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Writer, director, musician, and multimedia junkie. www.felixemartinez.com © 2008-2009 F.E.M.

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    Monday, June 30, 2008

    Chicago In A Ray Of Blu

    I re-watched Chicago on Blu-ray over the weekend and was both delighted and saddened.

    After all the negative buzz about some studios filtering out grain from recent Blu-ray releases, I was delighted that Chicago appears to retain every bit of high-frequency information from the film. On my 92-inch screen, I felt like I was peering into the emulsion. It was rich; it was alive with detail.

    The DVD from 2003 was barely watchable, I thought, with loads of compression nasties, high-frequency smearing, the works. In fact, I haven't seen the DVD in years, until I popped it in to do an A-B comparison with the Blu-ray.

    The "light bulb wall" finale completely falls apart, visually, on standard def disc. Mosquito noise? We're talking a swarm. On Blu-ray, it takes one's breath away. Every light bulb is rock solid. Another favorite sequence is Rene Zellweger's solo. She's in a stunning white dress, floating in black with mirrors appearing at all sides. A wonderful sheen of living, breathing film grain dances over her figure.

    This is an example of a film finely represented on HD, IMHO.

    The audio quality and sound mix were exquisite, but that's for another post, along with my raves about the direction, music, performances, choreography, etc.

    You see, my delight turned to sadness after re-reading film historian and preservationist Robert A. Harris' 2007 review of the Chicago Blu-ray. His parting request for Miramax to release Gangs of New York has been answered, but the promise of what could have been seems to have died along with all those cheatin' guys in Chicago...

    I'd like to think the Chicago Blu-ray wasn't released by Miramax; rather, it beat the rap and escaped grain execution with the help of Billy Flynn.

    Thursday, June 26, 2008

    Outsourcing DNR, or: Dustbusting Or Bust.

    As a follow-up to my June 13 post about the overuse of DNR to remove grain (and unfortunately much more) from Blu-ray releases, I'd like to direct you to film historian and preservationist Robert Harris' fantastic update at his digs at The Digital Bits.

    Almost concurrently, Dan Ramer from DVDfile.com posted his first installment of coverage from the Home Media Expo, which included a paragraph about DNR. Apparently, Ramer approached Fox Senior Vice President of Corporate & Marketing Communications Steve Feldstein about the use of DNR on Patton. Feldstein's reaction was one of surprise and denial, and in fact he immediately text-messaged his technical folks who relayed to him that the Blu-ray master was taken from "highly-revealing low-grain 70mm source elements" and that "no grain removal was applied."


    What's interesting here is that Patton and The Longest Day - both Fox titles - have similar, waxy, no-grain appearances, while The Sand Pebbles (also a Fox release) looks absolutely wonderful, with grain and fine detail intact.

    What could be going on here?

    I came across this interesting bit of info about the restoration efforts for The Sand Pebbles, and was drawn to this passage:

    "After Bernstein's initial color-correction and image-restoration steps, the digital files were sent to a contract facility in India for dustbusting."

    Maybe Patton and The Longest Day went to China instead?

    Methinks this story is far from over. Stay tuned...

    Monday, June 23, 2008

    Speed Racer: Music Composed By Michael Giacchino

    Michael Giacchino is our greatest modern film composer since Danny Elfman.

    Giacchino first caught my ear and heart with his jazzy score to The Incredibles, and while he's done lots of great work since then (including the scores to Ratatouille and Mission Impossible III), I'm just over the moon about his score for the unjustly maligned Speed Racer.

    I really dug his score when I saw the film two months ago. But now that I've heard it on CD sans the groundbreaking, hallucinatory visuals competing for attention, I'm truly impressed.

    Giacchino's jazzy roots are still evident in Speed Racer, but he's done a marvelous thing: he's paid tribute to the original Speed Racer composer, Nobuyoshi Koshibe, and expanded the orchestrations and arrangements to include some really original ideas. Tracks like "Thunderhead," "Casa Cristo" and especially "Grand Ol' Prix" include shifting meters, exotic modes, and dissonant passages. Very cool stuff indeed.

    But don't just take my word for it. Swing by Amazon or iTunes and sample some of his stuff.

    I can't wait to hear what he does next.

    Saturday, June 21, 2008

    Botched Blu-ray: Gangs of New York

    Depressing and maddening news indeed.

    You'd think that with the Pirates of the Caribbean Blu-ray recall a little over six months ago, Disney would have put some quality control measures in place for a film by - oh, I don't know, one of our greatest living directors...

    Which begs the question: does Scorsese or his DP, Michael Ballhaus, even care how Gangs of New York looks on home video? How can this happen again? They may approve of the initial film-to-video transfer, but very bad things can happen in the final mastering stage. Yes, I have to believe that what made it on Blu is unapproved. But I would like to think that, as a filmmaker, I'd want to see a test disc of the final master. I expect this in the recording industry. I would never allow my work to be replicated until I signed off on the final master. Is home video any different?

    I'm just baffled. A royal screw up. Unbelievable.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    There Will Be Blu-ray

    I saw P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" earlier this year in one of those "state-of-the-art" cineplexes. It was a travesty. The print looked like upconverted DVD, had significant gate weave, and the blacks had all the consistency of chocolate milk.

