While enjoying the Christmas Spectacular, Mark Henninger pondered the audiovisual differences between a live stage show and a movie.
Last week, I was in New York to perform some final tweaks on Theo Kalomirakis' personal home theater, the Roxy 2.0. It was the culmination of several visits where I observed the challenges and rewards of upgrading high-end home-theater gear. Thanks to the new SIM2 Lumis projector and Krell Foundation pre-pro, the system looks and sounds better than ever.
When I finished making the final adjustments to the audio and video presets in the system, we watched scenes from several movies including Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We also listened to several songs through the system, including "Right Thing / GDMFSOB" by DJ Shadow and "It's What We Do" from Pink Floyd's recent release, The Endless River.
We had to end the demo abruptly because we had another plan for the evening—to meet my wife Danya in Manhattan for dinner at Tavern on the Green followed by the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Theo's fascination with grand theaters is evident in many of his designs, and he wanted us to experience just such an environment.
The show at Radio City Music Hall each season is a kitschy hodgepodge of Christmas imagery, but it's so exuberantly overproduced, it could melt a snowman's heart. And it had one attraction that no other show offers—The Rockettes. The show also featured 3D video, snowflakes in the form of helium-balloon drones, immersive projection, a live orchestra with dual organs, pyrotechnics, ice skating, live animals, and dozens of dancing Santa Clauses.
There came a point during the show when I realized that it would be impossible to replicate the look of it using conventional AV technology. No matter how hi-res screens are today and no matter how convincing 3D is on a 4K OLED, it is still very different—and diminished—compared to the visual delights provided by this live show.
It's not news that reality offers essentially infinite resolution, but what made the Christmas Spectacular special was the liberal use of color and lighting to create a cinematic aura. I saw examples of contrast and saturation that displays can only dream of reproducing—including the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. The Santa costumes were a deep, glowing crimson that makes a mockery of the orangish hue we accept for red in BT.709 video. Needless to say, skin tones were perfectly accurate. It's clear that future TVs and projectors need to support a much wider color gamut and dynamic range in order to reproduce reality in all its glory.
The show's infinite frame rate allowed for a judder-free presentation—motion resolution was superior to anything I've witnessed on any screen, big or small. Whenever the Rockettes were featured, the effect of real-life 3D was astounding, much more so than the 3D video that was a small part of the show.
During one segment, the audience watched a CGI animation of Santa flying around New York City, displayed on a high-definition video wall that acted as a changeable backdrop for most of the rest of show. Everyone had to put on 3D glasses to watch the scene play out, and the result was less than impressive. I noticed a lot of crosstalk that distracted from the 3D, and overall the colors looked washed out. In fact, the 3D-video segment was the single worst part of the show—it paled so much compared to reality, suspension of disbelief was impossible.
A different scene used the video wall for a far more impressive effect. It involved a tour bus where all the passengers are Rockettes—that part, including the stage-prop bus, was real. The wall behind them showed a CGI rendition on NYC from street level, and the bus rotated to match the video's perspective. All the while, the Rockettes performed various dance moves. When the bus appeared to drive under a bridge on its way through Central Park, the Rockettes all ducked in unison. In my opinion, it was best scene in the show, and it blended reality with reproduction to great effect.
One of the curious things about the Christmas Spectacular is that the sound quality doesn't keep up with the visuals, which is particularly interesting since it's a live performance. However, because all the orchestra's instruments are mic'd and amplified, what you hear comes out of a PA system.
Unfortunately, the resulting mix was not great. It can't be easy to combine so many mic feeds into one cohesive audio program; between the orchestra, singers, and actors, it adds up to dozens of channels. There was no finesse to the result, no delicacy. And even though we had good seats, all the sound appeared to come from one speaker on the right-hand side of the stage. It was the exact opposite of what I look for from a live musical performance—it actually sounded canned. The only exception was the organ, which filled the room with its powerful tones.
When the show ended, I cannot say I was convinced that Santa Claus is real. However, it left me with an appreciation for the infinite resolution reality offers, even if it's restricted to only one camera angle. I look forward to the day when a display can show me a scene that matches the visual fidelity of Radio City Music Hall's annual holiday show. That will be truly spectacular.
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