Tag Archives: Movies

Converting Blu-ray HD audio to FLAC

As I mentioned in my first look at ripping Blu-rays, converting uncompressed PCM and lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to FLAC for use in XBMC carries a number of benefits.

  • It’s also lossless, so no quality difference.
  • FLAC is an open, well-documented format and so you’re not reliant on reverse-engineered implementations.
  • XBMC can decode FLAC to PCM and output it over HDMI, whereas it currently can’t for DTS-HD.
  • Hard drive space savings can be significant, especially for PCM soundtracks.

There’s little penalty in terms of the time taken to rip the disc either, as it’s unlikely that your BD drive can copy data from the disc fast enough for the conversion process to become a bottleneck.

What you need

This process still uses MakeMKV, with the feature enabled in by checking the advanced options box in the settings. TrueHD decoding is built in, but you’ll need to find a separate DTS module and point MakeMKV to that.


All you then need to do it choose the ‘FLAC’ preset when ripping a disc. Otherwise the process is identical.

File sizes

I picked three movies representing the three HD audio formats supported on BD. All were ripped to an MKV file containing only the main video, the lossless main audio track, and no subtitles; file size recorded; then passed through MakeMKV again to convert the audio to FLAC. After conversion, MediaInfo was used to verify that the number of channels, sampling rate and bit depth (some versions of the DTS decoder have a bug that will change 24-bit audio to 16-bit, hence the use of 24-bit audio tracks below) were unaffected.

Movie Audio Original size New size Delta
2001: A Space Odyssey PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 20.10GB 16.38GB 3.72GB (18.5%)
Blade Runner Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 18.22GB 18.08GB 0.14GB (0.8%)
The Bourne Identity DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 25.96GB 25.42GB 0.54GB (2.1%)

I noted a few more, with all the data recorded in this spreadsheet. The range of formats reflects the predominance of DTS-HD on Blu-ray these days, but there’s a clear 2-3% gain on substituting FLAC there. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s half a gig when you’re talking about files of 20GB and up.


According to my unscientific tests, then, converting to FLAC delivers a saving in file size over the untouched original track across the board, with a minimal reduction for TrueHD and a handy half-gig saved on DTS-HD. Obviously, since the others are already losslessly compressed, the biggest gains come over PCM, where FLAC can shave 3.72GB off the size of the 2001 MKV – enough for another couple of DVD rips on my HTPC’s hard drive.

Some notes on ripping Blu-rays

Owing to my current HTPC project, about which a more comprehensive post is on the way, I’ve spent many hours over the last week delving into the murky, unexplored realm of ripping Blu-rays. This being a more niche format, requiring more unusual hardware and scads of hard drive space, the tools required aren’t quite as polished and straightforward as ripping a DVD, but a bit of trial and error has taught me a few tricks.


The most important tool is MakeMKV, which is free while it’s in beta. It’s a great app that does one thing and does it very well: rips DVDs and Blu-rays from the disc to an MKV file. No conversion or compression – except for one exception, which I’ll come to shortly. DVDs get run through HandBrake since a heavily compressed source isn’t going to suffer too much and the file size can be cut by ~60%, but I want my BDs in their full glory.


File sizes that this approach result in range wildly, but a single file with one HD audio track results in a 20-40GB file. Hope you have a lot of HDD space.

As far as Blu-ray hardware goes, I spent £39 on a Panasonic UJ-260 on eBay, which is a USB drive that can read and write Blu-rays all the way up to the 100GB BD-R XL discs. It can rip most movies in 40 minutes or so. A very decent no-frills BD drive that works fine on both my Mac and the HTPC.

Handling HD audio

One minefield in putting together an HTPC is that the capabilities of HDMI hardware vary wildly depending on hardware and driver support. A particular difficulty comes in the ability (or not) to output Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio as a bitstream, which allows an AV receiver to handle the decoding and processing. Most HTPC software can decode internally to some extent, however, but my choice uses a reverse-engineered open-source implementation, and I can’t help but suspect that it’s not going to do as good a job as my Denon.

As it happens, bitstreaming HD audio on AMD hardware in Linux is a new addition and doesn’t yet work reliably on my setup. TrueHD can be decoded to uncompressed PCM in XBMC, but DTS-HD leaves me only with the compressed DTS ‘core’, which is barely better than DVD. That won’t do.

Thankfully MakeMKV has the ability to convert the HD formats to the open-source FLAC, which is open and far better documented. What’s more, it actually creates smaller files, while still remaining lossless. And it’s a handy option for those releases with only PCM audio, as that can account for 8GB of audio alone.

There’s a separate post coming on this issue, complete with file size comparisons.


