Bad DVDs

Due to the Los Angeles subway workers’ strike currently underway, I managed to ride my bike about 80 miles in two days and caught six feature films over the weekend: Long Gone, Condor: Axis of Evil, Bright Leaves, Dolls, What the Eye Doesn’t See, and The Runner. And I loved five out of six. Stay tuned for reviews…

In the meantime, reader James Tata alerts us to last Sunday’s New York Times article, “When Bad DVD’s Happen to Great Films”, which, like my own response to Columbia’s shabby Apu Trilogy release, criticizes highly-touted DVDs with poor video transfers, like the original releases of Lawrence of Arabia or the Stanley Kubrick Collection.

As the article explains:

A DVD stores only 17 gigabytes of data. A two-hour film, transferred to digital data and otherwise untreated, would take up more than 150 gigabytes.

So the data must first be massively compressed, mainly by digitally sampling a frame, then sampling only the information that changes in subsequent frames. This is no big deal for a scene of someone standing still against a blank wall. But it’s a major challenge for a scene of someone running through traffic surrounded by dozens of flashing lights and moving objects. If a film is old and damaged, the compression machine will “read” random dirt and scratches in the same way it reads motion. If the machine’s operator doesn’t pay attention and make adjustments, or if the machine is sub-par, the digitized image will be full of waves, zigzags and other distracting distortions.

Similar problems can plague color or, if it’s a black-and-white film, the gradations of gray. When transferring film from a negative to a print, someone has to practice the fine art of “color timing.” The same thing has to be done, though electronically, when transferring it to DVD. The job can be done well or it can be done badly.

In an age when cinephilia and film history is increasingly defined by the video market, the accuracy and quality of films on video becomes crucial. Watching a poorly transferred film on DVD can be akin to reading a classic novel with such weathered pages, a few words and sentences are simply unreadable. Let your first exposure to a film be under the best conditions. And, of course, watch films on film whenever possible.