Sunday, November 30, 2008

Properly Color Timed Bullshit Stories

The last VHS restoration I would up posting was quite a simple matter. No IVTC, no upscale, just mathematically checking the contrast and then eyeballing the saturation. Color correction is something I've dabbled in once or twice, but never something I'd do without either some cash for my time/sanity, or it being a project I can be 100% convinced is in dire need of fixing. It's a far more frustrating and whimsical bastard than the hard mathematical truths behind things like "resolution", and I take some satisfaction in knowing that the people who get paid for it don't even seem to get it right all of the time.

Color timing is difficult to judge without a comparison point, because its' something done not just in the camera, but in post production. Certain shots getting their contrast boosted or tinted a certain color for effect are relatively simple tricks of the film making trade, and in modern productions especially scenes of intentionally blown out contrast or desaturated color are seemingly common place. Typically people only start to hem and haw if there's two DVD releases and one of them looks dramatically different than the other. In these situation, do you trust the older or newer transfer? More importantly, why should you trust that either of them look the way its' "supposed" to?

The poster child for color timing gone awry is, without fail, John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Not having seen the film for a decade now I remember it being less than revolutionary, but my tastes have changed and my undying love for Rob Zombies' gritty realist take on much the same material has piqued my curiosity enough that I'm willing to give it a second look. Of course, now I have to decide which version is worth watching... and that's going to be no easy task, I'm afraid.

Anchor Bay initially released a terrible looking non-anamorphic transfer in 1998. This was replaced with a 2 disc Limited Edition in 1999, with a brand new THX approved transfer supervised by Dean Cudney, the film's director of photography. It was hailed as a gorgeous disc by pretty much every critic out there, despite the fact that the print was in slightly rough shape.

In 2003, Anchor Bay released the "Divimax" HD remastered version. While the print was cleaner and the transfer sharper, the vivid blue hues of the films' second half, and the muted orange of the daylight scenes were nowhere to be found, creating a less vivid, all together flatter presentation of Halloween. Fans were pissed. In 2007, the Divimax HD transfer was released on Blu-ray, with some additional color tweaks... but not a brand new transfer. As such some scenes look identical to the THX transfer, while others are almost exactly like the Divimax transfer. Whilst you can see more/better examples here, I'll provide a few split-screen captures to make it easy:

So, one of these just has to be wrong, right? The fact that Anchor Bay actually fixed the first shot to have the more yellow, fall-hued colors of the THX transfer on last years' Blu-ray seems to confirm it... yet the second shot was left white instead of being colored electric blue. So what's going on here? Which transfer is the way Halloween is supposed to look?

After all the hullabaloo last year of the Blu-ray not featuring the oft-prefered THX color timing, people shocked me by being objective and intelligent, pointing out that if the film was "supposed" to be glowing like a laser rock show, older video versions should look that way, too. One guy compared the Criterion LD to the two above transfers, finding them to be bluer than the HD Divimax master, but nowhere near as saturated as the THX transfer. Another decided to compare a theatrical trailer... again, the same results. Blue, yes. Neon, no. While people will take with them to their graves opinions over wither or not the DP approved SD or the nobody-approved HD transfer more accurately represents Halloween as it was always meant to be, I have little doubts that the Anchor Bay HD transfer is pretty close to what the film negative looks like... they were just a bit overzealous in their white balance.

See, the way you color correct film is you find the whitest object in the scene, and then change the red/green/blue balance until it becomes perfectly white. This doesn't work if there are no white objects in the scene, however, and it gets especially complicated if the film literally reqires the printed film to vary from the negative, for example, if it was shot day for night and then a blue filter will be added to the printed master. Having seen transfers where day-for-night footage wasn't properly filtered I have no doubt that for many vintage films - particularly obscure, foreign cult films like Francos' The Marquis de Sade's Justine and Umberto Lenzis' Man From The Deep River - a complete list specifying how to properly print each and every frame of footage simply isn't available, leaving the modern restoration crew to literally look at the negative and take their best guess. Sometimes 35mm positive back-up prints are used as a reference, but this is generally only done by massive Hollywood productions like for The Godfather and Sleeping Beauty. Granted, even the latter has its' number of odd idiocyncricies... maybe another time I'll get into what went wrong there.

