Monday, June 15, 2009

T'was Greek To Me

So, remember how a pal of mine sent me HASHIRE MELOS for remastering? I got a brand new transfer as two two large MPEG video chunks with embedded MPA Level II audio, and planned to go from there. The only trouble was that those tracks got seriously screwed up at some point; the left channel was full of static, and the right was nothing BUT static. The guy looked around for something else he could send me, and found a proper stereo audio clip... from a completely different capture. I tried synching the two up a few times, but it just wasn't going to happen... there was too much of a gap between the two in sound quality, and I just couldn't pin down what was a proper sync, or just reasonably close. Lip flap matching isn't the end of the world for anime I know, but by now you know my stubborn pride wouldn't let me just slap a track on there which may or may not have kept in sync with the video proper.

Finally, I realized a big part of the reason I couldn't get the audio to "match" by overlapping the two was because I was adding a bunch of distortion from ONLY the right channel. So, I made a dual-mono track using the left (still borked) channel as reference to the "other" audio track. The distortions were stable enough that I could finally get the unusable audio to more or less match with the stereo track, and thus sync it to the video. We have a genuine Stereo track for Melos, and I couldn't be happier right now.

EDIT: Son of a Macedonian whore!

Well, I CAN create a sync track. Unfortunately something got 'nudged' when I exported the fixed track, and now the whole think is forked after it switches to Side B. It'll probably be easier this time, now that I know what to look and listen for and all that jazz, but talk about frustrating...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Contracually Obligated Bondage

Just a little something, to show everyone I'm still doing something besides sitting on the couch and eating bonbons all day long...


Current script results for DOREI KEIYAKUSHUU, Nikkatsu VHS.


Before/After script results for THE SENSUALIST, Daiei VHS.

Of these two, I think I'm happiest with The Sensualist so far. The color correction has made an okay source into a very good source, and the only real hurdle I can't pass is a matter of noise. Using a more powerful temporal filter would only help the image, which is mostly made up of slow-moving pans and simple animation, but doing so utterly destroys the underlying layer of chroma noise in the dark scenes, turning them into freakish blotchy Rorschach patterns that squiggle with a mind of their own. The current combination of light deblocking and a 3D script intended for broadcast material is passable... not perfect, but as you can see in the skin especially, it's quite a dramatic improvement.

Dorei Keiyakushuu is yet another Nikkatsu VHS; it's grainy, has some temporal smearing, minor tape dropouts and rainbows that refuse to die. In other words, it's nothing out of the ordinary. At least this was a later title from the 1980s, and thus its' presented in its' original 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of being cut down from scope like the usual vintage epics I work with. The fact that I was able to keep the fine mesh pattern you see above is proof of my love and decication to you, ladies and gentlemen. Expect this up on the usual club soon enough.

A more extensive remaster from a source better than VHS is on the way, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait until I've worked a kink or two out of it. Look forward to that... it'll be a fun comparison.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

PS3 P.S.

Turns out the issue with the PS3 refusing 50Hz isn't QUITE as bad as I'd thought... though it's still far from ideal. The issue is not that the PS3 is searching for 50Hz material, merely that while it used to skip such signals, it now shuts the system down.

So why is this a problem on THE DESCENT? Countries still built on the PAL legacy of 50Hz tend to create materials like copyright warnings, studio logos, and menus at 50Hz, and that's exactly what Insomnia did for The Descent. While on PS3 firmware 2.6x, the system would encounter 50Hz material and then skip it in favor of going to the top menu. On 2.7x, when the PS3 encounters 50Hz it simply shuts the disc down. Hardly an ideal situation, and a real pain in the arse for anyone who's already (or planned to) import a region-free disc from a country that still has 50Hz power, which includes pretty much all of Europe, Africa, Australia, and roughly half of Asia and South America. From now on importing for the PS3 will be a total crapshot, with zero guarantee that the disc will even boot up... if you can get to the main menu, odds are you'll be fine.

Netflix still had hundreds of BD titles I can rent, and there's still plenty of movies I'll be buying locally, and - occasionally - from Hong Kong and Japan, which thankfully are still based on 60Hz power systems. Alternately, I'm already looking for more info on a Momo region-free player, which sounds like it would be the all-around perfect solution for non-US titles. Likely not quite as high a quality on the deinterlacing/scaling options as an Oppo, no, but better than the current nothing for import Blu-ray that I have going on at the moment. Oppo's BD player isn't region free, not even for DVD, so it's worthless as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Importers Beware: PS3 Bans 50Hz in North America

Oh my God, yes.

