Life of Pi Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray is now a reality in the UK. This new format brings with it a sizeable leap in resolution from 1080p to 2160p (a 4x increase in pixel density) and also a Wider Colour Gamut for a deeper and more accurate colour palette, and High Dynamic Range which extends the visible range to include “brighter brights and blacker blacks” compared to standard Blu-ray content. This will be an unashamedly technical review so I’ll provide some brief comments on the movie below for context before digging into the UHD stuff, and you can read Gavin’s review for more insight into the film itself: Life of Pi Cinema Review.
Life of Pi tells the story of Pi Patel (Pi is short for Piscine) and his amazing journey from his home in Pondicherry, India to the shores of Canada where he now lives. An inquisitive young man, Pi is fascinated by religion, soaking up various aspects of several faiths. When he’s shipwrecked and set adrift in a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker due to an administrative error) from his family’s zoo for company he’s forced to confront his beliefs head-on, sharing an uneasy alliance with the animal if they are both to survive. As he recounts his fantastical story to an inquisitive writer years later, Pi is able to shape the narrative as he sees fit, looking into the face of God along the way and leaving the viewer with a question: which set of events really happened? Adapted from Yann Martel’s book and directed by Ang Lee, it’s not half as profound as it thinks it is but its stunning visual splendour makes it a natural candidate for the UHD process.
The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Please note: this review has been carried out on a high-contrast Sony 4K TV which can display the Wider Colour Gamut (WCG) of UHD but not the specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) encoding of these discs, so they're being viewed in Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) via the Panasonic DMP-UB900 player and its excellent SDR downconversion feature, which manages to retain a healthy portion of the expanded range. The screenshots seen here are from the 1080p Blu-ray and are not intended to be indicative of the UHD product.
As has quickly become the norm, Life of Pi comes to UHD disc in a 2-disc set which includes the regular 2D 1080p Blu-ray and a UV digital copy. It’s framed in the intended 1.85 widescreen aspect with occasional shifts to 2.40 and 1.33. The movie was shot in native 3D on Alexa and originally finished at 2K so it must be assumed that this 4K 2160p encode is an upscale, and yet it provides a noticeable boost in spatial resolution compared to the standard Blu-ray disc. Faces become more refined and wider shots resolve so much more detail from the middle distance outwards, like the high shot of the family zoo in Pondicherry: there’s a set of railings in the middle of the screen which is simply an indiscriminate blur on the Blu-ray but is brought into sharp relief on the UHD. The first shot of Pi discovering the meerkats on the island is another great example, on the UHD you can pick out individual animals scurrying about well into the distance, whereas the Blu-ray renders them down into a seething mass at that sort of range.
That meerkat shot was computer-generated, in keeping with much of the movie (tigers not being renowned for their acting prowess), and generally the reams of CG imagery hold up incredibly well with the fur on the digital tiger looking beautifully textured. But occasionally this extra sharpness reveals the absolute limit of the CG’s resolution, manifesting in some mild shimmering on ultra-fine CG details like the tiger’s whiskers and those aforementioned railings at the zoo. It’s not a major distraction and I doubt most people will even notice but hey, it’s my job to notice to these things. (Well, it’s not a paid gig or anything, but you get my point.) And the shimmering is actually present in the same shots in the 2D Blu-ray, only it’s not always so obvious because of the lower 1080p resolution. But the increased acuity of the UHD presentation is most definitely a positive aspect overall, some shots taking on a documentary-like level of clarity and realism, and it’s been achieved without having to resort to things like crude edge enhancement (apart from one single moment which stood out).
The wider colour gamut of UHD would naturally be assumed to be a key improvement over the regular Blu-ray and yet it didn’t immediately wow me like some other UHD discs have. That’s not to say it doesn’t look drop-dead gorgeous - it does - but then so does the original Blu-ray of Pi in terms of colour. However, on closer inspection there are clear differences, with the UHD teasing out more nuance to skin tones plus richer saturation in the painterly clouds and blue skies, and the shot of the planets in the psychedelic comic book panel is markedly more vibrant. The greenery of the meerkat island is bolder but more diverse at the same time, and the signature shots of the bioluminescent cyan lighting during the plankton and acid pool scenes have never been more intense. That may be due equally to the HDR grading as much as the WCG, but they go hand in hand as the brighter range allows colour to be expressed with a greater volume than ever before.
The increased dynamic range is what really stands out, pulling back details in what are otherwise blown-out highlights on the Blu-ray, like in the windows behind the older Pi in his house, or when the younger Pi is recounting his story to the Japanese insurance agents from his hospital bed. The windows in the hospital room are draped in some sort of muslin and lit from behind, looking ill-defined and featureless on the Blu-ray but with so much more texture and definition in UHD. And when Pi is at sea the brighter parts of the image (like his white trousers or the lip of the lifeboat) can clip away into nothing on the Blu-ray while the UHD displays much more range in those areas, adding shading and depth without affecting the intended painterly quality. The various shots of the sun and moon are handled with striking intensity, looking more luminous and yet better defined, and light has a more silky quality than the normal Blu-ray. The blacks often reveal more shadow detail than the more impenetrable blacks on the Blu-ray, though the UHD doesn’t suffer for black levels in general as it still provides deep, deep darkness when required, like the slow fade to black as Pi and Richard Parker stare at each other from their respective craft.
The HEVC encode does a great job at coping with the minutiae of certain scenes, I already mentioned the swarming meerkats and the flying fish scene is another example: the added resolution means you can pick out every single one leaping about and the efficient compression doesn’t hinder that effect (the extra dynamic range makes the glints of sunlight on the fish look amazing as they disappear into the distance). I did spot a trace of banding in one or two shots but without examining the encode directly it’s hard to say whether this is symptomatic of my display or whether it’s a source issue. But in general it’s a marvellous presentation, proving again that it’s the combination of improvements that UHD offers (greater resolution, higher range, wider colour) which sets it apart from standard HD. However, you can't avoid the fact that the movie's imagery was designed for 3D so stereo aficionados will still consider the 3D Blu-ray to be the primary home video presentation, though the UHD provides a much bolder-looking counterpoint to the inevitable reduced brightness of any 3D viewing (due to the glasses).
The audio is presented in the same lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 as heard on the regular Blu-ray, but that’s no bad thing as it’s an excellent track. (The movie was released theatrically with object-based “immersive” Dolby Atmos audio but Fox have been reluctant to embrace Atmos mixes on UHD so far, with The Peanuts Movie UHD and the upcoming Deadpool being the key exceptions.) Dialogue is crisply reproduced, with Pi’s yelling during the thunderstorm remaining perfectly intelligible in the midst of the maelstrom, and the music spreads out nicely across the sound stage. The rears cover all the bases, with more obvious effects coming from behind like the chattering of the meerkat horde as Pi approaches them and subtler touches like lonely gusts of wind breezing through as Pi is drifting at sea. The subwoofer channel doesn’t over-commit itself, underpinning the visuals with effective but not overly showy bass.
There are no extras included on the UHD disc so it’s left to the 2D Blu-ray to do the duties and nothing has changed in that respect: the hour-long “A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey” documentary plus two other featurettes and a photo gallery are all present and correct, with the documentary providing a fascinating insight into this unique production.
Life of Pi is another very pleasant example of what Ultra HD Blu-ray is capable of adding to an already excellent Blu-ray presentation. 3D fans will want to hang on to their existing Blu-ray for the native 3D imagery but the UHD has its own unique benefits. Well worth a look if you're a fan.
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