Monday, July 21, 2014

A Scanners Too Darkly: Criterion vs Subkultur

Criterion Collection Digipack (USA)

It was with no small level of hesitation that I picked up the Criterion Collection release of David Cronenberg's 1981 head-exploding icon of legend, SCANNERS. For one thing, I've always personally found the flick kind of... middling. There's nothing about the film that I would classify as bad, mind you. It clings to the hallmarks of Cronenberg's most visible works - body transformation as a metaphor of some grotesque facet of the human condition, explosions of unpredictable violence, an almost uncomfortable understanding of not-yet-existent technology (in this case, firewall hacking with only your goddamn brain), and an uneasy, oddly methodical tone that quietly rejects the notion that it's a "genre movie". Scanners is technically a Science Fiction film, but every effort has been made to avoid the imagery, soundtrack and dialogue you'd associate with any of its contemporaries; the film is closer in tone and even general aesthetic to a slow boil political thriller that just happens to be about dangerous mutants spawned by... well, if for some reason you're reading this and you still haven't seen the film, I'll let some other asshole spoil it for you. Again, there's nothing explicitly wrong with Scanners, it just isn't nearly as good as Cronenberg's similarly themed titles like Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch, which all have a much more consistent agenda and stronger central performance to get us there. If there's one thing I straight up dislike about this film it's the lukewarm performance of the lead, Stephen Lack, but the language of the film itself is so thoroughly dominated by the handful of scenes that feature Michael Ironsides that I can only shrug it off and call it a wash. I don't hate Scanners, I just think it's a swing-and-a-miss from a director who'd go on to do substantially better work, and I'm amused that - somehow - this is the one that pop culture has kept firmly in its collective memory, mostly for its chance to constantly bring up the iconic head explosion gag as a reaction anything that drives them insane.

Fun fact the Criterion booklet talks about: The head explosion scene was originally going to open the film, but they moved it to the start of the second reel once they realized that most audiences had too short of an attention span to pay attention to the somewhat convoluted plot after watching... well, basically after watching this:

With the pacing being what it is and the decidedly limited screentime that Ironsides has in the film, I honestly wonder if placing this scene back where it was originally planned to go - before the opening credits - might alleviate some of the frustrations I have with it? It'd not only start the whole plodding, poorly focused adventure off with a literal bang, but it would make the bookending sequence that ends the film have a sort of perfect symmetry, as opposed to this just randomly cropping up 20 minutes in. I'unno, maybe I'm just overthinking it... or maybe I just have a new excuse to play around with the raw footage in ways that aren't exclusively related to color grading?

There's been no shortage of discussion about what the hell happened to the overall "look" of the film on Criterion's new Director Approved edition. There's a lot going on with this one, so while I will defer to the good folks over at Caps-A-Holic for their EXCELLENT COMPARISON between the two transfers (plus several others DVD and Blu-ray versions to OCD over!) and simply discuss what I've seen and what I know. Dumping screenshots can be  great when there's a specific error that nobody's covered, but in this case I feel like I'd be chucking plastic pails of water into the Pacific. Everyone who's going to judge these transfers by screenshots has more than enough ammo for whichever side they've already come down on, so consider this an opinion piece.

Subkultur Limited Mediabook Edition (GERMANY)

First off, let's talk about the late-2012 German Blu-ray from Subkultur Entertainment - which we've spoken about before to avoid confusion with the horrendously janky 2011 Koch Media SD Upscale. To reiterate one more time, Subkultur's HD transfer is quite good, and Koch Media's is an upscaled trainwreck.

When the Criterion release came out and looked substantially different from their transfer and German fans were understandably confused, the company rep actually ISSUED A STATEMENT on their forums - translated above, for your convenience - explaining that when they licensed the film they picked up what was listed as MGM's "Protection Master". Knowing they had a shitty inferior transfer on the marker to shame as hard as possible, Subkultur actually got their hands on an original 35mm print shown in Germany during the early 1980s, and decided to compare the MGM tape master master to the vintage print. What they found was that the two were very similar indeed, and they even took flat scans of various scenes to use as a reference; having decided the MGM Protection Master was an accurate reflection of how the film was supposed to look, they used MGM's tape seemingly as-is. When, or how, this master was created they didn't say, but having dealt with MGM archival materials first-hand, I'd be surprised if this wasn't a 1080p Telecine created 5 or more years ago, intended primarily for HDTV broadcast.

