Universal Studios is gaining some presence in the high-def community, but not for the right reasons. The studio’s recent release of the classic Spartacus is a small part of a larger problem, one which sees this studio continually butcher their classic library.
It is certainly odd that the studio takes a lackadaisical approach to their catalog. Universal just seems not to care, releasing their catalog titles with either outdated masters used for DVDs, or going so far as to trash a perfectly reasonable master such as Apollo 13. The latter was released on the defunct HD-DVD format in a decent transfer, one with the original film grain intact and some lush detail. The Blu-ray? Universal hit the digital noise reduction button one too many times, taking all of the detail with it, plus adding an additional level of edge enhancement, a glaring, irritating sharpening tool that creates halos around objects to make them “appear” sharper.
You have to question why a studio would spend the extra money to over process a transfer. The usual approach has been to use the same HD-DVD master, for better or worse. That doesn’t cost much of anything, and while maybe not great for the user, it is a benefit for the studio.
If the cost involved in restoring these films is an excuse, it is a poor one. Small companies like Blue Underground take minor, even unknown cult films and release them to Blu-ray in fine special editions, complete with proper HD encodes and masters. If they can do it, a corporate giant like Universal can.
The other studios may not be perfect by any stretch. They certainly make the same mistakes, but nowhere near as consistently as Universal. Keep in mind the source for Paramount’s botched, DNR’ed, edge enhancement-fest that was Gladiator was actually from Universal. Warner, for all of their excellent work on classics, tends to drop the ball when it comes to lossless audio.
This is not a new problem for the studio either. Universal personally got me for $20 with their release of Tremors on HD-DVD, the final catalog title I purchased prior to rental or reviews. That disc still stands as one of the worst HD efforts I’ve come across, an abysmal effort with no real excuse for edge-enhanced end result.
There is a catch though. The obvious way to put an end to this is to not buy these discs, right? Well, maybe. The issue at hand is that older films tend not to sell well on Blu-ray, at least at this point in the format’s life. Not buying them could send the message that Blu-ray buyers do not want older films at all, which is of course not the case. Simply sending an e-mail to the studio and stating your displeasure seems like a good idea too, but you should always view the full movie before doing so.
What is the solution? If a movie is coming around that you have an interest in, read some reviews and then rent or buy accordingly. If the quality is unacceptable, start sending those e-mails, or a personal favorite, voice your displeasure on their Facebook fan page. Eventually, the studio has to get the hint that consumers are not happy with their efforts (or lack thereof). It’s the only way to handle the situation as it stands, at least until they improve and treat their classic films with the respect they deserve.