What Determines Whether An Older Show Should Be Released as SD-BD?
by Justin Sevakis,
My question gets a little technical but I was reading over the Skip Beat! kickstarter campaign recently and I saw a statement from Pied Piper where you said Skip Beat! was perfect candidate for upscaling to HD. I know generally digipaint shows tend to get upscaled for Blu-Ray releases and even some film based anime gets upscaled if it looks like the original film elements no longer exist, among other reasons. Given the mix reception of upscales among videophiles I have to ask what makes a show like Skip Beat! a perfect candidate for upscaling to HD vs. leaving DVD only or doing an SD-BD similar to what Discotek did for Samurai Pizza Cats?
Full disclosure: I authored the Skip Beat! Blu-rays, as well as all of the Blu-rays released so far by Discotek Media, including all SD-BDs.
In the US, anime DVDs now sell so poorly that, if an older series is going to be re-released, it pretty much needs to be on Blu-ray or it's not worth bothering. Despite the angry protests of a small number of fans who steadfastly refuse to upgrade, most publishers have now observed that so few people are buying the older DVD format that it's usually not worth the trouble for all but the most mainstream of titles. While Funimation continues to release combo-packs containing both formats, most of the other publishers are now Blu-ray only for the most part.
But what is to be done if a series only has masters in standard definition? For a long time, the answer was simple: upscale the video. However, some video scales better than others. Anime that was mastered entirely with 24-per-second progressive video (that is, every frame at once) is easiest to work with, and depending on how "clean" the master is (free of distortions and artifacts from older production methods) it can be processed in such a way that makes that anime very difficult to tell apart from something made natively in HD.
Not all shows are so lucky. A surprising number of shows were made in a mix of different frame rates: most of the cel animation is done at 24p (and converted to 29.97 interlaced frames per second through a technique known as "pull-down"), but some series combine that with 3D CG or other special effects rendered at 30 progressive frames per second. Fades, credit rolls, and other final-stage touches were often done in purely interlaced 29.97 frames per second. With content like this, you only really have two choices: try to mash the entire show back into 24p (the parts that aren't natively 24p will get their frames blurred together), or keep it 29.97 interlaced. Both are bad options. Forcing the show into 24p isn't terrible if only small sections like credit rolls will get blurred, but if there's a significant amount of footage that will end up blurry, it will simply damage the show too much.
If you try to upscale footage that's interlaced, you get a weird image that won't look very good on computers and even some TVs. That's because the way motion looks when it's interlaced, it's very difficult to approximate the extra resolution in a way that looks natural. Japanese upscales are often interlaced, and some of them try to compensate for the weird upscaling effect by blurring the image a lot. I'm not a fan of this technique. I've done it, but only when I had to.
As DVD has declined and Blu-ray has stayed strong (if not gotten stronger, sales-wise), the publishers have slowly gotten less picky about what got upscale treatment and what didn't. For a long time, video nerds who wanted to keep Blu-ray releases as pristine as possible (myself included) tried to keep really old, analog masters away from getting the Blu-ray treatment altogether. We were hoping that shows that were shot on film would eventually get new, proper HD transfers from their original film elements. Sometimes that happened. Sometimes not. Some shows' film elements have been lost forever, or the shows are so niche that nobody can justify the expense of a proper remaster. Some series, especially OVAs, were only partially made on film, and all editing and post-production was done on video, so there never was a final, finished copy on film.
So, the third option is to keep the show in its native format: standard definition, 29.97 interlaced frames per second. By keeping the show in its native format, you can avoid all of the potentially destructive ways you'd have to process the video to upscale it. (You can make 24p SD-BDs too, of course.) You can use the better quality video encoding format used by Blu-ray. And you can squeeze a hell of a lot more on a single disc -- up to 24 hours of video! The consumer gets a good representation of the original master, and can process and display it however they see fit -- and most Blu-ray players do a pretty good job of blowing standard definition video up to HD. Blu-rays also have a hard coating that makes them more resistant to scratches than DVDs.
SD-BD has its disadvantages too. They're very difficult to produce, with as many moving parts as 8 or more regular discs. Quality checking takes forever. Some players do a better job upscaling than others, too: some look nearly as good as if I had upscaled the video before authoring, while others look a little jaggy. (Some of my early SD-BDs had compatibility issues with PlayStation 4s, but once I upgraded my authoring software that wasn't a problem anymore.)
For now, it seems that the format is best suited to long-running, niche shows. Ones that would fill a huge number of standard DVDs or upscaled Blu-rays, but might not sell a ton of copies, make a lot of sense on the format: a vastly lower disc count, lower manufacturing costs, and easy collectability are among the many upsides. The more volumes you split a series into, the lower the chance many fans will ever complete their collection. However, shorter shows don't save anywhere near as much space or money. Depending on the materials, it might make more sense just to upscale them and produce a "real" Blu-ray release.
Choosing which way to release a show is an inexact science. Every decision is made on a case-by-case basis, based on the quality of the masters, how well they upscale, how long the show is, how popular the show is with fans that will spend money, whether or not there's a dub, and any number of other factors. The Japanese licensor usually also gets a say in the matter. (For the record, the first SD-BD I know of was the Japanese release of God Mars.)
For a mostly DVD-less future, it's good to have these options. Classic anime publishers are still experimenting with what works best. It's a good idea to (politely) let the publishers know which option you prefer and why... However, I'm sorry to say that for the DVD hold-outs, the war has already been lost.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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