Top 10 Things That Make Reviewers (And Other People With Home Theatre Knowledge) Mad

an attempt at humour by Dean McIntosh

10. "I don't care how good the picture looks, I just want it on DVD..."

    Let's say for example that you go into the theatre because they're having a special night to screen one of your favourite classic films. In this case, I'll use Return Of The Jedi as an example, since it and its two predecessors received the most heavily publicised theatrical re-releases of all time. Now, let's imagine that during the lightsaber duel in the Emperor's throne room, you can see a huge white outline around Darth Vader, and the two lightsabers are showing massive composite artefacts. Is it different? Well, yes, it certainly presents a new look to a classic film, I'll give it that much. Is it worth paying my thirteen dollars to go and see? Hell no, I want my money back! It's either funny or just plain depressing, however, that people should be out there giving home video distributors the idea that this sort of treatment is acceptable on a format that was specifically designed to be the closest to the original theatrical exhibition that current home viewing technology allows.

    Variations on this theme currently depress me more than any other glaring example of ignorance. If there were a format that allowed perfect picture quality without the source material or the amount of care taken in the transfer process as a limiting factor, there would be no need for home theatre magazines or review sites such as this one. This statement is usually accompanied by something to the effect that it shouldn't bother those of us who want a high quality film-to-video transfer, but the sad factor in that one is that it should. Every time one customer says that awful picture quality doesn't matter to them, that lends legitimacy to transfers that could and should have been much better.

09. "The number of consumers who want Pan-and-Scan compared to widescreen is growing."

    Oh yes, all pictures are supposed to conform to that nearly-square aspect ratio that was the standard for televisions in the middle of the previous century. But wait a second, my natural field of vision conforms more to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio or thereabouts, so I must be a freak. What about the photographs I've taken with my thirty-five millimeter film-based still camera? Am I being ripped off because the pictures I get back from the developer are in the same approximately 1.66:1 ratio that the negative has? What about those theatrical posters that are generally much taller than they are wide - are they supposed to be cropped so they can fit into a square frame? The point I am trying to get across, of course, is that no picture has to be any specific shape at all, and the idea that all films have to be in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio that will be phased out by the end of the next decade is one borne of ignorance, not knowledge.

    A news item along this theme was once published on the Internet Movie Database, and it prompted this sort of reaction from me: if film studios decide to release their DVD-Video software exclusively with Panned-and-Scanned video transfers, I'm going to shoot myself because I won't know what else to do. The primary, and only reason why anyone demands Pan-and-Scan (or Cut and Shut as I like to call it) on DVD-Video software is ignorance. Motion pictures and display units haven't been the same shape since the 1950s, with epics like How The West Was Won and Ben-Hur having nearly three times as much picture information as is allowed by the limits of the 1.33:1 ratio. Still photographs, our own natural field of vision, and even a lot of television broadcasts, no longer conform to this extremely narrow and limited aspect ratio. Cutting pictures apart to make them fit into this ratio is artistic butchery, and a grave disservice to the consumer. Sure, there might be an increase in the number of consumers who think they want their films cut in half, but when they learn what their favourite film looks like in its proper aspect ratio, they quickly change their mind. It only took a quick and rough use of the zoom function on a Toshiba SD-1250 to make a relative of mine who knows next to nothing about cinematography aware of this, so no argument in favour of Panning and Scanning will wash with film buffs.

08.  "[This format or that format] will make DVD-Video obsolete, and the DVD-Forum better support it or they will lose out..."

    Yes, a VHS or laserdisc master will look great if you transfer it onto a fifty-gigabyte disc. Who needs access to a 16:9-shaped HDTV master when you can just film a theatrical exhibition on your camcorder with a ten dollar microphone from the local electronics store, and get the best possible home video picture quality? But what's all these huge chunks of erroneous picture information and constant excessive blurring of moving objects? That must have been in the original film if you believe the people who make the above statement. The only way one can get a superior picture to what's available on DVD right now is to have access to the professional elements used as the source material for DVD, which entails employment by the respective film companies. If you don't work for Warner Brothers, Columbia Tristar, Fox, or their ilk (and from what I understand they do a lot to ensure the loyalty of their staff) you've got two chances of getting your hands on anything that has more resolution than a DVD-Video: none and bugger all.

