Saturday 17 February 2018

1080P Blu-Ray vs. 4K UHD Blu-Ray: "Blade Runner (Final Cut)" - Classic 35mm Filmmaking

Ahhhh, Blade Runner!

Here's an example of a "classic" from 1982. While arguably, the film was more style than substance, it certainly has left an enduring mark in the world of science fiction. Remember that Ridley Scott started his career in TV advertising which must have informed his visual aesthetic to create some iconic imagery such as this vision of Los Angeles in 2019 (alas, technological advancement and climate change must have been much more severe in this alternate universe).

As you know, beyond the detective film noir and some action sequences, it does touch on important science fiction themes of sentience, rights, the soul, genetics and transcendence. Of course, as a music lover, I very much enjoyed the soundtrack from Vangelis (for the completist, the 3-CD 25th Anniversary Edition contains everything)!

Blade Runner was filmed in 35mm with some special effects filmed in 65mm. Aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Over the years, it has undergone a number of revisions; the main ones being the original Theatrical Release, 1992's Director's Cut, and the 2007 Final Cut. When they did the 2007 Final Cut, the frames were digitally cleaned up, continuity errors fixed, new CGI effects added, 65mm footage were scanned to 8K, and everything finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate which is what ultimately ended up here on the UHD Blu-Ray with added HDR color grading.

As a comparison, I thought it would be interesting to grab a number of scenes to see the difference between a standard Blu-Ray release from 2011 (VC1 codec, ~17Mb/s) and the UHD version released in 2017 (HEVC 10-bit HDR10, ~50Mbps)... Is it worthwhile upgrading to a higher resolution version even with an old (35 years old!) movie originating in 35mm?

As in my previous comparison posts, here are the madVR settings for HDR-to-SDR conversion and upscaling for the 1080P-to-4K:

Similar to last week's look at Pacific Rim, let's push the madVR 1080P upscaling with the NGU algorithm emphasizing sharpness (while still achieving low levels of artifact).

As usual, click on the comparison images to view the pictures 1:1 on a high resolution monitor.

I. Tyrell Building (00:04:18)

Yeah, there is extra detail in the 4K version. For example the vertical bands on the right of the crop (elevators there maybe?) hold some hidden details not seen in the Blu-Ray. Also, have a look at that antenna structures sticking out on the left side. Notice the improved definition with the UHD Blu-Ray.

The other thing that strikes me with this comparison is what appears to be much more grain in the 4K version. It almost looks like the Blu-Ray may have applied some noise reduction which reduced the sharpness as well.

II. Leon (00:05:49)

Better goatee detail :-). Less greenish tinge on the 4K version.

III. Off World Billboard (00:08:17)

This is a good one to have a look at the luma and chroma channels:

Yeah, we can make a case for improved resolution of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray version.

IV. Spinner (00:15:55)

Okay, not a massive difference in this scene due to the haze. The more saturated colors and improved contrasts can be seen with the police lights and edges of the vehicle. Again, the 1080P version looks more noise reduced.

V. Gaff (00:16:07)

Better looking 4K whiskers and detailed stitching work on that helmet/cap.

VI. Rachel (00:17:59)

I think this scene really shows off the extra grain in the 4K/UHD Blu-Ray version. I would not say there's a big difference in overall resolution however of the underlying image.

VII. Spinner In The Dark (01:28:02)

While I've aimed to find sharp scenes to show off any potential benefits from the 4K remaster, realize of course that there are many scenes in Blade Runner like this one. Dark, soft focused. The main difference appears to be better contrast and marginal resolution difference with the Asian neon sign characters. Otherwise, the Spinner doesn't look that much different between the two version. Film grain again more obvious in 4K.

VIII. Stairs (01:30:10)

Here's a frame that shows us the 4K version does clearly have more detail if you look at the railing patterns just to the left of where Deckard is standing. However, if I took the 4K screen grab, in Photoshop reduced the size to 1080P, then expanded it back to 4K, we see that much of the railing detail is still there:

What this tells me is that the details we see in the 4K version could actually be scaled down to 1080P without losing much of the resolution. In other words, I suspect if we remastered the Blu-Ray using the same detailed image as the UHD disc, provided enough bitrate of course, the resulting picture image will retain most of the improvements.

