Picture Perfect?

Picture Perfect?

Gregory Solman

Movies travel from salt-mine storage vaults to multiple stages of mastering, compression, and tweaking. So who to blame for your less than dazzling DVD?

According to legend, Godard once quipped that movies can’t be shown on TV because in the translation they become, in essence, television. That said, let’s assume for the moment that the goal of DVD watching is to duplicate a theatrical film experience at home, to make the compressed digital bits and microscopic pits of the Digital Versatile Disc mimic the warm-and-fuzzy continual gray scales and familiarly unnatural color reproduction of an analog system we all know and love: motion-picture photography.

What can DVD deliver under ideal conditions? According to Lou Levinson. a high-definition colorist at Host Logic, Hollywood, and a renowned expert on mastering movies for all home formats, the answer is unepectedly hopeful. Levinson has pedormed side-by-side comparisons of reels from picture sources of varying resolution on professional color-corrected monitors and under controlled conditions. His verdict? “In my experience. when everything is right and done well, DVDs can come amazingly close to the standard-definition digital master.” In other words. DVDs can potentially deliver Digital-Betacam-quality pictures, effectively eliminating the gap between professional and consumer formats. And that’s to the trained eye of someone who knows what to look for when examining the image critically.

Yet a labyrinthine matrix of contingencies — detours, dead ends. speed bumps, and steep cliffs along the road from a converted salt-mine film-print storage facility in Kansas to your TV screen — practically guarantees that an objective qualitative analysis of any given DVD title will be impossible. Because DVDs are digital, one might expect a measure of perfection — but some discs look unaccountably better when viewed on a particular machine-monitor combo, and others prove to be equally mystifying duds. For reasons unknown, John Ford’s The Quiet Man is a little too strong and silent on my Pioneer DV-414: after the Republic Pictures logo ends, so does the entire soundtrack. It might be a quirk in a particular machine or disc; or a flaw common to the entire model of machine or to the entire pressing run of the disc; or a combination of these factors.

But, at least, to correct that which can be easily corrected, do adjust your sets. Watching DVDs as if you’re merely watching a TV can reduce this remarkable format to the look of unexceptional cable reception. Because VHS tapes are little better than broadcast signal in image-quality terms, home viewers have developed bad habits — whereas laserdisc converts learned that the factory presets for televisions ensure far too much brightness and contrast. These point-of-sale pre-sets have no aesthetic raison d’etre. They’re simply turned up to eleven in order to sell models in overlit showrooms, where consumers predictably pick the brightest-looking pictures — a logical criterion for the guy who watches football with far too much ambient room light so that his wife can read and the kids can play, all in the same room at the same time. Director David Fincher insisted on color setup bars on the DVD of Seven, to replicate the look of one of the film’s original silver-retention process prints as it looked when projected in a theater. “The color bars are to help you get a reasonable picture out of your TV,” Fincher says. “It’s just to get you to set the black levels properly, because so many people have them set improperly.”

So don’t expect art out of something treated as an appliance. In his book DVD Demystified Jim Taylor lists the junctures at which artifacts — anything not in the film’s original photography — can accrete to the final DVD picture: “… film scratches, film-to-video-conversions, analog-to-digital conversions, NTSC or PAL video encoding, anti-copying technology, composite signal crosstalk, connector problems, electrical interference, waveform aliasing, signal filters, television picture controls, and much more.” The one thing consumers have a say in is their home theater setup. For instance, the high-quality DVD signal suffers by the use of the same coaxial connections that come out of your cable box. At the very least, use Super-VHS cables and ideally connect the player to a televison fitted with a component-in panel in the back. Experts advise reducing both brightness and contrast to about one quarter of maximum. (In the laserdisc days that adjustment allowed sharpness — be potted up to three-quarters to improve the picture. But DVDs do not require extra sharpness, and some watchers maintain that any extra high frequency — i.e. sharpness — hurts more than it helps.) Now adjust the color to taste. Finally, unless you’ve always been bothered by dark movie theaters, turn off the room lights. The DVD now stands a fighting chance of looking vaguely photographic.

