Wednesday 22 January 2014

THE X-FILES gets a HD makeover

Back in 2012, CBS began re-releasing Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray. At great expense they went back and remastered the series from the ground up, extracting a HD image from the original 32mm film and redoing all of the effects from scratch. A labourious, expensive and time-consuming task - taking six months and approximately $9 million per season - the work has paid off with the series selling very well. Seasons 6 and 7 of the remastered Next Generation are expected to be released later this year, with Deep Space Nine hopefully to follow.


It's unsurprising that other companies are now looking at doing the same thing. Warner Brothers have confirmed that they are 'looking at' Babylon 5 and, hopefully, the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (Buffy's first two seasons were particularly poorly mastered and if they can redo them in HD, I think everyone would be grateful). But it's Fox who are the next out of the gate, launching a completely remastered version of The X-Files.

...and after.

Oddly, the HD version of the series isn't launching on Blu-Ray, Netflix or in the States, but on German TV, where ProSieben Maxx have already started airing the series. Picture comparisons posted on various sites already show a huge improvement in image quality, although sadly the effects footage has only been upscaled, not redone from scratch like ST:TNG's. On the one hand, big effects sequences are rare enough in The X-Files that this is not too jarring a problem. On the other, since there are relatively few scenes it's rather baffling why Fox didn't shell out to redo them. Another problem is that stock footage used by the show, particularly of locations in places like Washington, D.C., remain in SD, resulting in occasional-but-brief drops in image quality.

However, one very nice bonus is the fact that the show is now in widescreen. Star Trek: The Next Generation was 'shot for TV', meaning that whilst widescreen cameras were used, only the middle section of the camera view (i.e. what a late 1980s TV audience would see) was kept clear. This means that the widescreen shots often have crew, props, extras, actors waiting for cues, the edge of the stage etc, in view, so it was impossible to get a usable widescreen image. The X-Files, however, was launched after the Laserdisc and early widescreen TV boom of the early 1990s when TV companies realised that widescreen was the way forwards. As a result, it was filmed with widescreen in mind and this new HD release is the first time viewers have been able to see the show in this way. That said, the pilot was shot somewhat differently, with the result being that some cropping was necessary to get it looking right. How Fox are going to handle this on Blu-Ray is unknown, since cropping images to eliminate information just to get a widescreen effect is generally frowned on. The rest of the series, which was apparently filmed to account for this, should not suffer the same problem.

No timeframe has been given for the release of The X-Files on Blu-Ray, but it seems like it's a safe bet for later this year. It's also rather unclear why Fox have slipped the show out on German TV like this before confirming a US release date.


Wastrel said...

Personally, I kind of like the look of early Buffy. The grainy, dark, low-budget look suited the feel of the show at the time. And after a little while, you hardly notice.

I'm not sure that everything really has to look like it was made last year.

TerokNor said...

I don't think widescreen for shows originally aired in 4:3 is such a good idea. Since they had to frame for 4:3, you get a lot of dead space at the left and right with characters standing huddled in the center. And very often you see things you weren't meant to see, like actors mouthing lines (because they are out of the 4:3 frame) or stuff like on Buffy or Angel, where vampire reflections are sometimes seen in mirrors outside the 4:3 frame.

I just fear that with all these remastered editions, the versions originally seen will be lost. People only seem to care about that when George Lucas is involved.

Adam Whitehead said...

There does seem to be a feeling that shows should be switched to HD where possible, as in the future we may reach a point where audiences refuse to watch shows in low definition (as it will seem from their POV), just as some people now won't watch a black and white film or a silent movie at gunpoint. Also, if it dissuades people from pointless remakes (why bother if the original looks like it was made yesterday), so much the better IMO.

The framing issue is a more tricky one. Depending on your DVD/BR player, you can always crop it yourself. Also, I have no idea if BUFFY and ANGEL can be re-framed in widescreen and if they shot with that in mind: I assume they did from when they were made (BUFFY starting in 1996 and ANGEL in 1999, even later than THE X-FILES in 1993), but things like the mirror issue would need to be looked at.

Certainly IMO, I value having the image redone in HD more highly than having it in widescreen, which for TV I can take or leave. ST:TNG looks absolutely, jaw-droppingly amazing in HD and if other shows can be 'saved' in the same way, I'm all for it.

Wastrel said...

I wonder whether this is a lingering symptom of TV's sense of inferiority?

I mean, we don't get full-colour HD re-releases of Citizen Kane. Even later, you only have to take one look at a film like Dirty Harry or All the President's Men to know exactly when it was filmed - but we don't get modern-colour re-releases (with the Schiffrin score stripped out for something more contemporary).

Whereas TV, the assumption is that people are only watching for the plot, and distinctive visual features just get in the way.

From a commercial point of view, I can see the attraction of any excuse for a re-release. And from the point of view of someone who, in future years, might want to try to persuade young people to watch some of the stuff that was on when I was growing up, I can see the point. But I do also wonder whether something is lost in the quest to make everything look contemporary (and as for deterring remakes - well, the picture is the least of the things that marks out TNG as not being modern).

