Sunday, 29 March 2015

DEEP SPACE NINE: To HD or Not HD?

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise. To celebrate, Paramount are hoping to release the third Star Trek 'reboot' movie (and thirteenth overall) and, erm, at the moment not a lot else. Tentative discussions on a new Star Trek TV series don't seem to have gone anywhere and there isn't even any talk of a big TV documentary or retrospective. It does seem a bit odd for the biggest name in science fiction that more isn't being done to celebrate its longevity, especially considering the successful celebrations the BBC put on for Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago.


Something that fans had been expecting and looking forwards to, at least, was the HD/Blu-Ray re-release of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. CBS completed their release of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray in December and things looked good that they could roll straight into DS9 and, hopefully, Voyager right after. However, Robert Meyer Burnett, the producer of the documentaries for the TNG Blu-Rays, has tweeted that a DS9 re-release is now less likely, citing low sales for the TNG box sets. The news has stunned Trek fans who'd assumed that the whole franchise was being upgraded and future-proofed.

Burnett later clarified that he had no insider knowledge on a final decision, but the sales were not looking good. This came as slightly more of a relief because all the other indications so far have been that a DS9 re-release was possible (although tricky) even considering the slow take-up of TNG.

To backtrack a little, CBS and Paramount have, between them, so far released all twelve films on Blu-Ray, the complete original Star Trek series, all seven seasons of The Next Generation and all four seasons of Enterprise. That's fourteen seasons of television and twelve films. What is left are the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine and another seven seasons of Voyager, plus the two seasons of the 1970s animated Star Trek series (the latter not really being a priority to most people, but something it'd be nice to have). So CBS have made slightly more than half of the franchise available on Blu-Ray and for HD streaming. It would seriously odd not to complete the process.

TrekCore got the inside info on the 50th Anniversary logo. Exciting. It's note quite clear what the logo is going to actually be on, however.

Cost has been raised as a factor. The original series Blu-Ray releases were extremely popular, selling very well on Blu-Ray and doing well in streaming. TNG started off very well, with strong sales, but tailed off significantly over the course of its run. The cost of the remastering was substantial, with some reports placing the initial set-up and start-up costs, plus the cost of remastering the first season, at over $9 million. Later seasons came down substantially in cost as the team became faster and more proficient, but additional cost savings (such as farming some of the work out to third parties) were lost due to quality issues (the quality of the second season's remastering, handled by an outside company, is notably inferior to the other six). The total cost of remastering all seven seasons has been put at north of $20 million. This was the reason for the high costs of the sets: a RRP of £70 was set in the UK, although most retailers discounted to £50, but this still a lot higher than most Blu-Ray box sets. Burnett suggests that CBS failed to market the remastered series heavily enough and also blames the tailing off of marketing efforts, such as screening some of the remastered two-parter episodes in cinemas, due to legal issues over residuals and pay.

The big issue was, of course, the move from physical media to streaming. Physical media sales are down across the board and Blu-Ray never took in the way DVD did (although some franchises - such as Game of Thrones - are shifting more than half of their discs in the Blu-Ray format now). A lot of customers have skipped Blu-Ray to go to Netflix and Amazon HD streaming. Those who haven't either don't care about new technology and HD in the first place, or are living in areas where the internet infrastructure does not support such streaming.

Oddly, this move may be what eventually saves the situation. As well as being released on Blu-Ray, the HD version of TNG is airing on television and is available for streaming from Amazon. The deals CBS have put in place with international broadcasters have already either turned a profit, or will a few years down the line, and would make a HD DS9 and Voyager more enticing, especially since CBS could then package them together into a much bigger and more interesting deal (711 episodes being almost enough to air two episodes a day every day for a year).

An additional point is that the complete TNG box set (with all seven seasons in one box) has only just been released in the UK and other markets and, preposterously, still isn't out in the USA. I know a lot of Trek fans are waiting for the complete box sets before springing for the Blu-Rays, so for it not to be out yet is just crazy. Sales for the complete series box set are likely to dwarf that of the individual ones and may change the tone of the discussions about DS9 and Voyager.

