Saturday, December 29, 2012

High Res Scanners

Last year, I briefly covered the Koch Media Blu-ray of David Cronenberg's inexplicably classic science fiction experiment SCANNERS. That release was so god-awful it gave the word "upscale" a bad name, and I'd have sooner suggested anyone within earshot wiped his ass with fifteen Euros than actually paid for that atrocity.

Thankfully for the impatient Cronenbergophiles among us, German label FILMART? BLACK HILL teamed up with SUBKULTUR-ENTERTAINMENT and have just released a completely new Blu-ray of the film, and the A/B COMPARISON at Caps-A-Holic couldn't possibly be any more in their favor. MGM HD had shown the film from a high quality 1080p source since long before Koch's miserable upscale, so while it was inevitable that we'd get to see it eventually it's still nice to see just how dramatic an improvement this release is!

Bonus features aren't exactly epic in scope, but you do get a still gallery, original trailers in both English and German, and the rather rare treat of a "Music and Effects" track, which are common on archival tape masters but almost never find their way out to the general public. It's also got a new interview with Stephen Lack (presumably in English)* and a commentary with Narcus Stiglegger, a German pop-culture aficionado who founded the German "Ikonen" magazine. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that's not an English friendly feature.

For those interested - and word is the disc is region free, despite the case promising "Region B" only - just make sure the cover looks like THIS. Full color, Ironside's looking off to the right, and a big ugly "UNCUT!" blob on the cover. Koch Media had a funky monochromatic design, which was suitably drab for the shitty transfer it held. There's also a LIMITED EDITION (1,000 copies) from FilmArt that comes in a Digipak with a booklet and a DVD copy - nice of them to offer different editions and price points and all that, but I just don't see anything there worth an extra 10 Euros.

We know a Steelbook from Second Sight is just around the corner, and rumors of Cronenberg having recently visited the Criterion Collection offices leave me suspicious as to what other title of his they'd be interested in that they haven't already got materials for... but regardless, we finally have a stellar video presentation to tide us over until somebody gets their act together and can present a truly definitive release.

* I evidently wish it was interview with Michael Ironside, but maybe that's where Criterion can pick up the slack.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry... Something?

Thanks to my ol' pal for sharing this pure, uncut night terror fuel!

Seriously, Raoh comin' down your chimney?
You would never even survive penetration.

Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm Dreaming Of A White Zombie

Never before has the word "threesome" had such ugly undertones.

Since it's deemed good enough for literally every Criterion Collection Blu-ray review ever posted in the last five years, I'm just going to throw subtlety out the window and quote the booklet liner notes, word for word, detailing what they've done:

"Zombie Flesh Eaters has been exclusively* by Arrow for this release, with all work personally overseen by Restoration Supervisor James White at Deluxe Soho, London.
The film was sourced from the original Techniscope 2-perf 35mm negative made available by Variety Communications, Italy. The pictures was scanned at 2K resolution and fully graded on a Nicoda Film Master at Deluxe Soho, London. Restoration work was completed in 1080Psf HD resolution using a combination of software tools and techniques. Thousands of instances of dirt, scratches and debris were carefully removed frame by frame. Damaged or missing frames were repaired, and density and stability issues were significantly improved. Throughout the process, care was taken to ensure that the film's original details and grain structure remained unaffected by digital processing. Although every effort has been made to present Zombie Flesh Eaters at the highest quality possible, some minor picture issues remain, in keeping with the condition of the original materials.

Both the original English and Italian mono soundtracks were restored, with audio issues such as bumps, clicks or dropouts removed or repaired. Audio sync to picture remains noticeably loose at times, in keeping with the nature of the film's production.

Lastly, working from the original 2-perf negative has allowed for access to the entire exposed image area of the film, so we have chosen to retain as much of the original frame are possible for this restoration."

Restoration supervisor: James White.
Audio mastering: Gary Sanders/Deluxe 142."

*"Exclusively [...] by Arrow for this release." That's word-for-word how it appears in the booklet. Nope, I don't know what the word was supposed to be. Restored? Remastered? Pimped The Fuck Out? Your guess is as good as mine.

AV Forum has an exclusive INTERVIEW WITH MR. WHITE (starting about 30 minutes in), which covers many of the ins and outs experienced while working on what's, easily, one of the most iconic and beloved Euro Horror titles for over thirty years. I'd suggest giving it a look, even if you have no interest in purchasing the title again - it's just really neat to hear about what sort of work and research has to go into a project like this, and refreshing to hear it from the point of view of a "cult title" that doesn't have the director giving an hour of his opinions on the subject - this is the treatment that the second tier Hollywood titles get, the stuff that isn't Lawrence of Arabia and Taxi Driver and Ben Hur, and it's nice to hear how the rest of them actually get treated, and why, and exactly what limitations can affect the final product.

When I wrote my own review about Blue Underground's Blu-ray release about a year ago, I was of the seemingly unpopular opinion that it looked heavily manipulated by digital wizardry, robbing it on anything resembling a natural and film-like appearance. I conceded that it was likely going to be the best Zombi 2 would look for some time to come, and until today, I've stood my ground on everything I said. But times change. People change. And as surprised as I am to say it, yes, even video labels can change - dramatically, if what I'm about to say is any indication.

Not only has Arrow Video one-upped my expectations by doing a brand new transfer, literally starting over from square one, but... well, in an odd way, the very studio I've heaped a fair pile of shit upon has actually vindicated my complaints, if only retroactively. Arrow Video has (so far, at least) been the only international licensor to have commissioned new masters for PHENOMENA, THE BEYOND, and DEMONS/DEMONS 2, all of which are, sadly, varying levels of "meh", and all for completely different reasons. [Keep in mind that I'm strictly talking about HD masters that Arrow Video themselves commissioned - this isn't about them recycling crumby materials provided by international licensors, like Dawn of the Dead, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lady Snowblood or whatever.] This could be a turning point for Arrow Video, and it didn't come without a fight, I can tell you that: If all of the bile and fury I and a handful of other less-than-subtle critics have spewed out over their middling prior efforts is what got us the transfer of Zombi 2 we'll be discussing today, than I suppose it wasn't effort truly wasted, since Arrow's transfer work has largely been given a pass by critics and consumers up until now, with both sides shrugging at Arrow's compromised efforts with the general consensus of "It's a lot better than the DVD, and it's all we're going to get anyway. Either buy it, or shut up already."

Now, here's where things get... weird. Blue Underground credits the rights to "ZOMBIE" as belong to J.G.O. Management, which I have little doubt is short for the Jerry Gross Organization, an independent American distributor that held the rights to a number of infamous exploitation films from the early 80s including this, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and BOOGEYMAN. Blue Underground also claims that they restored the original camera negative at LVR Video and Post in Rome, and even posted A VIDEO SHOWCASING WHAT THEY DID. Now, what's confusing is that Arrow Video bought the rights from Variety Entertainment, who claim to now be the world-wide rights holder for Zombi 2, and the sole owner of said original negative. When Mr. White spoke to Variety Film and asked about the previous HD restoration done in 2011, their reply was, give or take, "Blue Underwho? Sorry, never heard of them."

Back when BETA could have been in there,
just waiting to ruin your Saturday night.

