Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blu in the Face

The good news is I can officially add subtitles and audio tracks to a Blu-ray and keep the disc structure - menus, seamless branching, etcetra - intact. It'll be a while before I can build an entirely new BD-ROM from the ground up with new menus and all that, largely since the software available is still extremely limited outside of professional workstations, but I'm willing to bet that anyone willing to buy Spriggan or Bubblegum Crisis (just as "what if?" titles, mind you!) would be able to figure out how to navigate a Japanese menu if you had to.

A blue squat case is no more expensive than a black tall one, but the BD-R media is exponentially more expensive than a DVD-R, or even DVD+R DL, so I'm going to have to be careful and select only titles I think will sell versus just re-releasing them on DVD, and also titles I probably won't get a C 'n' D over. Considering everything under the fucking sun gets licensed before so much as an official DVD gets released in its' home country, it's a taller order than you might expect.

For commercial reasons we'll be releasing everything on single-layer BD25 for the time being - while I'm all for high bitrates whenever possible, dual layer BDs' cost a small fortune. I know, I bitch about bitrates all the time being too low - but that's on DVD using MPEG-2, which is isn't even on the same planet as AVC in terms of efficiency. We're also blessed to live in an era where x264 is not only the single best AVC encoder available, it's also freeware, so with the proper edumication in video fundamentals anyone with a fast PC, an HD source, and a dream in their hearts could make a stunning Blu-ray transfer.

Just how awesome is x264? Not only did Japanese encoding geekery company TMPGEnc decide to embrace it as their Blu-ray encoding engine for the foreseeable, but Criterion Collection themselves beta-tested the shit out of it until it passed BD compliance with flying colors. Let me be far from the first to say that if it's good enough for those assholes who charge $40 for a copy of Naked Lunch and 120 Days of Sodom at Barnes and Nobles' everywhere, it's probably good enough for me.

To help put my guineapig into perspective, the Japanese transfer has an average bitrate of about 34.5 Mbps, which is damn close to the format's absolute peak of 40 Mbps. Totaling up the meager assortment of extras and audio tracks, which I wanted to leave as they were, I only had to drop the bitrate to 32 Mbps. That's a reduction of only 7% - and gives me a chance to get rid of the stupid windowboxed transfer as a little personal bonus. In my eyes having the full 1.85:1 frame without needing to rely on your TV to zoom in the overscan is worth a minor decrease in bitrate.

The only compromise I've made on the Guineapig is on the "Speed" setting of the encoder. Using 'Medium' nets me just under 6 frames per second, whilst 'Very Slow' is 1.2 frames per second. Having discussed that with someone who's far more familiar with x264 than myself, he thinks using the super-slow setting on something that's already been compressed once is a waste of effort, and having seen test results on faster settings, I believe him.

But, just in case any of you are skeptical...

I won't even say which is the original and which is the re-encode. If you can figure it out on your own, you should be proud; one of these caps was selected specifically as a "gimmie", but frankly the other five are so close to identical I'm hard-pressed to even tell which is which. x264 is fucking amazing, and with bitrates this close to the source, the measurable difference in quality is absolutely negligible.

EDIT: Fuk'n Megaupload. Should work now, at least.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Death Smiles on a PAL Conversion

I had never purchased the Shock Entertainment DVD of Joe D'amato's 1973 horror feature, DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER/La morte ha sorriso all'assassino. It was in the European standard PAL format, which remains a pain in my ass on any TV that runs at multiples of 60Hz, and was also a non-anamorphic transfer which made me nervous that the image quality would be on the crap end of watchable. I guess I had always figured that Anchor Bay or Shriek Show or Mondo Macabro - hell, that anybody - would release a 16:9 NTSC version eventually, but as it turns out the wily smut purveyor Johnny Legend of Legend House released it about three years ago, as a double feature with an unrelated Christopher Lee horror film by the delightful moniker "Doctor Sadism's Torture Chamber". I don't know squat about that flick, but anything with a title that crazy is okay in my book.

The good news is Americans have had the option of buying D'amato's earliest horror feature complete with a genre expert commentary track for some time, and the MSRP of only $20 means you get two ridiculous gothic horror films for the price of one import!

What's that you say? The "bad" news?

In Legend House's defense, all the other DVD transfers out there are equally crap, they just don't have to deal with being PAL > NTSC interlaced conversions on top of everything else. So Johnny and friends just managed to add the fly-sprinkles on this decade old shit sundae of a Digibeta. Lame.
If I'd ever bought that Dutch release, at least interlacing wouldn't be an issue on playback. X-Rated Kult DVD released the same crumby transfer, but as that release is only dubbed in German it's even slightly more useless than the US release - though at least it includes both English and German title sequences. It also includes a German trailer, but it's clearly something X-Rated threw together with editing software, not a vintage affair.

Oddly enough, Legend House sourced the opening credits from an even worse 4:3 source, but then replaced the title card. The English title for this one outside of the United States was 'Death Smiles at Murder', so I can only assume the English titles accurately listing the director as his christian name "Aristide Massacessi" were from a European source, which would have been subtitled in one local language or another. It's actually kind of funny, seeing the title card have true IRE 0 black and then seeing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE on the disc getting close to the right grayscale levels.

