Rick Dean (Director of Technical Business Development at THX Digital Works) was kind enough to give us some of his time. THX is a ...
Interview conducted Saturday 20th December 2003
You might have noticed the THX logo at your local cinema, on your DVDs, and even on your video games; but what does it mean? Well, we were recently lucky enough to have a chat with Rick Dean, Director of Technical Business Development at THX Digital Works. Rick has more than 20 years of experience in the motion picture industry. As Director of Technical Business Development for THX Digital Works, Rick provides studio clients, filmmakers and DVD producers with a variety of certification, quality control (QC) and project management services in the post-production of motion pictures for Digital Cinema and DVD releases. Over the years, Rick has worked on numerous high-profile DVD projects, including Star Wars Episodes I and II], and the Indiana Jones Trilogy. With more and more top titles on DVD being THX approved, it is about time that we all understood what it all means, and how the certification process is carried out. Read on...
|| DVDActive: So. THX is an odd name for a company isn't it? Care to expand on it and indeed, the company’s origins?|
Rick Dean: Twenty years ago, the quality of sound in commercial cinemas was awful. Loudspeakers hadn’t seen improvements since the 1950s, audience viewing angles were poor, and outside noise interfered with the on-screen presentation. George Lucas felt that he and his fellow filmmakers were wasting their time, and money, perfecting sound and visual effects in the professional mixing room, when the audience would never experience their true vision the way it was intended. He believed that the cinema industry could benefit from a quality control system to deliver a consistent level of performance, across all theatre venues.
Lucas hired Tomlinson Holman, an audio scientist and now professor of film sound at the University of Southern California, to study sound throughout the production chain, as well as to design the technical specifications for the Skywalker Sound audio mixing rooms at Skywalker Ranch. Holman’s work would eventually lead to the first THX specs for commercial cinemas and, much later, for home theatre components and DVDs. The new company was named after Lucas’ first film “THX 1138,” and was launched in 1983 to coincide with the theatrical premiere of “Return of the Jedi.”
DVDActive: Let’s start with hardware. Why are some pieces of home cinema hardware THX Certified and some aren't? After all - there are lots of 5.1 receivers out there.
Rick Dean: Whether or not to submit a component through the THX design and certification process is really the decision of the manufacturer. Some manufacturers choose not to build their products to THX specification or to pay THX for testing a certification. The THX certification program requires a manufacturer to meet or exceed a comprehensive set of specifications. These specifications cover every single aspect of the product’s performance that’s related to the accurate presentation of music recordings and movies soundtracks. Our testing and development engineers spend between 40-200 hours on the development and testing of each product.
DVDActive: What sort of checks do you perform on an amp/DVD player/speakers when THX certification is requested, and do you take an interest from the conception of the new product, or do you just get sent a finished item? How long does the process take?
Rick Dean: We check everything related to the system’s basic audio and video performance. We do not check the radio or “taste” features such as tone controls, EQ or special DSP simulation modes like “Cathedral,” “Sports,” or “Jazz Club.” Typically, we are involved from the first prototype stage and work with the manufacturer through the entire development cycle. Depending on the experience of the licensee, the certification process can take from six to 18 months.
DVDActive: What different sort of THX ratings are there? What is the difference between THX Certified and THX Ultra 2 Certified?
Rick Dean: The THX specification for home theatre components has always guaranteed an experience that is capable of matching or exceeding the performance achieved in a cinema dubbing stage or multichannel music recording environment.
We specify for high and low level signals, audio, video, and total bandwidth. We specify linearity, distortion and signal noise ratio as appropriate to the type of signal and intended use of the product. For example, multimedia product specifications assume a single listener sitting 28 inches from the front speakers, whereas the Ultra2 specification assumes a group of listeners sitting in a room of 3,000 cubic feet.
