HOW BABYLON 5 IS TRANSFERRED TO DVD

2001-2007 Henrik Herranen

This page is http://www.iki.fi/leopold/Babylon5/DVD/DVDTransfer.html


How Babylon 5 Is Transferred to Video

1. Disclaimer

Everything presented here is based on what JMS (Joe M. Straczynski, series creator, scripter, producer, our hero, etc...) has said over the years, combined with experimental and reverse-engineered data. Although I cannot absolutely guarantee that 100% of what is presented here is completely accurate, I believe that this presentation is essentially correct, and as a professional in signal processing and a video technique enthusiastic for 20 years, I also strongly believe the reverse-engineered data to be correct
(and I have proof).

This article was originally based on the R1 The Gathering / In the Beginning DVD. With the new 16:9 episodes, while transfer of live footage has been excellent (with the exception of film dirt in the two first seasons), the effects have consistently been handled in a less-than-stellar way. This is especially maddening as the source material is inferior to the film material to begin with. Making it worse than it could potentially be makes one hope that there are multiple copies of the original 4:3 composite tapes so as to make it possible for someone to do the job properly in the future.

2. Motivation

In 2001, spent several days preparing this article with the main motivation of getting to see Babylon 5 on DVD in as high quality a presentation form as possible. In 2007 we know that never happened, but this article will still remain here as a reference to anyone interested in why the NTSC Babylon 5 DVDs look the way they do.

3. Abstract

This document will present how Babylon 5 is transferred from film and computer files to the video presentations available today on NTSC VHS video, broadcast and NTSC DVD releases. Emphasis will be laid on the DVD release as it has the potential to be the definitive release of the series. PAL masters will not be discussed as extensively since issues involved with making a proper PAL transfer are too complicated for the scope of this article.

Although DVD has vast potential for presenting Babylon 5 in its long-awaited widescreen presentation, there are several hazards in the process, which will be discussed in this article. The main problem is that while the complete series (except The Gathering) was shot in a widescreen aspect ratio, special effects shots were not properly prepared in order to create a good-quality widescreen presentation. Even worse, it will be shown that the current methods of making effects widescreen are far from ideal. A solution for the problems is also presented.

4. Some Video Aspect Ratio Terminology

Before I go to the main article body, I must make you aware of certain aspect ratio details. The scope of these words are somewhat larger than defined here, but I'll only use the words in the sense defined here.

4:3 - The conventional NTSC aspect ratio you see on TV every day. Contains approx. 480 visible horizontal scanlines.
: Babylon 5's original transmissions, VHS tapes and Laserdiscs are offered in this aspect ratio.

Letterbox or LBX - A way to present Babylon 5's 1.78:1 material on a traditional 4:3 tv. With this method a widescreen image is shrunk so that it fits to a regular 4:3 TV. An unfortunate side effect is that one fourth of the active image area is left unused because of black bars that appear on top and bottom of the picture. Thus, in the visible area you have only 360 scanlines left.
: SciFi Channel's Babylon 5 transmissions are offered in this aspect ratio.

Anamorphic, 16:9, or Anamorphic 16:9 - A way to encode widescreen material so that there are no unused scanlines (in Babylon 5's case). The idea is that while squeezing the image horizontally so that the full width of 1.78:1 material can fit in a 4:3 TV, the same squeezing is not done vertically. Thus, if you watch a 16:9 transmission on a regular 4:3 TV set, people and things appear thin and tall. All 16:9 TV screens can show this data in the correct aspect ratio, as can 4:3 TVs with a so-called "16:9 squeeze button", a feature very common in Europe. The benefit of this approach is that you can have widescreen material and still retain all 480 scanlines. DVD players can convert this data to regular letterboxed material for people that can't do the unsqueeze in their TV sets, but in this case all the benefits of 16:9 encoding are lost, and you are back to 360 visible lines.
: Babylon 5 DVDs (except The Gathering) are offered in this aspect ratio.

