From VHS to Blu- progress?

Back in the bad old days of fuzzy VHS with its dodgy reds and pan and scan on SD cathode-ray tubes, I recall being quite happy with my lot. Just owning one of my favourite films on tape seemed a godsend, back then I seemed to enjoy the film for what it was. You’d buy a film on VHS and play it, and barring tracking issues and drop-outs would enjoy it. Of course there was this fragility thing going on- keep it away from damp or heat or magnetic fields and know that as you kept on re-watching it you were physically wearing the bloody thing out. I still own my first VHS copy of Blade Runner (the big-box version- and if you know what that means then kudos to you) though of course even if I still had a VHS player I’d think more than twice about risking playing it after so many years (if I get chance I’ll take a pic of it to post here sometime soon).

There was something about Blade Runner on pan and scan VHS, all those bright colours and odd reds and low contrast, low-res murkiness. It had a certain kind or organic ‘look’ that further editions perhaps lost. Of course not being widescreen it played a weird havoc with Ridley Scott’s original composition of the frame. But kinda cool as I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my memory.

But anyway, what I’m getting at isn’t really to do with Blade Runner, its regards VHS tape and old formats compared to what we have now with HD movies on Blu-ray. I used to buy films without being too concerned about DNR, edge-enhancement, sample rates, etc. I just enjoyed the films for what they were. Nowadays though its getting to be a nightmare. Reviews online dissect aspect ratios, transfers, restoration, edge-enhancement, DNR… forums wild with personal opinions based on different audio-visual equipment and preferences, its something of a minefield. Its not just about the movies themselves anymore.

This week I finally cancelled my pre-order for the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray, which is due here in the UK in the next week or so. It wasn’t something I did lightly- I’d deliberated over it for several weeks. Originally set to be released in September, it was delayed at almost the last minute after someone reviewing check-discs highlighted picture quality problems and mistyped text on the redone titles for Frenzy (it makes you wonder what kind of quality-control Universal has, and how much care the project received at all). Well, the Frenzy titles got fixed but of course there was no time for the other issues to be addressed. Now that the set has seen release in foreign territories the problematic issues with the quality of titles in the set has been confirmed by various sources.

Now clearly this is all, partly at least, fan-boy hysteria- I’m open to the view that much of the negativity is overblown . Many people buying the set will be ignorant of many of the problems and will enjoy the films in HD- for the most part the films must surely look the best they ever have. Which is what I’m getting at when looking back on those VHS days. We’ve never had it so good as we have it now. Films look better, sound better and last forever (or as long a the format lasts, so maybe nothing there has really changed).  But with HD etc we are in a world where the films are analysed so much, and so much is expected.  For myself, I finally decided that £100 was too much to invest in a collection containing some (apparently) seriously dodgy transfers, shoddy or poorly-budgeted restoration work and half-hearted supplements. At the end of the day, I feel Hitchcock’s films deserved better and I’m voicing that with my wallet. Vertigo is one of my very favourite films and is one of the better-quality titles in the set, but the extras are pretty much what has been seen before and is even missing a (previously-released on DVD) commentary track. Buying it for a tenner on its own might have been ok, but as part of such an expensive set with so many issues it just seemed too much. It’s disappointing  as I was really looking forward to watching Vertigo and Rear Window in HD this Autumn. For some weeks now the limited-edition set was sold out on Amazon, but enough of us have recently cancelled pre-orders for the set to be available again for awhile. I see now that its sold out again. Maybe the issues don’t bother most people, maybe most people simply aren’t aware- in any case people  seem to be still buying it so I dare say Universal and Amazon are quite content.

So anyway, part of my decision, right or wrong, was the existence of the Bond 50 set- a Blu-ray collection of all 22 James Bond films. I’d already decided that, with Christmas expenses coming up and budgets tight, I’d only treat myself to one such boxset this Autumn. It came down between the Hitchcock and Bond sets as I’d put off the Indiana Jones set until the New Year and its inevitable discounting, and I’d originally picked the Hitchcock as I just prefer those films. So anyway, the isues with the Hitchcock sets transfers etc pretty much swung it, and the fact that the Bond set is actually cheaper rather helped too.

That said, forums have it that there are problems with the Bond set too- apparently not so drastic but it does make it all so bewildering and somewhat nostalgic for the days of VHS. I received the Bond set yesterday so haven’t watched any of the films yet, but the packaging certainly looks rather impressive, which helps to make me think I made the right decision. Well, watching all the Bond movies in HD over the next few weeks should be a fine way to spend the dark cold nights ahead.  Think I’ll watch them in chronological order. There’s a few of them I’ve never actually seen, and most others only maybe once or twice on TV many years ago.

But you know, back when I bought the various editions of Blade Runner or The Abyss or Heat or whatever, I just enjoyed the films. I didn’t pay too much attention to the picture quality, it was just what it was. Of course I’d prefer ( and pay extra for) widescreen versions, but the film was, finally, the thing. Nowadays it really isn’t just about the film. We have gained so much only to be confused by so much. Would I have really enjoyed the Hitchcock set?Would I have been aware of all the issues hadn’t I read of them online?  Will I notice anything particularly wrong with any of the Bond movies? You know, I don’t really know.

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One thought on “From VHS to Blu- progress?

  1. When I first got Blu-ray, I slavishly read reviews for picture quality information to make sure a release would be worth getting. These days, I rarely bother. New films are rarely less than very good, usually excellent (I know some people whinge about things like The Dark Knight, but you probably need a 100″ projection and a very keen eye for detail to even spot them — and not everyone agrees then!), and it seems to me catalogue releases aren’t often severely affected either. Unless it’s a major flaw — an SD upscale; the blatant waxiness of something like Predator — criticisms are often not noticeable to the regular viewer. That said, most of what I buy lately is either new (or new enough) or from very reliable labels, like Masters of Cinema.

    Recently the Bond set has gone some way to cementing my opinion. As I mentioned in reply to your comment on my post, the GoldenEye transfer isn’t perfect, as clearly demonstrated by some screengrabs online that show a heavy application of DNR disappearing on fade-to-blacks, revealing a much more detailed picture. But when watching chunks of the film on my TV, I can tell it’s not full-quality, but it looks suitably HD-like for my tastes. It’s certainly better than the DVD.

    At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to for me — is it better than the DVD? Because if I want to own it, I want to own it, and very few things get a re-release to fix problems (and even then they have to be significant and obvious to the lay-person, like the Gladiator issues). There’s very little that’s worth abandoning just in case a better version comes along, especially if you’re not prepared to wait years.

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