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Amadeus on Blu-ray... What Went Wrong?

Feb 22nd, 2009

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Is just "better than DVD" good enough for BD?

Just because we’ve now got an agreed-upon HD-disc format doesn’t mean the battle is over. We’ve got a new challenge on our hands: the studios are ready to sell you HD titles that fall well below the threshold of what the Blu-ray Disc format is capable of delivering, but they’re hoping that you won’t notice, or at least won’t care enough to keep your money in your pocket. The problem isn’t new and no one studio is to blame; each studio has had its share of BD-blunders that fell well below the bar of AV quality that the film, and its consumers, deserved. And while many of us might cut the studios some slack as everyone gets up to speed with high definition authoring, some alarming trends are starting to emerge that appear all too familiar.

A recap from DVD to now…

Home theater enthusiasts who were paying attention when DVD hit the scene in 1997 will remember that just because the industry had made a paradigm shift from analog NTSC media to a digital 480p component video disc format, it didn’t mean that quality was suddenly a guarantee on DVD. To the contrary, studios seemed to relish recycling out-dated video masters that had been prepared years earlier for VHS and laserdisc releases. And even when new transfers were prepared, some studio forces resisted taking advantage of 16x9 anamorphic encoding. We ranted on the internet, signed petitions, and wrote letters. But even as studios started to gradually get the message about the importance of anamorphic encoding and using using state-of-the-art film transfers, new problems began to become clear like edge-enhancement, high-frequency filtering, and the overzealous application of digital noise reduction. Even today the majority of DVDs produced fall well short of what the 480p format is capable of delivering, and this includes top “A” titles that everyone would like to assume get the best picture possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

That trip down memory lane is a good reminder that a format’s potential is only as meaningful as the studios’ willingness to take advantage of it. And to be fair, all of the major studios have done a far better job delivering optimally mastered material on Blu-ray Disc than they were doing with DVD at this point in that format’s life cycle. But no title is immune to emerging problem-free on Blu-ray (especially when it’s the movie you’ve been waiting for), and just as with DVD, the studios’ commercial interests compel them to try to recycle existing masters that may or may not be “good enough” in order to save money. And just like with DVD, old mastering habits don’t change on their own even when money has nothing to do with it (noticed any edge enhancement on any of your Blu-ray Discs?).

While one can’t fault a for-profit company for wanting to save money by amortizing the cost of a film-to-digital transfer over successive home-video releases when that master is up to par, many of the problems that compromise the 1080p picture of the discs on your shelf didn’t save anybody any money; they were just the result of somebody making the wrong mastering decisions who either shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, or who should have been more concerned about preserving the look of the original film than about processing a “video” image. In case there’s any room for doubt about what a 1080p film transfer should look like, film restoration expert Robert A. Harris sums it up nicely (in this thread at the hometheaterforum):


“Perfection is easily attained. Scan the film. Don't make changes.”


Amadeus on Blu-ray Disc…

(See my dvdfile review of Amadeus here)

Though Warner Brothers has delivered some reference-setting Blu-ray Discs, they definitely dropped the ball with image quality of Amadeus. While the picture looks pretty with vivid colors and is free from any signs of print damage, there is no fine detail, and all of the textures have taken on a filtered, air-brushed look that is not a characteristic of real film. In fact, the picture looks almost “standard-definition-esque” with its lack of resolution and digitally-filtered detail. These may not be defects that distract viewers on small screens, but a cinematic masterpiece like Amadeus was composed to look good on big screens, and it should look so on Blu-ray Disc.

In the hometheaterforum discussion thread mentioned earlier, Robert A. Harris, had this to say about the image quality of the Amadeus Blu-ray Disc:

“Somewhere between the film element and the Blu-ray this particular Amadeus has been turned to something odd and Patton-esque*. Not necessarily soft, certainly clean, but with virtually no feel of film or cinema whatsoever, this Amadeus is an unwelcome surprise.”

