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The Criterion mind game

DVD

Today, I received my copy of Criterion’s recent re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. This new 2-disc edition, released in November 2007, replaces the old single-disc version from May 1998. As one of the first DVDs Criterion put out (both the original release and the new one are number 3 in the collection), it left rather a lot to be desired in the transfer department, taken from a composite source and filled with dot crawl.

I’m happy to report that the new transfer is a massive improvement, although it does suffer from an extremely irritating practice known as windowboxing, which Criterion have been applying to all their transfers for Academy ratio films for at least a couple of years. Essentially, the entire image is shrunk slightly and surrounded by a black border on all four edges. According to the booklet included inside the DVD case, this is done “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors”. What they should have said is “to ensure that the maximum image is visible on improperly calibrated televisions”. Overscan is an issue with most television displays, cropping off as much as 10% of the signal image. However, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that those who are serious about film will do everything they can to minimise, if not eliminate, overscan, or buy a display that does not suffer from it in the first place (such as most projectors, as well as the majority of modern 1080p LCD or plasma displays).

A nice improvement, but what's with the black border? Click for full size image.

Above: A nice improvement, but what’s with the black border? Click for full size image.

Why, then, is Criterion, a company that caters specifically to cinephiles and prides itself on the highest possible quality standards (more on this later) effectively authoring discs, as one of my fellow netizens put it, “to look best on the worst equipment”? I can think of no other studio who routinely shrinks the image and therefore throws away valuable resolution. This is standard definition NTSC we’re talking about, with a resolution of 720x480. Every line of resolution should be valued, not thrown away in order to prevent a small amount of the image being cropped on Joe Sixpack and Mary-Jane Rottencrotch’s tube display. The windowboxing on this release is certainly not excessive, but it does mean that the image is approximately 12-13% smaller than it could have been, and as a result has 12-13% less detail than would overwise have been possible.

(Left: old version; Right: new version; click for full size images)
The Lady Vanishes (old) The Lady Vanishes (new)

The long and short of it is that I am of the opinion that Criterion’s reputation as being the absolute best of the best in the DVD field is largely a mind game propagated by a number of factors, ranging from their pioneering work in the LaserDisc days (it’s unlikely that you would have audio commentaries or be able to expect an original aspect ratio presentation of a film as the rule rather than the exception if not for them) to their extremely high standard of publicity and design. Their packaging is always eye-catching and, even if they occasionally confuse plainness with minimalism (The Rock is a cover that only Criterion could get away with!), broadly speaking the sort of artwork they put out is clever, tasteful and light years ahead of anything the mainstream studios (or indeed the indie studios, most of whom seem to delight in making their wares look as schlocky as possible, as if it’s some sort of badge of honour) are doing. Essentially, pick a Criterion DVD off the shelf and it looks like you’re really getting something special. The old adage is “never judge a book by its cover”, but all too many people do.

There’s also the niche factor: broadly speaking, I doubt that your average moviegoer will have heard of, let alone seen, the bulk of the films Criterion have released. Intriguingly, this often seems to lead to a sense of reverence: “They’ve put out a film in a foreign language with a title that’s hard to pronounce about nuns in S&M gear painting each other pink - they must be really dedicated!” I am of no doubt that the people at Criterion are absolutely devoted to their craft and truly love what they are doing. However, what I am trying to say it that I’m not convinced that their grand reputation is entirely justified. While their choice of films (barring the odd Armageddon), bonus materials and packaging are all very high-brow, their transfers are often not that much better, if indeed better at all, than the competition.

Surf to various review sites, and you’ll find that Criterion’s transfers are often held up as the benchmark to which all other companies should aspire. In reality, though, the majority of the Criterion transfers that I’ve seen are fairly average. The Rock and Naked Lunch are at the upper end of the spectrum and are truly great (if imperfect) pieces of work, but at the lower end you have the likes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which in terms of its lack of detail is one of the worst DVD transfers I’ve ever seen that wasn’t pulled off a VHS tape or LaserDisc master. Oddly enough, many people praised it as a welcome improvement on the earlier Universal DVD.