Widescreen or WS - A Widescreen (1.78:1) image, achieved on video either by Letterboxing or by an Anamorphic transfer.

5. A Bit of History

When the Babylon 5 series first started airing in January 1994, the series creator Joe M. Straczynski (JMS) told that the series is actually shot in a widescreen ratio so as to make it HDTV compatible when the time comes. Ever since, fans have waited for a chance to see Babylon 5 in its "intended" aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78:1), or 1.85:1, or whatever the exact correct aspect ratio would be.

In 1991, seven years after the series begun, SciFi Channel started presenting Babylon 5 in letterboxed widescreen. While there were some problems with some effects incorrectly composited (remember The Teapot from MotFL?), and some whole seasons transferred incorrectly, these errors were corrected for later showings and it was generally felt that these were the definitive editions of the series - so far.

Almost eight years since the first regular episodes of Babylon 5 aired, first telemovies The Gathering and In the Beginning were been transferred to DVD for anyone to buy, soon followed by the complete series. While The Gathering was always intended to be presented in 4:3 and is thus of little interest to this article (except that the transfer is proper and special effects work as they should), all other movies and episodes have been transferred in an anamorphic 16:9 aspect ratio, which is generally the best way to encode a widescreen DVD.

6. Theory of Transferring Babylon 5 to Video

6.1 How Babylon 5 Goes from Film to Video

Babylon 5 is shot on regular Super-35 film at 24 frames / second. Depending on the application, Super-35 has an aspect ratio of roughly 1.65:1. Sound is not recorded on the actual film, but on separate audio recorders. Thus, Super-35 is not a format fit for presentation, but for recording it is just fine.

After a show has been shot, the Super-35 film is transferred to a digital, high-resolution format. The good thing about using a high-resolution format is that later you can use that master to scale several different resolution versions (NTSC 4:3, NTSC 16:9, PAL, etc) without noticeable quality loss.

6.2 How Babylon 5 Special Effects Go to Video

Babylon 5's special effects have always been generated at NTSC resolution (approx. 720x480 pixels), 30 frames per second, for the TV aspect ratio 4:3. This holds also true for composite shots, i.e. those shots that have mixed live action and computer imagery.

There are several implications of the figures described above, and they all come down to this: there is no high-resolution master for the special effects shots. Thus, if anyone wants to make a Babylon 5 transfer to any other resolution or aspect ratio than standard 4:3 NTSC, it is simply impossible to retain full video quality. The only question is how much quality will be lost.

7. Examples of Transferring Babylon 5 to Different Aspect Ratios

This chapter will present you reconstructed examples of how Babylon 5 is transferred to video. The word "reconstructed" is there because I naturally don't have access to the original, digital master files.

All examples are presented vertically at approximately 1/2 of NTSC resolution. Horizontally the pictures have been scaled so that normal 4:3 images have a correct aspect ratio.

Resolution of the high-resolution images are not to be taken literally. I have no idea of what resolution is used in the editing system.

7.1 Example: Live Action Material

[Live Image, High Resolution]
Above you can see an original, scanned Babylon 5 Super-35 frame, in an aspect ratio of 1.65:1. Because the resolution of the film frame greatly surpasses the resolution of NTSC (or PAL, for that matter), it is easy to choose any area and zoom into that.

[Live Image, High Resolution, Boxes]
This is an example of how 4:3 (blue box) and Widescreen (red box) versions could be transferred from the current shot. Note that although I have chosen to make the boxes as big as possible, their size can be adjusted on a shot-by-shot basis if some details are to be emphasized.

[Live Image, 4:3]
In this picture we see the final 4:3 transfer. As the original high-resolution image has been scaled down, the end result still has full NTSC resolution and may look very good indeed.

