Thursday, July 06, 2006

VC1 or MPEG2? How about WTF? + Kumu-Kumu!

Here's something that's been really, REALLY irking me for a while.

HD-DVD and Blu-Ray both support 3 different codec's; MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and VC-1. Despite the names, they should be pretty familiar. DVD's have used MPEG-2 for a decade now, MPEG-4 is the codec used by DIVX/XVID video's (recompressing DVD rips in shitty quality for 5 years and then some!), and VC-1 is none other than Windows Media Video 9.

For some time Blu-Ray has said that they're sticking with MPEG-2. They think it looks great on DVD, they say that it takes only a fraction of the time to encode that VC-1 does, and so far absolutely no-one seems to be interested in MPEG-4, quite possibly due to it's reputation for said awful looking DVD rips. So, the warring formats have warring video codec's. All players can play both, so the real question is this; which looks better?

That's easy. HD-DVD looks better than Blu-Ray, with HD providing a consistently sharp and detailed image while BD creates the same artifacted "digital grain" that has plagued DVD's since the format came out in 1996. It looks "natural" at this point, but that doesn't mean it's how it's "supposed" to look. VC-1 has it's own issues, in particular a certain artifact in which fine details - like the desert sand or the pores in someone's face - will sort of "crawl" around slightly. It's hard to explain, and I'm sure there's an actual word for it, but I don't know it. It looks like film grain at first, but it's more like seeing tiny spots of grain showing up in an otherwise solid plane. Still, it looks way better than the competition most of the time.

Now, here's my problem with all the Blu-Ray demo material I've seen so far (and the reviews for the feature films sound like they're about the same): they don't look very good. They're about on par, maybe a bit better than HD cable, but they still aren't gorgeous... the trailer for Kung Fu Hustle is though. Ultraviolet, Chicken Little, Pirates of the Carribean, the DVD vs BD demo... all pretty unimpressive. Lots of artifacting, not a lot of "wow" which for a lot of people is the reason to buy something in HD. I've heard people say over and over again that MPEG-2 simply isn't suited for High Definition, and that Blu-Ray should switch to VC-1. While the proof is in the pudding, someone tell me this; why does Kung Fu Hustle look just as good as HD-DVD and none of the others if they're all using the same damned codec?

The answer is simple: MPEG-2 is adequate. The problem is that Sony's (and Lions' Gate) encoding and mastering people don't really know what to do with it. Whatever they did with Kung Fu Hustle - at least as far as the trailer goes - was right. None of the other promos - aside from the bit with the watch maker - look half this good, and if a high bitrate promo doesn't look good, well, your codec is worthless. Plain and simple. But Blu-Ray is capable of great image - and nobody with the power to play 5.1 LPCM has bitched about it's audio quality, that's for damn sure. So, my question is this... what is everybody doing wrong?

I'll be honest, though I've been authoring DVD's for a couple years I don't know the first thing about encoding High Definition video. Not something I can capture or rip; just not something that I need to worry about. After experimenting with Windows Media 9 - the same thing as VC-1 - I'm convinced that it's, at the very least, comparable to MPEG-2 using far less space at DVD resolution. Much as I try not to bend over for Bill Gates in any way, I'll give in and admit he's got a hell of a codec. All the same, not every HD-DVD has been amazing, and word is that Full Metal Jacket looks pretty crappy. (This is also partly due to the way the morons at Warner de-interlaced it instead of doing a proper IVTC... fancy talk for saying "they made it softer and jerkier than it should be, damnit.") All the same, I stand by my theory; MPEG-2 is fine. Sony and Lion's Gate need to get their shit together and figure out what they're doing wrong. Warner too with that stupid de-interlacing crap, but that's another rant for another day.

I think that Blu-Ray could still survive HD-DVD kicking it's ass, for the fact that the PS3 (ie; Final Fantasy Box 3) will support it, and thus give an entirely new group of people access to 1080p playback. Movies are also selling fairly well while players rot on retail shelves, telling me that some people are buying movies and waiting for that sweet, sweet $600 player. Still, if the PS2 is any indication the PS3 will probably be a pretty crappy player with or without the optional remote. It'll play, and play well enough for a while, but in time it's output will be topped by bargain bin Shinco players. And that's OK. Like I noted above, it's the Square Soft Bitch Box, same way that the XBOX 360 is really just the HALO 360. Yeah, we know better. Plus Korea has already said "fuck HD-DVD, we're supporting Blu-Ray from now on". So if you want to play that 3 disk edition of Oldboy with Park Chanwook masturbating on video commentary as Oh Daesu is performing dental surgery with a claw hammer, you'll need a BD player one way or another. In the same way that freaks who liked special editions kept small print numbers of $100 collectors editions laserdiscs around, Blu-Ray's got some time to do so.