Having thought this one through, I have a theory that's surprisingly gracious towards all parties - though I must stress that this is only a theory. Y'see, up until the mid 1980s or so, it wasn't uncommon for an American licensor to register international copyrights on titles they licensed from another country, which means a few decades later a third party might go to the international vendor, get the materials ready... and then find a Cease and Desist from whoever it was who had the American rights back in 1980 and was smart enough to keep track of his paperwork. Strange, frustrating issues happen all the time due to a single title having passed through multiple hands in the years long before international licensing was considered something to keep tabs on - just ask any hardcore MACROSS fan to hear what an absolute worst case scenario can be! - and it could be that the Jerry Gross Organization not only maintains dominion over the North American market all these years later, but that they do it under the auspice of Variety Entertainment. In other words, what if Variety Film did give clearance to do a new HD scan of the original negative... but the contracts were to Jerry Gross, not Blue Underground?

If all of this sounds a little convoluted, let's not forget that back in 2004, Media Blasters announced that they would be releasing a remastered and uncut 25th Anniversary Edition of ZOMBI 2... only for Blue Underground to also announce that they, too, were releasing a remastered version of ZOMBIE... and both of them did just that! The hell, you say? Well, the most reasonable answer as to how that could have even happened would be that Media Blasters bought the rights from Variety Film while, in a wholly unrelated coincidence, Blue Underground was licensing the title from J.G.O. Management at the exact same time. In the end both parties settled on a gentlemen's agreement to do their own releases as if the other simply didn't exist, probably confusing the shit out of retailers in the process, and this fact perhaps explains why Media Blasters released the film as "Zombi 2" while Blue Underground kept the more familiar "Zombie".

In the hopes of not confusing anything or anyone more than need be, from here on out I'll refer to the Blue Underground restoration (and subsequent Region A Blu-ray) as "ZOMBIE". Arrow Video's work, and more importantly their Region B Blu-ray, will be "ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS". We good? That makes sense, right?

I'll just call this one "Mmmm, steelbook..."

What's fascinating is that Blue Underground's ZOMBIE and Arrow Video's ZOMBIE FLESH EATER are, according to both the labels themselves at any rate, the same exact process: Both transfers were supposedly scanned from the original two-perf Techniscope 35mm original camera negative, creating a brand new 2K Digital Intermediate video file for extensive scratch repair and color correction. The results, however, couldn't stand to be more different on playback, and while I'll give Bill Lustig and his companions in restoration their due credit, it's impossible to ignore that - on many, many levels - the Arrow Video master is a dramatic step up from the previous HD incarnation, and could be the definitive version of ZOMBI 2 moving forward.

My biggest complaint against Blue Underground's film transfers in general wasn't with BU so much as it was with LVR, the film lab that seems to have done the majority - though certainly not all - of the Telecine work for a great many Euro Horror centric labels, including Media Blasters and Arrow Video, among others. The root of LVR's problems seem to be a less than optimal quality film scanner - a Cintel DSX based workflow which, make no mistake, is a hell of an expensive beast to replace. Even used the hardware seen in BU's tech demo video would cost closer to a million dollars US than I'd care to think about, and as much as I myself don't understand why anyone would work with CRT technology when much more naturalistic results can be had for similar costs, the sad fact of the matter is... well, some people like the analog noise that ancient misaligned vacuum-tube technology provides!

Some Hollywood directors even request that certain hardware be used in the preservation of their works, citing a certain "look" that more precise hardware just can't produce, recalling the mistaken arguments that film always looks better on 35mm versus projected digitally, or that music sounds better when played on a scratchy piece of vinyl versus played directly from a digital recording. I understand why people feel this way - part of it's nostalgia, of course, and part of it's the fact that some of that media was made with the natural generational loss of their analog mediums already accounted for -but at the end of the day, my overwhelming experience tells me that Cintel hardware produces a typically noisy, often harsh, and always diffuse look that doesn't look anything like 35mm film.

BU's ZOMBIE was sadly no exception; some scenes are absolutely awash with harsh digital noise that in no way looks like 35mm film grain, 2-perf or no, but the majority of the transfer was smoothed over with temporal DVNR, causing waxy skin tones, noisy edges, and occasional scenes that defy logic where one area of the screen is covered in noise and another isn't due to the frequencies being interpreted differently! I wrote at length about HOW I FELT ABOUT IT, and short version is "it's a hot mess". Blue Underground reportedly worked with the film's DP, Sergio Salvati, to come up with the final color grade, and prided themselves on the man-hours and digital trickery they used to remove the various scratches and stains inert to the film's history, and while I felt there was ample room for improvement, I was left with little choice but to admit that Blue Underground's Special Edition Blu-ray was, by far, the best release of this film the world had ever seen.

I was working on a full-blown A/B image comparison between the two of them, buuuuut.... CAPS-A-HOLIC already beat me to it. They've done a great job of highlighting just how shockingly different these two discs are, and for the most part, I feel any comparison I could throw together would have little to add. (Besides, I blew my energy wad on Ninja Scroll earlier in the week.) If you just want pictures, you can bow out here. If you're legitimately curious about what I think, groovy, let's continue:

Doesn't this just clear up, like, all of that
"Dawn of the Dead 2" confusion instantly?

Having spent time with both transfers, A/Bing the shit out of them, I think I can confidently say that not only is this the Arrow Video release of ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS by far the best release of Fulci's living dead feature to date, but that it's probably the best the film could look in 1080p. That's not to say there aren't some minor flaws, or that they've done a Taxi Driver level 4K restoration, but they've clearly spent both the time and money to treat this film right, and did so in a way that still shows just enough of its low-budget seams that I have no complaints about the way any of it's been handled. Grain is surprisingly light during the outdoor scenes bathed in natural daylight, but my guess is any "smoothing" is strictly the reality of encoding the already fine grain of a camera negative at typical Blu-ray bitrates (which are in the ballpark of 35 Mb/s!); the dark scenes are just as gritty and textured as I'd expected, and there's absolutely nothing in the way of obvious temporal smearing or edge-sharpening artifacts. There's also an increase in image information on all four sides of the frame, though it's typically minor and I wouldn't go as far as saying that the BU framing is ever compromised for it.

Small scratches, hairs, bits of dirt and minor instances of flickering do pop up on the 2012 restoration, but none of it's overly distracting or worthy of that much complaints; Arrow Video have preserved ZOMBI 2 in perhaps the most naturalistic way possible, and the light damage that remains should be familiar to anyone who's seen the film on any format, including the 2011 2K restoration. In short, the disc looks wonderfully film-like and any digital processing applied was done with great care not to upset the integrity of the celluloid elements used. Detail is more than adequate, though being a typically low-budgeted Italian production it used two-perf Techniscope method, and as such has only about half the resolution of an anamorphic 35mm feature shot using a 4-perf method, or slightly less resolution than Super35. This isn't The Dark Knight Rises, that's for certain, but it looks fantastic for a film of both its budget and vintage, and establishes how good the immense wealth of European horror films of the 1970s and 80s could look, if they were given a second chance in High Definition.