[Live Image, Lbx] [Live Image, 16:9]
These two images show how Letterboxed and 16:9 transfers would look. As with the 4:3 transfer, both are as sharp and clear as they can be, although the 16:9 transfer would look better with a proper 16:9 capable display device, as it has retained more information of the original high-resolution scan.

7.2 Example: Composite and Computer Generated Material

In the previous example, we had the luxury of starting with a high-quality, high-resolution film frame. Unfortunately this is no longer the case with composite and CGI shots. For economical reasons they were rendered only with 4:3 NTSC resolution, with the thought that when higher resolution scans would be needed, computing power would be so cheap that regenerating the effects would be a trivial matter.

Unfortunately this theory was wrong. Regenerating effects would need a lot of handcraft and is at least for now outside the range of things that can be realized. Thus, we have only original 4:3 NTSC frames to begin with.

[Composite Image, 4:3]
As can be seen, we have much less room to manoeuver than with the live action data. How can we get a widescreen transfer out of an image that does not have any extra side information?

There is only one way: cropping. Babylon 5's effects are supposedly generated in such a way that allows for matting the top and bottom of images so that you would get the correct aspect ratio.

[Composite Image, Lbx]
Above you can see the cropped version of the 4:3 image. If, as in this case, the image is protected in such a way that no important information is lost when cropping, this is not such a bad way of making a widescreen transfer: the part of the picture that is not lost to the black bars suffers no resolution loss as it is not touched in any way. Thus, SciFi Channel's letterbox Babylon 5 has pretty much untouched special effects, with full picture quality - unless someone has screwed up something.

Finally, we'd want to make the ultimate, 16:9 transfer. And it is here we run into trouble, big time.

To create the 16:9 version, we should start with the previous letterboxed image, since that's the best and only widescreen image we have available. This image that has 360 active scanlines must be converted to an image that has 480 scanlines. (Note, that as my images are at half resolution, they have 180 and 240 active lines, respectively.)

It is probably very easy to understand that when upconverting something from a lower resolution to a higher resolution, you cannot expect the end result to have the full resolution that the higher resolution image can present. What may not be quite as intuitive is that you cannot even get to the resolution of the lower-resolution image!

What am I saying? Yes, I am actually saying that for a 16:9 letterboxed transfer, there is no way that the composite and effects shots can look even as good as in the Letterboxed version. The difference need not be big, but 16:9 will in this case necessarily be worse than letterbox.

Does this sound a bit nasty? Sorry, it's worse than that. See the pictures below for the gory details.

[Composite Image, 16:9 Transfer] [Composite Image, 16:9 Suggestion]
Above you see two pictures that show how the 16:9 transfer could be done. The picture on the left is the way the resolution conversion has actually been done, and the picture on the right show how I would do it. Let's look at the pictures again, but this time upscaled:

[Composite Image, 16:9 Transfer]
Above: The way Babylon 5's anamorphic version is actually done.

[Composite Image, 16:9 Suggestion]
Above: The way I would scale Babylon 5 to 16:9 anamorphic.

As you (hopefully) see very clearly is that the picture presenting the way Babylon 5 has been transferred, looks quite bad. Some horizontal lines have been doubled, and the picture's overall look is fuzzy and unclear.

You may have scaled bitmap pictures on a computer without ever getting results this bad. You might even ask yourself: "Surely nobody would be so stupid to make such an ugly transfer when it's so easy to make it properly." That's a good question. Unfortunately, in the video world, scaling gets a bit complicated. This will be described in the next chapter.

8. Field-based Vs. Frame-based Video Transfer

One nasty detail in video picture that always (including this case) comes to bite you in the ankle is that unlike film frames, video picture is transferred not in frames, but in fields. I won't go into details in why this choice was made in the late 1930's, but suffice to say that it made it possible to transfer a HDTV signal (as NTSC was called at that time) in approximately half the bandwidth that would otherwise be required, allowing for two times the number of channels otherwise available.

