Monday, June 20, 2011

Maniacal Machine Noise Haunts TENEBRAE...

Back when Blue Underground released City of the Living Dead and Django on Blu-ray in 2009, Michael MacKenzie - former reviewer for DVD Times, writer for the delightful Land of Whimsy, and an admirer of all things giallo that borders on the erotic - came away very underwhelmed. He was one of the first people to regularly review Italian genre releases on the tubes to suggest - after reading all of the scuttlebutt on AVS - that while seemingly all of Blue Underground's Eurohorror titles had a distinctly sharp (or "harsh") grain structure, it seemed to sit on top of the actual image rather than create it... it's a difficult phenomenon to describe, but his initial theory was that perhaps they were older HD transfers that had been subjected to DVNR at some point, and then a layer of artificial dithering was added on top to try and give it a more natural, film-like appearance. Before you call that crazy, keep in mind that's exactly what Universal did to An American Werewolf in London once John Landis called the restored HD transfer something like 'too pretty for its' own good'.

I don't mean to put the poor guy on the spot, but it wouldn't be right to claim that many other serious reviewers were suggesting anything that radical when these discs were brand new. On the contrary, Django and City of the Living Dead have been given almost nothing but praise, in no small part due to having been released for decades sourced from dire prints. And yes, I myself was one of those guys largely satisfied with City of the Living Dead, after having watched it on the Thriller Video VHS transfer so caked in print damage it looks like the opening scene is raining. It's within these unique, personal experiences that we take in how we think a film 'should' look, and sometimes apply these limited standards to concurrent releases without consciously factoring in what, if circumstances were ideal, they probably COULD look like. Thankfully, Michael's a smart guy with an eye for details, and he's not as ready to let fuzzy nostalgia of a chewed-up rental tape keep him from saying, if perhaps not in so many coarse words; "Hey, this looks like piss on shit!"

Speaking of which...

The following images were taken from the Arrow Video release of TENEBRAE, and all of them exhibit the same oddities of a harsh, unnatural layer of grain on top of a soft, almost smeared image. To compare, here's another image from City of the Living Dead and Django, both exhibiting an obvious lack of actual "resolution" despite an abundance of something that, more or less, resembles film grain - stolen, quite shamelessly, from the good folks at DVD Beaver. Because I'm too lazy to grab my own copies today.

Now, here's the kicker... the Arrow Blu-ray for Tenebrae is NOT taken from the same source as the French Wild Side release. So how does that French transfer, an independent telecine, look in comparison? Can we maybe get a shot-for-shot 1:1 comparison?

Holy shit... the walls on the left side of the frame are a virtually barren, smooth surface on the UK release, but they're full of nooks and crannies on the French master. The belt loops on Laura Wendel's skirt is also clear and easily visible on the French print while they're virtually indistinguishable on the UK transfer. And that lightbulb... for the love of God, just look at the lightbulb!

It's straight-up impossible for BOTH of these transfers to accurately represent the level of grain on a high-quality source print, and while the French release looks the way I'd expect reasonably modern, well exposed 35mm film to look, the UK release just... looks like a blurry mess with a coating of funky-ass noise buzzing on top of it. And just so we're clear that the French transfer isn't rife with DVNR or anything, here's a nice, natural layer of film grain that's typical of every less-than-perfectly lit scene in the film. Remember kids, grain becomes finer and harder to spot on brightly lit material, so it's perfectly natural for Tenebrae to have only the thinnest layer of grain on the negative.

So what the fuck is going on here?!

The French HD master has more detail and less grain than the Italian-made HD master given to Arrow Video (a master that has the same hallmarks as virtually any of its contemporaries). There is no sensible reason for this to be the case, which leaves us with about three explanations:

1) The titles really were smeared with DVNR, and then caked in digital grain after the fact.

2) They have some seriously poor or mis-calibrated scanning equipment,which is producing digital noise on top of an already badly focused image.

3) They're using multi-generational film prints... but, no, even that wouldn't explain the smudginess.

