"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.