Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Seen, Not Heard

There are clear disadvantages to having the stubborn farming mindset that means you don’t bother seeing a doctor unless you’ve coughed up a vital organ or severed a limb. Because of that I’ve spent the past nine days with an increasingly irritating ear infection. The lack of hearing was no big deal and I figured it would all sort itself out when I was dead, but once it started to feel like I was being repeatedly stabbed in the side of the head with a white-hot stiletto and my sense of balance went a little screwy, I began to get just a little bit pissed off.

Although an occasional distraction, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from enjoying the annual Missing Believed Wiped event at the BFI Southbank, which, as expected, threw up some very unusual and enjoyable oddities from the past. Some of the material I was familiar with but most was new to me, originally broadcast either before I was born or too young to watch, and in equal measure hilarious, engrossing or just plain odd. So, in a way, it was no different from television of today. It may have become a cliché but you have to agree that there really are times when the more things change the more they stay the same.

The usual crowd was there and once the event was over we tramped back over the Thames and shuffled up to the bar of our usual haunt. Somehow I hadn’t seen most of the chaps since early summer, if not before, so there was a lot to catch up on. Luckily, because it was a Sunday night, there were fewer customers than usual. Without the loud din of numerous overlapping voices I had a better chance of hearing what people were saying.

The conversation ebbed and flowed over numerous topics, although rather than finding out how people were doing and whether they were well, the first, most important, question was whether they had seen the new James Bond film and what they thought of it. The consensus was good, even if H didn’t like the opening title sequence. As one subject turned to another, it was interesting to discover that as the pieces came together it turned out that not one of us could give a shit about Blu-ray.

I know that we should all raise a banner high and merrily applaud the onward march of technology. After all, every step forward makes our lives easier and happier, bringing a big sloppy grin to all our faces. But in this instance, not one of us cared one jot about high definition. It’s not that because as we become middle-aged, whether we feel like it or not, or even like it or not, there are far pressing matters on hand. It’s simply because we grew up at a time when home entertainment consisted of a television and a stereo. The arrival of affordable video cassette recorders was a big deal because before they turned up, if you missed a programme, you had to hope that some years down the line it would be repeated, otherwise it was gone.

So taping these programmes, buying films and television shows on cassette that we had missed was a really liberating experience. Then years later along comes the digital versatile disc. The sound and picture quality was spectacular compared to even the best images on video cassettes that had been repeatedly run back and forth over the years. For us this was like manna from heaven. From what we had had before, this was far more than enough. The image quality of Blu-ray might be better, but DVD ticked all our boxes. So did any of us what to upgrade? Nah, fuck that, we got another round in.

It may have been a tenuous link of sorts but the DVD issue connected to what good films we had seen that year. When that question was asked a few titles were blurted out to begin with but mainly it resulted in a lot of head scratching. First, because going to cinema seemed to be a rare thing nowadays. There is the travel time involved getting there and back. There is the rising cost of tickets and overpriced snacks. There is the fact that you get stuck in a room full of socially inconsiderate disease-ridden proles (which was my chief grumble).

When all those considerations are factored in, the last thing to do is pray that the film is going to be half decent. To go through all that ordeal just to end up watching a pile of dog snot like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s no wonder people are avoiding the cinema like it’s a medieval plague pit. Why go through all that crap anyway when the DVD release now comes virtually on the heels of the theatrical release? When I was in my early twenties, I’d go to the cinema something like 70-odd times a year. This year I think I went five times.

Watching a movie at home on shiny disc may be a far more comfortable option but it meant that we ended up asking ourselves if the titles that came up in conversation had actually come out this year. All I could think of were releases like Iron Man and Quantum of Solace that I had caught at the cinema, forgetting titles like No Country For Old Men, In Bruges, the headache inducing Cloverfield, or the simply godawful Wanted that I had eventually watched on DVD.

Still, it didn’t matter whether I had remembered them or not because there was one film that stood head and shoulders above everything I’d seen during the past months. As the awards season begins, it’s nice to see it getting the due respect it so obviously deserves. That movie is this


At 11:22 am, Blogger Ian said...

Seems odd that the one movie you mark as standing out for you is one that many would argue actually justifies all the Blu-Ray hype (but don't take my word for it, ask the film-makers themselves).