Understand that I don't blame Arrow for this, at least not so far as I blame any licensor who doesn't make their own transfers from scratch (and most of them don't). They're being handed smudged, noise-riddled materials by the Italian licensors as part of their contracts, the cruelest irony of all being that they probably paid a secondary fee specifically for access to these crappy HD masters. The same exact thing happens with Blue Underground (though they tend to make matters worse by lying about those materials being "from the negative" and "new masters" when they're neither) - more often than not they aren't actually producing these transfers, they're getting HD materials from Italy and keeping their fingers crossed that they don't suck. Paying for a pre-made HD master is always cheaper and simpler than being tasked with making a new one yourself, and... well, let's think about this for a second; would you expect a foreign film producer to NOT offer you a usable, new, high quality transfer?

But the speculation as to wither or not Argento's films "should" look as gritty and harsh as they have on Blu-ray can finally be put to rest. This goes for the works of Fulci, Corbucci, Grau and Passolini too, all of whom have had ridiculously noisy Blu-ray releases. We can only thank Wild Side for making their own HD remaster of similar (if not the same?) film materials and finally proving how self-serving only having one or two licensors picking away at the same titles can become... there's no incentive to improve, and with everyone shoveling the same shit back and fourth it becomes easy to lose track of what the releases could be, instead of what they actually are.

Arrow Video, Blue Underground, and every other film licensor who's willingly taking these shitty transfers: Enough is enough. You've been serving these blurry, gritty clusterfucks up our way for over two years now, and because we had no solid point of reference we were all willing to believe your claims that this was as good as it got. Sadly, Tenebrae effectively proves you've been complacent at best, and incompetent at worst. If you buy the rights to a film and you get handed materials that look anything like the Arrow transfer, TURN IT DOWN. Either make a new transfer yourselves, or walk away from the title completely. Yes, these smeared, harsh, ugly HD transfers are all "better than the DVD", but if we have to compare it side-by-side to a decade old standard definition release just to be confident that it's a marginal upgrade, it's not fucking worth a $30. You know it, and we know it... but we're suckers for these films and we'll keep buying them anyway. We'll even lie to ourselves and say "it doesn't look that bad" because we're sure nothing better is coming down the pike for who knows how many years. But that's just not going to cut it anymore.

Blue Underground got this Eurohorror Blu-ray ball rolling in late 2008 with the virtually sand-blasted The Stendhal Syndrome, and right from the start just a few dedicated genre fans thought something was amiss. The satisfied majority called them crazy (among other things), saying that these films have always looked like shit - which is true enough, I know - and that the transfers from Arrow and BU were as good as they could possibly get. Wild Side has finally proven that simply isn't true, and I have no doubt that it never was.

Something is rotten in Italy, and Tenebrae is the first title we can finally look at two completely separate releases and prove it. Time will bear out that this is no isolated incident, and I can only hope that Blue Underground's threat to scan Zombi 2 from the negative isn't idle talk like the rest of their marketing bullshit... but that's a bit of a dangerous game, isn't it? If Zombi 2 really is the gangbusters release we're all hoping for, it'll only establish how shitty stuff like The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and The Beyond are by comparison...

We'll talk about all this in October, of that I'm certain.

EDIT: Updated to include an exact frame-match in BT.709 colorspace, and fixed a few minor errors that come with writing in a rage. Thanks, Mentasm! You've saved me at least 15 pounds sterling.


Anthony1138 said...

That comparison of the Arrow and Wild Side Blu-Rays is pretty fucking convincing that something is indeed rotten in Italy. I'm no expert on the matter, but I can buy the idea that the Italian HD transfer process is botching up these films.

You make a valid point that BU should not be making false claims about the sources of their HD transfers. But given Lustig's reputation in the DVD biz, I think people tend be more accepting of BU's HD Italian genre output than Arrow's.

Kevin P. said...

I'd say TENEBRAE looks a lot like the transfer Arrow was given of THE BEYOND, which was better than the DVD in ways that made how much the rest of it sucked all the worse. Just like that transfer, this one looks to be artificially sharpened, washed out, and both unnaturally smooth and unnaturally harsh at once. The noise in your second capture is positively maddening.

I'd have thought that TENEBRAE would look more like the recent edition of PHENOMENA (for me the high water mark for video quality in Arrow releases) given that they were both shot using the same process. The less manipulated Wild Side transfer seems to bear that out...

