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A Few Words About A few words about...™ Spartacus -- in Blu-ray

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Robert Harris, May 12, 2010.

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  1. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    Twenty years ago, under the aegis of Universal’s Tom Pollack, and with the cooperation and support of both Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick, we spent a year reconstructing and restoring Spartacus from extant film elements. The process was difficult, tedious, and expensive. Work was performed virtually on a shot by shot basis.

    An HD master was created from our 65mm interpositive some ten years ago. AFAIK it has previously been used for all SD as well as HD releases of Spartacus, I am told that the master was returned to HTV for clean-up and removal of unwanted noise and grain.

    HTV, which performed meticulous dirt and grain removal on another large format production, Franklin J. Shaffner’s brilliant 1970 Academy Award winner Patton, has been brought back to perform similar duties with Mr. Kubrick’s Spartacus. Only now, with newer, next gen software, the final results, both based upon the original transfers and the newer software are different.

    Many people were thrilled with the look and overall textures of Patton, which was smoother than a baby’s bottom, and to give it proper credit, looked beautiful on smaller screens.

    Where are we now?

    Where before, we had heavy noise as captured by the HD transfer, we now have something akin to the surface of a quiet pond in which not even the smallest ripple distorts the surface. Make no mistake, the video noise inherent in the HD master was a problem. The film element upon which the master was based had the normal grain attributes of large format separation masters, which are nominal. No grain reduction was necessary.

    The information that I received is that HTV noted the problems, and instituted a fix based upon their newest generation noise and grain reduction software.

    After doing a comparison of the HD vs. the new Blu-ray, here’s what I’m seeing:

    The video noise, inherent in the HD master is gone. That’s a good thing, but keep in mind that it should never have been there to begin with. In removing the noise, all grain is also gone, replaced by what appears to be a pleasant sheen of artificial film grain.

    All of the detail captured by Academy Award winning cinematographer Russell Metty’s meticulous large format Technirama camera, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography, is unfortunately also gone.

    All high frequency information has been lost, and with it all of the detail in the image.

    In its place the newly softened image has been electronically sharpened. We now have a halos. Contrast has been boosted to make the image appear sharper than it is, but this is perceived as opposed to actual sharpness. Fortunately, possibly based upon the new software, we have not gone plastic.

    During the restoration of Spartacus, we went through numerous tests to find the optics that could reproduce the immense amount of detail found in the original elements. I recall one test that we screened in the Hitchcock Theater at Universal. The image quality wasn’t quite there. It was slightly soft. When I mentioned that detail was missing in the wood that surrounded the gladiator’s arena, one of the gentlemen from the post house responded “But you can see the wood grain.” I distinctly remember getting an elbow in the ribs at that moment from our tech assistant, Mike Hyatt. He knew where this was going. What we needed to properly represent Mr. Kubrick’s film was not the ability to see the wood grain, but rather to see the insects eating their way through the wood grain. Within two weeks an optical system was put in place that enabled us to reproduce the information as exposed to the original elements.

    In Universal’s new Blu-ray release of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, you can almost see the wood grain, but now that grain is covered in electronic enhancement, halos and unnecessary contrast.

    The pity is that Spartacus, like Out of Africa and Elizabeth makes Blu-ray appear to be something that it is not – a flawed technological system for viewing motion pictures in home theaters. I was hopeful that the lessons learned with the Blu-ray releases of Patton, The Longest Day and Gangs of New York might have been taken to heart.

    They have not.

    Where Fox and Disney have been releasing gorgeous Blu-rays of their catalog titles, and Disney recently released a fully corrected version of Gangs, it is now Universal that is placing data of less than stellar quality in the holding container that is Blu-ray. This potentially damages the reputation of the Blu-ray system, while it absolutely damages the concept that is the “art” of cinema, and proper representation of the what was created by the filmmakers. Where we often have to make compromises between art and commerce, with this Blu-ray of Spartacus there appears to be no compromise -- only the resolute purity of commerce.

    There will be many people who will love the Blu-ray of Spartacus, especially on smaller screens. I’ll not get into color, densities, black levels or audio because any discussion of those attributes is irrelevant.

    There is no problem with the film elements held on Spartacus. There is a 65mm interpositive with virtually all of the basic color timing and densities intact. There are two audio masters. One which replicates the original 6-track 70mm Todd-AO mix, and another, which updates it for those theaters, equipped at the time of the restoration with “baby booms.” It is the Todd-AO mix that properly represents the wide proscenium mix for properly spacial dialogue.

    A return to the 65mm IP would not be an extremely expensive undertaking, especially based upon the importance of the film, and of potential worldwide income. The pity is that whatever entity is controlling the purse strings is unable to recognize that fact.

