Old Films on Blu-ray: Are They Worth It?
Chris attempts to dispel the myth that old films aren't worth the BD treatment
While true that newer titles are often more visually impressive than catalogue releases, this is largely due to the way in which modern features are filmed and transferred to digital media. Many recent blockbusters—such as James Cameron’s record-breaking Avatar—were shot in digital high-definition. Because no film is involved the resulting images are usually exceptionally clean and the Blu-ray editions are largely flawless. However, the majority of motion pictures were and are shot on 35mm film, which actually has a much greater resolution than Blu-ray and the kind of digital cameras used to film Avatar.
What this means is that with the right amount of care and attention older films are quite capable of looking spectacular on Blu-ray because they already contain more resolution than the format can handle. Of course not all distributors are willing to spend the required time and money to ensure that older titles look their best, but more often than not even the most pedestrian of catalogue titles will offer an improvement over the DVD edition. Let’s take a look at some examples (click the images for larger versions):
First, let’s examine an unassuming film from the early nineties that has received only ‘no-frills’ releases to date. 1993’s Rising Sun (starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes) isn’t a particularly glossy movie, and with its grainy image and fairly muted colour palette the DVD release looks a little shoddy by today’s standards.
Now let’s examine the same frame from the Blu-ray release, which is a lowly catalogue title encoded in MPEG-2 and presented on a single-layered BD25. At first the differences appear to be somewhat superficial, but if you take a closer look you’ll see that the grain resolution is far superior and the colours are more natural. You might also notice how the framing has been slightly altered. You might think that it's an odd choice for this article, but I wanted to demonstrate how even less than ideal sources can benefit from the high-definition treatment with even minimal restorative work. It's also worth bearing in mind that the Blu-ray version will look significantly better on larger screens, where even tiny flaws are more noticeable.
Okay, so we’ve looked at one example of how Blu-ray can offer subtle improvements on even the least glamorous of titles, but what about an old classic? For this example let’s go all the way back to 1972 with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. The original DVD was one of my treasured possessions when it was originally released, but it’s really starting to show its age now.
For the Blu-ray release the film underwent a complete restoration supervised by Coppola himself. The image was cleaned, the colour timing was corrected, and the whole thing was scanned at high-resolution before being transferred to Blu-ray with a high bitrate AVC encode. As you can see, virtually every facet of the image demonstrates a marked improvement over the DVD version. The most obvious enhancement is the level of detail, which reveals hitherto unforeseen texture in clothing and scenery. You can also see that the characters' faces are no longer blurry messes, colour is more natural, and the brightness and contrast have been brought in line with Coppola's original intentions. It still doesn't look like a glossy feature from 2010, but it's not meant to. The purpose of Blu-ray is to offer an audio-visual presentation as close to the filmmakers' intentions as possible, and this is a great example of a director taking the opportunity to create the definitive version of their work.
Now let’s examine a slightly more recent film, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. This film has received more DVD releases than most, but this screen capture is taken from the director’s cut version released in 2005. It’s a clear step up from the original DVD (which was horrible), and although it has some problems with dirt if you’d never seen another version you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s about as good as the film could ever look. However, with the right amount of time and effort it’s possible to coax even more out of the film, especially on Blu-ray.
This image is taken from the fully restored ‘Final Cut’ of the film on Blu-ray. The improvements should be immediately obvious to anyone. Whereas the bulbs on the giant video wall blurred into one another on the DVD they are now individually identifiable, as are the windows. The text on the various billboards is much sharper, colours are vastly improved, and the image is free from dirt. Blade Runner is yet another example of the huge benefits of involving the filmmakers when creating a new HD release.
Okay, so far we've compared the Blu-ray versions of films to their ageing DVD counterparts, but what if we were to compare a Blu-ray transfer to a DVD transfer that has also been remasterd? Would the differences be as dramatic? For this next comparison let’s go all the way back to 1939 and the classic The Wizard of Oz, which recently underwent a costly and time-consuming restoration. Here's a shot from that DVD.