They are practically the same transfer, folks.

Don’t believe me? The pictures speak for themselves. The same master has clearly been used, the level of detail is almost exactly the same, and the only significant (and I use the word loosely) difference between the two is minutely looser framing on the Universal disc. Hardly the stunning improvement that most would have you believe, and, given that the Universal disc was rightly criticised by a number of people at its time of release all these “5/5” and “10/10” reviews for the Criterion version look mightily suspect.

All this is not part of some deliberate attempt on my part to pour scorn on Criterion or turn people away from their products. They deserve a great deal of praise for putting out films that no other company would touch (even if most of them aren’t to my tastes), their packaging is top notch, and I love the fact that they routinely include chunky booklets filled with reviews, analyses, interviews and artwork - something I’ve really come to appreciate since many of the majors have given up even including a chapter insert. However, I don’t think Criterion’s releases should be celebrated as the absolute best that the DVD format can look. Like just about every other company, they’ve put out a handful of great-looking titles, some absolute turds and a vast number that merely look quite good. “Quite good”, it must be said, is an awful lot better than what an awful lot of the independents are putting out, but, when you routinely charge $40 for a single film and lay claim to “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality”, “quite good” isn’t really enough.

 
Posted: Monday, February 04, 2008 at 9:59 PM | Comments: 16
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Reviews | Technology | Web

 
Comments

1.

I'd love to see Criterion create flawless transfers every time and charge half as much for their DVD's, but seeing as their pockets aren't as deep as the majors, I doubt this day will come. I think "quite good" is exactly that. It's telling how you discount the importance of the titles in Criterion's catalogue in order to make your argument. Are we so spoiled that when we get a 3-Disc "Seven Samurai", restored and chock full of great supplements we say, "I guess it's pretty good, BUT..." as if there are a bunch of other production companies lined-up to put a superior version out? How about "Days of Heaven", or "Night on Earth", or "Army of Shadows", or "Playtime", or "8 1/2", or "The Third Man", or the forthcoming "The Last Emperor"--just to name a scant few. Please. I own around 20 Criterion titles and I rent a ton more online. Their transfers are almost always respectable, if not superior (something constantly backed-up at DVDBeaver.com) and the packaging and extras speak for themselves. You wont find a claim of "perfect transfers" on Criterion's website, but what Studio can even make such a claim in the SD realm? Pooh-pooh Criterion all you want, but even flawed, they're still one of the best DVD labels we have.

Posted by: , February 5, 2008 4:14 AM

2.

Criterion makes the best DVD covers out there, that's for sure. And "Lady Vanishes" is one of Hitchcock's best. It has aged better than a lot of his later material.

Posted by: Marcus, February 5, 2008 4:17 AM

3.

There's nothing unreasonable in pointing out avoidable errors and questionable practices.

Go Michael.

-Jeff

Posted by: Jeffrey Allen Rydell, February 5, 2008 7:43 AM

4.

Of course Criterion is (and all indies are) at the mercy of the companies they license titles from. They may have wanted to do a new transfer of Fear and Loathing but Universal told them no.

Looking at the specs on Criterion's website, it says that Gilliam approved the transfer, so that may be why it is the same as the Universal dvd. Gilliam felt it was fine and didn't want to do a new one. Criterion will do what the director wants. Sometimes this isn't good(as in the case of the upcoming The Last Emperor, which will be cropped to 2:1 per Bertolucci and Storaro's wishes), but I'd rather have a company err on this side instead of the other.

One thing I want to point out about Criterion's deal with Disney/Buena Vista. It is unlike their deals with the other studios. All Criterion did on the Disney/Buena Vista titles was produce the supplements and design the packaging. Disney did everything else. So any good or bad is on the folks at Disney.

