Blu-ray Myths: Old Movies Do Not Benefit from HD

As a Blu-ray critic and die-hard videophile, there are quirks, annoyances, and yes, myths that exist about Blu-ray in its current state. Some are minor, and some are major. Regardless, they affect the Blu-ray market, what I do on a daily basis, and how well these discs sell. With that in mind, it is time to clear up the misconceptions in simple terms, beginning with the personal pet peeve: “Old movies don’t benefit from Blu-ray.”

This was tweeted to me about a month ago, and despite my best efforts, I could not convince this fellow Tweeter that yes, black and white movies can look great on Blu-ray. In fact, I’d be willing to go one step further: silent movies can look great on Blu-ray. In an era of digital filmmaking, it is probably easy to forget that the majority of mainstream movies are still shot on 35-millimeter film. So were most classics. The processes may have changed (Technicolor replaced by digital intermediates scanned through a computer), but the core of shooting on 35MM film remains just as it did all those years ago.

When touting the benefits of Blu-ray, I reach for one film: The Wizard of Oz. Yes, the original 1939 version we all know and love was the recipient of a glorious, jaw-dropping restoration thanks to Warner. The remarkable color, stunning sharpness, and tremendous detail give this film new life.

Those that prefer the clean digital look of today’s films should know they are likely short changing themselves. Star Wars: Episode I for example was shot digitally at a native resolution of 1080p (1920 x 1080). That’s it. Whenever George Lucas gets around to releasing the prequel on Blu-ray, any future formats will not be able to do much for the video presentation, aside from improved compression.

Film has no real “resolution.” The actual resolution has been debated for many years, and Wizard of Oz was scanned in at 8K during the restoration process, meaning 7680 x 4320 was the output resolution (or thereabouts). It needed to be scaled down to 1080p for Blu-ray, meaning that yes, Wizard of Oz can still look better than it does now. Star Wars Episode I never will after Blu-ray.

Another great example is The General (1926), a Buster Keaton silent film from Kino. Despite the rough shape of the source material in terms of scratches and other damage, the film looks remarkable in HD. This classic concerns Keaton’s encounter with a steam engine during the Civil War. As he shovels coal into the train, you can make out individual pieces as they are pushed into the fire. The stunning level of detail was never seen before, short of actual film projection.

This is, of course, not a cut-and-dry thing (what is?). Some films are transferred to Blu-ray better than others. For every Casablanca, there is a Spartacus. Even the recently released Gladiator on Blu-ray was treated poorly. Techniques such as DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) and edge enhancement remove detail and crispness, leaving viewers with the impression that only new films benefit from Blu-ray. There are misconceptions about film grain (another topic on its own) and why it exists.

Then there are lesser, cheaper film stocks, which yes, will probably never look that great. There are also different grades of film, such as 16MM, although it should be noted that 16MM still sees use. The Wrestler was shot as such, giving it a grainy, harsher look as intended. Other factors, from print damage to how the print itself was found (is it a direct master from the camera, or multi-generation dupe used in theaters?) further complicate matters.

So while it not as simple as, “Old movies always look great on Blu-ray,” consumers should not be dissuaded from purchasing their favorite classics in hi-def, at least after reading some reviews or educating themselves a little about the restoration process.

Matt Paprocki is a 12-year movie and video game critic. His work has been featured on a variety of websites, and he currently edits DoBlu.com and Multiplayergames.com

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  • I am also incredibly annoyed when people think this!

  • Dave

    I support this article and everything it says.

  • Cufford

    I continue to have no interest in investing in the Blu-ray format, which I see as having a limited life as a delivery medium. It’s probably at it’s apex right now, as technology and delivery mediums continue to evolve at a rapid pace. It will follow in the paths of Beta, VHS and regular DVD soon enough – well, too soon.

    All it is to me is a glorified DVD that they can charge more for (they could easily put the same extras on a regular DVD set, but they don’t so you’ll spend more money on Blu-ray), and frankly the nominal increase in visual fidelity over standard DVD doesn’t impress me for the money. My old (not that old) SD widescreen TV still looks great to my aging eyes.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that technology evolves so fast these days that by the time you get used to something, it’s replaced with something else. Money wasted in my eyes.

    DVD’s are already dying big time, and Blu-ray is little more than a dressed up version of that physical medium. Everything will be digital delivery before we know it. Disks are dead, or close to it in my opinion.

