WILD SIDE (Top) vs ARROW VIDEO (Bottom)
There seems to be a small number of people who enjoy reading the Kentai Blog on the off-chance that they can write off whatever the heck it is I say, many of whom seem convinced I have an "agenda" and want to spread rumors about how certain studios run their business. They can think whatever they like; but what's bothered me is seeing some of these same people say things like "I don't see any fake grain" or "there's nothing wrong with this transfer" when there most certainly is something amiss. Holding the argumentative types aside, I'm sure there's some people out there who legitimately aren't sure what the fuss is about; "grain" and "noise" are basically the same thing, aren't they? That's why they created Digital Video Noise Reduction - to remove film grain because it's bad, right?
Well... perhaps they do use DVNR to remove grain, but "grain" and "noise" aren't really the same thing. Film grain is what the image shot by the camera is actually made from - you can't remove grain from analog photography without affecting detail any more than you can remove pixels from digital images. On a properly calibrated display, film grain should be visible, but typically not distracting. Some film stock produces more grain than others, while poor lighting and optical effects (like "zooming in" during post production, or blue-screen effects) can exaggerate film grain. Also, film prints are made by printing one generation to another; all DVD and Blu-ray transfers should either be scanned from the original camera negative, or a new Interpositive - that is, a new film print made straight from the negative. (Exceptions can occasionally be made for films if the negative is lost or known to be destroyed.) Most films made before the era of digital photography should certainly be grainy, but they shouldn't look like the chewed up print you saw last month at the Googleplex either; the grain should be a natural part of the image, and should neither be smoothed over (DVNR) or sharpened erroneously (EE).
In the first set of images, compare the wall on the right side of the frame, underneath that utterly garish lamp. On the Wild Side master you can see that the wall has a bumpy, knurled texture, which is detail naturally contained 'within' the film grain. However, the Arrow transfer the wall appears completely smooth, yet there's a layer of "stuff" on top of it. Were that film grain, it too would show the texture underneath and be made of random-shaped particles instead of oddly regular, block-like shapes. The once textured wall has become a smooth slab of blurry nothing covered in video noise on the Arrow transfer. Once you "see it", you can look at any part of the image - the curtains, the white shirt and so on - and find that the Arrow master has a layer of blocky, chunky noise without much real world detail to speak of underneath it.
The second image set shows how destructive signal noise can be; while the girl's lovely features are resolved to the point where we can make out individual pores on the Wild Side images, on the Arrow Video transfer you can't make out any "real" detail. Her skin essentially a smooth, waxy mask with a gritty layer of unrelated dithering on top - no pores, no wrinkles, none of the fine, fleshy detail that make the French transfer look so impressive.
The third image speaks for itself, really. Wendel's belt is all but indistinguishable underneath all of that funky noise - but I want to make special mention of the lightbulb. Despite there being a natural layer of film grain on the Wild Side master, the lightbulb's edges becomes an almost analog-static filled diffuse effect on the Arrow master. Once again, this noise is not only unappealing and has nothing to do with the original photography, but it's literally destructive to the contours original image.
Using what we've learned above, let's take a look at a few familiar releases from Blue Underground, Media Blasters and Arrow Video. I'd like all of you all to ponder if what you're looking at is "normal" 35mm film grain, or merely noise that's masking what could otherwise be a natural, filmic image?
The Stendal Syndrome (1996, Technicolor - Blue Underground)
Django (1966, Eastmancolor - Blue Underground)
The Beyond (1981, Techniscope - Arrow Video)
The Cat O' Nine Tails (1970, Techniscope - Blue Underground)
Zombie Holocaust (1980, Technicolor - Media Blasters)
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Eastmancolor - BFI)
City of the Living Dead (1980, Techniscope - Arrow Video)
My goal here isn't to shame these studios for less than optimal transfers - I just want to understand what the hell it is we're seeing here! It seems to be a consistent problem only with Italian film transfers, regardless of their age, what studio licenses them, and by what technical process they were originally made. Though each of these films should look "different" to some degree, they all possess a similar layer of noise that's seemingly unrelated to the actual image the frame at hand should be showing us; a sharp layer of artificial noise on top of an image that may or may not actually be sharp underneath. Some of these transfers are quite sharp underneath all of that noise, and some of them have been so processed that only some of the noise remains, but I think it's fair to say that they all have a consistently ugly, harsh look that can't be attributed solely to the film prints themselves.
The best explanation I've managed to find is one provided by a friend of mine, David MacKenzie, a man who probably knows ten times more about HD sources than I myself do - and I'd like to think that I'm not completely in the dark about all of this stuff. He's posted this theory publicly elsewhere when I showed him a few utterly appalling screenshots from Zombie Holocaust, and I'll repeat the parts that are particularly relevant verbatim:
The use of CRT (and apparently a poorly maintained one at that) would explain why we have a soft focus with sharp noise. The soft focus would be caused by a poorly focused CRT generating a blurry flying spot. And the sharp noise would possibly be explained by failing PECs...
From what I gather, CRT telecine does not automatically equal crap trasnsfer. The reason for Hollywood moving over to CCD was, as I gather, largely to do with the high levels of maintenance that CRT needs to keep it running optimally.
