Old films can look great in HD format

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 32, 2007

Q: I’m trying to figure out if it’s still too early to buy an HD DVD player. There are a number of DVDs available in HD format, but I suspect that the vast majority of them were filmed with non-HD cameras and converted to HD. Do you know if this is generally true? I assume it’d be cost prohibitive to make feature films in both digital and HD, and until more theaters and TVs convert to HD format, filmmakers won’t make the jump themselves. The conversion cost for a studio must be incredible. Are “HD DVDs” really filmed in HD? If not, is there any improvement in quality of a digital film converted to HD? I’m sure your readers would be interested to hear your views on this.

Lake Elmo, Minn.

A: You seem to have a misconception of how films (and many TV shows) are made. Though digital moviemaking using HD cameras has become more common, the overwhelming majority of the film and TV show library exists on film, simply because most of the material was produced before the advent of HD filmmaking. (Film also has some technical and aesthetic advantages over digital, which I will not go into here, and still remains in wide use in the motion picture industry.)

Even in the 1950s, very fine optics were available that could create very sharp, colorful images on motion picture film. A studio can take these original film masters of movies and TV shows and convert them to high definition video. This makes almost any movie made in the past 50 years a potential high definition movie. If the film has faded and has visual defects due to age, digital remastering techniques can restore and enhance the film to make it look better than new.

It’s quite an eye-opener to see how good the old material can look in HD. I recently added the Voom HD channels to my Dish Network subscription and was delighted to find some of the old Gerry Anderson cult classics such as “UFO” and “Thunderbirds” on the Voom Family Room channel, all in glorious HD. Though they were filmed in the 1960s and early 1970s, the colors, sharpness, contrast, everything is absolutely first rate and true to the promise of high definition.

“Hogan’s Heroes” also was shot on 35 mm film and is showing in high definition on HD Net. In short, if old Gerry Anderson sci-fi shows and “Hogan’s Heroes” can make the conversion to high definition and look great, the vast majority of motion pictures can, too.

The question you should be asking yourself is: Which disc format do I want to support? There are two high definition disc formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray. Both are fighting to become the high-definition disc format, but the battle is far from over. There isn’t a tremendous amount of material available for either format yet; and combined with the relatively high cost of the players (especially Blu-ray players), I have a hard time recommending either format at the moment.

Some die-hard film buffs and videophiles are certainly good candidates to own the players now. But if you have to ask the question, you probably would be best served by waiting a little while longer. There are rumors in the industry that we will be seeing large price drops around the holiday season of 2007.

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