Blu-ray Myths: Grain is a Flaw

Through the years of VHS, Laserdisc, Beta, Videodisc, and in most cases, DVD, home video did one thing well: obscure its source. Films, believe it or not, are generally shot on film. That film, in its various formats ranging from 16 mm to 70 mm, has grain.

Due to the various methods of display from those various formats, grain was hidden. Whether that was due to compression, resolution, or something else, home viewers are not used to grain, and instead of educating with Blu-ray (where all of the grain is now visible), the studios are responding in drastic ways.

Grain can be removed digitally from an image. It’s not hard to do via digital noise reduction (DNR), and seemingly appeases a segment of the populace who could care less about the art, but only want their bright, shiny HDTV, undoubtedly uncalibrated, to look as pristine as possible. However, the grain is the image. Those “specks” if you will hold all of the detail. “Cleaning” the grain wipes the detail. There is no middle ground. Some film stocks hold heavy grain, some so light you can barely see it .A grainless image is one shot on digital video (which introduces video noise, but that’s another topic).

A recent Blu-ray release has seemingly split the Blu-ray buying populace into two segments: Predator – Ultimate Hunter Edition. There are those that rightfully support the original, heavily grainy photography, and those that like this “Ultimate Hunter Edition” because Fox has wiped it clean, resulting in faces that look waxy instead of anything natural, but the grain is now gone.

It is a split of opinion and fact. The opinion is that looks “better.” Many believe the heavy grain was a problem that should have been eliminated, and that flaw is now removed completely. That’s fine. The fact is that it does not represent the original photography. It is wildly inaccurate, not opinion, that it looks better than the source. The source is grainy and filled with detail. This new Blu-ray edition is not. The source looks like it does for a variety of reasons, giving the film a gritty look that suits the mood of this ’80s classic. Was the original Blu-ray perfect? Not at all. It was loaded with compression due to an outdated codec, which could have been fixed this time around. So much for that.

On the other hand, there are Blu-ray critics. To be clear, there are two reasons for a critic. The first is to tell someone whether or not a product is worth their money, with a professional knowledge base to fall back on (at least, that’s supposed to the case). Is a movie worth $10 for a ticket? Is blender A better than blender B? The second is to improve things. When critics begin bashing something, let’s say a video game with bad jumping controls, no developer wants to face that same wrath. If they listen to what the critics say, their jumping controls will be improved.

There are a select few out there who enjoyed this new Predator Blu-ray, and this is where opinion and fact collide. Blu-ray exists for “perfect picture and sound,” or so the tagline states. By giving this disc high scores, those select critics are not doing their jobs, period. Who knows what the reason is, but these critics, in the infinite wisdom of the internet, do not know what they are doing. The IGN reviewer, Cindy White, actually has the gall to say there is no grain, yet completely misses the point as to why. How can anyone reviewing film, or a medium which serves as a means to reproduce film, not question why the grain is missing?

The studios, along with Blu-ray critics, can serve a purpose. Just like the old widescreen vs. full screen debate which is slowly seeing its end, the myth that grain is a flaw is just gaining traction. It needs to be stopped right now, and the various fan-made comparisons between the old and new discs on specialized forums are not enough. The mainstream needs a bit of an education on film itself and the art. They can’t go on thinking grain is a flaw in the image.

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.