    This is also known as the "more storage space equals a better picture regardless of source material and transfer quality" argument. This is to say nothing of the fact that only a High Definition Television can resolve more vertical lines of picture information than the DVD-Video format provides.

07. "The picture looks terrible on my composite-only, fifty-one centimetre television. That means the DVD-Video format isn't all that great."

    The Compact Disc Digital Audio format can't be any good because it doesn't sound great on your cheap, pre-fab boom box. So what about the people who took the time to invest in real Hi-Fi audio with CD players and amplifiers that keep the signal in pure digital for transmission to speakers that are designed to have enough dynamic range that low-end distortion is no longer an issue? Does the guy who paid good money for a progressive-capable player and a widescreen display with component inputs suddenly not count?

    Straw-man arguments are even more fun than ones borne out of sheer ignorance like the previous two, mainly because you can pick them apart like straw. While the fifty-one centimetre Cathode Ray Tube television is a practical and cost-effective solution to the desire to view programming in the dining room or a small bedroom, it is definitely not what the DVD Forum had in mind when they finalised the standard. Granted, not everyone can afford the front projectors that DVD-Video software will look best on, but the price of eighty-centimetre CRT televisions with at least an S-video input have fallen dramatically since the arrival of the format. When widescreen display units with component inputs are produced in greater numbers, so too will their price fall. So there is no excuse to dismiss a format simply because a tiny display cannot resolve its picture properly.

06. "The DVD-Video format is biased towards expensive home theatre set-ups."

    Here was I, thinking that every consumer video format that appears on the market has to be designed to produce the best-quality image that it can possibly achieve with the limits of current home electronics technology. I guess I must be wrong, since it doesn't look all that great on your portable twenty-four centimetre monochrome display. So should I have the eighty-centimetre widescreen-compatible display with S-video input limited by what looks alright to you on a cheap knock-off that can't resolve television broadcasts properly?

    Well, this is partially true, but a partially true argument does not equal a reason why a consumer home video format is bad. What looks like an expensive set-up to some people will absolutely pale in comparison to those used by the people I work with, even if relatively small-scale set-ups like mine require a greater investment than a sixty-eight centimetre display and a pre-fab stereo unit. The biggest selling point of DVD-Video from the perspective of smaller, more generalised retailers is that the superior image and sound quality is noticeable even with very little cash outlay on the playback hardware. Even on a fifty-one centimetre set with S-video inputs, the picture will look as close to the original film image as is currently possible, when it has been mastered properly.

05. "Widescreen images are just cut down into that shape."

    You know, if Lloyd Kaufman and his creative team can't afford or don't want to use anamorphic lenses or other such processes to create a widescreen film, then good luck to them. However, the majority of widescreen images are produced by using a special lens that takes a wide image and compresses it into a smaller film frame, which is then uncompressed for your viewing pleasure at the theatre. So what if Sergio Leone, the most dynamic user of this process who ever lived, wanted to have a shot where Clint Eastwood is talking to five men who are all in the frame with him? If you're only watching Clint Eastwood and he fills up your screen, you must be getting the whole picture, right?

    Thank you, Lloyd Kaufman, for helping to perpetuate that misinformation in your Troma FAQ. The reality of cinematography is, however, very different from what it was in the 1950s. The original widescreen process, Cinerama, involved splicing together negatives from three different cameras in order to create a three to one ratio between the final image's width and height. In recent times, some films, Hollow Man and Starship Troopers being good examples, have had the original negative modified in order to create the 1.85:1 shape. However, the most common process used to create a widescreen image is to use an anamorphic lens, which compresses the film image horizontally in order to create a wider image on the theatre screen. So while no one standard method is used to create a widescreen image, the number of such images that have less picture information when shown in the intended aspect ratio is a distinct minority.