[Interlaced Video Picture]
The example picture above shows how a hypothetical, 12-line interlaced TV system works. To show the full frame, first odd scanlines are presented. After this, even scanlines are presented. If presented fast enough, these two video fields meld in the brain and form the full frame presented on the left.

Short summary: as all other analog video systems, also NTSC uses interlaced video. NTSC's field rate is 60 Hz (actually 59.94 Hz, but who's counting?), and the frame rate is half of that, roughly 30 Hz.

It is no coinsidence that Babylon 5's special effects have been generated at this same rate, 30 frames per second. It has the potential of making movement look smooth and nice compared to 24 fps live action material, which needs some tuning to fit into the 60 fields/s video system.

Now that we understand these basics, we can finally have an informed look at how Babylon 5's special effects are converted to 16:9.

[Video Signal Path]
Originally, when Babylon 5's effects were created, they were rendered at 30 fps, and stored to a computer in this format (F1, F2, F3 and F4).

To transfer the images to video, they are separated into video fields. For instance, F1 is broken to f1.1 and f1.2. Likewise, F4 is broken to f4.1 and f4.2. At some point the data is letterboxed. Although it doesn't matter where this is done, I've presented the step here for clarity. Thus, we've now lost the supposedly unimportant bottom and top of the effects shot. It is worth noticing that at this point, the information of which field-pair contain data from the same source frame, is lost. Thus, while f1.1 and f1.2 represent the same frame in this example, this could also be the case for f1.2 and f2.1 (f2.1 not shown in the picture).

Signal path A presents how Babylon 5's transfer is done. First A1 removes the unneeded letterbox lines. Then, A2 upscales the picture by 33% vertically. This is the very step where picture clarity is lost. A3 regenerates interlaced fields. A4 isn't necessarily performed at all, but the combined frame F'1 is a convenient way to show how the end result will look on your screen.

What went wrong with transfer A? The problem is that upscaling was done to interlaced video fields which, if taken from a signal processing view, is horrific mishandling of a completely innocent signal.

So, how should things be done then?

Signal path B shows my suggestion of how the effects should be transferred. First, F4 is broken to video fields f4.1 and f4.2 just as happened with F1. But in this case, B1 combines two video fields to create a full frame. Then, this complete frame is upconverted to create directly F'4. If needed, interlaced fields can be easily created from F'4 if that is required.

You may again ask why Babylon 5 isn't converted in this way which seems so much easier to do. The reason is that there is really no guarantee that the original fields are aligned. Also, Babylon 5 has several shots where live action is in 24 fps but CGI is in 30 fps, making it impossible to sync perfectly to the source signal's frame rate(s). It is worth noting that if field-combining fails, the end result will look considerably worse than any of the methods presented here. Thus, to get correct conversion, there needs to be automatic logic combined with some human interaction for verification.

There are two reasons why I am so concerned with this. One is that I wanted to have Babylon 5 on DVD with as high quality as possible. The other is that I know the problematics involved in making these effects. My company created a working prototype 3D graphics chip in the late 1990's. The evaluation card that had the chip had both TV inputs and an output. In addition to defining the chip's interlace flicker filters, I made some software to the card that did exactly what I described earlier: it scanned an NTSC, SECAM or PAL signal, examined movement and used the detected movement to sync to the actual frame rate in the source material. When executed properly, syncing worked very well and the system worked wonderfully with video projectors and computer monitors, and allowed for clean video conversions across video systems.

9. Summary

If given original 4:3 or Letterboxed Babylon 5 effects video fields in some known high-quality digital video format (plus some time and money), I could make a better CGI + composite transfer than what current DVDs show. And after all these years, now that it is 2007, I still am sorry that the shots haven't been transferred in the best possible way to widescreen. Not at all diminished by the terrible later TV movies, original Babylon 5 is still great and needed the best possible DVD transfer.

Finally: Proof 2003-04-21

When I originally wrote the previous article more than a year ago, I had strong feelings that my theory was correct. However, because no-one could provide me with high-quality, bit-accurate B5 DVD scans, I couldn't really prove everything that I said. Now I can.

