Friday, February 10, 2017

Unusual Film Formats on Blu-ray

Blu-ray disc may not have been as successful as DVDs, but its capabilities have allowed it to embrace and do some justice to unusual film formats.  Let's discuss some of them.  For screenshots, I will refer the reader to the article with the appropriate links (when available), which has excellent, multiple full-HD screenshots for most of the films I will be discussing here.  All Blu-ray covers are taken from or with one exception noted below.

1.  Silent Film - Phantom of the Opera & Nosferatu

Silent film did not have a standard projected film frame rate.  Silent film camera operators were not bound to the rigid 24 frames per second of sound films.  Many silent film cameras were hand cranked.  The guideline was to shoot film at 16fps because 1 foot of 35mm film contained 16 frames. Evidence suggests that that was only a guideline and a director could instruct a cameraman to crank the camera faster or slower depending on what he felt the scene needed.

Likewise, many silent film projectors were also hand cranked.  Those that weren't often had motors that could adjust the speed of the film playback, usually in increments of 2 frames.  Thus the producer could direct a film projectionist to project Reels 1 and 3 at 20fps and Reels 2 and 4 at 16fps.  It was not unknown for theaters to project films faster than intended to get more showings in a day.

Films are the epitome of progressive scan, each frame captures an image in one discrete point in time.  When played back in rapid succession, lifelike motion can be seen.  LCDs are also inherently progressive scan devices, they display whole frames at one time.

Video is the epitome of interlaced scan, where each field captures an image composed of odd lines or even lines and the illusion of a full picture is given by rapidly displaying those fields.  The image displayed in an odd field is not the same as displayed in the next even field, they are separated by 16 to 20 microseconds.  CRTs were designed for interlaced video because they draw the display one line at a time.

CRTs handle interlaced video very well.  On an LCD TV, which does not, you can be trained to see combing artifacts where there was movement in between the fields.  Essentially the lines of one field no longer match the lines of another field, hence ugly jagged lines.

NTSC countries had a difficult time converting film to video.  Theatrical film runs at 24 frames per second.  NTSC video runs at 60 (59.94) fields per second.  When you combine the odd and even lines of one pair of video fields, you get 30 (29.97) frames per second.  In order to fit 24 into 30, you need to use 3:2 pulldown.  This image, taken from wikipedia, gives a fair illustration of the process and the results :

DVD was being developed at a time where 4:3 aspect ratio interlaced CRTs were the only affordable devices on the market.  Improvements like anamorphic widescreen and progressive scan flags took time to be found on the disks.  Progressive scan DVD players used a variety of methods to reverse 3:2 pulldown.

PAL and SECAM countries took a different approach.  They ran their video at 50 fields per second.  For 24fps theatrical films made in the US or Japan, they would usually speed up the playback to 25fps and put up with the higher pitched audio.  Their own films tended to be shot at 25fps by the 1960s.  A 2:2 pulldown is required, but this gives no combing artifacts because there are no mixed frames.

Now we come to Blu-ray.  Blu-ray supports true progressive storage and playback at 24fps or 23.976fps at 1,920x1,080.  But it only supports those frame rates and players cannot be expected to support higher.  For silent film which would like to advertise itself as progressively scanned, it has to either be played back at 24fps or be shoehorned to fit into 24fps.  Otherwise they may use an interlaced mode, which may show combing artifacts but can accommodate a wide variety of frame rates.  Criterion used to use interlacing on its early Blu-rays to accommodate non-standard frame rates, but now Criterion and other major silent film distributors (Kino, BFI, Eureka MoC) prefer to use frame duplication.

The Image release of Phantom of the Opera had an interlaced 20fps version on the disc, but the Kino re-release used frame duplication.  The Kino 20fps is clearly superior and probably is the best overall version of the film, a testament to the late, great David Shepard.  For the best information of Phantom's history on disc, I doubt you can do better than my blog entry here :

Silent films have been known to have been projected at 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 or even 26fps.  Frame duplication can be used to fit some of these odd frame rates into 24fps with good results.  For films to be projected at 16fps, every second frame is repeated, 18fps every third every is repeated, 20fps every fifth frame is repeated.  This may look like it causes jitter, but it really doesn't in practice.  What causes jitter is when frames are repeated randomly or when there is only one or two repeated frames in a second, as with some releases of movies projected at 22fps.  The better practice with films so close to 24fps is probably to run them at 24fps and put up with a speedup or slowdown of 8-9%

