new 4k transfer of a movie graded for HDR/WCG can in effect digitally “describe” a film in more detail than we’ve had in a consumer format before.
Now to display all this new information, you’ll need a newer Ultra HDTV that can understand how to present the new high dynamic range and wider color information. If you bought a mid-range or high-end 2015 model Ultra HDTV you may simply need a firmware upgrade (which was probably automatically applied already). However, for most people that means getting a brand new HDR-capable set.
While you can theoretically buy an UltraHD Blu-ray player and hook it up to an older non-HDR compliant 4k or even 1080p TV set, this is not recommended, you don’t gain any of the real benefits from the new format, and in fact the UHD BD version may look somewhat worse, because of the greater extremes in contrast that a regular HDTV is not really able to handle.
As you might imagine this is something that has to be seen, it can’t very easily be conveyed via images. It really is something you have to see for yourself in a proper setup.
More info about this new tech can be found here:
NOTE: Due to the fact that UHD Blu-ray discs are not usable in a standard Blu-ray PC drive, there is no way to capture the output of UHD Blu-ray discs, and even if it were possible, the output wouldn’t do it justice. There are a few images in this article, simply for illustrative purposes. The images are from the standard Blu-ray discs and are not indicative of the quality of the UltraHD Blu-ray versions.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Atmos is a relatively new surround sound standard that is a large technical leap forward from typical surround sound formats. Atmos consists of sound objects that are positioned in 3D space around you the listener, it is then up to the decoder in your A/V receiver to handle what speakers these sounds comes from given the number of speakers you have and your room setup. Contrast this to typical surround sound formats which are entirely channel based, a sound is strictly mapped to one of 5 or 7 channels. Similar to HDR, this is something that has to be heard to really get the feel for it and once you experience a good Atmos soundtrack it’s hard to go back to standard mixes. The near pin-point accuracy of the positioning of sounds around you, above you, next to you — basically all over your living room, can make watching a movie truly immersive.
Atmos has been in use theatrically since 2012 and available in a home version since 2014. This year, Atmos decoding has become a fairly standard feature for mid-range A/V receivers. The home version uses 2 or 4 height speakers, which can be accomplished a few different ways. You can mount more speakers up high near the ceiling, you can put speakers in or on the ceiling, or you can use specially made Atmos speakers, or Atmos add-on modules to existing speakers, which bounce the height information off the ceiling from the standard front and rear surround speaker positions. For the best results you’ll want to use 4 speakers, two speakers will leave the listener with more of a squished bubble of sound that stops at a certain point, rather than enveloping the listener.
Atmos soundtracks are backwards compatible with Dolby TrueHD, so if you’re not ready to make the leap, you’ll get an excellent 7.1/5.1 version for standard speaker layouts.
Atmos has been available on select Blu-ray releases since late-2014, however since it is considered a bit of a premium feature, there is a new trend to include the Atmos mixes exclusively to the UltraHD Blu-ray releases, which are also considered premium, leaving the standard Blu-ray with only a conventional 7.1 mix.
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek was filmed in 2008 just before the big push to film movies in IMAX and exploit other newer digital cinema technologies (like 3D). It was also considered a fantastic Blu-ray getting high marks for audio and video quality when it was released in 2010, but that was 6 years ago. Because of this I assume this is the movie most people wonder what kind of an upgrade they’re getting by going to UltraHD and HDR with Dolby Atmos surround sound.
The first film in the new franchise is a very different film than its sequel, both in the sense that it was filmed entirely on 35mm film and that it has a more intimate feel than its slam bang follow up. There is a definite upgrade thanks to the increased dynamic range and wider color gamut that UltraHD Blu-ray affords. The scene with the Kelvin shuttlecraft escaping in silhouette across a bright sun is a more powerful scene, with details in the bright star more visible and the shuttles more sharply defined, rather than the sheer brightness drowning out the image. The higher dynamic range is evident in this manner all throughout the film.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to being able to handle more in the extreme dark and light areas of an image is that the infamous lens flares are quite a bit less distracting, since they don’t wash out the picture as much. The expanded range also provides benefits in the other extreme; the dark shadows of the Narada are now less murky. The expanded color gamut is also on display here, with a richer presentation of our heroes costume’s primary color scheme.
According to Paramount, they went back to the original sound elements and had a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack created for this release. It’s quite good, but perhaps falls short of a modern film that was made for Atmos in the first place. Don’t let this last statement mislead you; it is still a worthy upgrade over the already excellent standard version included with previous releases. Like most Atmos mixes, there is more breathing room to experience large spaces, like the large engineering areas of the USS Kelvin and the USS Enterprise. The dark cavernous interior of the Narada now sounds as big as it looks. One of the best examples of the Atmos upgrade comes early on when we see the young Spock training in one of the classroom “learning bowls” in the floor that surrounds him with text/graphic displays and auditory questions. The questions now come from all over: overhead left, overhead right, behind you, to the left, to the right, and so on. It now truly feels as if we’re in the “bowl” with Spock.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Into Darkness was released in 2013, by now using IMAX cameras to film select portions of a movie (thanks to The Dark Knight and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) had become something blockbusters were expected to do and the brand new Dolby Atmos technology was in a few high end theaters. So what better movie to feature top of the line tech than a Star Trek film?
One word: Stunning.
Into Darkness being the newest movie released so far, and having a significant amount of IMAX footage mixed in, makes for a recipe of awesome. The newer dynamic range and wider pallet of colors give it that much more of an edge. Unlike the initial Blu-ray release of Into Darkness, this version changes aspect ratios to fill the screen (16:9) when there’s IMAX footage. These moments fill the screen with bright vibrant extra detailed images. The entire Niburu scene is demo material. The deep rich red color of the alien soil is more saturated than the standard Blu-ray. The clouds break through the sky with more detail and contrast then before thanks to the higher dynamic range. The ride and subsequent fight on Qo’noS is exhilarating, consisting mostly of IMAX footage doesn’t hurt it either. It’s not just bright scenes either, the rich deep blacks of space peaking around the nebula while the Enterprise waits on the edge of the Klingon neutral zone was already demo worthy (I know a lot of people who used it as their wallpaper on their computers), it gains a new depth of contrast and color.
Like the video, the audio is reference material. Into Darkness was part of the first wave of movies to have an Atmos soundtrack option for cinema exhibitors. Since an Atmos mix already existed, it just needed to be optimized for a home experience. The Atmos sound track is fantastic, it improves upon the already excellent 7.1 soundtrack the standard Blu-ray versions had.
To go back to the example of the opening scene on Niburu, it isn’t just a fantastic demo visually, but also an auditory feast thanks to the Atmos mix. The native spears fly by you and over you in a way that makes one duck. Spock in the volcano immerses the viewer too, you can hear the volcano’s hot material spew up and fall all around you, the volcano rumbles around you. It doesn’t stop there, as with any good Atmos soundtrack there is the general sense of sitting inside the movie and feeling the environments around you, whether on the bridge of the Enterprise or staring down Klingons on Qo’noS.
There’s nothing new to these releases, but there also isn’t anything missing. You get a second copy of the movie on standard Blu-ray, and you get a third standard Blu-ray disc that has all the extras, just like The Compendium release of Into Darkness and all deluxe releases of Star Trek. So for all intents and purposes buying these two UltraHD copies is like getting The Compendium set but in UltraHD and Atmos.