Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Film Grain of Oz

Screengrab from the 2009 Blu-Ray edition
Pictures from DVDbeaver
In a couple recent blogs about MGM's The Wizard of Oz, you may have noted me use the term "film grain." Some questions might arise: what is it? Why is it important?

Nope, that's film grain.
Some people haven't been quite so enamored with the HD print of the movie released in 2009, and it comes from a big misconception about film prints and video transfers. The complaint is that the film looks grainy and (because they forgot what it looked like) they say it looks like a bad VHS copy. But, this is quite the opposite of the case. Film has a fine grain texture that holds the image. When this was reproduced onto videocassette, laserdisc or even DVD, the resolution wasn't high enough to show film grain. When Blu-Ray and high definition video came out, we were finally able to see this fine texture. Most of us know The Wizard of Oz from seeing it on television or home video. We didn't notice film grain there because it didn't show up.

Is it possible to remove film grain? Yes, however, the results are often held to be detrimental as this basically blurs the image so the grain disappears. Sure, in high definition, the image may look sharp, but a lot of detail has actually been lost in this process.
"The grain's gone!"
And so's the whites of her eyes...

Furthermore, film enthusiasts believe that since movies like The Wizard of Oz were filmed on film, the grain should be retained so it still looks like film. There are people who believe movies should be tinkered with until they "look real," but can any of us really say that we should mess that much with a film, particularly one so classic as Oz? Would making the movie look like a live sporting event really improve it?

I say, NO. The look of the film—even if limited by the time it was made—was how the crew wanted it to look. If we remove that, the film is no longer what people saw in theaters. Would The Wizard of Oz be as magical if we recolored it to look like modern photography instead of Technicolor?

Furthermore, such a conversion simply would not be possible. At least, not in high-definition. The loss of detail that would happen by eliminating film grain would actually require making the picture smaller so as not to look artificial.

Screencap from the 2005 DVD release
If you want to see The Wizard of Oz without film grain, dig up a copy of the DVD from 2005. This is actually a fine-looking transfer, nice, clear, sharp and rich in color. But if you want to see the movie in high definition, that film grain will be part of it, at home on your HDTV or in a movie theater.

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