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Digital Living Room

DVDs Show Off Their Versatility

Major Hollywood studios and independent game producers are packing their discs with audio and video bonuses that appeal to kids and adults.

November 01, 2001|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Contrary to popular belief, the "v" in DVD stands for "versatile," not "video." And no one is showing off the versatility of DVDs better than the video industry.

Three of the latest illustrations come from two Hollywood studios--DreamWorks SKG and Sony Pictures Entertainment--and an independent game producer in Virginia, Infinite Ventures Inc. Their efforts show the divergent paths that entertainment companies can take with DVDs, as well as the increasing cross-pollination between the worlds of games and movies.

Hollywood has spurred the rise of DVDs by packing the discs with audio and video bonuses, such as directors' commentaries, outtakes and music videos.

Lately, the studios have grown more creative in how they use the space, pushing the limits of what DVD players do and developing new applications for computer-based DVD drives.

The DVD that DreamWorks releases Friday for "Shrek" reflects the split personality of the animated movie, which layers sly adult humor on top of juvenile gags and flatulence jokes.

The package offers two discs, one offering special features for kids, the other mainly for grown-ups.

There's an assortment of computer games on the kids' disc, most of them garden-variety stuff--for example, trivia and hangman played with characters from the film. But one of the games breaks new ground: Shrek's ReVoice Studio, which lets users dub their own voices into scenes from the movie.

Players start by attaching a microphone to their computer, then choose a scene to dub from a list of 12. They can play the scene to hear how the original actors did it, practice reading the script in time with the action and record multiple takes. As their recording plays back, the software automatically synchronizes the lip movement of the animated characters to match the new audio track.

The recordings don't alter the disc--they're just stored temporarily on the computer. Unfortunately, the game can't be played on a standard living-room DVD player, which doesn't have the memory and power needed to handle the ReVoice software.

Infinite Ventures, on the other hand, uses video footage to create games for living-room DVD players. It plans to release its second such game this month, an interactive horror film titled "Dracula Unleashed."

These games take advantage of a DVD's ability to move seamlessly from any scene to any other scene--unlike a VHS tape, there's no rewinding or fast-forwarding. The new offering challenges viewers to track down Dracula, picking their own routes through London (and through more than 150 scenes on the disc). There's only one ending, but the faster players figure out who Dracula is, the lower the body count will be.

Infinite Ventures' previous effort also revolves around sleuthing and dead bodies. In "Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective," viewers try to solve three separate murder cases by dipping into a video vault of evidence.

Meanwhile, Sony's Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has taken a less-is-more approach with its "Superbit" DVD collection. The typical DVD devotes about a third of the disc to video, a quarter to audio and the rest to special features. The "Superbit" titles, by contrast, devote the entire space to the video and audio tracks.

Marshall Starkman, project supervisor for the Sony DVD center, said the difference is in the encoding, or the process of transforming filmed images and sound into the 1s and 0s of digital data.

The Superbit encoding collects twice as much data on average, Starkman said, which means fewer distortions and more picture detail.

The first five Superbit titles include a new version of "The Fifth Element," whose original DVD was considered one of the best in its breed. The difference with Superbit, reviewer Geoffrey Kleinman wrote in the online newsletter DVD Talk, is richer colors, sharper picture, better skin tones and improved sound.

Guido Henkel of DVD Review agreed, writing that the Superbit "Fifth Element" was "noticeably more detailed," especially in shots rich in movement or texture. The other initial Superbit titles are "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Desperado," "Air Force One" and "Johnny Mnemonic."

Although the differences can be seen on any set, they're particularly noticeable on projection TVs with DTS sound.

But the trade-off is the loss of special features, which for many consumers are the most important part of a DVD. The special features can sometimes compensate for a crummy movie, but as Kleinman notes, Sony can't turn a bad film into a good one by improving the picture quality. *

Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at jon.healey@latimes.com.

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