Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rock & Rule High School

As I'm so prone to do these days, I gave Media Blasters a lot of shit for their embarrassing Blu-ray presentation of Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. Every word of that remains true, and I will never, ever forgive Kitty Media for that bullshit - but it's dawned on me that I wasn't especially fair in stating what I had expected from it in the first place. As I'd briefly said, if the presentation were complete and in the right aspect ratio I might not have been totally enthused by the results, but I'd have at least given the release a pass as being everything that it was ever apt to be. Honestly, what should we expect from a fourth-generation release print?

As time goes on, restoring titles from the camera negative for Blu-ray has almost become standard; making an Interpositive and going from there is still acceptable, but with technology having advanced to the point where the whole camera negative can be scanned without damaging it, there's really no reason NOT to go from the best archival elements around. Of course, for some films that just isn't possible; the negative is either considered lost or are known to have been destroyed, leaving film licensors with nothing especially good to restore the feature from. One of the more fascinating examples were the "Grindhouse" quality DVD releases of Pets and The Last House on Dead End Street, mastered from what may be the last surviving 35mm elements in the world, but low-budget 1970s exploitation films taken from blow-up elements that were stored in some dude's attic for 30+ years is probably a discussion unto itself.

I've decided to take a look at the 2010 Unearthed Films Blu-ray release of Clive A. Smith's ROCK & RULE. Information about the restoration of the title can be found HERE. The short version is that the negative for the film was destroyed years ago in a warehouse fire, ruining most of the materials for what may be the one good thing Nelvana ever gave the world. The 1080p restoration for the film was made using a single, and very well-worn theatrical print, and the results are... well, let's just let the transfer speak for itself:

While perhaps not approaching the heights of clarity offered by Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind's 8k OCN restoration, the outlines are crisp without looking digitally sharpened, a low level of grain is still evident, and all of the major pieces of film damage - dirt, scratches, staining and the like - have been removed using tools that haven't removed details that should remain, like drops of rain and blinking console lights. Unearthed Films may have a long history of releasing some pretty low-rent splatter films from humble as hell video origins, but they certainly didn't skimp when they had a 35mm sourced feature that was in dire need of some tender love and care. One of the few special features missing from the Blu-ray was a comparison between the raw footage and the final transfer, and calling them "night and day" is an absolute understatement.

There are numerous issues inert to the print, and while I can't ignore them I can certainly take them in the context of this being the only surviving materials left. For one thing, the black levels are crushed, the whites are blown out, and the colors appear oversaturated; this is the unfortunate reality of working with multi-generational elements. Every time you expose one print to the next you're kicking the contrast up higher and hotter, and if you do that enough times (say, three or four) you've already destroyed any of the shadow detail the negative may have had. This is the risk you run when your elements are shit, and there really isn't anything you can do about it. I applaud the transfer for at least remaining consistent; the film looks too dark almost from start to finish, but furry-flesh tones and obnoxious colors such as Omar's jacket are spot on from scene to scene. The "look" of the materials are slightly unfortunate, but with the director overseeing the color correction and the limitations of being an actual release print, I have no doubt that's simply as good as it can ever look now.

There's clearly a level of grain manipulation, evidenced (if nothing else) by the overwhelming lack of it compared to what we've seen from a multitude of other cartoons made from around the same period. Being a release print it should have substantially more grain than something taken from the camera negative, but that just isn't the case. At least it's nowhere near as clean-scrubbed as those unsettlingly smoothed over Disney transfers that have only started to shift towards a more natural, film like appearance. There's quite a bit of texture hiding in every nook and cranny of the background art (that's not shrouded in darkness anyway), and while I can't say that it looks quite as natural as something like Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings or Heavy Metal, the latter of which is exactly what the majority of traditional animated transfer should aspire to be, in both cases those features still have negatives to go back to. There's no obvious temporal smearing artifacts to complain about, and when the film switches to optically printed effects the grain looks more pronounced and coarse, just as it should. In short, it looks as objectively "good" as it can without literally looking like a chewed up print complete with stains and flickering and the like. I do wish the grain had been retained fully, but considering how little loss of real-world detail this seems to have caused I'm mostly bitching about semantics and personal preference.