Before anyone asks, a "Protection Master" is simply a copy of an original master. It's typically a tape being cloned from an original master tape, and is a cheap, simple way to make sure you still have a perfect copy should a tape ever be lost, stolen, damaged or what have you. It also means you can loan the Protection Master out to a third party and keep the Original Master in your vaults, effectively limiting the chances for anything bad happening to the original. A blank HDCAM SR tape should cost about about $150~250 depending on the length, but that's still a fraction of the price of needing to create a new telecine from scratch.

What's interesting is the Subkultur release has a notably different look when it's held up against various other HD releases, including UK label Second Sight's 2013 Limited Edition BD. I don't have the disc on-hand, sadly, but as you can SEE FOR YOURSELF, this disc generally has a higher color saturation, and the gamma appears to have been pushed to produce a brighter image, which has also visibly increased the level of noise on display. The Second Sight and Subkultur releases have completely different color timing and framing, which again, you can see in the above comparisons. One shot of particular interest is about an hour into the film, when  Lack is looking down at a computer monitor; in the Subkultur version, the scene's color grading is quite neutral, while on the Second Sight release it's been given a visible green cast, emulating the green text appearing from the vintage tube screen. This shot is my personal smoking gun, suggesting that the Second Sight release was color graded scene-by-scene for both consistency and aesthetics. For the record, both the iTunes version of the film and the Paramount Home Video Japan Blu-ray look more or less identical to the UK Blu-ray, suggesting this was the defacto "Restored" master Paramount and MGM planned to use going forward... until Criterion got involved, of course.

Second Sight Limited Steelbook Edition (UK)

What's very interesting is that it says in the booklet that Criterion's new, 2K resolution transfer was supervised by David Cronenberg. It does not say when said transfer was made, or if it was at the behest of Criterion themselves, as plenty of titles they release are essentially the same masters seen elsewhere around the world. Were I to be a gambling man, my guess would be that what actually happened was that Paramount made the initial 2K scan which served as the basis for the Second Sight master, but that said raw scans were kept on a drive array, and brought back into the colorists' sphere when Criterion convinced Cronenberg to be involved with their release. The shot of Lack looking at the monitor has the same green cast on the "Cronenberg Approved" Criterion BD despite no prior reference materials being used, which either suggests that the Criterion scan had access to the color information used on the previous master as a base, or that Cronenberg happens to have the same boner for green monitor reflections as the last guy who graded the film.

I have little doubt that Cronenberg suggested and approved the new color grading, no more than I would doubt that Michael Mann approved the new color grading on THIEF, or that Peter Jackson approved the new color grading for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING... you uh, you can tell where this is going, can't you?

David Cronenberg, bless his black Canadian heart, has gone slightly off the deep end with the color grading here. The short version is the entire film has an unnatural blue push, particularly in the high end, which is reminiscent of the sort of hazy optical effects you'd find on oldschool Day For Night scenes. I'm tempted to say it looks garish, but to be fair it's not as "digital" looking as many of the controversial color grading arguments we've had in the last ten years... hell, it's subtle enough that it could have been done purely on film - it wasn't, but it doesn't have any of those weird digital matte edges like the Blu-ray for Bram Stoker's Dracula or the THX Approved DVD of Halloween. Even so, it just looks... off.

Every time this happens, you get two camps that crop up: Those who argue that a screenshot is 100% representative of the transfer in question, and those who argue that an isolated screenshot on a computer monitor in no way reflect what watching the actual transfer on a large display would look like. The funny thing is that both sides are completely right. So long as the decoder wasn't screwed up at some point, any screenshot will look identical to the source image, and as such any issues - say, "the black levels are elevated" or "the grain has been smoothed digitally" or whatever - will appear on the screenshot. That said, the way the human brain works means that watching a smaller windowboxed image with a white border around it will produce a higher perceived contrast, making dark images appear darker. If you were to full-screen the cap being discussed, there you go, that's the original frame - but the second you're doing A/B comparisons in different tabs, those borders, however small, are going to influence how dramatic those color compromises appear even if your computer screen has been properly calibrated - that's the whole reason professionally framed pieces of art use different colored mattes. Particularly if your whole argument  boils down to "this transfer is tinted blue", then yes, white borders in a Firefox browser window are only going to make those colors pop harder than they would on your ISF calibrated 1080p plasma... but that doesn't mean those colors don't exist, they're just less obvious or distracting in their intended context.