The Kino Nosferatu Blu-ray disc had a complex duplication algorithm that ended up deleting film frames at regular intervals, giving truly horrific results.  The Eureka MoC Blu-ray, which came from the same master, has no such issue.  Nor have I heard that the BFI Blu-ray, taken from a different master, has frame-rate issues either.  Here is a comparison showing a sample of a missing frame from the Kino Blu-ray :

For more information about Nosferatu's history on disc, this article is the last word on the subject :

2.  Napoleon - Abel Gance's Polyvision - Ultra-widescreen

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) is the very epitome of an Epic silent film.  It is a long film at over five and a half hours.  It covers the early life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was extremely innovative for its time, with stark lighting techniques, rapid cutting, tracking shots, montages and is a film full of energy.  The film was finished at the end of the silent film era and was intended to be part one of a multi-film series, but there was no money left for sequels.  While it has been projected at 24fps, its ideal speed is 20fps.

What is perhaps the most impressive innovation is the widescreen process used in the final reel of the film.  When it the final reel was being loaded, the curtains would pull away from the center screen to reveal a screen on the left and a screen on the right of the now center screen.  Then two projectors would project film alongside the main screen.  This could be used for both a huge widescreen panorama or it could show two or three different images.  This three-panel projection is also known as a triptych.

The Polyvision process was incredibly impressive, but also incredibly technically complex and never used again in a commercial film.  It may have only been used in two engagements during the film's first run in France.  After that the film was projected with a single projector using the center strip for the final reel.  Eventually the film was thought to have survived only in a bowdlerized version.   After restoration, it was revived in the early 1980s to allow a new generation of moviegoers to see it and it was again shown several times in the 21st century.  However, the film was released on VHS and Laserdisc in the 1980s and only in Australia on DVD prior to 2016.  So unless you had the leisure time and were in the right place at the right time, chances are that you would never be able to see this film in the manner in which it was intended.

After a long restoration, the BFI finally released Napoleon on Blu-ray in November of 2016.  This Blu-ray set has three discs and a large booklet.  You can watch the triptych as part of Act 4, in which case it will show in a letterbox.  In order to fit the Triptych into a 1920x1080 frame, each panel's resolution is about 720x540, essentially DVD resolution.  It still looks very sharp, however, because the individual reels of film were scanned in 2K.  Alternatively, the one part of the triptych is contained on each of the three discs.  If you had three projectors and a widescreen or three players and three TVs, you could watch the Tripytch in high definition.  The right and left panels are shifted to the edges of the screen, making it easy to use them to overlap the borders in the center panel.  The discs are Region B discs, so you will need some way of watching them in Region A countries.  There is also the single panel version of the final reel, which contains some unique sequences and deserves to be watched in its own right

In this Album, I took a screen capture of each panel of the Triptych separately, then their combined presentation for a single screen on the Blu-ray.  Finally, I constructed an ideal Full-HD presentation using the capture of each panel and joining them together in composite image using an image editor :

The first release came in a cardboard box and was limited.  This was the version I received.  The second release comes in a plastic case.  Other than a shorter booklet, the content on the discs is identical to the first release.  The second release's booklet shortens the transcript of the interview with the composer, Carl Davis, but the full video interview is included on the discs.

More screen captures of the Blu-ray can be found here at the venerable DVD Beaver :

3,  The Big Trail - 70mm Fox Grandeur - Early Widescreen and High Resolution Film Gauge

The Big Trail is an early B&W sound epic Western released in 1930 about the trials and tribulations of a group of travelers on the Oregon Trail.  It is primarily known for two very important milestones in the history of film.  First, it was John Wayne's first starring role.  Unfortunately the film was not a great success and Wayne was relegated to B-pictures for the rest of the 1930s until Stagecoach in 1939.

For our purposes, however, the Big Trail was shot for two formats, first in the academy ratio using 35mm and the Fox Movietone aspect ratio of 1.2:1.  The Movietone aspect ratio is essentially the standard Silent aspect ratio (1.33:1) cropped to accommodate the optical sound track on the left side of the film.  Most non-widescreen films released thereafter would use the Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1), which shrinks the image somewhat to come closer to the silent aspect ratio.

The second important milestone is that this was one of the first true widescreen feature films.  Contrary to popular opinion, the first widescreen feature film was not 1953's The Robe.  The Big Trail's second format was called Fox Grandeur and used 65mm film with an aspect ratio of 2:1 (non-anamorphic).  There was no magnetic sound yet, but the optical track was twice as large on the Grandeur than on the Movietone film.  This allowed for greater fidelity in the audio.

The Movietone and the Grandeur versions are not identical.  Some sequences were filmed simultaneously, but others were shot twice.  Grandeur was best when capturing wide images, but not well-suited for closeups.  Movietone shows much greater versatility in the smaller, more intimate scenes but really tight for the longer shots.