[* editors note: Fox’s release of Patton on Blu-ray suffers from similar over-processed filtering]

What went wrong? Well, somebody decided to use the inferior existing master that was prepared for the most recent DVD release rather than preparing a proper new film-to-digital transfer that would be accurate to the film source. To be fair, rights issues and studio politics may have prevented Warner Brothers from being able to prepare a new transfer (we’re waiting to hear back on the details). But that’s not an excuse for delivering a final product that falls so visibly below-par the fidelity of the original film; if a new transfer could not be obtained at this time, the project could have been put on hold to allow other titles, with HD masters that do justice to their films and the waiting fans, access to BD50 replication lines.

Then Again...

If a studio can sell you an inferior Blu-ray release that you’ll buy anyway, and then later sell you another properly mastered Blu-ray release that you’ll buy again, where’s the studio’s incentive to do things right the first time?

Studios played that game with consumers with DVD and we played right along with them… constantly re-releasing product with marginal improvements in transfer quality or bonus material that we'd buy all over again until we had 2 or even 3 copies on our shelf. And while valid arguments can be made defending a studio’s case for re-releasing a title with added bonus material or as a director’s cut that couldn’t be produced in time for the original home-video release, knowingly releasing product with inferior audio or video quality is tantamount to selling a faulty product and then charging consumers who bought the faulty product all over again when it’s been corrected.

Is that ok with you?

When Sony released a sub-par version of the Fifth Element on Blu-ray Disc when the format first launched, they provided a free exchange when the problem was corrected and the disc was re-released authored from a new film transfer. Though such a show of good-will isn’t the norm in the home-video industry (Fox won’t even admit there’s a problem with the current Blu-ray Disc release of Patton), should we demand anything less than for a company to deliver product that delivers what it should?

Blu-ray Disc: is just Better than DVD good enough?

Probably the majority of HT enthusiasts reading this article would whole-heartedly agree that Blu-ray Disc should deliver its maximum potential in faithfully representing the picture and sound of the film as the director wanted you to see and hear. However, translating that principle into something that affects policy decisions at the company in charge bringing your favorite film out on Blu-ray Disc is an open question: Do you boycott purchasing Blu-ray Discs that you know will look and sound much better than the DVD already on your shelf just because they fall short of doing justice to the film given what 1080p can deliver? The DVD format could never truly replicate the look of film and yet that didn’t stop us from buying and enjoying our favorite films on DVD, so why shouldn’t we enjoy even a non-optimal HD version that’s better than DVD even if still leaves generous room for improvement? And given the range of films, personal opinions, and television sizes, are there really any absolutes about what to criticize let alone avoid altogether when you’re budgeting for this week’s new hi-def releases?

Trying to answer that paragraph of questions is one reason you and I read Blu-ray Disc reviews that we can trust: we’ve got our own list of issues that are important to us individually and once we get to know a disc-reviewer’s style, point-of-view, and perceptions, we can begin to use their experience of the disc to gauge what a particular title might look and sound like to us even if we see things differently or don’t agree on every point (I certainly hope that our reviews at dvdfile help in that way). But even if the problems of a particular release cause us to direct our purchase dollar elsewhere, does buying or not buying a title really tell the studio what they did wrong and what they need to do better? How can the studio looking at overall disc sales determine if the numbers for any given title reflect a film’s popularity, dissatisfaction with mastering quality, or perhaps just a bad month for the economy?

Write to the studio

Whether or not you ultimately buy or don’t buy a Blu-ray Disc that disappoints you, keeping your tone honest, professional and polite, letting the studio know what bothers you and how you wish they had done better is one of the best ways you can make a difference with your opinion. And while you’re at it, tell them about their other Blu-ray Disc titles that you really wanted to own, but that you passed over because you learned that they fell short of properly representing the look and sound of the original film. If you really want to make your point, send your letter in writing. Voices like yours have motivated major studios to make fundamental changes for the better before, and the letter you write today might go a long way to helping ensure that your next favorite classic coming to Blu-ray Disc gives the film, and the HT enthusiasts who look forward to adding it to their collection, the quality they deserve.

If you would personally like to see Warner Brothers revisit Amadeus on Blu-ray Disc with a proper high-definition transfer, which ought to include the original theatrical cut as well as the director’s cut while they’re at it, here’s a good place to start:

Warner Home Video
4000 Warner Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91522


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