Is Blu-Ray Too Real?

Watching Prometheus last night with a group of friends in Blu-Ray on a HD TV, I was left feeling cheated. Why? Because for me, something about the hyper-real quality of Blu-Ray destroys the whole magic of cinema.

Yes, the picture is crisp, and yes it look like the actors could be in your living room, but something about the image quality, for me, is a little bit backwards. As a media student, and avid film buff, I know all about the expensive grading process that films usually go through in order to achieve that beautiful, cinematic Hollywood quality. Have you ever noticed, when watching a film, the incredible ‘filmic’ quality of the picture? Then flicked over to the DVD ‘Extras’ and seen all the behind the scenes footage which looks as dull as everyday life? To me, this is what Blu-Ray looks like: the studios have gone all-out to make the film look so real, that the quality is now comparable to the second-rate Extras that you usually find on Disc 2.

This too-real quality is also comparable to television production values. Whilst watching Prometheus in the cinema, I could appreciate the effort and artistry that had gone into the quality of the picture. On Blu-ray, however, this picture was condemned to comparisons with standard TV dramas like BBC’s Holby City, with the special effects actually being cheapened so far as to resemble the lovable Doctor Who SFX collection. Now, this may sound like a rant over nothing, and the majority of people I have spoken to can’t seem to see it, but I know I am not alone in this disappointment over Blu-ray.

Another cinematic technique that appears to be damned by the invention of HD is the shaky ‘Bourne’ style camera-work, so prevalent in many of the most iconic films of the decade. Coupled with the too-real image quality of Blu-ray throughout Prometheus, this camera style ceases to be original and inspired, and becomes tacky. Other Blu-ray creations seem to totally remove all levels of visual artistry, using ‘real’ lighting rather than mood-lighting which is so important in cinematic history (Hitchcock, Noir’s chiaroscuro, etc), which suggests a deadening of creativity, rather than a progressive form of cinematic adaptation.

I have a theory, that the reason Blu-ray is so distracting whilst watching films like Prometheus has a lot to do with the genre and cost of the film. The expensive CGI backdrops look absolutely stunning when smothered in HD-goodness, but the rest of the action (or what is going on in the foreground, for the purposes of this theory) is left looking cheap and nasty, and just plain ‘normal’. I feel that this is due to the fact that the two layers of film have been produced in very different ways, and when stuck together and HD’d to the max, the treatment has a very different effect on the intertwining layers, thus creating a discrepancy between the quality of the background and the foreground. Take for instance one of the buggy scenes from Prometheus: the landscape of the planet looks beautiful and detailed, yet the actors on the buggies look too high-contrast and sharp in comparison with the filmic scenery, causing confusion to the eye when the two are watched together, on top of each other: they just do not match.

This discrepancy also carries through to the audio: movie dialogue and scores always sounds expertly produced, having been fiddled with in the studio to create perfect sound levels and quality. This, however, clashes with the HD visuals, which are too ‘real’ when viewed alongside the traditionally recorded sounds, many of which are non-diegetic, detracting from the reality of the image, and thus negating the hard work of those HD-creators. The hyper-real visuals and glorious Hollywood soundtrack just can’t seem to blend together without a very tangible seam.

I am not totally against Blu-ray, however, as watching The Hunger Games in the same format, I was really impressed with the quality of the image. This, in keeping with my theory, is largely due to the fact that most of the scenes are filmed on-location, thus the actors and the backdrop are part of the same layer of film, and merge together seamlessly. The natural, organic backdrops of this movie lend themselves wonderfully to HD image quality, taking on Planet Earth-like levels of epic; which is exactly what HD was intended for. HD and Blu-ray appear to work so much better with natural images than with CGI, and The Hunger Games even retains that elusive cinematic image quality I am so attached to.

HD image quality is in some ways a huge leap forward for technology, but in other ways a massive step back for art and creation. I hope that the two can somehow become better combined and one day produce the ultimate visual experience.

About teafortwotalk

Freelance writer @Pickwickmag @Corridor8 @Biennial / Editor @artinliverpool. Available for writing and copyediting.
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11 Responses to Is Blu-Ray Too Real?

  1. Val says:

    As someone not having seen many Blu-Ray films, I recently had the opportunity to watch Star Wars,” Empire Strikes Back” on Blu-Ray. I was completely dissapointed. Just as you said, the” too-real quality”, just ruined it for me. The color enhancing, post production work, is seemingly stripped away to ultra-reality.
    Many of my friends rave about the picture quality, while I come of as the,” caveman who likes his dvd’s”….I do however agree, that the naure programs look terrific in HD though.

    • It’s great to know I’m not alone in noticing these things, I think because I love film so much I love the other worldly quality of the image, and certain HD-improved films just look like real-life and not like another wonderful fantasy world! I have yet to see the 48 frames/second technology used in the new adaptation of The Hobbit – I wonder if this will be a similar story?
      And yes, the nature programmes (Attenborough’s work especially) look fantastic in HD.

