Warning: Unless you are a near-complete obsessive about both Powell and Pressburger movies and their presentation in the standard-definition DVD and Blu-ray disc home video formats, you are rather likely to find this post quite wonky at best. Which is why the rest of it is going before the fold.
Well, there. Now that we've given sufficient notice to the non-obsessives, we can relax and chat a bit.
The new Criterion Collection editions of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), two of the most extravagant, ravishing, hallucinatory color cinema experiences of theirs or any other era, are to be released on July 20th. I am fortunate enough to have received review copies of these discs in both their standard-definition and Blu-ray versions; thus inspired, I took one image from each of the pictures, ripping the screen caps with my computer, for a post I put up yesterday called "Sweat it out." This post yielded two fairly urgent comments asking if these new editions are superior to the excellent Region-B locked British Blu-rays of the film issued by ITV in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Both of those discs, as European Blu-ray mavens and American Blu-ray adapters fortunate enough to have region-free players know, were/are quite splendid. But I do think the new Criterions represent an improvement. I haven't had a profound experiential appreciation of that improvement, as I've only just gotten these discs and haven't had the time to sit down and watch each film in its entirety. But because of the aforementioned urgency of the questions I got, last evening I was inspired to take some photographs of how these films looked on my home display in Blu-ray, in both their itv and Criterion versions.
Taking photos off of my plasma display screen is not the ideal method, but as my computers are Macs and one can't do direct Blu-ray rips on such machines, it's all I've got to go with at the moment. So for the first two images from Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes respectively, I begin with the image as it appears when ripped from the standard-def version with the DVD capture software on my computer. The subsequent camera shots of my plasma screen are cropped so as to mask a certain amount of lens distortion. The ambient light in my living room is turned all the way down so as to prevent reflections; unfortunately this has the effect also of heightening the apparent brightness of my preferred picture setting. Readers who have experience with shooting off a display and have tips for better, "truer" results should please feel free to share their tips with me. For all that, I do think my shots reveal some interesting differences, or else I wouldn't be putting them up.
The equipment used: an Olympus SP-55OUZ camera, mounted (indifferently in certain instances; I had to change batteries on the damn thing in the middle of making the shots and, well...) on a Digital Concepts tripod. The setting on the camera was auto. The display is a Hitachi P50V701 50-inch plasma screen. The DVD players are OPPO's BDP83 and the Sony Playstation 3.
So. Here we go. Below, from the standard-definition Criterion disc of Black Narcissus.
Below, the same shot on the ITV Blu-ray disc:
And below, the Criterion Blu-ray disc:
Not staggeringly different, but revealingly so: there's more sharpness and detail in the Criterion, a sharper focus, if you will in the detailing of the oval, ornamented part of the rack that the two horns sit on. Look particularly at the part of that oval where the shadow's falling.
When I wrote about the ITV Narcissus back in 2008, the post got a very nice response in comments from Bob Hoffman of Technicolor, who provided this information: "The HD master for the new Blu-ray version of Black Narcissus was created at Technicolor in London, from it's digital imaging center at our West Drayton lab - near Heathrow. (That facility is actually moving in the next weeks to a new location in Soho.) The master was produced for Granada International (part of ITV), and was first projected at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago in the Classics section and its tribute to Michael Powell. Later, it was shown at the Academy in Beverly Hills, with Jack Cardiff in attendance. Jack was very involved in the re-mastering of the film with our team in London. I can't stress how great this was - first the opportunity to work with one of the greatest living masters of cinematography but also to have has knowledge of what was originally intended by Mr. Powell and Mr. Pressburger." It would seem then that the itv version would have been a standard-setter, and it was. Why is the Criterion a little stronger? The mystery deepens a bit when one reads the "About The Transfer" note in the booklet of the Narcissus Blu-ray, which contains credits for ITV Global Entertainment, Technicolor, and notes that the transfer was created "with the participation of cinematographer Jack Cardiff." (Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's widow, is also acknowledged in this respect.) Could the Criterion version be the same transfer that Hoffman illuminated for me? Could be... So why the difference? This is where the DVD Beaver habit of looking at a disc's layering and bitrate yields its most significant results. "ITV did a single-layered Blu-ray in 2008 that established it as the benchmark for the film[,] but Criterion's new Blu-ray with a superior bitrate and the feature film taking up almost 30 Gig [on the disc] advances beyond that 1080p presentation." FYI, the Beaver-reported bitrate for the ITV disc is 6.71 mbps, while for the Criterion it's 34.99 mbps. That's a big difference. (UPDATE: Commenter Zack McGhee, below, points out that there's compelling evidence to suggest that this reported bitrate is erroneous, which stands to reason, given the discrepancy between the two Red Shoes versions isn't nearly as large. I'll see what I can dig up about this.) A visible one, as it were.
The Beaver review of The Red Shoes also shows that the Criterion edition devotes more disc space to the feature—36,569,591,808 bytes to ITV's 23,430,383,040. And that the Criterion has a higher bitrate: 31.56 mbps to ITV's 20.02 mbps. Here the differences are not so great (the actual restoration of the picture which is the basis for both Blu-rays is a UCLA venture in partnership with Janus—Criterion's parent, as it were—ITV, the British Film Institute and the Film Foundation). The main difference as displayed on my Hitachi is a bit more vibrancy, at least in this show where Marius Goring's Julian ponders just what to do about Professor Palmer's plagiarism.
Below, from the standard-definition Criterion disc of The Red Shoes:
The ITV Blu-ray:
The Criterion Blu-ray:
A couple more shots give an idea of differing color values. Below, from the ITV Narcissus:
And here, the Criterion:
Note the borders of the needlework seem suffused with a blue tint in the ITV rendering, and come off more properly neutral in the Criterion rendering.
Below, the blue sky of Monte Carlo in the ITV Blu-ray of Shoes:
And here, the Criterion version, where the blue is a little bluer and the stone a little more pink:
I'll have more to say on these in my July Blu-ray Consumer Guide, and perhaps in other posts as well. It isn't as if I've even begun to exhaust the interest in these films.