Unfortunately, your problems may have just begun. DVD mastering, the process of transferring an analog film print or negative into a digitally encoded format, comes after three critical stages of picture development, each fraught with pitfalls. First, how well photographed was the original film in the first place? Memory of just how wonderful a movie looked on the big screen is unreliable, often colored by enthusiasm, nostalgia, and a chauvinistic protectiveness towards the film medium now that its faced with possible extinction by the rise of theatrical digital movie projection. It’s not uncommon to encounter complaints about image quality directed at DVD by viewers unaware that the movie was actually shot the way in the first place and that the original cinematography has been faithfully preserved.

Next, what is the condition of the negative or print used to master the DVD? Studio archives lie in various states of disarray and decay. Even state-of-the-art preservation techniques cannot compensate for the scandalous neglect of movie prints prior to the VCR boom, when the studios belatedly recognized the post-theatrical ancillary value of their movie libraries. For what it’s worth, they’re (mostly) on top of it now that it’s almost too late: half of the movies made before 1950 no longer exist and many extant prints are in no condition to be coming to DVP soon. Studios see no point m funding expensive restoration jobs that will appeal only to a handful of film scholars; they’re looking to dig out well-known, potentially commercial titles. Titles such as Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (43), struck from a slightly damaged 35mm nitrate negative by Kino Video — but despite its flaws, a welcome addition to any colare a rarity.

Finally, how well was the film element translated to digital mastering tape? How good was the hardware used — the telecine (a film-to-tape transfer device)? And, more important, how skillful was the telecine colorist? Just as in the mastering of a home video or laserdisc, much of the quality of a DVD depends on The Color Elite, the handful of telecine colorists employed by the studios to translate movies into digital masters that can be used to create home formats. And then comes the process of translating the movie into a DVD master by a compressionist, another specialist, who takes the colorist’s high-resolution digital master and applies MPEG-2 compression (a standard agreed upon by the Moving Pictures Experts Group, a manufacturers’ engineering consortium). Compressionists make critical decisions about the video rate of the disc; it can vary up to 9.8 Mbps (megabits per second), and generally, the higher the bit rate the better the picture. If the film is long and there are multiple audio tracks and lots of sub-picture information, the bit rate might have to be lowered. And a good compressionist will recognize scenes that pose particular difficulties and allocate room for high-bit-rate streams to encode them to avoid causing artifacts.

Many of the image problems encountered in the DVD format can be traced back to the three stages of the transfer process preceding compression. And in a way the DVD format is a victim of its own success. Delivering over 100 more lines of resolution (720 x 480) than laserdisc (567 x 480), it amplifies and highlights any of the picture’s pre-existing problems: bad prints, poor transfers made years ago for low-res format viewing, and photographic decisions made with only motion-picture projection in mind. Even the rightly vaunted Criterion titles have not always been remastered for DVD, particularly when the laserdisc master is recent. The bonus features in Artisan’s Terminator 2 Special Edition, for instance, were simply ported over from the laserdisc edition.

It’s important to note that a DVD masterer compressing an already formatted digital master has less latitude for fine-tuning the image’s color correction than the telecine colorist has at the film-to-tape transfer stage. DVD mastering can (though it should not) be less of an art than a science — when it’s done by automation and without follow-up fussing. It’s a cheaper option, and the results are often problematic. Ideally, DVD compressionists should be poring over the job the compression machine has done, checking the computer’s math, giving it a human-eye polish.