  2. Machiel says:

    I’m glad I found more people on the net having the same sentiments. I bought this Samsung 6800ES tv 46″ kick ass looking LCD and a sony blu-ray bdp-s350 and got completely disillusioned. My 23″ lcd pc monitor gave me more of that hollywood orangy/blue film effect and more joy. And thought my samsung would give me more of that. But no.

    Just as you describe it looks too real which makes it no fun. I’ve been butting my head how to describe this silly effect for others to understand, and you nailed it. It looks like a B-movie shot with a digital camcodrder. Takes out all life and magic. Fringe season 1, Blade 1-2, resident-Evil. All look so amateuristic. Too real.

    I still have hopes this is just a tv-setting thing. If you have more info that might be useful solving this issue. Please share.

    • Hi there, thanks for taking the time to read my piece, Unfortunately I’m no technical wizard, just a very opinionated film-lover. My friend fiddled around with the settings on his TV for ages and eventually made it look better again, but you have to change the settings for different things you watch and the whole thing is really frustrating when you’re supposed to be paying for the latest technology which just makes big-budget effects look home-made.

  3. wong says:

    Be sure to turn down sharpness to a minimum, and turn of all motion enhancement, mpg artifact reduce, dynamic contrast etc(called different things on different full hd tv’sets.) Basically all things supposed to “imrove” the picture. Then just set the brightnes, contrast, colour, gamma as you like! Voila: blu-ray looks amazing!

    • I agree that it can, but I think on some formats and TV sets, as well as for some films it just isn’t necessary and cheapens the overall effect. For sci-fi and fantasty and nature programmes when its set up right, HD looks incredible, I totally agree! Just with some things I have watched, everyone looks like they are moving in FF and that’s definitely not me getting old!

  4. adam says:

    I totally agree with this perspective. I was watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in BluRay and could see where the make up lined ended on Grandpa’s neck. It looked like it was filmed on sit com style video instead of the magic of the big screen. I could also see clearly the wires attached to Charlie and Grandpa whilst flying up the chimney in the factory, totally ruined. The same for The Shining, totally ruined with what appears to be a constant studio light above the actors heads. No grainyness to separate me from the movie, a place to allow my imagination to fill in the gaps. In a word BluRay is vulgar and destroys some really great movies, what a con perpetuated by the greedy film industry. I still prefer VHS for some movies or an LP over a CD.

    • Thanks for reading my piece, and so glad that this isn’t my imagination and something is clearly ‘too real’ about HD Blu-Ray! It completely destroys the magic of cinema for me, and I can imagine it being so much worse with classics – I dare not even watch. Totally agree with what you’ve said here, but I doubt the masses will ever see what we see.

  5. Sofia says:

    You are defo not alone. I am studying film as well and everytime we have a screening and its blue ray It automatically looses some magic to me. In more realistic movies It makes sense (for example iranian cinema is very realitic and watching A Separation on blue ray is great! Older movies or indie movies that have that grainy feel to it, just feel so strange sort of like animation movies with extra sharp images and colours at a slight increased speed. Does anyone feel the same?

  6. Sofia says:

    Just read adams comment and I totally agree!

  7. Tim says:

    I searched all over the web to see if someone (anyone!) had written anything like I was feeling about movies in Blu-ray/HD format, and I finally found your post! Yes! I’m not alone! This has NOTHING to do with Blu-ray player settings, etc.; because I have experienced your same reaction repeatedly on all different kinds of systems and in all sorts of places, especially the brick-&-mortar box stores, where there can be up to 20 screens of varying quality devices and expansive price ranges, all showing the exact same movie, and yet it’s the same, cheap quality.

    I have scratched my head over this, and could never articulate it as well as you did in your post. I have even gone to different stores, not intentionally looking for it, and will be taken by surprise by some familiar movie scene that peripherally catches my eye subconsciously on a bunch of screens, only to be bothered with an INSTANT reaction of near-disgust over the cheap image that bombarded my ocular senses (e.g. The Avengers or Indiana Jones). I’ve repeatedly tried to study this and liken it to some kind of similar quality I’d seen before, but couldn’t place. I appreciate your reference to BBC programming. I also think of daytime soap operas having a similar, “real-time” video quality, and it just looks cheap, like capturing a live play on video.

    Yes, nature programs, sports events, concerts, and even some animated movies are beautiful in the Blu-ray/HD format; however, NOTHING I’ve seen has convinced me to change my DVD collections to Blu-ray. NOTHING!!

    (P.S. In my crusade to recruit others to see what I see, and I have been making progress, I always ask, “If Blu-ray & HD are SO massively awesome, why aren’t movie studios falling over themselves distributing all their movies into theaters in those formats, not even as an alternative viewing option?! Oh sure, there’s 3-D & IMAX, and one or both of the Hobbits came out in high/fast-frame format, but, weird, there’s no big push for it!” The answer, IMHO, is because it’s cheap quality and a cheap scam to make more money on an inferior product, and they know it! Give me a break! Oh, and give me the good, old-fashioned grainy movie-theater look EVERYTIME! They know that if they put that same, cheap quality on the big screen, Blu-ray discs would bomb even faster than they are!)

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