Blu Ray – Where Is The Quality Control ?

Blu Ray was released for the general public to buy in June 2006, that means we are now over five years into its life and yet we are still seeing far too many releases with either mastering errors or excessive digital noise reduction and edge enhancement, when it comes to releasing discs with missing audio, sound effects or lines of dialogue, then you expect a recall or a replacement program to be put in place and for this to be heavily advertised to make people aware of the issues, this just doesn’t happen, you usually find out by visiting a forum dedicated to movies and you never find out from the distributors who like to stay hush hush over any issues as they fear losing sales. Excessive DNR and EE is still an issue, the worst offenders for this tend to be Universal and Paramount with their back catalogue titles suffering the most.

I am actually very disappointed with the blu ray format, now i am happy with a number of quality releases but far too many good older films are not getting new 4K scans and instead the studio is applying a “quick fix” to old masters and overloading them with excessive digital tinkering, this always disappoints, the average viewer may not notice these issues but i find them to stick out like a sore thumb.

The issue of studio’s using old outdated masters just does not go away, a blu ray master is made by scanning the original camera negatives or in some cases a first generation film print, for 16mm or 35mm shot films they usually do this using a film scanner at either 2K or 4K resolution, see information below regarding differerent aspect ratio’s and the amount of detail you can expect to get, 4K scanning will resolve more fine detail than a 2K scan and really should be the minimum standard for a modern film scan and used in creating a 2K blu ray master.

For those interested click here for a link to a PDF file on a Spirit 4K film scanner.

 4K
                                       MegaPixels
                   Horizontal  Aspect  Per
 Cinema Formats    Resolution  Ratio   Frame

 Academy Standard  3626x2664   1.37:1  9.7
 Academy Flat      3996x2160   1.85:1  8.6
 Anamorphic Scope  4096X1714   2.39:1  7.0


                   2K

 Academy Standard  1828x1332   1.37:1  2.4
 Academy Flat      1998x1080   1.85:1  2.2
 Anamorphic Scope  2048x858    2.39:1  1.8

I have always found Sony to release the most consistent and high quality blu ray releases, their back catalogue titles generally look as they should and are the best, i found an interesting article with Grover Crisp who is Senior VP for asset management, film restoration and digital mastering for Sony, this is a guy who understands quality control, while talking about the release of Taxi Driver he had this to say about the subject of film scanning. I found his views interesting and very refreshing.

A Spirit 4K film scanner“We have really looked at all the options over the last few years and our conclusion, which is not unique to us, of course, is that film, regardless of what the particular element is, needs to be scanned at 4K at a minimum. That’s why Colorworks at the studio, where all of the Taxi Driver work eventually came together, was built as a full 4K digital facility. If you look at some of the tests available, especially those published by Arri the last couple of years, you realize what is being lost by scanning at a lower resolution for 35mm film. Plus, the concept of oversampling comes into play. So, we scan all our 35mm material, whether it is a big restoration or just a re-mastering project for Blu-ray, at 4K. But, depending on the material you are working with, it may be beneficial to actually scan at even higher resolutions, while larger formats, like 65mm, may require higher resolutions in order to accurately capture the information in the film frame.”

“I think our scanning rates and workflow processes have somewhat ameliorated the issue of graininess. Having said that, though, we don’t take the position that grain is an automatic “problem”, and we usually just leave it alone. We are aware of all the tools for this and are open to testing them, but the use of such tools should be limited and spare. Ultimately, unless there is a really compelling reason to alter the grain (and I don’t think just to aid compression is a compelling reason), we don’t, and I can’t really see that that decision has hurt us when it comes to reviews of our Blu-ray releases. Just the opposite, it seems. I think there are ways of mastering a film that enables you to make the best of what you have to work with and we follow that path. I really do not like the super clean, waxy look that is often the result of over-processing. It not only buries detail, but it gives the film an odd feel to it, an artificial feel, that I think detracts from the achievement of the filmmakers and is distracting to discerning viewers, all of which ultimately just cheats the audience. Most filmmakers know what they are doing with the resources at hand and our job, after all, is to replicate the vision of the filmmaker, not to impose our own aesthetic outlook on a film.”

Now that is a man that knows what he is talking about, i wish all studio’s had someone like this in charge of releases, unfortunately most studio’s take a different approach to blu ray, for example, Warner Bros have a tendency, even now, to grain reduce film titles to make compression at lower bitrates easier, sometimes their older classic titles get treated better and have much higher bitrates and more film like image quality, Warner do not usually add edge enhancement and do not overdo the grain reduction to the point of waxiness, so i usually find a Warner title watchable but they never really give us the ultimate release, my thoughts on the various studio’s releasing blu ray titles below.

Warner: Over the years they have tended to use older 2K masters which are okay but the grain structure is a little more velvety, a modern 4K film scan would have a sharper grain structure, they also use lower bitrates on their blu ray film releases but they do not overdo digital processing, their titles can look average due to artifacts because of the lower bitrates and the film look can be slightly compromised on larger screens, the image quality tends not to be poor but never really great, exceptions to this are some of their older classic releases which get 4K and 8K film scans and are given special treatment and higher bitrates.

