A Universal Problem: Blu-ray Classics Gone Wrong

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 Universal just seems not to care, releasing their catalog titles with either outdated masters used for DVDs, or going so far as to trash a perfectly reasonable master such as Apollo 13.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.

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

  • swarez

    The problem is that the vast majority of the buyers are not people who care about keeping the grain or detail. They want sharpness, sharpness and more sharpness because that’s why they got their fancy new HD TV’s. These are the same idiots that balked at widescreen releases because the image didn’t fill up their TV screens and felt that they didn’t get their money’s worth.
    We who actually care about these things are a minority that hardly makes a dent in the over all scheme of things. We seem to be a larger group because we are more vocal online.
    The smaller companies cater to a niche crowd and not the general public and that’s why they make sure the image is as pure as possible.

  • Film Ape

    I read Matt P’s credit at first as – is a 12 year old movie and video game critic. I was impressed at the eloquence of such an article written by a 12 year old. Anyway good article Matt, whatever age you are.

  • @Swarez: Wouldn’t have said it better myself. The people who complain about natural grain are also the dunces who “can’t tell the difference” between SD and HD, because they hooked up their PS3 with RCA cables.

  • Buy Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays. They care about their transfers and the extras.

  • Big Hungry

    I wonder if we will ever see a bar on the top of the bluray. With DNR or original grain. I hope not, and I hope we just get the film as is.

  • darkspoon

    my gripe with some of the b-movie releases I’ve purchased on blu-ray is that some of the best bits are missing. I’m not talking about there being whole scenes missing, just the best bits. For example, I’ve recently had to take out welcome to the jungle half way through and replace it with the dvd because so many of the effects shots are missing. same with underworld and a few others I’ve picked up recently. I know these aren’t top draw films but if I’m paying for them again to have them in hi-def then I would like to think that they’d be better than the dvd versions I already own. the sad thing is (yes, sadder than my taste in movies) if I were to watch one of these films for the first time and it was on blu-ray I’d think they were worse than they were; no fight with pigmies, no punching through a wall to knock over a building etc; basically all the money-shot slo-mo moments that made the films. anyone know why they do this and how they continue to get away with it so quietly?????