    The film itself was glorious. Much has been said about the award-winning performances, the direction, the music, etc. There are rumors that Anderson is setting his sights on doing a horror film as his next project. I submit that this is his horror film.

    It is not a film for the squeamish: while it does have a few moments of violence (and ultimately lives up to its title), the real brutality is conveyed through the script's dialogue and dramatic sequences. It's a study of the corruption of the human spirit, fueled by greed and an obsession with competition - winning at all costs. The first 14 minutes unfold without dialogue. Pure cinema.

    So, when the HD-DVD of TWBB was canceled, I prayed to the Home Theater Gods that the Blu-ray was not far behind. And on June 3, it arrived.

    The Blu-ray is everything the film print I saw should have been: sharp as a tack and sporting a rock solid image. The contrast during the opening sequence is still a bit milky, but the balance of the film looks wonderful. The audio now sounds like a true 5.1 mix and not like the Dolby Pro Logic-sounding mush that the theatrical experience provided. Extras are sparse, but the real bonus is seeing this impressive work in a way that truly honors the achievements of all involved in its creation. Watching this on a 92-inch screen was truly breathtaking.

    "There Will Be Blood" on Blu-ray is highly recommended.

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    Status of King Crimson Catalog In 5.1 Surround, Part 2

    As a follow-up to my May 4 update, it looks like Steven Wilson is hard at work on Discipline, with Robert Fripp giving his blessing (based on this recent entry in Fripp's online diary). I. For One. Cannot. Wait.

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Amazon Sale: Buy 2 Blu-rays, Get 1 Free

    Amazon's "Buy 2, Get 1 Free" sale is still going on and might be a great way to expand your collection. Titles include The Fifth Element, Black Hawk Down, The Patriot, the Spiderman Trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and about 90+ more titles.

    Blu-ray "Grain-Rape" or: How I Learned To Start Worrying and Hate DNR

    And now a looooong post to hopefully make up for a month of radio silence...

    I've been incommunicado for the past few weeks working on a video project that at one point required me to clean up an actor's blemishes using Apple's dandy compositing tool, Shake. My first attempt was passable; actually, the stills from each frame looked fine. However, when played as a sequence, the filter that was so good at removing the blemishes was also effectively erasing all the high-frequency information above the threshold setting. Now in English: the filter was making all the fine details in the video disappear.

    Around the same time of my experiments, dialogue had been brewing in the home theater forums about the use of DNR (digital noise reduction) on HD masters that were making their way onto Blu-ray, and how EV-IL DNR was. It seems that there are in fact consumers out there in Home Video Land that think film grain is BAD and UGLY and should not be seen, so studios are using DNR to scrub out the offending grain in hi-def masters. The result: Blu-ray releases that should be sharp as a tack - with requisite grain - are instead revealing images that are grain-free with decreased resolution. At best, the results of DNR can provide a soft, air-brushed look to the image, that can sometimes pass for DVD (lower) quality. At worst, actors can look like Madame Tussaude's wax figure creations.

    Robert Harris is a film historian and preservationist who specializes in restoring the large-format widescreen films of the 1950s. He has restored and reconstructed a number of classic films including Lawrence of Arabia (in 1989), Spartacus (1991), My Fair Lady (1994), and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1996) and Rear Window (1998). Thank you, Wikipedia. What Wiki doesn't say, is how passionate and connected he is with the online community via a variety of home theater forums and websites like Home Theater Forum and The Digital Bits. He's always willing to educate and engage in dialogue - even if you are a "newbie."

    Here are some of his thoughts re: DNR, as it relates to the most recently affected release on Blu-ray (as of this writing), Patton:

    Harris' original review.
    All about film and grain.
    The amount of high frequency detail lost.
    The future of large format releases.

    As usual, I learned quite a few things from Mr. Harris, but I couldn't reconcile how he recommended the disc in his original review, and then spent the next few posts essentially bashing it. Well, I just got around to watching Patton on Blu-ray, and here are the thoughts I posted in Mr. Harris' thread:

    "I do not like the "grain-raping" as Mr. Harris might say. It is indeed visible, but nothing like the smeary grain gang-rape of the Eyes Wide Shut Blu-ray, which I find unwatchable, or other oft-mentioned DNR victims (Tremors, et al).

    That being said, the Patton Blu-ray still makes my 2001 THX DVD look like a bad VHS dub.

    Where General Patton once walked into frame as a smudge of a figure in the opening wide shot in the 2001 DVD, you can now see eyes, nose, and mouth. Even the medals are defined in the wide shot. I was not expecting such a significant increase in detail. I can't speak about the 2006 DVD, but the screen caps and the word is that the 2001 trumps it in detail. And IMHO the Blu-ray smokes the 2001 DVD. And then bitch slaps it. I'm very happy to have the Blu-ray.

    I can only imagine what has been scrubbed out. I wish it was still there. There was no need to "grain-rape." That sounds like and should be a crime.

    I will add my voice to the chorus denouncing the use of DNR in the manner it was used here, but now I understand the paradox Mr. Harris has revealed in his thread: how the Patton Blu-ray can be both flawed and highly/hearty recommended at the same time."

    So, now I pose the question to you, fellow readers: do you like seeing grain, or do you want it gone along with all the fine details...? Feel free to post your thoughts. It's not a trick question and I won't flame you, I promise ;)

    © 2008 Felix E. Martinez