Monday, November 30, 2009

Kyrie Eleison

Kentai Films VHS Restoration

DDM Internet Download

Unfortunately, the "Viva Pinks!" label VHS was in such poor shape to start with that all I could do was blur, boost, and upscale it. The results you see above may not look like much, but they still crush the source VHS by a wide margin, and that fact is pretty terrifying if you think about it.

VHS was always a pretty nasty video format, and while I'm not above doing my best to make it look better I have no unrealistic expectations that it'll ever look "good". Japanese distributors who offer streaming and downloadable pornography - and more interesting Pinks, while they're at it - are lucky enough to start with archival quality transfers, and as such, there's literally nothing I can do to compete with them in terms of resolution, clarity and contrast. For better or worse, digital outfits like DDM heavily compress the videos for quick download, but even the artifacts from that are typically not as bad as the increased chroma noise found on analog tape formats, to say nothing of the loss in resolution. DDM and pals deinterlace their videos in a really unpleasant way, but the fact is there's no "perfect" deinterlacing solution on titles that have no 3:2 cadence, they just go with the easiest BOB method: it works, it just isn't pretty.

If I could, I think I'd gladly give up recording tapes for re-encoding internet downloads. The compression artifacts on a low-bitrate 640x480 WMV file do suck, but they're hardly any more invasive than the noise on even a decent looking VHS tape. The bigger problem is that most stores like DDM don't take credit cards not issued in Japan, so if you're a Yank like me you're simply SOL on the whole thing. Sokmil has no qualms taking money from us round eyed monkeys, but the majority of their wares are pointless gonzo garbage with hilariously awesome titles - like The Fiendish Fellatio Inferno.

Worth fapping to? Perhaps... but certainly not worth restoring from ex-rental VHS.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gritty or Gooey: The Lesser Or Two Evils?

This download is for 22 seconds of Maryuu Senki in various states of digital repair. One clip is with Digigrain, the other is without. Recompressed to "DVD Quality" no audio. Should open in any program that'll play DVDs.


I'm still not 100% sold either way. I do like the 'look' of the grainy clip, and it helps break up the large flat areas of blurred out DNR victimization, but it also gives it a faux texture it probably never have had when it was shot on (I presume) 35mm.

While I detest the use of "fake" grain on any new telecine in place of the natural grain on the print, what I'm starting from is a heavily damaged analog transfer. At that point, any small and relatively granular bit of motion is closer to 35mm than LD... but it still isn't really the look of film. That was lost long, long before I got involved.

Should I simulate the look of analog film grain by creating random digital noise, or live with the way analog video looks once all of the distortions have been filtered out? As always, comments on these comparisons are more than welcome.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A New Lease On Maryuu

Original DVD-RW Recording

Kentai Remaster (WIP)

Kentai Remaster - Now With Digital Grain! (WIP)

The slight cropping on all 4 sides is a side-effect of the film judder stabilzation filter. It doesn't actually zoom the film in, but it does make the film shift left and right and up and down completely at random, so you sort of have to zoom the print in slightly or it looks like the edge of your video is having a seizure. I'm not sure if I should keep it or not; on the one hand it keeps still shots nice and comparatively steady, but it sometimes adds jerky movement to pans that were once just fine. The judder isn't Vampire Hunter D or Evangelion bad, but it's still easy enough to spot that if I CAN get rid of it, I'd like to.

The dirt/scratch removal filter, as you can see, is the kind of magic I thought existed only in fairy tales and acid trips. The only flaw is the fact that it likes to eat tiny white stars in the background during the ninja-oni fight, literally only giving them back when the camera stops moving. It's a little creepy seeing them blink back on after the sky was pure black the entire length of the shot before. Not helping matters are the LD's crushed black levels, which means that there's next to nothing I can do to try and separate the stars from film damage: on a black sky, a moving white dot looks like film damage, and even if I were fixing these scenes by hand (fat chance!) I'd have some difficulty picking out what is and is not. I'll simply need to re-watch the problematic bits and decide if missing stars, or dirt and LD dropouts are the lesser of two evils.

The Digigrain(TM) is an issue I'm currently straddling the fence over. On the one hand, the DNR I used to erase 20 year old LD rot has worked wonders at removing the layer of static-like haze over... well, everything. On the other hand, it now looks a bit too 'plastic' and out-of-focus for my tastes. Maryuu Senki, when devoid of anything resembling grain, like almost like a modern digital animation project rather than anything shot on 35mm film. The results I'm getting from Grain Factory don't quite look like "real" film, but a lot of the plugins designed to do the same thing are even worse at it, and grain is tricky to express in still form OR heavily compressed video, so I'd be better off posting a DVD clip - but I'm too lazy to do that right now.

Particularly since I'll be cramming all 3 episodes on a single DVD-R, heavy grain probably isn't in the best interest of the encode, but what I have here looks vaguely similar to the fine grain I'd expect to see in an OVA of this era/budget. I may tweak the grain further, see if I can make it look less "sharp" and just a bit heavier without actually obscuring outlines or gradients. Digital grain is an art unto itself, and it's one I'm still a mewling babe at, but I suppose there's never been a better time to learn...


To give you an idea of what I meant by crushed blacks...

The rental VHS of Maryuu Senki I saw before I had the LD has the same "crush", so I'm certain it's a problem with the master.

One big issue with 1980s telecines was weak contrast, which caused blacks to be washed-out and have very little shadow detail. My theory on Maryuu Senki is that whoever made the transfer saw how bad the whole thing was, so they used a proc-amp to crush the levels down until that charcoal gray became actual black. (Something I'm doing myself for Vampire Hunter D, if you remember.)

Sadly, this is a problem with the whole feature, not just the outdoor scenes:

MARYUU HENJOU has similar inky-as-all-hell-black look, bu the art design is generally better, so there's simply fewer scenes of bitch black sky with white stars poking through at random. MARYUU SHINDEN has fantastic levels all across the board, with strong blacks, but makes up for doing something right by being both the noisiest and most film-damaged riddled of the three.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Troopers Drop A Rotten Deuce


This is the 1988 Bandai LD, and is actually the second copy of this episode I've gotten my hands on in the last year or two. The good news - well, I think it's good news - is that this first volume looks fantastic, and is ripe for both further restoration and subtitling. The last copy I had was so affected with LD rot that it literally became unwatchable at about the 30 minute mark. God help me, I've seen worse, but it was still in no shape to restore for DVD.

