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Enhancing the Grain

I was talking to a friend the other day about the steady rise of Blu-ray in the home video market.

Enhancing the Grain

Oct 19, 2009 11:43 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

I was talking to a friend the other day about the steady rise of Blu-ray in the home video market. We were discussing the sometimes undervalued benefit that the larger capacity disc brings to the audio presentation—which I discussed in last month’s column “Blu-ray: It’s Also About the Sound”. We came to a consensus that one thing Blu-ray has perfected is its ability to bring lossless reproductions of soundtrack to the home.

Then our talk turned toward imagery and went a surprising direction. He told me he figured that, regardless of sound presentation, the only Blu-ray discs worth purchasing were those transfers of films made within the past five or 10 years. Otherwise, the age of the film, and the swarm of grain typically associated with an older film’s image, made the upgrade useless: “A Blu-ray disc of an older movie just enhances the grain, so why bother?”

The statement caught me off guard. But then I realized we were coming from different points of view, in more ways than one.

First, as you know, I’ve recently upgraded to the largest viewing area I’ve ever owned in a home theater environment. My first HD image was a 65in. 720p rear-projection Mitsubishi set, my second was a 42in. 1080p LCD, and my third (and current) setup is a 106in. 1080p front-projection screen. I’ve had the experience of seeing the evolution of the HD image at various sizes and reolutions. My friend has viewed his Blu-ray imagery solely on a 46in. plasma. So I had to take that fact into account in our conversation.

Second, I had to consider our generational differences. I’ve made my way from the analog era of VCRs—heck, even 8mm film projectors—through the age of the laserdisc, the decade of the DVD, and now on to the soon-to-be-enduring digital epoch of the Blu-ray disc. On top of that, I’ve been a film lover for nearly all of my four decades. My younger friend, in contrast, beholds the HD video phenomenon without that kind of context. We simply have different notions of the benefits of the technology.

He demands total image purity. I demand respect for the original image, regardless of its source. Sure, I demand a beautiful, smooth image from today’s digitally produced blockbusters, but I also expect clarity and sharpness in the transfers and restorations of older films—amidst inevitable, inherent film grain. I’ve got an analog brain, and he’s speaking almost solely from the digital age.

To my friend, the best Blu-ray Disc contains the pristine transfer of a recent film that has gone through the painstaking digital-to-digital image-translation process common to the most cutting-edge films today. His showoff discs probably include the Pixar films, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight. And I would agree: Those films look absolutely splendid, truly exemplifying all that is exciting about the Blu-ray format and about high-definition home theater in general.

But when I bring up the wonderful new digital restoration and Blu-ray Disc of The Wizard of Oz, it just doesn’t seem to compute for him. He wonders why he should bother buying the new set when, from the clips he’s seen, the new restoration appears to have the same amount of grain as the DVD. In fact, he says again, the new transfer only seems to enhance the level of grain.

I launch into my old soliloquy about the inevitability and even beauty of film grain, telling him that it’s an essential aspect of film itself, particularly historically—in short, that it’s a part of the art. The 21st century push into the digital realm is increasingly making grain a relic, a thing of a celluloid past, but it will always be integral to the history of film.

It’s a fervent debate, too, among film preservationists tackling restorations of classic films: What do we do with the grain? Leave it buzzing in all its grainy, metallic glory, and the image is snowy and distracting. Remove too much in digital manipulation, and the image loses its soul—becomes too smooth and artificial. The best option, of course, is to strike a balance, which the best transfers of the classics always do.

But what do I tell my friend, who questions the sanity of upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray when it “will only make the grain more obvious”? The obvious answer is that there’s far more to a careful transfer of an older film to Blu-ray than concerns about grain—particularly for viewers who will watch that film on very large front-projection setups. At such scales, doing away with the DVD format’s obvious storage-space limitations—and their accompanying compression artifacts and loss of detail—introduce vivid clarity and sharpness to the image. These qualities can be difficult to notice on screens smaller than 50in. Size matters, you know.

In the end, we’re coming at the grain question from different directions. He has an excellent 1080p image that might not be able to take full advantage of the benefits that Blu-ray brings to large-scale home theater. Perhaps he’s right that he shouldn’t bother with a lot of movies that are just fine—for his scenario—in their DVD incarnations. But as far as grain goes, I think he has a sort of education in front of him, if he’s to really call himself an appreciator of film. And I’ll be happy to play teacher.

Queue up Casablanca. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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