Here’s a rundown of the most common problems and their probable causes:

Snow, Sleet, and Stormy Weather: White flecks and streaks usually reflect the condition of the original film element. The DVDs of both The Searchers and Singin’ in the Rain appear to have been mastered from original elements that were selected for their vivid color rather than their pristine, unprojected condition. The scratchy film element used in the opening reel of Criterion’s release of The Killer may have been haphazardly treated, with no anticipation of John Woo’s success in the Western aftermarket. Problems in a particular reel often force colorists to mix and match inter-positive, low-contrast prints, and occasionally even dreaded release prints — alas, sometimes the best remaining element and sometimes yielding surprisingly satisfying results. But that’s something like changing horses midgallop. Release prints, plainly identifiable by the reel-change or changeover marks in the upper right of the frame, can be marked by all manner of damage: streaks, gouges, splices, warped pulsing, sprinkles, snow-like white flecks. Locating the ideal set of film elements for telecine is expensive and time consuming. One notable compression artifact: fuzzy dots, particularly ones around the edges of objects, nicknamed “mosquitoes” by one writer.

Color Undulation, Fibrillation, and Efflorescence: The circus-cage living hell of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes — a movie that, like an aging whore, has a seductive reputation to maintain — is literalized in the film’s garish red colors. Struck from an Eastmancolor CinemaScope element, some of the DVD’s more excessive scenes have bloomed out of control, while others remain wan, desiccated and overcompressed, resulting in video noise. (Aggravating the situation, the soundtrack drones.) In the scene when the family reads the Futterman letter in The Searchers, there’s an unintended pulsing in the image caused by a fireplace flicker effect. DVDS often have trouble with strong light sources surrounded by darkness; as points of high contrast with uncertain outlines, they produce a kind of illuminated area of confusion, exacerbated when the light source is unstable, as with flames or light glimpsed through trees. The image pulses visibly in one scene in Singin’ in the Rain, in which Gene Kelly chats in front of the stucco of a studio-wall exterior. The color undulates distractingly, as if the pixels don’t know whether they’re on or off, causing a twinkling fibrillation. That might be caused by a digital compression defect. MPEG-2 compression systems squeeze movie images two ways, temporally and spatially. Temporal squeezing uses shorthand for information that doesn’t change over time. Spatial squeezing takes’ visual information that is redundant (such as a blue sky background) and describes the image more economically with a mathematical formula. Both forms of squeezing take advantage of the eye’s sensitivity to certain types of information and insensitivity to others. The Singin’ in the Rain pulsing defect might be the result of the compression device deciding how to describe the stucco wall most efficiently. More often, color undulation comes from a warped film element transferred without restoration.

Shot/Reverse Shot Mismatches: With more cruel accuracy than when the films are projected in theaters, DVDs lay bare the moments when exterior scenes move back and forth between the great outdoors and spot-lit backlots. In the newly remastered DVDs of The Birds and Vertigo, the artificial quality of certain shots probably originates with Robert Burks’ lighting, an artifice intended by Hitchcock and visible during projection, though it seems exaggerated now. Furthermore, in the scene in The Birds between the Bodega Bay postmaster and Melanie Daniels outside the store, the glaring difference in crispness between the shot and reverse shot in the coverage of their conversation is the result of a standard studio-era practice of employing filters to produce a softer, more flattering look for actresses. Mark that down to original photography. Unlike Hitchcock, John Ford did not intend shots filmed on the soundstage to read as sets. In The Searchers DVD, before the raid on the Edwards’ homestead it looks as if the family’s last line of defense is studio security. When everything is VHS-soft and mushy, these differences are less pronounced. Colorists could have made these contrasts less obvious. The question is, should they? It can be argued that DVD upholds the integrity of the original work, preserving qualities that could easily have been lost in telecine. Colorists, who often correct mistakes and otherwise improve upon the original photography, acknowledge this as the fine line they walk each day: to reproduce a movie’s look faithfully, blemishes and all, or make it look better whenever they can.

Although The Searchers’ flesh tones and cerulean splendor are pleasantly and accurately reproduced, some of the color matching is off. This should have been corrected by the colorist (even when the original photography was at fault) through the use of a “still store.” This telecine function allows the colorist to display a shot from earlier in a scene or even from a previous scene, just as it was transferred, and use it as a reference guide for matching color tone consistently if not ideally. If that process is shortchanged — because a studio hasn’t budgeted enough time for the transfer or the colorist doesn’t care — it can result in background colors or flesh-tones that don’t match from shot to shot.