The bad news (worse news?) is episode 2...

Rotten as a weeping cheese;
it's stinky, but it's still pretty edible.

Lots of random chroma noise and small horizontal dropouts randomly flicker through the entire feature. Imagine a very dirty 35mm print, except the dirt is binary distortion. (And there's dirt on the actual film print, too.) I could probably manage at least some of it with filters designed to remove film damage, but after the beautiful and rot-free first episode, seeing crap like this constantly flicker through the second part is a pretty major disappointment.

I'll check out Episode 3 tomorrow. 100+ minutes of this schlocky, boring, war-mongering intergalactic faggotry is quite enough for one evening. I may adore Verhoeven's Hollywood spoof of the material, and I can't say Heinlein's book isn't written in a way that makes it more interesting than it ought to be, but I just can't say enough bad things about Sunrise's anime adaptation. And so, just like Riki-Oh 2, Star of David, and so many other atrocities that haunt my fever dreams, I face my fears and demons... by making them look pretty. If only Freud could see me now!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Not-Quite-As-Violent Jack

Violence Jack: Evil Town is something of a dirty oddity, both in the career of director ITANO Ichirou (Gantz, Blassreiter, Angel Cop) and in the wild OVA market of the late 1980s Japan in general.

Pornographic animation for the video market dates back to at least 1984, with the Wonder Kids' now legendary Lolita Anime series. Evil Town incorporating pixelated vaginas and shemale dick was thus nothing truly shocking or out of the ordinary... what was surprising, however, was seeing it in an adaptation of a NAGAI Gou manga, and from a "legitimate" director who hasn't worked in what anyone with common sense would describe as pornographic anime, either before or since.

Nagai was no stranger to controversy, with his bawdy Harenchi Gakuen manga having been supposedly publicly burned in protest by the Japanese PTA in the late 1960s/early 1970s - not that it kept the raunchy comedy from getting a successful TV drama and theatrical feature, and becoming an even bigger financial success. Of his three most iconic creations, only the giant robot saga Mazinger Z resembles what America would consider a "typical" childs' entertainment: Cutie Honey is the tale of a sexy robot avenger who wages a one-woman war against the terrorist organization who killed her father, and Devilman is about a young man who allows himself to become possessed by the powers of an ancient demon to fight the forces of Hell with his own bared claws. As for why Harenchi Gakuen was such a problem, well, I'll put it this way: Nagai beat Tomino to deciding that the perfect series finale was everybody fucking dying.

Nagai's openness to film and TV adaptations of his works mean that the Devilman most Japanese children were familiar with from Toei's weekly serial had very little to do with Nagai's dark and brutal tale of total human annihilation and romance of dubious gender identity. Nagai's dominance of the 1970s is largely thanks to massively popular Super Robot shows, including Mazinger, Getter Robo, Koutetsu Jeeg and their countless spinoffs, but that level of unshakable commercial stability allowed him to write whatever the heck he wanted while the royalty checks rolled on in...


To be fair, Evil Town was not the first Nagai adaptation to feature graphic pixelated sex. The 1985 Chou no Ryouku Shoujo Barabanba OVA holds that distinction, though being so obscure it's largely been forgotten. It's also not especially good, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there. Violence Jack as a manga was certainly graphic and controversial from day one, but Kodansha's Monthly Shounen Magazine regularly cut the most explicit pages of rape, cannibalism and torture before releasing it to the public. It wasn't until long after the OVA series that the Complete Edition of Violence Jack would be available to the Japanese public, but that didn't stop Itano - never a man to shy away from sex and violence in his work - from pushing the boundaries of Evil Town into the realm of hardcore.

Quick bursts of frontal nudity used exclusively in the context of violent rape fly by, designed not to titillate - as similar scenes used in titles like Urotsukidoji and Wicked City are clearly meant to - but to horrify and offend the viewer down to their very core. While Nagai's depiction in the original manga literally involved the rapists transforming into monsters, Itano plays the crime as all too human, only allowing for a budget-friendly monochromatic effect to obscure the fact that the abusers are men - and women - just like you and I.

Hardcore has found a place in "legitimate" cinema in recent years, with hardcore sex and frontal nudity appearing in films ranging from French arthouse fare like Anatomie de l'enfer and Baise Moi to Hollywood dramas like Ken Park and The Brown Bunny. Arguably the best 'legitimate' film to feature actual erections and masturbation on the market today is now Antichrist. The tradition goes back decades though, a movement I've noted on this blog in days gone by, so I'll try not to repeat myself here.

Uncut Japan Home Video VHS

When the third and final Violence Jack OVA - Hell's Wind - was released in 1990, it ushered with it a second release of Evil Town from budget label Pyramid Video in two parts (see covers above). Two videos at 2,300 yen versus one video 13,800 yen is quite a steal, particularly circa 1988 in Japan, but let's go over what the differences between the JHV and PV tapes are before we hail these jackasses as being pretty cool guys.

The most obvious change was the inclusion of the credit sequence on tape 1, and the new opening title sequence on tape 2, neither of which are all that different from the footage featured on the uncut version. There were also several short text pieces telling fans that there was another tape in the series, and that Hell's Wind was on the way. It also cuts to the end of the story more suddenly, not reveling in shots of a ruined Tokyo and swapping out the music cues for something a bit less uplifting.

Part 2 New Title Card

Nothing too exciting, right? Well, the other change was the removal of virtually all of the graphic rape footage! When I say "graphic", I mean each and every shot of pixelated cock. All the scenes of the girls being stripped, licked, groped and otherwise molested is missing. These edits are accomplished mostly by sloppy cuts with the offending footage simply gone missing, but there are two cuts in particular that fascinate me:

* The lesbian wrestler with the lead pipe shoved up her vagina has been removed, but the shot of Jack running after finding her is there... but before it can pan down past her waist, the shot freezes, and then fades out.

Just so we're clear, showing the dead dyke with a bottle shoved down her throat is awwwwright, but genital mutilation is a no-no? Um... 'kay. I guess the shot
was originally mosaiced, but the Hong Kong VCD proves that there was really nothing more to see...

* The shot of Wasp's brains spilling all over the floor and splashing back on the B Zone biker chick (did she have a name?) has been shortened. My guess is that the brains weren't the issue, but the uncensored vagina in the background was.