I'm also a little confused by something; there's plenty of minor instances of black scratches and bits of dust on the print, despite the fact that most damage to a negative print will appear as white on telecine, not black. (Black damage comes from Positive prints, or, such is how I've always understood it.) James White said that he was given the original negative, and I'm not about to call him a liar, but... I am confused. I'd love to ask Mr. White a dozen questions about this restoration, but this is the only one that's sticking in my craw, not because I think it invalidates what Arrow Video has promised, but because I'm at a loss as to why they exist in the first place. Ah well.

I will grant ZOMBIE this over its British counterpart; the US transfer has a  "cleaner" look, with less instances of physical debris or chemical staining than its UK counterpart. One of the most interesting comparisons between the two is the now legendary underwater shark attack scene, in which BU sent their Digital Intermediate to Fotokem film labs to have the yellow chemical staining fixed using the FLAME animation software. Keep in mind that the stains are still there on the BU master, they've just been toned down quite dramatically, and this one sequence may be the only scene where Blue Underground has done a better job than Arrow Video. That said, even this scene has issues with scanner noise and some wonky purplish tones that aren't an issue on the naturally blue footage of the UK master, so to call that singular stretch a victory between the two is pretty faint praise indeed...

Who the hell made this?
And more importantly, why?

One thing I did speak highly of on BU's ZOMBIE Blu-ray was the Director of Photography Approved color grading, which gave the film a dark, warm look that all previous DVD releases lacked. At the time, what I said was absolutely true; PREVIOUS DVD RELEASES all looked like varying degrees of crap, with boosted color saturation and a regularly yellow/orange cast to skin tones that never looked natural. The BU master had a substantially more stable look to the whole thing, though flesh tones looked pretty damn red, and as seems typical for Sergio Salvati approved transfers, blacks were crushed to create an inky black atmosphere that may or may not have existed on any actual 35mm prints. I hesitate to say that there's anything wrong with the BU color timing, rather I'll suggest that there's a "look" that was an improvement on every previous version of the film and leave it at that.

Arrow's ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS, however, has a brighter, less saturated, and generally less extreme look to the color grading. Naturalistic is a good word to describe the approach here, and while I've seen plenty of forum posts and casual reviews wondering aloud if the new release is "Too Bright", I've come to think that it's the ZOMBIE release that was simply TOO DARK! There's VERY LITTLE in the way of clipped highlights or washed out skin tones to suggest that Arrow boosted the contrast, and while the shadows are noticeably brighter on the UK release, there's also plenty of shadow detail present that becomes a black fuzz on the DP approved US master. The oft-orange colored faces on the BU release are a much more neutral, believable hue this time around, and while the grotesque gore set-pieces by Gianetti de Rossi lack the crimson "punch" found on the US transfer, I have little doubt that what we're seeing on Arrow's release is what was captured to the camera negative, without any odious fiddling to speak of. I can understand people wanting a Lucio Fulci movie about the living dead to be as

Blue Underground, as is their usual shtick, made a 7.1 DTS-HD Lossless production out of ZOMBIE, and I won't lie, it sounds pretty decent - even if I can't understand why anyone would need 8 discreet channels for any film, much less goddamn Zombi 2. Arrow Video has given viewers only original mono mixes for ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS, but they've given them a once over in terms of hiss and pop removal, and unlike the US release the original mono mixes are presented as uncompressed PCM rather than lossy Dolby Digital. BU gets the gold star for their over the top surround sound shenanigans, but I have no complaint against the Arrow Video release for giving us the original mixes in the best shape it's ever been. Oh yes, both include English and Italian audio with optional English subtitles, though only BU included HoH subtitles for the English dubbed version. For the record, most of the leads spoke English on set anyway (with Al Cliver and Aurietta Gay being the only obvious Italian speakers), but it's always nice to have both so you can be sure with these old post-dubbed Italian productions.

There is, however, one major caveat I must point out on the ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS BD: The three alternate 35mm sourced titles seamlessly branched into the film, while an awesome inclusion, have resulted in about 5 or 6 seconds of the film going missing after the title sequence! (And before anyone asks, no, the footage isn't MIA due to sloppy seamless branching; it's simply not on the disc.) On the Blue Underground Zombie BD, you see a shot of New York Harbor and the boat gradually slides in from stage-left until it fills the camera. On the Arrow Video disc, the boat is already in frame, and it quickly cuts to the next shot - those not familiar with the film would probably never notice, but considering how easy it should have been to present this film complete... well, it's just the last sort of foul-up I expected to see with a presentation that otherwise is such an impressive piece of work. You don't lose any dialog or music, and I'm convinced this was an authoring glitch rather than an error on the initial restoration end, but it's... really, really frustrating to have to put this big ol' asterisk next to an otherwise flawless presentation.

And for those who still have the Anchor Bay DVD (or maybe the Wizard Video Big Box), the titles for the US Version are slightly different, looking pretty much identical to the credits on the Blue Underground HD master. I can only assume that the English credits featured on both 2K masters were taken from a 35mm source Italy prepared for export in the late 70s, while the more familiar "US" credits were created by the Jerry Gross Organization, probably to make his local copyright known. Can't say I still have a copy to compare anymore, so perhaps someone with a bit more nostalgia for incomplete, crumby looking home video releases can fill those details in.

That's better.
...wait, is it?

I'm going to leave off here, having said my piece. In short, Arrow Video have done a fantastic job bringing ZOMBI 2 to Blu-ray, and other than the brief gaffe following the credits, I have nothing to complain about. Bonus features are plentiful, the two alternate "Limited Edition" packages are all handsome in their own right, and the transfer is immaculate, easily the best the film has ever looked, and likely the best it ever will on any format, even 35mm.

This'll be the last post I make before Christmas - pretty sure Hanukkah's already passed us by (sorry Jew friends!), and with all due respect to Ramadon, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and basically everything else happening along this time of the year... I, honestly don't know when your holidays happen, or even know what they're about except in the most broad-strokes manner possible. It's nothing personal, I just have a hard enough time keeping tabs on how Christmas is actually an awesome Pagan holiday the Germans co-opted to be about dressing small Catholic boys like racist caricatures and threatening naughty children with murderous rape-demons, which has since become a time to get shitfaced on fattening bourbon and watch crumby stop-motion cartoons. In any case, I hope everyone reading has an ideal holiday to share with whomever and whatever they love most, be it family and songs, booze and pornography, or just a stack of video games beneath your single stolen evergreen branch you're pretty sure nobody caught you jacking through the fence. The fact that any of you are here reading all of this crap means a lot to me, and well... I'd like the best for you. Staying home from work for an extra day to watch Killer Joe and drink a warm, fresh mug of Sweesish Glogg with the wife is exactly what I wanted for Christmas, and it's nice to see I can get it this year.

If anything, this whole post has been my present to Arrow Video; a warm, sincere, purchased-based review that tells them to keep this level of dedication and attention to detail, because they've finally proven that their transfers can match their insane packaging and otherwise stellar presentations. They've done a bunch of dumb, mediocre crap in the past, but if this can be our future together... hey, I can let bygones be bygones and throw my support behind everything they do, so long as they're keeping the bar high and not just showering the love and affection to one or two titles a year.

