'Fellowship of the Ring ' Theatrical R1 vs R2 vs Extended R1 vs R2 vs BjoernBit NTSC vs HD
Bjoern Roy , November 23th, 2003

Last year, as the street date of the first Lord of the Ring DVD, the TV (theatrical version) of 'Fellowship of the Ring', came closer and closer, my anticipation was unbearable. Would they do this gem of a movie justice in terms of transfer quality and encoding?

Because unlike many other reviewers, who claim New Line to always deliver 'perfect' DVDs in terms of PQ, i am much less fond of their efforts. The only R1 New Line DVDs that i consider 'reference quality' and which i would use to demo my system without any hesitation are 'Blade 1' (2.35:1) and 'Hurly Burly' (1.85:1). They have an incredibly film-like quality without any EE, with ultra-high almost unfiltered detail. Videophile bliss. 'Lost in Space' (1998) might have been in that category, but i can't remember for sure. I promised my concience to never think of that 'movie' again ;-)

'Seven S.E.' is also on that short list. Its only 'flaw' was a tad ringing in the ending scenes in the desert. Apart from that, it was just amazing. My favorite shot was the one where Freeman, Pitt and the doc were examining the 'fat' body in the morgue. The contrast and the ultra-high-yet-smooth detail without any trace of ringing in that scene is magnificent.

There are quite a few New Line transfers that are good to very good, like 'Blade 2' for example. But there are even more that are a tad short of spectacular, quite a few just plain mediocre (blurry, way too much EE).

So in my anticipation of the FOTR, i prayed that New Line would indeed 'do justice' to their Crown Juwel and that it would slip into that short list of reference DVDs. I kinda had a bad feeling about this, since when a title is 'A-caliber' and you just expect the effort to be so high that nothing can go wrong, the outcome has often been worse than average. Meaning, the more 'care' some of the hired hands put into the transfer and encoding, the worse the result. Made you really scratch your head. Mind you this where my thoughts back in 2002. The situation has improved considerably in the recent months, though. These days, my worries of A-titles to be messed up are basically gone. Au contraire, actually, many recent top titles are indeed great.

Anyway, so the first reviews of FOTR started to show up and the euphoria was immense. 'Best PQ ever', 'approaching HD' etc, etc. 'The detail... ', 'Oh...' , 'Ah...'.

I am usually quite skeptical towards most reviews, since few of them are done on the same level of equipement that us videophile's are used to. On TVs and even on many RPTVs, most transfer, from mediocre to sensational, all just look 'great'. Theses reviews ARE very helpful to many, actually 'most' people, since they have the same level of equipment at home! But they are inadequate for 'us' to make buying decisions on, since they fail to differentiate the 'good', 'very good' and 'sensational' on a level that i would ultimately agree on.

Which is a shame, since it means i need to buy everything i am remotely interested in and see for myself. On titles that i really adore, like the LOTR's, i even often buy ALL versions. I don't have any prefilter available in terms of 'would-only-buy-it-if-transfer-is-spectacular', or 'want-to-buy-the-version/region-with-best-PQ'. I must be a movie studios dream-customer. Ka'-ching :-)

So the day arrived where i finally hold the preeeecious in my filthy little hands. The R1 NTSC theatrical version of 'Fellowship of the Ring'. Boahhh! Went straight to watching it that night, of course...

"Eh, wait a moment"... "Whats that?"... "Where is all the supposed detail?"... "Something must be wrong with my setup". So i investigated half an hour, whether everything was in a-ok. And it was. Huh?

To make it short, i found basically all aspects of the transfer to be more or less excellent. Except for the one that has been praised the most: Detail. There just isn't any fine detail on this disc. It looks heavily filtered. Outright 'blurry'. Since detail is what HD is all about, how can this be called 'HD-like'?

"Oh boy, what a let-down", i thought. To double-check, whether my expecations where simply so high that i might have lost any contact with planet earth, i watched a few reference and even a few 'normal' DVDs, but alas, it really is FOTR R1 that is blurry. Buh-huh.

Good thing the 'blurriness' was the only thing that bugged me. As i said, everything else was good to excellent. Not even the slight ringing or the slightly lacking shadow delineation (my 2 most common pet peeves), where issues for me.

Thank god the 'movie' itself is a piece of art that i could even enjoy on a 10-th generation VHS copy. And so i watched it a couple of times, marveling at the unbelievable 'vision' Peter Jackson achieved.... But a disappointment remained about the lack of detail.

Would the PAL version be any better? Or at least the extended cut in either PAL or NTSC?...

 

NTSC R1 theatrical vs PAL R2 theatrical


So i decided to get the PAL version as well, to see how it holds up against the NTSC. And to my surprise, the PAL version was quite a bit better! To the untrained eye, both may look 'smooth'. But the PAL version has more 'real' detail and a bit less ringing (less harsh looking overall), making it much more film-like 'smooth' and less 'blurry'.

