How Criterion is Going Hi-Def
The Criterion Collection is known for excellence. The Criterion folks assemble "important classic and contemporary films" and releases them on DVD (formerly Laserdisc), often restoring the film from original negatives, working with directors, and including lots of bonus materials in the process. Criterion was established in 1984, and had to transition from Laserdisc to DVD in 1998. Just a decade later, times are changing again, and Criterion is about to move their collection to high definition Blu-ray discs.
Criterion is responsible for changing the face of modern home video, introducing innovative techniques that are now seen as must-haves by the video-buying public. Criterion popularized letterboxed home video with 1987's release of Blade Runner, and they introduced the first commentary track -- a scene-by-scene discussion which appeared on the King Kong laserdisc. Criterion also popularized the notion of a "director's cut" (and other alternate or "definitive" versions of films), often seeking out specific versions of a given movie, and working with directors to determine which is best.
As Criterion approaches the Blu-ray generation, it's facing some interesting technical challenges. DVD was a huge step above home video in terms of image quality, versatility, capacity, and stability. Blu-ray is effectively the same as DVD, just more so: more quality, more storage, more interactive power. But how does this increase in home theater quality interact with the classic films Criterion is famous for? Will the HD quality just reveal more flaws in the source material? Gadget blog Gizmodo recently toured the Criterion headquarters, giving us a peek inside the process:
...with that huge uptick in resolution for the consumer, Criterion is faced with a lot of problems that they didn't have when their masters were converted to standard definition for DVD. After all, they're often dealing with old films, created before there was fancy low-grain filmstock and digital processing. And with the technology they have today, how much restoration and processing is too much? ... "Grain reduction has become such an industry standard that people, when they see grain, they think it's a problem rather than what film looks like. Film is a physical medium that has this grain structure to it," says [David] Phillips. That being said, they realize that consumers buying restored HD films on Blu-ray are expecting near-pristine quality prints. It's a tough balance to strike. Essentially, "it's trying to stay on the side of not overprocessing but not leaving so much film artifact that it's distracting from getting engaged in the film."
Read the rest for a nice look at how Criterion works, and what challenges it's facing today. (The article is also full of images of Criterion's home base -- a must-see for film nerds.)