Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Evangelion. High Definition. HA!

So I've been looking at my DVD's, and wondering... is it really worth it?

At face value, the answer is hell yes: High Definition (be it on HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, the VHS vs BETAMAX of the 21st century) is the best way we're going to see movies for quite a while, and at 6 - count it, 6, TIMES the resolution of DVD, even an HDTV that doesn't have all 2.08 million pixels should show a marked improvement over DVD's basic NTSC resolution. (PAL technically has 20% more resolution than NTSC, but both are bitch-slapped by the all mighty horsecock that is 1080p. So shove it Europe, Australia and parts of Asia and South America!) But there's a basic problem, aside from the cost of upgrading, lack of available technology, prototypical hardware, and the fact that HD will be just as compressed as DVD (leaving us with lovely compression artifacts)... no, the real problem is one near and dear to my heart.

That problem is animation.

Let me clarify: the problem is non-theatrical, video edited animation. In other words, anything produced between 1985 and 1998 and was intended for release on video or TV broadcast that wasn't specifically made in High Definition. Shows ranging from Berserk to Ren and Stimpy to The Simpsons and Trigun were all intended to be shown on television, which by it's very nature is 720 x 480. (Technically NTSC is 720 x 525 analogue... but let's not even go there.) To achieve this, the animation was animated on film, and then telecined on to professional video masters.

The way this works is the 24fps film is turned in to 30fps video by adding half-frames. Then they play the new 30 frames per second as half-frames. This is interlacing: the act of weaving those half-frames together. The reason they did this was we're still using broadcast standards designed back in the 30's, when sending half-frames over the air waves was easier. Video cameras work this way too. Anyway, virtually all animation circa 1985 to 2000 was edited from video masters, since it's MUCH cheaper and faster to slow a shot down, or zoom it in, or add credits or whatever using video equipment than it is having the show re-animated in Korea or Japan or wherever they keep teenage boys in cages that can draw a dog with a cape or a girl with big boobies and guns bigger than the shoulderpads in a Rob Liefield comic. This is why sometimes you'll see shots get soft, and literally lose half their resolution or why a pan shot will on close examination look jerky and strange: they're taking one of the half-frames and manipulating it with video editing equipment. It sucks, sure, but that's just the way video works. Without it most TV animation would be vey rushed and amateurish, so we just have to lovingly deal with it's inherant flaws.

This is also important for modern animation that mixes framerates. Shows like Gantz, Excel Saga, Cowboy Bebop and others which work in either live action footage or CGI often animate the 2D work at 24fps, and the CGI and special effects at 30fps. The only real difference this makes is wither or not you can release the show progressive (24 full frames that emulate 30fps so that TV's can read them), or 30fps which means the show is made of half frames made for a normal TV: PC's and HDTV's have to squash them back together at 60fps, making you lose resolution (deinterlacing). It's all very complex, and just something I'm mentioning for completionists sake. But it WILL get relevant. Promise.

Then, we have digital animation. The difference between digital and analog animation is pretty simple: in the stone age of cartoons, animators drew a sketch, traced it on a clear sheet of plastic, put the plastic sheet over a background and then photographer it. What they do now - the world over, apart from the occasional big budget movie - is take that sketch, scan it in to a computer, trace the outlines to become vectors, color it in, scan the background in separately, and then composite them together. The theory is the same, but the results look very different. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not. As digital animation is practiced more, the results are not only closer to the cel look of older shows, but they also look better and cleaner than older shows could ever have. No more film grain, no more telecine bobble, digital effects can be worked right in... it's a more sterile, plastic finish, but if you're in to brightly colored and clean stuff in the first place that's probably a good thing. Me, I like gritty cheap OVA's of the 80's, so I'm just an old fart. Pay no attention to my ramblings on where animation has gone wrong. But here's the important thing: digital animation, being made for TV and all, is almost always made at NTSC resolution, 720 x 480.

Digital shows that were animated at 720 x 480 can NOT be retelecined for High Definition. They just are NTSC resolution, and doing a big fancy upscale would only be as good as using your HDTV or DVD player to blow it up. The point of HDTV isn't that it's bigger, it's that it's more detailed. There's no more detail in NTSC... it's just not there to begin with.

But wait, you say, wasn't animation up until 2000 shot on film? Couldn't you re-scan the film masters and make any show before the digital age HD?

Kinda'. See, all that video editing was done AFTER the film process was finished. They'd not only have to retelecine the film masters, they'd have to re-edit them totally. Basically you wouldn't have the original episode: you'd have a newly edited copy of the original episode. It also isn't cheap. When Gainax created their High Definition masters for the insanely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion TV show, they admitted that the remastering process for the TV show cost more than it did to actually make it 8 years prior. I know inflation is a factor... but this brings me to what makes me laugh about the whole process.

Evangelion, though an intelligent and revolutionary show, was one of the more under-funded and problematic looking shows of the mid 1990's. The telecine bobble (how the camera jerks when it changes shots) is infamous, the look of the film is grainy and cheap, and while the scenes involving the expected Eva vs. Angel footage is gorgeously animated (arguably the best of the decade)... the moment Eva's aren't in the picture, the show's movement drops to zero. Whole dialogue scenes are made from 2 or 3 still shots, and the final 2 epiosdes of the TV series were considered so lackluster by fans that Anno Hideaki remade them as the theatrical film The End of Evangelion, which is kinda' the anime equivalent to The Holy Mountain. End Of Eva definately deserves to be released in HD, and if it gets released in the US that way I'll buy it even if I don't have a damned player yet. But the TV series will be as well.