In fact, they're already asking their regular fanbase if they'd consider supporting a Kickstarter project for a "riskier" title than ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS to ensure the same quality, without the very real possibility of taking a loss on the project. I bought Zombi 2 because I felt that it was showing my support for a label that had taken a verbal beating had finally learned their lesson, and I felt it was the only decent thing to do. The notion of a licensor literally begging their public for a down-payment on a title is a ballsy one, but if that's the only way to get another release on par with Zombi 2 and it's a title I legitimately want on Blu-ray, I'd chip a few bucks in on principle and buy a copy when it's done. That's right friends, I'm actually advocating that we, as a community of cult film fans with a respect to the preservation to the medium, give Arrow Video our own money before they do any work, based solely on how blown away by their presentation of a movie I've bought several times in the last decade has been. Just do us both a favor and don't make us look like assholes by announcing that you need 30,000 pounds for a new scan of... I dunno, Brian Yuzna's FAUST or something equally terrible.

That's how big a deal their ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS Blu-ray is to me. With any luck, they'll be sure to send out a handful of early review copies to dedicated fans to check them front to back before replication, just make sure no footage winds up left on the authoring house floor by mistake next time. (Hey, if Universal can do it for the Hitchcock box set...)

Happy Holidays to everyone, and if you feel the need to buy yourself something nice with all those card checks you're piling up under your pillows, this Blu-ray absolutely worthy of consideration. And Happy Holidays to Arrow Video, for the most unlikely but satisfying gift from Kentai to Myself. Good timing, guys!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

3, 2, 1... Let's Import!

Bit of a surprise was unveiled yesterday with a brand new distributor by the inspired name of Anime Limited announcing that they had pulled the UK rights to the 26 episode COWBOY BEBOP series from the still warm corpse of Beez Entertainment (essentially the UK branch of Bandai Entertainment International), and are planning for a Q3 2013 release.

Don't lie. This is exactly what you remember Cowboy Bebop being like.

I know, big deal, so the fog-breathing demographic gets yet another PAL DVD release... but did I mention they've announced that it'll be a Blu-ray set? Caps of the JP BOX have already been trickling out of the ol' tubes, so it's not as if decent HD masters for the show don't already exist. There's apparently some funky aliasing issues that fans of EVANGELION, UTENA and NADESICO will be all too familiar with, but considering how crumby the DVDs for this show have looked since the late 90s, it's a frustration I'm willing to live with.

The only thing I can see preventing a Yank such as myself from rolling around in this thing like a huge pile of disc-based catnip is the overwhelming likelyhood that it'll be REGION B locked. (Or priced similar to the $300 JP set. Let's just hope it's Region B?) Like I've said before, if you aren't ordering a $100 Region Free player right frickin' now, you have no-one to blame but yourself when you don't have nice things on your shelf.

Ninja Troll

I think it's safe to say that I have mixed feelings about the recent HD master of KAWAJIRI Yoshiaki's most famous film, NINJA SCROLL - JUBEI NINPUUCHOU/獣兵衛忍風帖. The film was released on Blu-ray in its native Japan back in May by Flying Dog/Victor Entertainment, and was recently given a "20th Anniversary" US release by Sentai Filmworks on December 4th. After the whole Serial Experiments Lain debacle I decided I'd sit this one out until I could get my hands on both, do a little lab work, and see what came out on the other side... so, without further ado, here's a bunch of lossless PNG caps and plenty of commentary to follow.

TOP: MANGA ENTERTAINMENT 10th Anniversary DVD (ABR: 7.65 mb/s)
MIDDLE: SENTAI FILMWORKS 20th Anniversary BLU-RAY (ABR: 19.83 mb/s)

While perhaps not all it could have been, the new HD master is absolutely a dramatic step up from the now roughly twenty year old analog video materials that prior DVDs have all been based on up to this point. Resolution is improved with strong, crisp outlines and nothing substantial to mention in terms of compression artifacts - one need look no further than the wall of bees to see how massive an upgrade this is over Manga Entertainment's "10th Anniversary" DVD. (The Victor R2 DVD was better in terms of compression, but was ultimately sourced from the same ugly analog master.) It's clear that some level of grain reduction has been used, with minor traces of smearing and "slow-motion" grain on brighter areas of the screen, but the use hasn't smeared anything into obscurity or led to any major textural oddities, so I'll just shrug and move on.

Much like the RUROUNI KENSHIN: TSUIOKU-HEN OVA BD I spoke at length about last year, the matte bars are solid IRE 0 black, but the feature itself has an oddly elevated gamma, giving shadows a washed out look that disappear into a sort of hazy midnight blue. Unlike the Kenshin OVAs, however, the previous DVD masters did feature shadow detail in that now-murky gamma low-end, which you can plainly see in a few of the above screenshots, particularly the one with Jubei standing up in a dark corner; his every outline in visible on the DVD, but he's been turned into a sort of ghostly sword-toting blob without any clear outlines on the new HD master. If the gamma were lower and that image actually faded to black around Jubei I'd be fine with it, range limiting or not, but looking at the Blu-ray as it is now, it's as if they crushed the gamma to reference levels, and THEN boosted it back up later on, sans any shadow detail!

I asked myself, having done color correction on intensely bizarre animated sources before, why the hell would they do that? I honestly don't understand what the fuck happened here, and I wish I did. Could have been a mistake? A color space conversion gone awry? A gamma profile interpreted out of whack? Could have been something as simple as the techs did their job without any direct input, and down the line Kawajiri looked at the results and then told them "Hey guys, this looks way darker than it should be. Can we fix that somehow?" This could easily be the bizarre result of such a request, and isn't too much unlike John Landis requesting that the grain be put back into the HD versions of Animal House and An American Werewolf in London, only for Universal to dust a layer of fake digital grain on top of their already heavily processed masters and call it a day. Technically they did as requested... they just didn't actually fix the problem. I honestly don't know what chain of events led us to having crushed-yet-washed-out shadows, and it's a shame that the few complaints I've heard of fudged shadow details were indeed a big issue... thankfully, if what you see above doesn't turn you off, you've already seen the worst of it. The new master is more processed and less like actual 35mm film than I'd have liked, but it is what it is, and after years of genuinely shitty DVD presentations, this is easily the best that Ninja Scroll has ever looked.

Sentai and Flying Dog have each created their own AVC encodes, and the two do look very similar at first glance... but, sadly, both of the issues that plagued our last guineapig Serial Experiments Lain - namely elevated black levels, and posterization (or "banding") - are both present to varying degrees. The real world shadow detail itself was already a mess making the turned-up gamma a bit of a "eh, whatever" situation for me personally, but the banding is kind of a downer, even if it's far from the worst example in recent memory. Is this merely the result of halving the bitrates? Or did Sentai get their hands on a highly compressed HDCAM source, rather than a full-bandwidth HDCAM SR master? Only their authoring team knows for sure, and I doubt they're in any rush to admit that a possible shortcoming is because the hardware they chose to sink tens of thousands of dollars in just isn't top-of-the-line enough. The backgrounds in the scene with Gara attacking Jubei in the hot spring is probably the worst example of unnatural, twitching color banding to be found on the Sentai release, but it's worth noting that the $100 import - while superior, I'll admit - has plenty of slightly more subtle color contouring of its own. If the Flying Dog transfer is... I dunno, let's say it's an 8 out of 10, the Sentai Filmworks release is probably a solid 7. Not as technically sound, but more than good enough for the vast majority of viewers, and considering how terrible your options have been until now still a worthy purchase to anyone looking to revisit the OVA itself.

