Saturday, 10 November 2012

Blu-ray Transfers Of Older Films

As with any visual medium, there's good quality and bad. The area of blu-ray that interests me is transfers of films to blu-ray from the 1980's and beyond, back to the beginning of film-making.

Blu-ray and its disc memory has many advantages over DVD and video. Its clarity is potentially tremendous, which leads to greater depth in colours, shadows, contrast, creating levels in imagery that echoes cinema presentation. Video presentation managed lovel-level depth but was weak in sharpness and contrast. DVD offers terrific sharpness and decent contrast, but the conrast were extreme, leaving a flat, cold image. The images in DVD are compressed, meaning that static shots, moving shots along corridors, the inter-cutting of shots, and the efefcts of these cuts, lacked the visual punch and variation intended by a good film-maker. The focus of DVD was always clarity.

Therefore blu-ray has a great advantage and potential in giving viewers a sense of the depth and uniqueness in older films, and how they were experienced in the cinema in years past, to show why certain films were so effective.

Two recent viewing examples come to mind for me. One was James Whale's Frankenstein, a film made in the early 1930's. As a classic the film has restored many times over the years, therefore viewing a decent version of the film has never been a problem. On blu-ray however, use of lenses, camera movement, space and the timing of shots, framing choices, all become far more impactful, creatign a more moving film. Early scenes in the graveyards may highlight false background paintings and some skimping to work within a tight budget but the monsters make-up, Karloff's eye movements and still framing within blocks of light, Colin Clive's increasing madness, all come alive, allowing cuts between angles to have great emotional impact,  making the film feel short and important in how to effectively convey story in a series of clear, simple images. The images of the monster moving through the countryside and the villages partying have interesting camera movement, effective cuts within action, pre-figuring 60's French cinema. It reveals how importnat a cinema vieiwng of Frankenstein is within cinema's development.

A more modern film, The Terminator, has a terrific UK transfer. This transfer does not ignore the age of the film, or its low-budget origins. It gives clarity, depth to the backgrounds, allowing every action moment to be precise, without sharpening the image to make it seem false or over-worked. Therefore the film's raw power, which had great impact on release, can be felt throughout, soemthing which was lost on a flat, sharp, over-digitised DVD transfer.

I would argue that this is the best way to present older films. Allow for their blemishes. Don't over-use digital advances, as the raw power and humanity that created these films are lost.

There are bad examples of this type of work, usually carried out to make an older film seem more modern than the original print can support. Late 1980's action film Predator has a notorious over-digitised transfer which distances the viewer from what is a terrific raw pulp film. Robocop has a terrible grainy transfer that is taken from the director's cut, which jumps between decent but unremarkable to terrible quality. The work on these films is shoddy. When BFI can ressurect good transfers of Red Dessert (mid-1960's), or Comrades (late-1980's), both of which were difficult to come by for years, then this is a disgrace. In the larger budget field, Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind managed good transfers without looking cheap or over-produced (Let's ignore the Special Edition digital shows for now, I'm writing on the 95 percent of the film that is untouched by these effects.)

The situation is basic. In high-definition, bad work shows up very easily. Therefore solid work done with taste has to be carried out. This means clarity on the physical state of the older films, the style in which they were made, the intentions over-all and within the cutting of sequences, and on the stated intentions of the film-makers involved.