Friday, September 09, 2011

FUNimation's Got Grainy HD Balls

The latest episode of the ANNCast features two people in charge of DVD/Blu-ray production for FUNimation, and talks at length about their SD upscales, how they try to work with fan feedback, and some horrifying anecdotes about scorpions. Yes, fucking scorpions. Seriously, humans aren't meant to live in Texas and scorpions are the only proof we should need of this.

But the real surprise is that FUNimation had some A/B comparison images of their upcoming DRAGON BALL Z: LEVEL 1.1 Blu-ray transfer for dorks like me to scrutinize. I can't say for sure if these are 100% representative of the final quality we can expect or if they're cherry picking the goods to shut opinionated assholes (ie: guys like me) up with the best of the best... but here's what we've gotten, anyway. Keep in mind I've resized the DVD images and cropped the Blu-ray stuff, and since they were heavily compressed to start with I once more JPG'ed their asses. This is SCIENCE!! in only the vaguest and least professional of terms, but it sure is neat, so let's get started.


FUNimation LEVEL 1.1 BLU-RAY

Toei DVD

FUNimation BD

Toei DVD

FUNi Blu-ray

I've gotta say, I'm perfectly happy to eat crow ass-first on this one: if these comparisons are to be trusted, the FUNimation "Level X.Y" HD Remaster is indeed an improvement on the covered Toei Dragon Boxes. Mind you topping an SD transfer from 2003 can't be that fucking hard, but FUNi's come a long way since trying to convince us that removing grain and reformatting a 90s TV show into 16:9 widescreen was a good thing, so I'm trying to stay positive here.

The first thing to punch you in the jaw is how grainy this new transfer is. That's mostly a good thing; Dragon Ball Z was a weekly TV series produced on 16mm, and while FUNimation loves to say they're going from "original Japanese film masters" that doesn't instantly tell us much. They could be fine-grain prints from the OCN, they could be internegatives made from whatever positive prints were actually used for the broadcast telecine back in 1989 - FUNimation has never explicitly said, so we really can't know for sure. In any case they're using prints that are located in a vault in Texas and have been used on both their 4:3 "singles" DVDs as well as their 16:9 "Orange Brick" sets, so we can be certain they're not going from the actual negative. More generations removed means more inevitable layers of grain, and while there's a slightly "blotchy" quality to the grain in these caps, I'll remind you all a second time that these are heavily compressed, and grain structure is the first thing to suffer when you're trying to make a BD cap take up 1/4 the space of a PNG.

The other thing I'm impressed by is the color saturation. Long have fans of Dragon Ball Z lamented that FUNi's transfers have boosted, unnatural colors and contrast compared to Toei's DVD transfers, and up until now they had a damn valid point. Again, FUNi's using the same exact 16mm prints as they always have, so the actual quality of the colors - such as Bulma's hair being closer to blue than Toei's teal as shown in the first cap - do have some consistency with all of FUNimation's prior releases. That said, the Dragon Box looks oversaturated in direct comparison; the clouds in that same first shot have a similarly teal push, and in the second shot Gokuu's gi is a neutral orange reminiscent of most of the merchandise I've bought featuring the character over the years. On the Dragon Box, it's about two steps away from brick red! I can't claim to know for certain which "look" the show's color coordinator actually wanted people to see circa 1989, but as they were mostly watching it on 17" tubes it's arguable that any and all prior version of Dragon Ball Z should be considered only with a grain of salt. (And maybe a fifth of tequila.)

The BD master has notably more frame info on the left and bottom, slightly more at the top, and the right side seems to be negligible. This is a substantial improvement over their ridiculous 16:9 DVD masters, and while experiene has taught me that there are some perfectly valid reasons to crop off the edges of the frame, generally speaking I'd rather have more of the image than less.

