Interview: John Berger of Widescreen.org on DNR, Blu-ray Adoption, and Widescreen in HD

widescreenorg

John Berger is the owner of the enormously useful Widescreen.org, “The Letterbox and Widescreen Advocacy Page.” His knowledge of film has helped many people realize what widescreen is, and why they need it. DoBlu chatted with John over the phone to discuss some of the controversy over the excessive use of digital noise reduction on certainly Blu-rays, the current state of widescreen in the home, and how well Blu-ray is faring on the current market.

Is DNR the latest detriment to film as widescreen was? Is this turning people off to Blu-ray?

Unfortunately, when the whole movie subject to this (DNR), then most people wouldn’t be able to tell if a film had DNR applied, unless they are a movie purist like us. That is one of those things the general public would probably allow to slide if it’s not obvious.

One of the reactions to the Gladiator Blu-ray was, “It’s better than DVD, so I’m okay with it.” Do you agree with that? Is it acceptable?

No, I would say that is not acceptable because that’s the same as someone who says that’s a widescreen movie on my widescreen TV, but it’s 2.35:1 stretched to fill my TV but that’s okay because there are no bars on the sides or top and bottom of my screen.

That doesn’t matter, because that’s still not the way it’s supposed to be seen. Keep in mind some filmmakers want their movies to have that grainy, gritty look. James Cameron is known for doing that with the Terminator movies. He wanted those movies to look dirty. Now you apply noise reduction to that, and where is the grit that he intended? It looks all pristine, but that may not be the way he intended it to be shown.

I’m sure Gladiator was meant to have that look because of the type of movie it was.

gladiatorblu

Gladiator still from eric.exe of AVS Forum

Now James Cameron also uses Super 35, which tends to add a grainier quality to the film. If they added a little DNR, not to the point of a Gladiator or Gangs of New York, but just to lower the level of grain because of the Super 35 limitation (which at one time served a purpose, but the format isn’t necessarily relevant anymore) would that be acceptable?

The problem with that is relative. If that’s the way he wanted it to look, that’s the way it should be. If fits in the widescreen philosophy in that if that is the aspect ratio he wanted it to be, then that is how it should be shown. If that grain is not there due to age or the deterioration of the source material, but that’s really the way he wanted it to look, it should remain.

There was a long road to making widescreen mainstream, and not that it is completely gone (there are still issues with a 2.35:1 movie on a 16×9 HDTV), but is DNR the new battle, along with edge enhancement or any other post processing that alters the look of a film?

I really don’t see it, mostly because of the example you cited, which is, “Oh well, it’s better than DVD.” Most of the American public is, “Eh, as long as it’s better, it doesn’t have to be perfect.” They’re probably going to deal with stuff like DNR and excessive edge enhancement because if they don’t notice it, it’s like, “oh well, we’ll just let it go.” That is the unfortunate reality.

You know, you and I are purists, we want it to be shown the way it was meant to be shown, and if that includes grain, it adds to the character of a film. If the average Joe Q Public doesn’t know about it, or doesn’t notice it, then they are not going to care. I think it’s the same thing as widescreen. It’s apathy that is going to be the biggest fight, and that is going to be from our end.

Expand on that last thought a bit.

Well, the public is very accepting. It doesn’t have to be the best, just good enough. But no, we’re the ones out there trying to say, “No, good enough is not enough.” It’s the same thing we had with the widescreen battle. They said, “Well, as long as I can still get the movie, I don’t care that I’m losing half the picture, because I still get to watch the movie.”

The problem is I don’t know if there is ever going to be a battle with the general public when it comes to stuff like this. It’s sad, but I think that’s just the way it is. If they can see a difference between Blu-ray and DVD, then I don’t think they are going to care what’s going on behind the scenes.

Still from Xylon of AVS Forum

Tranformers Revenge of the Fallen still from Xylon of AVS Forum

I just watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and here the grain is intact, looks phenomenal, and then you move to Gladiator and there is no grain but it lacks facial detail and other Blu-ray standards. Do you think people notice the discrepancy? Obviously people are buying Blu-ray for a reason.

(long pause)

Probably not… unfortunately. You know, they might look at the quality and say, “That’s kind of unusual,” but I don’t know if they’re actually going to care, which is sad.