You can read more about the principles on The Almighty Wiki. If all of these transfers are being made in Italy on less than optimized CRT equipment - and in the case of Media Blasters' release of Zombie Holocaust, we know it was produced on a CRT - that could explain a lot. While I don't think the information has ever been confirmed, I wouldn't be surprised if most of Blue Underground and Arrow Video's "new" HD transfers of Italian cult films were being produced by LVR - they've been in business for over 50 years, and there's only so many film labs in Rome to start with. They may or may not have great business relationships with Italian film distribution companies, and may or may not be a lot cheaper than alternatives like Cinecitta and Technicolor... maybe it's a combination of everything. Or maybe I'm completely off base, I just don't know for certain. But I do know that David's theory combined with LVR's hardware specs has produced a seemingly sensible explanation, and this explanation could in turn be applied to a wealth of similarly flawed transfers.
Sadly, even if this is indeed the problem, it only answers some of the issues at hand; why are some Italian film transfers completely free of this ugly digital noise? I certainly wouldn't nominate Arrow Video's release of Phenomena as a reference disc, but underneath that unforunate layer of grain removal it looks a lot more like actual film than any of the titles mentioned above. We also know that Beyond the Darkness was another transfer provided by LVR, but - despite being shot on the naturally lower resolution Super16 format - it still looks ten times better than Zombie Holocaust! Different hardware for 16mm, perhaps? Similarly I have nothing bad to say about the natural looking grain structure found on Arrow Video's release of A Bay of Blood, though one could certainly argue that the washed-out and undersaturated color grading lets down an otherwise great transfer - but that I can theoretically fix all of that just by adjusting my display. If there's a "remove noise and restore lost detail" setting on the Sharp Quattron, I've certainly not found it yet.
I don't for a second believe that any of the above noise-riddled transfers have to look the way that they do; even using a multi-generational theatrical print shouldn't produce grain that looks remotely that harsh. This is a consistent flaw that I can only suspect is the result of shoddy lab work at the telecine process; nothing else makes sense, and having tried to come up with a more interesting solution, even I started to think it sounded crazy. You just don't see a pattern this regular and similar in any other country doing HD transfers for films that - broadly speaking, anyway - all looked pretty damned normal on DVD. I refuse to believe that a film as recent as The Stendhal Syndrome just "has extra grain because", and while not as 'blatant' with the artifact, both Salo and Zombie Holocaust resemble what any of the other noisy transfers on display would look like with some liberal grain removal and scratch repair tools (respectively) turned up to 11. The result is harsh, sharpened noise with smearing artifacts; and as unpleasant as COTLD or Stendhal may be in motion, at least the noise doesn't start to erode when the scene gets brighter or when the camera starts panning.
A few folks have even accused me of being an undercover shill for Midnight Legacy. Look guys, the reason I give Dolph and his comrades in film restoration the benefit of the doubt is that they managed to create a transfer that looks like this:
If a forgotten turd like Alien 2: On Earth can look THAT fucking good, there's absolutely no excuse for any of the examples above. The films aren't the problem, it's whatever the hell they're doing with them to transform analog celluloid into digital video. I hold this transfer up as the gold standard solely because it's the best goddamn Italian Horror transfer on the market, and competes admirably with reference Hollywood transfers like My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I Spit on Your Grave - that's not hard to grasp, is it? Unlike every other licensor out there Midnight Legacy did the grunt work themselves, and the results are utterly phenomenal. Whatever they did (and it's not like the process has been kept a secret), this is what everyone else should be doing, and you just have to compare it to the competition to see why. This is the quality that everybody else should be aiming for, not the middling standards set by The New York Ripper and Inferno, both of which claim to be from the original negative but are clearly from a first generation print, just like the Wild Side transfer of Tenebrae.
Newsflash, every cult label in existence: Sourcing your HD master from a new Interpositive is NOT the same thing as transferring the negative. If you want to pass off those transfers as "from a new print", great, do that. But don't say "original negative" unless you actually mean it, and don't say "newly transferred" if we've seen that same goddamn master on DVD before. We're not stupid, and we will call you on shit like that. We don't appreciate being lied to, and it only makes us not want to trust you in the future.
Blue Underground and Media Blasters have both promised us new transfers from the negatives for Zombie and Burial Grounds, respectively. Torso, Cannibal Holocaust, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals and 4 Flies on Gray Velvet are all coming up before the year's end. Raro Video is threatening to release Minerva's catalog on Blu-ray, and you can bet your ass I'll be first in line for Perfume of the Lady in Black. Midnight Legacy is currently digging through Roman film vaults for their secretive second title, and even Criterion has a chance to one-up BFI with their announcement of Salo. In terms of being able to get these films in HD, it's a good place to be in... the only question left is "How do they look?"
As a fan of these films I'm very excited, but I'm also worried. If any of the above titles have that all too familiar layer of video noise, then I'll only consider them a partial success. What's especially frustrating is I'm sure most (if not all) of these masters are finalized and ready for post-production work, if not replication, so at this point all we can do is cross our fingers and wait...