A friend of mine has suggested that the Criterion release is actually quite close in color tone to the old R1 MGM DVD, and while there are times where THAT'S VERY TRUE, there are also times where IT'S NOT EVEN CLOSE. Sure the DVD releases going back several years had a dim, grubby look to them, but the Blu-ray's color grading has tipped even that further than I can accept as looking anything but like an idea that came about in the lab, creating a consistently cold, low-contrast aesthetic that - while perhaps acceptable in the context of the transfer as a whole - never looks natural, or like any film released in 1981 would have. Whether or not the color grading looks "bad", of course, is solely a matter of personal opinion. But it's safe to say it's "new", in either case. If this truly was how the film was supposed to look, it wouldn't be so notably different from the German theatrical print Subkultur compared their materials to. Viewing the screenshots in direct comparison with the other releases available makes the Criterion transfer appear like you're going to be watching the whole film through the blue half of a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses... yet somehow the final result is somewhat less dramatic than all of that. Fact is, neutral colors look weird when their underlying contrast has been undercooked, so it's not uncommon for a blue push to be used to mellow the look out. It's reminiscent of the (far heavier) blue bias on Twilight Time's rage inducing Night of the Living Dead 1990 transfer - most people swear the blue push go away after the opening twenty minutes, which simply isn't true, it just stops looking weird because the scenes are now taking place at night. The blue high end does a surprisingly decent job of making the whole film look intentionally underlit, but as a result the fleshtones are always desaturated, the natural reds in their flushed faces being smeared out by the clever color tweak. It's so simple it's brilliant.

With a comparison between what a neutral version of this film looks like in HD, the intentionally dull, dour look on the Criterion master sticks out like a sore thumb. Turn the lights down and view it on its own merits, and you'll no longer be convinced that they've turned Michael Ironsides into a psychic smurf; it'll just look like they shot the whole thing with lower key lighting, with the wonky color grading cautiously shifting the viewer's expectations to match what it promises is the intended "look" of the film. Honestly, had the film been made today and looked this way I'd have thought it was a bit ugly, but at least it's not the expected high-contrast teal that everyone is convinced is the cancer that's destroying cinematography as we know it.

Another niggle we have to discuss is that of "AutoClean" artifacts. As we've discussed many times on this ol' site, film scratches and particles of dust are removed using a combination of digital tools - sometimes automated, sometimes by hand, but more often than not it's a little bit of both. It's not uncommon for the automatic tools to occasionally glitch out, removing a fast moving object that's supposed to be in frame by effectively mistaking it for a scratch; this can lead to things like sparks, flickering flames, or blowing leaves disappearing, though it takes a trained eye or a direct comparison to typically see the artifact itself. It just so happens that the iconic head explosion scene has Digital Scratch Repair artifacts on the Criterion version, but not on any other commercially released HD copy I'm aware of.

That having been said, the Protection Master released by Subkultur is absolutely filthy with hundreds of instances of dirt in any given scene, and I can only assume the Second Sight release still has some issues if Criterion bothered to use scratch repair filters at all. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing for the film's most iconic scene to be afflicted, but having seen the almost grimy alternative I'm willing to cut Criterion as much slack as I can stomach: They really should have keyed the rest of the fucking shout out, but if that's as bad as it gets, I just can't be bothered to get a hernia over it all. DVD BEAVER has a comparison of the Criterion and Second Sight transfers, so you can easily enough click back-and-fourth between them to watch the fragments of juicy skull simply disappear on the former, replaced by irregularly shaped blobs of nothingness. This begs the question: "Would you ever notice the skull bits blinking out in motion?" Well, I may have - but obsessing over minute details is kind of my job. Would the average person? Probably not, unless it's being pointed out to them... good luck not seeing it now, suckers!

Director David Cronenberg, clearly feeling much the same way I do.

What we have here are three distinctly different masters, each representing a different moment in time from when the film was being appraised, and it's a very unique, and rare, position for any film fan to have access to all of them:

Subkultur Entertainment's Protection Master sourced Blu-ray preserves the film exactly as it always was. That means the film is full of flicker, scratches, dirt, color grading inconsistencies. The grain is heavier than the Criterion edition, and there are some minor trailing artifacts suggesting some DVNR was applied for consistency's sake, but overall it's a decent looking presentation of what's likely an older, less coddled master. Basically, it's a time capsule to experience Scanners as it was seen in 1981, and that's a pretty awesome option, even if it's a "warts and all" affair.