It's sad that I don't get to say many horror films are "excellent" or "fantastic" or even "eh, pretty good"; despite believing with every fiber of my being to be a fan of cinematic terror, I'll admit that a very high percentage of even "classic" horror films are, in no uncertain terms, crap. The fact is that it's easy to manipulate and entertain an audience who asks for little more than a nice pair of tits splattered with their own malfunctioning brains, and even some of my favorite horror centric directors - guys like Lucio Fulci, Jean Rollin, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter - have proven over the years that even the greats of the genre are capable of turning out gigantic piles of suck. While I happen to be more fascinated - and thus forgiving - of Dario Argento's post-Phenomena period than many, I'm willing to grant that La Treza Madre's ceaseless fail is balanced out only by Suspiria's never ending glory and perfectio... but that still means his Three Mothers trilogy is neither better or worse than L'inferno.

The Descent, Neil Marshall's British produced love letter to gruesomel white-knuckled 1980s creature features, like The Thing, Aliens, and An American Werewolf in London, was as smart as it was slick, mercifully downplaying the tongue in cheek humor that Wes Craven deemed "clever" a decade past its' prime in favor of more straight-up shocks and thrills, with a fantastic script, an impressively claustrophobic atmosphere, and properly nuanced performances from a cast of capable unknowns. Every part of the production was higher-brow than the concept of "a bunch of attractive are women trapped in a cave with monsters" would suggest, and it quickly became one of my favorite horror film of the last few years.

The Descent was released theatrically in Yank Land with a botched ending and an R-rating, but was released on 'unrated' DVD with its' proper ending, which I bought both to show my love, and replace the iffy looking PAL DVD-R I had originally watched the film on. Soon the title became one of Lionsgate's flagship dual layered Blu-ray title, and when I got a PS3 this past X-mas season, I was thrilled to add it to my collection ASAP (at 1/4 its' original $40, or half of what I bought the DVD for). Of course, there are always some problem or other with any fucking BD/DVD I want to add to my ever sagging media shelf, and naturally The Descent was no exception. Not only did Lionsgate - after releasing a genuine reference AVC encode initially - make a second, inferior MPEG-2 encode rife with noise reduction, AND THEN THEY DON'T LET THE CONSUMER, IN ANY WAY, KNOW WHICH ONE THEY'RE GETTING UNTIL THEY PUT IT IN THE MOTHER FUCKING PLAYER!!!

...whew, sorry. I feel much better now, promise.

Even without LGs intentional buggery, the master provided to LG in the first place was a bit... off. The US transfer, compared to all prior releases, has better (lower) contrast and roughly as much fine detail, but it also has a boosted gamma mid-range, leaving the whole film - and particularly all of those once black-hole inspired cave crawls - to look much brighter and less menacing than the more familiar colors that non-US DVDs have had the entire time. As it was the only 1080p release out there, it seemed like a small price to pay, even if the boosted contrast version is - to my eyes, at least - that much more menacing.

... why am I turned on by screaming chicks covered in gore, anyway?

Some two years after the initial US release, Australian licensor Insomnia released their own Blu-ray edition. Not only did it feature the "proper" color timing, but you didn't have to worry about getting stuck with a blurred inferior transfer either; deliciously grainy AVC encoding, all the way. Best of all, while the special features were in standard definition PAL - meaning US players wouldn't be able to properly handle them - the film itself was 1080p24, and thus friendly with everybody's favorite North American media box, the PS3. Huzzahs were in order!

...but something's gone horribly wrong.

As of the recent 2.74 PS3 firmware update, Blu-ray discs are pre-scanned by the system. Even if the disc is region free, and all of the menus and main feature are all computable US framerates, is ANY content on the disc is stored at PAL framerates - even just some trailers hidden away in the special features menu - the disc will no longer play. You get an error message, and that's the end of it. It used to be you'd get an error message for trying to access these 50hz goodies directly, and THAT would shut the system down, but it never used to prevent you from accessing the non-PAL framerate content.

Traditional NTSC formats are 30 frames per second, but the signal is transmitted as 60 half-frames per second, and thus is measured at 60Hz, the same electrical wavelength as the US power standards. PAL is 50Hz, again, to match European transmission standards and make life that much easier. While both American and European TV systems will accept 24Hz material from 1080p Blu-ray, and any modern "HD Ready" European TV system will accept 60Hz material (be it 480i, 480p, 1080i, or 720p), American HDTVs will typically NOT accept 50Hz.

Most Blu-ray players - though clearly not the PS3 - will output a 50Hz signal, but if the monitor doesn't know what to do with it, you simply won't get a picture at all. This was a problem even back in the days of VHS, and since most Blu-ray releases store at least some of their special features in standard definition, PAL hasn't quite disappeared forever. There are also infrequent 1080i50 discs, literal "HD PAL" Blu-ray, but anyone expecting those to play on a US PS3 have their head in the sand.

