Casablanca Bluray Face-Off

Yesterday I watched Warner Home Video’s brand-new 70th annniversary Bluray of Casablanca. It’s grainier than the 2008 Bluray, all right, and a bit darker. I quickly wrote two prominent grain-lovers, Robert Harris and Glenn Kenny, with my views, and they wrote me back and I replied and blah-dee-blah.

“It’s darker than the ’08 version and it’s covered in billions of digital micro-mosquitoes,” I wrote. “Yes. It looks more like film in a sense but then again the grain is more distinct. I’m appalled that people who know what they’re talking about (like you two guys) are saying they prefer it to the slightly DNR’ed ’08 version. It’s like a gang of grain monks went into the control room and said, ‘Okay, let’s grain this sucker up!’ Amazing. I’ve just spoken to the ghost of Michael Curtiz about this (the Movie Godz put me in touch), and he’s not a fan either.”

Kenny replied as follows: “What I see when I look at the new disc is hardly ‘billions of micro-mosquitoes’, digital or otherwise. What I see is a less bright but more detailed picture with an uptick in structured grain, which is very different from some kind of screen of undulating black pixels. This strongly suggests to me (and of course there have been other indications) that you’re watching on an improperly calibrated set. You might want to consider entertaining that possibility and doing due journalistic diligence on the issue before complaining in a post.”

My response to Kenny: “The sharpness setting on my 50” Vizio is set on 2 or 3. It’s not too high. Many, many films that I’ve watched on Bluray (including yesterday’s arrival, A Streetcar Named Desire) look magnificent. It’s only Casablanca, Twelve Angry Men, The Third Man, Stagecoach and a few others that present a grain problem.”

Harris responded as follows: “Let us have no doubt that I’m with Glenn on this — 100% Having compared the two releases, and independent of the fact that the new element, which is a pastiche of original and dupes, has been re-scanned at 4k, I’m seeing a final result that could have been based upon the first transfer.

“By that I mean that there is a slightly different overall look to gamma in the treatment of shadows and light, but with that exception, the old harvest” — i.e., the 2008 Casablanca Bluray — “appears to be precisely the same, but with grain highly reduced. This was the WB ethic at that time. And it was wrong.

Casablanca “was shot on Eastman Plus-X Cine Pan film 5231, went into use in 1941, and had slightly tighter granular characteristics than the previous stock, 1231.

“This was a classic stock, which was in use, albeit as a safety based product, until 1956, when it was replaced by 5235. A higher speed variant, Tri-X 5233 had arrived in 1954, but it was Plus-X that was the staple of the industry for 16 years — with precisely the same grain structure.

“What this means, is that every domestic production, as well as foreign works using Eastman stock, had precisely the same grain structure, with one caveat. Fully exposed, not push-processed or manipulated.

“The grain structure that we see [on the new 70th anniversary Casablanca Bluray] is a perfect representation of the original, with dupes slightly sharpened to better match original footage. That ‘look’ should have a beautiful, almost iridescent, velvety quality. If it doesn’t, something is wrong with monitor setup.

“I’m willing to go in and take a look when I’m next out, or, as I’ve mentioned to Jeff in the past, that he made need an intervention, and this may call for a visit, if he’s willing from the TV God himself, Joe Kane.”

My response to Harris and Kenny: “In other words, Mr. Harris, you are deeply impressed and very satisfied with the realism of seeing Casablanca as it actually looked on Eastman Plus-X Cine Pan film 5231. Whatever it looks like to my eye or the eye of some Walmart-frequenting Bluray customer in Bayonne or Manhattan Beach or Pensacola, it is, to you, a look of realism…and that realism, to you, is the highest standard and the ultimate consideration. And I respect that.

“I love the ’08 Bluray version of Casablanca, which doesn’t look unnatural or video-gamed to me in the slightest. It allows me to see with great shimmering clarity those wonderful fabrics and weavings and toupee hairs and plaster walls and suit threads that were there on the set when Michael Curtiz shot this film. I understand that ’08 version has been DNR’ed. But in the realm of Blurays, I want the film to look as sharp and clean and unfiltered and un-muddied as possible.

“I understand and have no problem with integrated grain — I want films to look like film. But in the matter of the ’08 Casablanca release vs. the present one, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in saying that the ’08 version is highly pleasurable and the new version is not. The 70th anniversary grain is not enjoyable to me. To me it’s an obstruction standing between my eyes and the glory of the film’s visuals. On top of which it’s fucking darker, which I hate.

