Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A word about SD Video and Blu-ray

Recently, Media Blasters released their own co-produced Japanese exploitation features THE MACHINE GIRL and TOKYO GORE POLICE on Blu-ray. The buzz for both of these films has been positive since they came out, and while we've been treated to a total of two Tokyo Gore Police DVDs and no less than three SKU's for The Machine Girl, they've both made their American High Definition debut in the last several weeks.

There's just one teeny little problem...

The Machine Girl

Tokyo Gore Police

Now I know what some of you are thinking; "Here he goes again, another Media Blasters fueled shit-storm".  While yes, this is a cause for concern, it's not for the reasons you might think.

If you're not blind you've surely noticed the heinous compression blocking and aliasing all over The Machine Girl. Not that I'm surprised - there was a UK Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing back when the film first got licensed to the Britains, and it looked pretty much identical. It could even be the same exact encode for all I know.

Let's be real for a second here; The Machine Girl was shot and/or finished on NTSC DV. There's literally no other explanation for why it would look half that fugly. DV was certainly a step forward technologically speaking in 1995, literally before DVD even existed, but it's heavily compressed, the chroma subsampling is a joke, and the cameras themselves are often about as well built as a cardboard Cessna. DV is just professional enough to make a cheap direct-to-video exploitation film on... so, that's what Noboru IGUCHI and his pals did. If it wasn't literally shot on DV is may have been edited and color-corrected on the format, but it absolutely had to have been on that gnarly format at some point.

Tokyo Gore Police is, per multiple viewers' word, a consistently nasty looking mess filled with aliasing, noise and a lack of any real detail. I don't think it was shot on DV, no, but I strongly suspect it was still shot on some sort of compressed SD video format. If it was shot in HD there's absolutely no high-frequency detail. I think it's very safe to say that, despite being the stronger of the two, we're still probably looking at Standard Definition materials having been given an artificial resolution bump via HD upscaling and some minor edge-sharpening filters.

And you know what? That's just fine by me. Unlike 35mm film, which can be re-scanned at high resolution at any time, productions that were either filmed on SD video, or shot on film and then heavily edited on SD video, or rendered to any resolution and output to SD video (ie: at least half the TV bound Animation from the last 15 years or so) will never truly be available in High Definition; the resolution simply doesn't exist. Upscaling is literally the only option for a distributor to offer it on Blu-ray, and similarly the only way for a consumer to buy a release without the lossy audio and heavy compression artifacts that'll likely be present on a DVD, but sidestepped completely by a faux-HD presentation. I was skeptical of SD upscales until I had the chance to see a few for myself, and while it's never as good as a "real" HD presentation, it regularly still beats the living snot out of any DVD.

The very first anime Blu-ray in Japan, Kyoto Animation's AIR galge adaptation, was an upscale. Animation in particular can benefit from a lack of compression artifacts, and the following comparison between the recent Japanese Blu-ray of LuckyStar - provided by the good jungen over at Anime In Blu - paints a very clear picture of how much better even upscaled SD material can look in quasi-HD using MPEG-4 and 5 times the bandwidth of DVD.

Upscaled US DVD

Upscaled JP Blu-ray
(Come on, guy! You just know Konata would approve of you spending $375 on this upscale...)

There's just one thing Media Blasters forgot to do, and that was tell potential consumers that their over the top gorefests were upscaled from standard definition masters. FUNimation pulled that shit for a while too, releasing upsampled material and in no way, shape or form informing customers wither they were getting a "real" HD product or just an upscale. Eventually FUNi wised up and started putting "HD Native" on the box for shows actually sourced from  High Definition masters, and uses the term "SD Remaster" for titles where they were just upsampled them. Japanese studios have mostly been good about pointing out which titles are upscales ("1080i Upconvert" is the usual jargon they use), though with so many studios releasing so many titles it was pretty much inevitable that a few fuck-ups were made along the way.

Look, I get it. Tokyo Gore Police isn't going to get any less SD, that's fine. It's not like Ichi the Killer where you upscaled a ten year old Digibeta of something originally shot on 35mm - what you see is as good as it gets. If you as a producer want to offer me, as a consumer, your gruesomely goofy B-movies on Blu-ray, that's cool. Just say something on the case so I know that I'm getting a transfer from chintzy source materials and don't waste $25 when I already spent that much on the DVD that, by all counts, is 90% as good as that BD's ever going to be. Be honest - just say it's "1080p SD Remaster" or "1080p Upscale" -  that's not so hard, is it?

Oh, yeah. There's also the fact that the Tokyo Gore Police Blu-ray case says it's a two-disc special edition with all the trimmings from the "Tokyo Gore Police 1.5" double-disc DVD... it does not. It only has the feature and trailers, not the behind-the-scenes bonuses or the short film. That's pretty goddamn weak sauce right there. If you want to keep the extras to the SE DVD, I guess that's fine, but goddamn! Someone needs to check this shit before it goes off for replication.


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