A few months ago the Pivot Network in the United States began airing Joss Whedon's seminal late 1990s drama-horror-comedy (drahorcom?) series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in high definition. Fox had given the show a much-needed update for repeats, streaming and likely a future Blu-Ray release. And, to put it mildly, they've screwed it up.
To clarify a few terms before we get into this discussion:
Definition refers to how many lines of information (pixels in the digital age) are used to make up the image. The more lines, the finer and more detailed the image. Older American TV shows used to have 480 lines of information running horizontally across the image. This is standard definition (SD). Modern TV shows have 1,080, which is referred to as high definition (HD) and is the current industry standard.
Aspect ratio refers to the dimensions of the on-screen image. Older TV screens had an aspect ratio of 4:3, resulting in a mostly square image. For TV shows filmed for 4:3, this is the original aspect ratio (OAR). Modern TVs have an aspect ratio of 16:9, resulting in a screen that is almost twice as wide as it is tall. This is what is generally referred to when the term widescreen is used (there are other widescreen aspect ratios, but they are not relevant to this particular discussion).
Remastering is the expensive and time-consuming process by which a SD image is replaced by a HD one. This process is complicated by the fact that most older TV shows were edited, finalised and distributed on video tape. Video tape is a locked SD format from which it is impossible to create a more detailed image. This means that the video master tapes for TV shows cannot simply be converted from SD to HD. However, most American TV shows were (highly fortunately) shot on 16mm or 35mm film. This is the same type of film used to shoot movies, which of course need to be displayed on massive cinema screens and contains high-quality, high-definition images by default.
As long as the original camera negatives have survived, it is possible to go back to them and extract a HD (or even super-HD, known as 4K) image which looks a hell of a lot better than the SD image you are used to from TV and DVD. The problem is that whilst TV shows were shot on film, they were mastered on video. So this means that every single episode of a TV show must be edited again from scratch, with music, sound effects, dialogue and any post-processing filters manually re-added. Editing is an enormous and expensive part of the process of creating an episode of television. For example, a typical TV episode spends as much time in editing (also called post-production or post) as it does being filmed in the first place. When CBS recently remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation, they spent a massive $9 million per season on the project, or about one-sixth the cost of actually shooting the entire series in the first place.
Remastering is thus an incredibly complicated thing to do and TV companies will only do it for shows where they feel there is a market for it. For enormously popular and prestigious shows like Star Trek and The X-Files there is clear value in doing a top job as these are programmes that were ahead of their time and will likely remain popular for decades to come (the original Star Trek is still being watched and making money today, fifty years after it was made, so updating it makes sense). Other shows like Babylon 5 are more cult and niche, and it's highly questionable if a HD remake will ever be attempted.
For vampires, going to sleep at 2pm in front of partially open blinds would appear to be a bad idea.
Something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer falls between the two stools. It was a hugely popular show at the time of airing and kick-started the career of someone who is now one of Hollywood's top directors and most influential creators. It has a passionate and dedicated base of fans, but its broader awareness has dropped off over time. This puts the creators, in this case Fox, in the quandary of either: 1) shelling out a large sum of money for a remastering project which could result in a renewed lease of life for the show on Blu-Ray and (more importantly) services like Netflix, or 2) simply remaking the show from scratch with a whole new cast. 1) is expensive, but not as expensive as 2) and less controversial. In this case, Fox has elected to remaster the whole show.
Furthermore, Fox have, at least initially, done it right. They've gone back to the original camera negatives and have re-scanned the whole show in HD. The image quality and detail is hugely improved, more important for Buffy than most shows as the first two seasons were filmed on a particularly poor stock of 16mm film and the resulting SD image looked grainy and blurry even on TV and DVD. Extracting a HD image makes these seasons look hugely better (they're still not as good as the later seasons, shot on 35mm, as the original film was the limiting factor but it's a still a vast improvement). They've even re-shot the early CGI shots involving things like vampires turning to dust, which is reasonably impressive.
That's where the good news abruptly halts. As the above video shows, they've also made a huge number of mistakes and introduced a large number of problems to the series, most of them resulting from poor editing.
The video goes into this in much more detail, but briefly, TV shows and movies often 'cheat' when it comes to things like time of day and weather. Filming a scene at sunset on a beach sounds great, but not when that means you literally have a window of a few minutes to nail the shot and if anyone messes up, you have to wait 24 hours and hope it works better that time. One dream sequence in Buffy required a sunset beach shot, so they cheated. They filmed Sarah Michelle Gellar walking on the beach earlier in the day and applied filters after the fact to make it look like sunset. Except that for the HD version of the same shot, the new editors forgot to add the same filter, meaning it now looks like it's taking place on a autumn afternoon rather than during a summer sunset.
