Blu-ray Monochrome

Nobody is more queer for Blu-ray monochrome than myself. The principal cause of this mania is the recent Casablanca Blu-ray, which made Michael Curtiz‘s classic film look 15% to 20% better than it ever had before. I’m so consumed by this hunger that I didn’t let my disappointment with Criterion’s Third Man Blu-ray get in the way. I felt burned and angered by that disc. It’s fine by regular DVD standards, but my God…the grain! A sandstorm! Grain purists are like mad monks living in a secluded abbey in the French mountains.


DVD Beaver frame-capture of grain-swamped Criterion Blu-ray image of Joseph Cotten in Sir Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

But I’ll certainly buy the forthcoming Dr. Strangelove, On The Waterfront, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Brief Encounter, and so on.

21 thoughts on “Blu-ray Monochrome

  1. Like you, I was very disappointed in the Third Man Blu-Ray. I was really looking forward to seeing one of my favorite films look stunning in Blu-Ray but I might as well have just stuck with my regular DVD of the film (looks just as good as the Blu-Ray). It took me a while to warm up to the Casablanca Blu-Ray – it took me a couple of viewings to appreciate that the picture is quite a bit sharper than the regular DVD. There are three black-and-white films I’m dying to have on Blu-ray just for their cinematography alone: Citizen Kane, Rebecca, and Sunset Boulevard.

  2. Thanks for this post Jeff, I have been debating whether to totally repurchase my Criterion Collections when they get onto Blu-Ray (well over 150) but now it seems that with my setup (720p plasma, viewing distance ~12ft) I would be better off just staying with the originals, especially with B&W films. Now, Last Emperor, Days of Heaven, Etc, I’m sure, will look resplendent on Blu-Ray.

  3. I feel compelled to protest from my Brooklyn monastary that the “Third Man” Blu-ray is superb, and to chuckle (mordantly) at the irony over the ever widening perception that film grain‚Äîthe very thing that makes film, um, film‚Äîis anathema. I love you Jeff, but if you get your way every goddamn film on DVD is gonna look like a Hi-Def Super Bowl game with the brightness cranked up. But, yeah, WE’RE the crazy ones…

  4. “The principal cause of this mania is the recent Casablanca Blu-ray, which made Michael Curtiz’s classic film look 15% to 20% better than it ever had before.”

    That mere 15-20% improvement in picture quality is exactly why Blu-Ray will probably never take flight. While more or less noticeable, it’s not enough to prompt people to ditch their old player and shell out $200 for a low-end new one. Blu-Ray is a niche product that simply does not revolutionalize the home viewing experience the way DVDs did.

  5. ROTC–

    I don’t think anyone ever intended Blu-Ray to REVOLUTIONIZE the viewing experience. It is an upgrade– you either do it or no.

    I don’t run mac OS X.1. I run the latest upgrade. Would I still get my work done? Yep, but like it better on 10.5..6. For that I want to upgrade to the new Laptop– revolutionary? No, but way better. Steve Jobs has made a lot of money with improving existing products.

    Though I disagree with Jeff, I find in most cases Blu-Ray significantly increase my pleasure more than 15%. But there is no question the bigger the TV, the more significant improvement you will notice.

    A/B Blu-Ray on a 42″– little difference. On a 50″ a much more noticeable difference. And A/B Blu-Ray on a front projection Sony Pearl with a 90″+ screen, and a huge difference.

    Just my 2 cents

  6. Although it’s been expressed by better wordsmiths than myself (thanks, Mr. Kenny), I feel I’ll have to try and explain it again to you, Jeff. Grain is not necessarily a bad thing; but sometimes (especially with older films), it is a necessary evil. Grain only becomes the devil when it is artificially introduced during the transfer or encoding process, and violates the original artistic intent of the director or the cinematographer.

    Of course, a lot of bad decisions can be made in the telecine bay by a film’s director when they get overly infatuated with all the new toys at their disposal. William Friedkin’s new supervised transfers of CRUISING and THE FRENCH CONNECTION look as though he’s determined to smear as much electronic shit over the original photography as possible. I live in fear of what will happen to THE EXORCIST and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. when they are remastered for Blu-Ray.

    I’m willing to bet the main reason why CASABLANCA looks so much better than THE THIRD MAN (aside from the amount of money and resources that Warner Bros. has to devote to constantly remastering one of it’s most iconic titles), is simply the fact that one was shot almost entirely on studio sound stages and one was shot mostly on location in post-war Vienna.

    Film stocks were much less sensitive to light (“slower”) all those years ago and, consequently, DP’s needed much more of it to prevent grain from creeping in. When you’re shooting a film on the Warner lot in entirely controllled conditions, and with access to a film lab a few blocks away, you can make adjustments as needed. However, when you’re filming on location in Vienna and don’t have a huge studio lighting package at your disposal, and don’t have access to a reliable film lab, and are racing to meet a very tight shooting schedule, more than likely there are a lot of times when you’re just lighting for exposure…and you will get grain.

    Of course, you could just use the magic of (trumpet fanfare) “Digital Noise Reduction” and remove all the grain from every scene. Then you wind up with a disaster like the PATTON Blu-Ray. But if that’s your gold, then go in peace.

  7. JohnOrloff, that’s a poor comparison. Most people upgrade their computer operating system when, within a relatively short period of time, their existing OS becomes inadequate or completely non-functional (e.g., many current web browsers and websites won’t work with anything less than Mac OS 10.4). The same would happen to DVD (as it did to VHS) if Blu-Ray ever came to dominate the market. But Blu-Ray will likely never dominate the market because it won’t ever offer enough of an upgrade or utility to the average consumer to warrant ditching the old system.