Unspecial Effects: These minor distractions raise major questions: Is it the nature of the DVD beast to scare up problems that remain hidden in film projection and inefficient lower-resolution consumer formats such as VHS? Should DVD colorists and compressionists strive to make sets, etc., less obvious by defocusing and manipulating grain and apparent sharpness? Or would that be to re-create movies in their own image? Take the Adam’s Rib DVD: when Spencer Tracy is lifted up by the circus strongwoman during a courtroom demonstration, the wires holding him up are as painfully visible as they were in B-movies. But the old studio pros knew exactly what the film projector beam would resolve. Perhaps the wires suspending Tracy had a highlight that remained invisible until the DVD processing. DVDS often make cinematographers look like the hacks they never were.

Effects-laden fantasies compound these problems: the SPFX in the Terminator 2 Special Edition and The Matrix come out well in the DVD, but pre-Computer Generated Imagery Effect, such as matte shots, can suffer. (Then again, the mechanical effects in the flawless DVD re-release of Jaws and The Poseidon Adventure seem fine.) When they mastered E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Levinson and cinematographer Allen Daviau were acutely aware of how readily the alien could be made to look like an ambulatory foam-rubber toy. The film scanners used by colorists have become so good at resolving the elements now that the film print itself is the largest source of “noise,” i.e. extraneous information or interference that’s generated during encoding and decoding (such as the herringbone patterns that sometimes affect cable TV picture reception). A colorist can now do almost anything with the image. When he remastered Star Wars, working under George Lucas’ imprimatur, Levinson corrected mistakenly reflected lights and other gaffes far beyond the purview of simple color correction. If it were possible to see a pristine original 35mm or 70mm release print of a given film today, one might find it decidedly inferior to its latter-day DVD) resurrection.

Ghosts in the Machine: When a digital system like DVD fails, it’s not pretty. Digital compression can cause artifacts such as macroblocking — a lack in the density of the black areas of an manifested in fuzzy pixel blocks similar to the effect used for censoring nudity on television. Overcompressing movies sometimes causes an unprofound lack of contrast and a video-like sheen. The loss of high-frequency information during the compression process produces what’s known as the Gibbs effect — a white blur rimming sharp edges, specially when there is high contrast in the picture, such as John Wayne’s face against the blue sky. This is almost certainly the most common artifact native to the DVD format. Those glitches can result from unusually bad transfers, but more often they are produced when a DVD is overcompressed to achieve an artificially higher apparent sharpness that’s not absolutely desirable. In doing so, the compressionist emphasizes one quality of the superior DVD picture to the detriment of another.

Compressionists fiddle with the picture’s frequency response and the data-transfer rate of the digital bit stream because generally, the higher the transfer rate, the better the picture. “In theory, DVDs should be higher resolution and lower noise than even laserdiscs,” notes Levinson. “But actual higher resolution and apparent sharpness don’t necessarily follow. Sometimes all this picture processing has negative consequences. Often in our downconversions from high-definition [film or digital master] sources, a lower-resolution choice has been made in the interest of making the picture look more filmic.” In other words, sometimes a lower-resolution image simply looks better, and that’s where subjective human judgment overrules automated mathematical logic.

Widescreen Wars: Format decisions still seem to be laboring under the assumption that no one over 30 cares about DVDS and no one under 30 cares about the proper aspect-ratio formatting of old movies. Many movies that should be matted are available only in full frame, even though DVDs were originally touted as an end to the format war because they offered both versions. The film industry try is pushing hard for DVD to replace the videocassete, and some of the same battles over consumer taste in laser disc are being fought once again.

Still, format can be a determinant of DVD quality. The widescreen letterbox aspect ratio that has become a standard feature of the DVD format is produced by the DVD player, which stretches the information on the disc and masks the top and bottom of the screen to create a wider but smaller picture. But in DVDS enhanced for 16:9 widescreen television, there’s no loss of definition because the information on the disc no longer needs to be stretched and resized to achieve the appropriate aspect ratio.

