Avatar 3D Blu-ray Disc Review

David Mackenzie

Avatar 3D Blu-ray disc

Panasonic’s involvement in Avatar 3D, the 3D cinema event of 2009, did not end with the film’s release. As part of their ongoing involvement, the company – controversially – has secured the exclusive home release rights to the Avatar 3D Blu-ray disc. If you’ve bought a certain combination of Panasonic 3D equipment within a certain time period, you can receive four free complimentary 3D Bluray discs, one of which is the 3D blockbuster from James Cameron and co.

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Panasonic kindly lent us a copy of the Avatar 3D Blu-ray disc (which is currently changing hands for unreasonably high amounts of money on eBay) on the condition that it was only reviewed on Panasonic 3D hardware. Given that Panasonic’s 3D TV displays have so far been the best of a mixed bunch, we wouldn’t explicitly recommend watching 3D movies on anything other than a Panasonic TX-P50VT20 3D plasma television anyway – so this is fine by us!

Note: the screen grabs featured in this Avatar Blu-ray 3D movie review are obviously taken from the 2D (Left Eye) view only. They should only be used to get an idea of the compression quality of the 3D BD disc, since computer monitors rarely have accurate Greyscale or Colour reproduction, and are obviously much smaller, and 2D only. The screen grabs have been JPEG encoded, although at a high enough quality setting so as not to add compression artefacts.

This brief Avatar 3D Blu-ray review is going to serve as a technical analysis of the release’s video presentation quality. As for movie itself, everyone already has their own opinion, and for the most part, I’ll leave film criticism to the film critics. If you’re curious though, I personally enjoyed Avatar 3D. In some circles, it’s become fashionable to point out that yes, the borrowed plot is not especially substantial (Disney’s Pocahontas seems to be the common “outsider falls in love with the natives and learns to love nature” comparison). And yes, unfortunately they seriously did name the precious mineral plot device “unobtanium”. Regardless, I think the film does exactly what you’d expect a James Cameron blockbusting crowd-pleaser to, and I certainly enjoyed it more than his earlier Aliens (which has recently had a wonderful looking BD release).

But what about the quality of the Blu-ray 3D disc itself? Contrary to popular belief, films with mammoth budgets and red carpet treatment do not instantly look top-notch on disc, and certainly, there have been a few slight disappointments on Blu-ray in this regard (although there have been more wonderful BD discs in the few years it’s been around than there ever were with DVD-Video). Fortunately, Avatar 3D has been handled by Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, a facility with a track record of excellence. Visually, this presentation looks as good as the (admittedly sometimes variable) source material possibly could on Blu-ray Disc. It’s supplied on a dual-layer BD50 disc with an MPEG-4 MVC video encode, meaning that it’s a 3D-enhanced disc which is backwards compatible with older 2D-only players (which simply ignore the extra 3D information). There are no extras to occupy precious space on the BD disc, although there are three foreign language audio dubs on the version we received, which accompany the losslessly-packed English audio track.

AVATAR screen grab 1
The source material for some scenes isn’t up there with the best titles…

Putting technicalities (largely) aside for a second, how does Avatar look from an aesthetic standpoint? That depends on whether you’re watching in 2D or 3D. There are some shots which are blatantly designed for viewing in 3D, and due to the fact that they don’t “degrade” to 2D gracefully at all, are a useful example of how tastefully done 3D can enhance the experience: for example, the “waking up” scene at the very start of the film. In 3D, it has a sprawling sense of vastness thanks to the extra image depth, and thanks to the fact that the entire image is in focus. Flattened into 2D, the scene becomes difficult for the eye to read and “lock on” to, and ends up simply looking chaotic instead of vast. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for many of the scenes which take place in the human world. These portions are also somewhat less detailed and have a more video-like appearance to them, and do appear to have been sharpened in post-production to avoid looking blurred when intercut with the essentially flawless CG portions.

AVATAR screen grab 2
…but the CG segments are considerably crisper.