Why do you think a studio would look at Gladiator and say, “We need DNR on this,” and then release Transformers and say, “Let’s leave it like it was.”

(Note: Gladiator was, as later discovered, sourced from an older master from 2000, not necessarily a title they chose to DNR at the time of Blu-ray production, so it may not have been the best choice for the question.)

It could be the individual who is doing the re-mastering, they may decide that’s a good thing. It may be that the original filmmakers are more involved with the mastering of the Blu-ray, and they could have a stronger say that, no, DNR can’t be used on that. If it’s handed off to someone, they might have restrictions on using things like DNR. It could be a number of different things that may be causing it.

French Connection Blu-ray capture from Xylon of AVS Forum

French Connection Blu-ray capture from Xylon of AVS Forum

Now, there was an issue with The French Connection where the director William Friedkin took a look at the disc and wanted major changes. He took the colors, saturated them beyond belief, everything bled (Note: look at the bus ad and the tables at the diner in the above pic), it was artificially brightened making the grain appear noisy and the film look blown out.

This was director’s choice, not what the film looked like originally, but a lot of people felt Friedkin was out of his mind. Is that a case where the director wanted it to look like that (not necessarily DNR’ed, but radically altered) and the home theater community should step back and let it go?

To a certain point, yeah, he is the director, it is his movie, and he has a right to do with it what he wants and you should respect that even if we don’t agree with it. Does it mean that we can’t give some push back and say this is not looking good?

I mean, look at George Lucas. I don’t think I really need to extrapolate on that one. It’s 20 years after the movies are released and suddenly he’s making all of these changes and the community erupts and says, “What the hell are you doing?”

Or back when Kevin Costner was not going to release the extended edition of Dances with Wolves, but so many people asked that he release it, he decided to go ahead and do it. On one hand, I don’t know if it added anything to the film, but he did choose to do it, so does that have to be respected or do we look at the fact that he reneged?

So it is sort of hard to judge that since he (Friedkin) is the one that made the changes to the disc, but I think it would have been nice to have made available the way it was. That one is a tough call.

Should the filmmakers, whether directors or anyone else down the line who is responsible, make more of an effort to monitor their films and what is happening to them? Do you think many of them just don’t care?

Yeah, I think a lot of that is the director who does what he has to do and got paid for it so, “fine, I’m done.” Then again, there are those people who want to have control over how it is done, like, uh, like Robert Wise who did the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He could have said, “You know what Paramount, go ahead and just release it.” But, now we have the newer version with all of the CGI, and that is obviously a director who is more involved because he considers it to be “his.”

Peter Jackson is another one who made sure he had all the control over The Lord of the Rings DVD. If Ridley Scott was too busy, then that is the result, and it varies from person to person.

Still courtesy of CinemaSquid.com

Live Free, Die Hard still courtesy of CinemaSquid.com

Is there a way to educate people, much like with widescreen, or at least I hope it was education so people understand it, about film grain? Things like, this is film grain and why we have it, why it’s important, and so on? Certain DVDs in the past, I know Die Hard had a comparison between the widescreen and full screen version, had these examples. Could something like that deter it (DNR)?

I think so, I mean education certainly can’t hurt. The people who are more open to it will think its okay, but the people who hate it are going to hate it no matter what. I don’t see any reason not to be educating the people anyway. The same thing with widescreen. You can preach to them all day long about, “Here’s the difference,” and even have filmmakers coming out and saying, “Even with the black bars, this is the way it’s supposed to be,” and I’ve had some people e-mail me and say thanks for pointing it out. Then I’ve had other people say that they don’t care. Still, there’s nothing wrong with education.

Switching gears away from DNR to a topic near and dear to you, is the widescreen battle over? Have we moved past the point where full screen is dominant? The majority of releases are in their proper aspect ratio. Has the mainstream public finally caught on enough?

No, in fact it is probably going to get worse now, but in the opposite direction. Now I’m hearing more and more about how people hate the black bars on the sides of the screen. So for things like TV shows, obviously all TV shows made in 4×3 up to five or six years ago, those are getting released on DVD, and I’m getting people complaining about the black bars on the sides.