I'm not going to get my panties wadded up over this yet, but it is odd that there's very little grain on the left, dark side of Bulma's chair in the first cap. Again, these are lossy JPG caps, so it's entirely possible that we're just seeing the result of bandwidth-saving compression. Less easy to blame on compression what appears to be mild ringing in the third cap around virtually any horizontal line on Napa's face: It looks like pretty mild sharpening to me, and having heard the FUNimation tech on the podcast say they were against sharpening filters it might well have been something done at the telecine stage before they got to it. Sharpening could help explain why the 16mm grain has an extremely "coarse" look to it too, but I shouldn't read too much into isolated promotional images. If there is some edge enhancement here it's clearly very minor, and I doubt it'd be especially distracting.

One other piece of info that was oddly lacking from FUNi's DBZ pimping were the words "new telecine". Was the initial HD transfer done in 4:3 and without horribly boosted contrast and scratch repair artifacts, only to be brutalized with bad decisions somewhere further down the chain? And if so, is FUNimation using the HD telecine made at least four years ago for their DVD box sets? It's entirely possible, and without them specifying that it's a new telecine we have no other major reason to assume it is. Still, as these caps suggest there wasn't much wrong with the actual telecine work; I'm sure a 2k scan circa 2011 would turn out better than a 1080p scan circa 2006, but the difference would be minor. And with 291 episodes to scan, I'm sure they sunk a fortune into that initial transfer, and we know FUNi has bought several shiny new workstations to remove the grit baked into the prints that makes what I can do with scripts look like a joke. If the corner they cut is not paying for 100+ hours of new telecine work, I think it might be the best compromise we could ask for.

Again, this shouldn't be taken as an exhaustive comparison or even a review, but after having feared the worst it's a damned interesting little surprise. FUNimation fucked up hard several years ago when they "remastered" Dragon Ball Z in the single most ass way possible, but this is the company finding a way to make amends for their sin against commercial art, and they've turned me around completely from assuming this was going to be a pathetic cash-in of left over materials into seeing it as a totally respectful approach to a show that has so rarely been given much respect in the first place. No word yet on wither or not the Japanese credits and episode previews will be restored. It's common knowledge that FUNimation's film masters simply don't have them included, so I'm not getting my hopes up. Still, if that's all that's missing this release could well be an impressive and ambitious upgrade to fans of Toriyama's masterpiece... ambitions enough to convince me to buy 17 separate SKUs? Well, we'll just have to wait and see on that one.

The original link also has comparisons with the "Orange Brick" sets I talked about a while back. I refuse to waste my bandwidth on those fucking things, but at least it proves that the blown-out contrast on the faux-widescreen sets was not the results of the prints themselves.


Anonymous said...

At least, it has presentable film grain, which is more than I can say about the recent BU blus of "The 10th Victim" and "Torso". More electronic noise garbage from Italy...yuck! This does not bode well for "Zombie"...although my fingers are crossed.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Is TORSO really out and about? I haven't seen any screenshots yet... but yes, based on the DVDBeaver review, THE 10TH VICTIM looks like another odd-looking noisy transfer from BU/LVR. The noise is uneven and seems to cling to moving areas of the screen, suggesting that DVNR may have been used to hide just how gritty the initial results were?

As far as DBZ goes, I'm pretty damn sure the 16mm grain has been "enhanced" slightly, intentionally or not. I have little doubt that FUNimation went back to their own HD telecine from 2007, and considering the clusterfuck of a restoration that followed I only trust that work to be so good to start with. Still, what we're seeing can't be accused of being scrubbed clean, and that's more than I can say for Toei's own attempt at the same material via the 21st century remix, DRAGON BALL KAI.

I'll say without hesitaiton that I much prefer slightly sharpened grain to slightly smeared grain, but that all boils down to personal taste.

Anonymous said...

No, "Torso" on blu ray has not yet been released, but I have seen a sneak peak, and it ain't pretty. There are a couple of reviews so you can judge for yourself at Mondo Digital and 10000 Bullets and you can see the nasty noise up close and personal( for some reason it got positive reviews on the video front from both sites, although Mondo Digital, to their credit, did point out the noise problem which plagues "The 10th Victim").