Below is one frame digitized from the very first shot of Midnight on the Firing Line, from the R1 DVD (which is, actually, region-free). This is one of the last frames of that first shot. I have taken the liberty to crop extra black space away to make the file and image slightly smaller. I also made it black and white to ease my own job and to make the artifacts appear more clearly. The frame is presented below:

[Example 1]

Now that I finally had good, accurate frames ripped straight from the DVDs, I immediately decided to try to compensate for the wrong filtering that I described earlier in this article. The task proved to be doable in four hours and resulting in merely 3.5 kilobytes of C source code. The reverse-handled and rescaled image is below:

[Example 1]

So, there it is. Download the two images and flip through them back and forth. Imagine the images on a big projection-screen television where all differences appear 10 times bigger. There you have it.

I have used no extraneous edge enhancement or other dishonest trickery to prove my point, and I very much doubt that they would have been of any help, as I was trying to regain real resolution that actually existed in the original 4:3 masters.

What my software did was as follows. First it divided the original interlaced frame F'1 to two interlaced fields. Then I used reverse filters to acquire f1.1 and f1.2, and then combined them to produce the original, letterboxed frame F1. After the original, unbroken complete frame F1 had been regenerated, it was used to create F'4, which was scaled in the way it should be done. The result is what you see above.

If you for some reason can't easily compare the pictures above, I've prepared two partial enlargements of them, where the original broken frame F'1 and my corrected F'4 are shown alternatively. The picture that looks unclear and where some details appear two times is the original, and the sharper one is my properly scaled version.

Detail 1:
[Example 1 AnimGif]

Detail 2:
[Example 1 AnimGif]

This was what I would have liked to have seen in the Babylon 5 16:9 DVD transfers.


Subtle Differences Between R1 and R2 DVDs

There has been some talk about how R1 (actually all-region) and R2 versions of Babylon 5 first season DVDs have some CGI transfer errors, and that they appear in different places in the two existing versions. What has been talked less about is that the CGI and composite shots for these two versions seems to subtly vary all over the place so that the watcher of both versions seems to get a picture that these shots have been transferred independently of each other. If this sounds improbable, see for yourself the very first shots of the first five acts of Signs and Portents.

The following pictures have been scaled to similar size to make comparing easier. No cropping has been done. I have made it certain that all image pairs are aligned in time with the accuracy of one frame.

NrR1R2
1

1: In this first picture, which is from the first shot of SaP, there are two differences: the pictures are vertically aligned ever-so-slightly differently. More notably, however, is that the Dolby Surround logos are different: the R1 logo is larger and it is blue. The (tm) sign is in a different place, and although it doesn't show in pictures this small, the shadows behind the letters are slightly different.

NrR1R2
2

2: This picture pair, after the opening titles, again show two slight differences. The R2 version shows the station slightly higher. Also the alignment of the two text lines are slightly different: In R2, the D of "and" and the S of "portents" are aligned, in R1 the words are centered better. This proves that the texts are not from a common bitmap source.

NrR1R2
3

3: This is the end of the same shot used in example 2. Now the framing difference is obvious: R2 shows the image much higher. I would prefer the framing of R1, because it shows more of the port.

NrR1R2
4

4: Just a few frames after example 3, right after the cut, Mr. Morden's first appearance in Babylon 5 is framed completely differently in the two versions. Although R2 shows more ambience for this very beginning of the shot, it lets Mr. Morden walk half-way off screen before panning down (not shown in this picture). R1 does this better and doesn't let Mr. Morden partially out of the screen before just a second before the end of the shot.

NrR1R2
5

5: Here at the beginning of chapter 3, R2 shows the image a bit higher.

NrR1R2
6

6: The framing of Kosh's ship at the beginning of chapter 4 is pretty much the same in both versions.

