Blu-ray: moving upscale

So I finally took the plunge into high definition this week, some eighteen months after I got a new TV that proclaimed itself “HD-ready!” It might have been; I wasn’t.

In truth I’ve been rather unconvinced about the whole high def thing. I still marvel at how incredible the DVD quality is let alone high-def, and when I’ve seen demos of high def in stores I’ve been wholly underwhelmed, thinking that they looked not really much better than upscaled DVDs to me. Besides, the last thing I need is another excuse to go out and buy a whole lot more shiny media discs. However, I was starting to notice that the DVDs were beginning to get shunted to one side by the ever-expanding racks of Blu-rays at HMV and that increasingly the studios were holding back their best special features for the high def discs, and I was starting to feel a little left out at not having the choice of being able to buy whichever I wanted.

Also, my old DVD player (£29 from Amazon.co.uk years ago, if I recall correctly) is showing its age and tiring – sometimes quite literally powering off in the middle of a film – and so it was time to buy a new player. Since I wanted one that would do the best upscaling job of standard definition DVDs as possible, I figured that a Blu-ray player should be the expert in producing the finest HD-quality output. The Blu-ray facility was almost a postscript.

Naturally, however, once there was the option to try Blu-ray discs, it had to be tried at least once – it would be impolite not to. And I figured I’d start at the absolute top, with Pixar’s Monsters Inc.: if Blu-ray couldn’t convince me with a CGI cartoon from the very best studio then there really was no hope for it. Plus it’s one of my all-time favourite films.

Somewhat to my embarrassment, therefore, I have to report back and admit that I could indeed tell the difference between upscaled DVDs and Blu-ray. Or to put it more emphatically: Monsters Inc. on Blu-ray left me totally stunned. It was quite astonishing to see a film that looked brilliant on DVD suddenly look so many times better, to the point that there was so much more detail that it made going back to the original DVD suddenly feel like watching the film through a thick sheet of plastic. I truly hadn’t expected it to be so extraordinary.

Screen caps from Pixar Talk blog

Of course, the advantages of high definition depend very much upon the source material: I also picked up (as part of an HMV offer) the Blu-ray of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while some parts of it were similarly sharp and vivid (the African savannah; some of the model work; inside the Jupiter mission spaceship, and the “guest suite” at the end) other parts just looked really quite ordinary. Plus there was a noticeable picture judder on static shots: it was on the DVD as well and hence almost certainly on the master print caused by the motion of the film through the cameras of that era, but it particularly undermines the point of having a high def copy.

So I guess the moral of the story is: check the reviews more carefully than you would normally have done for DVDs, because while it’s spectacular when it works, sometimes the Blu-ray is just more expensive for little return. But for the right film, it’s brilliant – I’m thinking Avatar will be perfect in Blu-ray, in exactly the way that it wasn’t in 3D.

Oh, and the DVD upscaling’s very good too, by the way.

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