*Updated with Blu-ray comparisons
Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a very special movie. I am not talking about the Academy Award winning cinematography and special effects that help tell such an engaging tale. I am not talking about the story itself, which is universal and life affirming. Both of these aspects are indeed special, but what I am talking about here is the release schedule for streaming and download. Life of Pi received 11 Academy Award nominations, went on to win four Oscars including Best Director, and it is already available on iTunes and Vudu, but not Blu-ray. So I will look at the digital ownership options from Vudu and iTunes in order to figure out which one looks the best and which one sounds the best.
In my previous comparisons, I included Blu-ray as a reference. It is readily apparent that Blu-ray enjoys an advantage in bandwidth, which translates to higher overall picture and sound quality. It is also clear that there are real differences between Vudu and iTunes, as well as between iTunes 720p and 1080p. With Life of Pi, I had to wait until Tuesday, March 12, 2013, to watch the Blu-ray version.
Before viewing, I verified the speed of my broadband connection, which is many times faster than the requirement for the top-quality level of 1080p HDX streaming. For Life of Pi, my connection was clocking in at 80Mbps, nine times faster than what is required.
I have a lot of experience with noise reduction and compression. I am a photographer by trade, and I have been taking pictures for two decades. I first started using Photoshop in 1994, and I "went digital" in 1996, giving up film cameras for everything but professional work. In 2001, I converted to an all-digital workflow when I purchased my first pro SLR, the Nikon D1x.
Over the years, I have seen a number of noise-reduction and compression algorithms at work, enough to know that Vudu and iTunes take fundamentally different approaches to how they process movies and TV shows for streaming and download. Vudu is looking for sharp lines and clean gradients, whereas iTunes is more sympathetic toward grain and subtle textures and gradations.
Another difference between Vudu and iTunes is how they deliver the soundtrack. Life of Pi's theatrical soundtrack is a Dolby Atmos mix. Perhaps someday we will be able to enjoy this and other Dolby Atmos soundtracks in all their glory in our own home theaters. Until then, Pi was also mastered as a 7.1-channel mix. iTunes is restricted to 5.1 channels and the low bit rates of Dolby Digital. Vudu offers 7.1 channels of audio via Dolby Digital Plus, which also features a variable bit rate up to ten times that of standard Dolby Digital. Life of Pi presented an opportunity for Vudu to surpass iTunes in the audio department, and it did.
Some of the most interesting sound effects in the movie occur during the scenes on the boat. When compared to either of the iTunes versions, the HDX surround effects exhibited superior detail, ambience, dynamics, and precision. High-resolution sound is as much a part of the complete Life of Pi experience as the visuals; if you cannot wait for the Blu-ray version's release on March 5, 2013, Vudu is the way to go for the full surround sound experience.
Of course, sound is not everything—how did the different versions look?
In my last format comparison, I took a good look at Argo's picture quality. The analog film used to shoot that movie had enough grain to look authentic for the time in which the story took place, the late 1970s. The funny thing is, to a computer, film grain looks just like digital shadow noise. As a result, the compression used by Vudu HDX did not do a good job—it altered Argo's look by eliminating film grain in just about every scene.
Life of Pi affords no such opportunity for Vudu to alter the grain; it's a pristine-looking movie without a hint of analog or digital noise. Scenes alternate from dark and drab to vibrant pastiches filled with rich colors and incredible definition. In theory, Pi could be a showcase for Vudu HDX's approach to compression and streaming, but of course, I was curious to see how the iTunes 720p version looks compared to Vudu HDX and iTunes 1080p.
With Argo, the iTunes 720p version it did a great job preserving the visual character of the movie, film grain and all, at the expense of sharpness. I wondered if Life of Pi could turn the tables and make a solid argument for Vudu HDX over iTunes 1080p and 720p, especially when considering Vudu's superior sound quality as a part of the equation. Then there's the difference between Vudu's HDX streaming and download options; when playing the downloaded version of a Vudu HDX movie, the bandwidth meter in the Vudu player only shows two bars out of three, indicating a lower bitrate. I thoroughly examined frame grabs from Vudu's download vs. streaming HDX options and determined there was no difference between the two.
Now it's time to take a look at and compare the frame grabs from iTunes HD, Vudu HDX and Blu-ray.
Life of Pi's cinematography looks great from the very first shot until the very end. In this very detailed scene taken from the opening credits, I saw the most detail in the iTunes 1080p version, followed closely by Vudu HDX. iTunes 720p lost quite a bit of detail and looks blurry in comparison. Blu-ray is clearly superior looking, with more detail and sharpness.