NrR1R2
7

7: Again, R2 shows the image somewhat higher, and cuts some fighter ships in favour of the mother ship in the front. Again, I'd prefer the framing of R1.

All these subtle differences leads me to believe that for some odd reason the R1 and R2 DVD masters were cropped, and the titles were added at different times, perhaps even by different people. The reason for this escapes me. Perhaps JMS would have some insight into this?


Second Season: Special Effects Still Problematic

I have just had a chance to check the Second Season of Babylon 5 on NTSC DVDs. As I assumed from the Second Season PAL edition, the special effects are transferred in exactly the same way as I have described in this article. Also the considerable amount of film dirt in live footage has remained.

There are also additional errors in the 2nd Season set, most annoying for me being the opening title font which is not the same as it was when Babylon 5 was first aired in its NTSC incarnation (but, curiously enough, it is the same as was used in first proper PAL versions). Also the end title music is wrong: instead of the Second Season faster theme, the First Season theme has been used. And, in the NTSC version, Delenn's image is wrong in the two first episodes (it should be an image of First Season Delenn, as it correctly is in the PAL version).

As with the First Season, framing of SFX is different in PAL and NTSC versions. This can be seen, for instance, in Fall of Night's Keffer's Starfury's surveillance camera shots: in the PAL version, the word "Keffer" is completely visible, while in the NTSC version, only the upper part of the letters can be seen (and the NTSC version flickers like crazy on a proper 16:9 display device because of the way the SFX are converted).

While all of this did not stop me from buying five copies of the PAL Second Season box set for me and my friends, I would really, really wish they would try to get their act together for Season 3. It's really not that hard. And, really, there are no alternatives since the later 2nd Season and all of the 3rd Season were never published on Laserdisc.


Third Season: New Visions

Third Season Picture Quality

I have finally had a chance to have a look at the R2 (PAL) version of Babylon 5's third season. The first thing to say is that they have obviously finally cleaned up practically all of the film dirt. Although the cleaning process has lead to some artifacts (Army of Light uniform stripes sometimes disappear with even slow movement), the overall result is very good. There are some places where there is notable film grain, but they obviously come from the original camera negatives as a result of insufficient light during shooting.

The only gripe I have with the live action footage is that the framing looks to me much more 4:3-oriented than what it was during the first season. A notable exception is War Without End Part 1 which seemed to make full use of the 16:9 area. One distracting thing, though: all first season footage for both War Without End episodes have been transferred using the special effects process, i.e. 4:3 cropped to 16:9. This is also true for all reused footage in black and white flashback scenes. (By the way, when flashback footage is B&W anyways, wouldn't it had been clever to show it also in original 4:3 format to underline that it is old? Now they lost a chance not to crop the 4:3 footage even further.)

I expect to get my hands on the R1 version in a few weeks, and then I'll comment more on the effects transfer. However, judging from the R2 transfer I saw, it might actually be that they have done it slightly differently this time around. But no definite comments before I actually have a chance to see it.

How Much Quality Do We Lose With Composites?

Background

I have stated many times in this article that quality is lost because 4:3 NTSC masters have to be used and cropped to create CGI and composite shots for Babylon 5. And I have also stated that more quality is lost than what would be absolutely necessary. You might however had the following quesion: "How much is lost, then?" Interestingly enough, I can now give a definite answer.

For some reason all reused footage from past seasons and episodes are presented in the 4:3 -> 16:9 cropped format even if they don't contain any computer graphics. Thus, to see how much is lost from the original, high-quality film material, you only have to have a look at the "Previously on Babylon 5" sections of War Without End or A Voice in the Wilderness and compare them with the places where those shots were originally used. I've selected to do exactly this with War Without End.

Before we go to the actual pictures, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I am not, repeat not claiming that cropped 4:3 could be made to look as good as original film material without completely recreating all special effects, which as we know is inpractical, and if done would probably lead to something akin the Star Wars travesties. This is because all original CGI models and setups have been lost. Here I am just showing how big the difference is without commenting a lot on how much of it would be avoidable.

