Cine Outsider header bar
left bar home button disc reviews film reviews button articles button blogs button interviews button right bar
Outsider Blog logo
Reviewers vs. Blu-ray encryption
In his first blog for a while (he's not particularly talkative), Slarek outlines why for the immediate future at least, our Blu-ray reviews will be bereft of screen grabs.
24 November 2014

Back in 2009, when we first started reviewing Blu-ray discs on this site, we were flummoxed by one thing – our inability to obtain screen grabs from the discs under review. Without wanting to kick off one of those tiresome "my computer's better than your one" slanging matches, I'll freely admit that being Mac based didn't help here. Back then, the Windows platform had a more generous selection of Blu-ray related software, in no small part due to Steve Jobs dismissing the idea of incorporating Blu-ray playback into the Apple operating system after famously describing it as "a bag of hurt." The odd thing was, even then if you connected a Blu-ray drive to a Mac and popped a disc in it then it would show up on the desktop and be identified as being a Blu-ray disc. You just couldn't play it.

Mind you, those with PCs who could play Blu-ray discs on their computers also struggled to obtain screen grabs in those early days of the format. The function was somewhat notoriously disabled on most BD software, apparently – and I still struggle to swallow this but have been assured of its truth – because the film companies were afraid that if this function were enabled, then unscrupulous hackers would save every single frame of the film (that's 24 for every second of screen time, folks) and stick them all together to make their own HD copy of it, which they could then distribute, at least after they'd ripped the soundtrack and synced the two files up. Yeah, that really sounds worth the effort...

Eventually, all of this changed. Software Blu-ray players appeared that allowed you to capture screen shots, even on the Mac, though the one that I procured from Aiseesoft has lived up to Jobs' claim against the format by refusing to play a single disc I have thrown at it. So far, the company's technical support have been unable to explain why or offer a workable solution (just for the record, a similar product from Aurora Software works rather well with the very same equipment).

But even before these players started to appear for the Mac operating system, we had discovered a way of obtaining the screen grabs we wanted and have been using the very same method ever since. We don't have to, of course. Unlike the good folk at DVD Beaver, we rarely include full-sized grabs for direct comparison purposes. The function of the grabs in our reviews is more illustrative than demonstrative, to visually represent a shot or character under discussion in the paragraphs that surround it. And given that our reviews tend to be on the long side, they also help to break up the text a little, providing a little breathing space amidst the towering blocks of words. Just occasionally, when the transfer really does knock our socks off – The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of Murnau's City Girl is a good example – we do include a full-sized screen grab on the basis that a picture can paint a thousand words of wide-eyed admiration. We are, after all, helping to sell such discs to potential buyers.

As you would expect, Blu-ray discs are copy protected to prevent piracy, which is perfectly understandable. DVDs were similarly protected, but the encryption was built into the Blu-ray format at a design level, and was complex enough to foil almost all attempts to circumnavigate it, at least in the early days. Now the software to do so can be legitimately purchased online. What is less well known is that this encryption is being regularly updated in an attempt to keep ahead of such software, to irregularly render it useless it until the next update is released.

Such changes to the encryption can also affect our ability to do screen grabs for our reviews, though until recently the updates to our software have tended to keep pace with the new levels of encryption. But for the first time since we obtained the program we use for frame grabbing, the speed of change on the encryption is outstripping the updates, and we have found ourselves unable to grab images to accurately illustrate our reviews. The software updates are not far behind, but they are now behind, and while this means that we can add screen grabs at a later date (the most recent update, for instance, has enabled us to get grabs from the new Blu-ray release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which when posted will be better representative of this new 4K restoration than the ones we were forced to substitute), for the immediate future some of our Blu-ray reviews – which have been delayed by failed attempts to find a solution to the problem – will be posted without grabs, much as they were back in 2009. It's a shame, as everyone here believes that longer reviews benefit from a little visual illustration, and it's nice to be able to really show off how good a new transfer is by including a few examples, even if they are considerably scaled down. It's also worth noting that this latest encryption has also ensured that the Blu-ray discs using it will not play on any of the computer-based players we have tried them on. If this is your primary method of playback, I'd be cautious about which discs you buy in the near future.

So if some of the reviews feel even wordier than usual in the coming weeks, then it'll likely be because words will be all they will consist of. When we can we'll probably add appropriate images anyway if they will help to illustrate a point, and who knows, maybe our software will catch up with the encryption again in the near future. It would be a shame if it didn't, as there's an Arrow box set that we're covering at the moment that I'd just love to show you some screen grabs of so that you could drool over the contents every bit as much as I have. Watch this space.