The only footage sourced from the old analog video masters is the title card, which (as the DVD proved) was actually re-titled The Ring of Power by distributors at the last second. Why? Beats the hell out of me. I can only assume that Bakshi's aforementioned LOTR feature was getting a re-release at the time, and they were hoping to piggy-back their drug and clevage fueled road movie about summoning demons with the power of rock 'n' roll onto a film they already knew was a commercial success. It sounds ridiculous I know, but if they'll try to sell Tombs of the Blind Dead as a sequel to Planet of the Apes, cripes, ANYTHING is possible...

The final disc has a few major problems, but for better or worse most of those are on the authoring/encoding end, not the original mastering. The audio is presented as vanilla Dolby Digital, but as the mixes were ultimately sourced from the optical tracks from nearly 30 year old prints, it's doubtful that a lossless track would have sounded much different anyway. The start of the film is full of hiss and pops, even, proving that - just like the video - there's a level of "it's fucked" that can't be scrubbed away digitally. At least the film's soundtrack comes through loud and clear, and they've crafted a surprisingly competent sounding 5.1 mix despite no stem materials existing.

The bitrate for the video is a painfully low 14 mb/s, which is prone to spatial smoothing and even overt pixelation as evident in a few of these screenshots, but for better or worse the rampant motion and remaining level of grain makes many of these artifacts notably less obvious than screenshots on their own might leave you to expect. I hate to suggest that the more minor compression artifacts 'blend in' to the film's already course and slightly irregular grain structure, but that's really the effect the transfer has most of the time. (That Dance! Dance! Dance! sequences, however, does look pretty fucking bad even in motion.) Though the compromised bitrate leave this release well below the level expected of a "reference" transfer, the master underneath seems almost breathtaking, leaving the presentation a deeply frustrating experience.

Shockingly enough, my biggest complaint are the clunky menus; pressing "pop-up menu" presents floating text that, instead of presenting an actual pop-up menu, send you to whichever page from the main menu you may be looking for. Seriously, they should have disabled the pop-up menu completely at that point! This niggling detail in particular suggests to me that Unearthed was less to blame for the low-balled compression than whatever post house they went to for their High Definition debut; this shit's complicated, and if the guy you're trusting to understand the technical details doesn't really have a clue, you're pretty much boned. Unearthed clearly spared no expense during the restoration of the title, so to see much of that work get fudged at the last possible stage is almost painful to see. I can only hope their upcoming second BD release, The Scarlet Worm, fares better during post production.

Rock & Rule certainly doesn't have the spit-polish we've come to expect from properly stored negatives, but it still looks every bit as good as it probably ever will, compression aside. The transfer has all the weave and grit that prove it was a piece of hand-crafted art that's to some degree lacking from "modern" digital animation, but that doesn't mean it has to look like a goddamned fecal-stained workprint. Let's also not forget that this was all done back in 2005, too - tech and standards have broadly improved across the board since this transfer was made, and yet it still wipes its ass with that brand new Overfiend transfer! Unearthed is, and always has been, a substantially smaller label than Media Blasters too - so I don't want to hear a word about how "smaller labels can't always do what bigger labels can". If Unearthed Films can do it, anyone else worth their salt in this business can too.

Ignoring the weak compression, Rock & Rule is still a perfect example of what a vintage print is capable of being in High Definition with enough work behind it. I don't wish these particular circumstances on any licensor - the negative should always be the goal, and if it still exists, there probably isn't a good enough excuse not to use it. I have little doubt that some of the more obscure and colorful titles are only going to have similarly compromised film materials on hand, and if you're not willing to put in enough time and money to make it look at least as good as Rock & Rule, you probably have no business shuffling it out on Blu-ray to start with.

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