A publication out of the UK has been propagating a story recently in which it allegedly exposes the truth that, and I quote, “Despite the routine claims that Blu-ray delivers ‘the maximum HD experience’ some barely look better than their DVD counterparts.” If you haven’t already done a facepalm at that, wait until you hear the criteria that the so-called “Technology Researcher” has been using to come to this conclusion.
The articles in question appear on a web site called ‘Which? Conversation’. That appears to be the spin-off blog for ‘Which?’ magazine – a sort of British ‘Consumer Reports’. The ‘Conversation’ site describes itself thusly: “It’s a place for Which? experts to give the insider view of the burning consumer issues of the day and tell you why you need to know about it.” The grammar of that sentence has already given me a headache.
I find this enormously frustrating on many levels. The thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree with the underlying premise that some Blu-rays are only small steps up from the comparable DVD editions. I think most Blu-ray fans will admit to sharing that experience from time to time. I’ll also be fair and point out that the writer, Mike Briggs, doesn’t claim that all Blu-rays are a scam. He admits that, “Blu-ray can look fantastic,” and is only trying to call attention to the duds.
I’ll even concur with one of the examples given. I wrote in my own review of ‘Master and Commander‘ that the Blu-ray was “only a slight perceptible improvement in detail” over the DVD release of the movie. However, I also cited that the high-def disc had fewer artifacts, less edge ringing, and a more stable picture.
The biggest problem with the ‘Which?’ articles is the criteria that the writer uses to determine whether a Blu-ray is an improvement over DVD or not. Unfortunately, this comes down to a lot of common misconceptions about high definition video and even more ignorance of filmmaking. It seems that he believes that all movies should have that so-called “through a window” crystal clarity and razor sharpness of content shot on HD video. When praising certain Blu-ray editions of classic movies, he boasts that they “still manage to look like they could have been filmed yesterday.”
The logical fallacy here is huge. A movie made decades ago shouldn’t look like it was filmed yesterday. It should look like it was filmed when it was filmed. The purpose of a good video transfer is to preserve a movie true to its original form, not to update it to look more modern. That’s a dubious goal at best, and is the reason why we’re now suffering through travesties like the ‘Star Wars: Special Editions’, which foist crummy new CGI effects onto old footage shot decades earlier, and through other older movies being tinted teal.
One of Briggs’ examples of an excellent Blu-ray is the UK release of ‘Zulu’, which he says “really does look like a different film on Blu-ray.” A different film? Is that a good thing? I haven’t imported the ‘Zulu’ disc myself, but I’ve heard several people complain about its heavy-handed use of Digital Noise Reduction to scrub away all trace of film grain, and a significant chunk of picture detail with it. I bet this guy thinks that the abhorrent ‘Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition‘ is pretty swell too.
Under the “Marginal improvement or no difference” category, he has the gall to list ‘North by Northwest‘, which he claims is “a little flat” and that “resolution didn’t appear to have improved.” Is he blind? That movie is absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, and a huge step-up from DVD.
Even among discs that are known to have problematic transfers, like ‘Gangs of New York‘ (first edition) or ‘Ghostbusters‘, his logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of the latter, he says that, “The resolution wasn’t much better than DVD.” I’ll agree that both of these Blu-rays are bad transfers, but they’re still noticeable improvements in resolution over the even-worse DVDs.
Wait! Briggs says that ‘Gangs of New York’ “was good on DVD, but apart from having a slightly sharper image, looked very similar on Blu-ray.” Oh, dear lord! ‘Gangs of New York’ was one of the most notoriously awful DVDs ever produced. It’s smothered in Digital Noise Reduction and Edge Enhancement. And he calls that “good”?
Between the two articles, Briggs calls out Blu-ray several times for having oversaturated colors, which allegedly crush detail in the picture. This makes me wonder whether he’s simply viewing these discs on a badly calibrated television.
I understand that not all viewers are going to be very well versed on the technical attributes of high definition video, or even the basic aesthetics of motion picture photography. That’s inevitable. However, it’s simply irresponsible for someone claiming to be a technology researcher – especially one who writes for a consumer advocacy publication that reviews HDTVs and Blu-ray players – to perpetuate these gross misconceptions. He’s doing his readership a great disservice.