    Here we have an example of great classic cinema. Written, produced, photographed, edited and scored by some of the finest talent in the industry. Spartacus is a huge, epic film about the enduring spirit of mankind and the concept of freedom.

    It has been turned, on this Blu-ray, into a sideshow pipsqueak, an ugly and unfortunate bit of home video fodder, which would be far better suited to VHS.

    I would suggest a recall. Spartacus on Blu-ray could have been as Mr. Kubrick wished it to be – a heroic and majestic piece of epic entertainment. With a simple new image harvest, Spartacus could be a piece of brilliant Blu-ray software.

    As it is, Spartacus receives an absolute and undeniable…

    Fail.

    RAH
     
  2. benbess

    benbess Well-Known Member

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    Thanks, Mr. Harris, for telling it like it is. I will not be buying this film on blu-ray because of your review.

    When you give a good review to a film, I've always been quite pleased with my purchase. I don't bother with the ones where the owner doesn't bother to do a quality job with their cinematic treasures.

    This part of your review gave me some hope for a possible future release of Spartacus on blu, perhaps when certain people now in charge change their minds or leave their jobs:

    "There is no problem with the film elements held on Spartacus. There is a 65mm interpositive with virtually all of the basic color timing and densities intact. There are two audio masters. One which replicates the original 6-track 70mm Todd-AO mix, and another, which updates it for those theaters, equipped at the time of the restoration with “baby booms.” It is the Todd-AO mix that properly represents the wide proscenium mix for properly spacial dialogue.

    A return to the 65mm IP would not be an extremely expensive undertaking, especially based upon the importance of the film, and of potential worldwide income. The pity is that whatever entity is controlling the purse strings is unable to recognize that fact."
     
  3. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    There are many talented people at Universal. My take is that it isn't the people, but rather the ultimate corporate ownership, which in this case is GE. I don't believe that the people in place are any more happy about this than I. Moving them out of their positions would only place less experienced replacements in their stead.

    But new ownership...

    RAH
     
  4. AlenK

    AlenK Member

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    I had hoped that HD meant an end to excessive DNR and edge enhancement. This is yet another
    in a long line of examples that destroys that hope. It also shows why "upgrading" a DVD collection to HD can be more difficult than it should be. Sometimes the move is merely sideways; sometimes it is even downhill. I passed on the HD DVD version of Spartacus a few years ago because the screen captures I saw did not show much improvement over the Criterion DVD (the most expensive DVD I ever bought, which says how fond I am of this movie). Now I have to pass on the Blu-ray.
     
  5. dpippel

    dpippel HTF Premium Member
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    Thanks for the honest review Mr. Harris. It looks like Spartacus has become the latest important cinematic work to be ruined in it's Blu-ray presentation by ignorance and/or misguided decisions. The tragedy of the situation of course is that it would have been no more costly to the powers-that-be if they had handled this title properly and produced a breathtaking high definition release. The fact that Spartacus has been subjected to the kind of heavy-handed digital scrubbing described here must be particularly hard for the people involved in its production who know their stuff. Apparently they were overruled by those who should stick to the fields of marketing and accounting and keep their damned noses out of the technical side of things.

    As a huge fan of this entry in Mr. Kubrick's canon what a major disappointment it is to find out that Universal has dropped the ball. AGAIN. IMO the term "fail" is far too kind. Time to go curl up in the corner and lick my wounds. Bleh.
     
  6. dana martin

    dana martin Well-Known Member

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    Mr. Harris, I also thank you for the most brutally honest review of this title, fortunately in my top five favorite films of all time, Unfortunately I wont be buying this blu ray as well. I understand the difficulties of dealing with an older film, but if you have one of your “prestige” titles it should be given extra special care. It seems that is no longer the case from Universal. In the last week alone I have seen two titles, on which I was waiting receive a failure Elizabeth and now Spartacus.

    The over usage of cleaning the picture, removing the film grain, who is the genius running the computer removing all of this, do they know how film is supposed to look? The new program, well it’s like a statement from another Universal title Jurassic Park, they know what they can do, but didn’t take the time to think weather they should, did they?

    Hopefully public out cry will help to fix this situation, be it a replacement disc, or a recall and do it right form scratch, I understand this is costly, but when it’s a business matter of turning a profit. Then we as consumers should not support and inferior product. If it is a newer title, I assume the director has some involvement in the process, of how it looks on blu? But for older catalog titles, well not to compare studios, but here is MGM, which is financially very bad off, and every release I have seen from them has been acceptable, (I don’t have “The Graduate”) but everything else seems good, now if they can do it why cant Universal.

    Was no one was consulted before this was pressed?
     
