Let Film Be Film

The advent of HDTV and Blu-ray has introduced what can only be described as a small cultural divide into the ranks of film and home theater buffs. While any film from the eighties (or seventies or even early nineties) could stand in, I’ll use my old favorite Ghostbusters to illustrate.

When the Blu-ray edition of this classic movie arrived, opinion on the picture quality was sharply divided. Some thought the image was horrible and cursed Sony for not cleaning things up. Others, including me, were delighted because the picture looked genuinely “film-like,” as we remembered the film looking in the theaters in 1984 (or at least how we thought we remembered).

I think the difference of opinion occurred along generational lines. A lot of younger enthusiasts have been raised to expect images on their HDTV to look like last week’s NBA game, a Pixar movie or an episode of CSI: Miami: bright and glossy like a magazine. They have no memory of seeing movies of Ghostbusters’ vintage projected on the big screen. To them, looking “old” is a sin that can easily be “corrected” with a little digital hocus-pocus, so why wasn’t it?

Well, I’ll tell them why not.

The unpleasant (to them) truth is that Ghostbusters was shot in 1984 on film stocks that were available at the time. As a result, the image is unavoidably grainy and even slightly grungy. It definitely does not look like an episode of Chuck or even Desperate Housewives.

DVD, with one-sixth the resolution of Blu-ray (and any other 1080p HD source), hid these “flaws” from us, but now modern technology is capturing movies as they actually look, much to the horror of those raised on Transformers movies and Star Wars prequels.

I’m not saying there isn’t technology that can cover up these signs of age, or at least attempt to hide them. They have been used and the results have not been pretty. One of the more egregious examples was the Blu-ray of Patton. Thanks to a process called “Digital Noise Reduction” (DNR), the film now looks like it was staged by a road company of Madame Tussauds’ wax museum.

Allow me to digress. “Digital noise” is a byproduct of digital imaging, both still and video. It happens when the electronic sensor has to work too hard in low light conditions and sort of “guesses” about the color of the pixels. The result is often a splotchy mess known as noise. Almost every digital camera has some sort of the DNR built into their circuitry. The problem is that this smooths out the noise at the cost of fine image detail.

This is basically what happens when DNR is applied to a movie when prepping it for Blu-ray. The grain is digitally smoothed over but the fine detail that film still captures better than anything digital is lost. While reducing digital noise is desirable when shooting digitally, film grain is not digital noise. Using DNR this way is a gross misuse of the process.

Sadly, Patton was not the only victim. The first Blu-ray copies of Gladiator were even worse, and the outcry from the movie’s fans was such that, without admitting there was anything wrong, Universal/Dreamworks reissued the movie with a new non-DNRed transfer and quietly replaced the copies for anyone who wanted the new one.

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was another casualty. Although the effect was far less noticeable, a film shot in 70mm ought to be bursting at the seams with fine visual detail, not looking like it was photographed through a fine layer of gauze.

Using DNR on film like this is just another example of the kind of thinking that produces colorization of black-and-white movies: that anything that is new is automatically better than anything that is old; the Star Wars special edition is “better” than the 1977 release just because all of the effects are newer and shinier.

I realize that old movies can be restored by using the latest digital tools to repair the ravages of time, but that involves returning the film to the state it was in when it was first released, not trying to make it look like it was shot just yesterday. There are a lot of great examples, but you should definitely check out the Blu-ray version of the first Bond movie: Dr. No. The digital restoration has produced a Blu-ray like looks like they put a fresh print in a time machine and sent it fifty years into the future. It doesn’t look like it was shot yesterday. It simply looks like a pristine and beautiful example of a 1962 film.

I wish I could show this movie, and other examples, to members of the “New > Old” crowd, to help them understand the difference between restoring a film and screwing it up.

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