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.
Toei DRAGON BOX DVD
FUNimation LEVEL 1.1 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.