More common is the cheat of filming scenes at night. Night shooting is hugely expensive (everyone's on overtime) so TV and film will instead shoot the scene in the day and then apply a filter to make it look like night. This is most noticeable in the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, when Pippin finds Merry after the Battle of the Pelennor. In the theatrical version of the film, he finds him in daylight. In the Extended Edition, the filter has been changed and the scene is now set at dusk to indicate more time as passed. It's the exact same scene, just changed from one time of day to another thanks to the simple use of a filter.
In Buffy this practice is used to shoot interior scenes during the day and change them to night in post. Again, this has not been followed by the new editors, leading to scenes where Buffy appears to be going to bed at 2pm and where Angel (a vampire) happily looks out the window without being incinerated.
"EXTREME CLOSE-UP! EXTREME CLOSE-UP!"
These problems are annoying but also easily fixed by a simple further editing pass. Much more problematic has been the decision to change the show to a widescreen image.
As mentioned earlier, to turn a 4:3 image into a 16:9 one requires that the image be zoomed in so it expands out and fills the sides of the screen. This cropping is a massive no-no for most viewers, because it means that information that was originally on-screen is lost simply so the image can fill the whole screen. This also often wrecks shot composition, and if actors are already near the top or bottom of the screen, risks chopping off heads. Fortunately, going back to the original camera negative means that this problem can be avoided. As well as being shot on film, most older TV shows used widescreen cameras anyway, so the native film image is a widescreen one. So you don't have to crop images, you just get a wider image showing more stuff on the right and left hand sides of the screen.
"Hurrah!" you may say. Well, not quite. You see, most American TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s were "shot for TV" even if they used widescreen cameras. What that means it that the camerman had a square image on his viewfinder which showed the limits of the 4:3 TV image, and knew that anything outside that image would not be seen on TV. So using the full widescreen image becomes hugely problematic because you often find light stands, crewmembers, extras, boom mikes or even the edges of the set coming into view (the Friends HD remaster was particularly criticised for occasionally showing the edges of the sets on-screen). As shows entered the 21st Century and widescreen home TVs became more common, this problem was solved by the cameramen "protecting the image for widescreen", i.e. ensuring the entire image was clear of obstacles.
Buffy aired just at the time this transition was beginning (1996-2003), and later seasons are protected for widescreen. In fact, the later seasons have been available in widescreen even in SD on DVD for a few years now. There are a few incidents where extras, equipment can be seen but these are relatively few and far between. In the first three to four seasons, however, the problems are far more commonplace. In a few places Fox have solved the problem by using digital effects to 'paint out' equipment or extras where they shouldn't be, which is laudable as it is both time-consuming and expensive to do. However, far more often the editors have simply cropped the image instead to remove the offending obstacle...and also sometimes taking off the top of the heads of the actors in the process. Even more weirdly, they seem to have cropped some images and then used the original image in the "Previously, on Buffy..." segments, showing that the original image was completely fine to use.
"Adding space to the sides simply for the sake of trying to look more cinematic would betray the very exact mise-en-scene I was trying to create. I am a purist, and this is the purest way to watch Buffy. I have resisted the effort to letterbox Buffy from the start and always will, because that is not the show we shot." - Joss Whedon
For Star Trek: The Next Generation, filmed rather earlier (1987-94) than Buffy at time when there was zero expectation of there ever being a widescreen home TV market, CBS didn't even bother trying to create widescreen images. They instead just stuck to the OAR of 4:3 and left black bars down the sides of the screen for people with widescreen TVs. It certainly doesn't seem to have done them any harm. Joss Whedon himself has also been unequivocal in starting that Buffy was shot for 4:3 and should stay in that format.
Even more impressive, when Universal re-released the original Battlestar Galactica on Blu-Ray, they included both the 4:3 and 16:9 versions on the same disc, with the option to switch between them. This would be the most ideal solution for Buffy as well.
The hope is that the current version of Buffy airing is a test run for a future proper re-release, with these problems fixed and cleared up. There is some evidence that this might be the case: The X-Files has been airing in HD on a German network and also on the El Rey network in the USA and apparently early problems with the remastering have been fixed in later airings of the same episodes, so hopefully the same will be true for Buffy.
In the meantime, the Buffy HD/Blu-Ray Facebook page is monitoring each episode as it airs for issues and is collecting all the information together. It's worth a look to see what Fox are doing wrong - and in some cases right - with each episode.