Dual-layer formatting, sometimes necessary to squeeze multiple versions or additional material onto a disc, (can trigger a slight pause as the player finds the new groove. There are pauses during Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, two of the most beautiful re-creations of movies for home theater ever made. And though it’s disconcerting to think that these pauses might become a part of the movie’s gestalt, like a skip in a favorite record, one can think of them more warmly as a digital reel change, a small penalty for such a great reward. At least the projectionist inside the box always hits his focus.

Gregory’ Solman is a Los Angeles -based film critic.


DVD devotees rate the best and worst DVDS

Wade Major, Boxoffice DVD editor, Los Angeles

Best looking titles: The Abyss (20th C. Fox); A Bugs Idle (Buena Vista); Blade (New Line); Carnival of Souls (Criterion); Dark City (N. Line); Fight Club (20th C. Fox); Grand Illusion (Criterion); The Guts of Navarone (Columbia/TriStar); Men in Black (Col./TriStar); The Passion of Joan of Arc (Criterion); Sleepy Hollow, (Paramount).

Worst-looking titles: All About Eve (20th C. Fox); All the President’s Men (Warners); Bonnie and Clyde (Warners); Gothic (Pioneer); The Jerk (Universal); Splendor in the Grass (Warners).

Best overall DVD-releasing companies: Criterion and Columbia/TriStar, followed closely by New Line; 20th Century. Fox (“raised the bar for really big special editions”), Warner Bros. (most improved, with the 1954 A Star Is Born, 42nd Street and North by Northwest). Special kudos to Anchor Bay (“… a wonderful company that has done a lot with titles that otherwise might have been forgotten. They always treat them with respect and have done an exceptionally good job with the old Hammer titles. Their transfers do justice to Hammer’s famous use of color”).

Tim Cogshell, Los Angeles-based film critic for Boxoffice, Entertainment Today and Filmbazaar

Best-looking titles: Carnal Knowledge (“… but the sound sucks”) (mom); End of the Affair Col./TriStar); Fight Club (20th C. Fox); The Insider (B. Vista); Living Out Loud (N. Line); Magnolia (N. Line); One Night Stand (N. Line); Out of fight (Universal); Sleepy Hollow (Paramount); Snow Falling on Cedars (Uni.).

Worst-looking titles: Being John Malkovich (USA); Desperately Seeking Susan (mom); Drugstore Cowboy (Artisan); Reservoir Dogs (Artisan); True Grit (Paramount); and “almost all of the John Cassavetes Collection from Pioneer Home Video, including Faces and A Woman Under the Influence.”

Gregory Solman

Badlands (73): Rank: A. Malick’s masterly compositions in correct aspect ratio (finally) and great color fidelity. Barry Lyndon (75): Rank: B. Master shots match Kubrick’s painterly tableaux, but some fibrillation and noise. The Birds (63): Rank: B-. Overprocessed video-like sheen and noisy edges, but Tippi’s parrot-green dress is a go. Deliverance (72): Rank: A. A remarkable look reproduced, from the color temperature of the reddish dirt against the emerald forest to the flushed fleshtones of emasculation and machismo. Excalibur (81): Rank: A. Great separation of phosphorescent green-on-greenery, sword reflections, and fleshtones. How Green Was My Valley (41): Rank: A. Preservation/restoration excellent. B&W contrasts carry Fordian profundity. Lola Montes (55): Rank: C-. Blooming Eastmancolor elements, noisy magnetic soundtrack. The Parallax View (74): Rank: A-. Willis difference in dark areas; “Test” sequence works, but audio’s spotty. Passion of Joan of Arc (28): Rating: A-. Such a pristine print as this can’t be circulating anywhere. The Seventh Seal (57): Rank: B+. Nearly perfect elements, transfer; mastering; loses a full grade for full-frame Philistinism. Singin’ in the Rain (52): Rank: B-. Awkward dance with Technicolor. The Story of Adele H. (75): Rank: A-. Absolutely undamaged element but sometimes pale color.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group