While it'd be easy enough to compare this to Manga Entertainment releasing their own heavily cut version of Evil Town in the US/UK, that's really not a fair comparison. Manga had already cut 3:55 worth of footage from Evil Town in the hopes that they wouldn't have the title banned outright, effectively removing all of the rape (and panties-pissing, I think?), the BBFC demanded further cuts to the scene of Mad Saurus eating the remains of Kid Blue. I admit I'm not quite sure how animated depictions of cannibalism could single-handedly tear apart the fabric of British society, but hey, this is the same well adjusted censorship body that decided female orgasms were made of piss, and thus undistributable to adults. Shockingly, Hell's Wind had more footage removed by the BBFC, and it had neither hardcore rape nor pee... oh, that wacky Board of Film Classification!

The Pyramid Video tapes are also pretty poor in quality. I know, all VHS is noisy blurry crap, but these guys still took advantage of the situation:

The first Pyramid Video release I saw was of a Nikkatsu Roman Porno who's title I can't seem to remember, and at the time I was convinced they were a bootleg outfit. Their second Evil Town tape was distributed by none other than SEGA, so I guess they were just as budget a label as Japan has ever had.

There is a great, hilarious irony in the Pyramid Video release though: While the tapes themselves cut all of the graphic rape footage, the cover art not only contains shots missing from the video, it actually contains UNCENSORED shots that even the uncut Japanese tape pixelated out! I'm pretty sure all of this footage is uncensored on the Hong Kong release anyway, but still, what the hell are the odds?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Bitchblade Is Back

Upscaled via Lanczos3 (VirtualDub Resize)

As Featured On The Review

The FUNimation DVDs for this series has always been garbage; heavy ringing and crumby MPEG encoding meant that the surprisingly above par Gonzo/Top Cow WITCHBLADE anime series has never been a looker in North America. When I heard that the title was getting a Blu-ray collection I was very excited, particularly knowing that FUNimation released a very pleasing package for Gonzo's prior TV series, SAMURAI 7.

There's been an adage for some time saying that upgrading equipment to animate in HD makes going back to SD counterproductive, and at face value, I believed it. Clearly, that was all theoretical: If Witchblade was animated in 1080p, then I'm a 50 year old Slavic woman with three breasts and a penchant for smack. Two years after Samurai 7, Witchblade was animated at NTSC resolution, unless of course Gonzo is holding out on FUNi... it's not impossible, but as Gonzo's Samurai 7, Afro Samurai, and Origin: Spirits of the Past have all been "Full HD" releases so far, we really have no reason to assume they're keeping the goods for themselves. This is the kind of show that sells better in America anyway, so what possible advantage would gimping the US premier serve?

See this? THIS is a Gonzo HD title.
Made two years earlier, at that!

There's just no fine detail on the BD not present on the DVD. On the contrary, I'd suggest that FUNimation's upscale has been so needlessly filtered with DNR that it might be slightly less detailed that the DVD release! Compare Tokyo Tower in the background painting, or the texture on the rooftop; at best the Blu-ray is exactly the same without any errant chroma noise, and at worse it's been washed out and smeared. Gonzo regularly adds a layer of "fine mist" looking noise to help blend the various textures and layers together, and even the R1 DVD has that... in the form of hideous block-noise, anyway. One can argue that the level of detail being lost is small, and I wouldn't disagree, but the fact that ANY potential detail is missing from the R1 is the kind of thing I have an anurism over,

More disturbing is the jagged quality to the diagonal lines; a sign of bad scaling if I ever saw one. There's more, though. Compare Masane's hair or the contours in her jacket to get an idea of what I mean; not only are FUNi's outlines blurred thanks to contrast boosting sharpening filters, but they appear to be very jagged compared to the smooth, round lines of the (properly) upscaled DVD. Having used simple sharpening filters in Photoshop as a test, the aliasing is not inherent to the source; not unless the FUNi release has been so heavily filtered that it's blurred the aliasing right out.

Oh no friends, I can promise you that what we're seeing is a side-effect from one of those "exotic" sharpen filters, like warp-sharp. That's right FUNimation is literally restoring archival quality Digibeta using techniques created to restore shitty upscaled MPEG streams for bitstarved fansub distribution.

Is the Blu-ray still an upgrade over the DVD? Well... yeah. In the same way a kick in the gut is an upgrade from a kick in the balls:

  • The dull contrast, ringing, and mosquito noise that made the R1 DVD look so terrible is a non-issue. (Remember, it never SHOULD have been an issue to start with.)
  • The 5.1 lossless English track is supposed to be quite bangin', for those of you into that sort of thing. The DD 2.0 640 kb Japanese may not be lossless, but it's still (by default) the highest bitrate track of the Japanese dialog available.
  • All of the DVD extras (sans booklets, OST and slipcovers/artbox) are included.
  • $79.99 MSRP.
$80? Seriously?! Oh, you and your $195 singles can kiss the fattest part of my ass.

This is an awkard position for me. On the one hand, I want to tell FUNimation to fuck off with their bogus "1080p" upscales, as much for the actual quality on display as for the fact that, unlike Japanese corporations, they never actually tell you that you're getting an upscale, and they'll even drop frames to get that magical 24p framerate the kids with their LCDs love so much.

For less than $50 shipped, if you shop around, the Blu-ray is still the best way to own the show... it just isn't quite as good as it could have been if FUNi had even the slightest goddamn idea what they were doing. Odds are Gonzo/Sony will perform their own upscale for the Japanese market someday, probably with zero DNR/warp-sharpening, crazy high video bitrates, lossless Japanese audio, spectacular packaging... and triple the price, without any English subtitles.

Or, maybe Sony will take a look at FUNi's space-age technology and decide that wiping out anything resembling texture is the way of the future. Why not? It seemingly worked so well for Ghost In The Shell...

On a final note... seriously, how did a show about a guro-fueled superheroine/doting single mother who has a violent orgasm as she cuts steel monsters in half with tentacles NOT have a single nip-slip, ever, from anyone? It's friggin' mind boggling...

S-Video... goddamn it.

Kum Kum OP, recorded via Composite
on my long dead Sanyo DVD Recorder.

Kum Kum OP, recorded via S-Video
on my beloved Toshiba DVD Recorder.