  7. Powell&Pressburger

    Powell&Pressburger Well-Known Member

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    This is a shame, I would guess the only hope would be if in a few years Criterion still is able to license the title from Universal and handle the transfer with better care. I can only say yet again Universal has expended time, money and energy into destroying a title than just doing it justice.

    I know they can do better than this.

    Next up PSYCHO? I cringe.
     
  8. MatthewA

    MatthewA Well-Known Member

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    The sooner GE sheds itself of its entertainment holdings that they have grossly mismanaged of late (you could write a book about how Universal's corporate stepsister NBC went from last place in the 1970s to first place in the 1980s and 1990s to last place again in the 2000s and now the 2010s), the better. Innovation at Work is the slogan of GE, but I think they should change it to a variation on their more famous former slogan: GE, We Clean Great Films To Death.

    If Kubrick were alive he would never tolerate this mess. Even Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, would have reservations.
     
  9. Powell&Pressburger

    Powell&Pressburger Well-Known Member

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    It is sad there has to be a film/films sacrificed so that in the future studios and technicians learn from their mistakes.
     
  10. dana martin

    dana martin Well-Known Member

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    HTF 2010 award nomination material

    worst studio
    worst blu ray
    worst transfer
    missed opportunity at a special edition
     
  11. DaViD Boulet

    DaViD Boulet Well-Known Member

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    Really, really disappointing. Thanks RAH for your candid assessment of the disc and in-depth review.

    What can we do? How can we, the consumers, tempt Universal to run a new scan of the large-format interpositive?

    Looking at how far large-format scans have come recently (thinking of Baraka), the results on blu-ray could be positively breathtaking with stunning, window-like clarity and depth.

    "A return to the 65mm IP would not be an extremely expensive undertaking, especially based upon the importance of the film, and of potential worldwide income. The pity is that whatever entity is controlling the purse strings is unable to recognize that fact."
     
  12. GMpasqua

    GMpasqua Well-Known Member

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    While the Blu-ray isn't all it was expected to be, is it better than the Criterion Standard DVD?

    If so it's still an improvement even thought it could have been so much more.

    I worked at some of the studios and was told they will not release the best possible version of a film on video for fear of priracy and copying. It that no longer true?

    Any word on when "My Fair Lady" will be coming to Blu-Ray and are the 1994 elements still in pristine condition?
     
  13. Geoff_D

    Geoff_D Well-Known Member

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    Well, I'm not in the least bit surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. A lot of Universal's catalogue titles didn't look particularly good on HD DVD, but they were passable. Sadly whoever's in charge has got the DNR/EE bug kinda bad, and those same mediocre masters are now outright tragedies on Blu.

    Thanks as always RAH. I hate to say this, but it must be a real kick in the balls to witness such a wretched incarnation of something you worked so hard to restore in the first place.
     
  14. Christian Preischl

    Christian Preischl Well-Known Member

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    Unfortunately, I had already received and opened Elizabeth before Mr. Harris posted his few words about it. I was more lucky with Spartacus (if you wanna call it that) because I made a conscious decision of waiting until the reviews came in before purchasing.

    Universal still likes to use "The Perfect Hi-Def Movie Experience" on many of their front covers. I suggest they replace it with "Hey, it's still mildly better than DVD" until the people responsible get their act together.

    I'll certainly refrain from preordering any more Universal back catalogue titles in the future. And that includes Psycho.
     
  15. snoopy28574

    snoopy28574 Well-Known Member

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    Although I could be dead wrong, Im going to assume the blue ray at least equals its DVD counterparts. Being that my current copy is not anamorphic, I must buy the blue ray or the criterion release. Might as well be blue for the audio upgrade. Anyone disagree ?
     
  16. Brian Husar

    Brian Husar Well-Known Member

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    Mr Harris, I know GE owns Universal but what would they be doing that would cause the Home Video division to be releasing this kind of stuff. I don't know to much of the behind the scenes stuff that happens with the corporation. And thanks for this review, guess I wont be upgradding my Criterion edition DVD.
     
  17. TonyD

    TonyD Who do we think I am?

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    Me, the image might not be bad the same as the dvd but it apparently is still bad. maybe worse.
     
  18. LarryH

    LarryH Well-Known Member

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    Just canceled Spartacus, along with Carlito's Way and Flash Gordon pending actual reviews.
     
  19. Jesse Blacklow

    Jesse Blacklow Well-Known Member

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    FWIW, screenshots of Carlito's Way have already appeared online (at least at DVDBeaver), and they look free of any DNR or EE "enhancements."
     
  20. snoopy28574

    snoopy28574 Well-Known Member

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    I think I will wait for some more reviews as well. This is awful but at the end of the day, I still want to see this movie bad enough to buy it again. I waited for this one for a while when I probably should have bought the criterion a while ago. Now that the blue ray is here, I guess its wait and read.
     
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