I'll also point out right now that anyone claiming to remember EXACTLY how Halloween looked on the big screen circa 1979 is full of shit. Even if they did remember exactly what color the film was 30 years ago, theatrical prints are multiple generations away from the camera negative and approved answer prints form which directors' and DPs give their blessings. In short, even if you did remember what Halloween looked like at the local multiplex, that's not what Dean Cudney saw in a screening room when the film was finished some months before. To this day, theatrical prints tend to have far more grain and more blown out contrast than the negative (digital intermediate or otherwise), and in many cases a DVD may literally be about as nice as the average 35mm roadshow print. How white the screen and how white the bulb in the projector can make a big impact, too. 2k/4k digital projection theaters are slowly doing away with this level of analog confusion, but we're still a long way off from even modern blockbusters being seen digitally in every town, forget 30 year old horror films.

If you don't have any sort of reference and you're working from a vintage print, about all you can do is try and get the white points to be white, and then adjust the contrast/brightness so that neither the blacks get crushed nor the whites get blown out. For a classic example of what not to do, let's check out this shot from Francis Ford Coppoplas' visually stunning BRAM STOKERS' DRACULA, which also has a colorful (ha!) DVD history. Initially the entire 2+ hour feature was released on a single layer DVD, and looked quite a bit like ass. Sony fixed that by adding the title to their Superbit library of movies who had been treated so badly prior that the entire film got a DVD9 with a new DTS track to itself... albiet without extras. When it was announced that the film would get a Blu-ray release, many were excited, but the fact that it was restored when the Superbit transfer looked so good to begin with was just a bit... odd.

Oh, for fucks' sake...

Don't get me wrong, the Superbit transfer does appear just a little warm (red) and over saturated from time to time, but take a look at the torch. The old transfer has a glowing orange torch... the new transfer turns the fire GREEN. I could be wrong, but I think if it were supposed to be green it would have been caught in the 14 years between the original Criterion LD and the new Blu-ray/Collectors' Edition DVD. There are countless other examples of major color changes - much of it desaturation, others contrast boosting to make "inky" blacks... the two of them literally turn Dracula into an inescapably dark and dull looking black hole. Ironic, considering that every single prior video release (including the Coppola approved LD) had a vibrant, practically garish color palette.

Just to be safe, lets' try again...

While I've said before that minimizing Keanu Reeves' presence would have made it an overall better film, this wasn't quite what I had in mind. Plenty more great comparisons - including the film edited documentary featuring "finished" footage that looks exactly like the Superbit DVD - can be found here on the AVS forum. You'll have to sign in, but it's so worth it. I haven't even posted any of the worst offenders.

How did this terrible restoration of a modern film that didn't even need a new scene by scene restoration even come to be? The short answer is that Zoetrope - Francis Ford Coppolas' own production studio - created a new HD transfer in the wake of the realization that releases like Fullmetal Jacket and The Fifth Element - old 1080i HD transfers that were fine in the era of DVD - weren't nearly as good now as they were then. This brand new restoration from the camera negative was then (supposedly) color timed to a vaulted answer print made in 1993, effectively an exact copy of the master print that FFC and co. signed off on as being finished before the theatrical prints were made. Considering that some scenes look exactly like the old transfer, and others look wildly different - often crushing blacks or desaturating reds - I'm finding all of this rather hard to swallow. The short of it is the desaturated colors and crushed, noise free blacks LOOK digital in nature, like the film was shot on HD video and then finished in 2008 to look like a Saw sequel. No, without the negative and the answer print in my hands I can't be sure, but either this phantom dupe AP never existed and Zoetrope is covering their asses by pretending it does, or it does exist and its' simply faded into horrible disrepair.

