Monday, November 11, 2013

FUNimation's HD Revenge

As anyone in earshot knows, FUNimation released a really shitty "HD Mastered" widescreen release of Dragon Ball Z starting in 2007... Christ, has it been that long? The short version is a lot of the book learnin' I put into understanding how films were put together back in the day came from me wanting, desperately, to understand how FUNimation had made Son Gokuu so damned ugly in their quest to make the show somehow look "better" by blasting away all the outlines of the original animation. It's been a hell of a journey since for yours truly, but I did learn a lot - so, if anything, some of the OCD tics I have while watching for video errors I owe to FUNimation's former mediocrity. Thanks... I guess?

When FUNimation saw that there was a vocal minority of concerned purists who wanted to buy Dragon Ball Z in a handful of expensive boxed sets but weren't excited about the thought of buying the botched faux-widescreen "Season" sets - commonly referred to by fans and haters alike as the "Orange Bricks" - were eventually treated to the Dragon Box sets beginning in 2009. These were a limited run, deluxe release with large comprehensive booklets and chipboard collectors boxes that, more or less, replicated the insanely expensive Japanese import box sets. Things were good.

This is the only "Wide Format" I want to hear about for my Dragon Ball Z TV footage.

Once FUNimation was done with the "Dragon Box" release - and we're going to ignore Kai, just for simplicity's sake - they announced the "Level 1" Blu-ray releases. I reviewed Level 1.1 extensively shortly before switching jobs and literally moving from one end of the country to the other in the process, and stand by everything I had to say; it was a stunning, dedicated release that any fan who liked Dragon Ball should support, and despite a few minor niggles we always knew was in the cards, it was the best presentation that anyone could have ever asked for with a straight face.

It was, perhaps inevitably, cancelled after two volumes out of a planned 18 (though production on 3 and 4 had already started). Worse yet, FUNimation managed to pull the plug exactly one episode before the conclusion of the Vegeta Arc, leaving it to feel like a bit of a raised middle finger to anyone expecting closure of any sort. I've actually heard musings from people I trust that the sets actually did sell pretty well, but the time and cost that goes into keeping a fully staffed restoration wing simply isn't a cost-effective solution, particularly if you're focusing all of your efforts on exactly one franchise and aren't expecting Disney-esque returns on them. Shit, even Disney isn't keeping a proper restoration staff these days... the jarringly inadequate quality on their recent titles like The Sword in the Stone, Mickey's Christmas Carol and Oliver and Company are proof enough of that.

A few months ago, FUNimation held an online survey asking "the fans" if they wanted to see the show in 4:3, or 16:9... and anyone with just enough cynism in their blood could see exactly what was coming next from a mile away. I'll point out that the actual results of said survey have never been made public, and gee, I wonder if there's a reason for that!

The upcoming DRAGON BALL Z: SEASON X  Blu-ray lineup is effectively an HD upgrade of FUNimation's cropped "Orange Brick" DVD box sets, and with the Level box sets having been put on hold for nearly two years it's safe to say they're the only noteworthy release we can expect to see going forward. Once FUNimation had the balls to bring "16:9" back up I think we all saw where this was heading, but I never, ever imagined they'd find a way to make the Blu-ray release somehow even shittier than the previous DVD release, assuming FUNimation's 1080p trailer is any proper indication:

That's right. More DVNR, smearing backgrounds into a pastel-smudge oblivion. More edge sharpening, making the original cels look like shitty vector traces. And more boosted contrast, because somehow, FUNimation looked at the meticulously crafted and almost universally praised Level 1 Blu-ray sets, and said "Let's just do the exact opposite of what we did last time".

You worried I'm exaggerating here? Then let's just quote FUNimation's own selling points, verbatim:

Make room on your shelves because the Dragon Ball Z Season Sets are finally on Blu-ray! We embarked on a frame-by-frame restoration process to remove any blemishes, tape marks, or foreign bodies that might have tarnished your viewing experience.

All three audio tracks have been re-mastered in the interest of noise reduction and superior sound quality. The bolder, more vibrant color of this ultimate Dragon Ball Z release closely mirrors the visual aesthetics of today’s entertainment.

And finally, our elite team of super-geniuses undertook a precise shot-by-shot reframing of the entire series to create a modern HD widescreen presentation of this legendary fan favorite. It’s time to experience Dragon Ball Z like you’ve never experienced it before!

Oh, my god where to begin... I think I got right to the "Super Geniuses" part before pissing myself with fits of I-can't-even-believe-this-shit laughter. I know this is the least of my worries, but FUNimation, when you're trying to convince people that you've improved something with a long history of questionable and controversial choices going in, this is probably not the guy you want to draw obvious comparisons to:

Pictured: FUNimation's 2014 business strategy?

