DVD & Blu-ray Thoughts

In Defence of Blu-ray

Blu-ray won’t be as successful as DVD but it is still the best way to watch a properly restored film at home.

Blu-ray won’t be as successful as DVD but it is still the best way to watch a properly restored film at home.

A recent post on The Guardian’s film blog by Shane Danielson titled ‘The devil is in Blu-ray’s detail‘ put forward the notion that the sharpness of Blu-ray is somehow a problem.

For those still unaware of it, Blu-ray is the high definition successor to the DVD, an optical disc format for which you need a specific player and an HD television.

As someone who was once a partial sceptic of HD formats, at least until the industry sorted out the ludicrous format war and high prices, I read Danielson’s post with a mixture of intrigue and then gradual disbelief.

I suspect it was meant to be a contrarian think-piece putting forward the notion that the upgrade to Blu-ray isn’t really worth it.

After all, who needs to fork out extra for a format in which you can see the make-up on actor’s face? Isn’t it all just a big money making scheme to make us replace our DVD collection?

Well, it is certainly true that commercial imperatives have driven the shift to Blu-ray, as broadcasters and consumers gradually move to digital and high definition.

If you want to buy a new TV, you will be hard pressed to find one that isn’t an HD set.

One of Danielson’s points is that too much detail revealed in a high definition version of a film can be a bad thing, but he makes some key mistakes in highlighting the Blu-ray versions of Psycho and The Godfather.

For a piece with the word ‘detail’ in the title, he gets Martin Balsam‘s name wrong (calling him ‘Robert’) and there is no mention whatsoever of how the whole film actually looks on the format.

Furthermore, it is a little silly to complain about the strings on Martian spaceships in the Blu-ray version of George Pal’s The War of the Worlds, especially when no such version of the film actually exists. (I can only assume he is referring to the DVD version, which kind of undercuts his wider point).

Having actually seen the Psycho Blu-ray, I can only repeat my admiration for the team who oversaw its transfer as it looks marvellous and, as someone who has only ever seen it on television, the sharpness and clarity of the image makes a welcome change.

As for the make-up on Balsam’s head in a particular scene, it isn’t really noticeable unless you want to freeze the image and analyse the split second it occurs.

I get the idea that some people take issue when certain elements of a film are ‘corrected’ for the Blu-ray release, such as when DNR is used to smooth out the image (e.g. the new Predator Blu-ray) but in this case I don’t think the argument stands up at all.

The restoration of The Godfather Blu-ray is another matter entirely.

Danielson says:

I remember being in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square back in 2008, and pausing to look at a screen showing Coppola’s The Godfather, which had been released on Blu-ray a fortnight earlier.

It was the trattoria sequence, when Michael kills McCluskey and Sollozzo, and it looked great . . . in fact, it looked TOO great.

The colours were rich and burnished (that background red, in particular), the shadows were deep – yet at the same time, there was a precision to the images, a sort of hyperreal clarity, that didn’t jibe with my memory of having watched the film, either in the cinema or at home.

It seemed weirdly artificial, somehow, and watching it, I felt that I could almost see the grain of the film stock, the flicker and shudder of individual frames, such was the degree of visual information on offer.

I felt, suddenly, like Ray Milland’s character in The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. This could, I realised, drive me mad, if I let it.

Aside from the fact that it is highly dubious to make a judgement on a transfer from one scene observed in shop two years ago, he couldn’t have picked a worse one to illustrate his point.

Not only is the restored Blu-ray version of The Godfather a thing of beauty to behold, it is probably probably one of the landmark releases in the format, overseen with great care and attention by restoration guru Robert Harris.

Anyone who actually watches the complete version of The Godfather on Blu-ray, rather than idly chatting to a Virgin Megastore employee, will actually realise this.

There is also a twenty minute feature titled ‘Emulsion Rescue’ which details the painstaking task of restoring this sequence, featuring interviews with director Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and others involved in the process.

In particular, they discuss the famous restaurant sequence with Michael, McCluskey and Sollozzo and reveal that the original materials on which the film was shot were in a particularly poor shape.

Explaining the full technical details on how that scene was restored, they highlight how digital technology was used with the co-operation of the filmmakers, helping preserve their original artistic vision.

With this in mind, there have been cases where the Blu-ray release of a classic film has caused some controversy.

For the 2009 Blu-ray release of The French Connection, director William Friedkin altered the fundamental look of the film, which angered cinematographer Owen Roizman, who described the new transfer as “atrocious”.

