Wizards and Witches

The final installments of my Blu-ray players saga are coming soon to a computer monitor near you. They will cover the analog outputs of the Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition and the Pioneer BDP-320. Also coming is a listen to all of the players from their digital outputs.

While that's in the works, a few unrelated notes. There's been a lot of hair pulling on Internet forums recently relating to the image quality on the new release of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (on Blu-ray April 6th). More specifically, on the suspected use of DNR (digital noise reduction) on the first of the films, The Fellowship of the Ring (there's less criticism of the last two). So how bad is it?

For my money, it's not an issue. In fact, it didn't bother me a bit. It was only rarely visible, and even then to nowhere near the degree I expected from the discussions. I'm very familiar with these films on DVD, and the Blu-rays are a vast improvement in both picture and sound. The viewing was via my now-vintage JVC RS1 projector on a 78" wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen. The JVC's color has seen better days with over 600 hours on its lamp (the projector's limited white balance adjustments don't offer enough control to completely flatten out the grayscale), but it still looks excellent overall and doesn't hide any problems in the source.

Keep in mind that these films all used heavy doses of video processing from the get go. Any quirks in this processing will be particularly evident in The Fellowship of the Ring, which was finished first. Though all three films were shot at the same time, they did not undergo post-production simultaneously. The first film was most certainly a beta test bed for the cutting-edge techniques, which were further perfected as each subsequent film was completed. In fact, as good as Fellowship looks, the second film, The Two Towers looks even better, with those "I've never seen it look like this before," moments following one after another. Totally stunning. (I have yet to sample the last of the films, The Return of the King.)

If there were errors made in the post processing of Fellowship, well-intentioned attempts may have been made, in the Blu-ray transfer, to compensate for them. If some viewers object to this, so be it. I do not. The problems I see here are minor. The only other alternative open to the studio to correct issues in the source material would have been to go back and re-do the post-processing for the video release. That was never going to happen.

Many of the complainers also appear to be put off over the fact that the three films in this set are the theatrical versions, with the extended cuts coming next year in a separate set. They have a point, but there was no way that Warner Brothers was going to throw away the opportunity to release another boxed set of these films down the road, perhaps concurrent with the theatrical release of The Hobbit. The latter (now scheduled to be released as two separate films a year apart), has been delayed and has not yet even begun shooting. At this rate, we'll get the extended Blu-ray cuts in 2011 followed by the 3D versions before The Hobbit is even released! No official word on 3D from anyone, of course. But assuming it can be done right, and disc space aside (it takes 50% more disc space to put full 3D on disc in full HD, and these are very long films) does anyone actually believe a 3D re-processed version of this trilogy will never happen?) So it's the theatrical cuts for now. And I'll take now rather than wait another year or more to own the greatest film achievement of the past 30 years—or perhaps of all time— in the most pristine form ever available to the consumer.

Speaking of film achievements, when The Wizard of Oz came out in a variety of Blu-ray versions last fall, I put off buying it for the $40-$50 demanded for some of the sets, having already seen the film a bazillion times. But last week I snagged the three-disc edition, in a regular Blu-ray case with all the extra features I could ever find time to watch, for $12.99 at my local Costco. Even Amazon wants $34.95 for it. Methinks someone screwed up. Anyway, it's a fabulous transfer. Not achingly crisp in the modern film sense—we are talking about a 71 year-old movie, after all—but super clean and gorgeously Technicolored. You'll never see it look better. Those 1939 audiences certainly didn't.

The mono sound is also surprisingly good. Though its bandwidth is little better than AM radio, there's no edginess or harshness at all, and virtually no trace of optical track hiss. A result of heavy DNR and equalization, perhaps? Hmmm.