IX. Roy - "Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" (01:47:05)

Ahhh... Rutger Hauer's improv monologue. Classic sci-fi "death scene". I think the 4K version looks significantly better compared to the standard Blu-Ray. Of course, the improved contrast of the 4K version also adds to the ability to pick out details.

There you go, another 1080P Blu-Ray vs. 4K UHD Blu-Ray comparison...

This time, it's a "classic" 35mm film source upgraded to 4K resolution and with regrading of the color/contrast and comparing this to a Blu-Ray which came out more than 5 years ago encoded in VC-1 which is somewhat inferior to AVC/H.264 at the same bitrate. Notice also that the Blu-Ray's bit rate is not particularly high at <20Mbps. As a result, I think we have to take that into account when making conclusions in this comparison.

First, I think it's fair to say that this 4K UHD Blu-Ray does represent an upgrade over the 1080P Blu-Ray. In my own viewing, the improvement in color and contrast is evident and also the overall resolution of the image is better. But remember that the encoding bitrate is much better, and I really think that they had either put some kind of de-noise algorithm into the encoding or the VC-1 codec at this somewhat low bitrate "smoothed over" the image too much.

Based on that little experiment with the "Stairs" scene, I think for this film, 1080P would actually have been fine if they upgraded the bitrate and used AVC/H.264. The HDR effect of course cannot be replicated with a Blu-Ray but certainly contrast, brightness and color could have been improved over the current Blu-Ray release. Alas, I don't think Warner Bros. bothered to create a better remaster for standard Blu-Ray which is unfortunate. From what I have seen here and also in the Interstellar comparison a few weeks back, I'm still far from impressed by the need for greater than 1080P with 35mm film-captured movies. We'll look at another example next time to see if we can explore this idea a bit more...


I find it interesting reading the 4K Blu-Ray reviews online... In many ways, notice how the videophiles also tend to use superlatives in descriptions, just like audiophiles in their comparisons.

Sure, the Blade Runner UHD Blu-Ray is better, but does it actually deserve a 4K "Video Quality" score of 5/5? Or in this review, the writer claiming: "The visual improvement from that first Blu-ray release to this new 2160p 2.40:1 4K transfer is jaw dropping." Or how about: "If you've got any friends out there unsure about 4K or just don't 'see the point,' this transfer for Blade Runner The Final Cut should be the demo disc you use to wow them." Hmmm... Surely there are many other outstanding 4K movies out there to use for demo purposes!

Despite the impressive efforts in remastering, this is an old film with plenty of blemishes and noise when judged on image quality. Yes, it's clearly better than the Blu-Ray but by what standard would anyone grade movie image quality out of 5 and give this a perfect score!? To me, if we want to compare image quality with any kind of reasonable benchmark, I would say the Blade Runner Blu-Ray VC-1 is a 1.5/5 as far as Blu-Ray video quality goes (ie. it's watchable but inferior to a decent bitrate AVC), and the UHD Blu-Ray is realistically something like 2.5/5 for a good HDR effort but rather far from "ultra" high resolution!

For comparison, something like Blue Planet II's 4K scenes as I showed last time would be closer to 5/5 for me and I might put Dunkirk as 4.5/5 for some excellent resolution worthy of 4K but some scenes were of lower quality. 2K DI movies like Pacific Rim would therefore be around 3.5/5 for me assuming the HDR effect looks good, knowing that resolution is limited but it at least looks clean. A movie like Interstellar should be deducted somewhat given the disappointing black level and questionable resolution - I'd give it a 3/5. Having this spread of scores would be more honest IMO even if it might seem a little harsh at first. Remember, we're talking image quality here, not the movie quality which could be 5/5 and independent of video/sound technical ratings.

I suspect many of the review websites in the world of video are no different from the audiophile press acting to drive sales. At the extremes, if something is truly crappy, we'll see some negative reviews, and something excellent would deservedly get positive comments. But a product of rather middling quality like this UHD Blade Runner typically will get hyped up a bit to get the product moving. Obviously I don't think any of us would be surprised by this... Such is the nature of Internet content driven by consumerism through various forms of advertising. Of course, given that this blog also runs ads, I'm not saying it's all a "bad" thing and I would be a hypocrite to condemn it all considering that I do gain (a small amount) from the ad revenues. But writing this blog is thankfully far from my main source of income :-).

Hope you're all having a great week. Enjoy the music and movies!


  1. "Let me tell you about my mother" What a classic line and scene! Thanks Arch for the video tutorials, I am learning a lot here. It seems video is a lot like audio in the sense that the current technology resolution is better than our human eyes and ears resolution… Now what?