    In the end, Blu-ray will likely be as short-lived as any medium/format we’ve ever seen. Why invest in a library of over-priced disks, other than as collectors items, I suppose, which doesn’t interest me.

  • Jason

    I know I have criticized you before, but this time I want you to know I am not trying to argue, I am asking question because I don’t know these things, but I would like so much to do so.

    >>** In fact, I’d be willing to go one step further: silent movies can look great on Blu-ray. In an era of digital filmmaking, it is probably easy to forget that the majority of mainstream movies are still shot on 35-millimeter film. So were most classics.**

    But you have to tell me why the picture quality then was more different than now? It clearly lacked in quality, no matter how little resolution matters? Isn’t 35mm just the size of picture you are taking and nothing more?

    >** Star Wars Episode I never will after Blu-ray.**

    So does that mean if I film something digital, it will be like that forever? That I can’t upscale it? How about movies that are converted to film so they can be shown in certain cinemas; can you still see the pixels in them?

    I would also like to ask another question. How and where specifically (Imdb is a mess) can I find out if the movie is filmed digitally or, well, in film? And what resolution are they filmed in?

    >>** Film has no real “resolution.” The actual resolution has been debated for many years, and Wizard of Oz was scanned in at 8K during the restoration process, meaning 7680 x 4320 was the output resolution (or thereabouts). It needed to be scaled down to 1080p for Blu-ray, meaning that yes, Wizard of Oz can still look better than it does now.**

    What is this restoration process you are talking about? As you said, film has no resolution. Shouldn’t it therefore be no limitations when converting to bigger resolutions, bigger than 7600, or is this just a temporary thing until a bigger resolution is needed for the movie in the future?

    >>**Techniques such as DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) and edge enhancement remove detail and crispness, leaving viewers with the impression that only new films benefit from Blu-ray. There are misconceptions about film grain (another topic on its own) and why it exists.**

    What is crispness in film, and what details are in older films worse than never films, and why? I also feel that I notice film grain (often very annoying film grain) in HD movies, especially old ones converted to HD. If that was what you meant, I apologize for the stupid question.

    >**Then there are lesser, cheaper film stocks, which yes, will probably never look that great. There are also different grades of film, such as 16MM, although it should be noted that 16MM still sees use. The Wrestler was shot as such, giving it a grainy, harsher look as intended.**

    Again, isn’t the numbers in MM just size of the picture? I hear of 66MM, 16MM and 35MM, but don’t know really how they are different or how they can make a difference.
    Is also having a film in 16MM harder for a future generation to convert to better quality if they are used to 35MM??

    Oh, wow. Sorry for asking all these questions. But I am so fascinated with this topic. I went one days thinking about them before and have many times asked about them in other forums. Turned out I didn’t get the answer I wanted to get. I hope you can.

  • Werner

    Since most BDs now cost the same or only little more than DVDs, and the picture clearly is much better, I see no reason not to go Blu.

    Sure one day BDs also will be “old” – but as long as there are devices around playing the discs who gives a fiddler’s fart?

  • JasonsAnswers

    1. you are correct. film stock, lenses and cameras are of much higher quality now, resulting in more natural picture/ expanding the range of what is shootable.

    2. you can upscale a 16×16 jpeg format picture to 5000×5000, but this doesn´t add actual information to the picture, but algorically generated shades of grey in between the pixel resulting in a washed out/ unsharp product. imdb has a category called technical specs on the left side menu.

    3. you are correct, the limitations are strictly created by the cameras scanning the film footage. actual film is an object you can hold in your hands, there are no pixels. but you won´t really need more than a 4320p scan, unless of course you are planning to build an imax theater in your basement.

    4. substitude crispness with sharpness. the lenses and the connecting joints to the cameras used on older films
    are of much lesser build quality resulting in an unsharper picture. you notice more film grain, because the old film stock produced more of it, especially in low light scenes (if you can even find any in classic movies)

    5. 16mm film is half as big as 35mm, so the area of light sensitive chemicals on it is half as big. it would be just like taking a 35mm film and cutting away half of it, resulting in a much grainier piece in comparison to the whole.

