Why Not All Blu-Ray Movies are Created Equal

By Norman Chan

The recent release of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on Blu-ray has sparked controversy over the poor quality of high-definition video transfers. We explain why videophiles are up in arms.

Next Tuesday, Warner Bros. finally releases the long-awaited Blu-ray edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While the numerous DVD releases for the series were respectable, the only previous way for Tolkien fans to watch these movies in high-definition was over HDTV broadcasts such as on New Zealand's C4 network. The upcoming Blu-ray set, which retails for $64 on Amazon, aims to be the definitive version of the films for your collection. But don't get too excited, because here's where the bad news begins. Not only is this release just the theatrical cut of the films (New Line/Warner Bros. has yet to announce Blu-ray plans for the Extended Editions), videophiles who have early access to this Blu-ray set claim that the video is of serious sub-par quality. 
After poring over hours of footage and comparing it with the video from broadcasts versions, they've concluded that the release overuses post-production techniques like digital noise reduction and edge enhancement. The result is that film grain is removed at the cost of filmic quality and faces look too smooth and waxy. We spoke with Blu-ray screenshot gurus Eric M, who posted the original set of comparison screenshots on AVSforum, and Dave Upton of HomeTheaterShack to find out why some Blu-ray releases are better than others.
 Gandalf looks extra waxy on Blu-ray (right)

So why aren't all Blu-ray films the same quality? Dave Upton explains. From a video perspective Blu-rays are not created equal primarily because of two factors--the source material and post-production processing. For example, if we look at The Lord of the Rings - Peter Jackson filmed most of the live action sequences on varying types of 35mm film called Super35. He then took these varying snippets and put them together after scanning them into a Digital Intermediate. Since some film stock has a different grain pattern than others, Jackson's production team was forced to use a technique called Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) to remove the grain and allow the film stocks to blend properly. Videophiles don't have a problem with this as the issue was something with the source footage that the LOTR crew shot and intentionally needed to correct. 
But sometimes before a film is released for Blu-ray the studio will take the master DI and apply various digital techniques to "enhance" it before home consumption. In some cases they apply excessive amounts of these digital techniques like Edge Enhancement (EE) and Digital Noise Reduction. The result is that the moving image may appear to be subjectively more "3D" and may pop out of the screen a little more--but when you freeze those frames, significant amounts of fine detail have been lost to these post-processes. If you compare these releases with the unaltered masters, you may actually find that you prefer the look of the original. The home theater community generally wants pristine, unaltered transfers that look as close as possible to the original theatrical release.
Eric continues with an explanation of why even unaltered DI's look poor. "In a perfect world, every movie would receive a new digital transfer with the best equipment available in preparation for its Blu-ray release. In reality, the master used for the Blu-ray could have been created any time in the last 10 years. Film telecines are getting sharper and restoration tools are getting better every year, revealing details never seen before on home video or some cases, in theaters."
 The Truman Show from an HDTV Broadcast

The Truman Show from Blu-ray, which stretched the film horizontally

For catalog titles, Paramount and Universal’s reputations take a hit. They both have released far too many titles reeking of detail-zapping DNR, heavy edge enhancement (thick lines around edges) and other issues with automated cleanup tools. Some home theater enthusiast favorites like the original Star Trek films fell victim to Paramount’s DNR-of-death machine. Warner continues their policy with of mild DNR with catalog titles too, but have done a few really exceptional (and expensive) restorations of classic films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, that look great and have the grain intact.
Dave agrees. "Generally speaking Warner Brothers is considered to be the worst offender when it comes to digitally tampering with a film. Paramount also does this fairly often while Sony is considered to be one of the better studios. Keep in mind that every studio out there has probably released a horrible looking Blu-ray--some simply do it much more consistently. Members of the home theater community tend to be bothered by Warner transfers in particular because of high expectations that come with high-profile releases." 

   Fellowship of the Ring from the Blu-ray release

The Lord of the Rings release isn't the first time the community has been up in arms over a poor release. Gladiator is universally regarded as the best example of how not to do a Blu-ray release for a high-profile movie. The Ridley Scott film has a disastrous combination of heavy DNR resulting in waxy faces and muddy textures, thick edge enhancement which shows up on the film's forced subtitles, and automated dirt and scratch removal that actually painted small artifacts into the film. It's particularly maddening since these enhancements were only done to the theatrical cut, and bonus extended scenes on the very same disc looked so much better.  

Of course, there are some fantastic Blu-ray releases as well. Animated films which are entirely produced in the digital domain never get DNR treatment, so they look great. AVSforum has a running thread for recommended releases, vetted by their hardcore community of videophiles. But when you're at the video store looking at a Blu-ray disc on a shelf, there's little you can do to evaluate the video quality. And the problem extends beyond the technical details -- studios remove grain because they think it's what consumers want. Videophiles sometimes get a bad rap for how much they scrutinize video details that may never be noticed on a 720p TV, but it's these forum discussions that teach consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions that hopefully will convince studios to put out the best Blu-ray releases of both new and catalog titles. Blu-ray is still a premium platform that requires a significant cash investment; there's no better way for studios to convince consumers to jump on board than to prove to us that the investment is worth it.
Thanks to Dave Upton and Eric M of AVSforum for their help with this story.