Universal: I find their newer releases good, some mild grain reduction but its not too bad, the problem is with their back catalogue releases, Universal released some great HD DVD titles but those same titles on blu ray have had grain reduction applied, The Mummy and The Thing are two early examples which looked superior on HD DVD, some high profile releases have been very poor with excessive DNR and EE, this results in a waxy and oversharpened look. A Universal spokesperson said upon re-releasing Gladiator that it was standard process to apply grain reduction and edge enhancement to their releases, i assume he meant back catalogue since newer releases from Universal tend to look much better than older releases, i never blindly purchase a Universal back catalogue release as most are poor, there are of course the odd exception but most catalogue releases look poor.

Paramount: Much like Universal i find their back catalogue titles do not look good, mind you they do not put out that many older films anyway, newer titles tend to look good but i suspect mild grain reduction still gets applied, like Universal there are some exceptions and some catalogue titles get better treatment.

Columbia LogoSony – Columbia Pictures: They consistently release the best looking catalogue titles, film grain tends to be left alone or at least enough of it is left alone to look like film, newer titles also look very good, i find Sony to be the best studio when it comes to releasing back catalogue and newer titles on blu ray.

Lionsgate: I think Lionsgate are hit and miss, in my opinion they tend to overdo grain reduction just a little bit too much on some of their older titles and i occasionally find artifacts can be an issue, they have some really fabulous older titles in their collection that desperately need new 4K film scans, titles such as First Blood, Basic Instinct and Terminator 2 are crying out for new improved releases, Basic Instinct is a poster child for excessive DNR, Edge Enhancement and poor detail on blu ray, its a shame they do not treat such high profile films with more respect.

MGM: I tend to think its been a good thing that MGM has money problems, it means they do not bother applying excessive digital manipulation to the majority of their releases, some of their releases need new 4K scans, for example, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly looks poor on blu ray as does RoboCop but a lot of their releases are getting new film scans and do look good, while much praise has been given to some of the older Bond films i do not completely agree with that sentiment and tend to think some of them show signs of digital tinkering with some sharpening applied and visible in some scenes.

Twentieth Century Fox: A studio that usually delivers the goods, most of their older back catalogue titles look good, newer titles are very good too, there are some issues though, film titles such as The Longest Day look extremely poor with excessive DNR making it look just awful, some film classics such as The Sound Of Music look fabulous, i would say 90% of the time they get it right, but thats not always guaranteed.

Disney: They release some fabulous back catalogue live motion pictures and their newer titles also tend to be good, some of their back catalogue titles look poor, Con Air and Face/Off are two examples which are littered with DNR and edge enhancement and even The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has a little too much edge enhancement, thankfully the sequel looks fantastic, another issue with Disney is that they are ruining their classic animated titles by changing the subtle colours and applying huge amounts of digital noise reduction to every single one of their classic animated releases, this makes them look like cartoons rather than the original films they once were, as long as reviews remain positive and people buy into this then it will continue.

Criterion Collection: This is a high profile label, they usually charge more for their releases and as such you would expect new 4K modern film scans, unfortunately this does not always happen. Criterion can often use older film scans and sometimes their releases look poor, they are licensing film titles from other studio’s and in some ways their hands can be tied because of this, still, there is no excuse for some of the classic titles not looking at their best, i recommend titles such as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Charade, Videodrome and The Seventh Seal, if you can get hold of the out of print edition of The Third Man, then do so, it looks great.

Canal Plus – Optimum UK: Very hit and miss, some titles can look fabulous and some can look excessively processed, some of the titles they own are also released under licence by Lionsgate and look almost identical with the only differences being the encode, for example, First Blood looks just as bad as the Lionsgate edition, same goes for Terminator 2, hopefully at some stage they will invest money in their excellent back catalogue and make new 4K scans of all the films.

Arrow Video: They have some great film titles under licence but in the past such titles have suffered from excessive DNR and brightness boosting, there is also an issue with noise on some of the film scans they have had done for them in Italy, as an update i think in late 2012 the company started to improve considerably and sometimes do their own film scans at 2K resolution, as of 2014 i would say their releases are usually top knotch, they are entering the North American market in 2015.

Blue Underground: They do not grain reduce or brightness boost their film releases but some of their film titles have had masters done which originate from Italy and suffer from excessive noise.

There is of course a difference between a poor release which has had excessive digital processing applied to it and a release which has come out with audio, dialogue or music missing, these are glitches and something quality control should be picking up on, some releases which have had issues should be recalled, but this is not happening, it seems the studio’s want to brush some of this under the table, i still have the USA edition of Pinocchio with two lines of dialogue missing, it appears Disney will give a fixed version but i need to contact them first, no mention of this in any newspaper or magazine, i found this out in a film forum.

Various Italian horror films have had issues with noise on the transfer, this should not be confused with film grain, film grain retains detail and should not be eradicated while the noise is intrusive and likely comes from using an inferior CRT film scanner.