You can also fuck up royally by using a multi-generation film print, for the reasons I outlined above. Lets' take a peek at the 2001 Anchor Bay from-the-negative DVD release of SUSPIRIA, next to the 2006 "Definitive Edition" transfer restored by Technicolor themselves. I'll point out that Technicolor doesn't specify what print their HD transfer was taken from. That can't be some ominous sign, can it?

She hasn't seen a ghost... just the Technicolor transfer.

...I was going to compare more scenes, but I realized I was throwing up in my mouth looking at this one shot alone. Just read everything that Mike M. has to say over here at the DVD Times. I wouldn't doubt that the Anchor Bay transfer is a bit under saturated and dark, and I KNOW its' audio mix is a cluster fuck, but dear God, what the hell happened over at Technicolor? Not only is the contrast so overly blown out that it makes my eyes hurt, but the fact that the films' original DP, Luciano Tovoli, approved it makes me wonder if anyone signing off on a transfer of anything really means a goddamn thing? If Suspiria, perhaps cinemas' most stunning visual assault, can look this awful and the guy who was there behind the camera still gives it a thumbs up, clearly we as viewers need to realize when something is amiss ourselves, and simply not purchase "restored" transfers that look worse than the perfectly fine versions we owned to begin with.

The saddest part? This nonsense hasn't even gone away with modern productions released a year ago! MAD DETECTIVE has been released on Blu-ray in both the UK and Hong Kong, with vastly different results... namely, one is BLUE and one isn't.

See more here. The Masters of Cinema transfer was evidently approved by Johnny To, so it's the "right" transfer only by default. (It's also not as tightly cropped and has no edge enhancement, but that's another issue.) The entire director's approved master is tinted blue like this, and while it is the superior transfer overall, the Mei Ah Blu-ray is certainly the more attractive looking version in terms of vibrant, natural color and contrast. I won't second-guess Johnny To on why the whole film is this way, I'll only say that it's yet another OLDBOY situation, where the final color timing was done after the Digital Intermediate was finalized. That said, why the hell don't directors - in Asia and elsewhere - time the DI itself? Perhaps it's simply out of their control, and in the case of Oldboy especially the difference is so subtle that it's certainly not early onset revisionism kicking in, but it would just fix so many problems to get that nonsense fixed before you get out of the gate...

As you can see, even the people who made the movies don't always seem to know what they're supposed to look like. It's a combination of careful research, personal judgement, and a little luck. Prior video versions sometimes color our perceptions of how a film "should" or is "supposed" to look, and in the case of restorations like Halloween, it's really impossible to say which version is 'right'. Dracula and Suspirias' restorations, however, are so blatantly wonky that it's almost impossible not to feel that the new version is somehow screwed beyond compare. Certainly some of it will come down to personal preference, but again... green torch. Sometimes a pooch has simply been screwed, and it's not impossible to figure out how, or why.

Is color timing and contrast boosting really that bad? I look at Halloween and wonder... then I look at Dracula and nod. Then at Suspiria and hide under my desk, cowering that the contrast boosting Angel of Brightness will soon come for my soul. Sure, its' tempting to bring out a certain aspect in a transfer that seems to be underutilized - increasing the reds or crushing the blacks, what have you - but correcting colors is far removed from changing them. The whole of the home theater crowd and the individuals who cater to them would do well to remember that.

Anyway, enough bitching about DVDs. I'm gonna' go watch one instead.

Hilarious that two of the "better" transfers in these examples were THX approved. THX isn't inherently good or bad... their version of Evil Dead 2 on DVD actually wipes the floor with Anchor Bays' Blu-ray release, and the THX approved version of The Evil Dead is such a wreck that the Elite LD master may well be the lesser of two evils. Several early THX DVDs were also interlaced and/or non-anamorphic, with several completely screwed up audio mixes including Highlander and Suspiria also bearing the Lucas seal of approval. In short, it doesn't really guarantee anything.

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