Personally I don't get all the Wall-E hype. I'd agree that the first 40 minutes are fantastic but then the film turns into this repetitive, endlessly preachy, totally ridiculous mess that has nothing to do with the story that was originally being told.

Early indications are that all this talking up of an extremely average film might mean the first time an animated film gets the "coveted" Academy Award for "Best Film", which is depressing until one realises that "Chicago" actually won a few years ago.

If you really think there's no interest in Blu-Ray you might want to try the Google trend feature on "DVD" and then "Blu-Ray" (the first shows a very steady decline which started at the end of last year, the second shows a quite rapacious growth) or try comparing Wall-E or something like "Beauty and the Beast" on DVD vs Blu-Ray. If you're not seeing any difference then it's just that you're an old fart whose eyesight is failing :-P

Actually Blu-Ray is being overhyped and the BBC's titles all pretty much suck. I've just had to suffer "Life on Mars" on Blu-Ray and the credits - a quivering, jerky mess presumably caused by some sort of mismatch between frame rates, i vs p and pull-down interpolation are completely illegible. But that's the fault of crappy BBC discs not Blu-Ray itself. Having seen "Dark Knight" on IMAX twice I've managed to convince myself that the Blu-Ray looks even better than that (mainly because there isn't dirt slopping about all over the film plate)

At 6:37 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Good to see you back. Come on, Wall-E is just the best robot love story ever. Choosing a film that justifies Blu-ray just shows the contradictions inherent in the human condition... Or something.

Oh, I didn’t mean to imply there was no interest in Blu-ray in general, just between the bunch of us crowded around the pub’s bar. I suppose the time will come when he all have to upgrade, when films and TV shows on normal DVD are gradually phased out. A lot of the guys are fans of ITC-era television. Unless those shows are remastered right up the wazoo, they’re probably not going to look at ace and skill viewed on HD. That may be one of their concerns.

When I watch the BR displays showing clips of various films, it all looks weird, like it’s too real, if that makes any sense. Anyway, I find it rather unsettling. Of course it’s probably become the store drones haven’t set the monitors up right. Maybe my eyesight is going along with my hearing. The image from plain old DVD is good enough for me right now, especially compared to the formats we had in the past.

I may come across as a grumbling old Luddite, but it’s always story first for me. It’s like somebody asking me if I’d like the books here reprinted on shiny paper. Well.... no, really, I can read them just the way they are.

Until I get seduced by Blu-ray and change my tune of course.

At 7:03 pm, Blogger Ian said...

You're right of course, that story is most important, but when both are excellent - that's perfection, especially when you want to see an old favourite you're already familiar with.

Picture Quality is always open to interpretation I guess. I suffered 20 minutes of William Friedken explaining his "perfect" Blu-Ray process for the just-issued Blu-Ray edition of "The French Connection" which involves rendering a black and white "master" and then merging it 30% with an over-saturated, deliberately blurred colour copy to create what Friedkin called "the perfect" copy. To which I could only reply "Bollocks. No wonder it looks so bloody awful. I should have stuck with the DVD". All the "before" material shown (William fucked about with his colour merge process) footage looked fantastic, where the Blu-Ray itself using the de-focused, de-saturaged merge process is wishy-washy, soft and disappointing. If I want that I'll buy the VHS. And apparently now he's going to do the same on "The Exorcist".

The older stuff is interesting. Some of the most dazzling hi-def stuff is really old. "The Searchers" or "Robin Hood" for example are a real revelation and look like they could have been shot with the best digital cameras last year. If you get a chance for a demo try and watch something like these titles or James Bond "Dr No" on Blu-Ray - it never looked this good at the cinema.

TV-wise recent shows like "Pushing Daisies", "Mad Men" and "Lost" have the "3D glass window" picture quality which I suspect is what you refer to as not liking (but which a lot of us love), but although they've committed sacrilege on "Thunderbirds" (changing it from 4:3 format to 16:9 for dumb idiots who can't handle black sidebars on their shiny new TVs) the quality on most of the shots is pretty sensational showing detail that would never have been obvious before (mainly those darned strings!). I just read a tweet from someone raving that the closing scene of "Shawshank Redemption" on Blu-Ray clearly showed a fly on the hero's jacket that couldn't be seen on DVD or the cinema (of course you have to ask when someone's noticing stuff like this why the hell the viewer is noticing this shit and not getting engrossed in the story).