In a stroke of eerie symmetry, the second episode on Tape #1 has some massive tape rolls, while the first episode on Tape #2 has some dropouts. So my plan is to cut the two recordings together and have the best of both copies that were available to me.

I'll admit it: I made a mistake. While the S-Video connection does pass 235 "True White", it does it by blowing out highlights and even making what should be solid blacks considerably lighter. I'll admit that there's worse things than cranking contrast on old VHS copies - heck, I do it myself - but at least I'd like to have my finger on the blow-out button, thank you very much.

Maybe the S-Video port on my recorder itself is the problem? Hard to say, but even harder to care. It's causing problems, so bitch gotta' go.


Toshiba recorder, Composite connection .
Ignore that analog dropout. Same frame, different episode.

...huh. The new recorder chain has brighter contrast than the Sanyo, even on composite, but I'm no longer blowing any white information out. It's also sharper and has a better comb filter, though I've suspected for ages that the Sanyo had a vertical filter always enabled to help ease noise and compression artifacts.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bitrate Blunders

Do you see what I see?!
BESIDES the cam-toe, I mean.

I encoded SUBWAY SERIAL RAPE: LOVER HUNTING myself, using CCE SP 2.70, with a maximum bitrate of 9000 kbps. The DD 2.0 audio is 256 kbps. That's 9,256 kbps, max, with a substantially lower average bitrate if 8000.

So why does it say my DVD OVER 10.08 MBPS?!

Because TMPGEnc DVD Author, my "simple" DVD builder of choice, is evidently a bigger, fatter piece of crap than I had thought it was. I've fed it plenty of CCE SP streams with bitrates in the same range, and it's always thrown a big fat hissy fit over the streams being too big... but I've always ignored them, because I knew for a fact that the streams were fine. If they weren't, programs like Maestro wouldn't take them either.

The problem is that the headers on the "new" DVD *SAY* they're too big. TMPGEnc DVD Author assumes you're using TMPGEnc's own Enc-oders, which cap at 8,000 kbps. When you feed it an encode made from pretty much any other encoder it pulls a warning, saying the DVD probably won't work, but you can try anyway. Up until today, they always have, but SSR4 is causing problems for the guy who's trying to patch them with software that will absolutely not take anything but 100% compliantly flagged streams. See, kids? It doesn't matter if you're 8,000 or 15,000 kbps, as long as you know how to re-write the headers and lie through your goddamn teeth.

I think we've found a work-around for this, but I'll spend time looking for a new program for quick'n'easy DVD image creation. It's not like there isn't plenty of competition!

UPDATE: Work around found. Subway Serial Rape 4 is now available subtitled.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dead In The Water

Nothing new to see here. Just further proof that Neat Video is pretty awesome.

Throw Down, Gentlemen: FFT3DFilter vs NeatVideo

Source frame, a heinously noisy LD circa 1989,
recorded to DVD at 8.5 Mbps with PCM audio.

FFT3D Filter via AVISynth, 100% software based.

Neat Video, Quality Profile 51%.
(Radius 3 Frames, Threshold +15)

FFT3D Filter was the best noise reduction algorithm I've found yet in AVISynth. Higher settings blur more than I'd like, but even then it never quite gets rid of that smudgy, clumpy look you can see above. It converts compression noise into compression blobs , and at that point I'm not sure I'm improving much of anything. It's not as destructive as MipSmooth or Deen though, and trying to denoise an LD with those is sort of like trying to polish a diamond ring with a piece of steel wool.

Neat Video, however, has made this frame absolutely stunning. Not only has it eliminated all traces of analog video noise and damn near everything resembling an MPEG compression artifact, but it kept minute details in the source, right down to the dot-crawl artifacts on his left ear. Now that's fine detail retention!

I know when I'm crunching a whopping half-frame per second, I'll regret it, but I just can't find any reason to go back to using AVISynth based DNR.

How do I keep forgetting that whole gay mind-rape scene?
Seems like the kind of thing that'd stick to my brain's ribs...

As for upcoming Kentai related transfers, SUBWAY SERIAL RAPE 4 (VHS) is finally up to snuff and being encoded as I type. This poor film has had subtitles ready and waiting for months now, but the first VHS copy I got was pretty chewed up, so it was hardly worth restoring. This fresh copy was virtually mint, so you can look forward to being one step closer to finishing off this brutal little franchise.

I've recently put the finishing touches on CAROL, the reasonably obscure and oh-so suitably silly T.M. Network OVA from 1991. It's basically the story of a giant anus who steals music from the world, and only the trumped-up light fantasy charicatures of a pop band (and their wish-fulfillment Mary Sue teenage heroine) can save the day. It's all pretty daft, I guess, but I defy you to name a better band movie that starred neither The Beatles nor Guitar Wolf.

DEAD HEAT is probably next after that, nasty little noise-monster that it is, and I'm about ready to give up and post THE GUYVER: OUT OF STANDARD as it is now. There's next to nothing I can do for the poor girl, except maybe make some subtitles out of that old Darker Image tape I have recorded, but there's got to be a half-dozen projects (or more?) that are long overdue as it is, so the Bio-Boosted Armor will have to take a number behind... well, you'll see pretty soon.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kill Him!

Remember me...?


Cesare Canevari's 1970 Spaghetti Western MATALO! is a fascinating flick, even for people who aren't that big into cowboys and gringos. Simultaneously an epic outlaw film, a hippie-minded rage against the capitalist machine, and a surprise experience in in surrealism, it could well be Canevari's "best" film; it bears all of the hallmarks of his personal style while still being just simple enough for mass consumption, and thus the whole thing feels "fun" instead of "smart". Make no mistake, it's both, but it tastes refined rather than pretentious.

I won't, however, call it "the weirdest Western ever made". Sukiyaki Western Django and El Topo are going to compete for that crown for the next century, so why complicate things?

I was sent a 1:1 copy of the Medusa Home Entertainment PAL DVD, which features a high bitrate (8.84 Mb!) 16:9 transfer struck from the negative, a new 13 minute interview with Cavenari, and the film's vintage theatrical trailer. The transfer - remastered in HD if I'm not mistaken - is gorgeous, barring the very last shot of the film at least, which has some pretty nasty looking video-generated credits. Otherwise, it's one of the sharpest and most film-like DVDs I've ever seen, and while I'm sure a Blu-ray could improve on the whole, I'd gladly hold this up as proof that plenty of DVDs on the market aren't even trying.

