Thursday, 17 May 2018

HD version of BABYLON 5 may be possible after all

In a surprising move, Babylon 5 creator/showrunner/writer J. Michael Straczynski has revealed on Twitter (whilst announcing the news that B5 will be available on Amazon Prime next month, at least in the USA) that it may be possible to remaster the show in HD after all...with a few caveats.

The original Babylon 5 and EAS Cortez CG models re-rendered to modern HD standards (with a new background). Whilst the Warner Brothers film masters wouldn't look this good, they'd be big improvement over the DVD versions of the show.

To reiterate the previous situation: Babylon 5 was shot in widescreen on Super 35mm film - from which a HD image can be extracted from the original film stock rather easily - and then mastered (having CGI, sound and music added) on standard-definition video. The SD video master tapes of Babylon 5 have been the source for the original broadcast version of the show, the VHS and DVD releases and the various streaming options available over the last few years. It is not possible to extract a HD image from video, so that was assumed to be it for Babylon 5.

The only way to get a HD Babylon 5 would be to go back to the original film stock and extract a new HD image of all the live-action footage - which is time-consuming and tedious, but straightforward - and then re-render all of the thousands of CG effects and composite shots* in the show from scratch - which would be mind-bogglingly time-consuming and expensive. Star Trek: The Next Generation took this approach, but the show didn't have much CGI to re-render, as most of the effects were handled in-camera on film, so it was straightforward to remaster. It still took four years and cost $20 million, and took years to break even across multiple media releases and years of streaming on Netflix and CBS All Access. Babylon 5 would cost around twice that as it had far more CG than ST:TNG and in fact far more effects shots in total, despite being almost seventy episodes shorter in length. Given the relative obscurity of Babylon 5 compared to ST:TNG, this would appear to be commercially unviable.

(* a composite shot is one that combines live-action footage with effects, so any shot which has weapons being fired, the characters standing in front of a green or blue screen, interacting with CG characters etc)

However, Straczynski has completely upended this understanding of the situation with new information.

It turns out that at the end of every season of Babylon 5, Warner Brothers requested that every episode be completely re-mastered on 35mm film. This was for an archival copy to sit in the WB archives and to match the show as broadcast. This process involved taking the digital elements - including the original CG shots in their original resolution (noticeably higher than what we saw on TV from the video master) - and putting them on film.

So in order to get a full HD version of Babylon 5, all one has to do is extract a broadcast copy from each film reel, and since everything is on there already - including CG - that's all you need to do. It's extremely cheap.

This may sound too good to be true, and there is a hitch. Because this was an archival copy of the episode as already aired, it only involved the 4:3 TV format, not the widescreen master which only exists on video. Or to put it another way, Babylon 5's HD edition would only be available in 4:3, not widescreen, despite Babylon 5 being the first TV show ever filmed directly in widescreen. Which is both ironic and immensely frustrating. As long-term B5 fans know, the CGI for Babylon 5 only exists in 4:3, with the widescreen CG shots seen on the DVD release coming about from cropping the image (which is incredibly annoying, and loses information from the top and bottom of the image), so this would both restore the original CG image and in a much higher resolution, but at the cost of losing the live-action widescreen shots.

There is the possibility of going back to the original film stock for the live-action-only shots and combining those with this new master to get at least some of the show in widescreen HD at a still-reasonable price, but the series would need to switch to 4:3 for every CGI and composite scene, which would be rather distracting.

Whilst it's not a perfect solution, it does open up the possibility of seeing Babylon 5 in high definition, at level of visual quality never seen before. Whether Warner Brothers are prepared to invest such a remaster remains to be seen, but at least now, in the long, twilight struggle of rewatching your favourite twenty-year-old SF show, there is the possibility of hope.


Mathew said...

"the series would need to switch to 4:3 for every CGI and composite scene, which would be rather distracting"

No more distracting than the current widescreen versions, where in order to fill the screen during CGI and composite shots it chops a huge chunk off the top and bottom of the SD 4:3 image and stretches what remains into a badly framed mess of ugly grain. Maybe there's some fancy way a bluray release could provide optional pillarbox overlays to give us the choice (I'd snap it up immediately if so), but a high quality 4:3 version is perfectly acceptable. It wasn't really shot for 16:9 after all, so much as (ineffectively, as it turned out) future-proofed for the possibility of 16:9 becoming the standard.

TerokNor said...

This seems to be exactly how they were able to create a HD version of seaQuest, recently released on Blu-ray in Germany and Australia. The effects shots (like B5, created using the Video Toaster system) were printed on 35mm film for international sales.

I wonder if the Warner Archive Collection might be interested in doing B5 this way. They release classic films and shows that are seen as not having mainstream appeal, including recent shows like The 100, iZombie, Riverdale and Lucifer. They have presences on Twitter and Facebook, maybe it might be a good idea pointing them toward JMS' posts. It would be weird at least if WB just let the film rot in their archives without doing at least a basic digital scan.

Regarding the widescreen issue: I see having B5 only in 4:3 as not a problem at all, I wish they had done the DVDs that way. Apart from the cropping of the effects shots, I doubt that the directors shooting the show in 1994 were framing their shots for anything other than 4:3, as that was how the show was being mastered and broadcast. If anything, they probably only protected the 16:9 frame so that boom mics and such were not visible, but composed the shots for 4:3. I don't think anyone complains about Star Trek TOS and TNG only being in 4:3.

Adam Whitehead said...

BABYLON 5 was originally going to be funded by a coalition of international broadcasters working with Warner Brothers, including a Japanese company who were insistent on the show being shot in widescreen for a laserdisc release late on. When that collapsed and PTEN was set up instead, they decided to keep shooting the show with widescreen in mind (and indeed, B5 got a laserdisc release in Japan later on).

Shots were composed primarily for 4:3 though, because that's how everyone would see the show on its original release. So yeah, you don't lose anything from the sides of the frame.

Henry Plantagenet said...

If the 4:3 HD version would turn out to be Open Matte the problem would be instantly solved. So I guess it isn't. (Open Matte = this is when the idea is widescreen, and an extra 4:3 version is created by NOT cutting the top&bottom edge off. So the 4:3 version in fact has some extra image top and bottom, although there won't be any essential stuff happening there. This is what they should have done in the first place.)

Anonymous said...

There is a thing to note this is TV series, there is a lot of hours material and in CGI there is recycling of 3D-models.

I believe that there is shortcut way to do this, by doing careful modelling of those spaceships and other elements that are used on most of scenes and implement process having software that automates CGI scene creation.

Scene creation automation I mean that it is possible to use software to calculate motion paths, camera position, lightsource positions and even give measurements to missing models to remodel them quickly.

Not possible on every scene but it is really worth to investigate.

Armin said...

4:3 would be the perfect solution anyway - that's the OAR, period. Fuck widescreen. Have you seen the DVDs? The live action only parts are exactly what you'd end with. Lots and lots of empty, dead space on the sides, poor composition in many cases where the DP clearly intended the 4:3 ratio to be used and seen by the viewers. A scan of those broadcast copies in HD would be PERFECT.