In this image, also taken from the opening credits, both Vudu HDX and iTunes 1080p are were closely matched in terms of quality. Vudu accentuated the textures slightly more than either iTunes version. The iTunes 720p version looks soft and preserved the fewest details. Blu-ray looks slightly sharper than Vudu HDX, but not much.
With a dreamy underwater look to it, this shot was susceptible to banding and macro blocking artifacts. There were no obvious flaws in any of the three images, but to my eyes, Vudu HDX had the most pleasing tonality. The iTunes 720p sample was simply not as sharp as the other two versions. Blu-ray and Vudu HDX look very similar, but Blu-ray looks better in subtle ways.
Here is a different crop taken from the exact same frame as the previous example. There was nothing to criticize, I looked for banding and other artifacts, all I found was smooth gradients. Again, Vudu HDX and Blu-ray look very similar to each other.
In this highly detailed scene, iTunes 1080p looked the best with detail rendition that rivaled what I'm used to seeing from Blu-ray. The details in the background flora are better preserved compared to Vudu HDX and iTunes 720p, especially in the individual leaves and flowers. Vudu mistook some of the leaf texture for noise, rendering it with what's sometimes called "the watercolor effect", named after the way colors and details get smeared by the noise reduction algorithm. The iTunes 720p version also lacked detail in the background foliage, but that was caused by lack of resolution as opposed to noise reduction. Blu-ray nails this scene, rendering every pixel distinctly—truly impressive detail rendering.
This frame grab was taken from a dimly lit, almost monochromatic scene. I chose it to perform some serious pixel-peeping because scenes like this tend to have issues in the shadows when they are highly compressed. Often there is visible macro blocking, banding artifacts, or at the minimum some digital noise. I included both the original frame grabs and gamma-adjusted versions, which are brightened using Photoshop to reveal what's going on in the deep blacks. I did this so I could easily examine the integrity of the shadow regions.
In my previous two comparisons of Skyfall and Argo, I noticed significant macro blocking in Vudu HDX shadow regions. In Life of Pi, it is Vudu that did the best job rendering the shadow regions. Even the deepest shades were clean and free of excessive noise. Vudu preserved subtle gradations that iTunes rendered as all-black. Once again, iTunes 720 fared poorly compared to the other two versions, it looks blurry and shadows were rendered with too many noise-related artifacts. Blu-ray continues to out-perform the online-delivery formats in terms of sharpness and resolution. In the gamma-adjusted version, it's apparent that Vudu deals with the shadows in a manner similar to Blu-ray, while iTunes fares worse.
Dark scenes with chaotic action are a very tough test for any compression method. This particular frame was the ideal candidate for the most extreme forensic analysis. Using Photoshop, I brightened the original frames grabs and boosted their contrast which revealed underlying artifacts. For the first time, I saw some macro blocking in the Vudu HDX version. It was very subtle and was not perceptible when the movie was playing. Despite the presence of these artifacts, Vudu HDX did the best job rendering this scene, preserving more details than either of the iTunes versions. This was one instance where the iTunes 720p file might have looked a tiny bit better than the iTunes 1080p version, but the difference was so slight it was meaningless. Blu-ray performs much better than iTunes or Vudu with this difficult to render frame.
Here is an image that offered an easy opportunity to compare the sharpness of each version of the movie. The conclusion remains the same: When it comes to resolution and detail rendering, both the Vudu HDX and iTunes the 1080p versions of Pi look sharper than the iTunes 720p copy. Blu-ray comes out ahead, with crisper looking letters and the richest color.
Here is a powerful image from a dramatic scene, which would easily be ruined by a less than perfect rendition. iTunes 720p failed to deliver the goods, a fuzzy tiger just doesn't cut it. Both the Vudu HDX and iTunes 1080p renditions delivered the suspension of disbelief needed to make the scene emotionally impactful. Blu-ray ups the ante with an even better rendition, it's just a bit more resolute than the other versions.
In this image I was comparing sharpness, looking at how much texture was rendered on the lifeboat's hull and the quality of the gradients in the clouds and the water. Once again the main issue I saw was the iTunes 720p version looking soft and suffering a loss of fine details. I felt that detail rendering was a virtual tie between the two 1080p examples. Blu-ray is in a class by itself here, the additional resolution and detail rendering is striking.
What a scary looking fish. Once again Vudu HDX delivered an exceptional rendition of the scene. I loved the way the textures and gradients were preserved by Vudu, even inside the fish's mouth. Vudu HDX looks nice and sharp with great textures and clean, deep shadows. The iTunes 1080p version continues the trend, it is sharper than the iTunes 720p version. I still found Vudu HDX more attractive, thanks to the way the blacks are rendered. I was particularly impressed with the way Vudu rendered the fish's mouth and teeth. Blu-ray looks fantastic here, although Vudu HDX gives it a run for the money,