The problem as a Yank was the language options; Italian mono, Italian subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. The English dub is available on the Wild East DVD, which is probably a bootleg, and looks like a decent VHS capture with a haphazardly synched English track. The folks at CultCine, a crazy son of a bitch after my own heart, cut the Wild East audio to the Medusa transfer; I myself had started doing this, and quickly abandoned the frustrating process once I learned that everything I needed already existed elsewhere. (Notice a pattern here?)

CultCine used a frame-interpolation pulldown scheme to get their NTSC transfer. That's basically a fancy way of saying that the data is still 25fps, but it's been resized to 480p and the frames have been flagged to play at 30fps, so the film still has the same runtime as the PAL transfer... but it's still - technically speaking - progressive NTSC. Confused? Well, don't worry about it too much. Slowing the PAL materials down to 24fps and using 3:2 pulldown would have been the wiser choice, but if you don't notice PAL speedup or weird pulldown-related crapola, there's no real difference anyway.

This was all good news for me, since it meant the CultCine audio track dropped into the Medusa DVD without any additional work on my part. Much as the CultCine disc is surely worth the $15 he's charging for it, the release is still a DVD5, with a lower bitrate transfer (6.5 Mb), with no Italian language options or special features. The Medusa DVD is thus still superior - particularly if you speak Italian - and now that the English dub has been added to the disc, it's got all of the advantages of the Medusa DVD and the one advantage of the CultCineDVD.

This is, I do believe, the very first English-friendly Kentai Films DVD release to NOT include English subtitles. I toyed with the idea of creating a "dubtitle" track for the disc, but the Italian dialog is obviously quite different from the English script, so it felt like a bit of a waste. Kemushi has threatened to have an Italian speaker translate that Canevari interview someday, so there's always a possibility that we'll see a Kentai Films Ultimate Edition with English subtitles, but for now just enjoy the film dubbed. The English dubbed version has its' own eye-rolling charm of half-sentences adding needless words to match mouth flaps, and with the multinational Italian, Spanish, and South American cast there's no single "original" language track for this film anyway.

Go 'n' grab it from Cinematik if you can, or contact me if you can't. I'm sure in a week somebody will up the whole thing to Usenet and/or public torrent trackers, anyway...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009


DANTE'S INFERNO "anime" project trailer now playing, which I became interested in solely for the fact that UMETSU Yasuomi was involved...


This isn't filling me with confidence that we have a modern classic on our hands, but fuck it... why not assume it's a goofy good time until proven otherwise? I refuse to believe it could be any less satisfying than other US co-productions from artists I love, like KITE LIBERATOR. (Or HIGHLANDER.)

Now, if only the goddamn producers would shut up about their script writers and tell us who's DIRECTING THE ANIMATION I could decide if I wanted to hold any sort of hope for an animu hybrid based on a vidjahgame. God, Gotham Knight had that exact same problem, didn't it?

The Final Ghost In The Shell Rant Of The Year

"I did not revise [Ghost in the Shell] because I was dissatisfied with the original, but to prove how far we have progressed since then…" – Director Mamoru OSHII, 2009.

I’ve finally had a chance to watch Manga’s new Blu-ray release of Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and did some fairly anal comparisons between it and the “original” cut of this landmark 1995 cyberpunk thriller while I was at it.

I find myself very torn...

攻殻機動隊/GHOST IN THE SHELL (or for me, simply GITS) was as "big" an anime film as was humanly possible; an early US/UK/Japan co-production, based on a popular manga from internationally successful creator Shirow MASAMUNE (Appleseed, Black Magic M-66), and directed by one of Japan's most critically acclaimed animation directors, Mamoru OSHII (Patlabor, Angel's Egg). It was catered to hit the middle ground between arthouse critics and mainstream Hollywood audiences alike, and the - at the time - revolutionary use of "digital animation" was a selling point even to audiences who weren't into those violent porno Japanime cartoons their creepy friends loved so much. It dragged every part of the movie geek work by the hand, if for no other reason so they could all see what the heck the fuss was all about. It sounds like it was carefully designed to be a commercial success, but the fact that it was a smart and highly unique film even after its' one-two punch of branding and spectacle, left the landscape of animation forever changed the world over.

It was aped mercilessly by the Wachowsky brothers for their smash hit Matrix trilogy, and comparisons are already being drawn to Cameron's upcoming probable Sci-Fi disaster Avatar... a small wonder, what with Cameron himself having been one of the most vocal fans of GITS when it was first released in America in 1995. Steven Spielberg, perhaps the biggest genre director out there, owns the rights to remake the franchise in Hollywood, though wither or not that'll ever actually materialize is statistically insignificant. It won't, until proven otherwise.

The film has had a long history of "new and improved" video releases, particularly in Japan, dating back to mammoth CAV-encoded Special Edition LD box set with a full Shirow jacket illustration , to the DVD packaged in a digibook containing Oshii's full storyboards for the film. The latest release was the 2007 "Legendary Anime" DVD + BD set from Bandai Visual, containing the film in both SD DVD and HD Blu-ray. Both releases had proper English subtitles, Japanese and English Dolby stereo audio, and were taken from the same print. Multiple reviewers suggest that this particular BD transfer was no looker, but that it was still by far the best the film had ever looked or sounded on home video.

It probably would have been the end of it... if Oshii hadn't been working his ass off for the last decade, experimenting with everything from segmented action films heavy on CG and cute girls, to esoteric animated features that make stuff like Dallos look like cinematic junk-food. Oshii had been involved in the "Sound Revival" of the Patlabor films years ago, literally re-recording the entire script and score in 5.1 surround, so when it was announced that an "Improved" version of his most well known work was on the way, it wasn't in and of itself a shock.

What followed that brief announcement, however, I doubt anyone expected. The theatrical and home video re-release of GITS was marketed via short traser clips with the following tagline;

This is not a remake. This is not a remix. This is another "G.I.S." It is a... "2.0"

The longer trailer went on to talk about "all new 3D scenes". Like it or not, the latest edition of the 1995 cult classic was going to be in the Lucas school of 'Special Editions', and sure enough, most fans tore it a new asshole sight-unseen based solely on the brief shots of the heroine in full CG and glowing brianwave patterns. This is despite the fact that all of the new material, color correction, film restoration and audio recordings have been done under the full supervision of original director Oshii. This isn't the first time Oshii has undergone an insane remaster, either; his two Patlabor feature film materials were in no shape to be released in 5.1 surround, so he got the proverbial band back together for both films and re-recorded the dialog from the ground up.