This presents a peculiar conundrum. Digital technology allowed Friedkin to change the look of his own film for the Blu-ray version, but is he betraying his original vision from 1971 that first captivated audiences? Or is that his artistic right as director?

On the wider matter of the format as a whole, it is probably true to say that it will never be as popular or as profitable as DVD.

Last Christmas the current rate of sales was reportedly nowhere near the original projections Sony had for it a few years ago and the cost of consumers upgrading to new television equipment in a recession also stunted the uptake.

Perhaps the most useless aspect of Blu-ray Discs is BD-Live, which is meant to provide interactive experiences when you hook up your player to the Internet.

Aside from the technical hassle of actually connecting a Blu-ray player to your home internet connection (and I speak from bitter experience on this) the features aren’t all that appealing.

But bizarrely, BD-Live always seems to be one of the ‘selling points’ talked up by manufacturers and Blu-ray marketing campaigns when it is clearly rubbish, for now at least.

So with all the teething problems the format has had, why would I recommend it?

Unlike Danielson I don’t see any romance or inherent ‘magic’ in cathode ray tube televisions and I’m not suspicious of carefully restored digital transfers of great films.

A good Blu-ray simply looks far better than its DVD counterpart, with a much tighter and richer image. For the most part, it really is that simple.

The optimal experience for seeing any motion picture is still a fine print at a decent cinema, but aside from critics and cinephiles visiting repertory cinemas, how many times do viewers experience quality projection and sound at their local cinema?

Just in the last year I saw two films (Funny People and Sherlock Holmes – not exactly classics, admittedly) at a multiplex and the projection and image quality for both were appalling.

When you think of why DVD proved popular, it wasn’t just because of the relative cost but was also partly due to digital technology in the home rapidly catching up with that of the average cinema.

Another obstacle Blu-ray faced from early on was that the jump from VHS to DVD was much more noticeable to the casual consumer than the leap from DVD to the newer higher definition format.

Not every release looks pristine, but when they have had care and attention lavished on them the results can be stunning: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather trilogy, North By Northwest, Baraka, Blade Runner, The New World, The Dark Knight and Psycho are just some films that look incredible on Blu-ray.

As for the cost, they have come down in price a lot over the last 18 months to the point where many new releases are actually cheaper than DVDs were at a certain point in time.

Another misconception appears to be that you need to replace your whole library of DVDs.

This is incorrect as Blu-ray players do actually play DVDs, which means you can pick and choose which titles you want to see in glorious HD (e.g. The Godfather) and those you don’t (e.g. any film featuring Danny Dyer).

When discussing Blu-ray and future home video formats, someone often pipes up with a line about how we are all ‘downloading films now anyway’.

It is almost inevitable that some time in the future, the legal delivery of films to our homes will be via a next generation broadband pipe.

However, that is still some way off as most people still watch films on physical discs (DVD, Blu-ray) with a more targeted niche choosing digital downloads via iTunes, Netflix, Lovefilm, Amazon and presumably YouTube by the end of this year.

If you are a visual purist, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to get 1080p films via iTunes anytime soon as the size of the film. It seems 720p is more likely when Apple unveil their revamped ‘iTV’ box.

Whilst there is a convenience factor to digital downloads that will probably mean that Blu-ray is the last optical disc format, it will take a few years before mainstream viewers fully embrace full digital delivery via their television sets or other devices.

Added to this is the fact that Blu-ray sales in Europe grew siginificantly during the first quarter of this year, although that is tempered by the fact that DVD sales are still around ten times greater.

Blu-ray has had its problems and will eventually go the way of DVD and VHS, but there is still a lot to be said for the format, especially when it comes to revisiting classics that have been properly restored.

> More details on The Godfather restoration at The Digital Bits
> Find out more about Blu-ray at Wikipedia

One reply on “In Defence of Blu-ray”

I upgraded to a Blu Ray player last year and it is one of the best things I have done since getting a HD tv in terms of decent home cinema set up.

When looking at films like Avatar, Valkyrie, Fantastic Mr Fox and any animated feature I can honestly say 100% that they offer an experience that cannot be rivaled on DVD. The colours and textures add a depth to films that I find has more impact than 3D films at the cinema and if anything it helps me absorb myself more into the film rather than it becoming a distraction.

The BD-live function has never had any appeal to me and I don’t think it ever will, but to be honest I only ever wathed a handful of the extras on DVDs previously anyway.

If I have the chance to watch films in HD or order them on Blu Ray or DVD it’s Blu Ray every time.

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