The Grandeur format was almost a quarter-century before its time.  Movie theaters had just converted to sound, which was expensive.  Converting to a widescreen format was an additional expense few theaters were prepared to undertake, especially after the Stock Market crash of 1929.  Most moviegoers saw the Movietone version.  The original 65mm negative still survived, which is rare out of the dozen or so films and short subjects shot with this and other early competing large gauge processes.  Karl Malkames, a dedicated film restoration expert, constructed a specially scanner to scan the non-standard 65mm negative onto 35mm anamorphic stock. 20th Century Fox was able to fit both presentations on one dual-layered Blu-ray.

4.  Oklahoma! - Todd-AO 30fps - Early High Frame Rate

High frame rate film occasionally comes around.  There is the occasional director who likes to tinker with the format, but it has yet to catch on.  Peter Jackson's The Hobbit (48fps) and Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (120fps) are two of the only examples I can name from recent memory.  The trouble with HFR is that it draws attention to itself and away from the film.  HFR gives a film a video look.  Video itself is a form of low-resolution HFR.

People have been trained for decades to regard video productions as cheap and inconsequential, however unjust those judgments may be.  The only drama people usually encounter with HFR these days are soap operas.  Most TV dramas and comedies, even if shot digitally, are either shot in 24 or 25fps or post-processed to look like film. I saw the first part of The Hobbit in HFR and the scenes reminded me of Fraggle Rock.  While I have not seen Ang Lee's movie, critics complained that the HFR process was more of an impediment and a turn-off to the drama.

HFR is not new.  Before Peter Jackson was born, Mike Todd had invented a practical 70mm process called Todd-AO.  Todd-AO was one of the first successful 70mm widescreen formats.  It supports magnetic six-channel sound.  In its earliest iteration, Todd-AO cameras shot a 30fps.  The first film which used Todd-AO was an adaptation of Roger and Hammerstein's successful musical Oklahoma!  This film was shot twice, once with Todd-AO cameras (2.20:1 AR) and once with anamorphic Cinemascope cameras (2.35:1 AR).

The Blu-ray of Oklahoma, just like the DVD before it, presents both versions of the film.  Unlike the older DVD release, the Blu-ray's Todd-AO version is completely restored.  Technically, the 30fps version is interlaced on the Blu-ray, but you will not see interlaced artifacts because the source material is film.  LCDs display combine interlaced material to deinterlace the content.  Because the interlaced version is showing two halves of one image captured at one point in time, you will not see any of the ugly combing artifacts of true interlaced video.  The only other film shot in the 30fps Todd-AO format was Around the World in 80 Days, and its Todd-AO version has not been restored.

Courtesy of
5.  How the West Was Won - Cinerama 3-Strip - Narrative Film

Gance's idea of using multiple cameras to capture a wide area was not unique.  In 1952 the Cinerama process was unveiled to the world.  Cinerama worked by synchronizing the recording from three cameras, each one containing a reel of 35mm film printed horizontally.  The film would be played back by three cameras to a deeply curved screen which mimicked the arc of human vision.  The shape of the screen from head-on looks like a bowtie.

Cinerama's virtues were offset by its difficulties.  Keeping three strips of film in synchronization was always a challenge.  Cinemas preferred flat screens to curved screens.  The borders of the left and right reels would often be visible against the center reel.  The huge, bulky camera proved limiting for directors.  Closeups were impractical, actors and shots had to be carefully composited to not stand near the joins of the film strips.  A similar system was called Cinemiracle and a version made by the Soviet Union was called Kinorama.

Cinerama was used mainly for documentaries, and many of the existing Cinerama films have been released by Flicker Alley.  When seen in the theater on a huge screen, these films were deemed to be extraordinarily impressive.  You would really feel immersed in the action, as if you were on a ride.  I have never been privileged to watch an ideal Cinerama presentation, but I have had similar experience when viewing some IMAX-style projected films.  When these same images are viewed on a 50" TV screen, the effect is mostly lost.  Like an IMAX film, the material on screen may not be sufficiently captivating to justify a pricey purchase.  Moreover, Flicker Alley's films tend to look a little color bleached, making the joins in the film more apparent and somewhat breaking the illusion.

