Saturday, January 26, 2008

All I see is, Video Guro, Video Ero, Video Guro...

I really hate to point fingers.

Okay, that's a lie. I LOVE to point fingers. But I hate to complain incessantly when I know that not a goddamn thing will be done about it. It's like taking a deaf guy to see a ventriloquist, it just feels like there's a far better use of your time. Still, they demand it from me, so a finger shall be pointed.

FUNimation, y'all suck.

Allow me to explain my position on FUNimation: a decade ago they were "the cocksuckers who killed Dragonball Z". Today, they're "the saints that saved One Piece"*. It's strange to think about how drastically Gen Fukunaga's company changed since the days he started an anime localization business because a relative working at Toei talked him into it, and they really have a couple spectacular things to speak of. Their packaging design is always top notch, they've given a 5.1 English dub to virtually every show they've touched in the last 5 years, their budget collections come in attractive and tasteful digipacks, their collector's boxes are often design masterpieces unto themselves (just look at Afro Samurai!), and while there will always be instances where Japanese extras and the like won't be available, they're quite good about including as many relevant special features as they can get their paws on. In practical terms, FUNimation is a predictable licensor with a very creative marketing team, and if it weren't for two little things they'd essentially be the perfect package.

*Of course, they are responsible for adding Seinfeld, pedophile, furry and cervix jokes into the once family-hour Crayon Shin-chan. I'd be more bitter about this if the FUNimation re-write didn't have moments of sheer tasteless brilliance. "To be a man you must have honor - honor and a peenis!"

One of these things is, naturally, "High Definition" widescreen Dragonball Z. I killed far too many brain cels and blood vessels in my eyes elsewhere, so I don't see the point in giving it a full blown featurette here. In short, Dragonball/Z/GT is a TV series shot in 4:3 fullscreen, yet FUNimation remastered the show from shoddy second generation film prints in 16:9 widescreen. They also used noise reduction to kill the heavy grain, which smeared out movement, and there was zero restoration work done on the film prints so they're littered with dirt, hairs, scratches and even torn frames to say nothing of their boosted contrast and saturation. In effect, the earlier DVDs made from 20 year old composite tape masters were higher quality simply because there was less print problems and you weren't missing 25% of the picture. FUNimation's HD Remaster of Dragonball Z is an atrocity the likes of which is comparable only to the biggest of video based fuck-ups, and anyone who can watch these sets without wincing in misery regularly is a mongoloid buffoon who doesn't deserve to own a DVD player.

Naturally, Dragonball Z box sets coming to roughly $1 an episode sell "like hotcakes", so FUNimation could have released them in a triangular aspect ratio dubbed only in Thai with Spanish subtitles and still made a killing.

But no, the real sin that FUNimation consistently inflicts upon their customers is god-fucking-awful video encodes. Now I know that I've never worked in a professional authoring capacity for a legitimate studio, but I've been learning the ins' and outs' of video production for quite some time now, and yes, I've created my own Frankenstein encodes from various sources for the good of Kentai Films patrons everywhere. I once told a FUNimation rep, point blank, that if they need additional help I am available. I also told them I could get better image quality from using the R2 DVD of any of their titles and TMPGEnc Plus. Neither was wholly an exaggeration. FUNimation has a problem, and it's evident on every single DVD they've released ever since 2001.


What we have here is a blatant example of what I'm talking about. I shouldn't even need to explain this one, and if you can't see the horrific blocking over every square inch of this shot than congratulations, you'll never, ever have to worry about spotting video erros. Some people just don't have "the eye" for it and that's cool... good christ, watching shit like this I wish I didn't.

How do you make an atrocity like this? The short 'n' sweet answer is "low video bitrates". DVDs have a bandwidth limit of 10.08 mbps, and use a variable bitrate for the video with fixed bitrates on the audio and subtitle files, plus a tiny bit of overhead for navigation - chapters and the like. In practical terms you can use a variable bitrate that dips as low as 2 mbps (or even less!) and as high as 9.8 mbps without exceeding your bandwidth, but that peak bitrate has to be lowered if you have a lot of audio tracks so you can stay below that 10.08mbps maximum. Most real world encodes don't go over 8, maybe 8.5 mbps, and frankly they don't need to. Any quality advantage you get after 8 just isn't realistically feasible, not if you want any audio with your video at the very least.