As for the nostalgia bit, I freely admit to being biased by it myself, though I like to think I'm getting better about it. The more I see the more I know, and the less forgiving I become.

Michael said...

Great write-up, though I feel compelled to point out that I don't think I was the first person to suggest that the "grain" on discs like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and DJANGO was in fact noise laid on top of a heavily processed image. I actually bought both these films on BD primarily because a couple of posters at the AVS Forum suggested as much (Matt Stevens being one of them, I believe) and I wanted to see them for myself because I couldn't believe this could possibly be the case.

Sadly I feel that having these two completely different releases of TENEBRAE to compare DOES show pretty much conclusively that something is badly wrong with DJANGO, COTLD and numerous other Eurocult releases. It even makes me want to take a serious look at THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and re-evaluate it, since much the same noise pattern appears visible in the brighter areas of that film, albeit without the extreme smearing.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Anthony: Oh I'm no expert either. I just play one on the internet. :D

But yeah, I don't think we need to summon Vidocq's ghost to solve the "Should Argento movies look like noisy crap in High Definition?" mystery. I'd honestly be a bit less upset by this whole thing if Blue Underground didn't preface as wonky looking a title as Django with the following hyperbole:

Following extensive restoration work, Blue Underground is now proud to present the most stunning and complete version of DJANGO you will ever see!

Best yet? Yeah sure, I guess. But best ever? Fucking doubtful. Even a chewed up 35mm print that's sat in someone's attic for 35 years might be have a more accurate grain structure than the transfer we've got now.

I have no doubt that someone, somewhere will re-do several of Blue Underground's supposed "negative" transfers and we'll finally get to see them in their full glory. In the meantime, about all I can do is call shenanigans based on the information people are kind enough to share. I'm sure Bill Lustig is a decent guy who genuinely loves these films and all that, but I'd almost rather much talk to a complete asshole who's HONEST every step of the way about what he's trying to sell you.

To their credit, Arrow has been MUCH better about being totally transparent to the consumer, giving as much information as they can stand in as public a manner as any. (Now, if only they could get a decent MPEG-4 encoder!)

Michael: D'oh! I can actually remembering you cringing at the thought of buying COTLD just to confirm what AVS was arguing about... I've re-written the first paragraph to make your involvement in the whole thing a bit clearer.

Brian L said...

I'd say take a look at some scenes in NEW YORK RIPPER (like the opening scene with the old man and his dog) also. This was the first time I noticed the noisy look. It was my first Eurocult BD, too.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I work in the home video industry and can report with good authority that it is standard practises for the Italians to put new masters through a heavy DVNR process, stripping any/all detail away. We have had to beg them not to do it in the past.

Sergio said...

I've always ripped the French for their penchant for forced subtitles and the like, but I have to admit, when it comes to transfers, they usually put out quality stuff. It's because of shoddy transfers like the ones BU is releasing that I held back from jumping on the BD bandwagon. Hopefully, things get better from here on out.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Brian: I'm almost willing to give THE NEW YORK RIPPER a little bit of wiggle-room since it's clear some scenes were sourced from a secondary print. I wouldn't be shocked if there's still too much noise on the opening scene, but if so that'll only be exaggerated by using dupe-elements - which, of course, casts even further doubt on their claim of being "Now remastered in blood-soaked High-Definition from its original camera negative..."

Sergio: I know I do a lot of bitching, but if you truly love these films you'll probably find a few upgrades worth the expense (assuming you have an HDTV and all that). For all the complaining I've done about titles like NYR, PHENOMENA, BIRD, DEEP RED and others, the HD releases are still an upgrade over the DVDs from the turn of the century. They're not as big an upgrade as they should be, no, but they're still by far the best releases we're going to get in the forseeable future.

Anon: You have my deepest sympathies; working with film licensors is one headache after another, and the more I work with "real" labels and learn the ins' and outs' of releasing someone else's movie, the more sympathy I have for a lot of the decisions some studios have made over the years.

You're always welcome to eMail me if you have any info you'd like to share in a less public setting. (...please? :) )