Both releases include Lossless 5.1 English audio, Flying Dog in Dolby TrueHD and Sentai in DTS-HD Master Audio. Both are unimpressive ports of Manga's old DVD surround upmix, and frankly my dear, if you're actually watching Ninja Scroll dubbed in English you're getting exactly what you deserve. The original Japanese stereo mix (Uncompressed on the JP release/Lossless on the US) is surprisingly decent for a modestly budgeted Japanese production of this vintage, though a mix of this nature made about twenty years ago is only going to ever sound so fresh. English subtitles are provided on Sentai's release, while there are no subtitles of any kind on the Japanese import... that's just odd, isn't it? That Victor Entertainment sticks English dubs on there with no Japanese subtitles?

The only bonus feature on the Sentai disc is a subtitled director's commentary, but considering how rare these tracks tend to be - even in Japan, much less translated - it's reason enough on its own to recommend the US release at the price it's currently selling for. The only other bonus feature found on the JP release is a Japanese TV spot and Trailer, both of which are 1080i upscales of some really ghastly looking SD materials. And for those with a fancy packaging fetish, there's also a BD + DVD combo available in the UK that's currently selling in a sexy LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK complete with a 20 page English language booklet - and hey, it's got the JP trailers, too! Just keep in mind that the Manga UK release is REGION B only, so if you live in the States aren't multi-region capable, it might not be worth the thirty quid just to have a shiny little tin you can't actually spin in the comfort of your own home. The UK disc is confirmed to be a single-layered presentation, though I can't say for sure if the transfer is comparable to the US release or not.

Through the mid 1990s this film was something of a counter-cultural dirty bomb: A grotesquely exploitave yet professionally crafted piece of NC-17worthy material that was not only a cartoon, but one that literally every single Blockbuster Video on the planet had at least one copy of. Infamous or not, when you cut beyond what Zac Bertschy recently described as its "Museum Piece" subtext,  it's still a balls-out piece of uniquely Japanese pure violence entertainment with style to spare and numerous creative set pieces. It may not be quite as wild as Wicked City or as overwhelmingly beautiful as Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and I can't stress enough that there are no scrolls anywhere to be found, but anyone writing this off as mindless candy for the basest of instincts is ignoring how much raw talent Kawajiri had, and while it's not my favorite of his films, it's hard not to just ogle how such uncompromisingly extreme material was treated with such finesse. The general death of the OVA market and Japan's natural propensity towards cute, light hearted fare means that while titles like this were never overwhelmingly common, they're practically non-existent in today's market, so while hardly representative of anything but Kawajiri's visual fetishism and bold strokes white-knuckled action, it's something that any fan of contemporary anime should at least know existed, and give a chance on its own merits. Not that it matters, really... I can't imagine anyone buying this new Blu-ray didn't see this on VHS at least once a decade ago.

While I can't say either the HD master or Sentai Filmworks' presentation is without flaws, I can't imagine this one looking or sounding any better on home video than it does right now. The JP release is superior, but not by an especially wide margin, and hardly enough to justify spending the real world price difference between them. Long time fans will be floored at just how detailed Madhouse's hand-drawn animation was for a direct to video project based on an original idea, and newcomers will likely be too filled with shock and awe at the savage, rampant bloodletting and borderline pornographic treatment of its cast to care.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Re-Animated Opticals

Here's a pair of stills I thought I'd already shared...

Let's keep in mind that this opening shot is an optical effect, and as such it was always going to be grainier/softer than the rest of the movie - and yet the advantage on the upcoming 4K master is still pretty goddamn dramatic. There looks to be nearly 10% more image uncovered on the left hand side of the frame, the grain structure has snapped into focus in a way I suspected had been possible from the start, and the color... good gravy, just look at the color on those trees on the upcoming TLEFilms restoration!

I can't wait until this thing comes out. Every single review citing "80s film stock" and "low budgets" are going to just have to eat the bag on this one; Re-Animator is poised to blow everyone away, and the fact that it took a horrendous HD release to get someone else to offer to do the film right is a blessing and a curse all at once. If nothing else, it should settle these misunderstandings that a film made for less than a million dollars should, by default, look like anus - with any luck this'll be every bit as presentable as My Bloody Valentine, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th Part 2, Alien 2: On Earth, Evil Dead 2: 25th Anniversary Edition, Halloween II, or any number of similarly low-budget films shot in the 1980s on 35mm.

I actually had a chance to speak with Brian Yuzna at a screening about two weeks ago, and he confirmed that the film labs themselves are doing these restorations without any direct involvement from the film makers. If the samples we've seen so far are any indication, I'm not going to lose any sleep over Stuart Gordon and Friends not looking over everyone's shoulders; this looks fantastic, and I can't wait to see what the masters for a non-optical effect scene looks like. I also got to ask Stuart Gordon why he wasn't involved with Bride of Re-Animator, and he had a great response; "The deal was set for an R-rated sequel, and I just didn't think we could top the original film with that limitation." Sound reasoning, I've gotta say.

And just in case you guys aren't aware, Second Sight has said they're going to use this restoration, so you won't have to deal with Deutsch packaging or avoiding a censored FSK board approved release if you'd rather go the UK route. Presumably all of the EU versions will be "Region B" locked, but at this point if you aren't at least considering a region hacked player, you've got nobody but yourself to blame for getting shitty releases of great films.

EDIT: And just for fun, here's a comparison to show you just how much more image on all sides the new 4K TLEFilm scan has compared to the old 1080p HDCAM SR master:

Just... wow.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pacific Rimjob

Y'know, just in case you HAVEN'T seen it...

If you go frame by frame through this trailer, you'll clearly find my erection. That's how sincerely in love with Del Toro's upcoming Mecha vs Kaiju movie PACIFIC RIM I am, based solely on the trailer footage and his promise that most of the special effects will be of the rubber-suit variety, that there will be nearly a dozen different Kaiju, and that we'll get to see behind the trans-dimensional fault that brought them here. Oh yeah, he also says he wanted to make a movie that would have blown his 12 year old self's mind, which means it's probably going to be sincere in its exploration of Mighty Fighty Robot Action.

If I had any complaint, it's the concept that two pilots have to control a singular humanoid machine. Absolutely multiple pilots are a staple of super robots, going all the way back to Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa's GETTER ROBO franchise (and perfected in Anno Hideaki's TOP WO NERAE! GUNBUSTER - specifically episode 5), but that involved separate vehicles and transformation, which necessitated separate personalities to combine into different machines entirely. So far there's nothing to suggest that the Jager's transform or even switch "modes" like MAZINKAISER SKL (or even GURREN LAGANN to a lesser degree), but if that's my biggest complaint - about the logistics of sky scraper sized human rage powered robots - clearly I'm taking both it, and myself, just a little too seriously.

I'm still just a little sad this isn't CTHULHU 3D, but it's shaping up to be one hell of a consolation prize!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Phenomenal Transcoding



You really never know what you're going to get from a German centric import, and with both INFERNO and 4 FLIES ON GRAY VELVET having gotten their definitive releases in Austria, I was certainly curious to see how the rest of them would turn out. I'm a little sad to say that the XT release of Dario Argento's most awesomely WTF fueled film, PHENOMENA, is... basically the exact same thing as the Arrow release. The bitrate is lower and the transfer is ever so slightly softer as a result, but without comparing the two head to head I'd never have noticed that one was superior to the other, and as such I won't waste any more bandwidth to make that point. If they literally just bought the UK release, synced the German audio to it and then re-encoded it using x264, I wouldn't be surprised.