The average bitrate used by most studios - that includes anime specialty outfits alongside Hollywood hot shots - hovers between 5 and 7 mbps. Some material simply needs more bitrate to look acceptable. Grainy material is especially tricky, as is anything using a "shaky cam". Animation typically has large spaces filled with a single color and lots of repeat frames, which are easy to compress with a lower bitrate thananything else. It's perhaps unfair to say that animation contains no grain and little movement all the time - certainly there are plenty of titles that contain both - but I'm trying to be mathematical here. Mathematically simpler video can compress at low bitrates without... well, any of the shit we see up there.

How low is too low? Again, content is everything, but typically 5.5 to 6mbps seems to be "it", at least if the R1 anime studios are to be trusted on the matter. Japanese studios tend to use higher bitrates still, often in the 7 ranges, but they also tend to put 2 TV length episodes on a dual layer DVD, which even my videophile minded ass thinks is just a bit excessive. To my eyes, 6mbps is enough for most 2D animated material, and at 6mbps you're looking at something like 95 minutes on a single-layer DVD with a single 192kbps audio track. If you have longer material, or lots of surround tracks, you have to make adjustments. There's nothing "wrong" with 5.6 mbps versus 6, you just might find more problems during fast motion scenes or when heavy grain kicks in. Even then, if you're experiencing problems you could change the encoder profile or add a filter into the chain to try and fix it manually. There's a wealth of options one has to make video better, but most professionals are paid by the job, not by the effort... so, we wind up with something like this.


What you're looking at here is the sexalicious transformation from AMAHA Masane, klutzy and irrational single mother of one spunky as hell loli in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Tokyo setting, into Witchblade, the result of a symbiotic gauntlet which turns her into a blade and tentacle (mmm, naked bladed tentacle chick) covered necromaniac who's sole interest is in killing bio-mechanical weapons which in turn brings out an orgasmic satisfaction in her. Clearly the Japanese version of this "Top Cow" comic character is superior to anything Angelina Jolie's clone with some crusty stuff on her face ever had to offer, but let's not lose focus here: while this sequence lacks the obvious blocks of the last shot, it's still not pretty. There's a coat of what could be described as grain but isn't: it's compression noise, a side effect that's as much a problem of the encoder itself as it is the bitrate it's being fed.

FUNimation's encodes are almost universally noisy, and have edge enhancement - that thing where you see a thin white outline around a black "real" outline. It was created 50-odd years ago as a way to "sharpen" crappy NTSC signals, and worked into TVs via something called a notch filter. Well, FUNimation consistently gets lots of it on everything they release, and even the single title they endoded at a high bitrate, Afro Samurai, can't claim to lack it. The thing is, this noise is almost surely being added at the encode stage, and likely the encoder has a "dithering" function that simply hasn't been turned off. Dithering is a tricky way you can get rid of film grain via noise reduction and then put it back in at the encode to ensure that the grain looks just the way the DVD producers want it to. Tragically, if you use it on material that doesn't need it you're just making everything all... gross. Gonzo isn't one to use grain heavily unless it's in flashbacks or something else artistically sound, and when you see nasty noise like this on Bees Train shows, you know for a fact something's amiss. Some clueless fans have tried to shrug the noise in FUNimation encodes off as a side effect of the master, but if that's the case then why do the R2 releases always lack such problems? The two should be culled from the same master, after all.


The above doesn't look all that bad... 'till you look at Masane's face, anyway. Viewing this sucker in full screen reveals rather nasty blocking artifacts in the smoke in the background, and I have to say this looks so much worse in motion where you can literally see the blocks moving within the smoke (but not "with" the smoke, if you follow me). Of all things, these nasty patterns are likely the fault of a really poor quantize matrix - the thing that tells the MPEG encoder how to do its' job - and that proves that there's just a multitude of problems over at FUNimation's encoding ranch.

And yes, all the screencaps are lossless PNG, so they're 100% representative of what is on the DVD. Some people simply can't see these defects in motion and try to write them off as the bugs of post-processing on the part of the DVD player. Well, these were taken in Media Player Classic using Dscaler's MPEG-2 decoder, no resizing or filtering done at all. I assure you, I have better things to do with my time than post purposefully fux0red screenshots, and let it be said that it always burns my balls to see someone accused of doing just that if they try to show off the opening battle from the Fullmetal Alchemist movie. Decent flick, and man what a package FUNi through together for fans right down to that hardbox-book thing full of post cards, but I swear the first 10 minutes gives Demon Beast Invasion Vol. 1 a run for its' money as the single ugliest anime DVD on the planet.