Kriztoffer Swank said...

I'm fuckin' tired and my eyes are buggin' out (thus don't wanna read a lot of text), so give me the STRAIGHT SKINNY! What the hell am I looking at here? Are these THE Blu-rays FUNimation will be releasing, or are they some kind of special line of BDs? Last I had heard, FUNi were releasing their awful "orange brick" masters to BD.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Kriztoffer: Near as anyone can tell, FUNi's going back to the untouched 4:3 HD scan from their 2007 "Orange Brick" sets and then restoring them from there. So it's an older telecine, but a brand new restoration thereof - if that makes sense. And yes, what you see here should be what we get. Crazy, huh?

Anonymous: Whilst THE 10TH VICTIM does look like the usual funky, noisy LVR crap... I dunno, those caps for TORSO over on Rock! Shock! Pop! really don't look too bad. I have no doubt they could look marginally better still coming from a lab using more modern equipment, but for the first time in a while, I'm actually eager to replace a 10 year old DVD with a Blue Underground release!

If ZOMBI 2 has a similar grain structure and level of fine detail, I think I'll live. Torso is s a notch or two below reference I'm sure (it's no ALIEN 2 or THE IMAGE, clearly!), but at least it's competent, and after all the shit Shriek Show has been releasing, I'll take "competent" in a heart-beat.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Well hey, if these BDs are consistently good and grainy as hell, and I really do like that subdued color saturation as well, I'll definitely wanna buy these. Only thing is, 17 episodes at MSRP $35...that's rough. Do I wait, or do I show FUNimation the support for awesome Blu-rays?

Anonymous said...

Would not be the first time I was wrong about a title. I will gladly eat my words if I am:). Perhaps, it was the equipment/machine I was viewing it on, which I freely admit is not the greatest. Cheers for your thoughts.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Kriztoffer: That's kind of a tough call. FUNimation is only half way through DRAGON BALL KAI and is replacing the prior four sets with two "Season" collections - but that's a bizarre circumstance where Toei is basically forcing them to replace the product with one that has the "Original" Kukuchi score.

(For those unaware, the composer who's handled KAI and most of the videogames from the PS3/360 era has been cribbing music from progressive rock and Hollywood soundtracks for years, and went as far as to start blatantly ripping off tunes from recent films like Terminator Salvation and Avatar... here's a taste of his more blatant lifts on YOUTUBE. It's... amusing, to say the least.)

That said, priced-down anime sets are as inevitable as death and taxes. If you have the Dragon Boxes (as I do), I'd almost say wait... but I'm buying the first set, just to inspect it myself and be sure that it's everything promised and nothing less. Wither I keep buying or sell "Level 1.1" off and then go for the inevitable sets will likely depend on just how impressed by the final results I am.

Anonymous: S'all good, man. It's entirely possible that whatever noise the transfer has looks even worse in motion, or maybe these grabs are the best of the bunch. But based on what R!S!P! put up, I don't have any major complaints.

I still wouldn't say TORSO looks un-frackin'-believable or anything, but after BURIAL GROUND and the jokes Image has been squatting out, my expectations for vintage horror transfers are so far down the shitter that I'm just grateful to see something that doesn't fill my eyes with vomit. The fact that all prior DVDs look like scorched ass only makes it look that much better by comparison.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

What are your thoughts on the "Kai" sets, by the way? I have the first one, haven't actually watch it fully, but I've sampled it. I was impressed. Looks really soft.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Never picked up the KAI BDs since I much prefer the "classic" flavor of Dragon Ball Z. I think I watched the first three or four revamped episodes when it first premiered, and quickly found it just wasn't for me. It's not awful and I suppose it's a fine way for a new fan to get an acquaintance with the material, but I just couldn't bring myself to buy them while the Dragon Boxes were still looming at retail.

