A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by ATLRetro.com to do a write-up on the film White Zombie in anticipation of an upcoming screening of the newly-restored digital “print” at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre. I was semi-anxious about this, because I’d already done some preliminary research on an upcoming blu-ray release by Kino / Lorber. All indications were that the restoration used on the disc had screwed up the image quality of the film, and I was afraid that this same restoration was to be the basis of the screening.
My fears were confirmed.
Now,White Zombie has long been a problematic feature. It was the first independent horror film, made by the Halperin Brothers, and as such was a threadbare production. Sets were borrowed from other films (primarily from the Universal lot), and Lugosi took a large pay cut to take part in the film (it’s rumored that he directed large chunks of the film, rewrote dialogue and restaged action scenes, so it may have been a tradeoff of money for artistic indulgence). Now, while the film made up for whatever shortcomings it had in the financial department with vibrant camerawork and atmospheric direction, the lack of a major studio’s backing meant that print preservation was never a primary concern.
For years, it circulated on faded and damaged 16mm prints, as well as on public domain VHS and DVD releases sourced from these substandard prints or from TV masters. In 1999, the Roan Group did a restoration that utilized two 35mm prints and some 16mm inserts, and this was the best the film had looked in years. However, the prints still evidenced some damage and frame drops, so better prints have been searched for over the years.
Recently, a relatively pristine 35mm print was found in the possession of an aging film collector by the Holland Releasing company. They then enlisted AlgoSoft-Tech USA to undertake a restoration of this print, which is what wound up being licensed to Kino, and what wound up being screened at the Plaza Theatre.
The problem with the White Zombie restoration is this, and it’s something far too commonly seen in blu-ray releases of classic films: overzealous noise reduction resulting in the elimination of grain structure.
Grain is what makes the filmed image…well, film-like. It is the compositional structure that creates the image projected on a screen. Different film stocks have different film grain structures. The film stocks available in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, have BIG, CHUNKY grain structure that can be problematic to deal with in digital masters (compressing the image for DVD and lowering the image resolution can make the grain turn into chunks of digital noise). Now, to combat this problem, consumer DVD producers have typically applied digital noise reduction (DNR) to either remove print defects or to smooth out the grain. Sparingly applied in selected instances (when there is actual visual “noise,” like a lot of dust or speckling on the print), this can vastly improve the resulting image quality. But when it’s applied overzealously, and across the board, you wind up with a disturbing loss of detail. Things may look “crisper” along the edges of figures, and the image may look “sharper,” but it’s artificial. What is happening is that the grain that makes up fine detail (such as the texture of a dress’ fabric, or the rocky face of a cliff) gets “evened out” and becomes smooth. Facial features become waxy and lack the lines and pores that make skin look like skin.
With the advent of high-definition media, grain isn’t something that requires a lot of worry on the part of DVD producers. Blu-ray simply doesn’t have the problems with grain that DVD has had. And with better encoding software and hardware, the problems even in standard DVD releases are less noticeable. But because FAR too many people believe that high-definition media are supposed to ELIMINATE grain, DVD companies have pushed for DNR to the detriment of the product. Take the Patton blu-ray for example. Or, more to the point, the two Predator blu-ray releases. The first release of Predator did, in all honesty, use a particularly lossy codec in encoding the blu-ray master and offered it up on a low-capacity blu-ray disc (meaning the bit rate, or amount of digital info transmitted per second, was lower than possible). It could have used a better mastering and pressing job. But nobody really complained about that—instead, people complained about the graininess of the image (and the lack of special features). Predator was shot in the 1980s on a fairly grain-heavy stock in, at times, low-light conditions on location. The film’s grain is evident, but that’s how it was always supposed to look. It looks like the film did when it came out. But because some people are under the mistaken impression that film is supposed to look like a HD video broadcast of an NFL game*, Fox reissued the film, this time using the superior AVC codec on a BD-50 disc (as opposed to the MPEG-2 encoded BD-25 release from earlier), but slathered in DNR. And it looks like crap. Detail is completely absent. Where Schwarzenegger has stubble on the previous release, it looks like he’s been painted with grey makeup on his lower jaw. Sweat, pores, the texture of the jungle settings—they’re all gone, replaced with glossy sheen and smooth surfaces.
