A common saying amongst the individuals who review and evaluate any form of home video is that when all other factors are equal, the picture with the most active dots in it wins. Blu-ray Disc is the king of the home video castle in that sense. No prior medium has ever offered more than twenty percent of its active dot count.
But just like every medium before it, Blu-ray Disc’s final results reflect the amount of work, as well as the kind of work, that was put into the product. Have you ever wondered why older films, films where ownership is not as clear-cut, or films that were shot using less “professional” methods either take longer to be released on any kind of disc, look less pleasant to watch, or both? Put simply, what goes on a disc and what comes off bear an interesting relationship to one another. So the following is a recipe for a Blu-ray Disc that I would call good.
Good quality transfers, please
Although most of the major studios caught on quickly that BD-Video was a medium where flaws in the source stuck out like lumps of dog poo on a tennis court, there were a small handful of vendors who took time to take note. I will not name names here.
All good video transfers start with the best possible source materials. In the majority of cases, this means converting down to a 1920 by 1080 progressive master directly from the “finalised” 35mm negative, digital intermediate, or similar. The same “master” that the studios duplicate into “prints” for theatres to exhibit, in other words. It is another expression of that overriding rule of graphics: you can convert down to your heart’s content, but you cannot convert up. DVD and SD pushers like to claim that you can just upsample their obsolete product, but the illogic of this claim is demonstrated by asking them if making their processor physically bigger five times over will yield them five times as much processing speed or performance. Obviously, even if they get the analogy, they will not get what you are trying to tell them.
Imagine for a moment that you have a canvas, and a certain amount of paint. Your certain amount of paint is fairly small, only about the equivalent of 414,720 pixels. But when you apply it to the canvas, it does not seem to matter, as the canvas is only about sixty-eight centimetres from one corner to its opposite. (This is 26.77 inches and change, for you Americans out there… seriously, how hard is it to get a calculator and divide by 2.54?) But then you start trying to apply the same amount of paint to a canvas that is 127 centimetres from corner to corner (exactly fifty inches). Or one that is 165.1 centimetres (65 inches) from corner to corner.
Notice how you have to spread the paint very thinly in order to get anything resembling an even coverage? Assuming you can cover the entire canvas at all? Good. That is basically what upsampling is to a true HDTV. You are taking an inadequate amount of paint and trying to spread it over an area that is too large. And Americans, again take note that my 414,720 pixel count is based on the European PAL standard, which yields twenty percent more resolution than the NTSC standard used in America and Japan. Now, I am not going to say that the high definition standard, 1920 by 1080 (aka 2,073,600 pixels) is enough for a 50 or 65 inch screen in all circumstances. It is not. But when the people transferring the film to the standard are doing the right thing, the results from the latter will always shit on the results from a former from a great height. Forever and ever, amen.
AVC or VC-1 compression, not MPEG-2, please
Just as reusing old masters that were intended for DVD is not on, reusing old compression algorithms is not on, either.
Compression generally comes in two kinds: lossless, and lossy. In order to understand the difference, I will simply tell you what lossy means. When you reconstruct the video, audio, or informational signal out of a file that was compressed with lossy compression, the signal in question is not exactly the same as it was before it was compressed. This will become relevant a little later.
Actually, it is relevant to a lesser degree now. You see, in spite of many peoples’ best efforts, the idea of a lossless video compression codec that can be used viably for home video applications remains a Jetsons-like dream. So when we compress video data for storage on a medium like Blu-ray Disc, we have to work out exactly what choices will be best for the moving image.
AVC and VC-1 compression algorithms were designed with high definition content in mind. MPEG-2 was not. And it often shows. You see, one of the biggest problems with MPEG-2 video compression is that it was not designed to tolerate grain. This is unfortunate, because whether idiots like it or not, grain is a feature of film that comes as a trade-off for the exquisite level of detail that it can capture. The more light the lens is letting in to make the picture, or certain kinds of film are used, the more grain, and so on.
Unfortunately, MPEG-2 generally works by analysing the picture as it changes and determining the differences from one frame to the next. So when a lot of random dots inside the picture are changing at a rapid pace, it simply cannot cope, and this becomes evident a lot of the time in the finished product. Instead of allocating data to the important parts of the picture where it is meant to be, the MPEG-2 algorithm frequently assigns excess data to the grain. Which also means that if there is rapid motion occurring in the rest of the picture, it is that much easier for compression artefacts to occur.
Fortunately, major distributors seem to have more or less completely phased the MPEG-2 algorithm out except for standard definition content (more on that anon, too). But the point remains; for main features, MPEG-2 is, always has been, and always shall be, only good for standard definition.
Although much of the advertising material for Blu-ray Disc goes on at length about how the video format contained therein can be “1920 x 1080p” (the literature’s words), I have to wonder at exactly how much meaning this has to a dumbbell who still thinks the little yellow-plugged cable gives him the best picture quality.
So let me explain for the benefit of the audience what “progressive” means when used in context of video. In theatres and cinemas, when a projector projects still images onto the screen in front of you, it projects them as one whole image at a time. A numerical example of this would be 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. One whole image at a time, in a rapid sequence (twenty-four frames a second, soon hopefully to become forty-eight frames a second).