For me the biggest plus is at times sensational picture quality on big screen or home projection systems, and much better lossless sound quality too. The downside is they often leave out the extra's that are there on the standard DVD - so much for the benefits of more disk space, but they clearly want to gouge the early adopter market and do double-dips. The price of the disks needs to come down too (and no doubt will over time).

At 7:47 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

It sounds like William Friedkin has gone nuts. I like the idea of using a percentaged B&W master over something that had been desaturated to give it more of a documentary feel, but an “over-saturated, deliberately blurred colour copy” sounds stupid.

This is the danger with letting directors go back and piss around with the print. Jesus, how many variations of the damn Star Wars flicks is that idiot George Lucas going to come out with? It’s as bad as that talk ages back about replacing the shark in Jaws with a CGI version. Hopefully that has been knocked on the head.

I haven’t heard of this “3D glass window” picture quality. I might try and pop along to a store tomorrow and have a look at the demos if I get the chance. Trying to remember what I didn’t like... it might be that it seemed too “in your face”, as if a barrier between the viewer and the content had been dropped – if that makes any sense.

I read somewhere that the Thunderbirds set was screwed up because they had arsed about with the aspect ratio. How demented is that? The worse case of that happening was with the Babylon 5 DVDs, although in this case it was bad production planning. The live action was shot on 16:9 even though it was broadcast in 4:3, with plans to eventually release the show in the wider ratio. Unfortunately all the CGI work was rendered in 4:3 from the beginning, so the scenes had to be cropped to hell. And I thought I had worked with the most idiotic producers in the world.

Actually, I spoke to a pal way back when HD and Blue-ray were poking their nose into the market. He had bought Serenity and was raving about how he could see the pots and pans on the shelves in the background, much like this fly in The Shawshank Redemption. You’re right; when the story is really engaging you shouldn’t be distracted by this kind of stuff.

Oh, and I have read the odd reviews here and there, checking out the extras and some BR discs do appear to be incredibly stingy. Could this be that the companies are looking to screw more and more money out of the customers by bringing out basic versions followed by extra-heavy versions sometime down the road?

At 5:34 pm, Blogger qrter said...

"It’s as bad as that talk ages back about replacing the shark in Jaws with a CGI version."

I never heard about that! You've just caused me minutes of exquisite mirth!

Concerning Wall-E, I wish they'd done the brave thing and left the human race out of it - we're all dead, but love isn't, it lives on in the little robots we created, that's all nice 'n Disney, isn't it?

Besides the story, the robots all look wonderful, the humans look kind of uninspired, designwise. And why the decision to use a real-life Fred Willard? Don't get me wrong, I love me some Willard, I just don't understand the choice of cartoony humans and a real-life president.

I don't care about Blu-ray either, btw. The only real thing I've noticed about HD screens is how they're especially good at making non-HD stuff look like shit. I really don't need that (plus that whole "why don't you rebuy everything you already own" thing.. not again!).

At 6:34 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

It’s a bizarre thing, isn’t it. And totally pointless. I know they say that art is never finished, only abandoned, but you want to scream at these people, “LEAVE IT AND MOVE ON!” I get that there is a valid reason for director’s cuts, if they initially compromised their film for commercial reasons/studio pressure, but otherwise it gets ridiculous.

What next? Is there any point in dropping CGI skeletons into the climactic fight in Jason and the Argonauts or replacing the model boat in The Poseidon Adventure? Er... No! Just think what Jaws would be like if they made it nowadays, with the shark created on a computer. We’d be seeing the damn thing all the time and that would take almost all the gut-wrenching fear away.

In Wall-E I loved the little robot that had to clean all the decontaminants off EVE and then Wall-E, getting more and more frustrated as the dirt gets spread around. The DVD has a great short, Burn-E, which is just as hilarious. It’s an absolute masterclass in animation; having to create character from regular solid shapes.

Then again, how they’ve animated Wall-E, showing his emotions and character mainly by moving his eyes, so that after he gets a new circuit board at the end and he looks lifeless simply by having the eyes remain immobile, is utterly astonishing work.

When Fred turned up it kind of threw me a little, but then I could see the reasoning when the clips of Hello, Dolly! became integral to the plot. And it was a great excuse to let Willard be so brilliantly idiotic. That man deserves a medal. I guess it also showed how the remains of the human race had turned into blobs through inactivity, but it was a brave move by Pixar.