04. "It's okay to present a DVD-Video with a cropped image and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack because that's what the television station did."

    Oh, the people who prepare films for broadcast on analogue television, another relic of the past century that is finally being put on the scrap heap, pan & scan a picture, so that must make it okay. Never mind the fact that it was intended by the creative team who made it to be shown with a shape that is twenty-five percent wider and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The television studio cut it up and served us with a rehashed butchery of their artistic intent, so that must make it okay, right? So when we send the television stations the message that it is okay to chop up a television series that does not conform to the aspect ratio they would like, what then happens to our favourite films? You can see the dangerous domino trail that results from supporting this kind of editorial decision, I'm sure.

    Actually, in the case of The Sopranos, which was filmed with digital television in mind and recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1, it is definitely not okay. The best, and only acceptable, way to present anything on DVD-Video, or any video format that you're expected to pay good money for, is in the manner that the people who made the programme intended - that was the whole idea of DVD-Video in the first place.

03. "I don't care about 16:9 Enhancement..."

    Oh, and I am sure you don't care about the unwatchable picture that was served up for the non-16x9 enhanced DVD-Video versions of Backdraft and The Thing in this country either, right? A 16x9 enhanced transfer means that you've got a practical guarantee that the transfer of your favourite film that you're about to purchase has been created using recent vintage equipment, thus preserving as much of the picture quality as is possible, but you don't care about it. I'm guessing you probably don't care if the cinematic presentation of your favourite film comes from a print that is warped, looks like it was buried in the dirt for three days, and has the bottom of the frame where the subtitles or captions are presented cut off. You've paid all that hard-earned cash for a player that offers the very best in home video presentation, and one that was designed to support the future ratio of television, but I guess the quality of the software being offered for playback can't be important.

02. "The number of titles available in Region 4 is increasing, so there is no need any more to modify your machine to play back other Regions."

    The deficit between the titles available here and the titles available in America is still in the order of five figures, but I guess I couldn't possibly want any of those titles. I guess, being a raving mad fan of Paul Verhoeven's work as a filmmaker, I couldn't possibly want Soldaat Van Oranje or De Vierde Man, which are only available in America. The fact that the Region 1 versions of these two titles also feature a commentary from the director, who is one of the best commentators the format has seen to date, can't be that important. Hell, there can't be any way I'd want The Sopranos in the aspect ratio that the director intended, coupled with a Dolby Digital 5.1 transfer. Hey, it's great when the same product is presented in several different ways in countries around the world that speak the same language.

And the number one statement or misconception that makes me mad is:

01. "We couldn't obtain better source materials of [insert very recent film here] for a DVD-Video transfer."

    Then why on Earth didn't you just sell the rights to someone who could have done a much better job? I have a hard time believing that it is impossible to obtain better source materials for films such as Scream or Dirty Dancing, when pristine interpositives can be created for films of such comparatively ancient vintage as Jason And The Argonauts or The Wizard Of Oz. The amount of restoration work that goes into Doctor Who serials only serves to further invalidate this excuse, so it doesn't wash when presenting hazy, cropped, or excessively interlaced transfers. Hell, Force Video even managed to create a very natural and film-like transfer of Plan 9 From Outer Space despite the fact that they had to convert it from NTSC to PAL. I paid all this money for a film on a format that is capable of delivering film-like images, but why should I want them in preference to washed out, panned and scanned, or video-like pictures, right?


    Now that I've covered my favourite ten statements from those who don't know any better, and you'd be surprised at where some of them have come from, feel free if you like to write me and tell me about some of your own. You may be surprised at some of the things you'll hear from what The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy describes as "ignorant monkeys who don't know any better". Remember, my friends, future idiotic statements such as these will affect you in the future.

© Dean McIntosh
18th May 2002