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James Cameron's Ultra HD Blu-ray reissues prove highly contentious

10 Apr 2024 | Yoeri Geutskens |

4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reissues of older back catalogue titles can be divisive, because with chemical film, after scanning, restoration, color grading and mastering are required, and all of these involve choices. There are different ways to go about this, and it's impossible to please everyone because of different tastes. The level of debate and polarization we're seeing with James Cameron's latest releases however is unheard of.


Eager anticipation
In the past month, a big debate has erupted over a couple of home video reissues. James Cameron's movies Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989) and True Lies (1994) have very recently been released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. These have been eagerly anticipated for years, especially the latter two, because for unknown reasons, both these movies have never even been released on Blu-Ray Disc. The last time they've been released was in the era of LaserDisc and DVD! Well, if we can discount their release in HD resolution on the obscure 'D-Theater' format – the name for prerecorded D-VHS tapes. Only Aliens has been released on Blu-ray Disc (a few times, in 2011 and 2016).

Upconversion?

Part of the discussion is about resolution, HDR and WCG. While the transfers of The Abyss and True Lies are reportedly based on new 4K scans of the original camera negatives, the transfer of Aliens appears to be based on an upscale of the 2K SDR Digital Intermediate that was made for the earlier Blu-ray release in 2010. That conclusion would match with this technical analysis by Le Labo de Jay. Some reviewers consider it a lazy transfer. It seems the resolution has been upconverted to 4K, and the white level has been raised from 100 to 203 nits and peak brightness never exceeds this. According to this analysis posted on Reddit, the video is in a Dolby Vision HDR container but the metadata is constant throughout the transfer. Evidently, no color grading has been applied either. Although contained in a Rec.2020 container there are no colours outside of the Rec.709 colour space, which the original film likely does have. I've written about creative intent before, rejecting claims of 'fake HDR' for movies that underused the potential of HDR, but this Aliens transfer has nothing to do with director's intent. It looks like a quick-and-dirty job. Why it had to take so many years to get these (supposedly because Cameron could not find the time to approve the remastering) is a mystery.

Grain

But what's generating most discussion is the lack of grain in all three transfers. Sure, one could argue that film grain is just an artefact of old technology that some filmmakers have sought to reduce for years, until digital video eventually came along, but it's part and parcel of about a century of filmmaking history. Like 24fps frame rate, it derives from technical limitations, but even if you regard both of these as artefacts, they're phenomena that our perception and our brains have been conditioned for, and that somehow help with the suspension of disbelief. According to their own accounts, the team has used some AI-led algorithm that reduces film grain strongly although not entirely eliminating it, and increases sharpness. The result is that they don't look at all like they've been shot in the eighties and nineties, but almost as if they were shot yesterday. This upsets a lot of the cinephiles that make up the Ultra HD Blu-ray community. Perhaps they're purists. The vast majority of them would prefer honest transfers of the original film, without heavy processing applied, be it DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) or some AI-led algorithm that reduces grain and performs edge enhancement. As you'll know, some filmmakers prefer to stick with chemical film; notably Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. Dennis Villeneuve shot Dune Part 1 digitally, then printed it on 35mm film, and scanned this for editing and post production. Why? To get the benefits of digital capture while also getting the imperfections of film – not only film grain but also effects such as weaving, softness and halation.