Think Roman Polanski... except into basset hounds.

As is often the case with these retrospective “Redux" editions, some of the new material is quite good and some of it is just crap, making the whole difficult to digest in comparison to a film that everyone has known and loved for over a decade now. It’s not a new film, or even a Director’s Cut made to fix a broken original. It’s just a different spin on a modern classic, and the fact that only some of the material is actually an improvement leaves me quite frustrated… though at least, from a tech-geek perspective, I find the whole thing utterly fascinating.

Manga Entertainment has screwed the pooch themselves in two ways. One, the US package list extras not on the disc – they’re not even for that film at all! They’re for Oshii’s sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. I went over this a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it here.

The second fuck up is that in the "2.0" cut of the film, the Puppet Master character has been re-cast… and more specifically, gender swapped. I’ll get into how that impacts the film later, but the short of it is that the Japanese audio track now uses the feminine pronoun (彼女/kanojo), while the original version had the masculine pronoun (彼/kare). The subtitles on the disc still use “he”, despite the fact that the cast is now calling it a “she”. The character - technically speaking - doesn’t even HAVE a gender, but the original film used a male voice, and the 2.0 version used a female one. So it’s weird hearing the cast say “she”, hearing a “she”, and seeing it subtitled as “he”. This was actually fixed on the 2.0 Japanese DVD subtitles, so it’s not as if someone at Bandai Visual didn’t know that these changes were made.

To be fair Manga did subtitle the brand spanking OP text - a whimsical poem this time around - left untranslated on the Japan releases… so, as usual, there’s simply no absolute winner here.

BBFC/IFCO logos make everything so much worse...

Beyond all that, Manga's presentation of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (henceforth, GITS 2.0) is pretty damned good. You get both DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 and uncompressed PCM 2.0 tracks in both Japanese and English, and the AVC transfer is quite stunning, with no clearly visible level of artifacting, aliasing, ringing or compression-related banding to speak of. The main and pop-up menus are attractive, fast to load, and easy to navigate. The largely well-timed white subtitles, using the translation from Manga's own prior DVDs, are FUCKING HUGE but, otherwise I have no serious nitpicks.

Of course, all of this is in regards to GITS 2.0, so... how did all that turn out?

Let’s just get that elephant out of the room: the 3D Major. My wife nearly vomited when she saw it, feeling that the single most beautiful image in the film – that of protagonist Major Motoko KUSANAGI in her nearly-nude Thermoptic Camouflage suit leaping down the side of a building to blow a scuzzy dignitaries’ skull wide open – was replaced with some straight up crumby looking CGI that doesn't even hold a candle to similar effects Oshii made four years ago in the film's sequel. I'll be honest, the 3D Major sucks. The model itself of Motoko actually matches the model they used in the second Thermoptic Cammo sequence pretty well, but that’s a relic from the mid 1990s, which explains exactly what’s wrong with it today...

That said, what Oshii as a film maker gets out of it, the innate and total freedom to move his camera around Motoko while bathing her in multiple light sources and raindrops in a way that even 2D digital animation couldn’t have ever provided, is almost impressive in its’ own way. Being able to pull out and get a feel for what the futuristic Japan looks like in the opening scene from a birds’ eye view does hold some narrative weight, and if I were ever an animation director, I’d be very interested in having that level of freedom. As it was also THE most bandied about promotional image for the release of GITS 2.0 – heck, it’s been used on all of the video covers so far! – I wouldn’t be shocked if the producers convinced him to put it into the film just to convince audiences that they were getting into something “new” and “improved”.

The other most controversial CG sequence inserted into the picture is at about 30 minutes in, where the diving Motoko slowly surfaces to the warm sunset, bubbles sparkling about her all the while. It’s jarring in that it’s clearly a 3D model and not a 2D drawing, like the rest of the film, but the nuts and bolts difference between the two sequences is comparatively minor, and it seems like it’s only there to try and tie into the “new and improved” opening. It doesn’t make the pre-credits sequence any better (except by comparison), but I applaud him for having tried all the same.

I’ll also mention that Kenji KAMIYAMA’s mostly unrelated GHOST IN THE SHELL: STAND ALONE COMPLEX TV series has a full-3D Motoko in the opening, so these sequences give Oshii’s film a resonance that’s arguably missing with Kamiyama’s very different take on Masamune SHIROW’s original concept. These two directors couldn’t be any more different to begin with though, so wither or not that’s a wise comparison to make is debatable.

The CG also infects the choppers in the final reel, though at least the original sequences with them were… I don’t want to say they were “bad”, but they were certainly nowhere near as beautiful and memorable as the film’s opening. The choppers just sort of hover in place as 2D planes shift around slightly, proving that even the best of traditional animation had very real limits. This, seamless or not, is a clear example of Oshii using new technology to enhance something that was flawed, and comes as one of the more welcome changes (for me, at least). Yes, it’s obvious that we’re looking at a CG effect in a 2D environment, but having seen the original 2D effect, I’m not convinced that keeping it was “better” either. There are other subtle CG additions, like the typing-hands and various wide shots of Hong Kong, but nobody seems to complain about all of that*. Nor should they, as most of it looks pretty natural, not breaking with the "2D Look" found in the rest of the picture.

*Nobody bitching about the Star Wars Special Editions complained that the spaceships were re-rendered in 3D, either. Why? Not only because the shots looked better, and they LOOKED like a natural part of the film. They weren't standing out like a sore thumb screaming "Look at me mommy, I'm compensating for something!" Start dropping in Jabba the Hutt or making dewbacks mug for face time, and yeah, people notice...

More dramatic is the change in general color timing, both in the special effects, and in the film as a whole. So much has been made about the relatively short CG shots of Motoko that the fact that the entire film looks dramatically different seems to have nearly been glossed over entirely. Contrast is pushed, blacks are crushed, flesh tones are warmer and the blue haze the film has wallowed in since its’ video release in 1996 has been replaced with warm reds and Earthy browns. The film may even look ‘uglier’ at first glance, like a harsh light shining through a slightly opaque pane of dirty glass, but it does give the film a dramatically different – and much more modern – appearance than it once had.