So... take your pick. The Shock release is PAL and progressive, this comes with a bonus film and a commentary (that may or may not be worth listening to, I have no idea). I guess if you speak German that X-Rated version comes in a pretty sweet hardbox, but otherwise your options are just plain crappy. Maybe someday a crazy label like Grindhouse Releasing or Midnight Legacy will create a new transfer from scratch, but in the meantime I'm going to futz with the transfer I've got in front of me, just to come up with something remotely watchable so I can sit down and try to enjoy the friggin' film without vomiting in my mouth every few seconds over how poor it looks.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Spriggan Into Action!

The SPRIGGAN subtitles turned out to be okay, and I've managed to successfully patch the dual-layered Japanese Blu-ray release. I'm burning it tonight just to make sure there aren't any weird player related hang-ups like there were on Memories (goddamn seamless branching). It's something of a behemoth at just under 30 gigs, so there's no way I can even think of selling it without recompressing it to be under 25GB... I swear, Bandai Visual just cranked the bitrate hard enough to create a main video title that was 26 gigs and then called it a day. Yep, they had the fore-thought to realize that making the main film take up slightly more than a single layered BD-R would cut down on piracy, and I'll be damned if they weren't smart to do it.

Against DVD quality? Maybe.

After we get a BD title or two out of the way - and a stack of episodes that need their subtitle scripts edited sooner rather than later - I'm going to be resurrecting a Kentai Films classic for DVD. I won't say which one just yet, suffice to say that if you keep tabs on the eBay and ultra-violence entertainment, China's bootlegging my own bootlegs, and I'll be damned if I let highly trained and poorly paid toddlers beat me at my own game!

For the non-record, Mystery Project X has been submitted in an official capacity, so short of the project manager hating the transfers' guts, it should be a done deal. I fully expect the fanbase to tear the transfer to pieces in reviews, but if they have even the slightest inkling as to how much work and care went into it, and factor in what an excruciatingly inferior source it was to start with, I think anyone who likes the film will be pretty satisfied. Until the original title owners dig up the 35mm negative, it isn't getting any better than this.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Bird with Diamond Resale Value

Blue Underground has a pretty impressive catalog of cult films available in High Definition, and it so happens that one of their first was Dario Argento's first foray into the director's chair in THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE/ L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo. The DVD came out in October of 2005, the Blu-ray in Febuary 2009. Evidently, the licensing contract has already expired, which has pushed this much beloved special edition title into the Out Of Print life-cycle. Not a big deal if you were, you know, smart and actually bought it instead of putting it off for two years like a certain crazed Argento-love-hating somebody... by which I mean a somebody named Kentai.

'Cause this fucker just went from being regularly sold at $15 and under to being QUITE EXPENSIVE.

Now worth its' weight in daggers.

Granted, Amazon sellers are sort of like those cocky, stupid guys you see wearing sunglasses after dark with no shirt on under their jacket that are like "Aw yea, girl you KNOW you want dis". You really don't, ladies. And if you do, you deserve your herpes. Yes, the option's there, but if you take your time and play the eBay waiting game you might find somebody who doesn't know that an open copy is worth double-retail in the market and walk away with a copy at a totally fair price.

Much as it's tempting to be plunged into the endless pit of non-buyers' regret, Arrow Video has already announced plans for their own special edition Blu-ray for release in March. Knowing Arrow, even if they don't port the rather impressive bevy of relevant interviews they'll match, or surpass whatever Blue Underground came up with on their own... the transfer, however, may not be ideal, and that is one area where Blue Underground really excelled on this release. They didn't include the original mono mix (in English or otherwise), but otherwise it's a top-notch presentation, and even if I hate the cover art I'll regret this funky looking case not standing on my shelf next to Deep Red... which, ironically enough, I'm waiting for on the off chance that Blue Underground wipes the floor with Arrow's iffy looking compression. Clearly I should snap up whichever version I want the second I see screenshots, since otherwise I might be out of luck anyway.

I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and see if a Newbury Comics or FYE still has a copy kicking around. I'm also going to make it a point to pick up any and all BU titles I *heart* but have so far been too cheap to indulge in. It's hard to say if titles like Two Evil Eyes and Fire & Ice will be in print for another year or another week, but let this be a grim reminder to us all that if you want something, being cheap and/or lazy isn't always the best way to get it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Kentai Films Update

Holy crap, the R1 subtitles for SPRIGGAN are an OCR mess... seriously, check this shit out:

"Its message is a w arni ng to us w ho I ive today"

Methinks ADV used that fugly font just to prevent assholes like me from using their translations on a future subtitle-free Blu-ray. 'Cause they were totally that paranoid and forward-thinking in 2001, right? So I'm pecking away at fixing up the script, line by line, but I'm distracted by a few other projects (...and No More Heroes) to get it done all that quickly. I'm also down to my last BD-R DL, so it I fuck it up somehow I'll need to buy more expensive blanks... that's a buzz kill, too, when you get down to it. But I am chipping away at that monstrous script, so it'll only be a matter of time before it's done.