XT's release also has no lossless audio or English subtitles for the footage exclusive to the Italian "Integral Hard" cut - just German subs, which makes sense - so unless you speak German as your first language (or you need absolutely every Argento film in a Digibook), this one is pretty safe to skip. In any case, just avoid the FSK-18 rated German release by Ascot International. They re-submitted the film to the ratings board, but for reasons I'll never understand the release is still CUT by about 10 seconds.

Arrow Video has produced a number of new interviews and featurettes, on top of a nice booklet and the usual fold-out poster. XT Video goes old school by providing a stack of vintage behind-the-scenes documentaries and including various international trailers, though long time fans have likely seen all of that fluff before. You also get your fancy Digibook with your choice of cover art, but as Arrow was still doing that whole "window slip" box you get your pick of artwork for the UK release, as well.

For the time being Arrow Video's UK release still seems to be the one to keep. The DVNR is pretty obnoxious and the film really, really needs a new six-track sourced remix to smooth over the soundtrack inconsistencies between the Italian and English masters, but until that happens... well, this remains the best of Arrow Video's earlier releases. We'll have to talk about one that out-classed this by a wide margin soon, though.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Serial Experiments Lain: Layer 03 END



 Let's talk about 8-bit color depth.

The short version is that while two video tracks may be compressed at the same exact bitrate - or even uncompressed, as the case may be - they can be "uncompressed" at different color depths. Most video is rendered and captured at either 8-bit or 10-bit, the former giving us a mere 256 "stops" (ie: different shades) of Red, Green or Blue, while the former offers a total of 1024 stops. The short version is the higher your color depth, the less banding you'll create. And, yes, this is exactly why there's been such a push in certain "sharing" circles to use 10-bit encodes, because it produces a better looking final product without actually increasing the bitrate - just the CPU power required to decode it on the fly.

HDCAM-SR is a 10-bit format. D-5 HD is a 10-bit format. Even good ol' SD Digibeta is a 10-bit format! But more importantly, Blu-ray and DVD are also 10-bit formats, and as such, absolutely everything in your workflow should include at least 10-bit color depth.

UPDATE: I've been under the above impression for years now, largely due to good MPEG encoders having always included an option for 8-bit or 10-bit source handling, but I clearly forget how goddamn old Blu-ray and DVD spec really is. I was mistaken, and 4:2:0 YUV is limited to 8-bit colorspace during the final BD and DVD transcode - but, it's also dramatically decreased the importance of those stops due to chroma subsampling, which has... basically destroyed the color in its entirety. Read about all that crap HERE if you aren't familiar.

Anyway, bottlenecking that data at the mastering stage - or even on the master itself! - can cause some pretty nasty side effects, like... saw where I was going with this, right?

I've played around with some ideas in my head, but it wasn't until a charming little Anon asked me "Did you ever consider FUNi got an HDCAM source?" that it had even popped into my brain. I mean, Christ, why would they? It's not any cheaper than the newer and more technically robust HDCAM-SR upgrade format, and unless you're a cheap bastard playing one means you can play the other... then again, wouldn't that leave plenty of people, even industry-savvy types who do this day in and day out, numb to the differences between the two? Hell, I deal with both formats every fucking day and it never even dawned on me until now!

See, here's the crazy part in all of this; HDCAM, the predecessor to HDCAM-SR, hasn't hold up especially well over the last 15 years. For one thing, the resolution is shorn down to 1440:1080 pixels, creating a 16:9 image with non-square pixels. For another, it's literally the only thing in the world that uses a 3:1:1 chroma subsampling scheme, mostly because... you know, it's crazy. The bitrates of about 144 Mb/s were impressive in the late 90s, but HDCAM SR now offers three times that bitrate - or even six times that, if you're willing to cut down on runtime and use "HQ" encoding. But the most relevant part of the format when it comes to Lain is that it's natively an 8-bit format. Fancy that! A format where potential color banding is fucking BUILT IN to the spec!

Alternately, FUNimation - or Geneon/Universal, or whoever FUNimation has digitize their tapes - could have gotten a 10-bit HDCAM-SR master and ingested it as 8-bit material. Most video cards have an option to capture at 8-bit that'll core off the additional color depth, and yes, the most obvious flaw will be color banding on smooth gradients. In other words, FUNimation probably DID get HDCAM "classic" masters... or if they didn't, the material was likely treated as if it was, and that clearly didn't help anything.

UPDATE: "But if the delivery format is capped at 8-bit, what difference does it make if the source is 8-bit?" I Due to my own confusion, that's a perfectly fair question! But based on the limitations of HDCAM described above, it's akin to asking if you're going to release something on DVD, why not just re-encode an existing DVD instead of going from an archival master? You can, technically speaking, but every flaw on that initial lower-bandwidth source is going to show up on the new version as well. It's also entirely possible that the BD encoder is specifically designed to account for the 10-bit to 8-bit conversion in a way that HDCAM, a native 8-bit format, is not; this was the root of my confusion going in, the fact that for the last near decade I've dealt with MPEG-2 encoders that offered "10-bit sampling", which affected whether then smoothed the 10-bit source to 8-bit properly via dithering, or just threw the "extra" color data away.

Food for thought: When I first arrived at my current job, I was told we capture everything at 8-bit color depth. Doing a bit of research into our codec of choice, I wondered why I couldn't set it to 8-bits manually... only to find out that our codec settings were always 10-bit in nature. We were coring off color depth in an attempt to save space, but since the codec is configured for 10-bits no matter what you feed it, we were literally just losing color data during capture! Having confirmed my suspicions  I explained to the people who oversaw this part of the process why that's a bad thing, and with some samples to prove that capturing everything at 10-bit wouldn't affect file sizes and would only increase quality... well, that was the end of it. 10-bit captures became the norm, with HDCAM upsampled during capture to 10-bit and all 10-bit formats ingested exactly as they should be.

Don't get me wrong, HDCAM was an okay format... for 1997, when its only real competition was D-1. We've come a damn long way since then, and the only sane reason I can see even looking at this dinosaur of a tape format is if you intend to have the show broadcast. Sadly, some of the largest television providers running today expect HDCAM 1080i and nothing else, so... yeah. Wrap your brain around that. It'd be like if someone only wanted your movie on Laserdisc, not DVD, even though there's a dozen reasons the former is an inferior format to the latter.

Sadly, 8-bit versus 10-bit conversions gone awfyy is something that'll probably haunt us for a while, especially in retards regards to international content*. It's a little sad I didn't even think about this as a possibility until now, but considering I did everything I could to eradicate doing anything at 8-bit related where I work, it's a problem I've eliminated in our workflow, out of sight, out of mind. As I said, we get HDCAM on a regular basis, but most of the material we see are HD broadcast masters from up to a decade ago, so I can promise you that 8-bit color stop limitations are typically far from the biggest problems those materials have. You haven't lived until you've seen a hard-interlaced 1080i -to- 1080p conversion, let me tell you!