  • Ian

    I’m curious as a fan of older television and of animation how a blu-ray version of these older shows would look? I get that if it’s shot on film then there is more resolution to get from the original print of a TV show or a cartoon but I just wonder if the processes of storing and or preparing those shows for broadcast negates that? My biggest hope would be that the anime series Cowboy Bebop could be released in BD that’s not an upconverted DVD. It was made in 1998 and has some CG but I don’t know if it is old enough to have been animated on film or not. If so then maybe I’ll someday see a version that looks that much better.

  • Maopheus

    The resolution of a standard definition DVD is 480i. Blu-ray is 1080p. Do the math. It’s simple as that. Also the Blu-ray format holds at least 25 GB for layer versus 4.7 per layer for DVD. So of course the studios could put the same amount of features and extras on DVD as they do for Blu-ray but it’d require many more discs and cost more. But I think we’re really talking about the actual picture quality for an “old” movie presented on Blu-ray. And really it’s all about the quality of the original source. If it looks like shit, BD will just look like high-resolution shit.
    @JasonAnswers. Your math is incorrect for 16mm vs. 35 mm. A 16mm film frame less than 1/4 the size of a 35 mm film frame. To paraphrase Doc Brown, you have to think two dimensionally. You are right that it is about half as wide but you have to go one more dimension.
    I find this stuff fascinating about film, I mean the actual physical and technical aspect of film with the different stocks, the aspect ratios, the different types of cameras and the history of the different technologies.

  • kyriacos

    8k films require 22TB disk space in order to be 100% digitally preserved..

    wow..

  • rob

    @kyriacos
    surely it can never be digitally preserved as it it converted into pixels?

    unless there is some form of huge vector conversion which loses no quality, but then with vector it can be scaled without losing quality aswell :/

    oh and what are 8k films? (or what does 8k stand for? 8000?)

  • @ian It depends on how the show was stored. If the original negatives are lost, then all that may remain are tape masters. That would be ugly. Some shows, say All in the Family, were shot directly on tape unfortunately. Those will always look bad. Stuff like I Love Lucy will probably look awesome.

    @rob 8k refers to the resolution restored films are digitally scanned at.

  • Joe

    maybe in 1000 years they might develop a film preservation teleportation device, which duplicates the physical atoms of the original 35mm film negative. we will then be able to store these atoms in some kind of vault, and be able to reproduce an exact physical clone of the same negative whenever we see fit, rendering scanning resolutions obsolete.

  • Shabby X

    Oh sad collectors, the truth is buying any sort of hardcopy media is a fool’s errand you’re being tricked into by the property owners and websites like this who want their ads to pay off.

    Home viewing will never be the same as theatre and streaming is the present and future; you’re precious attachment to plastic discs will be funny/embarrassing to everyone under 35 now in about three years and to anyone older than that in seven.

  • No Shabby, I actually like to OWN my content, not simply borrow it from the studio who can at any time turn off a server that prevents me from using what I paid for. I like trading my movies with friends, and I like reselling them. I like being able to watch my movies when I want, not just when my online connection says I can. I like knowing in 20 years I’ll still own my movies, not just a file that will likely be invalid.

    Digital media is the a sad day for media consumers, benefiting no one one but the studio who is in full control. That’s what they want.

  • Werner

    I’m with Matt P.

  • kyriacos

    I do not snob digital era, but when I like a movie then I am always doing whatever it takes to buy it, there is nothing more awesome than a library filled with DVDs..

    The only shitty thing with owing DVDs is that your friends use you a bit like a DVDstore and sometimes they do not return your DVDs..

    :(

  • I used to be a big fan of owning the content, at one point I had upwards of 500+ dvd’s but I’ve sold most of them to secondspin.com and am down to a 200 dvd collection. I use Netflix and stream through my 360 and have not regretted my decision once. I’ve even found that since I’ve started streaming movies I have rarely even touched a dvd in my collection. I argued for owning the content for the longest time, but now that I’ve tried it I wouldn’t dare go back.

  • Jack

    there is no question to the benefit. Anyone that says that hasn’t seen a BD of “The Searchers”. I think the confusion comes from the fact that there have been some legitimately bad transfers from the various studios catalogs. From what I have experienced they are getting better. I haven’t seen any B&W on BD yet so I don’t really know, but I am sure they look great. B&W looked pretty good on DVD as well B&W had a much higher resolving power (depending on the processing) up until recent times, or at least that is my understanding.

  • I only started using blu-ray because I shoot in 1080p/24 there by using Blu-ray for the edited film or video.

