Why Do Funimation's Dragon Ball Z Re-Releases Look Like That?

by Justin Sevakis,

Several people asked:

I've seen promo material for Funimation's upcoming Dragon Ball Z 30th Anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-ray boxed set, and it looks terrible! All of the film grain (and some detail) has been smeared away, the picture has been cropped, and the colors have been screwed with. Why does it look like this, and how does Funimation think they can get away with a release that looks this bad?

The video nerds among us have been abuzz about the new Dragon Ball Z boxed set, and not in a good way. While fans have been holding out hope for a Blu-ray release in the show's native 4x3 aspect ratio (the previous release was cropped to widescreen), the previews released so far gave the impression of a smudgy, overly-cleaned image with colors that seem a little off. And as fans are wont to do, they're making their displeasure known. Loudly.

I've taken a quick look at the screenshots Funimation provided of the native scans of the 16mm film elements they have, and frankly, I'm just very very happy that this isn't my problem. While I'm first to admit that Funimation's video quality doesn't always meet expectations, generally I find the level of rage that certain fans throw in their direction to be overblown. With that sort of discontentment brewing, there was simply no way they weren't going to get blowback on this release, no matter what they did.

When nearly all anime gets remastered in HD, the new film scan is done from the original camera negative, under the supervision of the show's original producer. However, Toei Animation has not done a new HD scan for Dragon Ball Z (at least, outside of what was used to make Dragon Ball Z Kai). Instead, Funimation is doing their own HD scan of COPIES of 16mm elements they've had in their possession for decades. It's exceedingly rare for an overseas publisher to get duplicated film elements these days, because it's very expensive to duplicate film. This basically only happened because Funimation got the show at the tail end of the era of adapting anime for US television, and film elements were used for that process once upon a time.

Anyway, it's impossible to copy film and get an exact duplicate of the original. Film is duplicated by using a special machine to sandwich unexposed film on top of the original, and carefully exposing the new film to light passing through the original, essentially taking a photo of it. Everything in that original film -- its image, its grain, any dirt stuck to the film, scratches, splices -- get exposed onto the new film stock.

The new film stock gets developed, and it will be the opposite of whatever it saw: if it was duplicated from a negative, it will come out positive, and vice versa. The duplicate will add its own grain and impurities. It will also be higher contrast and blurrier than the original. Every time you copy a film, it gets grainier, dirtier, blurrier, and higher contrast. The color will likely also shift a bit in difficult to predict ways, depending on the film stock and how it was duplicated and developed. This is how working with film has always been, and why those of us who work in post-production don't miss it at all.

16mm film is already grainy. What Funimation has to work with is at least a generation or two removed from the original camera negative. It's FAR blurrier and grainier than we'd expect of an HD image. It might look OK as a screenshot, but in motion it'd be very distracting. The folks on forums who say "grain is good" usually mean the grain to be a natural part of the image, but in this case it's not -- it's a byproduct of outdated means of duplicating film images.

And so they tried to remove it. Generational film grain doesn't just distort an image, it IS the image -- it's those grains of photochemical solids reacting to light exposure that make up the image on a piece of film. Degraining software analyzes the image and tries to find the "average" between neighboring areas and neighboring frames to figure out what's the intended image and what's grain or dirt. And in running that software on their copy-of-a-copy of Dragon Ball Z, they've revealed that the image, itself, is blurry as hell.

You can tell that it's the film elements because the Dragon Box, made from Toei's remaster of PROPER film elements, looks better. But it's in SD. 16mm straight from the camera may look OK, but after a generation or two, it looks like crap. I still have my old 16mm projector, and I never use it, because the last time I busted it out and projected something, I was aghast at how blurry, dirty and grainy it looked. It's simply not up to current visual standards.

Funimation had a choice for this edition of Dragon Ball Z, and they went with a choice that they thought would piss off the fewest number of fans. Could they have done something differently? Maybe used a setting on a filter that adds a faint copy of the original image on top of the filtered one, so SOME grain is retained? Made different choices for color correction? Sure. I'm not saying that the image they're presenting is perfect or their work here is DEFINITELY beyond reproach. Some of the issues people are pointing out, like the cropping, are arguable.

But the film transfer? It was never going to look good. It CAN never look good. The only way an HD remaster of Dragon Ball Z will ever look good is if Toei Animation goes back to the original camera negatives and does a proper HD scan of the proper elements themselves. But that's up to Toei. And until that happens, all Funimation can really do is put various kinds of lipstick on a pig.

Maybe next year they can release an upscaled Blu-ray Dragon Box.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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