Ride the Blu-Ray Bandwagon?

A recent article on the Electronic House website offered three reasons to avoid jumping onto the Blu-ray bandwagon—at least for now. One of the arguments—that Blu-ray quality is still inconsistent—read as follows:

Most movies made over the last 60 years were not filmed with HD formats in mind. It’s possible to re-process a film into HD resolution, and the studios are doing so with many movies. However, it’s a manual process, and the results for older or less popular films are mixed. So, before you run out and buy a player, read some unbiased reviews for the titles you plan to re-purchase. Also, keep track of which of your favorite TV shows were recorded in HD, as there’s little benefit to buying the Blu-ray version of a show shot in standard-def!

The recommendation to check the reviews is a good one, but otherwise much of this commentary was either poorly phrased or badly misinformed. Film is inherently high definition. A movie doesn't have to be "filmed with HD formats in mind" to transfer beautifully to high definition disc.

Apart from faster lenses and finer-grained, more sensitive film stock, the state of the art in movie photography hasn't really changed much since the 1960s—and perhaps even the 1950s, when widescreen became dominant. In fact, one could argue that today's use of digital intermediates, and the digital processing of filmed elements prior to production of release prints, has sometimes degraded the final result. I don't agree; these tools have offered filmmakers impressive new creative options. But digital manipulation can be overdone.

One problem with older films is that they aren't always in good shape and often need restoration. But that's usually a problem only when a studio must dig back more than 30 years into its catalog. Since home video got off the ground in the late 1970s, film studios have taken better care of their film and television libraries. They're now revenue generators. Before then, and particularly before television, movies were perceived to have little value after their theatrical runs were complete, apart from the occasional revival-house showing.

Certainly not all Blu-ray discs (BDs) are equal; some are better than others. But that depends on the quality of the HD source and the skill of the video transfer technicians. To give an extreme example, most of the film Cloverfield was shot to simulate standard definition camcorder footage. Does it benefit from a high definition transfer? Not much. At best, it can more closely recreate the grungy, cheap videocam look without the additional degradation of standard resolution video playback.

While some television programs were shot on standard definition video, virtually all dramas of the past several decades, and most sitcoms from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, were shot on film. For them, my earlier arguments still apply. Yes, they may be 4:3, just like most pre-1953 films. But there's no law that says a 4:3 source can't be transferred to high definition with windowbox bars on the sides.

I understand the logic of holding off on BD for now. Any new product will mature over time. But only if it succeeds. If enough potential BD buyers hold off, the format will fail and we'll be left with a decreasing stream of new, and possibly more expensive DVDs. Our HD appetites will have to be satisfied with broadcast, satellite, or cable HDTV (which could well get worse as demands increase for limited pipeline space), supplemented by mediocre "HD-quality" downloads.

And for now (in the U.S., at least, thanks to the copy protection police) neither those downloads nor programming saved onto a PVR can be archived onto a collectable and transportable HD format such as recordable BD. Happy thoughts, perhaps, for the consumer who doesn't mind paying again (and again) if they want to see a film more than once in so-so quality. But not for the collector who likes the current system of pay once for a pristine copy on BD, where it can sit on the shelf ready to be experienced again, in whole or in part, whenever temptation calls.