But maybe I'm not giving them the benefit of the doubt - maybe FUNimation has changed their policies, and I'm just assuming the worst because of a lot of marketing buzz-words. Hey, maybe things are going to be just fine! And maybe, y'know, the Disney Channel will play Song of the South on a loop this Febuary in honor of Black History month. As always, the lovely denizens of the Kanzenshuu forums (formerly the Daizenshuu EX forum*) were one step ahead of me and proved that this, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is going to be a trainwreck on a level that we've never seen before. I'd considered reposting a number of the images therein, but that link takes you to page 50 (out of 90+ as of this writing), which should be enough to get you started. If you're anything like me, you may want to grab a vomit bag now, because those comparisons are utterly putrid.

Without getting into the gory details and mathematical problems that doing so would entail, the short answer to take away from this is everything bad about the Orange Bricks not related to the 16:9 framing - the DVNR smearing, the wonky supersaturated colors, the funky processed "look" in general - has only been amplified here. The fucking Orange Bricks will look more natural and film-like upscaled to 1080p than FUNimation's actual upcoming Blu-ray, assuming, of course, that this early trailer is any indication. Considering how similar all previous "Sneak Peek" footage for controversial FUNi releases have been, I have little doubt that what we're seeing now is exactly what we're going to get.

These are all the feelings left I have to offer.

As for the framing... well, so far all the footage FUNimation has shown has been pretty boring center-cropped bullshit that matches their DVD release almost perfectly. Doesn't give me much hope that they're really re-doing the tilt-and-scan process, but even if they were, so bloody what? Dragon Ball Z was a TV series produced from 1989 to 1996 on standard 16mm film - the original aspect ratio was 1.37:1, it will always be 1.37:1, and even when Toei spent a small fortune re-purposing the original 16mm footage, one of the things they budgeted in was re-animating certain shots from scratch in 16:9, because even Toei - while in the purpose of creating an entirely new show from the same footage - still knew cropping the footage inevitably made it look like shit. In short, FUNimation is swearing that the cropping will be better this time. They've so far not proven that it'll be different at all, and even if it is, they're ignoring the fact that the cropping itself is still a problem.

I am pretty upset at all of this... but let's try, really hard, to have a little perspective on what this is, and why it's happening. See, this is coming out after FUNimation's ROCK THE DRAGON DVD box set, which is - for those unaware - a classy, NIS America style DVD release literally selling the butchered, bowdlerized English dubbed broadcast versions  "Season 1" and "Season 2" of Dragon Ball Z, as it existed in early US syndication circa 1996. They've been pulled from barely watchable analog tape masters, they feature only the "vintage" English audio as produced by Ocean Studios, and they've been edited so brutally that there's roughly 13 episodes worth of footage missing from the 52 present. That's right, no single episode was cut in its entirety, but 20% of the footage involved in those episodes wound up being compressed or jettisoned in one way or another.

FUNimation never re-released these artifacts of their history prior, and even went out of their way to re-dub the uncut versions of these early episodes and began releasing them on DVD as the "Ultimate Uncut" collection (before those, too, were cancelled in favor of the Orange Bricks), trying to re-write the sins of the past and move away from reminding their newfound supporters who were excited to see Dragon Ball Z in its original, uncut format that they were once "that company" - you remember, the one that told you Goku hadn't died, he'd just been sent to another dimension. Because that's clearly what happens when you bleed out after getting run through with a corkscrew-laser canon shot by Satan who happens to look like a Martian genie.

So why does this monstrosity even exist now? Because FUNimation knows there's a market for every facet of Dragon Ball Z - even the one that they were embarrassed by. This is a set made specifically for people who saw this when they were kids and didn't know what the concept of "Anime" was - it was just some cool new cartoon about alien monkeys or, something, I dunno the first episode was pretty vague but HOLY CRAP THEY'RE BLOWIN' UP PLANETS, I GOTTA TELL THE KIDS AT RECESS! FUNimation released this set specifically to prey on nostalgia, and that's fine and dandy for those who have a fondness for vintage dubs*... but it was one of their last aces in Gokuu's hole. It's been nearly 20 years since "Arrival" aired in North America, and the bones of the Dragon Ball franchise have been picked clean... that doesn't make it fair or smart to your audience to milk your own cow with a damned bear trap, but at least it might help explain what frame of mind FUNimation's in to think it ever sounded like a good idea.

* Hey, who am I to judge? I'm about to re-buy AKIRA specifically for the shitty English dub I'll never actually sit through again.

If I had to guess, I'd say that FUNimation's claim that the "Entire Series" has been re-scanned in its intended 4:3 aspect ratio for the Level collection was a bit of an exaggeration. The first 40-odd episodes, sure, I believe that, but when they ran out of "Level" content to fuck around with and finally had a working understanding of how insane that plan was they pulled the plug. Faced with either re-using the 16:9 scans they had already paid for in 2005 or continuing down the Level sink-hole, they were then faced with the realization that people would want something "more" from a BD re-release, and decided on the more cost effective solution, as rage-inducing with a chunk of the audience as they surely knew it would be. Y'know, I have an image of my head of FUNimation's "Super Genius" sitting behind a computer monitor, intentionally tweaking contrast and DVNR until silent tears streak down his jaded face. This wasn't what I signed up for, he's probably thinking, having proven time and time again that he was capable of producing stunning video against impossible odds... but he's glumly following orders, knowingly obliterating everything even resembling the nuance and hand-crafted charm of Dragon Ball Z's history as a 16mm TV series from the dawn of Japan's Heisei era.  FUNimation themselves - even the higher ups that decided this was the only way forward - know it's wrong, and if they didn't they wouldn't have tried to present accurate, unmolested versions of the show so many times before. They're simply facing up to the reality that sales on Blu-ray for quintuple dips ain't what they used to be, and are crafting the most half-assed "Remaster" humanly possible so they can shrug off the potentially worse accusation of literally re-releasing the same exact content ("but now on Blu-ray!").