Posted by: Derrick King, February 5, 2008 9:17 AM

5.

and for them to take an average transfer of The Lady Vanishes and make it as good as possible for ALL monitors and TV's it could be watched on is still not a bad thing - it takes into account their demographics and target audience.

Also are you sure at what part of the process this was done and from what master source? Surely if it's applied at the encoding it might not lose as much/any of the resolution you suppose it does?

Posted by: , February 5, 2008 9:33 AM

6.

Plus - the original film negative will not be supported, I think, by any other means - if the film was shot academy it can't be presented 4:3 or 16:9 without losing some of the image, surely? Standard monitors just aren't made that way? If you have a 16:9 monitor what do you do when a film was made using a negative never intended to support that ratio? This must be the best way for the WHOLE image to be seen, even if there is a minor drop in resolution?

Posted by: cookie, February 5, 2008 9:39 AM

7.

I had a feeling this post wouldn’t go down well with all readers. When you criticise a sacred cow, you put yourself in the firing line.


On windowboxing and The Lady Vanishes:

The black border surrounds the entire image and is of equal width on all four edges. This has nothing to do with maintaining aspect ratio and everything to do with shrinking the image, in doing so reducing the overall resolution by approximately 13%, so that those who haven’t properly calibrated their displays don’t miss any of the image. Why they would do this boggles the mind (and the fact that they don’t do it for their widescreen discs makes it even more confusing). After all, when you’re working in standard definition, every line of resolution is precious. If a viewer doesn’t care to ensure that they have eliminated overscan, can they really be that bothered about losing visual information in the first place? (And indeed, many DVD players now offer a zoom function to compensate for overscan.)

Academy ratio is 1.37:1 - in other words, extremely close to 4x3. The slight difference in framing could, if the technician is really bothered about the minute difference, be achieved by very slightly letterboxing the image at the top and bottom of the frame (really no more than a few pixels). It does not require the entire image to be embedded within the equivalent of a picture frame.

In a way, it’s not unlike their vehement anti-anamorphic stance in the early days, where they opted to release widescreen films non-anamorphically because the anamorphic to non-anamorphic conversion on certain cheap DVD players wasn’t of optimal quality, thus once again punishing those with good equipment (i.e. those with widescreen displays or at least DVD players that could do the conversion properly) in order to please those with poorer quality equipment.


On transfers and pricing:

I would have no problem with Criterion charging $40 per DVD if they put out brilliant transfers that weren’t artificially curtailed by needless filtering. Actually, I’d happily pay more if I thought I was going to get a transfer that actually used the full resolution. Sadly, they don’t. Just about every Criterion disc I have seen that has been released in the last few years (they seemed to “standardise” their process) shows the same degree of filtering, regardless of the source, which indicates that Criterion is intentionally applying this themselves. Indeed, they have been mastering in high definition for years, so, when all their releases use less than the available resolution of standard definition NTSC (something that is common to just about every DVD released, I hasten to add, so Criterion are hardly the only guilty party in terms of this obnoxious practice), it’s blatantly obvious what they are doing. I must stress that this is not about criticising the poor shape of the source materials: most of the time, the source materials Criterion use are in excellent condition. It’s what happens after the standard definition downconversion that is the problem.

Filtering reduces image complexity. It sucks out detail and adds unsightly ringing around high contrast edges (not the same as edge enhancement, although the two artefacts do look very similar, so it’s understandable that they are often confused). There are typically two reasons for doing this. Firstly, to avoid unsightly shimmering on interlaced displays - in other words, once again mastering their discs to look best on the worst equipment. Secondly, by simplifying the image’s complexity, they make the disc easier to encode with a lower bit rate, meaning that less effort is required to avoid compression artefacts. As I said before, virtually no commercially released DVD is unfiltered. The disc my brother is currently working on will be one of the few to be put out without any added detail reduction, and to say that it puts the average Criterion transfer to shame would be an understatement, and he had access to far fewer resources than they do. This is not something that requires a million dollars: anyone can do it. If you filter an image, you are intentionally degrading its overall quality.