And then you have issues like, well, I watching Lord of the Rings on one of the hi-def channels and that is a 2.35:1 movie being shown in a ratio of 1.85:1, or actually 16×9. So yeah, I think it’s going to get worse as they get more and more TV shows and movies in 4×3, and they’ve got the pillarbox going on and they start to complain about that.

Now there was an instance with The Truman Show on Blu-ray that was DNR’ed and edge enhanced, but that was actually the least of its problems. It was actually stretched vertically. It was a 1.85:1 movie, so you would have had those little slivers of black bars, but they still stretched it just enough to fill the screen completely. Can you think of any reason, logically, why the studio would say, “Okay, fill in that space,” despite how little it would be?

Like I said before, for the majority of the public, if it looks better than DVD, people are fine with it and they won’t notice. I’m sure that’s what the studio was going on. They would rather do that, just to the point that people won’t notice, so that people won’t complain about that little sliver of black bars on the top and bottom since they’re ( speaking sarcastically) not getting the full use of their TV.

You laugh, but I can just about guarantee that’s the reason. I mean, last year I was teed off about whoever released the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. It was 4×3 all the way, yet they released it in 4×3 and 16×9, and the 16×9 was clearly for those who had HDTVs and wanted to have the screen full. It was obviously a crop, but so what if it shuts the people up and the movie fills their TV; I can guarantee that’s the reason why they did it.

For lack of a better term, the ignorant minority are going to be incredibly vocal if they think they’re being slighted or they get the black bars. We’re not going to make as big of a shout compared to the Wal-Mart people.

Truman Show still from eric.exe of AVS Forum

Truman Show still from eric.exe of AVS Forum

Do you think the studios ever get the message? Spending some time on AVS in the case of Gladiator (which did get a little crazy), the studio (Paramount) didn’t seem to care. Do you think they browse these forums and pick up on this?

Well, I’m not really sure. I’m mean, Warner had the same thing, a major outrage, at least among the home theater purists, when they released the first season of Kung Fu in 16×9 when it was never 16×9. So, they went and released the following seasons in 4×3, so I mean some studios definitely do listen, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to spend more money to correct what they did.

I think in this case they will stick with this edition of Gladiator, but they may be wiser in the future.

Moving into general thoughts on Blu-ray… We’re obviously entering into an era of downloadable content, where the game consoles now have movies, Netflix has streaming, so is Blu-ray a format that is going to take off or is this going to be the niche format like Laserdisc?

I don’t think it is going to be as niche as Laserdisc, but I don’t see it as Blu-ray itself that is holding it back. By that I mean we know the prices of the players are going to drop, and we’ve already seen players less than $100, but some companies are getting the idea, bundling the DVD version with the Blu-ray disc for only a few dollars more and I’ve argued from the beginning that is really the way to get it adopted.

What a lot of these studios don’t realize is that the major hurdle to get it adopted for a lot of people, or at least those who contact me, is the TV. It’s fine to get a $200 Blu-ray player, but when you’re still forced to fork over $600, $700, or more for a decent HDTV to be able to enjoy that, that’s really what is going to slow down Blu-rays adoption rate.

Also, as long as studios continue to release the Blu-ray without the associated DVD, they’re still going to have a lot of problems with those people who do not yet have Blu-ray, but are looking to do it in the future. I mean, what better way to do it than for $2 or $3 more, I’ll have the Blu-ray, so while they can’t watch it, they can watch the DVD that comes with it, that gives them the incentive to get the Blu-ray player soon.

Or, for those people who have a Blu-ray player over here, but I have a DVD player in the kid’s room, and I want to buy this movie for the kids, but do I buy the Blu-ray or the DVD? Chances are many people are going to opt for the DVD.

So, I think there are many things hindering Blu-rays adoption that don’t have much to do with Blu-ray itself. A lot of it is the way it’s being sold, it’s being marketed, and that you need a HDTV to enjoy it, but that HDTV is going to be three or four times the cost of the Blu-ray player.

DVD took off because you could use it with all of your existing equipment and you could see a difference, yet with Blu-ray, you can’t see a difference unless you buy new equipment.

sleepingbeauty2

Sleeping Beauty Still courtesy of CinemaSquid.com

As far as the DVD inside the Blu-ray, you know HD-DVD had releases where the DVD was on the opposite side…

I thought that was a brilliant idea.

