Friday, May 09, 2008

Film Is Supposed to Look Like Film

There is a very important article up at The Digital Bits about film grain and blu-ray. Apparently some customers are not understanding film grain, now more prominent in high-def, and it's causing complaints. According to Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits, New Line scrubbed Pan's Labyrinth clean of its theatrical film grain for blu-ray. Bill is ready to circle the wagons to make sure the studios do not start "cleansing" classic films of their film grain through excessive digital noise reduction.

I have seen some older movies ('80s) broadcast on HD where the film grain was quite strong, and I think it does take some getting used to. The grain feels more prominent than how we experience it in the theater. In any case, I don't want to see any releases scrubbed, because, as Bill Hunt points out, it is often a stylistic choice, and different film stocks and shooting conditions yield different levels of graininess. Scrubbing to the point that other visual information is lost, and that the faces look "waxy," as Bill mentions, is obviously not acceptable.

I usually only notice or love grain in the movie theaters when I see certain older black-and-white films. I don't recall getting enthusiastic about grain too often at film screenings, nor do I remember being distracted by it. The film I watched (part of) on HD broadcast was Wise Guys (1986, Brian De Palma), and it was very grainy. I certainly don't have memories of grain from '80s film-going experiences, especially color films. I am sure the grain was there—the evidence is clear in the HD broadcast—but something about HD is rendering it more prominent. I suspect this is something that just takes getting used to. I also think that no matter how great the technology, you are transporting something from one medium to another and perhaps there will never be a perfect solution.

I highly recommend you read the article here at the Digital Bits.
Here is the pertinent section:

Finally today... while we're talking about the possibility of older classic films coming to Blu-ray Disc... there's a very important and related issue I wanted to address today. We've been getting a few e-mails a week (over the last month or so) from readers who are new to Blu-ray, who say they're disappointed in the quality of older catalog titles on the format. They disappointed not so much the selection, but the actual video quality. One person said the colors weren't as vibrant as they were expecting. Another thought the image looked too soft. Several have complained of "noise" on their TV screens when they watched certain older films. It actually took me a while at first to understand what they meant, but now I've figured it out... and as a serious film enthusiast, it's troubling to say the least. That noise some are complaining about? It's film grain! It seems that many people who came to home theater more recently via DVD, and so who may never have seen older films in an actual movie theater before, simply don't understand what film grain is. They don't realize that it's SUPPOSED to be there.

Now, if you're one of those people... look, don't feel bad. It's okay that you didn't know what that so-called 'noise' was, because having grown up seeing older films only on DVD or cable TV, how could you know otherwise? That's why The Bits is here - to fill you in on such things. Here's what you need to understand: Film grain is an inherent part of the texture and character of older movies, which of course were shot on photochemical film stock (
see Wikipedia's entry on the subject). The grains are tiny bits of metallic silver that are part of the actual physical structure of a piece of film. The amount of grain you see in the image may be the result of a stylistic choice by the director and cinematographer, as determined by their selection of film stock used during the production, or it's the product of the aging process of the film itself, the chemical composition of which changes over time. Often, it's a little of both. DVD didn't always have enough resolution to render grain properly, but Blu-ray does. So now many people are seeing it for the first time, and those who don't understand the nature of film think it's a defect in the disc! It's not, folks. Just like those black bars are supposed to be there on 2.35 (Scope) films - yes, even on your new widescreen HDTV sets - that grain is part of the film medium itself. Unfortunately, it seems that all too many people are expecting older films on Blu-ray to look like Ratatouille or Star Wars: Episode III. In other words, perfect - super-clean, super-clear, super-vibrant. No 'noise.'

To quote Han Solo, "I've got a BAD feeling about this." I suspect THIS issue is going to be the new anamorphic widescreen, the new black bars. This is the issue that enthusiasts and the studios are going to have to make an effort to explain to consumers who are new to Blu-ray and high-definition in general. Unfortunately, what seems to happening right now is that the studio marketing folks are conducting focus groups with new Blu-ray consumers, who are saying they want perfect pictures every time. As a result, a few of the Hollywood studios are currently A) using excessive Digital Noise Reduction to completely scrub film grain from their Blu-ray releases, or B) not releasing as many older catalog titles as they might otherwise for fear that people will complain about grain. Some studios are even going so far as to scrub the grain out of NEW releases that have been shot on film. Case in point: New Line's Pan's Labyrinth Blu-ray Disc. When I saw this film in the theaters, it was dark and gritty. The grain was a deliberate stylistic choice - part of the artistic character of the film. New Line's Blu-ray, on the other hand, is sparkly and glossy - almost entirely grain-free. So much fine detail has been removed that the faces of characters actually look waxy. Everyone looks like a plastic doll. It's worth noting that the European release doesn't suffer the same fate. One can only assume that there are fewer marketing fingers in the pie over there?

This isn't just a Blu-ray issue, it's going to affect ALL high-definition presentations of older films, if we allow it to. Film enthusiasts (and those at the studios who actually CARE about and respect the integrity of older films) need to really start educating people on this subject - new Blu-ray consumers, friends and family, fellow studio employees. FILM IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE FILM. Older titles on Blu-ray are NOT supposed to look perfect, as if they were shot today on video! The Blu-ray presentation should replicate, as closely as possible, the best original theatrical experience of the film. THAT'S the goal. I'll tell you right now, this is an important issue, just as anamorphic enhancement and presenting films in their original aspect ratios on DVD were before it. As we did with those issues, you better believe it's something the staff here at The Digital Bits will take up as a crusade with the Hollywood studios if it becomes necessary. So you studio folks... let's just say that you'd better get this one right, or you'll definitely be hearing about it from us in the months ahead (and, we suspect, from many others as well).

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