Pictures

I have used the R2 (PAL) version of Season 3 for this demonstration. All pictures have been decoded as is from DVD, then rescaled to 1024 horizontal resolution to get to the correct 16:9 ratio. The images were compressed to JPEG format. The first picture pair in each table is the Real 16:9 vs 16:9 cropped from 4:3, both scaled down (click on the pictures to see the big ones). The second picture pair is a selected small detail in normal scale.

NrWWE1 Real 16:9WWE2 Cropped 4:3 to 16:9
1
1

In this first image, we see Ranger One opening a thousand years old box. Perhaps a little bit surprisingly, not only the sharpness is better in the new scan, but also contrast and colours. It looks like the 4:3-to-16:9 transfer could have been a bit better with extra tweaking. (I ran some tests, and could never really make the contrast and colour of the 4:3-to-16:9 version match the superior 16:9, so it would probably not be trivial.)

NrWWE1 Real 16:9WWE2 Cropped 4:3 to 16:9
2

In this picture pair we see that the patterns on the Army of Light uniform are much clearer in the new scan. Also Ivanova's skin tones are better.

NrWWE1 Real 16:9WWE2 Cropped 4:3 to 16:9
3

Notice how the flatness of the 4:3-to-16:9 transfer version makes the ranger pin look dull and not very shiny.

NrWWE1 Real 16:9WWE2 Cropped 4:3 to 16:9
4

Again, it's not only sharpness: the arm emblem and the time stabilizer look a lot more metallic in the new transfer. The question is: how come the 4:3 cropped version could look this much worse contrast-wise? After all, the episodes surely never looked that dull when first shown on TV (or when published on Laserdisc as original 4:3 versions (btw, when I get the chance, I'll post some picture comparisons that also have a 4:3 Laserdisc transfer as reference (of some episode that is available both on Laserdisc and DVD))).

NrWWE1 Real 16:9WWE2 Cropped 4:3 to 16:9
5

There really isn't that much new to say: the picture quality is way better in the 16:9 transfer, and that's it. Notice, however, that remnants of the jaggies that were so present for two first season R1 transfers are conspicuously absent in this Season 3 R2 transfer, which might be or not be a hint for the R1 transfer. But I'll comment more on that when I have the actual R1 discs in my hands.


Third and Fourth Seasons: Nothing New in NTSC Land

I've finally had a change to have a look at the NTSC 3rd and 4th Seasons of Babylon 5. As commented earlier, there is much less dirt in the film transfer portions, probably due to digital cleanup. This is very good, as the amount of dirt in some scenes was - quite frankly - distracting.

Special effects and composite shots are, however, still converted in the very same half-ass way as before. In addition, there are some errors and weirdnesses common to both NTSC and PAL transfers. The whole Garibaldi arc in the beginning of Between the Darkness and the Light is in the cropped widescreen format, probably because of some confusion over the fact that the particular material was originally supposed to be in Intersections in Real Time, but was bumped to the next episode according to JMS. Also the opening titles of The Deconstruction of Falling Stars are different from the one in the original airing, as Claudia Christian in them. In the original version she was absent because of payment reasons.


Fifth Season: Same Old, Same Old

There is little more to say about the fifth season. Special effects are converted just as before, including the last six episodes where SFX were supposedly created at 24 fps at a higher-than-NTSC resolution to allow for a HDTV or film transfer. Well, the only thing really happening is that special effects look jumpier than before.

Also, there seemed to be more film dirt than in the previous two seasons, although I cannot really be hundred percent sure. Too bad.