We've also seen that Fox has released The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in HD to cable TV companies in the States, but has not yet announced a release date for the Blu-Rays. With a new X-Files TV series due on air in 2016, it is likely we will see a tie-in release of the series for that. The rumour is that Fox will not go for individual season box sets but will instead spring for all nine seasons in one box at a more reasonable cost, the same strategy employed by HBO on The Sopranos and The Wire. Buffy and Angel may follow the same model. Fox is funding the remastering in-progress instead with these early TV deals (in Buffy's case, rather too early) instead, which seems to be working for them.


There are of course problems with DS9 and Voyager. The first is simple popularity: the original show and TNG entered the cultural zeitgeist in a way that the later shows did not. DS9's highest-rated episode got barely half of TNG's highest-rated show. However, those high ratings were down to the massive marketing accompanying TNG's return and a dearth of good SFF shows in 1987 which was no longer the case in 1993; the average ratings for the two shows once the outliers are removed were a lot closer. Voyager, on the other hand, aired on a small-viewership cable channel to a fraction of the ratings of either of the other shows.

The second issue is technical. TNG used model shots, shot on film, for almost all of its effects shots, meaning they could simply be upgraded the same way as the live action film. This made the updating process much faster and more efficient. Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, began phasing out model shots in favour of CGI towards the end of its run. From the start of the sixth season onwards, most of the effects shots are in low-resolution CGI. All of these effects shots would need to be re-rendered from scratch, a far higher cost than the remastering on the earlier shows. Voyager has it far worse, with the move to CG effects beginning as early as the third season. Some of the CG artists have kept the models and effects files from both shows, which would simplify the workload, but it does not appear that all of the shots have been saved.

DS9 can be updated to HD fairly straightforwardly: the TNG process has left an efficient workflow and roadmap in place that DS9 can use. Almost all of the first five seasons can be remastered in the same way as TNG was, and although a lot of re-rendering would be needed for the final two seasons, these would be concentrated in just a few episodes. A little bit more complicated than TNG, but doable. In addition, DS9 would likely need a better release strategy, possibly a TV-oriented release on a high-profile platform (DS9's much more serialised storytelling would go down a storm on Netflix) with a complete series Blu-Ray release at the end, as TNG's model clearly did not work. It's all possible, it just needs CBS to stump up the cash for it (so, incidentally, if you were holding off on buying the existing re-masters, now might be a good time to do so).

Unfortunately, I think the prospects for a HD remastering of Voyager are much bleaker. The amount of effects re-rendering needed would be an order of magnitude more complex and expensive than DS9's. For a show with an even smaller potential audience base (if DS9's critical cachet has risen significantly in the last twenty years, Voyager's appears to have dropped), it's unlikely it will happen unless a DS9 remaster, marketed and released better than TNG's, is a huge hit.

Hopefully this can still happen. Of the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is arguably the most coherent, consistent in quality and tightly serialised, with ongoing story arcs spanning years and some much-needed subversion and re-examination of the tropes of both science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular. Among other things it paved the way for the newer Battlestar Galactica, with many of its writers and producers working on that show as well. It definitely should be updated and preserved for future generations.

20 comments:

Bob R Milne said...

Really no interest in a TNG box set, HD or not, but I would absolutely shell out for a DS9 HD set. It's a shame it's never gotten its due, because it was such an epic piece of sci-fi storytelling. The Cardassians were the most interesting foe since TOS - at least until the Dominion showed up - and the Dominion War was everything I wanted it to be. Still not happy with the way things ended, but one episode does not define a saga.

Kajol said...

I'd rather have Babylon 5 in HD than its inferior clone. But that would definitely not happen. *sigh*
At least all my favorite ST shows got the HD treatment.

B Sidford said...

Deep space nine used cgi right from the first episode. The station was the only model used and it was painted and lit by cg effects. There was never a model of the defiant and the cgi was not low quality it was very high quality. It's transfer to film may have had varying quality results but the source was at least 720 pixels.

On another forum I have read discussions about the cgi effects and one of the creators of the effects demonstrated how high def the cgi scenes were. The problem is different people made the different effects (and still own them) and they are not all in one place (digitally). Therefore all the effects would have to be remade from scratch.

That was not the case for next gen as you have discussed. That is why ds9 will never be on blue ray... Unfortunately.

Adam Whitehead said...