That said, screenshots certainly suggest heavy-handed DVNR. Grain is uneven at best and totally non-existent at worst, which is simply abnormal for 16mm film. Color timing looks okay and I'm sure there's little to no film damage to complain about, but KAI looks like extremely heavily processed video, not 16mm film. I seriously hope their inevitable Blu-ray release of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR TV looks nothing like this, but with the "HD Remastered" box possessing very little in the way of obvious grain, only time will tell...

So while FUNi's grain might be slightly exaggerated for one reason or another, old Toei blasted it, uh, straight into another dimension.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Whoops, meant to say I wasn't impressed with the BD for Kai. Really soft image, grain-free, just looked too smooth and uninteresting. Quality was also very inconsistent.

What's this about music score? Do the original Kai BDs from FUNimation not feature the original music, or does Kai have an all-new score that Toei would rather see replaced by the original show's score? Kinda lost me there.

Wouldn't Fist of the North Star be handled by Discotek Media? Their DVDs look quite nice. Just wish the really violent, originally cut bits in the movie didn't look so poor.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Toei Animation restored both DRAGON BALL KAI and FIST OF THE NORTH STAR TV in High Definition, was all I was trying to say. They restored the two GALAXY EXPRESS 999 films, too... man, you want to talk about a DVNR-fest!!

For reference, the Discotek FOTNS DVD box sets and the Toei HD REMASTER box are made from the same source materials, and while they look "fine" on DVD where excessive grain and low bitrates turns into blotchy mosquito noise, I'm not totally certain what that says about their potential HD release...

As far as the score stuff goes, it's (basically) this; when DRAGON BALL KAI premiered, it was accompanied by an all-new score composed by Kenji YAMAMOTO. About two years in, Yamamoto was accused of plagiarizing the hell out of... well, everything. While I don't think any charges have been filed, some of the cribbing is painfully obvious (check the previous YouTube link for comparions) and made Toei look foolish for hiring him, if nothing else. Various DBZ-related video game scores include rip-offs of Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Journey, details of which can be found HERE... and yes, I'm actually a big enough dork that I realized "the riff" from IRON MAN was droning in the menus of a PS2 Dragon Ball fighting game when I bought it several years ago. (Thought it was goddamn hilarious at the time.)

Toei went into panic mode. The last few JP episodes defaulted back to musical pieces composed for the "classic" version of Dragon Ball Z by Shunsuke KIKUCHI, which don't have potential lawsuit written all over them. All concurrent JP home video and international broadcasts also feature the "Z" score by Kikuchi. This includes the FUNimation English dub that was being broadcast by Nicktoons, though I can't for the life of me remember which episode it was on. (English dubbed Dragon Ball is my own personal Kryptonite, so this should surprise no-one.)

FUNimation's release of KAI Volume 1-4 (containing episodes 1-52) feature the now-verboten Kenji Yamamoto score. Vol 5 onward feature the Kikuchi score, and the KAI "Seasons 1-2" (also containing episodes 1-52) have the Kikuchi score, as well. Essentially Toei wants to pretent the Yamamoto score never existed, but there's simply too many copies of it available to do that completely, so they're using the inevitable box-sets to at least erase them as cheapest option out there.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Thanks for the information so that my lazy ass didn't have to seek it out on my own, ha.

By the way, something you might find interest in, possibly, if you haven't heard of it... Listening to this album by Secret Chiefs 3 right now, Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini. Music done in the vein of '70s giallo scores. Just got it in the mail today. Preeeeeetty cool. (I was already a fan of their Book of Horizons album, which kicks all sorts of ass.)

Anonymous said...

"but FUNi's come a long way since trying to convince us that removing grain and reformatting a 90s TV show into 16:9 widescreen was a good thing,"

Oh the irony. If only you'd known what they would do to DBZ after the level sets!