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George Ebersole

Newer generation DVDs

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I bought a couple of classic films on regular DVD the past few days, and both films are from the 50s. Yet the prints are crisp and clear compared to films from the 70s I also purchased on DVD in the last five years.

 

Has transfer technology gotten that much better, or is there something in the older films that makes them hold up better?

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DVD (and Blu-ray) Quality is mostly dependent upon the budget of whoever is releasing the disc. We have clients who insist on new 2k transfers, full restorations, extensive audio cleanup and numerous QC passes on the encoding, for all of their titles. And they win awards and have tons of fans, as a result. And we have other clients who take what the owner/licensor of the film gives them, whether it's a transfer from the 80's on 3/4" or a recent HD master or 2k/4k data scan. Hit or miss that way.

 

Then once it's transferred, picture quality is about how the master is handled - quality of downconversions, quality of encoding, whether any filtering is applied during encoding, etc. There are so many variables along the way it's almost impossible to know from looking at the final product where an issue may have cropped up. (though that doesn't stop internet home theater forums from making assumptions - I've seen some wild conjecture about what films I've worked on from negative to Blu-ray master have gone through - usually totally off-base because they don't know the process or anything about the elements being used).

 

But as for the quality of the film - I don't think it has to do with age, per se. We've seen film from the 20's that looks better than film from the 80's, and at the same time, we've seen film from both eras that's totally unusable. In this case, it's more about how the masters were stored, how frequently they were accessed, and about what elements were used for the transfer, and then the quality of the transfer itself and how the film was handled through to the optical disc master.

 

-perry

Edited by Perry Paolantonio

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Thanks Perry.

 

Two of the films I bought was "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" from 1954 and "Sinbad the Sailor" from 1951. They both look pristine, almost like they were shot yesterday.

 

Example; "Oh God" from 1977 and "The Four Seasons" released in 1981. Both look okay, but the image quality just pales in comparison to the older films. "Sinbad the Sailor" was actually issued on DVDR, print on demand technology. And for a DVDR it looks incredible.

 

Not to get too off track, but I've heard somewhere (on the radio I think) that a lot of VHS versions, and even some older DVD editions of films, were 16mm reductions, which were then transferred to 3/4" broadcast before being duped to 1/2" or DVD. How true is that, and would that explain some of the grainy image quality for older DVDs?

 

Sorry for the lay person question, but I've nearly no experience with telecine issues.

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I'm not aware that 16mm versions were much used for VHS. Usual approach was 35 to Beta SP to VHS, then probably 35 to Digibeta to VHS.

 

Early DVDs were notoriously made from SP masters and looked very rough. Modern DVDs may be made from blowdowns of the DI scans, which is just night and day better. There's an almost infinite spectrum of technical excellence inbetween.

 

- Is it a scan of the neg or a show print?

- How good was the telecine?

- What was it scanned to?

- Has it been duplicated from that original recording?

- If it was compressed on a workstation, how was it captured?

- To what codec was it captured?

- Was it transcoded, altered in terms of aspect ratio or frame rate, and how was this done?

- If it was compressed on a realtime encoder, which one?

 

...and we haven't even got to compression yet.

 

The dirty secret is that slower-than-realtime workstation encoders have always been able to approach or exceed the quality of the expensive realtime gear often used for commercial work - just slowly.

 

P

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Yeah, it's my understanding and own personal experience that a lot of the early DVDs were dupes from the masters used for VHS editions. My old DVD of "The Right Stuff" was essentially the VHS edition duped to DVD. But my "Mad Max 2, The Road Warrior" DVD looks like it was a new edition. Although there's an outside chance that it was a dupe from the LD master.

 

Is there not only one CODEC used for DVDs? MPEG4?

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David;

 

Encoding letterboxed content into DVDs is positively pathological, although of course it's done on all 2.35 content. The mathematics used in the compression works best where picture content is somewhat continuous, without high frequency edges. Letterboxing turns what should be a wavy line into a sawtooth.

 

One of the better things about more modern codecs is their ability to split the picture up around artificial, geometrically-defined shapes and treat them appropriately.