This massive color manipulation holds much more interest than two flawed CG sequences, and as a tech geek who’s sole purpose in life is to fix color levels on shitty VHS recordings I’m impressed at the face lift the film has undergone. The color is often drained compared to older treatments, but it’s so wildly different that you can put them side by side and just marvel at how they managed to make it so… different.

Forgive the watermarks.
I'm just lazy and trying to prove a point.

Let me get techno-babbley for a moment. The frame has been cropped slightly in GITS 2.0 compared to GITS. The reason for this is likely a matter of film stabilization. The way you eliminate telecine bobble – that sudden “jerk” when a film cuts to a new scene, or the whole frame bobbing back and fourth – is by using a computer program that looks at a number of frames, and shifts the image one way or another, trying to eliminate any obvious movement in one direction that it doesn’t detect as actual camera movement. Bobble like this was a common side-effect of optical film printers, and as GITS was created by scanning the 2D elements into a primitive computer system, the entire film is basically an optical special effect. The frame is a little cramped, but the fact that the entire film doesn’t randomly jerk around at cuts or shake up and down seemingly at random is still quite a technical revelation.

Film damage and grain has also been eliminated. There are still occasional sequences with a minor spec of dirt, or a grainy background, but largely the film looks cleaner and fresher than it ever did on home video, forget theatrically. I didn’t detect any obvious scratch removal artifacts, though the film definitely has very slight DNR related trailing, color banding, and contrast blooming. Remember that the entire film is an optical effect, so odds are the negative is mercilessly gritty compared to a 35mm production shot using a more traditional animation stand. I’m almost surprised that Oshii didn’t add a faint layer of “digital grain” to make the whole project look more organic, but this is a new version for an age in which noise is no longer a natural product of animation. Today it’s either added intentionally, or it’s avoided completely, and Oshii decided that GITS 2.0 didn’t need fake grain standing in for an element that was only a part of the film’s production by default.

GITS on Blu-ray - in Japan, at 1080p – is said to be very grainy, and a trusted friend who has access to far better equipment than myself has described what he calls a layer of what looks like "analog noise”, printed to film. All DNR has side-effects, but if what he’s described is what the negative looks like, it isn’t the ‘natural’ film grain I crave. It’s a side-effect of its' obscure production process, and I can’t for the life of me blame Oshii for wanting to minimize it using whatever means are available.

I don't mean to be a dick, but I will point out that every single scene in GITS 2.0 has been zoomed compared to the prior Blu-ray/DVD/HDTV transfers floating around. My theory? Bandai Visual used the same HD masters used for the 2007 BD release, and let Oshii tweak the living shit out of it. The differences a new telecine would produce would be minimal anyway, so why bother spending the money on a new transfer if the plan is to let the director tweak it well beyond recognition? I can't prove this, and I admit I was wrong about Akira getting a new HD telecine, but unless the Japanese language documentary not included on the Manga Blu-ray discusses it, we'll simply never know for sure.

Another major change is in the multitude of on-screen computer graphics, the shift from green to amber is more natural to GITS 2.0 than one might expect. The text is still aliased and a little primitive looking, but images like the GPS displays and cyberbrain scans are all new, and manage to look modern and polished without looking showy or out of place. Oshii’s plan to use NTSC video for these effects in the original cut of the film made sense in 1995, giving audiences something “familiar” to cling to and further separate it from the more outré “Sci-Fi” effects also shown in the film, but NTSC resolution composite video has dated horribly in the High Definition age. Of all the things that should have been replaced, Oshii fixed the only thing that would forever mark this film as a product of the mid 1990s, and for that I commend him.

Replacing green with orange is less than definitive in the scheme of things, but not only does it tie into the very imagery in Oshii’s own sequel – INNOCENCE – it also further distances itself from uncomfortable childhood memories of black-and-green PC screens that surely inspired the images in the original cut of GITS. Besides, those fucking Wachowsky’s had ripped-off the “look” of those green ASCII screens so hard as the credit sequences for their own trilogy of slightly pretentious ass-kickery that it hardly feels like it’s Oshii’s baby these days. The strange amber color of the new effects may not be to everyone’s liking, but along with the computerized imagery, I’d argue it was one of the most appropriate changes in GITS 2.0.

See, Shirow's suggesting you could be gay.

The only major narrative shift was in re-casting the Ningyou-Tsukai (Puppeteer, or Puppet Master) from male Iemasa KAYUMI to female Yoshihiko SAKAKIBARA, who incidentally played Prime Minister Yoko KAYABUKI in SAC. The character is an evolved computer program who possesses no gender, but wants specifically to commingle its’ program with Motoko. It also possesses a feminine body. In GITS, the engendered appearance of a deep male voice coming out of the frame of an attractive female, who wanted to mate with a compatible electronic creature so that it’s existence wouldn’t perish via natural selection, carried a very deep message of how simple genetic code is: one being passes it to another and this moves onto a new generation, with the genders involved being only the key and lock that allows the transfer to take place. In the case of electronic lifeforms whom can redesign themselves and “evolve” as needed, the concept of gender is completely outdated.

GITS 2.0 complicates this message by playing the character off as female. What the Puppet Master effectively wants to do is inseminate Motoko; a primal instinct that’s typically thought of as being masculine in nature. Thus the masculine persona ignoring its’ feminine host makes sense. This also creates a kinship with Motoko herself from Shirow’s original manga: Motoko is bisexual, proven quite graphically in the original work, and it’s suggested that “she” may have been a man at birth who switched to a female Shell at a later state of her existence. None of this is confirmed one way or another, but the whole point of Oshii’s film is to call into question what being “oneself” really means, and gender identity is most certainly a part of that. There’s nothing wrong with the new cast member or her performance, it’s just one subtle layer in the whole that’s been stripped away completely, and it’s one that I feel harms GITS 2.0 compared to the original GITS, if only slightly. (Eliminating the brief glimpse of the Puppet Master’s “true form” is a little frustrating too, though you could certainly argue that the blatant Judeau-Christian imagery is just a bit over the top for a hyper-intelligent computer program run amuck.)