Unfortunately, when television was first brought into the world, its technology was incapable of doing this. Basically, the situation was akin to a trade-off. They had to choose between broadcasting an image that was of half the already-poor resolution they felt they could deliver, or splitting the picture into halves and transmitting the pictures one half at a time. They chose the latter, and whilst this proved an effective stop-gap solution for the broadcast of news shows and other talking-head imagery, it has had devastating repercussions for other kinds of material that are still being felt today.
Although other artefacts in the video stream occur solely because of interlacing, by far the worst of the lot is called aliasing. Video guru Michael Demtschyna has published this excellent write-up of what aliasing is and why it annoys the hell out of videophiles. But as you might expect with an article that was written in 2001, the article is a little out of date. The second-last paragraph also happens to be wrong.
DVD is inherently interlaced. This is because televisions that could only sync to an interlaced signal were not just the norm in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the DVD-Video specification was being finalised. They were literally the only option. So the DVD-Video specification requires interlacing as part of its signal compatibility thing, and never forget that.
Now, at this point, the stay-in-the-past retards will protest that they can combined interlaced video signals into a progressive signal by deinterlacing the fields. This is somewhat akin to proclaiming that one can combine two pairs of glasses that are inadequate for the needs of the intended user and get something that will enable them to see perfectly fine. It is bullshit.
You see, that aliasing artefact I just described above. As anyone who has seen the original Region 4 release of The Thing knows, it is painful to look at when it is prevalent enough. And it can cause seizures in some. So most video transfer authors who do not want a kick in the arse do something to the original video called adaptive unsharping, essentially fuzzing out the edges of hard lines in the picture, to reduce the aliasing in the picture to a level that will not make small children cry “this screen hurts my eyes”.
This results in a loss of detail from a picture that is already weak in that respect. And as I have already explained at length, once you lose detail from a moving picture, you can never get it back.
A progressive video transfer makes all of the after the fact video tweaking and “deinterlacing” (aka shutting the gate after the horse has run) redundant. That is why it is the best thing to happen to home video. DVD does not even get a look-in compared to it. It takes one of the worst mistakes of early television, one that persisted for the lion’s share of a century, and throws it away.
I want my Blu-ray Discs with an actual progressive transfer, pretty please.
Lossless audio compression, please
As I mentioned briefly before, there are two kinds of compression. Whilst it is not possible in today’s parameters to use a lossless video compression algorithm for home video distribution, it is more than possible to use a lossless compression algorithm for audio.
There are presently two types of lossless audio compression in the Blu-ray Disc specifications. These being Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. Both have their differences, respective merits, and different options, but for the most part they accomplish the same thing. That is, they both represent an exact duplicate of the studio master from which they were transcoded. That makes an incredible difference to the resulting audio that appears on the disc. Dialogue becomes more intelligible, as sounds and music actually have a noticeable division from the dialogue. And the difference in volume between the quietest and loudest parts of the soundtrack is dramatically greater.
Just like progressive video and high definition video, lossless audio is one of those things you have to fully experience before you can understand how big a difference it makes. I cannot explain it in terms that can possibly make you understand, leave alone grok, the difference. All I can say is that once you have really gotten used to it, and then experienced a moment of lesser quality, you do not just notice the difference. The difference virtually leaps out at you and smacks you right in the eardrum.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio are the only two formats that use both of the rear surround channels discretely. That is, no matrixing or trickery with the end user’s own audio setup are required. Just plug in, and hear more of the fact that your ears were not designed to have a total “blind spot” either to the sides or rear of you, depending on where you place your speakers in a 5.1 setup.
More 7.1 channel soundtracks, please
Having said all of that, the ability of Blu-ray Disc to store soundtracks in a lossless eight-channel format also remains one of its most grossly underutilised features.
This is probably not helped by the fact that, at least as far as I have been able to discern, the manner in which the BD-Video specs were written boil it down to a choice between 7.1 channel audio and a picture in picture secondary video track. Whilst one has to have certain hardware requirements in order to enjoy the wonders of 7.1 channel audio (having eight speakers, for a start), picture in picture is like throwing a bone (a fancy distraction) to a dog (idiots).
I have only encountered three releases where I partook of the picture in picture content and found it to be an enhancement to the main content. Not surprisingly, two of these releases were HBO television series and seasons thereof. Specifically, Band Of Brothers and their current main hit, True Blood. In Season Two of the latter, you can imagine how I cheered when Kristen Bauer Van Straten, in character as Pam, began to ask what kind of moron one has to be to think a little dinky silver cross would bring down a vampire lord who was 6’5″ in the year 1000, punctuating the question with the statement that sadly this is the kind of moron that seems to grow on trees in Bon Temps.
That is three titles where the possibility of 7.1 channel audio appears to be physically excluded for a good, meritous reason. Out of more than 230. That is barely more than one percent. Yet for some reason, titles featuring films that were made as little as up to three years ago, are still overwhelmingly being released with mere 5.1 channel audio transfers. How this can be considered acceptable when even legacy films like the 1987 production of The Running Man occasionally demonstrate what can be done with the extra channels is a mystery to me.
