Is Blu-ray the perfect film presentation format?

Blu-ray Disc is currently the highest-quality medium available to consumers for watching films at home. I’m certainly a big fan of Blu-ray and can affirmatively state that I’ve experienced films in ways never possible before Blu-ray. I’ve discovered details in Blade Runner I never knew were there and I’ve gained a new appreciation for the cinematography of North By Northwest. But is Blu-ray the perfect film presentation format? Well, yes and no, it turns out.

There’s an interesting topic of discussion currently circulating the Blu-ray and home theater Websites and discussion boards; it has to do with presenting movies originally shot on film via the digital medium of Blu-ray Discs. Specifically, the discussion revolves around the question of whether or not movie studios should attempt to remove some or all of the visible grain present in the film negative during the creation of the high definition Blu-ray video master.

Sony Blu-ray Player

Up until George Lucas began experimenting with high definition digital video during the filming of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, almost all theatrical releases were shot on 35mm film. Many still are today. Big-budget, epic productions were sometimes shot on 65mm film and many low-budget releases have been shot on 16mm or even 8mm. Film, no matter what size, contains light-sensitive grains of silver halide. These grains, upon exposure to light, create a negative picture image of what is seen through the lens. The grain structure of each individual film frame is unique. Therefore, even when shooting a motionless, unchanging scene, the resulting projection or video presentation will contain a bit of texture and a sense of realness. It’s what many refer to as the magic of film.

Video, no matter what resolution, is made up of electronic pixels arranged in a static layout. Inexpensive video cameras often produce video noise which is recorded permanently into the picture due to the camera’s poor low-light performance. This video noise sometimes looks similar to film grain, albeit with much less aesthetic appeal. Video noise is undesirable. On the other hand, professional-grade high definition video cameras designed for shooting cinema productions can record images free of video noise and generally produce very clean and accurate pictures. Consequently, shooting a motionless, unchanging image can result in what looks like the projection of a photograph or painting with no texture or life. This is why you’ll sometimes hear directors and cinematographers say that high definition video has no magic and looks too digital.

So, we now introduce digital noise reduction or DNR. DNR is a remarkable computer technology that analyzes the noise of an image and attempts to remove that noise without degrading the quality of the original image. It can be an extremely helpful tool when working to remaster, clean up or otherwise improve an image. But, like most any tool, it can be abused, as well. And here enters the recent Blu-ray release Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition, a home video version of the 20th Century Fox film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that was released theatrically in 1987.

Predator Blu-ray cover

Predator was first released on Blu-ray in April of 2008 and, despite some compression artifacts related to early Blu-ray development, represented a pretty close approximation of the theatrical presentation, which was somewhat grainy and undersaturated. When directors and cinematographers shoot a film, they have many different types of film stocks to chose from. Some stocks are formulated for daylight, some are formulated for studio lighting, some have a smaller grain structure to bring out more detail and some have a larger grain structure to allow for better shooting in low-light conditions. The Predator production crew likely used a film stock with a larger grain structure because the grain is clearly visible on the film negative and resulting theatrical presentation and home video versions. While some may object to seeing such heavy grain, this is the choice the filmmakers made and how they wished their film to been seen.

Predator Ultimate Hunt Edition Blu-ray cover

Predator has since been re-released on Blu-ray with a brand new digital film-to-video transfer. This time, heavy DNR was used to reduce the appearance of film grain. Well, the technicians must have “cranked it up to 11” on the DNR setting because virtually no film grain is present in this new version of the film. And herein lies the debate: are those responsible for preparing a film for release on Blu-ray (or any other home video format) obligated to accurately preserve the original look of the film or are they justified in attempting to “improve” or “update” the film for an audience not familiar with the technical or creative choices of the filmmakers?

I’m a bit of a purist. In general, I believe that the look of a film, especially one created with a studio budget, is created intentionally. Filmmakers have a vast collection of tools at their disposal for creating a specific look or visual aesthetic. If a film is bright and over-saturated, it’s because the filmmakers wanted it that way. If a film is grainy and dull, that’s intentional, too. Different looks create different moods. Colors, lighting, film stock and many other creative tools are used to help tell a story.

Does this mean we should never use technologies like DNR when remastering a film? Not at all. Some films simply age poorly and don’t look as they once did; DNR can help bring them back to life. Sometimes, a filmmaker is limited in what equipment or devices he or she has access to and is forced to make compromises during production. And, believe it or not, occasionally original film negatives and the inter-positives used as masters get damaged or lost, leaving only worn-out release prints for creating home videos. These reasons, among others, justify the use of tools like DNR and digital enhancement.

But with Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition, I think we have a case of abuse. Click on the following link to view a frame from the original Blu-ray release of Predator, courtesy of The Digital Bits

This image demonstrates good detail, especially in Arnold’s face wrinkles and facial hair, but also preserves the presence of film grain, especially in the out-of-focus background area.

Now take a look at the same film frame from the new Ultimate Hunt Edition Blu-ray release of Predator…

It looks like we’ve entered plastic land! The film grain has been almost entirely removed, which was the intended result, but so has much of the texture and fine detail. Many of Arnold’s subtle wrinkles and facial hair details are now gone. And his shirt looks like it was made of spandex. Even if you prefer the look of this edition to the previous one, you have to admit that it’s not accurate in comparison to the theatrical release. I suggest you download each image to your computer and open them both in your preferred image viewer so you can compare them directly.

So, I propose the question again: are those responsible for preparing a film for Blu-ray obligated to accurately preserve the original look of the film or are they justified in attempting to “improve” the film?

Another way to evaluate this question is by considering color vs black & white. The advent of color film stock certainly was an improvement to the filmmaking process. Using color not only more accurately portrays the world in which the characters of the film interact but also adds a new aesthetic in creating a mood, feeling or reaction. However, concluding that all black & white films should be remastered in color would be ridiculous. We should preserve those black & white films as they were originally created, right?

Well, if a film was created to be grainy, dark or off-color, shouldn’t we keep it that way on Blu-ray? Shouldn’t we reserve digital noise reduction, edge enhancement and other so-called improvements for addressing only those scenes in which a filmmaker had to make a compromise or scenes that otherwise need to be altered in order to bring them back to their original look? My vote is yes, we should keep the look of a film intact and reject Blu-ray releases like Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition. I’m curious to hear your feedback and opinions.


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One Response to “Is Blu-ray the perfect film presentation format?”

  1. Good-looking Aliens « Digital Media Services Blog Says:

    […] Fox catalog titles receiving less-than-stellar HD digital film transfers (see my post about the Predator Blu-ray), and James Cameron’s comments about using grain-removal processes to improve the look of […]

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