Why Remastering isn’t Always Advisable

Who wouldn’t want to see a beloved classic enhanced, brought forward, gilded with the latest techniques in film and television? It seems like a question with a natural answer — of course we want television, movies, and other arts made beautiful with a bit of nip and tucking, as it were, some natural improvements courtesy of technologies that allow us to enhance audio, make images crisper, give works more depth and intensity, even eke out widescreen where once the aspect ratio was smaller. It’s a particularly pressing concern in an era when many people are using high resolution computers and HD televisions, where every flaw of production is painfully obvious.

There’s a reason remastered classics have been flooding the market in recent years. After years of various directors’ cuts and special editions designed to entire viewers into buying yet another version while also drawing in new fans, studios have come up with the definitive option: Remastering. Skilled technicians painstakingly go over the original source material to improve ‘quality.’

In a strict sense, yes, remastering is about quality. If you want to take on the objective definition of quality, it definitely meets that standard. Remastered content typically has a number of traits that the source material lacks. The audio quality is crispy, sharper, without background noise, crackle, and interference. It’s possible to hear more subtleties that weren’t audible in the original version — something especially important with music. Meanwhile, the picture is usually cleaner, with artefacts cleaned up, and the aspect ratio may be changed, particularly with television. But here’s where things start to go off. The familiar 4:3 that filled the small screen in the previous millennium has become 16:9 in HD, and that requires some…adjustments to original materials.

You can’t magically turn a 4:3 image into a 16:9 one. If you just stretched it digitally, the results would be heavily distorted and bizarre. So you return to the mother/base materials and you do two things: You crop (letterbox) and you include material from the sides that was cut during processing. That can result in two very unfortunate results: Characters may be cropped all or partway in closeup, intimate scenes where their faces once filled the screen (imagine seeing just a nose instead of a tight focus on a character’s face!) and things that shouldn’t have been seen magically appear — film crew, characters who were supposed to be offscreen, and so forth. The remastered version develops some, er, artefacts of its own as a result of being earnestly improved.

These are definitely quality issues. There’s also a more subjective conversation to be had about quality when it comes to film and television that is becoming a pressing concern when it comes to remastering, especially for television.

One important consideration for remastered content that often gets left out by studios is the importance of composition. Photographers and videographers alike consider composition to be rather critical, because it is. The way an image is framed has a tremendous impact on perception, proportions, and how a scene plays out. Composition is one of many telltale signs between skilled artists and those who just want to take a damn picture already — think of Ansel Adams and carefully, meticulously staged photographs of natural wonders versus vacation snaps. It’s not just about the processes he used and the quality of his film and so forth, but also the way he composed his images, what he chose to include in the frame and what he included in post-processing.

Composition is why your cat picture with Fluffy square in the middle feels dull, listless, lacking, and the image with Fluffy coiled at the corner of the frame in tight focus, the rest of the image blurred, conjures up an image of a sleeping cat. Why the image of your cat at the bottom of the frame batting up at a window makes it seem like she’s going to leap right out of the photograph as she pursues a bird. Composition and careful framing are difficult skills to teach in film and television and they’re difficult skills to acquire. Directors and editors think very carefully about what’s included in the frame during filming, and what happens in post-production. For an intimate scene, the camera might close tight on the faces of the two characters. A tense alley drug deal might put the characters at the middle of the screen in a forced perspective shot that makes them feel distant, while a fight scene might play from left to right, pulling the viewer with it as you clench your hands rooting for your favourite character.

When you start skewing with aspect ratio, composition goes to hell. Everything the artistic team worked for gets torn apart in the interest of filling an HD frame, even if it means including continuity errors and bloopers, let alone mucking with perspective. Think of Elizabeth, where much of the film shows the queen distant and cold, a reflection of a woman alone with the world against her. Suddenly she’s brought up tight into the frame, giving you a more intimate view. In the scenes where the camera once closed in to reveal her soft side, the parts of the queen that struggled with her role, she’s now awkwardly cropped and ungainly. The artistry of a brilliant film would be ruined by remastering — rather than being ‘better,’ it would be markedly worse.

It’s not just about composition, though. ‘Quality,’ as in the video and sound, can play an important role in the atmosphere of a work. The instinct is to clean up messy film and sloppy sound, but sometimes this move can have the effect of pulling a work away from the creator’s intention. Maybe a television series is supposed to have grainy, flickery film that now looks clumsy. Perhaps the sound was intended to be slightly off, discordant. The strange hyperreality of some low-budget shows might be considered a problem to remaster (you know the look, with odd lighting and strange perspective), but it could also be an asset to a particular work and a particular kind of framing. Without that effect, a work might seem cold and stilted. ‘Cleaning up’ the sound, meanwhile, might fundamentally change the way people engage with a work.

Cleaner, tidier, neater, is not always better. Before remastering any work, it’s worth consulting the creators as well as critics who’ve studied it intensively, to determine whether it should be made slicker for the new age — or left alone.

Image: Television, Santi Villamarín, Flickr