HD my left walnut
As most people will be aware by now, there have been some amazing high definition transfers on both HD DVD and Blu-ray, and some rather less than amazing ones. When you’re working with a native resolution of 1920x1080, you’d better hope that your master is of the highest quality, because little flaws that would go unnoticed in standard definition will stick out like sore thumbs. The two titles most commonly dragged out for a public for a ritual flogging are Sony’s House of Flying Daggers and The Fifth Element on Blu-ray, transfers that are generally regarded to constitute a decidedly miniscule improvement on their DVD counterparts. Indeed, even Sony have apparently realised this, given that they are currently in the process of preparing a new version and setting up a disc replacement programme.
Unfortunately, it seems that the crown for worst HD transfer must pass from Blu-ray to HD DVD. AV Science Forum member Xylon recently started providing side by side comparisons of standard definition and high definition titles, many of which admirably demonstrate the undeniables improvements that are possible in HD with even the least visually inspiring films. Unfortunately for certain less than proficient reviewers, however, these highly effective demonstrations have shown up their amateurish postulating for the sham that it is. These screenshots serve to confirm many of the opinions I’ve been expressing for a while now, e.g. that Batman Begins looks underwhelming, while Serenity looks fucking incredible.
The shit really hit the fan a few days ago when Xylon posted a comparison of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, released last September on HD DVD by Universal. When initially released, many people commented that the transfer looked less than stellar. Such individuals were quickly put in their place by being told that Traffic intentionally looked rough and grainy, and that they shouldn’t expect 3D whizz-bang effects and crystal clarity from every title (a sentiment that I fully agree with). Now, however, Xylon’s screengrabs demonstrate the truth that dare not speak its name:
Traffic on HD DVD is a 480i upconvert.
Not only that, it actually looks worse than the DVD, with additional ringing and what appears to be even less fine detail. I really am absolutely flabbergasted, especially given some of the reviews that have emerged. The notorious Peter M. Bracke of High-Def Digest gave the transfer a 4/5 and said this:
Bottom line, this HD DVD transfer delivers. The source material is as good as the film stock allow, with no major defects visible such as print tears or distracting blemishes, though grain is intentionally excessive for much of the film. Black levels are consistent throughout, while contrast is all over the map. Some story threads have whites so blown out that fine detail is all but obscured, while others are bathed in darkness or excessively saturated colors. Thus, there is some noise and smeared hues, but again it appears intentional. Overall detail and depth to the image is about as good as can be expected. No, I was never blown away by the presentation as I’ve been with other HD DVD releases, but then I never anticipated otherwise.
The infamous Joshua Zyber of DVD Talk, meanwhile, rates it 3/5, and claims that
The disc looks exactly like the film is meant to look, and it actually has some fascinating textures, but this just isn’t the type of movie you buy for crystal clear HD image quality. While certain scenes show off the High-Def fairly well (primarily the blue-filtered Michael Douglas segments), on the whole there isn’t much fine object detail or depth. Aside from some minor edge ringing in a few scenes, the disc represents the movie’s intended style faithfully and I can’t fault it for that, but most viewers will probably not find it a huge upgrade over standard DVD.
Sorry, but the comparisons speak for themselves, and, coupled with some additional screen captures from a still crummy-looking but undeniably superior 720p broadcast version, it’s difficult to imagine anyone trying to claim that Universal have done anything other than screw up royally. Unfortunately, this is not the case: Zyber is currently ransacking what little dignity he has left by attempting to poo-poo the screenshots and tell us that what we’re seeing is untrue.
Josh Zyber, Peter Bracke: please consider retracting your reviews. The visual evidence speaks for itself, and not even the most blinkered individual could attempt to claim, based on the screenshots in question, that the Traffic HD DVD is anything other than a standard definition upconvert. Reviews such as these bring this profession into disrepute and mean that prospective buyers cannot make an informed decision about their purchases. Worse, they give lazy distributors ample reason to pump out any old garbage and charge a premium for it rather than spend money on new, decent-quality masters. Based on these phenomenally misguided reviews (and I’m sorry, but in this particular instance, we are talking about fact, not opinion), I highly doubt that I will ever trust a single article from these two writers ever again.
More ill-informed reviews:
One thing that should be remembered, however, is this: as ignorant, ill-informed and damaging as these reviews are, they are the small fry in this debacle. The people who should truly be hanging their heads and grovelling for apologies are Universal, who blew a 480i master up to 1080p, slapped it on a disc and had the nerve to sell it as “The Look and Sound of Perfect”.
Update, April 12th, 2007 09:08 PM: A separate thread has now appeared at AVS, with the topic starter demanding (rightfully so) that Universal acknowledge their screw-up. Unfortunately, Mr. Zyber is continuing to make a fool of himself by refusing to admit the obvious.