Looks pretty great, right? Well yes, it does, but what about the Blu-ray? Can it improve on the fully-restored DVD release? You bet it can! The Wizard of Oz is one of the best examples of how to properly restore an older film to its former glory. Just look at all of the detail contained in the image; you can clearly make out the chequered pattern on Dorothy’s dress and the intricate textures of the Good Witch of the North’s costume. Blurry faces and background information become clear and the colours are improved, all without destroying the film grain.
So far we’ve compared the Blu-ray editions of films to both older untouched DVDs and fully restored DVDs. I’d like to think that Blu-ray’s visual advantages are obvious, but there are those who are not always happy with the way films look in high-definition. For our final example we’re going to look at to 1987’s Predator, starring everyone’s favourite ‘Governator’. The DVD release wasn’t given a lot of TLC; even later anamorphic editions left something to be desired. Predator has always been notable for its heavy grain, due largely to the shooting methods employed when it was originally filmed, and this screen shot demonstrates DVD’s limitations when it comes to accurately resolving the grain (notice how clumpy it is, especially on the green shirt).
Early in Blu-ray’s lifecycle Fox released a bare-bones edition of Predator encoded with MPEG-2 and crammed onto a BD25. The release was not without problems, mainly dirt on the print and compression artefacts that appeared at numerous intervals throughout the film. Even so, I think it’s evident from the screen capture below that this less than ideal release of Predator still offers significant advantages over the DVD release, with superior grain resolution, detail and colour rendition. However, many people were unhappy with this version and clamoured for a remastered release using a modern codec. It appears that Fox was listening, as they are soon to release a ‘digitally restored’ version of the film…
Here we have a screen capture from that new release of the film. I had hoped that Fox would simply take the opportunity to perform some moderate dirt and scratch removal and encode the film with a modern codec like AVC to avoid the bothersome compression issues, but unfortunately it was not to be. They instead went to town on Predator with various digital manipulations designed to ‘improve’ the look of the film, the results of which speak volumes.
This image highlights the problems associated with over-processing a title to make it look more like a modern production in order to appease ‘grain haters’. As previously stated, Predator has historically been a very grainy feature film, but in trying to bring it in line with the quality expected by viewers used to watching glossy high-definition TV and modern blockbusters the disc’s producers have gone too far. You’ll notice how virtually all of the grain has been scrubbed away, leaving the image looking more akin to something shot on video than celluloid. Unfortunately when it comes to film, grain is detail, so when you remove it you also remove elements of the picture that were supposed to be there. Just look at Arnie’s face—he looks like a waxwork! Film is not reality and grain—be it heavy or light—is one of the things that defines the look of a film. The only features that shouldn’t have any grain are those where the filmmakers intend its absence, such as those shot on digital video. Even then many directors chose to add a layer of digital grain to their films for atmospheric purposes ( 300 is a good example of this).
Of course there are some people who prefer this over-sanitised look, but most film enthusiasts would prefer that their Blu-ray releases represent the filmmakers’ original intentions, at least as much as possible. Such overzealous application of DNR is detrimental to the film and is unfortunately becoming more commonplace as the Blu-ray format matures. If you glance up the page to The Wizard of Oz you’ll see that it is entirely possible to restore older films to ‘as-new’ condition without compromising their integrity. However, it is not an inexpensive process, which leads many companies to take the cheaper option of digitally manipulating an older master to create a ‘new’ transfer. It’s unfortunate, and I wish that said companies would simply present a film-like image on their catalogue releases rather than scrubbing them to the point of distraction. The vast majority of HDTVs have viewing modes that will reduce or even eliminate grain, so why not leave it as-is and let the consumer choose whether or not to remove it?
Thankfully images like the one above are the exception rather than the rule (at least for now), and the vast majority of Blu-ray titles look fantastic. So please, the next time one of your favourite catalogue films is released on Blu-ray don’t dismiss it because it wasn’t filmed in ‘HD’. As I hope to have demonstrated here, it is entirely possible to provide beautiful, film-like presentations of features shot twenty, forty, or even seventy years ago. Just be sure to keep an eye on review sites like ours to be sure that what you’re buying is worthy of your hard-earned money!
Editorial by Chris Gould
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