Unfortunately. White Zombie has succumbed to this fate. The textures of fabric, the lines in Bela Lugosi’s face, the craggy cliff on which Bela’s manse is perched, the fine-lined detailing of the matte paintings used so frequently…these things are all negatively impacted by the aggressive grain and noise removal. When I saw it screened at the Plaza, it was with the person in charge of the restoration in attendance, and in his Q&A follow-up, he seemed almost apologetic in his statements about what we saw. He contended that he thought that the projection may have been slightly out of focus, because what he had seen on his monitor in the studio was much sharper. (I did not notice a problem with focus, and of course his monitor display will look sharper—it’s a much smaller screen than a full-sized theatrical projection.) He said that their team don’t generally do restoration work; that they create software to facilitate restoration, but it’s not what they typically do. He also said that whereas most restorations can take a year or more to complete, that this was a “budget” restoration with a time frame of seven weeks. He also stated that the people in charge (I was not clear as to whether he meant Kino / Lorber or Holland Releasing) were given a choice: either leave the “noise” as it was, or remove all of it. They wanted it all removed. (He chose to sidestep the grain question, dismissively saying that some people treat grain like it’s a religious thing, and then saying that grain wasn’t the problem, it was noise; this does not explain why ALL GRAIN WAS REMOVED, but hey. I guess it’s all just collateral damage from getting rid of the noise.)
All in all, this is what I could gather from that night’s presentation: that this was a rushed transfer, that he wasn’t happy with what he saw and that he was told to get rid of all the “noise.” My inference is that they did not have the time nor resources to selectively remove dust and speckling from the digitally-scanned print, so they ran a DNR process that just eliminated everything that might appear to be noise, and the film’s grain was caught up as part of that.
Does it look better than it has before? In some ways, yes. The image is cleaner (print damage has been cleaned up), the brightness of the image has been stabilized so that there is no more “flicker” (something that has plagued all releases of the film on home video), and I honestly had no problem with the constrast of the image (some advance reviews of the blu-ray have complained of contrast boosting reducing detail as well). But the DNR is a problem. A serious one. A restoration should come as close as possible to replicating the look of the original medium. In film, that means properly preserving and displaying the inherent grain structure. And this restoration fails to do so. It’s incredibly disappointing, because this movie deserves so much better than this.
The thing that infuriates me, if I may go off on a personal tangent here, is that people are so freaking happy with this turn of events. There are people out there who applaud this as if it’s a good thing. It’s not. Maybe it’s that I spent 10 years in DVD production, trying to get the best image quality out of what was made available to me, and in doing so constantly educated myself on how the look of film was best replicated in the digital realm. Maybe it’s because while I was doing this, the advent of HDTVs took place and I saw the “grain is BAD!” reactions start to crop up in real-time. But holy mother of god, there’s no reason why this should be celebrated. There are people whose argument is that this is at least better than the public domain releases they’ve seen before, and that this should be good enough. “Good enough” is rarely good enough. Now, I’m not asking for perfection here. I’m just of the opinion that a presentation of a film ought to at least LOOK like film. This doesn’t. It’s as if someone took a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh and said, “you know, let’s remove all of the brush strokes. Those are imperfections standing in the way of the painting’s beauty.” And then people came along and said “you know, that’s the best this painting has ever looked.” It’s the kind of thing that makes me simultaneously wish that I was still in the DVD business, and glad that I’m not.
*Don’t get me started on HDTVs. Right now, straight out of the gate, HDTVs are offering 120 Hz refresh rates, something called “smooth motion” or “tru video” or any variation on that theme depending on your brand name. Basically, what this does is artificially create an “in between” frame, interpolated from the video frames surrounding it. In short, you’re seeing twice as many frames as is typical. The end result is that live sports events and stuff like that look GREAT, but films look like they were shot on video. It’s essentially what people have complained about Peter Jackson’s 48 fps prints of The Hobbit, but worse because that extra frame is artificially created. Instead of looking like film, movies look like video game cut scenes or 1970s soap operas.