But will it actually beat HD-DVD? With no extras, sub-par transfers and expensive players, does it stand a chance against "DVD 2.0"? To be honest... I don't think so. Once dual layer BD's are in working order (assuming they CAN work) and you can stuff those 4 disks worth of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN on a single-sided BD, maybe it'll be able to stand up to HD-DVD, even with it's video mastering problems. And who am I kidding; the worst looking Blu-Ray so far, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, will get a dual-layer VC-1 encoded ultimate edition BD by late 20008. If it's still soft then... well, what can I say, the film must have been fuzzy in theatres too. But don't tell that to HD fanboys.

So enough theoretical BD vs HD bullshit, let's talk about some anime shall we? AINCENT NAUGHTY KUMU-KUMU is one of many tapes that snuck it's way in that massive box of smut my partner in crime Zuba sent me last time. It was on German TV in the late 70's, and when he was lucky enough to find a video of a fond childhood memory he sent it my way for some VHS to DVD action. (He also used to watch some Chibi Viking show that I hope he sends me sometime in the future.) I have to say that I'm glad he did. As you should all know, I like cartoons. I don't just like gory devil porno cartoons either; old school Warner Brothers 'toons, insane heavy metal infused Canadian art projects, slightly pretentious Korean CGI, even gay ass Disney flicks about lions with Hamlet issues ripping off old Tezuka shows make me happy. I like the visual creativity and freedom animation allows creators, and I like knowing that cartoons have -always- been very un-child friendly since the late 30's if you're old enough to "get it". Cartoons on cable today generally suck, at least in terms of animation. I like Family Guy, but it's the most rigid and uninteresting art on television. And don't get me started onm shit like Aqua Teen Hunger Force... damned flash cartoons being passed off as actual animation. ATHF is funny as hell... but the animation is an atrocity. Now I like my devil porno too... but if it's animated, I'll give it a curious glance. And so it's with this theory that I popped in Naughty Aincent Kumu-Kumu in to the VCR.

Released in 1975 and directed by none other than RINTARO (X: The Movie, Metropolis) the show is about a clan of cavemen and their day to day struggles and triumphs. Before you think it's just a Japanese version of The Flintstones, let me say that the show is suprisingly mature and thoughtful. Now it was still a show made for young grade school students, but it's a show that regardless lets it's characters exist in a vast and at once scary and amazing world full of water buffalo and dinosaurs and fuzzball... things. No, I don't know what they are, but they're pretty cute anyway. And I know that primitive man and dinosaurs never actually fought each other against bad bluescreens, but who cares? If it's a cartoon - Japanese or no - caveman and dinosaurs are probably gonna' do their thing. Suprisingly, while there are a hand full of dinosaurs on display, Saurus-kun is the only one who seems to be a big part of it, and the ol' apatasaurus is mostly just whimsically cute window dressing. Zuba remembers an episode in which Kumu-Kumu and his dad were attacked by a giant bear, and is part of why the show stayed with him to this day; the episode was quite cool, and a lot scarier than anything else on Austrian kiddie TV back when.

Anyway, Kumu-Kumu is one of the harder to see vintage anime out there; FAST AND FINAL was a label that released tapes in Japan for the mere price of 3800 yen (around $34 US) which included the first, and last episode of the series. It's an interesting way to see it, but seriously, somebody release a DVD box already! The show is exceedingly cute without crossing in to the cotton candy colored kawaii/moe shit Japan produces on a regular basis. And yes, I like cute things; Risky Safety is lovable, I could watch more of Ai Yori Aoshi than my wife could, and Elfen Lied rocks even when people aren't pulling themselves apart Cronenberg style. (Yeah, I'm a fag. I don't care.) All the same, there's also TOO cute, and Kumu-Kumu never gets there. It's also interesting to see how the family lives. The kids run around and do whatever they want while dad wanders around looking for food and mom keeps the communal stew pot going. While Kumu-Kumu himself is just a child, he has contests with his friends trying to spear fish in the river. (He fails, adorably.) When his friend's brother is left on lookout in a storm, Kumu-Kumu's dad and company run out in to the storm to try and find him, with their very lives at stake. It's no horror series, but it's grounding in the real world lets the occasional fluff ball with eyes and dinosaur take their place in the long run; they're to make it familiar and comfortable so it can try and take itself more seriously without feeling overbearing to the target audience. It's an interesting ploy, and one that largely makes Kumu-Kumu a lovable bit of animation. It's for kids, but it's not the uber-sweet plotless dreck that you see so often. Kumu-kumu is a character drama through the eyes of a wide eyed boy in a fuzzy loin cloth, and there should be more cartoons that have that sort of drive.

Plus the last episode ends with Kumu-Kumu getting the crap beaten out of him by his drunken dad and getting locked in his room with a big ass rock Jesus style. Just after a sweet wedding of Kumu-Kumu's sister. Yeah, this show rocks. And I want more of it damnit. Shame there were some tape rolls in the last 5 minutes or so... hey, I take what I can get.

Joy! Honeamise has the rights to GUN BUSTER: AIM FOR THE TOP!

...sorry. That's all the otaku wanking I have the energy for right now.

No comments: