Are "Upscaled" Blu-Rays Worth The Upgrade?

by Justin Sevakis,

Patrick asked:

I have a very simple question. Are blu-ray upscales of shows that have been out on dvd for years (I.E. Gungrave, Fate/stay night, etc) worth the money? Does the upscaling actually make a big enough difference to justify another purchase to see and possibly hear the improvements? Or is this just a cash grab by companies?

It's really hard to say. There are good upscales and bad upscales, presentations that are helped by the process and presentations that really are a step back. But overall, I'd say it's an improvement -- just often not a big enough improvement to make it worth upgrading, in my opinion.

When a show gets the upscale treatment, a couple of things happen: video is re-captured from the original Japanese Digibeta master tapes. The video is carefully analyzed, and even though Digibeta can only hold video in NTSC format (standard definition, 29.97 interlaced frames per second), a process is applied called "inverse telecine" or IVTC, which tries to restore the original 24 progressive frames per second. Once the video is properly 24 frames per second, antialiasing and scaling is applied to blow the image up to 1080p with as few visible "jaggies" as possible.

Most digipaint anime can be upscaled fairly well and easily, particularly higher-budgeted titles produced after 2003 or so. Prior to that, the production techniques for making anime digitally weren't fully sussed out yet, and upscaling those earlier titles usually doesn't look so hot.

Most people's Blu-ray players actually do a fairly decent job of upscaling regular DVDs, so many fans have argued that upscaling at the production end is redundant, and can possibly mess up the presentation. Some early upscales (most notably, the first Blu-ray release of Samurai Champloo) attempted to also denoise the image a bit, and that resulted in some smearing and the loss of fine detail. Japan's Q-TEC post-production studio has an upscale process that somehow keeps the image in 29.97 interlaced format AND smears the image. Predictably, reaction to those upscales has not been kind.

Most upscales do provide a benefit, in my opinion. DVD Compression, particularly in the early days, did not look very good, and the English master tapes they got their video from also didn't look very good, since a lot of late 90s and early 2000s video gear still used analog cables and components here and there. Just the act of going back and reformatting the show from the Japanese master with modern equipment can work wonders, and then storing that video in Blu-ray format can result in a huge quality boost. On a newer 4K TV, the quality difference from the compression alone can be astronomical. As for the upscale itself, it's usually at least a little bit better than what even high-end home theater gear can do in real-time.

Personally, I don't upgrade all of my DVDs to upscaled Blu-rays. Before deciding to upgrade, I'll look at my old disc being played on my current equipment and see if the quality holds up. If the original disc looks good, it's not like there will be much additional detail in the Blu-rays that came from the same source. But if I'm seeing awful compression artifacts and video issues that are likely to have gotten ironed out, it will almost certainly be worth the upgrade unless the new disc is screwed up for some reason. It's a case by case thing.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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