  • guest

    Hello,

    You argue that a video filmed at resolution X digitally will not gain anything by showing it at resolution 2X (i.e. just upscale). While I disagree with this since there is a lot of research in doing this upscale in a very smart way (mostly using ML techniques, training sets, etc), I am more interested on the same question for film: while indeed film has no resolution per say, there is a resolution after which you gain no info by scanning larger and larger. This is determined based on the filming situation, film quality, development, etc.

    Approximately, what is this resolution for 35mm film used in the industry in the 1950s or something? You skim over this by saying that this figure is debated, and that the WoO was filmed @ 7000×4000, but you don’t mention the approximate resolution being debated – if this is 800×600, you can scan the film all you want at 100MP, you still won’t get much out of it unless you employ smarter algorithms.

    Thanks

  • clemo

    this is a really good thread but i dont personally agree with shabby x. at the moment i add all the films that i like the look of to my love film account to be sent out on dvd. then if the film is as good as it looks on the trailer 9which is hardly ever) i purchase that dvd for my collection and one day i hope to buy a 40″ led tv with blue ray player and dvd upscaler which will allow me to still view my antique dvds. and im only 22 thats really into my technology

  • zombiehorror

    Not only can an old movie look good on Blu-ray but it can also look good on dvd if the same time/effort is given to the dvd release as it is the Blu-ray release!! From what I’ve read the 2010 dvd release of Wizard of Oz just ported over the previous 2005 print whereas the Blu-ray transfer got a whole new make over! If more studios would release their HD transfers on dvd (in 480i/p of course) then there would be less talk of Blu-ray’s superior quality but the facts are they don’t do this. I recall several films on dvd when HD first started having, “All new transfer from HD print.” printed clearly on the front or back of the case but I suppose this practice was quickly done away with as it wouldn’t have helped sell the masses on Blu-ray/HD DVD! My go to example for a dvd upgrade done almost right (They screwed the pooch and made the film widescreen, when it was originally shot as fullframe! I would have preferred the option to choose between the two as it was also shown in theaters in widescreen) is The Munsters, Go Home! I did a comparison review here http://www.universalmonsterarmy.com/forum/index.php?topic=13403.msg232990#msg232990 now if Universal had released this as Blu-ray you would have all kinds of folks touting Blu-ray’s superiority, comparing it to the old Goodtimes dvd, when it really has more to do with the time/effort that was put into the transfer regardless of the format it is presented on! From a technical standpoint Blu-ray is superior to dvd but when you compare a cleaned up transfer of a film on dvd to that of an identical Blu-ray with your own eyes the differences will be greatly minimized.

  • RevLucifer

    Film itself is a chemically coated piece of photo-reactive material. The negative is created when the film reacts with photon being reflected by the image being recorded. As such, the maximum “resolution” of film would be the width/height divided by the diameter of a proton. A proton is approximately 2*10^-14 m in diameter, making it .00000000000002 meters thick. A millimeter is 1*10^-3 m, or .001 meters. That means that there are at least 50,000,000,000 (fifty billion) “pixels” per millimeter. Now, 35mm film has different “aperture dimensions”, referring to the size of the camera and projector lenses. For the sake of simplicity, I’m using the original 35mm developed by Edison, which is approximately 25mm*18.5mm. That gives an effective resolution of 1,250,000,000,000 by 925,000,000,000 (1.25 trillion by 925 billion) “pixels”. However, even that is not technically correct, but it could be higher or lower; higher because the photons do not hit the film in specific areas, allowing for overlap, or lower because the area that can react to the photon is limited to the size of the molecules that make up the film. However, given the impossibly small size of atoms, you can rest assured that the true resolution of 35mm film is easily in the neighborhood of millions of pixels by millions of pixels, and not something that would likely be discernable to the human eye (until we get that 2 million inch diameter TV, that is). Now, how good those images turn out is also a factor of camera, lens, and film quality, but there is not likely an upper limit to the resolution of 35mm film that would really matter for viewing. At 1080p, a 46-inch HDTV has approximately 36 pixel/lines per inch (vertically, not per square inch). If we figure 50 million pixel/lines (vertical) for a 35mm film (and that’s pretty conservative, if you look at the previous numbers), then we can assume that a TV would have a 1.39 million inch vertical viewing dimension to have the same number of pixel/lines (36) per inch. That is a viewing screen approximately 22 miles *high*. To compare, Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is only around 5 miles above sea level. Essentially, that means that the only (effective) limit to how detailed the conversion from 35mm would be is technical, not physical.