And that’s one of the pissers with the Blu-ray/HD TV thing isn’t it: material that hasn’t been remastered or spruced up in any way looks pants. Looking over at the shelves stuffed full of movies and boxsets, it would be a pisser to have to buy them all again.

At 8:53 pm, Blogger Ian said...

I think the replacement thing can be argued either way and isn't really a clear black and white issue.

For instance the recent reissue of "Blade Runner" replaced a scene of a flying dove which was originally against a bright blue sky. The problem being that the rest of the scene was shot at night and it stuck out as a ridiculous mistake every time you saw the film. So they fixed it in the recent restoration. Together with the fact that it was patently obvious in a fight scene that the woman who was supposed to be fighting had somehow turned into a completely different woman for one shot (bad shot of stuntwoman replacement which was replaced in the restoration by getting the original actress to re-enact the scene some 30 years on and then morph her face back into the scene). It becomes a bit of a moot point as to whether such glaring "take you out of the picture" moments like this should be replaced now that the initial "pressure to get the film released" constraints of the first theatrical cut are out the way.

Where "Jaws" sits in all this I wouldn't like to say - but I will say that even as a kid I thought the shark was naff and clearly fake and somewhat spoilt the film.

My favourite example of continual honing has to be "The Fellowship of the Ring". There is a scene (first day's shoot apparently) where the four hobbits try to hide from an approaching "Dark rider on horseback". The original film always drew hoots of laughter because of the gap between a large tree (about 2/3 in from the left edge of the screen) and the edge of the frame, which clearly showed the horse doesn't gallop in from stage right but actually is "waiting" behind the tree and emerges from that. When it regularly got listed as a goof on the various film sites they tried to fix it for the standard DVD, but still struggled: the gap between the tree and the right edge of the frame got much smaller but was still there so you could still see that the horse had just been waiting behind the tree. By the time we got the extended edition DVD the gap between the tree and the right frame of the film had gone completely.

There are plenty of other stories of films that feature obvious boom mics in shot that somehow didn't get spotted before theatrical release but miraculously get fixed for the DVD. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing!

I DO think vile stunts like changing Star Wars so that it doesn't appear like Hans Solo fired an unarmed man first, years after the event, make a mockery of things. The whole point of Hans Solo was that he was a bit of a renegade. Trying to turn him into something politically correct 30 years later using CGI just reduces the character to even more of a cartoon cliche.

I'd agree that the whole mess of different resolutions (standard, high-def 720 and high-def 1080) mean that finding one size of set that fits all just doesn't work because the maths can't work. However good "upsizers" can make a big difference. Fortunately I watch most of my TV via shiny disc and one thing most of the Blu-Ray players (and HD-DVD) before it are really good at is upsizing DVDs so they DON'T look shit. Of course crappy old multiplexed 720 HD from Sky (where they throttle the bandwidth depending on the time of day and which other channels are running) is always going to look crap on a 1080p HD TV. Fortunately TVs so crap for the most part I only ever use shiny discs so don't have the problem.

The other point that's been lost here is that you don't have to (or even need to) replace your DVDs with Blu-Rays. Blu-Ray players will play all your DVDs just fine, and if they have a good upsizer built in will make your DVD look better than your existing DVD player makes them look if you have an HD screen.

At 10:17 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Strangely enough, right after I posted the last comment I was reminded of the tweaks to Blade Runner that seem to be going on for the last couple of decades. I could turn a blind eye to the cables on the rising Spinner, the obvious stuntwoman in place of Joanna Cassidy, and the poop lip sync in the pet shop, but the dove flying into a clear blue sky was a “huh?” moment back when I first saw the film. On the DVD its no wonder Ridley Scott looked so bloody relieved that it was finally all over.

I know the scene you mean in The Fellowship of the Ring, but I didn’t notice it when I first saw the movie at the cinema. However, in that initial theatrical release I did think the scene when Frodo first greets Gandalf and jumps into his cart was really squirrelly, but that was sorted on the extended cut. As for the continued pissing around with Star Wars, I just see it as further proof that George Lucas is an idiot.