The PS3 is capable of playing import Blu-ray with PAL content, it just doesn't anymore. Why? Were people importing and then complaining that the special features don't work? (As if shutting the disc out entirely is any better!) For that matter, why does the PS3 refuse to play region free PAL DVDs, despite the fact that I can feed it a 720x576 50Hz MPEG-2 video stream file and that works just fine? The PS3 doesn't do a lot of things it's perfectly capable of doing, and the fact that it's set to lock out entire discs due to the possibility of some of the special features being a dud is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard since the Blu-ray Disc Association continued on DVDs tradition of region locking titles.

More likely this is Sony trying to discourage importing, knowing that the PS3 remains the most prolific Blu-ray player on the market by default, even if the majority of the poeple who own one could probably care less about that feature. The BDA has region codes to ensure that the major studios can sell there wares when, where, and how they want to down to the last detail, and while it's certainly put me off from importing a couple titles, it doesn't mean I can't simply spend another $350 and have a region free Blu-ray player that will convert 50Hz material to 60Hz. Simple problem, simple solution. It's just a bunch of bullshit that the PS3 is creaitng a problem I'll need to buy a new player to fix. That's not to say I thought that the PS3 would be the only BD player I ever thought I'd need; despite the low number of quality Region B only titles out there, there's still a few I'd gladly buy, if only I could play them once I had them. I just didn't expect the PS3 to suddenly stop playing certain discs all together.


Way to fill your consumers with confidence, Sony!

For better or worse, I've yet to import any Blu-ray titles because I've been afraid that 50Hz would be the PS3's achilles heel. Turns out I was more right than I'd ever hoped. It's disappointing, but as I was satisfied to spend $10 on the US version instead of $40 on the import (who's extras I couldn't have watched if I'd wanted to), I'll continue to be satisfied with "HD NTSC" releases until there's finally enough import-only titles worth buying a new player for.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Testing a Free Man: Part 2

Imagine my satisfied surprise when, upon putting in another Sato film I find the Japanese trailer for the always entertaining Christophe Ganz/Mark Dacascos feature film CRYING FREEMAN! I really like that flick... yeah, it's obvious (and a real bummer) that Ganz got 80% of his budget yanked out of his hands at the last second, and Toronto makes a poor replacement for Tokyo, but an exciting, violent thriller that's respectful to its' manga source material is still a rarity a decade and a half later, so the fact that Ganz did it better than pretty much everyone else out there with a pitance for a budget is equal parts awesome and depressing.

Anyway, why not use that very trailer as a benchmark for how good a job the DVD recorder does on both "XP" (1 hour 9.3 Mbps) and "SP" (2 hour 4.6 Mbps) settings?

Recorder XP Mode (AC3)

Recorder SP Mode


The XP shot is about as perfect as I'd ever expect a VHS tape to look... in part thanks to me having forgotten to switch the PCM The SP shot isn't bad, not bad at all... but it's not perfect, either. There's plenty of blocking on both the trees in the background and on her face, and the glowing outline on the kanji has broken up somewhat. It still looks respectable, just not quite ideal like the XP recording. Still, compared to the 2 hour mode on my older recorders, this is certainly an improvement. For longer films I don't think I'll feel bad using it.

Today's experiment was to see if it would be a substantial improvement recording in XP across 2 DVD-RW and then re-encoding the results on a PC using a software based 2-pass encode, versus just recording in SP mode to start with. The first experiment was for a '2 hour' scenario with a bitrate of roughly 4 Mbps, which is just slightly lower than the actual bitrate on my recorder, but the increased horse power in the software options should close that gap anyway. (In a perfect world.)

First I tried ProCoder 2, which has a good reputation... I can't for the life of me explain why, though.


Procoder SP Mode
Oh God, it burns!!

Seriously, that is just... awful. Look at the blocking at the top of the text, or the massive puzzle-pieces of artifacts in the background. I can't even believe people sell this junk! Anyway, let's move on to the "professional" option, CCE SP:


CCE SP Mode
...meh.

Hrm... while we don't have to deal with giant artifacts, we do have some pretty substantial mosquito noise instead. This utterly destroys the blocky crap Procoder shat out, but it's hardly reference, and I'd take the slightly more rampant artifacts of the recorder's own low bitrate than the literal coating of digital noise that CCE has dusted onto the transfer, like so much dandruf.

This was CCE SP with "stock" settings - not adding any vertical filtering or what have you - so while I could improve the results, this is all theoretical wankery anyway. In effect, if CCE SP can't match the 2 hour mode at the same bitrate without me having to hand-hold it every step of the way, why should I even bother?