“So I am Blanche Dubois on this issue. I want magic, not realism. I don’t want the visual verite of Eastman Plus-X Cine Pan film 5231. I just want the film to look really good. And I damn sure don’t want images that are darker than on the last Bluray release, If loving the ’08 version is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

“I looked at the new version last night and said to myself, “Thank God there was a period when the original-film-stock grain monks weren’t calling the shots like they are now. Thank God for the magic of movies and the wonderful shimmering silvertone transportation that the ’08 version delivers. Beautiful images forever! Grain monks are a small cult with a disproportionate influence upon the powers that be in the Bluray mastering business, and I’m very sorry that their influence has prevailed in this latest Casablanca Bluray.”

“If there are two things which mystify me and drive me up the wall, it’s 1.78 or 1.85 ‘prison cell’ maskings of films shot with the understanding that a 1.37 aspect ratio would be used in old-style (pre-2005) TV airings, and people who actually prefer a darker, grainier version to a tastefully DNR’d version of the same film.

“Grain was not God’s wonderful gift to filmmakers of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s — it was an unfortunate technical reality that was the law west of the Pecos. There was no other choice and it had to be lived with. Nowadays any tasteful and respectful effort to modify or reduce this intrusive element on Blurays gets my vote every time.”

  • Padre la Tiempo

    Seriously Wells, get your set calibrated. If someone offers you a visit from Joe Kane to personally calibrate your display, you say YES!

    Also, maybe your set sucks. Sharpness is a relative setting and varies per TV. On newer displays there are any number of other stupid settings that can eff up your picture with names that DO NOT correspond at all to what they actually do.

    Find out the answers to these questions, get it fixed, THEN tell us what you think.

  • cinefan

    “The sharpness setting on my 50″ Vizio is set on 2 or 3.”

    Have you tried setting your sharpness level at 0? I would watch a couple of black-and-white films at that setting (with the color temperature set to warm) and see if you notice a difference. I have a 55″ LCD HDTV and the grain of black-and-white Blu-rays is barely noticeable on my set with the sharpness set at 0.

  • Mr. F.

    The WORST thing about this “improved” release of CASABLANCA? Those hacks at Warners released the boring black and white version and not the colorized version. When it fact, the superior colorized version has been available FOR YEARS. But never in high-definition!

    Wells is 100% correct. Who gives a rat’s ass about trying to match the original Eastman film look, the way it was conceived, shot and first presented to millions of people? We need REALITY here. Black and white?! Uh, excuse me, but human beings see in COLOR. It’s like they’re saying the movie’s told from the point of view of a DOG!

  • Jeffrey Wells

    If each and every Bluray and DVD I own looks perfect on my 50″ Vizio, I’m supposed to call in Joe Kane and get my set re-calibrated because the grain is unmistakably prominent on this and maybe 6 or 8 other Blurays? Sure thing.

    Padre la Tiempo, cinefan and Mr. F are nothing but schoolyard bullies. “You can’t have your own opinion! Get your head screwed on and fix your set!” Buncha crap. I know what I know.

  • Mr. F.

    Sorry, Wells. Just having fun.

    The good news is that Vizio has announced their new “Nigel Tufnel” LCD set. Thanks to firmware upgrades, it will always remain “one sharper” than any other LCD on the market.

  • jujuju

    sharpening actually degrades image quality. it’s needed up to a point, but after that you’re ‘over-sharpening’.

    i’ve noticed you over-sharpen your stills and they look it — lousy

    if you treat your video the same it will look grainy. you can take any original image and sharpen it until it looks grainy

    this may be what you’re doing. setting the sharpening to 0 may be, not only correct, but the default setting for any imagery that isn’t suffering from softness

    it’s hard to imagine a blu-ray that would be released soft, especially a prestige picture like this one

    lots of people, most hobbyist photogs, over-sharpen. it’s a thing. people do it. they figure, hell if it looks better at 2 it’s gonna look great at 6. it doesn’t.

    what most people don’t know is sharpening works by removing part of the image — it’s an illusion. push it too far and you’ll wreck the picture

  • bondjamesbond

    Wells’ argument here and elsewhere in general is on the level of the dumbest teenage ComicCon fanboy who’s all about the sensation and devil take the idea if we should be so lucky to have one. This is THE primary symptom of the degradation of American cinema, candy for the eyes, pigfat for the mind.

  • Super Soul

    “Padre la Tiempo, cinefan and Mr. F are nothing but schoolyard bullies.”

    I have never seen a post as diabolically subtle as cinefan’s. He was obviously out for blood.

  • jujuju

    i don’t know why sharpening would be applied to a movie that was shot on film. they did not use anti-aliasing filters for shooting film so why sharpen.

    it’s a tech application not a ‘wow this will make the picture look better’ magic wand. sharpening is for correcting the softness created by anti-aliasing filters. those are only used in digital capture

  • Redbeard

    “Padre la Tiempo, cinefan and Mr. F are nothing but schoolyard bullies. “You can’t have your own opinion! Get your head screwed on and fix your set!” Buncha crap. I know what I know.”