There were only two traditional fictional films released in Cinerama, and only one of which, How the West Was Won, is available in that format. (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the other.)  Unlike "This is Cinerama", HtWWW is enjoyable in its own right apart from the Cinerama process.  The Digi-book release has the film in two formats, each with its own disc.  The best format uses a smilebox-letterbox to recreate the curvature of the screen.  The second format is a flat format, which can look very odd when the actors are standing in different panels.  Without the Smilebox presentation, it will look like the actors are looking askance of each other.  The Smilebox presentation does distort images at the sides of the screen.  Preferences may vary.  Budget Blu-ray releases with only one disc may only contain the flat version.  You want the version with two discs.

6.  Spearhead from Space - 25fps "European Progressive" Presentation

The Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space was the Third Doctor's introductory story.  While the Classic Series would usually use film for location shooting and special effects, studio work would be videotaped.  Spearhead is the lone exception to the rule, it was produced during a strike which made the studio videocameras unavailable for use.  So they decided to use 16mm film for the whole production, including all studio and location sequences.  It was too expensive to continue to use film exclusively after the strikers went back to work, but the use of film gave Spearhead a uniquely high quality look that would arguably never be matched.

Fortunately the BBC kept the film elements for Spearhead, whereas they would reuse the Doctor Who videotape masters and junk many of the telecines.  Spearhead was transferred to VHS (but not Laserdisc) early in the Doctor Who releases and was originally released in the Omnibus or "movietized" format where the episode cliffhangers and accompanying credits were removed.  Later the UK got a VHS release with the cliffhangers and credits restored.  It was released to DVD early in the range (2000) and re-released later as a Special Edition DVD (2011).

For both DVD releases, the Doctor Who Restoration Team was involved with restoring the film to the best extent possible given the technology of the time.  In 2013 they decided to revisit the film in High Definition.  Even 16mm can do better on Blu-ray than DVD.  Unlike 2011, this time they worked directly from the scanned negative, not from interpositives.

Spearhead was shot and edited at 25fps, which was the standard for 1970s U.K. film intended for television.  Many European films from the 1950s onward were also shot at 25fps, so the information here is equally applicable to any of them.  The 25fps format plays very nicely with the PAL and SECAM TV standards, as noted above.  Blu-ray does not support a true 25p format (something Ultra HD 4K discs fixed), so Spearhead is stored in 50i on the Blu-rays sold in PAL countries.  However, when the original source is film and there are no dirty frames, there will be no noticeable interlacing on modern TVs.  (Oklahoma! has the same issue, just a different frame rate).  Modern TVs default deinterlacing method is to combine both fields into a frame and hold the image for two frames.  For the U.S. market, in order to avoid deinterlacing artifacts, the Restoration Team decided to do the typical film PAL to NTSC conversion by slowing down the film speed to 24p and pitch shifting the voices.

More information about the Blu-ray version can be found at the Restoration Team's website :  Unfortunately the 50i format gets an unfair reputation as being inferior to 24p, but this reputation is based on ignorance.  With film, 50i can show just as good a picture as 24p and avoids the 4% slowdown and the pitch shifting.

7.  Godzilla 3D - Better 2-D than the 2-D version

Blu-ray has supported 3-D film in the Blu-ray 3-D format for a long time.  The format does not skimp on the resolution, it will show a 1920x1080 frame for each eye.  If you have Active Matrix 3-D TV, you will enjoy the benefit of full resolution 3-D.  These TVs require expensive Active Shutter glasses which use an LCD to ensure that each eye sees only the frames intended.  If you have a Passive Matrix 3-D TV, then each frame will be condensed horizontally or vertically due to the nature of how the set works (it essentially displays in an interlaced format and the polarized glasses determine which eye sees the image.)  Passive Matrix 3-D TVs require only inexpensive polarized LCD glasses like those passed out at the movie theaters.

3-D is not particularly unusual, and classic (and not-so-classic) films which have been available for decades in 2-D releases like House of Wax, Kiss Me Kate, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dial M for Murder, Comin' at Ya!, Friday the 13th 3-D and Jaws 3-D have seen 3-D Blu-ray releases.  When done right, the results are very impressive.

But here I am going to talk about instances where a 3-D presentation in 2-D is better than the standard 2-D presentation.  In this case it is 2014's Godzilla, which finally restored some dignity to the monster after the disaster of 1998.  While Godzilla was shot as a 2-D film, its release on Blu-ray had a problem, it was incredibly dark and murky.  It is so dark that in order to tell what is happening in some of the night scenes, you need to crank up the contrast or brightness to unnatural levels.  The 3-D version is naturally brighter, perhaps in order to compensate for the light that is lost through the 3-D glasses.  When viewing this version in 2-D, the colors are more vivid and the night scenes are just bright enough to figure out what is going on.