A lot of problems with booms and the like always arose when films were shown full frame on TV rather than being “masked” for the cinema. That may sound strange but I remember reading an article many years ago about how some films fudged their aspect ratios. The worst full frame mishap I saw was when The Fugitive appeared on TV and the obvious pan and scan copy has the shadow of the camera platform following Harrison Ford into the railway tunnel.

Ah, I hadn’t really paid attention regarding the upsizing. Thanks for that. You know, years back when we went to 16:9 – which would have been what, late 1990s? – that was a big deal for animation studios because it meant resized paper and graticules. Even the software we were using to colour and composite the animation once the drawings had been scanned in needed to be reconfigured for outputting in the new ratio.

Anyway, there was a conference about this, I think at the BBC, that the studio producer sent her assistant and our CG animator to. Why I wasn’t there as head of the digital department, I don’t know. She probably thought I’d get bored or offend someone important. When they came back I remember our CG guy said he had been chatting with someone (possibly from the Beeb) who admitted the change to widescreen was bullshit. Really we should have gone straight to HD back then but it was seen as being far too expensive for the public to make the switchover at that point.

There may have been more to it than that, but it always stuck in my craw how we’re encouraged to change our televisions and entertainment systems time and time again. Still, that’s capitalism for you.

At 4:19 pm, Blogger qrter said...

I really did enjoy all the robot-bits of Wall-E, the overall designs are just perfect.

And a special prize (yet again) for Ben Burtt for making all those wonderful sounds (yet again).

"I DO think vile stunts like changing Star Wars so that it doesn't appear like Hans Solo fired an unarmed man first, years after the event, make a mockery of things. The whole point of Hans Solo was that he was a bit of a renegade. Trying to turn him into something politically correct 30 years later using CGI just reduces the character to even more of a cartoon cliche."

I nearly coughed up my brain when I first saw that. Not even so much because of the stupid idea that Solo wouldn't shoot an unarmed man first (although that's really, really terrible) but because it looked RIDICULOUS. It looked like the film itself suddenly spasmed.

Then again, CG didn't look nearly as good at that time as Lucas wanted it to look - remember those awful scenes with Jabba the Hut reinserted into A new hope? Those looked pants.

"A lot of problems with booms and the like always arose when films were shown full frame on TV rather than being “masked” for the cinema."

When I saw Being John Malkovich at the cinema, I was amazed at the many times I would see the boom dip in etc. It was much later before I understood the cinema didn't 'frame' the picture properly. Does this happen a lot? I was always under the impression (like most people) that a film gets delivered ready to be shown, with little extra tweaking needed (let alone cutting bits of the screen off..).

At 7:07 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ah, the re-release ofStar Wars that came out in the mid-1990s with all those spiffed up bells and whistles. I could understand why they wanted to make tweaks to the second movie, putting the windows into the otherwise bland Cloud City sets, but the first one had real howlers like the Greedo shooting.

Actually, I though the worst addition was the Jabba the Hutt scene, not just because the animation was a bit wonky, having to cover up the burly actor who was originally playing the role, but because the scene was superfluous. It’s been ages seen I’ve seen the film, but as I remember, the dialogue simply recycles what Solo had said to Greedo.

I’ve been in cinemas where they haven’t even got the screen ratio right, so either tops and bottoms or either sides have been projected onto the black cloths surrounding the screen. This has happened in both the UK and the US. It's obviously projectionists not keeping their eye on the ball.

The late, great Stanley Kubrick always used to send assistants around to check out cinemas screening his movies, simply to make sure they were being projected in the absolutely correct ratio. This was always brought up by twonks trying to portray him as a crank but he had a point.

At 8:15 pm, Blogger Ian said...

HD is just a real mess. 16:9 aka 1.77 widescreen is interesting and known as "the magic rectangle" as it's basically the optimal size to deal with all the ridiculous different scope sizes of the 50's when the movies were desperate to compete with the telly and offer something different from the traditions 35mm 4:3 format. So cinema suddenly ended up with formats of 1.67, 1.85, 2.2 and 2.35 on different films from different studios, with the infamous widescreen format we now have hitting the sweet spot of accommodating all sizes with minimal black bars on different sides.

There is an apocryphal story that HD was never meant to include interlaced modes (a fudge to cope with slow refresh times of old CRT sets, now considered unnecessary and obsolete with LCD and plasma) but that when Microsoft came to the table saying HD should be progressive only the other partners decided they wanted interlaced included as well if only because Microsoft didn't.


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