The specification difference between Ultra and Ultra2 is in how the measurements are made rather than the ultimate outcome. Ultra2 testing uses more program material, simulated burst testing with a wide variety of simulated product combinations. THX Select is designed to play at reference levels in rooms of approximately 2,000 cubic feet. THX Ultra2 is a 7.1-speaker extension of the original Ultra spec. It’s designed to work well with multi-channel music and movie presentations--and soon, video games--playing up to reference levels in rooms of 3,000 cubic feet or larger. Each certification requires components to produce high volume levels and disperse sound in specific ways with low levels of distortion.
Our standards and post-processing technologies allow users to experience sound the way it was intended by the artist. For instance, in commercial theatres, film soundtracks are developed with large, acoustically unique auditoriums and hundreds of audience members in mind. But in the home, that same soundtrack may seem too forward, abrasive and oppressive. The THX “Cinema Mode” in THX Ultra2 Certified components is designed to compensate for the differences between the theatre and the home—room acoustics, seating patterns, and speaker and furniture placement. It removes the brightness of the treble and properly manages the bass, replicating the theatre experience.
DVDActive: What benefits does a manufacturer receive if they manage to get their equipment certified? It is not like being DTS or Dolby Digital certified where something tangible and defined is presented as a result.
Rick Dean: In addition to dramatically improving the sound and picture performance of certified components, our market research has shown that THX Certification will actually improve sales upwards of 10 percent for our licensees.
Another key consumer benefit shows up when the system doesn’t seem right. If the system is THX Certified the problem is NOT with the equipment, giving the consumer greater peace of mind.
DVDActive: I doubt many items pass the rigourous testing procedure first time – what’s the longest time it has taken to certify one piece of hardware (and can you tell us what it was)?
Rick Dean: The longest so far is 23 months, and of course, I can’t say which component it was. Such lengthy development times are usually a result of combining a low priority product from a small company with limited engineering resources and our insistence on getting EVERYTHING right.
DVDActive: What is the process for certifying a DVD - when does THX get on board as it were?
Rick Dean: We like to get on board as early as possible. The process often starts by helping the filmmaker and/or DVD producer select the master film elements that will be used in the DVD release. This includes deleted scenes. Following the transfer to an HD master, THX technicians begin the certification process, applying a variety of QC services to ensure the visual images and soundtrack are not degraded during DVD production. We closely monitor and set guidelines for the down conversion, remove dirt and scratches, review the compressed video and audio, and carefully analyze the disc data all the way through emulation and disc check. The below chart outlines the many steps involved in a typical DVD production and THX Certification (text rotated for the web).
|| DVDActive: Will there be different certification levels for DVDs in the future like you have for hardware?|
Rick Dean: At this time, we don’t have plans to create different levels of certification. Knowing what efforts we put into each and every project, I feel the logo presence should be a confirmation that the best efforts were applied to the disc.
DVDActive: Is it easier to certify a fully digital DVD such as Finding Nemo over say something that was recorded onto a more traditional analogue format such as Fight Club?
Rick Dean: There are often efficiencies enjoyed when digital source material is used over film, but this does not overcome the challenges of creating a DVD. There is still a need to concern yourself with the way compression and authoring affect the enjoyment of the movie overall. This often is just as challenging as being concerned about dirt and scratches.
DVDActive: Can you tell us what DVDs THX is currently working on?
Rick Dean: Unfortunately, we are not able to discuss unreleased projects. Only the studio can provide that information.
DVDActive: THX trailers seem to always be presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 - do you ever plan to collaborate with DTS?
Rick Dean: THX and DTS collaborate very well and we support all technologies for our services. However, the costs to encode audio tracks on a DVD are determined by the studio or content owner’s budget, and as THX, we cannot dictate what goes on the final product.
DVDActive: Why can't we buy a THX AV setup and demo DVD at your store?
Rick Dean: Our Demo DVD is intended for demonstrating THX Certified components in retail stores. Due to the terms of our contract with the famous faces on the disc—George Lucas, Francis Coppola, etc.—we are not allowed to sell DVDs except to THX Licensed manufacturers, who in turn are not allowed to sell them. Of course, there is “leakage” in the system.