That is not correct. DS9 used models almost exclusively over its first four seasons with only two exceptions: the sailing lightship in Season 3 and the Defiant in the title sequence from Season 4 onwards. However, they otherwise used models including for the massive fleet battles in Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast and Way of the Warrior.

It was those two episodes which caused too many headaches for the sfx team and they started talking about CG. They gradually transitioned over Seasons 5 and 6 and by the end of Season 6 were using CG almost exclusively.

I recommend reading THE DEEP SPACE NINE COMPANION by Terry J. Erdmann. It features extensive interviews with the model-makers and sfx teams as they moved away from models and started using CG as the show went on.

Anonymous said...

So it's about 20 mil to get the entire 7 seasons converted? And would it really cost that much to do the CGI these days? A 2k desktop computer could render all those scenes in HD within a day compared to weeks in low res on the high powered systems they used back then. I see all kinds of fan created starships blowing one another up on youtube that wouldn't be any less appropriate on a blu ray release.

Patrick said...

Deep Space Nine was the only Trek show I bought on DVD, and I bought all 7 season box sets. I would buy the entire remastered series on blu-ray in a HEARTBEAT if it was done well. And I definitely think leveraging the streaming services like Netflix & Amazon Prime would be a good way to market a release like this, since DS9 was a much more serialized show than TNG or Voyager.

ewookie said...

I echo Patrick. DS9 was the only ST series I bought on DVD. Back then, DS9 was hated by all the 'trekkies' I knew and there was lots of talk that they may not do all the seasons on DVD due to lack of interest. So, I made sure to buy each season as soon as they were available.

Where I differ from Patrick and probably many others is that I don't care about remastering the space/ship scenes! They could cut and paste them straight from the DVDs for all I care. Just re-master the REAL drama - the scenes shot on film of people interacting on the sets. Those scenes/areas looked fine on my old CRT TV, but they look like dog poop on my HD TV - even running at 720p!

Erik Bergman said...

Actually a lot of the digital assets have been found and are of high enough quality that they can simply be rerendered at a higher pixel quality.

Patrick said...

ewookie, if they try to take the original footage and just "upscale" it to 1080p, it's definitely going to look sub-par, especially next to properly remastered live-action shots. If you were to take the proverbial Pepsi challenge between DVD footage upscaled to 1080p and properly remastered 1080p footage of the same scenes, I would wager significant amounts that the differences would be striking.

Erik, I read that too. Apparently a lot of the digital assets were preserved by an effects house that worked on them or some such? Not only that, but the models were significantly "overbuilt" with a lot more detail than would ever show up when rendered at VHS or even DVD resolution, but would now be visible if rendered at 1080p. So a proper remastering would bring new life to the FX shots without having to spend time actually creating much in the way of new detail.

Uli Rogosch said...

Just for those who haven't seen or found the possible beauty of a rerendered battle scene, here is a link to one of the cgi artists work on youtube. Don't forget to set the player to 1080p ;)

https://youtu.be/IJs0-hhOZFQ

benjamin said...

Such a shame that Trek Fans are so inconsistent with how much they enjoy each series. They are by no means all created equally but I find them all enjoyable enough to buy every bluray release. It seems Star Trek fans would rather hang toy ships from the ceilings and wear spock underwear than buy the actual blurays. Everyone is entiltled to spend how they want but it's curious to me.

Hnt Wlf said...

I would buy both shows, if for no other reason, to be consistent with balance of my Trek Collective on blu ray.

Weyoun 5 said...

I would also say, that DS9 was the best show -the peak of a mountain- you climb up with TOS and TNG (also great shows) and it goes down with Voy and ENT. Nevertheless, all shows are old stuff and today a newer and younger audience has much more possibilites to entertain itself and have fun. All shows are products of their time, but it was a negative surprise for me that TNG´s remastered version has sold so bad. So I do not think that we will see DS9 or Voy on Blu-ray (maybe on Green-ray, Black-ray, Dark Sienna-ray etc. in the far future.)But if CBS decides to give DS9 and Voy a HD-treatment within the next year I guess it would only be a bad upscale.

Eugene Johnson said...

I'm actually in the process of re-watching DS9 on Netflix. I would love to see this get the HD treatment. Sales will likely go up if they Blu Ray sets weren't so darn expensive.

Jeff Haugh said...

