Sunday 8 March 2015

How Fox has screwed up BUFFY in HD (but can fix it)

Remastering old TV shows in high definition is apparently the new thing. With new generations of TV viewers growing up who have never seen a show in anything less than pristine high-def, the value for studios of dusting down their old series and sprucing them up for a new generation has never been clearer. Shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the original series), The Sopranos and The Wire have been given such make-overs and The X-Files is on its way. However, sometimes remasters go a bit...wrong.

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.

Pretty much.

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.


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.


Unknown said...

You know, I'm pretty sure some of my Buffy DVDs, like seasons 4+, are in widescreen. And I think all of Angel.

Bibliotropic said...

Just watched that video. And you know, some things I could potentially forgive, like odd rations and weird close-ups, because if I hadn't seen the original, I might think that was how it was intended, the specific style in which it was intended to air.

But the special effects problems and the lack of filters and holy crap, freaking crew appearing in the shot?! That's the sign of a bad job. Just plain bad. If I was watching Buffy for the first time and using the HD version as my baseline, I'd probably end up with this weird impression that there was a great premise but that few people but the actors knew what the hell they were doing with this whole, "I want this seen on a TV" thing. -_-

Adam Whitehead said...

BUFFY Seasons 4-7 are in widescreen on the European DVDs, not the American ones. Apparently Whedon was unhappy with the decision and there are some errors detectable in the DVDs, but not that many. Most of the problems are in S1-3, which is why those were released in 4:3.

ANGEL started a bit later and I believe was protected for widescreen almost throughout, so it shouldn't have anything like the same problems as BUFFY on that score. It's unclear at the moment if they are going to be applying the same remastering job to ANGEL once they're done with BUFFY.

HM Crawford said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Hi, thanks for your support :).

Below are the last reactions of three members of the original team:

Mark Metcalf (The Master) on his Facebook Page: "I probably should know more about this before I open my big mouth but from the little I do know Fox has made a mess of remastering the great work of Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar and all the other actors, directors and technicians who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show and the work were important to me at the time and there are fans throughout the world that still get inspiration from the little girl with the big wooden stake and her struggle for justice and a simple dinner date in a nice black dress. This is worth a look."

Aaron Miller by private message: "I was the post coordinator for Season 5 and we actually made a list of 16X9 fixes for every show that would need to be done when the show was remastered for HD. [Fox] definitely did not contact me at any time."

Aaron Miller: "Here's a comment from my post supervisor/AP that I worked with on Buffy. He was a post PA on Season 1 and moved up to AP by Season 6. He and I both went to work on Firefly so we did not do Season 7:

[Brian Wankum:] Thanks for asking! I am a little torn. The true purists should only ever watch the 4:3 standard def original release versions (exception being the "Once More With Feeling" which was intended to be shown widescreen). Not only is the framing as was originally intended, but i suspect that there will be lots of details in sets, props, costumes and makeup that might not hold up in HD.

That's for the purists. BUT... Right or wrong there is a large population of average Joes who just want the picture to fill their frame. The same group who 15 years ago would have preferred the center cut to the black bars on top and bottom. Would be a shame for a whole new generation to miss out just because they (or their local TV station which is more likely) got turned off by black side bars. I agree that if it must be done there's a better way to do it. Season 1 was 16mm 4X3 so there is no way to make it 16:9 without blowing up the image. One of the things that bugs me the most about the ones I have seen is that top of show credits appear over peoples faces. We always had a rule to keep credits below the chin in closeups. Starting with season 2 we shot 35mm composed for 4X3 but protecting for 16X9. After we delivered the 4:3 air master I would sit down and watch the 16:9 version and take notes and do blowups and repos where necessary to avoid crew, equipment and ends of sets in shots. We called these the "16X9 safe masters" and archived them with everything else. I thought these were pretty cool to watch, the problem is when they went back to negative for the HD rexfer in this latest release it looks like they did not consult the original for either color timing or re-framing reference. I'm sure the stories and characters will hold up but it's too bad more care was not taken. Nobody asked me, but if they did I would have loved to have consulted on this. Probably could have organized a crowdsourcing effort of comparing the originals to the re-transfers. Lots of crew alumni with lots of love for the originals would have likely participated. Maybe for the 4K/3D version?"

He probably meant they started shooting 35mm with season 3. Season 2 was (super) 16mm.

Note that the video was also shared by Kristine Sutherland (Joyce Summers), James C. Leary (Clem), David Fury, Tim Minear (producer, writer and director on "Angel" the TV show) and Nancy Holder (writer).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! So frustrating.