So out with it: what bitrate is FUNimation using to get these noisy, blocky, generally poor results?

Peak bitrate: 6.9 mbps
Average bitrate: 4.0

Pathetic. Even with the "Alternate Angle" feature FUNimation uses as their de-facto encode style to include both Japanese and English credits and eye-catches, the bitrate is not only pathetically low, it doesn't even touch the peak's 8mbps max level! The disc only uses 6.83 GB of its' potential 7.9 gig maximum, so it's not as if the bitrate couldn't have been upped to 5.5 mbps without removing any of the special features or audio tracks, and all of these issues could have been avoided.

Now, I bring all this to light because FUNimation supposedly has a new DVD authoring guy. The last one they had, whoever the fuck he was, couldn't author his way out of a VCD. While I want to keep this unofficial blog somewhat confidential, I don't mind quoting an anime industry rep who, when I asked him about FUNi's encodes, noted "if I EVER released a DVD from Digibeta that looked that bad somebody would be fired on the spot". A shame his role in releasing commercial DVDs is more limited now than it used to be.

FUNimation, I'm not asking for every single DVD you release to be the next standard in my viewing entertainment experience. I'm just asking for the same level of competency and standards I'd expect to see from a fucking college intern who's never been allowed to touch an MPEG encoder before. If you don't know how to change the average bitrate setting from 4 to 5.5, find the manual. It's okay, really. These things are complicated. If you don't know how to turn any sharpening properties off in your system, find someone who does. The EE is only making the discs look worse, not sharper.


This one... doesn't really show off the defects in image, apart from having strong outlines which lead to EE, and also show that the very bottom line of the transfer appears to be forked in some weird way... as if someone is using CCE improperly?! I swear to christ, if they're using CCE SP (a typically noisy encoder in it's own right I'll admit) and are getting results this bad I fucking give up. The R1 anime industry really, really is run by chimpanzees on roller skates pushing wheel barrels full of money and smoking cigars.

That said, this last screencap does kinda' explain why I'm still buying the other 5 volumes, even if they look like pixelated chewed up ass. It's difficult for me to get up the excitement to actually buy anything FUNimation has the rights to, though, and had I not been given the gorgeous box set for X-mas I'm not convinced I've have bought it at all, either. Typically when I'm tempted to download something I can shrug it off and say "the DVD will look much better". I understand the basic principle of a capitalistic economy in which one exchanges money for goods and/or services, but when the free option of a video - the part of the product that's supposed to matter - literally looks better than the not-free option... well, what's my incentive here? Pretty packaging? Can't I just download cover scans, too? *Sigh*

It sucks having pity and a moral core.

These issues can't be "fixed" in any particularly useful way or else I'd be doing it already. Using noise reduction can smooth over some of the noise as seen in the second screenshot, but there isn't much you can do to get rid of the blocks short of trusting something like FFDShow's "Post processing" option, which I find smears out more detail than noise, even on fairly low settings. It's useful for DivX, but should really be kept very far away from DVD material. I will say that scaled up to 720p this disc looks just awful, and that's a damned shame. The show is a lot of fun in a "Devil Lady meets DBZ" sort of Gonzofied way, and even my wife liked it for the cute character designs and rampant misogyny even though all she could say on the matter was "Witchblade sucks" whilst I tried to ignore her long enough to watch the first episode some time ago. It's Gonzo at their unpretentious best, delivering an exciting and goofy rehash of crap we've seen done before. We just haven't seen it this juicy and jiggly, and I don't mind a rehash if it means I get more shiny ass cheeks and mechanical mutilation out of it.

So, there you have it: FUNimation, learn your business or you'll lose mine. Witchblade is the last FUNimation title I plan on buying until I can rest assured that the DivX download of the TV sourced fansub won't literally look just as good as the $30 a volume DVD.

6 comments:

Bolo Myler said...

THANK YOU. Awesome article.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Your phrase is matchless... :)

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I came here for video guro and end up reading a rant.