I've always thought it would be interesting to redo the animated series. Some of the stories were actually good, but the animation was definitely Saturday-morning.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't someone approach CBS about opening a KickStarter campaign for DS9's HD reissue?

The Grandmaster said...

Ahh Hell, I'm not worried about it. I love them all just the way they are.

Simon Pestridge said...

Am I the only one here that thought Voyager was much better than DS9?

IMO Voyager follows a very close second place to TNG, and DS9 third, and Enterprise coming in forth.

Don't get me wrong, I still loved DS9, love all the films, all the series, but as all the films, TNG and Enterprise have already had the Remastered HD treatment, my priority for the next remaster would be voyager, then DS9.

I agree it would be strange to launch The original series, TNG, Enterprise, and the original films Remastered for the 50th anniversary, and not complete "The Full Journey" botsets with Voyager and DS9??

I'm a CG artist, 15 years in the industry, and if most of the CGI scenes have been saved, and I don't see why not as I would never delete scenes I've worked on for weeks or months, most of the time, its just a case of resizing the resolution, and hitting render, but some close up shots may need more detailed texture maps applied. There are also much better compositing and effects tools now, so if they wanted to upgrade the affects, that would add to the time frame, but I think they should be left as close to the original as possible, with the exception of enhancing the image quality, noise reduction etc.

Rendering, whether is by CPU or GPU nodes is also leaps and bounds faster than what was available back when these series were put together. I think if the CGI remastering is being put to the studios as problematic, its just the CGI artists trying to milk more money..

Anonymous said...

Up to this day I can only shake my head in disbelief that nobody is willing to talk about the proverbial "elephant in the room", i.e. aspect ratio.

Back in late 2011 a special presentation was held at CBS, where one episode of TNG (probably "Sins of the Father")had been remastered in the original 4:3 aspect ratio and re-formatted in 16:9 full screen to arrive at a decision how TNG should be remastered and re-released.
Robert Meyer-Burnett was there and tweeted that TNG in 16:9 looked wonderful and would win "by a landslide" over a 4:3 presentation (by using additional side elements on the original camera negatives during close-ups and zooming into the 4:3 negative during panoramic bridge shots to get rid of possible studio equipment cluttering the sides).

Yet, the vocal opposition of 4:3 purists once these news leaked, apparently made the CBS execs change their mind and a fateful decision was made on behalf of 4:3 and exclusively.

IMHO, the strong sales figures of TNG's Season One (followed by a steady sales figures decline even though the seasons got inarguably better)suggest that a lot of average customers thought they'd get a 16:9 presentation (no information on the season sets ever indicated the series to be only available in 4:3) and ultimately lost interest when they realized they didn't.

The fact that during the shooting of DS9 a lot of computer technology came into use to "clean up" many errors during live-action shooting in post-production is one obstacle hardly addressed, the other one is the question of aspect ratio (the later seasons of DS9 were shot with a 16:9 extraction in mind).

If DS9 in HD were released in an intelligently done 16:9 re-formatting, it would probably appeal to average audiences (= sales figures necessary to justify the remastering costs) but the vocal 4:3 purists would hardly sit still.

I think CBS should consider a 16:9 re-release of TNG first, see how average consumers react to it and if sales figures would turn out to be superior than those of the 4:3 release, DS9 in HD might still have a chance.

Unless that happens, CBS finds itself in a "darn if you do and darn if you don't" situation. And I really can't blame them, except for probably listening to the wrong people back in late 2011.

Adam Whitehead said...

Interesting. All the commentary and evidence I have seen has said that the amount of digital manipulation required to remove the equipment cluttering the sides of the screen in TNG was simply too large and paying for it would have broken the budget. There was simply far too much work to do to justify doing it.

Another problem was that most of the original model shots were not always done with a standard non-widescreen camera (for some reason), leading to odd situations when on model shots you have a widescreen starfield but the ships materialise in the middle of the screen and start disappearing towards the edges. Fixing that problem would apparently be impossible without replacing all of the model shots with CGI, which would be hugely expensive.

My stance is that you need to have 100% of the original image on screen. If you can add stuff to the edges from the original neg, great, but if you can't then cropping and zooming is not the way to do it (there's like one shot on THE WIRE HD where they justified it). Especially if it's done as badly as the way BUFFY has done it.