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Robert Harris on The Bits - 8/3/04 column - OFFICIAL THREAD


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#1 of 215 OFFLINE   Bill Hunt

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Posted August 03 2004 - 08:21 AM

Yes... Robert's back with a brand new Yellow Layer Failure column at The Digital Bits. In this edition, Robert muses over The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, beautifully shot B&W films, three-strip Technicolor, director Martin Scorsese, a puzzling Miramax mystery, The Cary Grant Collection, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and more. Here's a link to his latest piece...

Robert's Latest Column

As always, click on the link to read Robert's comments and then come on back here to this official thread at the HTF to discuss, give feedback, ask questions of Robert and sound off as you will. Thanks to Robert for his usual fine work, and thanks to all of you for reading The Bits and all your support. Best wishes!
Bill Hunt, Editor
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billhunt@thedigitalbits.com

#2 of 215 OFFLINE   DavidS

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Posted August 03 2004 - 08:38 AM

About Harris' comments on the series "Dead Like Me", I thought this was a Showtime series. Was this slated to be a Fox series first?
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#3 of 215 OFFLINE   PaulP

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Posted August 03 2004 - 10:14 AM

Dead Like Me is definitely Showtime, and released on DVD by MGM. A great, great season - and the second one just began. I bought it blind, because I always managed to miss the show (plus I don't really watch that much television at all). It's wondeful that Mr. Harris would recommend this, and I couldn't agree more. One of the best new series in a long time, maybe since The Sopranos.

#4 of 215 OFFLINE   Joe Caps

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Posted August 03 2004 - 12:15 PM

Bob H. - you talk about the Cary Grant collection but mention nothing about one of its titles - Night and Day - same transfer as the old laser - it sucks - Warners should be ashamed.
Question - 20th Century Fox has been doing some great work under the hand of Shawn Belston. All of a sudden, they come up with three loser technicolor transfers, Cheaper by the Dozen, Belles on their Toes, and Call Me Madam. I have vids taped from Cinemax and SFM Holiday Network that have better color for these films and far better sound. The sound is muffled on all three dvds and the picture looks soft and pasty. In each case, the trailers on the dvds sound better than the actual film!! What gives?
What do you think of Warners Ultra resolution process. Can it be sometimes too much of a good thing? Can a picture be TOO SHARP?
The reason I ask - in the new Adventures of Robin Hood (great extras!!) the picture is so sharp that for the first time in my experience with this film, the sets look like sets and takes me right out of the film!!!
Now gone With the Wind is going through its Fourth Transfer(?) with another pronunciamento of "You won't believe how sharp and great this new picture is." I didn't find anything wrong with the last two transfers. The extras look great. I would be happy with a two disc set of nothing but the extras. Fat chance.
Mr. Harris - what are your thought on these matters?

#5 of 215 OFFLINE   Roger Rollins

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Posted August 03 2004 - 04:30 PM

I heartily agree with Mr. Harris' opinion of DEAD LIKE ME.

It's a very impressive series, that only improves with additional viewings. We're fortunate that such clever programming has found its way to DVD.

As usual, kudos to Mr. Harris for another informative and entertaining column....

..and further kudos to Mr. Harris for his magical work on MY FAIR LADY. Yes, I know it's "old news", but I had the pleasure of catching it by accident the other night on HD-NET. It's the same lovely transfer as on the (great)recent Warner DVD, but with the added clarity of Hi-Def, Mr. Harris' tender loving care to the wondrous imagery and glorious sonic spectrum of that terrific soundtrack were irresistible, and I found myself watching the whole movie all over again. Cheers to you, RAH!

#6 of 215 OFFLINE   Dharmesh C

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Posted August 03 2004 - 09:46 PM

Was Geoffrey Unsworth one of the first cinematographers to apply new techniques for colour photography? While the other photographers were applying b/w photography rules to colour photography.

Does that make sense? :b


#7 of 215 OFFLINE   Robert Harris

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Posted August 04 2004 - 02:11 AM

A few comments...

As this column is put together bit by bit as time allows, Dead Like Me is correctly an M-G-M release on DVD as originally broadcast on Showtime. What was I thinking? Not a clue.

In response to Joe Caps...

