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.