As I said in the original post, this is not about poo-pooing Criterion’s achievements in terms of putting out rare and obscure films in restored versions, or about turning people away from their products. In many cases, I’m sure that the discs they release are the best-looking versions of their respective films. With all due respect, though, that says less about Criterion and more about the average independent label. It just sticks in my craw when I read reviews or posts in which people rave about how amazing Criterion’s transfers are and how they present the films in question in the highest possible quality. They don’t. That’s not an expression of opinion, but a hard fact. You cannot reduce an image’s detail below the resolution of the display format and claim that it is looking its best.

Posted by: Whiggles, February 5, 2008 11:04 AM

8.

While I'm certain no other company would have put in the same time and effort that produced the brilliant Complete Mr. Arkadin collection and as two examples, their disc of Eyes Without a Face and The Rock are both brilliant transfers (as Michael agrees, with their places in his DVD transfer hall of fame. I'm sure a few more Criterions would be in there if you owned more of their discs.) Criterion definitely deserve criticism. Although the consumer and reviewers are also to blame for buying into it in an Emperor's new clothes way.

The $30 RRP for lower tier one disc titles is pretty steep especially as some of the earlier ones (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill, High and Low) are atrocious.
From their page on Branded to Kill "Criterion presents the DVD premiere of Branded to Kill in a pristine transfer from the original Nikkatsu-scope master." Now look at the screenshots:
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews10/branded_to_kill_.htm

Also the first poster mentioned Playtime. Well that had to be re-released as their original disc from 2001 was heavily cropped and didn't even have the longest cut of the film available.
Credit must go to them for bothering to correct thier failures and re-release titles such as Playtime along with Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Amarcord but people surely thought when buying such boastful premium priced products first time around they would be getting their money's worth and not have to pay the same (or more) again to get the kind of presentation claimed originally.

On windowboxing, Michael has pointed out the main flaw in the Criterion's argument for windowboxing regardless of the (significant) loss in resolution. You are still losing information at the sides of the widescreen image when your display overscans yet Criterion only windowbox full frame images. How is there one rule for one ratio and one for another even though both are affected by overscan?
Could it perhaps be that windowboxing widescreen would mean you are using even less reslolution and the image quality would be even more adversely affected than when you windowbox a full frame image?

As for their packaging Criterion's covers are the best newly created covers but Warner's use of original posters on their classic film DVDs are easily my favourite.

You only have to look at Kino's DVDs to see how bad they could be though. They release a lot of films which I'm sure would otherwise be in the Criterion catalogue. Frequently interlaced and often littered with irritating faults and they still charge prices in the $30 bracket.

Posted by: , February 5, 2008 11:39 AM

9.

Just to agree with the above, transfer quality is not always tied to expense.

"Quality" in the sense of having someone repair and paint out dust and scratches is incredibly labour-intensive and expensive. Unless you are the type of person that does it for free (COUGH). A lot of the mistakes we see on DVDs are related to knowledge, not cash.

That said I agree that Criterion are often better than many (their packaging and menus, as Mike said, are the icing on the cake) but his point of the likes of "Fear and Loathing" getting critically acclaimed video-wise (it looks awful) just because it has "Criterion" on the cover is very valid.

I also don't get the windowboxing. Sometimes for the opening titles, OK, I'd understand there to stop the edges getting lost, but on an Overscanning display, often you'll end up with uneven areas of black at the sides (you might get none on the left but a larger amount on the right, etc). I'd rather fix the real problem than have discs tailored for the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: David Mackenzie, February 5, 2008 12:04 PM

10.

"I had a feeling this post wouldn't go down well with all readers. When you criticise a sacred cow, you put yourself in the firing line."