  • Sifo Dyas

    Whilst I agree with you on many of your well researched points. Flaws in your research are quite apparent:

    Star wars Episode I was the last star wars film to be shot in 35MM and the sequels (though shot in digital) were still filmed by Panavisions ‘CineAlta’ line of cameras which shoot at resolutions far higher than ‘1080p’

    We have a lot to thank George Lucas for (though perhaps not the scripts/casting/cgi of the originals. He was one of the most influential people in getting digital screens into cinemas and is always at the forefront of film technology, unfortunately we cannot stay with film forever as its weaknesses far outweigh the benefits of other mediums.

  • meh

    Lest we not forget, no matter how they gloss it over…a P.O.S is a P.OS. Hollywood ran out of good movie ideas a long time ago. i watch standard, and bluray, and occasionally stream. I dont care. Whatevers handy. Do not own any bluray, but have not purchased any new movies for a while. I have a 3d hdtv, and ill probably buy a hd3d The Avengers when it comes out

  • AC

    “Star wars Episode I was the last star wars film to be shot in 35MM and the sequels (though shot in digital) were still filmed by Panavisions ‘CineAlta’ line of cameras which shoot at resolutions far higher than ‘1080p’ ”

    This is incorrect. Episode II was filmed with the “Panavised” Sony HDW-F900 and Episode III was filmed with the HDC-F950, both of which only shoot in 1080p resolution. While I admire Lucas’s desire to be a digital trailblazer, this decision will almost certainly have consequences when 4K displays and higher are adopted in the future. Short-term thinking at its finest…

  • Edward Heldman III

    I know this is old but it still is relevant. To me the deciding factor is how 480 looks on my HD TV, you see jpeg artifacts from low MPEG2 compression. Though for Blu-ray it is clean and no artifacts thanks to 1080 full res and h264 compression.
    I think scanning analog film in at 4k or 8k is overkill and will give little (if any) future benefit, but that is to be seen. 1K is about what 35mm film is.
    It’s like saying Audio Cassette Tapes have no true set frequency so we will record them at 196khz and 32bitrate it’s just overkill nothing more.

  • Bert

    I weep for thee, Edward Heldman the Third. 1K is about what 35mm film is? My dear boy, you couldn’t be more wrong. I facepalmed so hard I think I made a permanent mark on my face :(

  • Edward Heldman III

    Bert what evidence do you have that I am wrong? Please enlighten me with your superior technical knowledge.

  • Percy Porcelain

    Personally I was impressed by the American Graffiti blu-ray because, although not perfect by any means, it was light years ahead of the original print and really brought out the summer evening landscapes. Audio was not such a great story – but you can’t put words in actors’ mouths that were never there…

  • Alo Mononitrate

    Yo, you need to fix the ads on your site. Featured on here is primarily writing, yet every 15 seconds a video at the top right reloads and automatically pulls the page back up to it…

  • Daniel Siddall

    Anyone who says any filmed element (TV Show or Movie) cannot benefit from HD has his head up his ass. The statement is so asinine that it’s not even worth responding to.

    The only thing that doesn’t benefit from HD is TV shows that were taped and have a resolution of 640×480.

  • Flo Lieb

    I am pretty happy with my Blu-ray transfer of Spartacus. It’s nowhere near a Criterion release but still surpasses DVD quality.

  • chris

    lol, what was that you said about blurays? lmfao

  • Cary Macleod

    If Hollywood ran out of good ideas why watch Avengers. Too bad your life is so bereft. I see many wonderful inventive movies all the time

  • 6 years later Blu-ray is still by far the best medium (and most popular physical medium) available, despite the convenience and popularity of digital streaming

  • Hawk

    What about these movies I see that say they are a 1080p Web download, they are titles that have not been released on BluRay, so where do they come from? Are they just an upscaled DVD.

  • WalterBannon

    incorrect. the effective resolution of film is limited by the density of the plastic film base’s coating of photo sensitive gelatin emulsion, or more accurately the number of grains of silver halide crystals per square mm of film stock that are left after development.

    A very fine grained film stock like Kodak Panatomic-X is rated around 200 lines/mm.

    In addition the resolution of film is further limited by the capabilities of the lens, typically around 50 lines/mm.