I didn't feel that Night and Day, which should have looked glorious in Technicolor was worth giving any space as something had gone wrong when the elements were put together by a vendor several years ago, and apparently went unnoticed until now. The same vendor, which must hire sight-impaired individuals to do quality control work was also given the assignment to put together the records to some other Technicolor product, which the folks at Warner recognized as problematic before they got too far into the pipeline. My assumption is that Night and Day was allowed out as it was in an effort to tie in with the new Porter biopic.

Schawn Belston is a young archivist, who has been allowed to light the fuse on the long-moldering Fox library, and has been doing a superb job. The titles mentioned were not touched under his aegis.

There is a huge amount of catching up to be done at Fox, which is going to take years, and Schawn can only have so many projects moving forward at a time. Non-Belstonized films are going to be leaking out for the near future, while his work begins to catch up with the studio's needs.

The fruits of Fox's Belstonization are slowly making their way to the public. And yes, the titles mentioned are all derived from either old analogue masters or old Eastman dupe elements.

Can "ultra-resolution" be too sharp?

Yes. And it can cause problems.

What one is dealing with in working with the three-strip Technicolor process is a known quantity and quality which can be mis-used and abused.

By the time that the three-strip process hit its midpoint, there were changes in not only the taking negative stock, which was finer grained and could capture better detail with more accurate rendering of shadows, but other thing had changed as well.

The mordant, which was used to allow the liquid dyes to adhere to the blank had changed. The dyes themselves had changed. And the optics used to create the printing matrices had changed.

What this means is that the filmmakers involved in productions like the '38 Robin Hood or the '39 Gone with the Wind, were fully aware of the level of information which would be captured on the negative which would make its way to the final print.

Technicolor prints from the early three-strip era were not sharp, as the mordant, dyes and optics would not allow it.

Things changed a bit by the early '50s, but not tremendously.

Dye transfer Technicolor prints from the post three-strip era, beginning in late 1953 were entirely a different animal, and by the mid-sixties, the final prints were quite a bit sharper, holding a great deal more information than their earlier counterparts.

What this means is that an early three-strip show, whether prints in the last vestige of the dye transfer process in 1998-2000, by an optical process via which records were composited to a new Eastman color interpositive stock, or via "ultra-resolution" or any other computerized process which molds the image to make it fit together, is going to be sharper than the film's makers either imagined it could be...

or wanted it to be.

The production and costume design as viewed through the taking optics and replicated via the three-strip process were a known factor, which would yield a specific result.

Change that result and you change the entire output under which decisions were made re: the design of the production. Sets and costumes can now be make to appear as fake as they were.

And this is not a service to the filmmakers.

Here's an easier example.

Chaplin knew what he was doing, and knew the reproductive capabilities of the system under which his films were made.

He and his cinematographer were fully aware that set and production devices which might be captured in his original negative would be lost in the grain structure of the printing stocks of the day. Similarly, take his original negative to a fine grain master, a dupe negative, and a newer print stock and the devices will also be hidden.

However...

Take a new fine grain master produced from those original negatives and place it on a modern telecine device, and the magic disappears.

Take a look at the old Image Entertainment lasers of any of the Chaplin films, which had beautiful transfers, and you'll note wires and artifacts where there should be none.

Same problem, but other than the exposure of these previously unseen elements, gorgeous and meticulously produced transfers.

So...

Can "ultra-rez" be too sharp?

Yes.

Can it be problematic?

Yes.

But with a delicate and sure hand to adjust the results, "ultra-rez" can provide the basis of DVDs that can accurately reproduce the theatrical looks of these varied productions.

On HiDef broadcasts...

Those who have viewed My Fair Lady on the current DVD are only getting in inkling of what the film looks like on HighDef. Same situation with Lawrence, Spartacus, "Vertigo" or any of the other 25 or so large format films currently out there. The difference between a standard resolution NTSC capture and a HiDef will be enormous. Films like The Sound of Music, Cleopatra, Those Magnificent Men, The Alamo and many others are going to be a revelation when they make their way to home video in the next generation.

With high definition virtually around the corner, it is understandable why current problematic transfers like Sound of Music and West Side Story are not being corrected.

I'm not aware of Mr. Unsworth applying "new techniques" to color cinematography.

He just did what he did brilliantly.

RAH

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did." T.E. Lawrence


#8 of 215 OFFLINE   Reagan

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Posted August 04 2004 - 02:21 AM

Mr. Harris,

Another great column. Thanks again.

