Babylon 5 on DVD: A Technical Discussion

This is a technical discussion of the pros and cons of the first Babylon 5 DVD recently released. The two-sided R1 disc contains the pilot show The Gathering on side 1 in full-frame 4:3 presentation, and the TNT tele-movie In the Beginning in anamorphic 16:9. Both features have Dolby Surround matrixed pseudo-4-channel sound.


I've been a supporter of Babylon 5 since I first got my hands on very bad copies of then brand new first eight episodes. I've spent considerable time promoting Babylon 5: I loaned my tapes to more than 50 people, made 400 km trips for new episodes, made a Babylon 5 tape for the Finnish national broadcasting company to pursue them to show the series, founded and moderated the Finnish Babylon 5 newsgroup, bought all comics, all Laserdiscs except In the Beginning which I never got my hands onto, etc etc etc. So anyone who says that I write critical comments just to put JMS or someone else down can just screw off. I wrote this article because I know a lot of video technique and because I am motivated to get copies of Babylon 5 in as high quality presentation as possible.

Aspect Rations

The Gathering is presented in its correct and original aspect ratio of 4:3, despite that the disc says that the show "has been formatted to fit your tiny brain." In the Beginning is presented in the arguably correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (or 1.78:1?), with anamorphic 16:9 enhancement. Why this is arguable will become clear later.


Both shows have been presented in Dolby Surround matrixed audio, where two audio channels are separated into four. As always, some dialogue bleeding to the left and right channels occur. Although this was no surprise, I would really have preferred a discrete mix, even if with only 4 discrete channels, i.e. no split surrounds.

The Gathering

When comparing this disc side to side with the Laserdisc (LD), the differences are very small. Due to its component nature (Laserdiscs are in composite video), the DVD has a slight edge with some sharper scenes. For the most time, however, the difference is very small. Those special effects that were redone or recycled from the series to the new The Gathering look really sharp and nice, but some of the original ones are not quite as good. In live action scenes, there is some film grain visible almost all the time, although it isn't too distracting most of the time.

I was somewhat surprised to notice that in some places, the audio of the DVD and Laserdisc was radically different. I almost didn't notice the whole thing before the scene where Sinclair tells a guy not to mate with an Arnassian (DVD time code 2:30). The background music's high frequency components (high hats) are a LOT louder in the LD version. The DVD sounds a lot duller. After finding this first difference, it was easy to look for similar scenes, and I found also some other differences. At approx. DVD/18:20 when Londo shouts "Garibaldi!", LD's sound is distorted, but the slightly more muffled-sounding DVD is not. Again, at DVD/19:00, when Londo and Del Varner are discussing, LD has much more high frequencies in the background score. At DVD/24:30, some of Sinclair's lines are looped, and this can easily be heard on the LD. On the DVD, however, the difference is much smaller.

So, what is the real difference between the LD and DVD mixes? Actually, I think that the mixes are the same, and the difference lies in sound handling. The DVD sounds like the audio has been put through an analog noise reduction filter much like Dolby B. (Yes, I do know that the sound comes from a supposedly digital master, but this is how it sounds like.) By this I mean that in the DVD, low-volume high frequencies are attenuated. Which version is in the right then, the LD or the DVD? Without having a definitive reference, I cannot really tell. If asked to make a choice, I'd probably go with the DVD because although it sounds slightly duller, some of the LD problems mentioned earlier are not present with the DVD.

In the Beginning

Let me start with audio this time: no big surprises there. The only really disappointing moment is when the Grey Council's ship almost lands on Minbar. The huge audio distortion in the background music's loud bass that I thought was an inherent problem of my VHS copy, is still there. As I don't have the Laserdisc, I cannot make a comparison, and outside of this single problem the audio seems to be ok.

But then to the can of worms, video quality...

Before I go to details, let me remind you of some basic facts about how Babylon 5 was shot and how the special effects were added.

With the exception of the pilot, Babylon 5 was shot in Super-35, a process that has an inherent aspect ratio of approx. 1.65:1 .. 1.70:1. This film material has been read to high-resolution (often also called resolution independent) computer files from where it is easy to convert to any required aspect ratio or video system. The show is shot at standard 24 frames per second and supposedly with an ultimate 16:9 aspect ratio in mind. Although some scenes show great amounts of film grain, everything is fine this far.

