Why Not All Blu-Ray Movies are Created Equal
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)
 Gandalf looks extra waxy on Blu-ray (right)

First, you should understand how a typical Blu-ray movie is produced. The video on a Blu-ray disc is simply a compressed, high-quality version of the original "master" of the film shown in theaters. This master version is then compressed to fit onto a 25GB or 50GB Blu-ray disc. Most movies after 2000 have been made using a digital intermediate process, or DI, which in layman's terms means that the raw film footage is stored digitally on a computer for editing and CGI insertion. Films with a digital intermediate are simply transcoded for the Blu-ray format, using either the VC-1 or AVC codecs--both derivatives of the H.264 MPEG4 video codec. For films without a DI, the film negatives are rescanned and digitized by a telecine machine at a resolution of 4096x3072 (4K). The digital copy of the film then goes through some minor adjustment before it is paired with special features and then compressed for Blu-ray. The Blu-ray also includes a lossless audio stream of the film. 
 
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 an HDTV Broadcast
One of the primary reason that some Blu-ray discs are released with highly-filtered, low-quality video is because the film transfer and mastering was done during the days of DVD without the foresight to prepare for high-definition home video. DVD, even at its highest bitrates, can't handle high amounts of film grain without some degree of macroblocking (compression artifacts). Technicians prepping the DI with only for the DVD release in mind would remove the grain and apply other digital processing in order ease the video encoding stage of production. The less detail/grain you have, the less video bitrate required, and the more room for special features, audio tracks, etc. Generally the more automated processing you do on a quality film transfer, the less it looks like film. But today's Blu-rays can hold video with 40Mbps bitrates, and even content that averages around 25-30Mbps will yield compression artifact-free footage. Unfortunately all the adjustments technicians did back then are irreversible, and the films were archived that way. Making a fresh scan with manual film cleanup is a very expensive process, so studios usually elect to use the master as-is, even with the all flaws. There are also many other factors that come into play, such as studio policy, quality of the telecines used, or how much the technicians respect the filmic look. 

The Truman Show from Blu-ray, which stretched the film horizontally
The Truman Show from Blu-ray, which stretched the film horizontally
Cost and company policy have given certain studios a bad reputation, and Eric says that some culprits are worse than others. Blu-ray releases can be sorted into two categories. “New” movies, which released on Blu-ray just a few month after their theatrical run , and "catalog" titles, which are older movies that aren’t following a theatrical release. For new movies, all the studios consistently release good looking stuff, but because the DI makes it easy. They just take the digital intermediate file from the production company, compress, add supplements and send the disc out for duplication. Warner Bros., however, has a policy of doing a light grain removal DNR to virtually everything they release, even brand new movies. As a result you’ll see a slightly unnatural smoothness and softness on most of their Blu-rays. Warner will also encode the video at bitrates averaging much lower than the rest of the studios. In addition, many times they will leave lots of space unused on the disc that could have been used to increase the overall video bitrate average.

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
   Fellowship of the Ring from the Blu-ray release
And it doesn't get any more high-profile than Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings's Blu-ray release is judged on a harsher scale than a typical release because of its geek popularity and success at the box office. Its DVDs were also regarded as some of the best ever released. But the Fellowship of the Ring transfer turns out to be very underwhelming. There are select scenes where the Blu-ray looks noticeably softer than even the HDTV satellite broadcast, and the entire film generally lacks the detail and depth of the theatrical master. The 1080p broadcast of Lord of the Rings demonstrates that even though the Blu-Ray has superior color timing and detail in many areas, parts of the frame on HDTV actually show more detail than the Blu-ray disc. This isn't to say that the HDTV release is superior overall, but it does demonstrate unequivocally that there is more detail in the original footage that is missing in the Blu-ray. This isn't a matter of saying one is better than the other so much as videophiles saying "Hey Warners, we have proof that you messed with this film digitally and you ended up removing a lot of fine detail that we would like to see."
 
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.
30 Comments
Tartarus on March 31, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Interesting read,  good article!   