On the topic of TV on DVD, the first three seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street are fantastic in every way.

-Reagan
The truth doesn't care whether you believe it.

#9 of 215 OFFLINE   Joe Caps

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Posted August 04 2004 - 04:13 AM

Bob, Glad to know the three Fox films I mentioned were not mr. Belstons work. In all three cases I kept my off the air tapes and marched the dvds back to the store. Too bad especially about Call Me Madam - when will we ever get another one?

#10 of 215 OFFLINE   David Grove

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Posted August 04 2004 - 09:10 AM

I always find Mr. Harris' comments informative. Particularly his comments above on sharpness, etc.

I would gladly pay money for an RAH "fleshed out", narrated, illustrated (examples) DVD seminar/documentary/class on this (and similar) topic.

DG
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#11 of 215 OFFLINE   CyNg

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Posted August 04 2004 - 01:33 PM

I have an observation regarding the Miramax Mystery:

Could the post production facility be softening the images because of vanity at the request of the studio?Posted Image The stars in these particular movies are approaching middle-age or aging faster than their actual age.Posted Image

It's one thing for a person to watch a movie at a theater once or twice but it's another thing for the person to watch a movie at home multiple times or in slow motion. I don't have a large screen tv or HDTV monitor but I have read that certain things like wrinkles, bad makeup, etc. on faces are much more visible when watched through high resolution signals from dvds and HDTV broadcasts.

If the director and producer have the last say in terms of a film print's picture and color qualities, then tweaking the images at a post production facility would be one way for a studio to sidestep the demands of the director and producer, satisfy the vanity of the stars, and maintain a print's original integrity.

#12 of 215 OFFLINE   Ed St. Clair

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Posted August 04 2004 - 02:09 PM

Quote:
Hopefully someone from Miramax or the post facilities they use will take a look.
If everyone keep's buying them, they won't!!!

The true trouble with Miramax DVD transfers, is not that there are not any other 'bad' transfers out on DVD. The true crime against humanity (well, at least the DVD loving part of humanity), is that these are mega-hit, well filmed, transfer to 2004 DVD's. Not, 1998. We should have been DONE with EE by 2000! We should have been DONE with high frequency filtering by 2002!

This garbage, has GOT to stop.

Can or has anyone passed on these Miramax transfers?
Movies are: "The Greatest Artform".
HD should be for EVERYONE!

#13 of 215 OFFLINE   Ed St. Clair

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Posted August 04 2004 - 02:22 PM

Quote:
would be one way for a studio to sidestep the demands of the director and producer
Or ruin the true resolution of DVD, so we HAVE to buy all these titles over again on HD.

Very unlikely. Just greatly disappointed right now. I WANT to buy KB. Just, I don't spend money anymore (I do rent) for average or just plain bad transfers.

Thank goodness for Mr. Harris, this (HT)Forum, & DVD Basen!!!

Boycott purchasing these titles, or you have no one butt yourself too blame!!!
Movies are: "The Greatest Artform".
HD should be for EVERYONE!

#14 of 215 OFFLINE   Patrick McCart

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Posted August 04 2004 - 02:54 PM

What's ironic is that Miramax uses this filtering on their new titles, but can obviously put out perfection.

For example, their 16x9 remaster of A Hard Day's Night lacks filtering and has an amazing film look to it. This is a 1964 film that was nearly lost.

Also, Warner's DVD for Looney Tunes: Back in Action (also Super-35, digital intermediate, and from 2003) is virtually free of excessive filtering.

#15 of 215 OFFLINE   Joe Caps

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Posted August 04 2004 - 03:30 PM

You mention dvd basen. What is that?

#16 of 215 OFFLINE   Vincent Matis

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Posted August 04 2004 - 07:59 PM

Quote:
You mention dvd basen. What is that?

It lists DVD reviews published on the Web by title, region. A great tool to find different reviews !

Check you for yourself:
http://www.dvd-basen.dk/uk/home.php3

Cheers,

Vincent

#17 of 215 OFFLINE   Elias A.

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Posted August 05 2004 - 10:27 AM

I'm glad to see that Mr. Harris agrees with the perceptions of many of us that Miramax's transfers of late have been very disappointing. I can only hope that someone at Miramax or Disney reads his comments and starts making some changes. Is there someone we can send a letter or e-mail to who might be able to do something about this fiasco?