And while I normally wouldn't object, in the particular case of Buffy it seems to me that the visual ambience actually adds to the show. Yes, it's ugly and people aren't shiny and sometimes in dark alleyways you can't entirely make out what's going on, but I think that's part of the point. It's probably part of what makes a simple badly-lit fightscene in an alley in the first two seasons so much more exhilerating than a hollywood-choreographed stunt-actors kung fu brawl in the full-sunlight-even-though-its-midnight everything-looks-like-it's-made-out-of-plastic later seasons.

Sometimes the visual ambience is part of what the viewer reacts to. Which film producers are having to come to terms with now, because people often don't WANT super-HD 96fps films, even if they're told they're "better". I suspect future generations may actually be MORE kind to low-definition than we are now (if only in a vinyl-loving way).

Anyway, I hope that these remasters don't lead to the originals being lost.

[coincidentally, I was thinking about these things not that long ago when watching Ultraviolet - also a cheaply-shot vampire show from the 90s - and another case where I think the disconcerting, grimy, unclear, slightly depressing effect of poor picture quality actually add to the effectiveness of the work]

hurr durr said...

I hope they do this to The Wire eventually.

Anonymous said...

FYI, Whedon is on record that Buffy was shot 4:3 and should be presented that way:

Seasons 4-7 were released 4:3 in the U.S., but 16:9 in the U.K. The UK discs look ridiculous, with constant mics and other equipment coming into frame, including stage hands a couple of times!

Adam Whitehead said...

I have Seasons 6 and 7 of BUFFY on R2 DVD and have to say I've never seen that problem. It may have been restricted to earlier seasons.

And the comment on BUFFY and ANGEL was more about redoing the series in HD, possibly with upgraded effects, not necessarily reframing them for widescreen if that was not viable.

Adam Whitehead said...

Apparently THE WIRE is on the cards. David Simon is apparently on record as saying he doesn't want it done, because the faux-documentary, grainy look adds to the feel of THE WIRE, but HBO are keen to do it and re-monetise the show now it's a lot more popular.

Kelvin said...

They didn't show the X-Files pilot on German TV. I hope that it is included in the Blu-ray release though; even if it's 4:3 and all of the other episodes are 16:9. Lots of shows are released on Blu-ray where the pilot looks a bit ugly and that's fine. Anything would be better than the DVD version and the pilot is so critical to the series.
The rest of the episodes It's quite astonishing just how much better it looks than the DVDs..and that's low bitrate German HDTV. The framing is fine. It's clear that it was all filmed with 16:9 in mind much like movies of the era were filmed with 4:3 in mind. The quality of the image and camera work is up there with big-budget films of the era. Colors all look perfect and there's no stupid, over-the-top noise reduction like Universal's Blu-rays. They've clearly put a lot of effort into the HD re-mastering.
Can't wait for the Blu-rays.

Jim Heartney said...

The first two seasons of Buffy weren't shot on 35mm film; instead they were shot on 16mm, and often push processed (which is why you see so much grain in them). It's unlikely you would get anything other than even more grain if you tried to master the 16mm material to HD. You really need 35mm to get pleasing HD mastering. Fortunately, Buffy seasons 3-7 were shot on 35mm.

WRT Babylon 5, there were numerous shots blending both live action and the show's primitive CGI. You can tell when this is happening because the live action elements become noticeably more fuzzy.

Now, unless they have kept the original source shots (as was done with TNG), there won't be anything to work off of to rebuild these composite shots. Given that B5 was produced on a shoestring compared to TNG, I strongly doubt the original source shots exist. (And since they didn't bother to keep any of the original CGI model files for the show - "The Lost Tales" had to use fan-built models - it's implausible that they kept the working source film.) If there are no original source shots, there's no way to remaster B5 into HD.

JesseM said...

Jim Heartney wrote:
"It's unlikely you would get anything other than even more grain if you tried to master the 16mm material to HD."

16mm still tends to look sharper when upgraded to HD resolution than it did on DVD, look for example at this daylight shot from the movie "The Evil Dead" which was shot on 16mm (mouse over the bottom image to alternate between the DVD and blu ray version:

JesseM said...

Wastrel wrote:
"I mean, we don't get full-colour HD re-releases of Citizen Kane."

We don't get a colour version but we do get a new HD version on blu ray, whose higher resolution gives an image that looks more like what was originally filmed. Same should apply to anything that was shot on film, including Buffy.

Anonymous said...

I wish the X-files would come in 6 languages!

bong said...

Im sorry but most people wont have the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia to filter the old fuzzy images into anything more than what they are, old and fuzzy.
There are new audience who would never have seen the originals (and they should be glad they didn't) and just because of some techncial issues they would lose those audiences if they didnt remaster the originals for today's audiences.

I have watched the remastered X files season 1and i am very,very happy with the results. Gillian Anderson's freckles made her even more cute, the wide shots when they come into the town on the first episode, i never thought it was that special before but now that it is panoramic, showing more, i realized it is a beautiful shot.
It totally revived my interest in rewatching the xfiles.