BD handles these slightly differently to DVD. Whereas DVD would have a separate, hidden subtitles for ‘forced’ subs (e.g. scenes in a foreign language in otherwise English movies), BD simply marks the appropriate lines in the main subtitle track as forced, meaning they should be shown even if subtitles are turned off.

MakeMKV has the ability to only add these forced subs to the output, but you still need to work out which track is the correct one – a movie can have separate English subtitle tracks for closed captions, commentaries, dubs vs original tracks (e.g. a direct transcription of the English dub and a more literal translation of the original audio, as on some anime releases), trivia, and more.

Handily, the community as AVS Forum has put together a spreadsheet that lists the correct subtitle tracks for various releases. It’s not comprehensive, but it has a lot of common movies. Worth bookmarking if you’re going to be doing a lot of this. Simply tick the ‘forced only’ box for the one you need.

More to come…

These are the results of my early experimentations. I’ve got a spreadsheet – when I say I’m experimenting, I mean it – on the go with the compression rates achieved by the above FLAC conversions and will share that data when I’ve converted my initial batch. Also, once this whole HTPC project is in a stable state, I’ll put together my tips on how one can be assembled for around £200. In the meantime, get a load of this…

XBMC movie library

Isn’t it beautiful?

The Hobbit and HFR

The Hobbit was my first experience of Tolkien, back in 1995 when it was our class reader in school. It had a big impact on me, and in fact I remember writing a piece of what was effectively crossover fan fiction as part of a school creative writing exercise, putting Gollum in the world of my other mid-90s obsession: Doom. I wish I could find that document as an insight into how my brain worked at a time when gaming was becoming a big deal to me.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I grew into The Lord of the Rings and still am yet to develop the patience for The Silmarillion, and I generally loved Peter Jackson’s film trilogy ten years ago. I followed this through development hell and sulked when Guillermo Del Toro dropped out, but as excited as I was to see this vintage of Tolkien back on screen, the lack of restraint on show from Peter Jackson was a worry. King Kong was desperately in need of a trim, and then The Hobbit – a children’s book that, let’s not forget, is significantly shorter and more straightforward than any of the three LOTR novels – into two movies, with sequences not shown in the book added to tie it in more closely with The Lord of the Rings.

And then it became three films. Pardon?

I finally saw it yesterday, though, and I didn’t think it suffered much at all. It galled slightly to see scenes from the book padded with cameos from Lord of the Rings characters who don’t show up in The Hobbit, and that very Peter Jackson affliction of needing to put the cast in the middle of things for the sake of it – hello, stone-giants – but strong performances carried it. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage in particular are outstanding. Benedict Cumberbatch also does the best on-screen depiction of a cloud since Galactus in Rise of the Silver Surfer. Expect more of him later.

That leaves the frame rate, then. Much has been written about it, some more comprehensively and authoritatively than I’ll attempt, and from what I’ve seen the general opinion is wary at best, with most critics in particular being against it. I’m not, though. I found it less obtrusive than the 3D that it does so much to improve, and when the cyclical 3D fad passes again, I wouldn’t be disappointed if HFR sticks around. Once I got accustomed to it and stopped thinking all close-ups were sped up, I experienced none of the ballyhooed issues with it looking like a soap opera.

People criticising 3D are doing it from the logical position that this is the third attempt at popularising the format and likely the third failure at making it anything other than a niche. HFR is new, cinema having been universally presented at 24fps since the advent of sound. Let’s give cinematographers a chance to work out how to shoot for it before we declare it DOA.

But seriously, are games art?

Now this is a one-time-only thing, because although this is an important argument in a sense, it’s one that I’m sick to death of hearing about. Someone says otherwise, gamers variously trumpet the likes of Ico or flame the person in question, and then we repeat the whole thing again a few weeks later. Roger Ebert has done it again, with the prominent movie critic reiterating his stance that games can never be art. Some points I agree with, some I disagree with, and some of his statements are factually wrong; gamers’ responses have ranged from decent to predictably defensive and/or vitriolic.

So, are games art?


Any creative product is art, be it a film, a game, a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a poem, a play, or anything else. As far as I’m concerned, this is indisputably true, and if I could quite happily leave the argument there.

The difference comes in artistic merit. The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David and the doodle on the back of my notebook are all art, but no one’s going to argue that the former two are worth far more, both monetarily and in every other sense. Likewise, Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey are both far more worthy than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but all three are art in some sense. Creating art is one of the primary motivating factors to all but the most commercial of filmmakers, and as a result there are a lot of films with artistic merit.