To the best of my knowledge, ADV made their own telecine from the 35mm print they dragged around to various festivals at the turn of the century, while (at the time) Bandai Visual was still making non-anamorphic LD quality telecines back in Japan. This means that the subtitles will likely have to be re-timed at reel changes, but that's really not a big deal. It also means is that the English dub might not even come close to matching without massive shuffling cuts - which ARE a bigger deal, at least in my experience. Guess I lucked out with neither Memories nor The Five Star Stories having an English dub to worry about in the first place... as I've mentioned in the past, I like keeping any local (ie: English) language options available as a matter of archivist pride, not because I'd recommend anyone actually watch a film like Spriggan in English.

The producer of this project would probably be mildly disgusted if I gave him the dub tracks on his dual layer master copy anyway, so this is something I can figure out later when I'm deciding how to recompress the feature for BD-25 anyway. Another title - one that's already English friendly, no less - should undergo such a test before the end of the month. My hope is that I can fix the unnecessary window-boxing, keep the original lossless audio track, and not have to touch either the menus or special features, creating a perfect clone with a slightly lower bitrate and (hopefully) little loss in image fidelity. Field tests have shown that the freeware x264 encoder puts plenty of "Pro tools" to shame, and those wacky assholes at Criterion busted their humps getting it up to spec, so if it's good enough for them it'll be good enough for Kentai Films.

The extras are all SD materials upscaled to 1080i, so I suppose I could recompress those, too. I'd love to swap them out with 480i MPEG-2 versions of the same content to save on space, but I don't think I actually have all of the content on DVD. I'll have to create a DVD with the "missing" special features to consider this an exhaustive release, anyway. It's also a title currently available on Blu-ray in the US, in one form or another, so it's probably not a title I'll get away with selling to start with. Still, it'll be damn fine practice...

Switching gears for a minute, Billy Tang's endlessly sleazy Daughter of Darkness II is being encoded for DVD as I write this. Don't get your hopes up; it still looks like the wrong side of a wet fart. You can't squeeze blood from a stone, and the Wide Sight R3 DVD - literally the only video release this film worth mentioning - must have been telecined with Flintstones-era technology.

Something dawned on me while I was working with this hard-subtitled transfer that. See, I'm a rather cheap bastard who hangs on to expensive and heavy hardware until it's deader than dirt, and that includes one of the better looking 30" HDTV's Sony made back when tube sets weighing 100 pounds (and up!) was still the norm. CRT screens have overscan, anywhere from 5-15%, and my set is formly in the 8-10% range. I know because I fussed with the service menus until I had it to a point where I wasn't losing the edges on the majority of my video games, though of course now I have to deal with the rounded, bluging edges that prompted CRT manufacturers to introduce overscan as standard practice in the first place.

A common template used for subtitle generation.

In theory, any subtitles should be within the "Title Safe" area to be certain that it'll be visible on ANY TV screen. You can play it fast and loose by putting them in the "Action Safe" area and be safe on 95% of screens, and that's typically what I do. But keep in mind these are big, bold, player-generated subtitles.  Some Blu-ray titles have subtitles and menus that extend outside the "Title Safe" borders, so clearly this is something we'll see less and less of as technology marches forward, but it becomes very relevant when we're cleaning up an analog transfer with "burned-in" English subtitles.

So, how's Daughter of Darkness II look? Does a properly framed anamorphic upscale fit within the rather concrete and easily measured notion of the "Title Safe" screen real estate?

If only I and all Americans could read Chinese...
(Maybe 20 years from now?)

Well, that's a pretty harsh buzz kill. I've come up with a solution, but I'm not sure if the cure is worse than the symptoms...

...I've added a border of 28 pixels to the bottom of the screen and those fuckers STILL aren't title safe?! Curse you, National Television Standards Committee!

I don't know how much harder I can windowbox this damn thing... and, yes, there are thick bars on the sides. The previews above cut them off - it's not overly important here, just trust me when I say that the current script has bars on all sides but the top. And yes, it looks kind of weird. Kind of like this:

Like I said. Wet fart, at best.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Realism vs Moe: Round 1



The only shocking part is I've had this image saved for months and it took me until today to realize what it reminded me of. Tsk, tsk...

Ever wondered what OCD looks like?

Been Goldblooming for the last couple hours on this,
so I figured I'd share the slightly-censored results...

So... I guess I lied; Mystery Project X is ALMOST finalized, but some last-minute experiments dramatically improved not only the completely broken red channel's level of pulsing band-noise, but also helped to alleviate that seemingly random temporal Luma aberration related to camera flicker I can only find myself describing as "bulging". What you see is a series of compromises meant to improve the whole of the material, so with any luck the finished files will be largely noise-free, but not totally smoothed over in areas that had previously been a bit on the gummy side. Odds are some of the difference will be smoothed over during DVD encoding anyway, but as we all know by now, garbage in-garbage out, so it doesn't pay one bit to willingly half-ass things at part of the process.

I'm starting to hit that glass ceiling of diminishing returns, where it no longer looks "better", only "different". With that in mind, hopefully this'll be the last time I A/B a dozen problem scenes and come up with a compromise that makes the whole film look decent.