Monday, July 18, 2011

Versus Revisited: Or, Why I Give MB So Much Crap

There's been a lot of stamping and snorting over Netflix having kicked up its' prices as of September. While I can appreciate people being upset that the price for streaming has been evaluated substantially higher than it's bitrate-starved transfers really deserve, my bill is going to jump by a meager $6 - which is still less than the ticket to see a film in a theater. Yeah, it sucks, but I've simply kicked my plan down slightly since I never seem to watch more than 1 rental in a week on disc these days anyway, and have had periods where I get so busy with other crap I'll have two discs sitting in a drawer for weeks on end. Hardly the best use of my resources, I know.

But this post isn't about Netflix, exactly. No, it's a peek inside the vengeful brain of your host, dear readers, so that you might understand why I've been so... frustrated, I suppose, with the Media Blasters company. Understand that I was one of those saps who spent $195 on Berserk as it came out on six individual volumes, mono tracks and DVD5s and all, and then was thrilled to spend $50 again just to get the "remastered" versions made from the very same Digibeta sources. I own more Tokyo Shock and Shriek Show titles than I can keep track of these days, and Queen's Blade remains one of my favorite anime Blu-ray releases so far in terms of value for my dollar and overall high quality presentation. I don't hate John Sirabella personally, or even wish ill of his company - that'd be asinine anyway as I have far more important people in my life to hate and spite. I just wish the quality of their product was consistent. When they're on a roll, we get high quality releases like Anthropophagous. When they're not, we get shockingly awful clusterfucks like Werewolf Woman. If we had more of the former and less of the latter they'd probably have all of my money instead of just most of it, and the frustration I feel towards them is because they're so amazingly hit or miss to start with.

Anyway, a year or so ago I saw screenshots of Ryuhei KITAMURA's amazingly awesome 2000 action-satire horror extravaganza VERSUS and immediately knew something was amiss. There was very little in the way of grain, detail was consistently piss poor, and the film looked very similar in terms of color and framing to the prior DVD release, which in turn appeared to have been copied from the source materials used for the Japanese DVD dating back to 2001. I wrote these images off as upscaled from Standard Definition, and knowing Media Blasters has sourced some material from absolutely dire sources, I wasn't ready to put it past them either. Still, even a marginal increase in compression quality (and a lack of interlaced encoding) would make the film probably less horrific than the R1 DVD, so I decided to rent the Tokyo Shock Versus BD myself. Besides, a friend of mine has never seen the film and I'd vaguely rather he watched it via an upscaled Blu-ray than a DVD with compression artifacts and hard interlacing out the face-hole.


1080p Original

1080p to 480i to 1080p via Lanczos (AVISynth)

1080p

480i

1080p

480i

1080p

480i

As you can see... the disc just looks like standard definition video. There's simply no detail on display anywhere you can't resolve past 480i, and even the grain structure remains totally unaffected at lower resolutions. What subtle softening appears on the SD version I'd be willing to write off as a combination of sharpening on the original at the "HD" stage, and the fact that no scaling algorithm is quite perfect; you always lose some small level of detail when you convert down, so even a confirmed SD upscale like any of FUNimation's "SD Remaster" titles will look slightly softer once you shrink it back to NTSC resolution. The fact that the Blu-ray transfer has an average bitrate of 12 Mb/s is a joke, but the source is such a blurry mess of nothing that it probably doesn't make much of a difference; there's no material complex enough to block up over.

I said the title was an upscale based on about a dozen screenshots initially, and having the disc in front of me didn't change my opinion... not until I noticed this, at least:


1080p

480i

Now this is curious. The hairs caked onto the print and accompanying emulsion scratches appear to have detail that surpassed 480i, which would at least in theory rule out being sourced from Digibeta. The small scratch on the villain's lip in particular has been distorted beyond recognition at SD resolution, and that's using a higher quality scaling algorithm than usual. While this doesn't speak highly of the transfer as a whole if ONLY print damage has detail that surpasses DVD resolution, it does throw a kink in my original theory, if nothing else. So just to be safe, let's take a look at the credits...