This'll be the last time I talk about LAIN on this site, I swear. Honestly, I'm sick of it at this point; the release is what it is, and now we might have a definitive reason as to why. I don't regret spending $60 on it, and even Mrs. Kentai insisted that the box - heart breaking or not - stay on her shelf, not mine. FUNi tried their best, they just got handed an inferior format and probably never thought twice that "HDCAM" wasn't as good as "HDCAM SR". People in this industry I consider more knowledgable than myself have shrugged the differences off, and I've forgotten what those differences actually mean, so it's entirely possible FUNimation never even knew.

Now you do, FUNi. Insist on HDCAM SR, not the 8-bit, lower-resolution, super-sumsampled older brother. Please?

*You just can't fake fuck-ups that smooth.Also I was in a rush, so I've re-written a few points to be less... jumbley.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Region of the Rebellion!

All 50 TV episodes of CODE GEASS: LELOUCH OF THE REBELLION/コードギアス 反逆のルルーシュ are getting a Blu-ray release in the UK via French-based licensor Kaze, with the first season coming out in January, and the second season (CODE GEASS: LELOUCH OF THE REBELLION R2) getting its release in March. MSRP is a mere £40, that's about $65 in Mighty Joe American Dollars, but pre-orders are already discounted to less than $45 - and that's shipped! I have zero doubt that the set will be locked to REGION B, but considering how vast the array of appealing European releases are these days coupled with the dirt cheapness of an entry level "hackable" player, it's certainly an option some CLAMP and/or sexy mech action loving Yanks might want to seriously consider.

There are two things I'm moderately concerned about, though. The first is the fact that the Beez DVD release of Code Geass R2 episode 10 was cut per BBFC guidelines. The short version is they were worried one teenager molesting another teenager in front of a third teenager who's shorter and less shapely than the others in the room would somehow convince adults to molest children, presumably by using a one second joke in a 22 minute episode on "pause" to convince Little Jenny that it's totally okay to be naked while I squeeze some older chick's bazongas. Because we've all been there, am I right ladies?

Can't you feel your pederast soul bursting into flames?

For the record: All of these characters are in high school. All of them. Yet somehow the British Board of Film Cuntery thinks this one second long joke will somehow lead to children being raped. No, I don't fucking get it either. That said, it's literally one second of footage, and as much as the thought of material - particularly material this benign - being removed makes me want to punch some sense into whoever made the call... well, that's nothing compared to the cuts imposed on Paranoia Agent.

It's also worth noting that "Kaze UK" is actually a French studio that happens to be looping in the United Kingdom for a select number of its own releases with translated packaging, and so it's not impossible that they'd slip the uncut episode in by "mistake", and merely deal with the stern brow-beating from the local censors for a while before quietly replacing it without much fanfare - in other words, definitely pre-order if you're a gambling man. Alternately they could seamless branch the shit out of this scene, allowing French consumers the full scene and skipping a 1-second long chapter when using English menus. Oh, the possibilities!

The other thing that gives me pause is the fact that each set will reportedly contain two discs. At 25 episodes spread over 100 gigs, we're talking average bitrates of around 15-17 Mb/s, tops. Not sure if this is a sign to stay away or a personal challenge to whomever is in charge of compressing the materials, but it's enough to make me grit my teeth and fear the worst regardless.

Still, if this is my only sane English-friendly option, I think I might just take it. Everyone else is free to wait and see if the smoldering remains of Bandai Entertainment are dispersed to what's left of the American market, but if Code Geass does get a re-release state side, I have trouble believing it'll be any time soon.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Serial Experiments Lain: Layer 02 Start

Last week, Mrs. Kentai talked briefly about the rampant banding that's, unfortunately, marked the FUNimation release of SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN as an inferior product compared to its $300+ limited-run Japanese equivalent from 2010. Discussion, confusion, anger, regret, and occasional internet-based lynch mobs have sprang forth from what little information has come to light about the issue, and while I myself am disappointed about the results... well, it'd be unfair of me to have left a swath of burning wreckage in my wake and not at least tried to sit down and talk about it.

"Present Day, Present Time..."

Whilst my initial knee-jerk reaction to seeing 9 episodes on a disc has almost always been "banding MUST be compression related!", the fact that it exists on shots with literally no movement at all suggests otherwise. Also, the banding becomes dramatically easier to spot on darker material, with scenes of a comparable bitrate set in brighter backgrounds looking pretty much fine. Besides, much as it pains me to ever say that anything less than 40 Mb/s is "enough", if Disney can squeeze Nausicaa onto a reference-quality transfer using bitrates comparable to Lain, there's no reason to assume that FUNimation completely screwed the digital pooch at the encoding level; yes, they've crammed plenty onto a BD50 without obvious issues we can't blame directly on the source, and if compression were the issue, I can't imagine other cel-based titles like Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho would look anywhere near as good as they do. If I had any complaints about Dragon Ball Z Level 1.1 banding wasn't one of them, and with the substantially more complex grain field that release possessed, well... it suggests that FUNimation's bitrates and encoding practices aren't the problem that ultimately affected Lain.

This uh... this is gonna get really heavy into technobabble and industry theoreticals.  I'll try to include a "tl;dr" version at the end (and mark it clearly as such), but for those of you to whom the concept of "red-green-blue color space" is something you'd expect an interior decorator to ponder, here's a picture of Lain dressed as a bear.

Yeah... I'm surprised I didn't go with a Rule 34, too.

The other possibility, sad as it may be, is that FUNimation got some pre-compressed materials to begin with. And if that's the case, I don't think the tapes themselves were at fault. You see, HDCAM-SR is still the world wide standard format for 1080p content, and even a 4:2:2 subsampled clone shouldn't produce the banding we're seeing on the FUNimation release. Yes, downsampling a 4:4:4 RGB master to a compressed 4:2:2 YUV colorspace can introduce unwanted side effects, particularly aliasing on solid color edges, but as every HDTV broadcast, Blu-ray and digital stream version will be compressed 4:2:0 YCbCr, containing only half of the original color information on the 4:4:4 RGB source.

Another possibility is that FUNimation never got a digital tape source. What many people may not know is that while HDCAM-SR is the archival format or choice, all of the actual work done with HD material - audio conformance, color correction, title creation, pretty much any tweaking or editing that might be done for any reason at all - is done on a file based workflow. You capture the HDCAM-SR tape to a digital file, edit it, and then save it back to another tape when you're done. Where I work this is one of the services we offer, and it gives you a level of flexibility that working with tapes and timecode like we're still in the early 90s just doesn't offer.

So, let's play devils advocate for a second and assume FUNimation asked Geneon-Universal for a digital video file taken from the HDCAM SR masters. Not only does that save FUNimation up to a cool grand by no longer requiring them to dupe over a dozen HD tapes and then ship them over the Pacific, but if FUNimation hasn't invested the $80,000.00 or so that a top quality HDCAM SR deck would set them back, it means they don't have to rent one/hire a third party to do the digital capturing for them. File deliveries are absolutely the future, but they're so hit or miss in terms of corruption and general consistency at this point in time I imagine it'll be another decade before anyone could set up shop without tapes as a sane option.