Artistic merit is where gaming can fall short, because it’s still treated as a commodity, an industry driven by sequels and following the leader. Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, Okami, BioShock and Grim Fandango are examples of games that I would consider to be artistically important for various reasons, while I couldn’t say the same for FIFA or the latest movie-licensed game. FIFA is art, but I’d never show it to someone to show them what the medium can do beyond be a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

My personal opinion is that part of the problem is that there aren’t enough gaming auteurs. Too many are designed by committee and marketing departments, and while I could reel off dozens of great directors, authors or musicians from the last 30 years who have created true art within their media, there still aren’t that many in gaming. Miyamoto and Kojima are two who can be assured top billing and have the clout to get their pet projects made on their name alone, but beyond them you’re probably going to be struggling already, and knowledge of them outside those who follow the industry is almost nil. There’s also very little opportunity for people with big ideas to get their game through development and then into gamers’ hands through commercial channels, with the indie art project games usually either curiosities on the PC or, at best, a sleeper hit on the iPhone.

I’d almost say that the early arcade games did a better job of being artistic in their own right, because they were gaming in its purest form – interactive art, often made by a handful of people. Things like Electroplankton are their direct descendants.

I’m sorry if this seems like doom and gloom, but we have to remember that gaming is a young medium. It’s only 15 years or so that it’s been able to tackle the bigger issues by presenting us with something beyond bleeps and bloops – although my previous point on the artistic merit of those stands – and those gaming auteurs are starting to emerge, however slowly. Film wasn’t taken seriously as anything more than a technical gimmick at the beginning, and rock music was once the downfall of civilisation that games now are.

When today’s gamers are tomorrow’s art critics and we have more developers whose body of work is big and pretentious enough to be called an oeuvre, and maybe when you can make a go at getting an independent game on the shelf next to the new Call of Duty, then we’ll be the ones complaining that this new-fangled holographic VR nonsense isn’t art. That’ll show ’em.


It’s not often that a Hollywood blockbuster comes along with the full force of the hype machine behind it and doesn’t end up disappointing, but this is not one of those times. Avatar comes saddled with a budget big enough to bankrupt a small country and stories about how technology had to be invented just to make it possible, not to mention that it’s the poster child for this 3D film gimmick that’s apparently the next big thing. Oh, and the small matter of it being James Cameron’s first film in over a decade, following up his last modest success.

One compliment that I can pay it is to say that it didn’t even feel close to its 162-minute running time, and in these days of increasingly lengthy blockbusters that overstay their welcome – in Transformers 2’s case, by around an hour and a half – that’s rare. But if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise… well, here goes… Continue reading Avatar

Watching the Watchmen


I just got back from seeing Watchmen, which is a film I’ve been anticipating since I read the graphic novel a couple of years back, so I just wanted to put down some thoughts while it was still fresh in my mind.

I’d been generally avoiding reviews, but what I’d picked up from friends and Twitterers who had seen it in advance it had been suggested that it was maybe too close to the source for its own good. I’d pretty much agree with that. There were parts that could have done with trimming for the screen that were left identical to the book, but then Snyder was happy to alter the ultimate plot twist to make it work better on screen, which makes letting other parts suffer a bizarre decision.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the ending doesn’t make as much sense to me as the one in the book did, but at the same time I can see how that one wouldn’t have worked on film. Not only would it have looked silly, but it would also have required a lot of exposition and bloated it further with the setup interspersed throughout. The film was labyrinthine enough as it was.

Could it have benefited by having a different director who is perhaps more comfortable with gravitas and directing emotional scenes? Possibly, as there’s one scene in particular that I’m not sure was being deliberately and ironically cheesy or if Snyder thought it was actually going to bring tears to our eyes. It wouldn’t take a genius to work out that this is the guy who gave us 300 because a lot of the action is very similar, and despite being set in the 80s we have a lot of the modern music video school of direction tropes like slow motion. I might be being pretentious here, but I’d prefer it to have been directed less stylistically, because I think – or hope – that this kind of direction will date horribly in a few years when people grow out of it.

Don’t let me put you off it if I’m sounding negative, though. Overall I enjoyed it, and I mean it as a compliment to say that it didn’t feel like the 163 minutes that it was. Getting Watchmen into a single film was always going to be tough – I’d still like to see it as a miniseries one day – and they did a good job, thankfully without watering it down for a lower age rating like we might have expected. Hell, the sex and violence quotient is higher than I can remember being in the source, which doesn’t happen a lot these days. There’s an awesome jizz gag as well.

For anyone who hasn’t read Watchmen in a while and has seen the film, I recommend perusing this fairly comprehensive list of the changes. There are quite a few that I’d forgotten about or not noticed in there. It contains spoilers, obviously.