Now, the idea with High Definition is to have a more detailed and crisp image. I'm also a firm believer that EVERY film - no matter how worthless it may appear to 99% of the world at large - deserves to look as good and get as many suppliments on a release as is possible. Every film was made by somebody, and damn it, somebody somewhere must love it, and that 3 DVD ultimate boxed special edition for unwatchable crap like Dogville and Brown Sugar is just for them. At the same time Evangelion presents us with an interesting chin scratcher; if the remastering was more expensive than the show, is it really worth the upgrade to watch low rent mecha in this shiny digital age? I'll never argue that Evangelion isn't an itelligent, unique, controversial piece of psychologically focused work worthy at least most of the praise it's been given over the past decade. But I will argue to my dying day that, as a piece of animation (not a piece of animated storytelling) it's pure crap. It spent it's limited budget on detailed backdrops, good actors and fine music, only dipping in to the animation budget when Unit-01 was ripping the shit out of something. Sequences like the "Born Again" gag or watching Unit-01 an 02's synchronized attack on the twin Angel are beautiful in every sense of the word... but as a whole, the TV animation is average, at best. It also must be said that Evangelion is, by all rights, the nastiest, baggiest, most used anal ho in the anime world. C'mon, there's Evangelion soap dishes , Misato sanctioned canned coffee, and NERV hand towels... I've never seen Rei sex toys, but there -are- official hentai model kits, and there are rumors abound that the 15 minute HUMAN INSTRUMENTALITY PROJECT hentai spoof was actually animated by Gainax staff members. What I'm trying to say is, if there was a home pregnancy test or a bottle opener or a pet coffin with some sort of Evangelion logo or character on it, people would buy it. And this is exactly the reason why Gainax is prepping an HD release.

The only other 1985-2000 animated TV series to get a new HD remaster was Card Captor Sakura, a lovable girls' show which can be watched by children for the cuteness, and by adults for how many creepy homo-incestual overtones the show hides every 5 minutes or so. CLAMP is a pack of dirty, dirty ladies. I'm not aware of ANY American cartoons getting the 1080 treatment, nor do I expect it to happen. Certainly some newer anime - RahXephon, Noir, Gankutsuo and the like - were broadcasted in HD already, so they'll get a legitimate HD release without a bajillion dollar remaster. Theatrical animated films, too, since the movies are already on a film master and don't require much more than a new HD telecine. But TV and OVA animation from this period is just... well, screwed. The DVD is as good as it'll get, short of a market that loudly demands every single DVD they own be upgraded, which I don't see happening for a VERY long time.

But herein lies the real question: does it matter? TV and video animation is made to look good on a TV, and typically has both a lower budget and far less detail than any theatrical film, which is really what HD was designed for anyway. Particularly with newer digital animation, grain and texture and brush strokes - something that cel animation shot on film had plenty of - are intentionally avoided to produce a bright, clean master. I love Family Guy and South Park and Beavis & Butthead, but would having 6 times more resolution of their simplistic animation make the experience any better? I could be wrong, but I really doubt it. It's arguably no big loss that we'll never see more detail and a stronger film-like nuance on these cartoons.

But what about Berserk, Urotsukidoji, Apocalypse of Devilman and so many other fantastic cel based animation who's grit, grain and brush strokes only serve to make them look better and more like the hand created art they truly are? Do the original studios still have the 16mm film masters anymore, or did they chuck them like Hong Kong studios did to all the Cat III movies back in the 90's? Are they in any condition to be remastered in HD or have they been quietly rotting away beyond repair? If the answers to both of these questions are yes, would the studios who own the rights take the time and expense to re-edit the new HD masters? And if the studios actually do all this work, will they sell enough of these upgraded HD versions to have made the expense and effort worth it?

I'm leaning towards a "no". Weirder things have happened though. For chrissakes Synapse Films remastered The Arizona Nailgun Massacre in 1080p. Why? Because of the ideal I mentioned above. That having been said, I happen to know the director of this lovable piece off crap released his own VERY limited, uncut, hand signed SE, and he's got hundreds of copies left that haven't sold. So the likelyhood of Arizona Nailgun Massacre flying off the shelves by the dozen in HD is... less than likely.

So, pre-2000 animation in HD? I'm not holding my breath. Hang on to any and all anime DVD's and if you're going to bother with HD, get something worth it. Fullmetal Jacket, Devil's Rejects, Kill Bill, gawd even goofy crap like Doom could probably benefit from more detail showing how badly intergrated it's Xbox graphics are. But unless the animation in question was on the big screen, just ignore it. Advent Children, Akira, Rock and Rule, this is the stuff you want 6 times the detail for.

Eva? I'll buy it again. You shouldn't. I'm a pretentious otaku. Buying Eva is just what I do.

Will I ever finish that rant against "creative packaging"? Eh. Like you'd lose sleep if I didn't.

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