But the real purpose behind this was to test the theory of recording at XP mode and then re-encoding the source to the highest bitrate possible with CCE SP while still fitting on a DVD-R. With an 85 minute feature (this is all rough here, mind you) that would be a bitrate of 6.9 Mbps video, which would leave us something like this:

CCE 'Custom' Mode
Sweeeet.

Well... spank my ass and call me impressed. This looks virtually identical to the XP source recording! No mosquito noise, no compression arifacts, no banding... so long as the feature is in the 90 minute range and I don't mind AC3 audio, I can keep the video quality looking DVD-9 ready while not needing to go broke on blanks. Way to go, CCE SP!

The next Sato film I'm going to record promises to be a brain-blender, so I think I'm going to go whole hog and record it on 2 discs after all. (You're welcome.) When we get up to films running 100 minutes I doubt I'll bother, since the gains I'd actually see in quality are barely worth the effort it would require to get them, but particularly for projects which I plan to remaster, this seems like a sound enough plan.

Field Testing Part 1: The Perverse Wife

TORTURE TEST SUBJECT:


Yet another rarely seen SATO Hisayasu film - Hitozuma Hentai Biyoushi - this time produced by Image Box, and released back in 1994. While the on-screen title is 変態美容師 3P SM 変態 レズ (Perverse Beautician Wife: Threesome S/M Perverted Lesbian), it's obvious that this ridiculous title was tacked on at the last minute by its' distributors, Excess. Who knows what his original title for this hour of urban debauchery once was?

IMDB claims that Perverse Beautician Wife has also been released as "Dead End".
Sadly, I haven't the foggiest notion how this alternate title came to be...



VARIABLE:

This is the latest string of quality tests on my poor abused DVD recorder, this time using VHS tapes as a measure of its' mettle. Being typically softer, noisier, and more prone to errors than LD, I wasn't positive if the measurable - though typically minor - difference I've found in video quality while recording anime LDs would be repeated on a lower-resolution analog format. To be certain, I recorded the same feature using both the AC3 and PCM settings on the recorder, giving me ample opportunities to compare the relative quality of both modes using a sample that, being noisy but letterboxed, theoretically gives me ample opportunity for compression artifacts to pop up on both settings.


PCM MODE Video Samples:



AC3 MOVE Video Samples:



As you can see, the only substantial difference between the two modes is that the PCM setting creates a slightly softer transfer, resulting in both less fine detail and less video noise. Clearly 1/3 more bitrate doesn't equate to 1/3 fewer artifacts, proving that the argument of "diminishing returns" thrown around during the HD DVD/Blu-ray war wasn't total bunk after all. If anything, there's actually more blocking on the higher bitrate transfer, because less of the signal noise has been filtered out: noise has to become something when it's digitized, so it becomes small digital squares instead of small analog lines. Simply softening the noise right out is a nice touch on the PCM mode, but in the end it's hardly the best way to represent the source, assuming the source was noisy to begin with at least.

The increased bitrate on the AC3 mode wins, if only by a nose.


AUDIO COMPARISON:

Download 1 minute long audio samples HERE.

I'll admit that I'm naturally less attuned to audio troubles than I am video issues, so perhaps I'm just not the guy to ask about this sort of thing, but the difference between the two of them seem utterly negligible to me. When your sound is drowning in constant analog hiss with all manners of distortions stemming from the original production, not to mention analog wear and tear on the tape itself, does recording it at 6 times the bitrate really make an appreciable upgrade?

No. No, it doesn't.


CONCLUSION:

Despite technical sheets telling me that VHS audio was "comparable to CD", I can see zero reason to waste the bandwidth on PCM audio for import low-budget Japanese VHS tapes. I acknowledge that there is a slight loss in audio quality, but the technical value versus the quality I hear coming out of my headphones is just not there. Granted I do need new headphones, but they're plenty good enough to show off the difference between a PCM and an AC3 recording on a CX enabled digital LD track, so this is all a matter of "garbage in, garbage out", nothing more.

I'm of a surprisingly similar mind on the video quality, however; what little loss is had on the PCM Mode video is really something I'd wind up doing on most "remastered" transfers at a denoising and/or deblocking stage anyway. The differences between the two modes are effectively a wash - which, to be honest, is exactly what I expected. AC3 mode has ever so slightly sharper video quality, and PCM mode has ever so slightly higher audio fidelity. Once again I find myself polishing silver on the Titanic, and the choice between slightly better audio or video becomes meaningless pretty quickly when - as you can see - both are utter shit to start with.