Let me quote David MacKenzie on this subject matter, “The use of CRT would explain why we have a soft focus with sharp noise. The soft focus would be caused by a poorly focused CRT generating a blurry flying spot. And the sharp noise would possibly be explained by failing PECs. From what I gather, CRT telecine does not automatically equal crap transfer. The reason for Hollywood moving over to CCD was, as I gather, largely to do with the high levels of maintenance that CRT needs to keep it running optimally.”

“I’ve received a master lately that was done on a CRT and yes, my hunch was correct. What you are seeing on those images is indeed video noise from a tube-based telecine, which has been made Dario Argento pictureworse by edge enhancement. It seems that in order to try and sharpen the image underneath the noise, the distributors have added extra sharpening, which of course makes the noise worse. It’s actually not “digital noise”, but decidedly analogue, BTW. Of course, this coarse high-frequency noise is NOT good for compression. Especially not when some of the smaller labels are using poor quality encoders such as Apple Compressor.”

The scanner being used for the above films is a Cintel DSX scanner, reports suggest it is very unforgiving of film grain and tends to accentuate it.

So many Argento and Fulci films are being ruined by using a film scanner that is producing poor results, add on top of that Arrow’s excessive use of DNR and you get crap, i hope someone gets in touch with LVR and this issue is fixed for future releases and maybe they can do new 4K scans of all the films affected, unlikely i know but i  hope it happens. I also hope we get a new 4K scan of Suspiria which fixes the contrast boosting in time for its 35th anniversary in 2012.

This month has seen new releases with issues which should have been avoidable if any quality control was in place.

Conan The Barbarian – All releases worldwide. Fox release this in Europe and Universal in the USA, this edition only comes with the poor 5.1 re-mix, the original mono soundtrack is excluded and the 5.1 mix has issues.

This information is from AVS forums and user Nagys Audio.

Scene 1 – The beginning of the film, where the small village is attacked, the chorus is completely missing. Sure it’s there when the horsemen are riding through the woods, but once the massacre starts it’s completely gone. The chorus is missing from the entire battle. The score sounds weak and awkward and changes numerous key shots and sequences. This is not just some small chunk of music that we are missing, this is the THEME score to Conan the Barbarian that has been completely erased.

Scene 2 – After the ghosts fail to take Conan’s soul, there’s a beautiful scene by the ocean where Schwarzenegger wields his sword. Again the chorus is completely missing. It’s only just barely audible during the last second of the scene. This was an incredibly powerful moment which had a very prominent chorus. Without it, the emotional impact is missing. This is a pivotal scene in the entire film.

Scene 3 – Right before the final showdown, before Conan prays to Crom, the chorus as the horsemen approach is completely missing. This was one of the most beautiful pieces of music, completely gone, during the climax of the film. This is as unfortunate as it gets.

The Big Lebowski – Universal have released yet another shoddy back catalogue title, excessive DNR and Edge Enhancement, one soft mushy looking and over processed piece of crap.

Roger Deakins who was the director of photography on The Big Lebowski and other Coen Brothers films has this to say on the subject matter.

“I would prefer to scan everything at 4K these days and output the same, however, it seems some producers still want to save money by doing 2K. Personally, I think this is very short sighted and certainly does not reflect the true quality of a properly exposed film negative. I insist on 4K scans, as I like any grain that there is to be sharp and the image also. Some would say that you need a 6K scan to see the full detail/fine grain in a 35mm or anamorphic negative and I believe they would be right. The de-graining tool is really only putting the image out of focus and I wouldn’t recommend it as standard. Like every tool there are pros and cons. Everything comes at a cost!”

Some of the Italian titles with excessive noise due to the use of a CRT scanner are The Stendhal Syndrome, City Of The Living Dead, Tenebrae, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Zombie Holocaust, Django, Salo and The Beyond and in addition to this the Arrow releases tend to have brightness boosting, some sharpening applied and excessive DNR. I once had an argument at a film forum with someone defending Arrow releases, i left that forum, it just was not worth the effort as no matter what i said they hit back and defended their output, the people working at Arrow have no respect for the original film, boosting brightness and degraining many of their releases is unacceptable to me.

It will be interesting to see if Criterion use the Italian master of Salo or commission a new one, if they use the current Italian one then expect excessive video noise and many complaints.

I believe some film studio’s do not employ quality control, i think some are doing things on the cheap and too many poor releases are coming out, we should now be getting nothing but the highest quality, all back catalogue titles should be treated to new 4K film scans and CRT film scanners should not be used, i feel Universal are the absolute worst studio in terms of quality and i would never blindly buy into any of their blu ray titles, so while i am very happy with some titles i buy, i am unhappy that many are so poor that i will not buy them, and i am at the point where i hope a new 4K standard is revealed, call me a snob but i would like a film format released which the general public will not buy but the film fan will, a bit like Laserdisc, a format that is 4K and 12 bit colour, a 7 terrabyte disc format with 4 layers and slightly bigger discs than we have now, maybe a minimum 400mbp/s bitrate and forget backwards compatibility, just go for the highest possible standards, i know it won’t happen, so since it will not happen i can just hope that film studio’s get their act together and start making new 4K scans of their back catalogues and cut out the DNR and EE that Universal feels is standard practice. Oh and Warner……….Please up that damn bitrate and leave all the film grain in.