Along with the visuals, the film has been granted a brand new 6.1 surround mix courtesy of Skywalker Sound, and in typical Oshii fashion, every single line has been re-recorded by the original cast. Even a decade and change later I’m hard pressed to detect a difference in any of the principle cast, and the reason behind it seems to be – like the rest of GITS 2.0 itself – an attempt to get the highest modern quality available. Even the original score has been re-recorded by Kenji KAWAI in 6.1, a luxury not afforded to the Renewal of Evangelion’s 5.1 surround mix, or probably any other anime title in recorded history. Like the vocals, the music is effectively the same, just a bit clearer and more spacious than it ever has been prior.

Australia may lack cocked DTS 5.1 mixes,
but makes up for it with classy packaging.

Manga includes an English dub, but it’s just the 1995 English dub tracks cut into the 6.1 premix, rather than any sort of “New” English cast featured on the various dubs for Innocence, Stand Alone Complex, Second Gig and Solid State Society. It smacks of laziness, but I guess this is classing Manga Entertainment form all the same...

The Manga release, essentially, includes the original Manga R1 DVD release upscaled to 1080i as an extra. The good news is that the half-hour long GITS PRODUCTION REPORT and Manga’s own 1995 preview for the film are included, in 4:3 and window-boxed 1.75:1 respectively. They look like crap, but they were created on analog video nearly 15 years ago, so what can you do? A glossary, character dossiers and creator profiles are also included on the disc. The CG WORKS behind the scenes feature from the Manga Special Edition is nowhere to be found, which is a shame.

What’s even more fascinating is the inclusion of the GITS ORIGINAL MOVIE. That’s right, the unedited 1995 cut of the film is included in its’ entirety, with both English and Japanese audio and full English subtitles. This sounds like a blessing, both for those who love and hate GITS 2.0 – but, of course, there’s a catch…

When Manga released the film on DVD in 1998, they used the same reasonably nice – if far too DNR-ghost heavy - NTSC transfer used on the Japanese Special Edition DVD, with modified opening titles and end credits, swapping kanji for English characters. (I’m actually not sure, but Bandai Visual could well have pinched Manga’s DVD materials.) It had very little EE, was genuine anamorphic widescreen, and the original release was even presented at 480p. It only had 5.1 upmixed English audio, but it did feature the original 2.0 Japanese stereo mix. It was a pretty fantastic DVD for its’ day, though of course time hasn’t been kind to most digital releases… in fact, when they later released the film as a
Special Edition, the audio was bumped up to include new DTS upmixes, but the transfer took a step backwards by being interlaced!

Can YOU spot the SD upscale at 720p?

Forget all that, though. The 1080i transfer of GITS on the Manga Blu-ray looks WORSE than any prior DVD incarnation. Rainbows, dot-crawl, massive aliasing, thick analog video noise… the presence of the 2.0 English dub mix and kanji titles all but scream that Manga actually went to their letterboxed 1997 LD masters and upscaled them. That’s right, Manga wouldn’t use those materials for the DVD over a decade ago, but they’re on the High Definition Blu-ray. It’s literally a master rife with BOB deinterlacing artifacts, with no more than 720x360 luma resolution (tops!), being presented as a “Special Feature.” It’s a useful tool for comparing GITS and GITS 2.0 on the same disc, and it includes the kanji credits and ending theme not present on any of the prior R1 DVDs as a sort of morbid consolation prize, but I can’t for any other reason recommend anyone actually watch this piss poor transfer. If all you want is the original GITS, spending $5 on a used Manga DVD from 1998 is a wiser investment.

I probably shouldn’t be so upset, though. Manga may be foolish, but there’s a fine line between poor judgment and outright retardation. Clearly Manga requested the option to include the original cut of the film “in HD”, and Shochiku/Bandai Visual told them exactly what masters they would allow. Japanese rights holders are insanely paranoid that Japanese fans are going to import the US releases at 1/3 the price of local editions, so crippling the American Blu-ray release – either by delays, barring certain language tracks, or demanding higher price minimums – are slowly becoming the norm in the United States.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that Manga Entertainment were original co-producers on GITS we might not have this Blu-ray release to complain about at all. The presentation of the US release is deeply flawed, but for the $30 MSRP, I guess we’re getting exactly what we paid for.

Mmmm, shiny...

The Japanese GITS 2.0 LIMITED BOX SET comes with a glossy 24 page booklet, a bonus 25 minute Blu-ray (1080i) featuring new interviews with the staff, a stereo CD of Kawai’s new soundtrack recording, and best of all the original GITS on a 1080p Blu-ray, featuring a transfer that rocks the socks right off of Manga’s shitty upscale – and all prior DVD transfers, too. The retail price of roughly $140, however, will surely scare off all but the most dedicated of fans… far from satisfied with my Manga copy of GITS 2.0, I’m testing my own dedication as it is.

Is "2.0" a better film than Ghost in the Shell? No. But I don't think it's any worse in the long run, either. While the original version is slightly dated due to the technological limitations of the period, the updated version makes up for it with sloppy new special effects work that look more like cheap knock-offs of the stunning animation found in the film's even more pensive and polarizing sequel, Innocence. Oshii doesn't claim this is as any sort of Director's Cut, he simply offers it as a new version, and makes no effort to pretend that the original didn't happen or should be ignored from this day forward. While so many revivals seem targeted at nostalgiafags and people who grew up on a franchise with marquee value, this one really looks like he's simply tweaked some aspects to make it appeal to a younger, more modern audience much more familiar with the various TV shows taking place after the events in this film. All of that somewhat controversial "2.0" content helps give the film a longer shelf life, extending its' value as a "modern" Science Fiction vehicle by sweeping all of the dated looking stuff under the ru, and replacing it with, while perhaps second tier, undeniably modern production methods.

It's easy as a fan of a film to say that bad effects and dated appearances don't matter if the story is still relevant, but this sort of rationale is exactly why we're saddled with bad and pointless remakes every 25 years or so. Modern audiences don't tend to watch 'old' movies, largely because they don't really even know they exist, or if they do what among them is worth their time to begin with. Oshii has taken a stand to present an 'old' movie in a way that's more palatable to a modern audience, and while he may not have done it in the most subtle way possible, I still concede that he probably made the right choice.

And besides, let's face reality for a second. This whole "2.0" thing was really just a marketing blitz for his newest anime feature, The Sky Crawlers. If we view this in the scheme of things, it's kind of amazing that any of this happened at all. I may not approve of all of the changes on display, but I was still fascinated - mostly as a video geek, I admit - to see them in action, and that seems like it was worth my entry price.