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Paint it Black

There’s something almost magical or borderline mystical about deep, rich black levels on a well-calibrated display.

There’s something almost magical or borderline mystical about deep, rich black levels on a well-calibrated display. You only need to spend a few minutes watching prospective customers ooh and ahh over the demo screens at the local big box store to realize that most will forgive inaccurate color reproduction. And most people sit so far from their screens that the difference between 720p and 1080p is largely moot for all but the most enthusiastic of enthusiasts. But stick even the most casual of viewers in front of a screen with rock-solid blacks, and they will positively slobber over the depth and richness of the imagery. So whether you’re looking to tout the benefits of lighting control or Screen Innovations’ new Black Diamond screen materials, or maybe plasma sales have been a little slow lately, and you need to move a few more out the door, having a handful of go-to Blu-ray discs with deep, dark black levels can be a boon to your business. Here are a few of my (mostly) recent favorites.

As with the original TRON, its most delectable imagery comes from the iconic light cycle battle.

TRON: Legacy (Best Demo Scene: Chapter 7)
Say what you will about the narrative merits of this longawaited sequel, but there’s no denying that the film’s dark, dystopian alternate reality makes for some delicious eye candy. And as with the original TRON, its most delectable imagery comes from the iconic light cycle battle. If you’ve only seen the first film, imagine the dreams that scene inspires, then add three good shots of adrenaline and square the results. This new light cycle sequence is an orgiastic extravaganza of neon layered over dusky charcoal grays, cut through with splashes of slick obsidian, laid on a bedrock of light-sucking soot–deep blacks, surrounded by blacker blacks, reinforced by the blackest blacks you can imagine, with stripes of blinding light that make it seem all the blacker. In other words: yeah, it’s a great demo for black levels.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole offers a world rich with shadows within shadows and gorgeous contrasts

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Best Demo Scene: Chapter 4)
Truth be told, relying on animated films for black level demos is cheating. But hey, after investing the time to calibrate your showroom displays, you’d probably be willing to sell your soul for source material like this. As its name implies, this computergenerated adventure from Zack Snyder (of 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch fame, just to give you an idea of the sort of visuals you’re in for) revolves around a band of nocturnal beasts, so even the bestlit scenes take place at dusk. It’s a world rich with shadows within shadows and gorgeous contrasts. Cue up the sequence in which the two little feathery stars of the film flee from the caves of the evil Pure Ones–where the cavernous shadows bleed seamlessly into the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen–for the somewhat safer hollow hideout of their soon-to-be allies. The stygian irises of the eyes of the strigine characters are downright dazzling due to the depths of their darkness. But by far my favorite shot is the one in which the owls enter the hollow itself: the “camera” holds still on a drop of water dripping down the screen, so packed with bottomless blacks that you’ll swear the soul of Bernie Madoff himself must be swimming around just beneath its tenuous surface.

Despicable Me isn’t the most obvious demo for black levels, but it’s still worth a look.

Despicable Me (Best Demo Scene: Chapter 10)
On the whole, this film’s blisteringly bright aesthetic is more likely to evoke the aftermath of a calamity at the Sunshine Factory where the unicorns accidentally left the rainbow machine cranked to 11 overnight. There are shadows to be found here and there, to be sure, but in this case, the velvety blacks play the less-obvious role of backdrop to the sizzle, pushing, practically shoving, vibrant hues and highlights off the screen. To see what I mean, check out the end of Chapter 10, in which the villainous protagonist’s minions take a shopping trip to the local mega mart. It’s bright, to be sure, but the tiny islands of aphotic inkiness are what truly make the picture pop. And check out the black leather chair in the center of the store toward the end of the sequence; its glimmering highlights, against blacks so deep they would swallow the stuff of Stephen Hawking’s worst cosmic nightmares, make for an image so deep and rich.

Be careful with Sunshine on displays that can’t handle the subtleties of its contrasts.

Sunshine (Best Demo Scene: Chapter 8)
This heady sci-fi flick from Danny Boyle tells the tale of a brooding band of astronauts en route to the sun to reboot it and free the earth from perpetual winter. And as you can imagine, it’s a story told mostly in the deepest depths of the nether regions of the value scale. Even the tensest of action sequences, like the one in Chapter 8, are rendered in a million and one shades of verynearly nothingness. Slide the brightness slider one notch too far to the left, and the minute textures of the side of the Icarus spacecraft disappear into the void of outer space, the fine gradations inside the space helmets blur into a flat matte mess. One step too far to the left and the image devolves into a flat, gray, lifeless mess. Nail it, though, and don’t be surprised if you have to pause halfway through the chapter to ring up another sale.