Revisionist approach

James Cameron is not one of these filmmakers. He's been known to push the envelope of new production techniques, and is also one of the few directors who won't shy away from experimenting with higher frame rates, which is quite controversial with cinephiles. Also read: Why 24fps is not enough for HDR movies Was it his decision to have the new 4K transfers getting a new look? Or is it execs at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment who decide on such matters? This video by Paul Gilmore, a blogger who runs the TwinFlicks channel on YouTube, quotes an industry source who asked to remain anonymous, who worked on the restoration of True Lies as well as The Abyss. Supposedly, Cameron was involved from beginning to end and chose the 'processed' look to address deficiencies in the material they had to work with, including many shots having a soft look, but also damage to the negatives resulting from shrinkage of the film's perforations as a result of decades of neglect, and an artefact from the film scanning process known as 'gate weave' or 'telecine wobble'. This would require fixing by image stabilization. Not everybody is buying this explanation, leading to speculation among some that the original negatives may be lost, and that there is no good (positive) print copy. Yet for others that still doesn't justify the approach followed here. There's a feeling that for streaming audiences, the transfers are fine as they are, but that for the discerning collectors of the best quality media, this revisionist approach isn't working. It's deterring many from picking up these discs. They're hoping that at some point, a boutique label will get to license these titles and remaster them in a much more conservative way, however unlikely that scenario is at this point, and however long that may take if it ever happens, and choose to hang on to their Blu-ray of Aliens, to a Spanish bootleg Blu-ray of True Lies, or even to their LaserDisc in the case of The Abyss.

Cameron 4K releases

The covers of the UHD BDs (top) versus what collectors would likely have preferred (bottom). Illustration: FlatpanelsHD

If it does happen, it may also address the revisionist approach of the cover art. Likely this is nothing to do with the director's intent and everything with the marketing departments at studios' home entertainment divisions, who apparently feel that many consumers would balk at the idea of paying a second or third time for a movie they already own if the artwork remains the same, so they commission a redesign, much to the chagrin of the collectors. Why do so many movie fans find it important that the film retains its original look? They feel that if a movie is made in the eighties or nineties, it should look like that, and not try to look like a current-day movie, or a remake. They feel that their memories are being tampered with. Many make comparisons with the revisions that George Lucas made to the Star Wars movies of the original trilogy, even though their main gripes are about plot changes rather than the look of the film.

What could have been done differently

Making different masterings for streaming and Ultra HD Blu-ray sounds like a long shot, but it need not involve dual workflows. If the masters for the 4K HDR disc format are derived after the 4K HDR scan and clean-up but before the point where the heavy processing is applied, a single workflow might be feasible. With all three movies, there's the near removal of film grain. The situation is not as bad as with the earlier Ultra HD Blu-ray transfer of Cameron's Terminator 2. There must be a great 4K transfer of it but that's not what's been released. - "Studio Canal mistakenly used the left or right eye 3-D master (that had been scrubbed with DNR to make 3D conversion easier) for their Ultra HD Blu-ray release. It's a total disaster that needs serious fixing" writes Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits. With True Lies then there are other issues. The transfer is rather uneven, with some scenes looking very soft. The explanation of this may lie in the capture format, the film stock and the lenses used. The film was shot in 35mm anamorphic on Super 35 Scope – a negative format that's only slightly bigger than Super 16mm, according to Jon Thompson.

Missed opportunities

I'm fully aware that Ultra HD Blu-ray is a niche within a niche (that of people who still buy physical media), and I realize not everyone's unhappy with the results of these transfers, but they seem like missed opportunities on multiple levels. This is a shame because Ultra HD Blu-ray is almost certainly the final physical media format (which is probably why Disney labels all their UHD BD releases “Ultimate Collector's Edition”). Perhaps we'll get a makeover of Terminator 2, and even with the AI-led grain removal that could prove to be a major improvement over the initial 4K release, but a second chance for the other Cameron movies seems unlikely at this point. And now, all eyes are going to be on The Terminator – the last of Cameron's blockbuster movies that had yet to be reissued in 4K HDR. The 40th Anniversary Edition is scheduled for release in August of 2024. Personally, I'm not overly optimistic. For technical specifications on the 4K releases see the 4K movie database:
  • Aliens
  • The Abyss
  • True Lies
    Yoeri Geutskens works as a consultant in media technology with years of experience in consumer electronics and telecommunications. He writes about high-resolution audio and video. You can find his blogs about Ultra HD at @UHD4k and @UltraHDBluray.
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