 

George;

 

DVD is always MPEG-2, which offers less for the bitrate than (the variants of) MPEG-4 that drive things like YouTube and Vimeo. MPEG-2 is also legal for blu-ray, and many early discs used it. The maximum typical bitrate for DVDs is about 6 megabits per second; blu-ray is about four times as much for about four times the pixels, so it ought to work.

 

Encoding any reasonably modern codec with "this one matters" settings is hard work. Really good DVDs can be encoded at very high quality on modern workstations (a couple-of-thousand-dollar PC) in ten or twenty times the runtime of the content. Two-pass encoders do one run to establish how complex the material in question is on a per-frame basis, and then go over it again to do the final encode. More than two passes are rarely that helpful. People who really care will then watch the material back and allocate extra bandwidth to problem areas, the tools for doing which vary in quality with the software you're using.

 

Using these tools, even quite flaky original content can be made to look, well, as flaky as it was. Good DVD encoding should never show blocking, really. If it does something is wrong.

 

Encoding high-definition h.264 for blu-ray or the web is even harder work.

 

P

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DVD (and Blu-ray) Quality is mostly dependent upon the budget of whoever is releasing the disc. We have clients who insist on new 2k transfers, full restorations, extensive audio cleanup and numerous QC passes on the encoding, for all of their titles. And they win awards and have tons of fans, as a result. And we have other clients who take what the owner/licensor of the film gives them, whether it's a transfer from the 80's on 3/4" or a recent HD master or 2k/4k data scan. Hit or miss that way.

 

Then once it's transferred, picture quality is about how the master is handled - quality of downconversions, quality of encoding, whether any filtering is applied during encoding, etc. There are so many variables along the way it's almost impossible to know from looking at the final product where an issue may have cropped up. (though that doesn't stop internet home theater forums from making assumptions - I've seen some wild conjecture about what films I've worked on from negative to Blu-ray master have gone through - usually totally off-base because they don't know the process or anything about the elements being used).

 

But as for the quality of the film - I don't think it has to do with age, per se. We've seen film from the 20's that looks better than film from the 80's, and at the same time, we've seen film from both eras that's totally unusable. In this case, it's more about how the masters were stored, how frequently they were accessed, and about what elements were used for the transfer, and then the quality of the transfer itself and how the film was handled through to the optical disc master.

 

-perry

 

I'm curious though, what makes a film that's been in storage unusable? Does it have too many scratch marks or other dings?

 

I ask because I saw a Disney doc on the restoration of Snow White. And those guys went back and actually digitally cleaned every frame, such that what you see is essentially true cel animation without any film grain.

 

I realize that not every production company or studio wants to spend resources like Disney on every film in their library, but why is it that some very well known films get a quick transfer job, where other films get the red carpet treatment?

 

Is it about expected return on sales?

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The money spent on restoration is based on how valuable the owner feels the material is, either for historical reasons or financial reasons, more the later. But some restoration projects are bigger than others and the studios have to decide each year whether it's better to restore, let's say, one expensive title or ten cheaper titles, it's about resource management. And some titles are important enough to them that they don't want to rush the restoration.

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Another problem are films under public domain, you can copyright a new restoration but you then have to compete with all the people who put out DVD's of unrestored prints that they already own. For example, I saw a gorgeous restoration of the silent movie "The Eagle" starring Valentino, at a film festival, restored by Kevin Brownlow. But no one wants to pay him for access to his restored version when they can just put any old print out on DVD for much less money.

 

The Technicolor 1930's version of "A Star is Born" is in public domain and numerous cheap transfers of bad prints are out on DVD, so who is going to spend a lot of money on a restoration, assuming they can find original film elements, if they can't make a return on the investment? They can only own a copyright on their restoration not the title itself.

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Wow, that's interesting. I think some company called "Alpha Video" has put out a bunch of B&W or old color prints of lesser known films and serials on DVD. I think of them was "My Man Godfry". If you look at a lot of the cheap bargain DVD you'll see a lot of heavily beat up prints; scratched and dirty images, scratched up tracks (not scratch track), missing frames or whole sections of the film is missing. If you look at the Criterion release it's another pristine remaster, and looks really good.

 

I think the 30's version of "A Star is Born" was up for restoration by somebody, but I can't remember who.

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