It wouldn't be so bad if the movies Miramax is butchering weren't such great films. I wouldn't care if the transfer on the latest Hilary Duff movie wasn't reference quality, but films like The English Patient and Kill Bill deserve better. Someone at Miramax has to start taking steps. Harvey Weinstein, are you listening?

#18 of 215 OFFLINE   Mike Maloney

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Posted August 05 2004 - 01:47 PM

Yikes! I hate having to post a reply to this in my first ever post, but here goes.

First off a disclaimer: I did not work on any of the titles mentioned in the original article, but I do work at the facility where Cold Mountain was compressed and authored.
I am (by necessity) going to be as generic in my comments as I can, the reasons for which should be obvious. Also, (in my best legalese) "the opinions expressed are my own. They do not reflect the views of the company I work for, or our clients."

Next up: my Bona Fides.
I have been working in film post for 19 years. During that time, I have done tape-to-tape color correction, telecine color correction, NTSC-to-PAL conversions, MPEG-1 compression for Video-CDs, HD MPEG2 encoding, and MPEG2 encoding for DVDs. I know the limitations of MPEG encoding and can tell the difference between MPEG related issues and master related issues.

I'll try to answer most of the questions in order but I have have to address this one first:

Quote:
I saw Cold Mountain at the Directors Guild in LA on a huge screen. The quality was impeccable.


That ANY dvd gets a review that says something like "looks as good as in the theater" always amazes me. Let's look at the math. A film is mastered to some form of HD tape (HDCam, D5, etc.). Those tape machines play back at a data rate of approx. 1.483 Gigabits per second. If you were to make a dvd consisting of only the feature and one Dolby Digital soundtrack at 448 KHz, the dvd data rate would be about 9.5
Megabits per second. That's a compression ratio of 156:1.

In the case of Cold Mountain the compression ratio is actually 290.7:1. This is due to the length of the film
and the extras on the disc.

[snip]

Quote:
How do we figure out what's going on?

I don't have the answers. I can only submit questions.

What do these films have in common?

Gangs was a transfer from film. English Patient was a transfer from film. Cold Mountain came from corrected digital files. Human Stain and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 were transfers from interpositives derived from digital files created by Technique a division of Technicolor. Cold Mountain went through digital grading at Britain's Framestore.


What the films actually have in common is that the compression facility was delivered an *approved master*
from which to do the compression.

That master is in the form of a standard definition video tape of some flavor. This is SMPTE 259M-C (Rec. 601) which has a data rate of 270 Mb/s. (Compression ratio of 5.5.)
These masters are often approved by the director (depending on the director's contract). It is not uncommon for the director to make changes to the color timing of the film at this time.

The facility that does the compression does not always generate these masters. If there are obvious technical
problems with the masters the client will be notified.

The only truely valid comparison of a dvd is to compare
it to the master from which it was created.

Quote:
Cold Mountain should have been a veritable slam-dunk to DVD.

There are probably less than 20 people in the world who have seen the compression master. I would be very hesitant to make that statement.

Quote:
I'm led to believe that all of these titles with the exception of English Patient were handled by the same post facility for compression. Is there a problem at this facility?

Since I work for that facility this is difficult to answer objectively, but the short answer is: No.
Considering that we make about 350 bitstreams in a year
and you pointed out three bitstreams released over the
last year and a half, that's a pretty good batting average.
(Also note that we have produced discs that were called reference quality and have won awards for compression at the annual DVD expo.)
Also, with all due respect, if you do a Google search for "Cold Mountain dvd review", the results are about 80% favorable. This is not to belittle your review, but rather to point out that a review is an opinion, and it is to be expected that not everyone will agree.

So I think it is fair to look further.

Quote:
Is too much material being put on these DVDs?

Are multiple foreign language tracks, DTS and moving menus at fault? Is the bit rate shared with too many elements? There should be enough room on a two layer DVD for a 152 minute film. If there isn't, a decision should have been made to start throwing tracks or extras overboard to save quality.

If the distributor makes that decision, do people start complaining about a lack of DTS tracks or foreign functions?

Aye, now there's the rub. My job is take all the assets provided by the client and make the best looking dvd possible. I do not have the authority to dictate the kind or amount of extras. Ultimately, the market will make those decisions. If dvds that are jammed with extras sit on the shelf, and retailers can't keep enough SuperBit discs in stock, the other studios will take note and do things differently.