Will Dragon Ball Z: Season One be an improvement on Blu-ray next to the matching Season One Orange Brick? Will it actually re-frame certain shots to prevent important info from being lost, or fix the digital scratch removal glitches that ate original outlines during camera-shaking effects? Will the digital noise reduction fix up the ever-gnarly sounding Japanese mag-track sourced audio, which has always sounded like butt to one degree or another? I... couldn't tell you. Look, I've bought and reviewed a lot of crap for the Kentai Blog at no financial gain, but just so we're clear: I'm out. I'm not buying this new BD release - hell, I'm not even going to steal it off BitTorrent just to rip it a new one. Why bother? The very selling points of this release are an abomination, a targeted blow at everything I think Blu-ray can, and should strive to achieve, so there's really nothing more for me to add to this discussion. FUNimation are calculating the metrics on the new Dragon Ball Z: Season X set towards the exact opposite of a release I want, and if you have any interest in my opinion on that - any at all - that should be enough. Me commenting on this monstrosity would be akin to a vegan commenting on a bacon-cheeseburger; it might be funny, but it'd be a waste for all involved.

See this? This is about the only thing left FUNimation could release on Blu-ray that I'd happily throw money at. Seriously Fukunaga, where my Battle of Gods at?


Demon said...

TRAIN WRECK. Kinda glad I never got into DRAGON BALL, but feel bad for those that are already fans. For shame, FUNimation, for shame.

Anonymous said...

What's even dumber is that Funimation has things like the 2008 Jump Anime Fair special they can release, or maybe individual releases of Plan to Eradicate the Super Saiyans and/or Episode of Bardock that don't require the purchasing of crap like DBZ for Kinect.

Now granted as I understand the licenses for these things are actually owned by Shueisha (or in the case of BoG, 20th Century Fox) and not Toei, but still if Funimation are to be so tenacious in releasing Dragonball till the end of time, you'd think they'd get a hold of newer productions in order to keep up interest in the franchise.

Anonymous said...

What a disaster of a transfer! By the way, did you know that Media Blasters still plan on releasing "Kite" on blu ray. Apparently, they are waiting for the live action film to come out next year before they release it.

Jefferson said...

Got wind of this elsewhere, my first thought..."Kentai is gonna have a field day with this one!". You do not disappoint ;)

Kriztoffer Swank said...

I was considering getting that Rock the Dragon set for the sake of nostalgia (I never saw DB or DBZ when they aired on Adult Swim, it was all syndication with the original dubbing for me) until I heard about the awful video quality. I guess it's to be expected, old analog masters, but somehow I was expecting more. Ah well. I'll stick to my Dragon Boxes, and hope that someday FUNimation will continue their Level line (possibly with less cleanup) or Japan will maybe make something from original negatives.

By the way, if you or anyone knows anything on the matter, I've been curious about DBZ's audio. I always assumed it was done in mono, but somebody I know claimed original broadcasts were in stereo, and there are fans who have been fusing the best video sources with audio rips from home recorded VHS tapes (and possibly Beta). Know anything about that? If there are stereo sources, why has the show only gotten mono audio on home video?

Also wondering if you know whether or not the Hellsing TV series was done on film or digital. Just finished up episode 8 of Ultimate, would love to have the TV series on Blu-ray as well—and hopefully it doesn't take FUNimation too long to bring the remaining two episodes (and Dawn shorts) on Blu-ray.

Anonymous said...

Kriztoffer, the original audio from the initial broadcasts is indeed better than the DVDs. Long story short, the answer we have for this is that Toei cut costs for preservation and threw out the original "Cine-tape" masters and instead opted for using the original 16mm optical tracks that are all warped and compressed. Now the show itself has always been in mono, but it had a lot more clarity when it was first shown.

Here's some comparisons between the DVD and broadcast versions:

And as for preserving the audio, a gentleman by the handle of Kei17 acquired the entire original run of DBZ on Betamax from a relative a few years ago. To learn more about him and the preservation of these tapes, go to the Kanzenshuu forum where he frequently posts.

BluMeino said...

Good thing I'm no longer a fan of DBZ, but I'm still no less upset over it happening because it sets a precedent. Perhaps FUNi doesn't do this to any or all older anime, but they could, because the ground's been tread. Like what happens if they want to re-release Dragon Ball?

Anonymous said...

Never forget!