    Please – NO ONE is saying don’t have an opinion – exxcept you and your incessant “movie godz” bullshit.

    Opinions are fine – but you’re insisting you are the be-all, end-all final word on this stuff. Mr. F pointed that out brilliantly – you act as if the way you prefer it is the absolute, unassaiable truth. Bullies? Pot meet freakin’ kettle.

  • roland1824

    Try watching it connected through component cable instead of HDMI. That actually can have a big effect on black & white HD.

    PS – does H-E have the tag on the style sheet? Would make these he said / I said / he said pieces easier on the eyeballs. Indents whatever you put between the tags. Give it a shot.

  • roland1824

    That is, does H-E have the *blockquote tag on the style sheet…

  • jujuju

    so for a movie shot on plus x viewed without additional sharpening by someone who’s used to over-sharpened displays — it’ll look soft.

    well, film looks that way. but, it’s not ‘softness’ it’s the lushness they went for back in the day. if you sharpen in an effort to emulate a digital still you might improve the look, but you have to degrade the image to do so

    the degradation is on the pixel level while the improvement in the ‘look’ is at normal viewing distance.

    i can understand wanting to sharpen a movie from, say, the 40s. we’re used to a different standard now. in a few more years, when most/all movies are not only shot but displayed digitally, we’ll have another higher standard. you’ll be able to see incredibly detail — just like if the actor was a few feet in front of you.

    anyway, film looks lush, digital has extremely high resolution. if you over-sharpen an image shot on film you will highlight the grain (or something that looks like grain).

    i used to use plus-x. it was smooth and lush. loved it, especially compared to tri-x, which was hard and sharp (and if you looked close at a print you could see the grain)

    try this: find a frame (in the movie) where there’s some fine detail like a single strand of hair or something. set the sharpening to zero. if the detail still appears in focus you don’t have a soft image. if it looks ‘smeared’ you need sharpening.

    then, just to see the difference, turn the sharpening all the way up

  • jujuju

    the other possibility, if the detail looks soft, is your set might need calibration or replacement

    you might be sharpening a display that’s ready to be retired


  • Cadavra

    Here’s an idea: Why don’t we all chip in and buy Wells a 16mm projector? That way he can watch all the classics on actual film and he won’t have to complain about excessive grain and wrong aspect ratios anymore.

  • Pete Apruzzese

    30 bucks buys you the W.O.W. calibration disc. Follow the instructions. One hour later you WILL have a better image than you have now. I guarantee your sharpness control is too high (not to mention black level, white level, and gamma being off) if you’ve been setting it by eye.

  • Glenn Kenny

    How come nobody’s patting me on the back for being so civil?


    There was more to what Mr. Harris and I said to our friend Jeff, who, as you see, was not persuaded. He’s like Kevin Costner at the end of “The Untouchables,” for heaven’s sake. The best we can hope for tat this juncture is for elves to come into his house while he’s sleeping and recalibrate his display. Using that WOW disc Mr. Apruzzese recommends, and which really does work a treat if anyone else it interested.

  • T. J. Kong

    Back in ’05 I had my 65″ RPTV calibrated by an ISF technician. It was $300, but he spent about four hours working on it and charged a flat fee. Even though I had used Video Essentials and Avia to calibrate before, the set looked 100% better after he finished. Professional techs can do things that simply can’t be done by fiddling with setting knobs.

  • Floyd Thursby

    Can someone explain why Wells put that apostrophe in “DNR’ed” or is that an example of grainstorm?

  • chad_pole

    You should never adjust your sharpness on ANY TV or monitor… it should always be set at 0 on properly calibrated sets. So apparently you aren’t properly calibrated.

  • cinefan

    It’s funny that Wells links me with the “monk grains”, considering that, like him, I really prefer Black-and-White Blurays that have the shiny and polished look and have less noticeable grain. I was merely making the point that, if Wells had his TV’s sharpness setting at 0, a lot of his criticisms of certain Black-and-White Blurays would simply fade away. The Criterion Blu-Ray of Third Man, for example, looks quite good with the sharpness setting at the right level. I also really like the new Notorious Blu-Ray. The film’s images are very sharp and detailed yet there is the right amount of visible grain to remind you that you’re still watching a 1940’s film (the digital transfer also has that “velvety” feel that Robert Harris mentions in one of his posts).

  • Ponderer

    Well, it’s fine – he has no connection with reality. I’m sure he labels me with the 1:85 monks, even though I adore 1:33, especially for conveying a feeling of height. All I care about is the director’s intention. If I don’t agree with the director’s intention, I should go make my own fucking movie.

    But anyway, yeah, the facts have very little to do with how you get labeled around here. It’s gotten to the point where Wells screams at me when I *agree* with him.

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