Second Sight's 2013 HD master sourced Blu-ray presents a modern, studio approved version of the film, fixing the majority of the film's obvious defects and giving it a fairly neutral, consistent, if slightly over the top color grade. I can't comment further than that, not owning the release myself, but it's safe to say that anyone who thinks the Criterion Collection master is too dark, but isn't thrilled about the idea of constant flicker and speckling has a third option. This particular master is the only version to include a new 5.1 English surround track, too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Criterion Collection's 2014 Director Approved HD master stands as almost a rejection of Paramount's prior attempt, lowering the contrast and gamma across the board to produce a somber, dank version of the same film. Screenshots may look softer at a glance, but in motion the grain looks perfectly organic, suggesting that a combination of lower contrast and a higher quality scan simply exaggerated it less to begin with; actual detail between the Subkultur and Criterion master seems comparable. If the Second Sight release went slightly too far in creating a brighter, bolder version of Scanners, I can't help but think that Cronenberg himself went slightly too far in reverse just to compensate. Boosting the contrast alone wouldn't "fix" the transfer, however, as the color balance has been subtly pushed towards blue and purple, robbing flesh tones of a natural look. Having now seen the transfer myself, I can't call it bad, just... strange. And not in the way I was expecting a David Cronenberg film to look strange.

Whilst I've come in here to talk about the transfer, I will note that it's extremely disappointing that Cronenberg didn't record a commentary for the new Criterion release. Yeah, I know, he's already said that he's "said all he has to say" about his older films and I guess there's something to respect in him not forever living on his glories of yesteryear, but this is such a fundamentally unusual film that I'd genuinely love to hear whatever Cronenberg might have had to say about it's inception, the difficulties he faced producing the to this day unique special effects - heck, I still want an excuse for why he picked such a dull leading man. Despite having overseen the new transfer, Cronenberg himself didn't contribute to any new bonus content, which is... frustrating, to say the least.

The semi-annual Barnes and Noble sale is still going on as I post this, which allowed me to pick up Scanners for about $20. The disc includes a new interview with Michael Ironsides, Cronenberg's first feature film Stereo, the Stephen Lack interview that Subkultur made for their 2012 BD, an interview with Cronenberg from the film's release on a Canadian talkshow, a booklet with an interesting essay going over the film's original production, and original ad spots. I'd argue a lot of that content alone was worth the $20 I paid. With that in mind it's safe to say that while the "look" given to Scanners is neither the way the film was created nor strikes me as the ideal presentation, it looks somewhat better than you'd expect, while the Subkultur release looks marginally worse in motion than a single frame of any given shot likely will. With all of that in mind, I'd suggest purists who likely don't mind some flicker, gate weave and a whole lot of dust speckling import the German release, and that anyone who isn't upset on principle by the dull, cold image of the Criterion version pick it up for the unique bonus features.

At the very least, I can't spot any obvious color grading problems for Stereo. I have little doubt that being in black and white helps.


Kriztoffer Swank said...

Bummer to hear the Subkultur disc is marred with dirt and the like. Judging by the caps, I think I prefer it; the Criterion image has such dull luminance in lights and fire that it's unpleasing.

However, I do wonder if I should just go the Criterion route because of its B&N sale price and primarily the inclusion of another film. I've never seen the movie before but always had a curiosity. Were I a hardcore fan of the film and had ideas on how it should look, I might be more inclined to pay more to import the German disc. Criterion's dull transfer will probably suit me fine.

Anonymous said...

Greatly appreciate the time you took with this. I too took advantage of the B&N sale, though I expect, when wanting to watch the feature, I'll gravitate toward the German Blu.

Off-topic, I wonder if you've heard/read anything about the Japanese Blu-ray of Opera coming out tomorrow. I'd read repeatedly that there weren't HD elements available for the film. I guess the Japanese disc could be an upscale? listing:

X-human said...

The gamma issues is the biggest red flag for me. Competent transfers just don't do that. One can darken or tint a transfer without those kinds of issues. This just isn't a well done transfer, even if it is "correct." But that casts serious doubt that the rest of the transfer was competently executed.

It's difficult to take any claim of director/DP approved/supervised transfers seriously anymore. I rather doubt Cronenberg was so involved in the transfer that what we have here is the work of his own hands. We probably have something not unlike the NotLD situation where, sight unseen, he may have very broadly complained that previous versions were too bright and too warm. Companies do seem to be pushing brightness and colors too far to sell HD after all.

With that said, buying the Criterion release is future proofing yourself with the extras. Someday soon a 4k or 8k transfer will come along, and who knows if Criterion will have a hand in that or not. I hate to say that though, as the Subkultur transfer is the one I'd rather watch (I don't mind dirty, grainy, scratched film if its true to form).

Anonymous said...

Somebody posted some Opera Blu-ray caps (have to scroll down a bit):

Anonymous said...

I guess I'll just stick to my subkultur disc then as the UK one looks atrocious and the criterion is absurdly expensive and looks very weird to my eyes. I have no interest in any extras for this as I know enough about it's production etc. from articles and documentaries.

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