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.