Quote:
If one goes back to the very outset of DVD, the most basic concept of compression and authoring seems flawed in its attempt at functionality.

Create your high quality digital film to tape transfer.

Soften the image via noise reduction and grain reduction. Grain takes up space and causes compression problems. Get rid of the grain and you have a cleaner image. The problem is that you also have a softer image.

Take the resultant softer image and sharpen it via electronic enhancement.

And what do you have?

Apparently if you do all of this correctly, you can get a decent final image. Don't hit the high quality marks and you end up with a soft, edge-enhanced image that falls short of creating a DVD which accurately represents the film as it was projected in theatres.

To borrow a line from Mr. Spock, "You proceed from a false assumption."
First off, authoring has nothing to do video quality.
Video quality is entirely a function of the ompression.
That is to say the number of bits available to the video after everything else is taken into account.

Next, none of the bitstreams we make have any noise or grain reduction applied, nor is there any edge enhancement. We do not have any such devices installed in at our compression facility.

Quote:
My questions are these.

[Take my blood pressure medicine and snip]

Quote:
In all fairness, it would be improper of me to complain about the quality of these Miramax titles without offering at least one example of a transfer done correctly with a superb final product released to DVD.

I would point anyone interested to a 1971 production, shot on archaic Eastman negative stock and transferred to video via a decades old intermediate.

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a Criterion release should be a fair comparison to be used as a striking point for productions shot in the last three years.

Why would that be a fair comparison? Straw Dogs has one 2.0 audio track and is 111 minutes long. According to the DVD Beaver review, it has an average bitrate of 7.67 Mb/s and based on the one audio stream a peak bitrate of 9.5 Mb/s.
Cold Mountain has an average bitrate of 5.1 Mb/s and a peak of 8.1 Mb/s. Can you say apples and zebras?
Try comparing it to disc 2 of the extended Two Towers (5.0 average / 7.5 peak). (I have not done so, I offer it only based on comparable bitrates.)

Sorry this was so long but I hope it was instructional.
I also hope that you do not take offense, for none was intended.

Cheers,
Mike

#19 of 215 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted August 06 2004 - 01:02 AM

With all due respect, Mike, you are just making excuses. Miramax and also MGM have the worst DVD's on the market. Every other studio bests them, as they have less edge enhancement, fewer artifacts, more detail in the images and that's with just as many useless soundtracks and extras.

COLD MOUNTAIN and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN are examples of two recent releases that are so bad, so destroyed by excessive edge enhancement, that they are unwatchable on large screens. This never happens with Warner or Sony or Paramount. Yes, a minority of their releases will have too much EE, but not the kind we see on Disney or MGM releases.

Some of these MGM films have been on Showtime in High Definiton and those 1080i masters had none of the Edge enhanncment we see on the DVD. They looked jaw dropping.

Meanwhile, in Canada a number of the Disney/Miramax films have been shown in 720p or 1080i and have almost zilch to no EE and look sensational. But STARZ shows these films as Upconverts. They are sent the 480i widescreen downconverts, which STARZ shows upconverted to 1080i (damn Disney to hell for refusing to send HD masters out). They are loaded with Edge Enhancement. Gobs of it. Upon comparing them to the DVD's, they are the same thing, but with less compression.

So something is happening AFTER the 1080i masters are made and approved. Something horrid.

TO ROBERT HARRIS: Do you have have HDNet Movies? They are showing MY FAIR LADY in High Definition this month and the master looks almost inferior to the recent DVD release. It's muddy, lacking in detail and just soft. The colors on the DVD look better.

It is my understanding that the film has been transferred to HD at least two times and that only the recent transfer was any good. Perhaps the old master was sent by FOX?

Whatever the case, the film is getting the shaft this month and so are us fans who have the ability to see it in 1080i. Posted Image
Death to PG-13! And now death to DVNR too!!

#20 of 215 OFFLINE   Reagan

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Posted August 06 2004 - 02:25 AM

Mike,

Before the serious nitpicking begins, let me say "Thanks" for coming forward to talk about these issues. Any day we get input from an insider is a good day. Even if the input only muddies the waters.

-Reagan
The truth doesn't care whether you believe it.


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