All in all, I've found the Babylon 5 DVDs to be a mixed bag. First and foremost I am really, really happy that they exist at all. Also, the new film transfers have improved picture quality significantly - or would have if there weren't quite that much film dirt. However, at the same time I still cringe because special effect shots were not handled as well as they could have, recropping them and thus breaking both picture composition and quality. Leaving effects and composite images at 4:3 along the 16:9 (or slightly narrower) film material would certainly have given the best picture quality.

All in all, even with all its shortcomings, I'd recommend Babylon 5 DVDs for anyone even slightly interested in science fiction or good storytelling - especially the inexpensive German edition.


2005-03-10: The Movie Collection (R1)

The Babylon 5 Movie Collection continues with 16:9 traditions described earlier in this article.

The Gathering

The video transfer for The Gathering seems to be the same that was earlier used for the The Gathering / In the Beginning double feature disc: the picture looks like it has been converted from a composite source and is somewhat soft and flat. Also the subtitles are the same as before, with some unintentional humour (like Dr. Kyle's line that has changed from "I have looked upon the face of a Vorlon, Laurel." to "I have looked upon the face of a Vorlon. Horror.")

However, audio has been updated to 5.1 and although there are no big surprises there, dialogue stays nicely in the center channel. The JMS and John Iacovelli commentary is insightful as usual (haven't listened to the other commentaries in this box set yet).

This movie serves as a good example of how good CGI and composite shots looked before being cropped and badly scaled for the 16:9 versions.

In the Beginning

This transfer is probably the same as in the The Gathering / In the Beginning double feature disc, but it has been cleaned up: at least some of the biggest hairs have been removed. A good example of removed hair is at the very beginning when Delenn utters the first words of her first line: "It is said...". As with many 4th Season episodes, there often are considerable amounts of film grain. Special effects have been transferred as always.

Audio has been updated nicely to 5.1.

Thirdspace

This movie, along with being arguably the low point of entire Babylon 5 (yes, in my opinion below TKO and Infection), shows film grain that would be bad for 16-millimeter stock. I don't know what they did during shooting of Season 4, whether it was all-new second grade film stock or if they stopped lighting the sets and thus were forced to overcrank their film footage in post production, but something was seriously, seriously wrong with picture quality during this time. Film grain was evident in In the Beginning, but this movie just looks unbelievably grainy.

The River of Souls

Somewhere between the 4th and 5th Seasons, the Babylon 5 crew learned again how to shoot clean, noiseless film footage. Thus, the last two TV movies which were shot after the 5th Season of Babylon 5 look significantly better than the earlier telefilms.

The River of Souls is a nice, clean transfer (with the natural exception of special effects and composite shots). However, as special effects are rendered only at 24 fps instead of 30 fps that had been used earlier, and as the effect shots have not always been properly motion blurred, movement can at times look jerky.

One opportunity missed was flagging the material as a 24 fps source. During earlier seasons this would have been problematic because of mixed frame rates. However, now it would have been possible and would have made it easier to watch the DVDs with some progressive devices. However, the material is incorrectly flagged as 30 fps.

A Call to Arms

This is a transfer similar to The River of Souls. As a special effects heavy show, this movie particularly suffers from special effects cropping.

2005-03-09: Crusade (R1)

Because of budget restrictions, Crusade didn't get a new 16:9 transfer for DVD. While a somewhat surprising decision, artistically this was by no means a disaster. The original 4:3 masters are in very good shape, and audio has been updated to 5.1.

As with the TV Movies, everything is now 24 fps, including special effects. Nevertheless, the source material is incorrectly flagged as 30 fps.

If you have a chance, have a look at this set. You will notice that in many places it is very difficult or completely impossible to say whether what you are looking at is pure film footage or whether it is a composite shot. That is how Babylon 5 used to look before getting the anamorphic widescreen treatment (which increased the quality of film-only shots and decreased the quality of composite and CGI shots).


This page 2001-2005 Henrik Herranen

Babylon 5, characters, names, and all related indicia are trademarks of Time Warner Entertainment Co., LP. 1999 Time Warner Entertainment Co., LP.


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