Hey Michael - I don't think they're a 'sacred cow'. I haven't said that at all. Is it really 1.33:1 or 1:37:1? I know it was shot during the major shift to 37, but I am not sure how the neg was produced - what ratio it was shot at? What was the practice for British films at this stage? Dunno myself... probably 37, I imagine though.

You do agree then that some window boxing is okay after all?
"The slight difference in framing could, if the technician is really bothered about the minute difference, be achieved by very slightly letterboxing the image at the top and bottom of the frame (really no more than a few pixels)"

what happens to the left and right side of the image if watched on a 16x9 monitor? shouldn't they be black as well anyway? so, a little bit of black at the top and bottom and some on left and right!

I ask only because I intend to buy this... but will hold off.

Posted by: cookie, February 5, 2008 5:53 PM

11.

Cookie, I think it’s important that we distinguish between letterboxing (black bars at the top and bottom) and pillarboxing (black bars at the sides) to preserve a film’s aspect ratio, and the process of windowboxing, which adds a black frame around the entire image. Letterboxing and pillarboxing are important for maintaining the director’s vision, and the resulting loss in available screen real estate is a necessary trade-off in order to avoid cropping the image. Windowboxing, on the other hand, merely shrinks the whole image and has nothing to do with maintaining the aspect ratio. I am all in favour of letterboxing and pillarboxing. Windowboxing, though, I don’t see the point of. In this case, the image is using 13% less of the screen than it should be, and as a result has 13% less detail than should have been possible.

As for the 1.33:1 vs. 1.37:1 ratio, I’m not sure about The Lady Vanishes, but I suspect that the difference is so minute that it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. It’s like the 2.35:1/2.39:1 framing difference, and the practice of cropping or unmatting 1.85:1 films to 1.78:1 for DVD. The latter is a particularly widespread practice, with Warner routinely doing it on every one of their 1.85:1 films, but no-one really complains about it.

Posted by: Whiggles, February 5, 2008 6:14 PM

12.

fair enough. I do suspect though that if you concede a small amount at top and bottom than, with pillarboxing already there that will essentially be letterboxing. the ratio's thing these days is a massive chore. When I made One for the Road (there's a DVDTimes review up somewhere - on the dvdtimes site of course) we shot 16:9 - using Sony PD150's. transferring it to 35mm made it another ratio, to DVD another and inbetween two others (telecined from the 35mm neg to DV with an HD Master) and now Tartan has that out in an anamorphic 1.77:1 ratio. I am more than aware that an original vision of the film - it's ideal - is a temporary affair in the end - even each cinema screening may have variables. If you shoot a film 2.39 it may end up described as or literally becoming 2.35 anyway. If you shoot Super35mm aiming for 2.35 then you'll get closer...

Posted by: cookie, February 5, 2008 6:53 PM

13.

Michael, I wasn't criticizing your criticism. I know, and agree with, your complaints with uninformed dvd reviewers. And when Criterion screws up they need to be called out on it. I was just pointing out that, in the case of Fear and Loathing, it is important to consider that they do not own the masters, so if Universal tells them it is this or nothing, they can't really fight them. Criterion needs Universal more than Universal needs Criterion.

When are we going to find out what dvd your brother is working on?

Posted by: Derrick King, February 5, 2008 7:50 PM

14.

Derrick, very soon, I hope.

I'm with you on the rights holders... I don't think Mike was bitter at Criterion at all, though, his complaints are more with the people praising them because of the name on the tin.

Posted by: David Mackenzie, February 6, 2008 12:46 AM

15.

So Criterion is to blame because reviewers often overrate their transfers? Or because they have a cult following of ignorant wannabe films snobs? Seems like a classic case of false cause to me, Whiggles.

Posted by: , February 6, 2008 4:44 AM

16.

No, my criticism was really aimed both at those who blindly assume Criterion = quality (not necessarily reviewers), as well as the studio itself for putting out intentionally filtered product.

Posted by: Whiggles, February 6, 2008 11:02 AM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 31st 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

http://www.landofwhimsy.com

 

 
 
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