Simply put, if you have the materials to make a 7.1 channel transfer of your film available to you, I want a 7.1 channel transfer, please.
Extras are just that… extra
You cannot begin to imagine how I hold my head in my hands and sigh when I read a review pissing and moaning about how this or that extra has been left out of the Blu-ray Disc from the DVD. Seriously? In almost all cases, these extras are standard definition, with poor quality video and audio, and rarely amount to anything genuinely interesting, anyway. The aforementioned picture in picture or secondary video track is a good example of this. Too many titles were released in the early stages with content that was not designed to be shown in this manner, yet wedge it into this manner the authors did for no readily apparent reason (other than being able to claim that they had such an extra).
Oh, and if your extra is standard definition with lossy audio, unless the content is something really compelling such as the music recording sessions for Ghosts Of Mars or Richard O’Brien‘s revisit of the hotel where The Rocky Horror Picture Show was made, leave it off thanks very much. Even when the extra is in pristine-looking high-definition with lossless audio, not being as compelling to look at or listen to as these featurettes tends to make your extra a waste of disc space that could be put to better use improving the bitrate of the main feature’s video or audio.
Oh, and when the extra in question is an audio commentary, be very wary of how the participants might come across to members of the audience. Especially doubtful members of the audience. Defending a bad storytelling decision by coming on all insulted and asking the audience how they would have executed a bad storytelling superfluous scene that you jettisoned important material in favour of will send intelligent audience members jumping off your fanclub like rats off a sinking ship.
An audio commentary is not a place for filmmakers, actors, or indeed anyone to verbally jack off. It is meant to be a place where the filmmaker goes through the piece in real time and educates the audience about the decisions they made in production, why they made those decisions, and what they think of the results today. Paul Verhoeven is a master of this. He alone is a major reason why a lot of teachers of filmmaking classes at the tertiary level advise their students to start listening to the audio commentaries. Because regardless of what you think of what he has to say in his commentary tracks, you always end up knowing more about filmmaking when he gets done than you did prior. (Other examples of directors who give good commentary are John Carpenter, George A. Romero, and Alex Cox.)
To summarise this point, if your extra does not add anything to the audience’s enjoyment of the film, leave it off the disc, please.
Seamless branching must be seamless
After the critical mass stage of DVD marketing, discs began to appear with optional footage branched in. The most common use for this feature was to include alternate edits of the film so that the viewer could, from the convenience of a single disc, decide for themselves which of the extant edits they preferred.
Unfortunately, this feature also laid bare one of the biggest weaknesses of DVD-Video. Players without read-ahead RAM or buffering simply could not play back alternate branches without showing major pauses in inopportune moments, and this is to say nothing of the fact that the implementation of seamless branching on DVD effectively slashed the total bitrate available to each video stream in half.
Fortunately, this appears to have been mostly rectified on BD-Video. During viewings of all three “cuts” of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the funny thing I noticed is that if it were not for the very slight seeking sounds from the player during playback of some versions of the film, I would have never known that the player was darting back and forth across multiple locations on the disc, looking for information particular to that cut. The same can be said of the disc containing three versions of Blade Runner in the respective set.
Unfortunately, Apocalypse Now did not fare so well. For reasons best known to Lionsgate, the disc containing both cuts of the film, the original theatrical release and the Redux edit, locks up and refuses to play further during one scene, at least on three different players that I have so far had occasion to try.
Whether this is a failure of standardisation in players or a failing on the disc author’s part is meaningless where the end user is concerned. Both can be considered equally culpable. I do not need to give any particular reasons why this simply should not be happening.
Stop throwing your junk in my backyard, please
Look, I get it, you want to get rid of old stocks of DVDs. Perfectly understandable, distributors. But the more you tell consumers like my good self that we must buy a DVD with our BD-Videos, the more money you will lose as we say “no”, and that we feel treated like second-class citizens when you offer a separate DVD to idiots who think 480/576I is as good as 1080P, but refuse to do similar for us.
DVD is old hat. As more and more televisions with 1920 by 1080P capability and screen sizes of 50 or more inches become more and more affordable, the more people are going to look at upsamplings and think “hey, I am not enjoying this like I try to kid myself that I am”. I have already made that leap, as have many others.
Hence, every time you put out a disc with a separate DVD release, but say that if I want to enjoy the BD, I have to buy the DVD, too, you lose at least one sale. You probably lose a lot more, but I am speaking solely as myself in this instance. I championed your format since Warner Brothers basically made Blu-ray Disc the winner in the format war. And this is how you repay my tireless efforts to convince those around me that five times the resolution, progressive video, and lossless audio is the way forward?
Look, I loved DVD when it was the only viable digital home video medium, too. But its time is over, and trying to force people who have no use for it to buy it is simply not on. At the very least, give me the option to buy my Blu-ray Discs without DVDs shoved in with them, as you will also benefit from accurate statistics concerning consumer preference this way.
I want my Blu-ray Discs without DVDs shoved in, please.
This concludes my list of points that I would like the Blu-ray Consortium to understand in order to deliver a product that I would be happy to purchase. Who knows? Someone in the Consortium might actually listen.