Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Warner Brothers releases a somewhat-exaggerated BABYLON 5 "remaster"

Warner Brothers has begun releasing what they are - with some exaggeration - calling "Babylon 5 Remastered" via streaming services Amazon Prime and iTunes.

In truth, this is not really the original show remastered but more "reverted," that is, returned to its original format in which it was broadcast in the 1990s and subsequently released on VHS. The show was subsequently re-edited in widescreen in 2004 for release on DVD and later streaming services, but this involved digitally cropping and zooming the various CG and composite effects shots, resulting in noticeable and frequent drops in visual quality as the show moved between live-action-only and effects material. This "remaster" does nothing more than revert to the original, non-widescreen broadcast version of the show, run through a colour filter. The result is nothing like a remaster, but is superior to the widescreen version of the show at the cost of losing the widescreen image.

The problem was originally caused by a mismatch in the original production of the show. The series was shot on 32mm film in 16:9 widescreen, but was mastered on 4:3 video for home release. The plan was to create a widescreen version of the show to future-proof it for later generations, and a non-widescreen version for contemporary viewers. Unfortunately, a miscommunication and Warner Brothers' refusal to buy the effects team a $5,000 widescreen reference monitor meant that the CGI and other vfx footage was only rendered and shot in 4:3 in the first place. When Warner Brothers wanted to create a widescreen version, they found that the live-action footage existed in widescreen but the CG and composites did not. Their only solution was to zoom into the effects images until it filled the widescreen image, at the expense of losing material from the top and bottom of the screen. This created various problems, most notably increased pixilation and "fuzziness" of the effects images and details being lost from the CG footage.

There were two solutions to this problem: either revert to the original 4:3 masters or re-render all of the CG and effects footage in native widescreen and HD. This latter approach would be mind-bogglingly expensive. A similar project in 2012-15 for Star Trek: The Next Generation cost well over $20 million and that was for a show where most of the effects were created in-camera, so were easier to recreate. The ST:TNG remaster project also bombed on home media release and never turned a profit. Babylon 5 had much, much more CGI and far more vfx shots than ST:TNG (even considering that TNG was 68 episodes longer than B5). Warner Brothers have shown little to no appetite for a project of this scale and complexity for a show that, with the best will in the world, is far more obscure than ST:TNG. One fan recently re-rendered some shots using the original CG models and scene files in widescreen and HD, but it took over 100 hours with home equipment to do just a few minutes of footage, demonstrating how expensive and time-consuming it would be to do the entire series.

As a result Warner Brothers have gone for the low-hanging fruit of reverting to the 4:3 original footage and applying some colour saturation filters. To be fair this has resulted in an image that is noticeably sharper and warmer than the widescreen DVD conversion, and of course it means the CG is now back to its original format and all the better for it. Calling it a "remaster" is definitely an exaggeration, though.

"Babylon 5 Remastered" is currently being released piecemeal on streaming services. Warner Brothers have not yet announced any kind of home media release, but considering this isn't a proper HD remaster, I'd be surprised to see one.

1 comment:

mffanrodders said...

I never could figure out Warner Brothers ambivalence toward B5. The show made them money and even now, it has its fair share of fans.