Only Blu-Ray i have is District 9 which looks good, also helps that its a great film.
Rallier on March 31, 2010 at 3:33 a.m.
Videophiles not happy with their waxy Gandalfs sounds extremely dirty...
FLStyle on March 31, 2010 at 4:35 a.m.
Well I'm convinced, no LOTR Blu-Ray for me, thanks Norm!
 
Hopefully the extended version will also feature better quality.
Red12b on March 31, 2010 at 5:38 a.m.
Thank you very much guys, Really good article, and something I have been wondering for awhile to,  
 
Cheers.
Snail on March 31, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
This was a very interesting read. I always wondered why 2001: A Space Odyssey looked so great on Blu-Ray while other, more recent titles looked not as good.
AuthenticM on March 31, 2010 at 7:17 a.m.
Christ. I hope they wake up soon.
brant on March 31, 2010 at 8:05 a.m.
I think everyone who buys blu-rays should read this article.  Great stuff Chan!
Chronologist on March 31, 2010 at 8:09 a.m.
@Tartarus said:
" Interesting read,  good article!   Only Blu-Ray i have is District 9 which looks good, also helps that its a great film. "
True, that movie is awesome! Also have it on Blu- ray..
tom_1994 on March 31, 2010 at 8:12 a.m.
I've got the new Star Trek on Blu-Ray. It looks AWESOME!! Maybe a little bright in places and sometimes there can be extra-glare. But that, for me, gives it an extra-spacey feel.
Rallier on March 31, 2010 at 8:22 a.m.
Just noticed that this article can be "dug". Will you guys be allowing this with all the future articles or just the more elaborate ones?
cowgod on March 31, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.
damn, it takes a lot of work to be a smart consumer these days.
Jacob816 on March 31, 2010 at 9:34 a.m.
Meh. I won't buy this anyway. I'd much rather wait for the extended edition to come to Blu-Ray. Hopefully they do it right for that when the time comes.
Gonmog on March 31, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.
I have sadly not moved up to the Blu-ray movie yet. Still sitting on my 3,000 dvds. I look at them and go..crap i dont want to do this with blu-rays... 
Maybe when first i get a good hdtv and second get a blu ray player that is not a ps3. Maybe then stores will have the 5 buck bin for blu rays! :D  
I do love the LOTR DVDs though. They are the best DVDs.
snide on March 31, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.
In general I've been pretty lucky with my Blu-Ray purchases. Only real disappointment where I noticed significant compression was Miami Vice. I've noticed compression a lot more with HDTV streams from my xbox.
will on March 31, 2010 at 10:12 a.m.
@Rallier: We usually only turn the Digg button on on articles that have been submitted by someone and have been received reasonably well. No reason to put the button there on a bunch of stuff with 3 diggs.
bybeach on March 31, 2010 at 10:41 a.m.

I'm going to become a big fan of this site, if only to start grasping the intracies, terms and working concepts of how blue-ray, hdtv and such are done. All the more so because I really know zip, but I have invested in a nice HDTV (though it is DLP, color wheel) and my PS3 serves as my blue ray player.
 
the only thing I can say outright is you want waxy, that was my first impression of faces when I hooked up my hdtv. it didn`t occur to me though that it was because of the proccesses involved , I assumed because of the tv. But it should have ocurred since I have played a number of blue ray movies by now,  I do understand where the article goes, particularly with that broadcast of LOTR compared to Warner's effrort with the blue ray version. But it does gives me a handle.
CharlesSurge on March 31, 2010 at 11:40 a.m.
Wow, you guys are professional grade. Awesome article and the link to the Blu-Rays that forum suggests is also appreciated.
Sandor on March 31, 2010 at 11:43 a.m.
Ugh, why waste you time doing it wrong, when you could be doing it right, right? Damn you movie studio execs, damn you all!
extremeradical on March 31, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.
That's one hell of a read. Gonna be a lot more careful when I buy Blu-rays now.
ISmoochyI on March 31, 2010 at 1:13 p.m.
Awesome article. I'm a huge LOTR fan...but this is just ridiculous how not only they try to milk our money by putting out new "editions" of the DVD every few months it seems...but the fact that they would deliver a sub-par quality blu-ray to a group they know are loyal fans who expect the best. As much as I want a blu-ray copy of these movies, I'm not going to buy it unless they dramatically improve the quality
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