Of course, watching the 3-D version of the film in 2-D is a challenge.  All Blu-ray 3-D releases must have a way of watching the film with a 2-D TV.  Some films have a separate disc with the 2-D version, other discs set a flag that allows 2-D playback by presenting one set of the images.  Godzilla 3D comes on two discs, one with a 3-D presentation, one with the same 2-D presentation that is on the standalone release.  If you put the 3-D disc into your player and do not have a 3-D TV, it will not play.  If you do have a 3-D TV, you may be able to trick the player into playing the 2-D version.  If you don't have a 3-D player, then you will have to rip the movie with MakeMKV and stream it.


  1. Galaxy Quest (the excellent 1999 homage to Star Trek) actually uses three different aspect ratios in its theatrical release, handled in a somewhat similar way to Napoleon.

    Apart from the opening scene (a clip from the titular fictional TV show, shown in its "original" 4:3 (1.333:1)), the first part of the movie is 1.85:1. When Tim Allen looks out of the window and sees that the spaceship he's in is actually real, the screen expands horizontally, and the rest of the film is displayed in a 2:40:1 aspect ratio befitting a sci-fi action movie.

    For the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, though, this isn't done: in order to expanding the screen horizontally, the first part of the film would need to be letterboxed on all four sides on even widescreen TVs. Instead, the whole film now uses 2.40:1 - without losing any part of the image!

    This is because the entire film was actually shot - and masters exist - at 2.40:1. The first part was just cropped out for the theatrical release, then *de*cropped for video.

  2. I didn't know about Galaxy Quest, which is a loving and sharp-witted parody of Star Trek, but pulling back the curtains effect makes sense in the theater but would cause complaints about "defective" DVDs and Blu-rays.

  3. That opening up of the screen in the film, starting windowboxed and then later filling the width, is something I've started to call "The Cinerama Reveal". Basically because of that famous introduction of This is Cinerama.

    In that first travelogue film in the format the film starts and we get a short intro done in normal 35mm 1.37:1 windowboxed with black and white image and mono low fidelity audio (normal for low budget films at the time). As the narrator finnishes his speech he goes "now THIS is CINERAMA!" The curtains open up to reveal the enveloping curved screen the image fills the periferal view with the thee synced images, goes full color, the sound switches to full high fidelity multitrack surround sound and the audience is taken up a literal rollercoaster ride on screen.

    Similar gimmicks are seen in films like in the first Donner Superman where a tiny grainy black and white screen starts the move and switches to full widescreen color for the opening credits (symbolizing Supermans leap from tiny TVs to real big time films I suppose).

    I've also read that an early 1920s test reel of an early widescreen process also used the opening up to a rollercoaster gimmick, but don't know exactly which...

    IMAX films also frequently uses this gimmick, especially when all they have for short sequences are relatively low resolution 16 or 35 mm or even SD video sources. Usually they will keep the windowbox in the lower third to maximise the impact of not only the extra width but the height too of these 15/70 productions.

    Modern versions of the IMAX approach is the variable frame height that Christopher Nolan loves and others like James Gunn loves. Using the full image of all his source formats. Allthough they usually crop the 1.43:1 IMAX sequences to 16:9 for the home video market sadly...

    Then we also have the mad genius of Douglas Trumbull... A long time advocate of HFR. He's basically the reason Peter Jackson and James Cameron pushed the HFR format into global projection standards (even though they are rarely used). He really wanted to shoot the first person recordings that are in Brainstorm in 48fps 70mm and the normal scenes in 24 fps 35mm... But getting theaters around the world to upgrade to 70mm projectors that could reliably run at 48 fps prooved too financially daunting and in that film it would have meant printing the 35mm segments (most of the film) with double frames so it just felt super wasteful. He did in the end shoot the fpv scenes in 24fps 70mm and pillarboxed the 35mm segments... The effect was however further ruined by early home video releases cropping all of it to 1.85:1. Later releases do get it more right though with windowboxing the "normal" scenes so the wider material get to reach further around the horizon.

    I'll end this ramble with saying that I hate that so many releases get compromised because viewers are afraid of black areas in the screen. I usually liken it to someone cutting off huge chunks of classic works of art because they feel it doesn't fill the frame. Stop worrying about filling the arbitrary shape of the frame. Look at what the artist put into the composition!

    Oh, and... Cinerama was one camera with three magazines of film all running vertically (Similar to but not exactly like the three strip Technicolor system). Though the projection was with three separate projectors. Not three cameras fed horizontally. The only horizontally fed formats I know of are those built around the VistaVision standard and IMAX.

    Sorry for the ramble but if there is one thing I get carried away with it is film technology and its history.

    And I really need to watch Galaxy Quest. I have heard so many great things about it recently.