Proceed to the most popular horror forum you know of and post a thread entitled “[insert horror movie title] on DVD/Blu-ray doesn’t look that great.” Afterward, brace for the shitstorm. Even if your assertions are clear and obvious, more-often-than-not you’ll encounter rude rebuttals with little back-up from others who also see things from your viewpoint. Despite being so passionate about a vast assortment of things genre-related, picture quality on home video seems to glide right on by most horror fans. It’s a sad and puzzling state that’s mostly grounded in misconception. Yet with the emergence of and constant price drops of once elite home theater technologies, it’s never been a better time to grow to appreciate seeing Vincent Price cackle or glorious head explosions in unparalleled visual quality.
I’ve heard all of the usual claptrap spewed by the naysayers, apologists, or uneducated across a bevy of horror hangouts:
- “You can’t expect a movie from decades ago to look like it was shot last year.”
- “It’s low budget, what do you expect?”
“Not every release can look as good as a Criterion Collection DVD!”
- “It’s the best it’s ever looked, so shut up!”
- “The director supervised the transfer!”
- “That one review site said it looked great!”
“It’ll never be released again or restored ‘cuz no one cares!”
- “It’s on Blu-ray so it has to be better!”
It’s either this juvenile crap or that somehow speaking out against a given video transfer is an affront to the film itself, its makers, or the studio that released the disc. This immediate defensive stance is replaced on home theater-centric forums with general apathy towards horror and cult films as niche product unworthy of lengthy discussion. Or at least not as important as incessantly waxing over blockbuster pap that happens to look fantastic. Both perspectives are nothing but condescending and counterproductive towards the reality of what raises the ire of most video nuts.
The evolution of digital technology has been a godsend for filmmaking. Naturally, special effects have been revolutionized, but even the act of shooting features has been made much easier and cheaper. DV has helped continue and expand the cottage industry of horror indies. Anyone can bring their bloody dreams into film-form with recent examples being Marc Price’s no budget DIY zombie wonder Colin (2008) and Oren Peli’s eleven-thousand dollar monster hit Paranormal Activity (2007).
Pornography has been helped so greatly by this development that it’s second only in impact to the Internet bringing the inspiration of smut to the masses. Even Hollywood is waring with preferences between filming in digital (i.e. – Michael Mann, Robert Rodriguez) and traditional film (Quentin Tarantino). Directors, cinematographers, and colorists regardless of preference have limitless possibilities in precise color grading through software wizardry down to the single frame. It’s the glory of all things digital that enables us to plant our fat asses into state-of-the-art multiplexes and enjoy a ridiculously clear, richly colored presentation of Transformers…okay, maybe not the best example…
On the grounds of home video, clunky mechanical cassettes have been chucked for lightweight, cheaper discs played by friggin’ laser beams. Image resolution has increased with the gigabyte as opposed to oxide particles magnetized onto tape. In fact, picture quality on the stuff you can find at Best Buy has increased so dramatically that it’s now possible to enjoy the closest approximation to a film’s original source ever available from your couch. Advanced video encoding on Blu-ray (and the defunct HD DVD) can be constantly revised and adapted to given program content to yield jaw-dropping results unobtainable on the anarchic DVD format. Yet there’s an insidious flipside to such detail and clarity on cutting edge home video…
Who the hell knows where this came from, but there’s a general perception of film grain being an unwanted element of a DVD or Blu-ray transfer. This might trace back to an ongoing epidemic of most DVD review sites consistently assaulting grain as “noise” in their throwaway opinions. Video noise is real, but is a result from incompetent encoding and compression of the transfer. Even most “professional” (har har) Blu-ray reviewers are simply blind or at least don’t trust their own eyes. Most have a tendency to appeal to the sensibilities of the unaware by equating image purity to mediocrity or trying to temper expectations of those wishing a film from 1974 look like a product from 2002. Perhaps they don’t want to piss off the studios supplying the screener copies? Whatever the case, very few seem to have the underwear danglers to stand up and state the obvious either way.
In reality, grain is a chemical reaction from the exposure process subjected to film. It’s also what provides high frequency (or fine) detail seen on carefully authored Blu-ray transfers and “hinted” at on quality DVD images. It’s detail and that’s what videophiles want. We want to experience the closest visual experience to viewing the digitally untouched film negative as possible at home. Not unrealistic expectations, excuses, or whatever someone else deems to be quality. Merely an accurate representation of the filmmaker’s intentions regardless the age of the material. Just leave it alone.
This is where the issue of studios intentionally de-graining transfers via digital noise reduction (DNR) arises. In an attempt to pander to the majority of consumers who buy tiny off-brand LCDs at Wal Mart and $120 HDMI cables at the encouragement of the Geek Squad, studios both big and small are “sheening” transfers of these nasty “grains”, and have been for years. This process is also a poor man’s way of “restoring/remastering” a film as manual restoration is expensive or deemed unimportant. The problem is most of the affected happen to be catalog titles; while releases fresh from theaters tend to always receive stunning treatment no matter how shitty the actual content is.
So okay, that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, the thing is this grain destroying algorithm not only eradicates fine detail, it also introduces a host of other negatives. DNR flattens the dimensional “pop” associated with high resolution images. Fleshtones appear plastic-like as faces of actors take on the look of waxwork busts. Motion also suffers, as an incredibly annoying lag is introduced, like a smeary LCD monitor with a poor response time. At DNR’s worse, buying and watching the Blu-ray version essentially offers zero advantage over the ol’ DVD visually.
What pisses off videophiles most of all is that fact that virtually all HD displays have a slew of noise reduction circuitry built-in that people can manually turn on or off. So it shouldn’t be up the studios to make the decision and turn presentations in clumpy messes for those dying to see classics in true high definition. This absolutely takes the fun out of the Blu-ray format and makes one not anticipate upcoming releases too much. One never knows if they’ll be ruined or not until either direct screen captures appear or trusted individuals confirm. I’ve created two comparisons below that mimic the effects of DNR. The pasty images look even worse in motion and once you notice it–you’ll see it almost every time it’s applied.
How does this relate to horror? Well, genre classics have fallen victim and will continue to do so unless more-and-more wake up. Soon I’ll do up another article detailing several of the best and worst horror presentations on DVD and Blu-ray. The selections might surprise you…