But then there are also composite (live action + computer graphics) and CGI (computer graphics) shots. With the exception of the last 5 episodes and some later TV movies, the special effects (SFX) shots have been rendered in NTSC resolution, at 30 frames / second, with an aspect ratio of 4:3. The CGI shots has supposedly been composited in a way that allows for the image to be vertically cropped to get a proper 16:9 version (except The Gathering). This is VERY BAD for a future 16:9 anamorphic presentation. "Why?" you may ask.

If one wants to make a widescreen presentation of Babylon 5 SFX, there are two ways.
1) For SciFi Channel, widescreen letterboxed versions of the SFX were prepared. This is a straightforward task: you just put black bars on the top and bottom of the image, and that is that. No resolution conversion is needed. Your vertical resolution for the visible picture area is approximately 360 lines (of NTSC's full 480 lines).
2) For the DVD, an anamorphic 16:9 presentation was made. What this means is that compared to a letterboxed presentation the picture is elongated in the vertical direction until it fits the whole screen. Then the aspect ratio is corrected in the TV (or in the DVD player if you have chosen "4:3 Letterboxed" in its initial menu). If the aspect ratio is corrected in your TV, you get the full NTSC vertical resolution of 480 lines. As 480 lines is more than 360 lines in (1), you should get more resolution, right? Not with Babylon 5.

The problem with anamorphic 16:9 presentation is that Babylon 5's original effects are of NTSC vertical resolution, i.e. 480 lines. To create a 16:9 presentation, you first have to mask 1/4 of these lines, resulting in a resolution of 360 lines. Then these 360 lines have to be elongated to become 480 lines, and here comes the problems. Even at best, video resolution conversion between resolutions close to each other cannot be done perfectly. To make it worse, in this case it looks to me that the conversion has been done in a way that is far from optimal.

To make everything even more complex, I must remind you that NTSC video (just like PAL, for that matter) is interlaced, i.e. only half of the vertical resolution is transferred to the receiver at a time. These half-resolution entities are called video fields, as opposed to frames that consist of two fields. Although I cannot be absolutely sure of this, it seems to me that the conversion from 360 to 480 lines has been done in the field domain and not the proper (and more difficult) frame domain, which means that the end result's resolution is in effect much worse than 360 lines.

Many of the SFX shots are quite fast so this resolution loss cannot easily be seen. However composite shots, like when the Minbari are having a discussion near the beginning of the show, show a decidedly fuzzy and unclear picture, and not all of it can be addressed to blue/green screen problems.

Verdict of Using Anamorphic 16:9 with Babylon 5

This is hard. Because of the added clarity to live action shots, I'd love to have Babylon 5 in anamorphic 16:9. However, composite, cross-fade and CGI shots look very distinctively different from live action shots in this version. On a letterboxed widescreen presentation the live action would look softer (and less grainy), and the other shots would look sharper. In essence, the shots would match in quality. Now, compared to 5th season Laserdiscs, live action looks better and CGI looks worse in In the Beginning.

Verdict of the Release

The picture quality of this release can be compared with the 2nd season of LeXX: sometimes sharp and clear, sometimes grainy, sometimes VHS quality. However, LeXX's SFX win over this release since they have not been put through the vertical resolution conversion grinder (LeXX DVDs are in 4:3). Firtunately this release does look better than Buffy's two first seasons, which were shot in 16 mm and put through a standard (and very bad) video noise removal filter that doesn't have motion compensation, resulting in almost total destruction of any dark scenes.

Unless something very dramatic (like re-rendering all SFX) is done, I am afraid that the current 4:3 Laserdiscs will be the definitive edition of Babylon 5 for the time being. This is a sad state of affairs as LDs are no longer available, people don't have LD players, and since only half of the series was ever published on LD.

Although I know this will never happen, I do have a heretic suggestion. It is technically possible to encode all live action in 16:9 anamorphic, and all SFX in their 4:3 form to the anamorphic master. While this would cause all composite and CGI shots to have black bars on the left and right, this wouldn't require vertical resolution conversion which is so destructive to picture quality. Well, as I said, this probably never happens as people generally find changing-aspect-ratio shows distracting.

All in all, NTSC resolution computer graphics, which made it possible to create the greatest space saga of all times within a bugdet, are now the main reason we can't get a proper widescreen release.

R1 Versus R2

In a message from some time ago, I said that he R1 version would probably be the definitive version of this disc, as special effects shots that are rendered at 30 fps cannot be properly converted to PAL. Nevertheless, SFX already is broken in this version, so I don't see how the situation would be considerably worse in a PAL version.