Due to the fact that the source material is of slightly variable quality (but still largely excellent), I would disagree with accounts proclaiming Avatar to be the most visually impressive Blu-ray Disc yet. With this said, it has two things clearly going for it. First of all, it is an outstanding achievement in video compression and is probably the most impressive example of what can be done with the AVC/MVC codec that I can think of on the format. By this, I mean that the Avatar 3D Blu-ray disc is almost entirely free of compression artefacts even in scenes where you would expect to see some. Especially during the later “war” scenes, the world of Pandora is visually complex, and at times poses a great challenge for a system that relies on both spatial (single-frame) and temporal (motion) compression. A good number of scenes feature smoke, light synthetic grain, and chaotically moving leaves, dirt particles, and water. All of this would produce visibly distorted results with poorer video encoding systems, but judging from output like this, Panasonic’s is certainly delivering the goods. If you’re this way inclined, you can literally put the disc into slow motion and try to “spot the compression artefacts” – there is just about nothing to be seen, beyond some tiny, tiny visible block edges which are inevitable in a temporally redundant format such as Blu-ray. And, while I hate to fall into the trap of reducing video compression analysis to a simple numbers game (the design of the encoder is hugely important), the fact that all of this is achieved with an average bit-rate of around 20mbps is noteworthy.

AVATAR screen grab 3
The AVC/MVC encode holds up wonderfully even under stress.
AVATAR screen grab 4
Even chaotic shots have no obvious compression artefacts.

The BD version of Avatar is practically an advertisement, if any was actually needed, for disc-based movies versus poor quality download systems. I’ve not seen the iTunes download version of the movie, and given how poor Apple’s AVC/H.264 encoder is, I’m not sure I want to.

Moving on, the Blu-ray 3D version of Avatar is certainly the best showcase for 3D at home to date – provided it’s watched on one of the better 3DTV displays, obviously. Having sampled some other 3D movies already on the market, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of immersion. Viewed on one of Panasonic’s 3D plasma TVs, there is practically no distracting, 3D-harming crosstalk – in fact, there is less of it than there was in the RealD cinema presentation I saw last year, which is some feat given the inherent motion limitation issues in flat panel displays (Plasmas included). It’s just a shame that not all Panasonic’s 3D HDTV sets can reproduce the film in 3D without introducing jaggies into the image – so far we’ve only confirmed the TX-P50VT20B as being able to do so – but at least all of the Panasonic 3D TVs give a convincing 3D effect.

If you’re a die-hard fan of Avatar 3D and haven’t made the qualifying Panasonic purchases in order to get your copy, then your next best option in the UK (short of paying over the odds on eBay) is to watch the Sky 3D channel’s presentation over the Christmas/New Year period. This will give a lower quality experience than the 3D Bluray version for several reasons: half horizontal resolution due to the “Side by Side” 3D process; lower video bit-rate produced by real-time encoding (rather than the human-assisted, hand-tuned job on disc) which will inevitably result in compression artefacts for the reasons mentioned above; and probably also the wrong audio pitch (due to Europe’s horrible decision to use 25fps for HD). Yes, if you want to hear James Horner’s powerful musical score at its correct pitch and speed, your only option (in Europe) is to buy either the 2D or 3D Blu-ray version – madness!

I would end this short report by complaining about Panasonic’s exclusivity deal, but watching Avatar in 3D on anything other than Panasonic Plasmas would be a degraded viewing experience, anyway. The first-generation 3DTV models certainly have image quality issues, but Panasonic’s have gotten off the hook lightly compared to some of the other crosstalk-hampered efforts on the market. Hopefully by the time the Avatar 3D Blu-ray movie is available to all, we’ve moved past the (inevitable) early teething issues associated with most 3D displays. For now, there’s no denying that watching this brilliantly mastered 3D Blu-ray release on a 3D TV such as the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is the best way to see Avatar in a home environment – at least on a television-sized screen.

Highly Recommended

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