Of course it didn’t save the format, but I think the difference is now is that people who do have the Blu-ray player and only want the Blu-ray, are stuck purchasing this DVD, which in many cases they may already have. I get it for a Pinocchio or a Snow White since you don’t want the kids breaking your $30 disc, but do you think that hinders adoption? A lot of these combo editions come out at around $30 or so because they come with the DVD inside of them.

This depends on the person. The cost is really only a few extra bucks, and you’re paying more for the Blu-ray anyway. I’ve heard people say they get the dual pack and then give the DVD to someone who doesn’t have it. I don’t know if it’s really going to be that much of an issue.

But that is another thing that could speed up adoption of Blu-ray. They could release a budget title, or it could even be a blockbuster title, where they release the movie and nothing else. No extras, don’t worry about BD-Live, it’s just the case and I don’t even care if it’s a cardboard case, just a no-frills kind of product. I mean, people can look at a Blu-ray disc will all of the bells and whistles and think, “Dear god, this is $30.”

But, when they see a basic version, just the movie, even a cheaper packaging and it’s just $15, then they don’t need all those bells and whistles. They’ll get that. It may make no economic sense, but I’m no economic person, and from the people that have contacted me over the years about adopting new technology, they have got to break that entry level price.

Do you think the pricing is because of the studio’s unwillingness to devalue their product so quickly? They seem to despise the $5 dump bin at Wal-Mart because it makes people think, “Oh, I’ll just wait until it’s cheaper,” instead of paying $15 or more on the release day.

Oh yeah, I mean I realize that is a flaw in my argument, but there are people who are not going to pay full price period. But then there are those people who don’t want those extras and just want the movie, or will wait for a price drop or buy it used, and that’s even worse for the studios.

That’s all the questions I had, so is there anything else you wanted to add?

Well, I will say this: Noise reduction is not a new thing. Believe it or not, the first time I saw it was on a Tom & Jerry Laserdisc, The Art of Tom & Jerry 3 which focused on the Chuck Jones series.

I remember converting it over to DVD, and I wondered, “Why are solid lines breaking?” At the time I had no idea. I thought it might have something to do with the laserdisc resolution, or capturing over s-video or something. A little while later, I was reading up on noise reduction, and they gave that same exact example, where a solid line is broken up because the NR took it out. And, now that I think about, the flat colors were very clear. So, even then, they cranked up the NR to the point where it degraded the original cartoons.

Since you brought that up, Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio have no film grain whatsoever. They have been completely wiped, but they are stunning. Disney’s reasoning is that this is what the original animation cells look like. The only reason there was grain was because it had to be transferred over to film at some point. This is not a hack job, this is pristine, clear, and well, perfect. Is this what DNR is meant for or should that grain be left in because that’s the way it was?

Uh, no. In that case, you’re looking at something that was clearly a technical limitation that they simply had no choice but to deal with. That’s really not the way it was created but it was the end result. If they drew it with the technical limitation in mind, then maybe it should be preserved, but you’re right. Those animation cells were just gorgeous when they were done. I don’t see a problem with it in this case. That’s like noise reduction done right.

This is not an argument that DNR is always bad in all cases. That is simply not so.

Thanks John

We’d like to thank John for his time. He’s always fun to chat with, so check out his podcast over at Widescreen.org for his thoughts on movies, games, and technology, updated about twice a month.

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  • Great interview Matt… and thanks for the heads-up on John's podcast. I've subsequently listened to his last few episodes and am really enjoying it.

  • gamereviewgod

    Great! John's a cool guy, which I can confirm after talking to him multiple times. Definitely worth keeping up with on his podcasts.

  • gamereviewgod

    Great! John's a cool guy, which I can confirm after talking to him multiple times. Definitely worth keeping up with on his podcasts.

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  • The Great Artiste

    The screen shot of what is labeled as “The French Connection” is actually from “The French Connection 2”.

  • gamereviewgod

    It was pulled right from Xylon's thread for the first film. Plus, the second film does not suffer from the extreme color issues as the first.

  • The Great Artiste

    The screen shot of what is labeled as “The French Connection” is actually from “The French Connection 2”.

  • gamereviewgod

    It was pulled right from Xylon's thread for the first film. Plus, the second film does not suffer from the extreme color issues as the first.