1080p

480i


Huh! Well, that's ever-so-slightly better resolved than Zombi Holocaust's title card. Make of that what you will,  I guess...

I'm very torn on this one. On the one hand, Versus does - despite my initial guess - appear to be from a legitimate High Definition source... a stunningly blurry, suspiciously grainless HD source with virtually no high frequency detail to speak of outside of the dings that are physically on the print itself. My only guess as to how they managed this rather impressive feat is that whatever film lab Media Blasters used blurred the crap out of it during the telecine phase - either that or the print they were handed by the licensees in Japan was spectacularly boned before MB ever got it. But no, even the less than stellar Shout! Factory Audition BD suggests that a blurry-ass Interneg should still have fine grain and analog resolution surpassing NTSC. If anyone else has a better suggestion, please comment - all I can do now is scratch my head and wonder exactly who screwed the pooch here, even if it's ultimately Media Blasters that has to take responsibility for it.

Even if legitimate "HD" detail were present in the feature proper, the release would still have been a bit of a technical quagmire. Resolution aside, the print MB used looks like it was stored in a knife drawer; I'm not exaggerating when I say there's at least one scratch or spot on the print every second, and more often than not there's probably a dozen or more. While not holding a candle to the blatant Grindhouse Quality of the old German bootleg of 4 Flies on Gray Velvet or even the "extended" print of The Killer, it really looks like a beaten down whore of a print, and meanwhile the DVD looks like a positively minty fresh Interpositive without so much as a scratch leading up to the title... sadly, that DVD is also a sludgy DVNR fest with piss-poor compression, so don't for a second think that it's "better" - it's just cleaner. I certainly don't despise occasional and minor film damage, that analog "sparkle" Spielberg loves to wax poetic over, but the level of grit on display for the Versus Blu-ray is clearly above and beyond what the Japanese materials were capable of a decade ago.

The disc is at least loaded up with three lossless audio tracks - one totally extraneous I might add, and the laundry list of DVD extras were all squeezed so tightly on a single layer disc that it's a wonder it didn't explode under pressure. Sadly, none of that actually makes a difference with the source having limited the transfer's potential from the start; there's no real grain to pixelate up on to start with, just a hazy layer of softened noise and an occasionally pronounced grain structure during optical effects, so the low bitrate just makes a mediocre master even less impressive than it probably did when the master was struck. I have no doubt that if MB were to release Versus today they'd cram everything on a BD-50... thank fuck for small favors.

At the end of the day it's still a garbage presentation of an amazingly great movie, it just happens to be garbage for reasons other than what I had thought they were... Well, crap. I'm not an all-knowing oracle? I'd better change those business cards, fast! I'm sure this is where a few people will expect me to eat a fist full of humble pie and grovel for John Sirabella's forgiveness, but honestly I don't feel too awful about it: I was only wrong because Media Blasters managed to craft a transfer that was so wretched that it still looks like a goddamn standard definition master. Cripes, is that somehow better? That MB managed to trick me into thinking this out of focus mess was an upscale, even though it wasn't? I honestly can't tell anymore. I'm not sure if I was happier just assuming this was sourced from Digibeta or not, because then at least the incompetence seemed like cheap ignorance instead of having legitimately tried and failed. Shit, now I almost feel bad for Media Blasters... but then I remember the unprecedented horror that was Ichi the Killer on Blu-ray, and remind myself they can still kiss my ass.

Having come to the depressing conclusion that Media Blasters can manage to fuck up an HD remaster this hard, yeah, I'm now more or less willing to believe that Flesh Eater was transferred at 2k from a 35mm blow-up print... if not particularly well. (I guess I'd take Flesh Eater's middling transfer over Maniac!, a monstrosity I'll have to discuss another day...) I absolutely refuse to pick up that disc, ever, so I'm just going to shrug and give Shriek Show a blind pass this once. And as for Zombi Holocaust... meh, maybe that one I'll get my hands on and pick apart properly, but I certainly won't make it a priority. Sorry boys, but I can only handle so much fug in a single month and I'm pretty damned sure that The Cap'N is going to take me for a ride I'll never forget...


Also, just for the record:
Ichi the Killer is still a fucking 480i upscale.

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