Now, you could say "of course the PAL version has more detail, it has 576 instead of 480 lines of vertical resolution". Indeed, if only that was the explanation! But although PAL has more scanlines for 'potentially' more 'vertical' detail, there just ISN'T any more vertical detail on FOTR PAL! The difference in detail is solely in the horizontal direction, in which both PAL and NTSC have 720 samples.

[Note: Of course, this immediately reminded me of Columbia/Tristar and their Superbit lineup. If you read my SB reviews, you know that the REAL difference between SB and non-SB versions is that SB titles have more horizontal detail due to less horizontal filtering. This fact 'necessitates' a higher bitrate to keep blocking artefacts below the common perceptual threshold. Its NOT the other way around: higher bitrate, and THUS automatically more detail. A common misconception, even among people in the industry, btw.]

So, the PAL version of FOTR appears horizontally almost unfiltered like SB titles, and the NTSC version is horizontally low-pass filtered like a non-SB Col/Tri DVD. I would go as far as say its even more filtered, since i have never seen a Col/Tri non-SB title as 'blurry' as FOTR R1.

Why would they do that? Commonly, pre-filtering is used to lower the 'entropy' of the image, which means that with a given available bitrate, the picture then will have less compression artefacts (blocking, mosquito noise) in difficult scenes. It could be considered bad practice to apply a 'default' amount of low-pass filtering to the 'whole' movie, just because a few scenes might throw up problems. Since compression is done scene-by-scene anyway, this should and could be decided and applied only where its needed.

But was it really necessary? The PAL version has 720x576 pixels to store instead of 720x480, it has the same available bitrate to accomplish that (same extras allocation), AND it even has a higher entropy (more real detail due to less filtering). Yet, the PAL version is not a 'compression mess' by any means, its just fine compression-wise!

So the decision to brick-wall filter the NTSC version was just ODD and a bad call in my book. Or even worse, the people involved aren't even aware of it.

 

Instead of using several different shots to basically demonstrate the same thing, I will use 1 main shot to illustrate the differences between the various versions. This is it:

Ok, here we have a comparison of the NTSC theatrical version of that shot on the left and the PAL on the right.

Lets look at vertical detail first, which you would naturally expect to be somewhat higher on the PAL due to the increased line count (576 vs 480). To judge vertical detail, we need to look at horizontal 'edges'. The 2 yellow arrows mark horizontal edges which reveal that vertical detail is just about exactly the same. Odd.

But now the interesting part, horizontal detail, which 'should' have been about the same on both. To judge horizontal detail we will now focus on vertical structures or edges. Take a look at the white vertical brick lines (red arrows). They are MUCH more refined (thinner -> more detail) on the PAL. Or the left and right edge of the black shadow (turquoise arrow), much tighter seperation, indicating higher detail. Or the separation of the dark line (green arrow). Or simply take a look at the detail in the face.

Thankfully, this shot also features one little detail that is close to the frequency limit of the brick-wall filter, so that its just barely filtered 'away' in the NTSC: take a look at the toes!

So the PAL version has a considerable amount more 'horizontal' detail than the NTSC, which is really odd, if intentional. Too bad the PAL version doesn't ALSO boast the typical increased 'vertical' detail! If it did, the difference would be even bigger. (the PAL versions of Two Towers remove this shortcoming. See the upcoming review!)

The brickwall filter used also has 2 nasty side effects.

1) The slight amount of ringing (EE) that plagues the NTSC version is mostly due to this filter. The ringing is not that big an issue as i said ealier on (at least compared to the blurriness), but it doesn't help making the NTSC score on that account either. Its not really visibile in scenes like the one above. But it can be demonstrated here:

 

2.) The ringing leads to an image that looks quite a bit 'rougher'. Just look at the vertical brick lines (red arrows) in the Bilbo shot above again. See how they are not only more refined and more detailed on the PAL version, they are also less 'rough' and 'noisy' looking.

 

... NTSC R1 Extended Version

A few month later, the Fellowship Extended Version (EV) got released world-wide. Early reviews indicated 'even more detail'. Ok then, i thought, bring it on. Again, i first checked out the NTSC R1 edition to see if they removed that pesky horizontal filter. Sadly, they didn't.

Yet, the NTSC EV still looks a bit better than the NTSC theatrical version. There are 2 different categories of scenes:

1.) While the applied horizontal brick-wall filter is exactly the same, the new EV has a bit more overall 'definition' due to the higher bitrate that was used.

As you see, still no toes :-) The detail is a bit tighter overall, though. The facial detail for example is quite a bit better. Most of the scenes of the EV, the difference to the TV is just about what you see above. Slightly more detail, identical otherwise.

2.) Then, there are quite a few scenes which seemed to have been re-transfered from film completely different, or at least the colors where re-timed.

Here is such an example. In this category of scenes, mostly greens are far more lush and vivid as can be seen above. The difference in detail in these 're-timed' shots is greater than in those in category 1). Still horizontally filtered, though.

 

... PAL R2 Extended Version

The PAL R2 extended version is just as unfiltered as the PAL R2 theatrical version. And it also has a bit better overall 'definition', just like the R1 EV had over the R1 TV.