  8. This is not a knock on Wells. But I trust Criterion more than him on such matters. That outfit has impeccable taste and I trust them to do it right whenever they put something out. And if there’s to be an error, I’d prefer it to be on the side of more grain versus the atrocity that is the Patton blu ray.

  9. There’s nothing I can add that Glenn Kenny didn’t already say, but in case of the unlikely event that someone takes Jeff seriously and avoids Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of The Third Man, let me reiterate: It’s a film. It’s supposed to look like film. The closer you can get to the theatrical experience the better. No reasonable person wants to see a 60 year old piece of celluloid digitally manipulated to look like a video game.

  10. You grain purists….honestly! Either it’s a mucky-muck grain experience, grain the size of crushed gravel and glory-be-to-God for that raw Iraqi sandstorm effect, or it’s the arid video-game hell of the Patton Blu-ray. No in-between — it’s “give me librium or give me meth.” Well, there is an in-between and it can look beautiful. It can look sublime. If Lowry Digital’s John Lowry had been allowed to allowed to moderately de-granulate The Third Man, it would have made for a very significant difference. But no…the brown-robed Criterion monks in the Abbey St. Martin won’t have it! Purity! Purity above all!

  11. Jeff,

    If you can be a religious fanatic about the intellectual, thematic and spiritual quality of film, then I can be one about the physical quality of film and how that physical quality is translated to high definition video. I don’t think film should just be “transferred” to video. It should be presented in a way that comes as closely as possible to replicating the original theatrical presentation. Or, as the recovering Catholic in me would put it, film should be transubstantiated to video.

    P.S. Have you ever had a recovering Catholic in you? It’s painful!

  12. Let’s be clear: you can ABSOLUTELY see the difference between DVD resolution and HD, even on a 10″ screen. It becomes somewhat less clear if you have a competent upscaling DVD player, but you can still tell.

    DVD= 720×480 (usually less)

    HD=1920×1080

    In other words, 2,073,600 (two MILLION pixels) versus 354, 600 pixels. A factor of six; six times as many pixles exist per frame in HD as opposed to DVD resolutions.

    For newbies, look for patterns on a suit jacket that suddenly spring to life, or other detailed patterns that you couldn’t possibly see in a DVD.

  13. By the way, Jeff, I’m quite taken with the “Casablanca” Blu-ray as well. If you look at it again, check for a bit of softness in the self-pity scenes in the back room of Rick’s. They’re just a hair softer than everything else on the disc, which goes back to its original sharpness as Ingrid Bergman interrupts Bogart’s reverie. It seems this master’s been put together from different elements, some more tack-sharp than others.

    The B&W Brit Blu-ray of Lean’s “Great Expectations” is marvelous, I’m expecting great things from the same company’s “Brief Encounter.” These discs, like the wonderful Brit Blu-ray of the Technicolor “Black Narcissus,” are region-free, so spend away, Jeff…

    I look forward to a Blu-ray “Kane,” but one that’s maybe not so tack-sharp that you can see the lines around Welles’ bald wig, which I never much noticed before the most recent DVD. Noted “Kane” hater Ingmar Bergman said he could see them from the first time he ever encountered the film.

    Just got the Blu-ray of “Raging Bull,” and, not to sound like Jeffrey Lyons or anything, it’s a knockout…

  14. With all due respect Jeff, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. In fact, I’m pretty certain you don’t. The thing about grain is that it is not an artifact of age (like fading, scratching, etc.); it is part of the original negative. What Criterion does not attempt to “improve” the film, but to get it to look as close to the original theatrical release as possible. All age-related artifacts are carefully removed during restoration, but since the film has already been made, they are not attempting to re-make it.

    Personally, I was not crazy about the transfer of Casablanca. Fine detail was slightly washed out, and the depth of the image suffered on several occasions. The DNR Lowry did for Casablanca was by no means horrible, and I give Lowry credit for being one of the few companies that can de-grain an image without making it look like crap. I was still able to tell that I was looking at a digitally processed image, however.

    If you prefer Lowry’s work to Criterion, that’s fine. We can agree to disagree. But to trash Criterion and call their loving transfer a let-down on the grounds that it did NOT alter the source is ridiculous. In fact, it borders on downright lame. The way The Third Man looks on blu ray now is almost exactly how it originally looked in theaters 60 years ago, grain and all. And if the original audience was able to overlook the offending grain on a one-hundred foot screen, you should be able to overlook it on your personal HDTV. Don’t be a pussy.

  15. I look forward to a Blu-ray “Kane,” but one that’s maybe not so tack-sharp that you can see the lines around Welles’ bald wig, which I never much noticed before the most recent DVD. Noted “Kane” hater Ingmar Bergman said he could see them from the first time he ever encountered the film.

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  16. The way The 3rd guy appears on blu ray now is nearly specifically how it initially looked in theaters sixty many years ago, grain and all. And when the authentic viewers was in a placement to overlook the offending grain over a one-hundred foot screen, you ought to be in a placement to overlook it in your individual HDTV. The shar peiwas especially almost destroyed by way of the social RevolutionDon’t be considered a pussy. I glimpse forward to some Blu-ray “Kane,” but a single that’s perhaps not so tack-sharp that you simply can see the lines close to Welles’ bald wig, which I by no means very much observed prior to one of the most current DVD. Noted “Kane” hater Ingmar Bergman stated he could see them in the 1st time he actually encountered the film.

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