So maybe Geneon-Universal sends FUNimation digital files, great! Here's the sixty-four thousand dollar question: What did they actually send? Uncompressed video data has exactly one sane use, and that's when you're creating a Digital Intermediate from a 35mm film negative. No, HDCAM SR is captured using one of several lossy codecs, because 1080p lossless just isn't practical for doing anything but archiving/transcoding. Believe it or not, most Digital Intermediates are (essentially) thousands of uncompressed bitmap files, mostly because "raw" uncompressed data is faster to edit and play back than lossless formats which take up less space.

If you want to actually, say, watch the file for QC purposes, lossless is out. If you need to edit it, your workstation will probably convert it to something less ginormous by default - Final Cut Pro 7, still the industry standard NLE, basically has a siezure if you try to feed it anything but a few commonly used Apple codecs, and anything you get out of it on playback will be rendered on the fly, causing even more headaches than if you'd just made the damn thing an FCP ready file in the first place. As of this writing, the "Standard" for deliverable content here in the states is Apple ProRes, either in the ProRes 422(HQ) flavor, or the more recent and higher fidelity ProRes 4444. Having compared countless HDCAM SR tapes to their 422 (HQ) captures over the last year, I can say with some degree of confidence that you don't get any notable banding, so long as you aren't fucking anything dramatic up on capture.

What could fuck up during capture? Funny you should ask! Any decent capture card should be set up for 8-bit and 10-bit (if not 12-bit), and if you use 422(HQ), that codec is locked at 10-bit. Capturing 8-bit material will result in the card scaling everything back up to 10-bit, creating some weirdness on BTB/WTW material, and generally doing subtle (but still not good) things to the resolution as a whole. If you're ingesting hundreds of tapes a day and have to reset the decks every hour or two, it's almost inevitable you'll screw up every now and again, though for better or worse odds are nobody will ever notice unless they have the source and the 8-bit conversion to compare it to. Another real-world screw up are "SMPTE" vs "FULL" settings, aka TV vs PC black levels. I've discussed these before, but the short version is setting them wrong will either make the image too bright, or too dark. There's also gamma decoding, chroma filtering, framerate shenanigans and a host of other things that can screw up your otherwise good intentions... but we'll have to skip on those for now, because I'm starting to think there's a completely unrelated problem going on here.

Does anyone here remember HDV? DVCPRO? MATROX? XDCAM? I sure didn't, but I was a bit more of a casual nerd 10 years ago when these formats were much more popular. Did you know some film labs around the world still use these antiquated codecs, because there hasn't been a brutal, industry-wide push towards one particular codec that, admittedly, happens to be better than the competition*? I doubt most people who work in the US do, and it's hard to blame them for that; out of sight, out of mind. Matrox hardware was apparently the gold standard in Japanese post-houses for quite some time, and their codec of choice was MPEG-2 I-frames at 100 Mb/s! You bet your sweet ass that could cause unsightly banding.

So let's just assume for the sake of argument that Geneon-Universal is told that FUNimation wants a digital delivery of the HDCAM SR master. The guys at the film lab/tape archive/post house/whatever ingest Lain using one of the above codecs, and it looks... "normal", at least as far as they're concerned. They read the work order and do a double take when it says they want a ProRes 422(HQ) file, not whatever codec they use day in and day out, so they shrug, toss it into Apple Compressor, and a day later they have a batch of Quicktime files that, technically speaking, match the specs FUNimation asked for. FUNi gets the material in, the specs line up, and they're so goddamn used to seeing HD masters with banding they probably don't think twice about it during QC. They go on to translate the LAIN|RESTORE booklet, which mentions that "banding was a prevalent issue during restoration", which they take to mean that the show looks as good as it possibly can, and never consider spending $500 for a used JP Blu-ray box set, just to cross check that the material is what it is. Because cripes man, why would Geneon-Universal send anything less than perfection? They released the restoration themselves, they've got to know what they're doing!

All of this is just a theory, mind you, but having done the exact describe methods when the content providers simply can't get their shit together... I know that it's sometimes how this stuff goes down. It doesn't mean Geneon-Universal is trying to fuck the masters up before sending them out, or even that FUNimation isn't trying to cover all their bases, it just means that... well... shit happens. And FUNimation's otherwise lovely $90 box set suffers for it. That doesn't make it okay, but it might at least begin to explain why it happened and nobody at FUNimation seemed any the wiser when it was mentioned briefly on the 11/30 episode of The ANNCast. As discussion continued in the forums, Justin Sevakis was one of the first people to mention that the masters themselves FUNi was provided could have been the sole source of the issue, and having had very similar circumstances to what I've described above, I think he's probably on to something.

tl;dr version: I remain frustrated that my money went to a product with what I see as obvious video flaws, but now think it's very possible these flaws happened before FUNimation ever actually saw the materials themselves. I doubt it was sabotage on the Japanese end, just a misunderstanding in what FUNimation had expected.

So, does that mean we shouldn't complain, or at least discuss that FUNimation's release is flawed? Absolutely not! I didn't fully intend for my wife's adorably rendered disappointment to be the catalyst to more than one pitchfork and torch wielding FUNi Hate Gathering... but it is a problem, and if it doesn't get discussed - preferably in a comprehensive, intelligent manner - it's never going to get fixed. Enough people complained about FUNimation's upscaled release of Samurai Champloo that they later did a new encode without the heavy DVNR. Had AV nerd assholes - guys much like myself - not vented out discontent, constructively or not, that never, ever would have happened! Squeaky wheels occasionally get oiled, and polite complacency will pretty much always get you more or the same.

FUNimation had a long history of terrible DVD video quality, and I thought their shift to Blu-ray (at least for "Native HD" content) was a change for the better. As I've said elsewhere, SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN is nowhere near the worst BD I've seen, not even in recent memory... but it was probably the one I was most looking forward to at the year's end.  My disappointment is proportional to how much I love this show, and how good I knew the JP transfers looked. In short, if you're less OCD about banding artifacts and/or you don't hold this up as one of the top ten greatest television shows of the last twenty years, you might not react to these issues nearly as strongly as I and my wife have. The booklets alone seemed worth what I paid for them... it just really bums me out that I'm back to wanting to subtitle-patch the JP transfers.

Is the FUNimation set definitive? Sadly, no. Is it worth the $54 RightStuf and other usual suspects are selling it for? If you're a packaging whore, absolutely. Just arm yourself with knowledge and buy what you want, knowing what you're getting. If you buy Lain, that's awesome because it means FUNimation might try releasing other Special Editions of "older" titles. If you don't because you think the quality is a mess, please let them know that's why your passing. I've sent in those lame little comment cards before, explicitly saying "You did this well, please stop doing that." Do they listen? Probably not. But bitching without context helps no-one. I bought Lain, and I want to see them produce more like Lain, particularly of shows that are as good as Lain... I just don't want the video to be compromised, and I will be a salty bitch to make sure the entire internet knows there are problems. Y'know, business as usual.

Please FUNi, do another Collector's Edition release like Lain for an equally deserving series. Just do everyone a favor and copy-paste the existing JP Blu-ray encodes while you're at it? Everyone wins then, far as I can tell.

*Go ahead, try to submit a film to iTunes that isn't Apple ProRes(422). I fucking dare you to.