DVDActive: Who makes those demos? The one with the cow moo is very funny as was the robot one prior to that.
Rick Dean: The idea for the THX trailers was conceived back in 1982, prior to the company’s launch. At the time, the marketing team at Lucasfilm wanted to create something that would leave a lasting impression on the movie-going audience, something that would be more than just another company logo flashing on the screen. Over the years, the THX trailers have been produced by a variety of creative teams. John Lasseter and his team at Pixar Animation Studios developed the character “Tex” and animated the “Moo Cow” and “Tex” trailers.
This year, we assembled another award-winning team of visual effects artists and sound designers to create the company’s 20th anniversary trailer. They included Gary Rydstrom, the five-time Academy Award® winning sound designer (Jurassic Park and Star Wars); Van Ling, the renowned visual effects supervisor and DVD producer (T2: Extreme DVD and Star Wars Episode I); and Steve Bodecker, a sound designer from Skywalker Sound. Together, working with THX, the team conceptualized a trailer that incorporates sound clips from some of most memorable moments in motion pictures from the last 20 years, including “Apocalypse Now Redux” and “Pulp Fiction”—to name just a few.
DVDActive: Does George Lucas have a THX Certified home cinema? Can you tell us what components he uses?
Rick Dean: Out of respect to our other licensees (and our PR people), I won’t tell you which particular components Mr. Lucas does or does not have. I can tell you that the availability of high quality home theatre components, such as those certified by THX, has enabled many filmmakers, editors and sound designers, to work on their films in the comfort of their homes. And a good number of them demand THX Certified components. Over the years, we’ve even done a few custom installations for some well know directors—again, I can’t name names.
DVDActive: What’s your favourite THX certified DVD/most proud of DVD?
Rick Dean: That’s a tough question, because our technologies and processes get better every year. This year, THX worked on several tremendous DVD releases, including “T2: Extreme DVD.” Currently, I’d have to say that I’m most proud of the new Indiana Jones Trilogy. Every time we work on a project of this magnitude, we raise the bar for DVD production. For Indiana Jones, we integrated the latest technologies and tools into our mastering processes and QC services, which resulted in a four-disc set—including bonus material—that delivers a beautiful sound and picture experience, one that remains faithful to George’s (Lucas) and Steven’s (Spielberg) vision for each film.
DVDActive: The original release of Highlander on DVD was THX Certified. However it was clearly an awful DVD. Can you explain what happened there? Is that what brought about the release of the Highlander:Immortal Edition DVD?
Rick Dean: The original Highlander was one of the earliest films to be transferred to the DVD format. Based on the technology and tools that we were working with at the time, and more importantly, the quality of the materials provided to us by the studio, THX produced the best possible disc. A few years ago, we convinced Anchor Bay to re-release Highlander on DVD using a new master. THX supervised the production of this new master and oversaw the entire DVD production.
DVDActive: Finally, with the thought of High Definition DVD on the horizon, how soon would THX start work on such a medium? Would the team work on getting a product out the door soon to the formats official release, or is it safer to think THX would wait for a generation or two for the niggles to settle down before committing the seal of approval to a disc?
Rick Dean: Our program really starts its involvement when the essence of the film is first transferred into digital bits. The studios’ collection of processed masters today come from one digital element created right off of film, or even more recently, from a digital camera file. We have helped pioneer many of the processes used in post production today and in doing so have created a large number of high definition masters that are ready for HD DVD. At the same time, technology changes occur just as fast in the professional side of the business, constantly raising the bar every year. Each project will require a review at the time an HD version is released. We will need to continue our emphasis for a quality product on a case-by-case business. What is considered good enough today, often can and will be done better tomorrow. This, of course, is the difficulty in an ever-improving market.
Thanks once again to Rick Dean for taking time out of his busy schedule for this interview. We wish him (and the other folks at THX) every success in the future. If you'd like to know a little more about THX then you might want to check out the official THX website by clicking here. Stay tuned to the DVDActive.com website for more exclusive interviews.
Editorial by David Beamish
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