Like the PAL R2 theatrical version, the R2 EV has basically no ringing. Together with the high horizontal unfiltered detail and the high overall definition, this the R2 EV is a prime example of a super film-like, smooth yet detailed transfer. Great!

This is the PAL EV against the NTSC EV. If you inspect the same areas of interest here again (toes, face, shadow, bricklines), you will see that the difference here is even bigger than on the theatrical versions.

If only the PAL version also had the typical higher 'vertical' resolution (which again, it doesn't for some odd reason), the difference would be even bigger. As we will see, it does in Two Towers!

 

... NTSC BjoernBit

Having heard the tagline "Yeah, its easy to criticize. But can YOU do any better?" one time too often, i decided to see what i was able to achieve when i start to encode myself.

So I decided to do a NTSC 'BjoernBit' ;-)

Note: This is an experiment with the sole purpose of demonstration and technical analysis, obviously, nothing else. I did't even encode the whole movie , only single scenes, the same ones that i used for comparison here.

To do this, i needed a source that is of higher detail in both dimensions than either the PAL and the NTSC version. You guessed right, HD. Thankfully, the theatrical cut of FOTR aired in HD, so i got what i needed to start experimenting...

The NTSC 'BjoernBit' is a regular DVD conform NTSC MPEG encoding with 720x480 samples and a rather modest variable bitrate of 7Mbps.

The result would obviously have been even better if i had the same source material (D5) that the encoding facilities have!

My NTSC BjoernBit encoding of this scene was not only better than the NTSC TV and EV, it was even better than the best available version, the PAL EV, as can be seen above!

Several things are apparent.

1) The NTSC BjoernBit has even more 'overall definition' than the PAL EV (look at the face!). Thats a bit of a surprise, since the BjoernBit was only encoded with a variable bitrate of 7 Mbps, which isn't higher than the bitrate on the PAL or NTSC EV. This shows that bitrate alone isn't really that important. Its how you use it ;-)

2) The NTSC BjoernBit is also horizontally unfiltered, just like PAL. Toe visibility is even a tad better due to 1).

3) The NTSC BjoernBit has quite a bit more 'vertical' detail than the PAL EV. Again: My 480 line NTSC encoding has more vertical information than the 576 line PAL EV. Look at horizontal edge and reflections at the bottom of the lamp (upper yellow arrow) or the middle brown horizontal detail on the carpet (lower yellow arrow).

The slightly different red tone of the jacket is due to a different color transcoding matrix for HD. It didn't care to compensate for this. If i had, the colors would have been identical to the ones in the retail version.

The reason why my NTSC encoding has more vertical detail than even the PAL EV, is due to the fact that all commercial DVDs are 'optimized for interlace playback' and thus heavily filtered vertically to reduce flicker.

Is the 'flicker' really so bad if you don't filter vertically????

To answer that for once and for all, i looked very hard at my encoding of 2 highly detailed scenes (the higher the detail, the more likely any flicker, obviously) on a standard interlace TV. Well, talk about a complete non-issue! Huh? Why the heck are ALL retail DVDs filtered then, you ask? Good question!

Its really time that Joe Kane gets through with his efforts to get studios to release unfiltered DVD 'optimized for progressive display'.

 

... and finally HD

So, in the end, you might ask how this superior NTSC 'BjoernBit' version compares to the HD version that it was derived from?

Here we go:

Yup thats right. Even the mighty BjoernBit version sucks enourmous Monkeyballs compared to the HD version! :-D

 

Eh wait a second... In the beginning of this review i mentioned that some reviewers of the theatrical NTSC version praised the image as 'amazing clarity', 'HD-like', etc...

Hm, lets see. The NTSC theatrical is blurry compared to the PAL theatrical, which in turn is blurry compared to the PAL extended, which in turn is blurry to the NTSC BjoernBit, which in turn is an utter blurry mess compared to the HD...

So, ultimately, the best (HD) versus the worst (NTSC theaterical):

 

'HD-like', 'approaching HD'. Uhm, yeah sure! :-D

 

Conclusion and final thoughts

Ka'ching! You get some extra browny points for getting all the way down here.

So overall, the verdict is this. The FOTR extended versions (PAL and NTSC) are better than their corresponding theatrical versions. Both PAL versions are better than NTSC versions, because they aren't horizontally filtered.

The PAL EV has an amazingly detailed yet smooth ringing-free image. I used the opening Hobbit scene many times in my HT as a demo scene. I wouldn't do the same with any of the NTSC versions because of their lack of fine detail.

Usually, i don't keep PAL DVDs, because the PAL speedup drives me crazy. The PAL EV is pitch corrected, so this is a non-issue for me.

The big question obvisouly is, why are the NTSC retail versions horizontally so heavily filtered. Again, a bad and unnecessary decision in my book. Maybe even unintentional?

Too bad that both NTSC versions of The Two Towers are filtered as well!

Hopefully, this review and the one for The Two Towers will make the issue aware to those involved with the DVD and convince them to switch to an unfiltered approach for the last of the triology Return of the King!

Best regards
Bjoern Roy

 

 

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