Oct 15, 2010
Blu-ray and the Home Theater Ideal —The Deception of Perception
First of all, I am sorry for the lapse in my blogging. During the summer vacation Sue kept me busy with many Midnight Marquee projects and my time to blog was minimal. Then the beginning of the new school year began and I was once again inundated. But things have settled down to normalcy and I hope to return to my blogging of twice per month. Also I am nearing completion on the latest issue of MAD ABOUT MOVIES and hope to have it available by the end of the year. Today’s issue at hand…
When home theater enthusiasts convert to Blu-ray, they do so in hopes to bring the theatrical movie experience back to their home, so that they can recreate the grandeur of how that movie looked and sounded when first seen. Blu-ray might not be as effective as 35mm projection or as high resolution as 4k digital projection in state-of-the-art theaters. But for the home, Blu comes darn close.
One controversy that has divided home theater enthusiasts has been the decision by many studios and distribution companies to remove the 35mm photographic grain from Blu-ray releases of movies digitally. Or at least remove most of the grain, leaving the finished product looking as though it had been filmed with digital cameras and not film. Perhaps, in the future, as more and more movies are photographed digitally, grain might not be an issue. But the controversy came to a head when PREDATOR was released recently on Blu-ray with most, if not all, of the grain removed, leaving the tropical setting and the faces of its cast resembling CGI human beings (approximating the look of video games) and digitized versions of real life locations. Other classic movies released with grain reduction include THE LONGEST DAY and PATTON. In my immediate movie crowd, all of whom are people who saw Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd AO and 70mm projection in its golden exhibition heyday, the opinion is divided. In other words, people who study and love the look of film projected properly in movie palaces of the past do not always agree on how films should look when released to Blu-ray.
And this crowd raved over the pours seen in the faces, the tweed pattern of the material in coats and the sharpness and depth of field that left spectaculars breathless in such grain-erased releases such as PATTON and THE LONGEST DAY. Yet, the same sort of film fan has screamed that grain removal is a sin of the most severe sort when it comes to 35mm film projection vs. Blu-ray digital projection at home. These enthusiasts remind us that film is grain and that when companies digitally remove the grain they are removing the very essence of what film is. Film is grain, and some directors tend to over-emphasize it (such as can be seen in the recent release of THE EXORCIST on Blu-ray), especially in many classic movies of the 1970s where gritty realism and muted color became the rage. Many home theater audiences complain that the grain seems to draw too much attention and tends to undermine the advantages of high definition presentation. When audiences expect sharp definition and crisp color, the over-abundance of film grain tends to make movies less colorful, less sharp and generally smeary. Yet, go back and watch these movies in revival house theaters and remember just how much grain is apparent in many of these classic movies. On one hand audiences want the movie theater experience recreated verbatim, yet, on the other hand, sometimes we remember movies differently in our minds today than how we thought they looked in the theaters way back when. And this deception of perception might be at the very heart of the problem.
It harkens back to the controversy—just think how heated this discussion was at one point—between releasing movies panned-and-scanned or letterboxed in the actual aspect ratio they were released theatrically. Of course it took high definition TV and its conversion from a square 4:3 ratio screen to the new standard of the widescreen 16:9 ratio to convince people that a director framed a movie to look a certain way and that letterboxing is the only accurate way of watching a movie. Today we have those who want a pristine unblemished presentation of a movie instead of the filmic look it had theatrically.
Perhaps the best solution is to meet somewhere in the middle. Even when grain is included in home video releases, we must remember that we are not watching 35mm projection at home, we are experiencing digital projection. While today’s home televisions and projectors come damn close to 35mm projection quality, it is not film that is being projected. So perhaps the inclusion of grain without overdoing its effect might be the way to go. Most of us don’t want grain to be a cinematic blemish that draws attention to itself, but at the same time we want to be reminded that what we are watching was shot on film (today’s digitally photographed films are of course the exception) and that even if we watch a movie projected digitally, we still need to be reminded that film stock has a different look than video.
Thus the big bugaboo with archival restoration and re-mastering of classic movies involves how much grit should remain and how much of a digital sheen is necessary. Among people who know these movies and know the look of good 35mm projection vs. digital projection, the decision is not always an easy choice. And where artists struggle to recreate the truth, the truth for one man may not be the truth for another. Truly, the art of the motion picture is in the eye of the beholder. And some tolerance and compromise is needed whenever restoration decisions are made.