    1. Thanks for the note Mitch.

      Yeah, I think there are certainly many comparisons we can draw between audio and visual technologies. At some point it does reach an asymptote as we hug the threshold of perceptual limits and any further resolution will be lost on the human sensory system...

  2. This might sound a bit conspiratorial, but anyway - I have this notion that companies might refrain from maxing out the 1080p blu-ray versions in order to hype the UHD version, and therefore releasing subpar standard blu rays. Given the difference in PQ presented above, surely there would be a demand for a new standard HD version as well... Also, I find the inflated pricing and the limited and somewhat random range of titles pretty off-putting. I do think that Blade Runner in UHD is a given, but there's so many older films that should get a release - where's Apocalypse Now or 2001? Instead we have... Groundhog's Day? Apollo 13? I don't particularly dislike either, but I think there's A LOT of classics that would be more interesting in UHD. Keep up the good work, Archimago!

    1. Hey Jens,
      I'm sure if it has crossed your mind on how to "max out" profits, the movie studios must have also thought about the same thing!

      Yeah, I'd love to see a 4K remastered HDR version of 2001 with as much detail as possible off those 65mm negatives. I just hope since 1968 the degradation hasn't been bad...

  3. Great analysis! Totally agreed that 4K version is far from demo, in fact it is far from even a decent one. It was hard to watch because of the horrible noise present in many scenes (film lovers would endearingly call it grain). One correction: the BD and HDDVD came out in 2007, they shared the encode, and are from the first batch of HD material ( hence the low bitrate VC-1), thus far from perfect. It’s a pity that there has been no BD reencoding since 2007. Additional problem of both BD and UHD BD is crushed shadows: in fact often one can see more shadow details in the 1997 DVD (one of the first DVDs ever made, and it’s pretty horrible in all respects) than in later encodes. Sometimes it’s even funny when Deckard asks to lower the curtains during Rachel’s test because “it’s too bright in here”, BD and UHD look like it was a dark room already :) but the 1996 primitive DVD is brighter and does show more detail in shadows!

    1. forbes on grain in Blade Runner 4K: “With the Blade Runner 4K HDR release, though, we’re faced with grain that’s both inconsistent in its intensity and at times so heavy it becomes almost the only thing you see.”

    2. Thanks for the info and fact check Yuri.

      Hey, looks like I'll need to check out Forbes for honest reviews of UHD Blu-Rays :-).

    3. As for the primitve DVD being brighter than The Final Cut, watch the International Cut on Blu-ray. No extra shadows, black tones or green hue added.

  4. I have seen several 35mm films made into UHD disks where the biggest difference seems to be the sharper or more pronounced film grain. Examples would be Starship Troopers or the (old/male) Ghostbusters movies. In general, at least for me, 35mm has peaked at 1080p and if you want more actual details (not just more impressive grain) then 70mm/IMAX or digital is the way to go.

    One of the sharpest disks I have seen so far is the movie Sully which was filmed digitally in 6.5K, mastered in 4K. But my overall picture quality reference is actually Sicario. Although it was filmed "only" in 3.4K to me it looks sharper and just better than for example Dunkirk.

    1. You've read my mind Lugu :-). In a future episode, let's take a look at 3.4K!

    2. Starship Troopers' UHD shits all over the Blu-ray, the increase in detail is often incredible vs the old disc but ay, there's the thing: we're talking about another old 2008 Blu-ray with its sharpened-yet-smoothed-over treatment of the same underlying source material.

      Do I think that well-mastered 2K derived from an oversampled scan (3K at the bare minimum) is enough to capture most of the pertinent information on a 35mm negative, particularly flat 1.85 (4-perf anamorphic is another matter)? Yes. But look how chunky the grain becomes in that 4K-2K-4K uprez that you've done, for 1080p as an actual display medium (especially when partnered with the AVC codec) has its limits. That kind of improvement may not count for much in the wider scheme of things to people who just want cold hard detail to PROVE how worthwhile UHD is, but in the land where the one-eyed man is king the sharper, finer resolving of film grain (and indeed sensor noise) is itself something that marks out UHDs as a more pleasurable viewing experience, if you're so inclined.

      Alas, that can't always be levied at Blade Runner UHD however because this is quite a poor encode, riddled with colour noise underneath the grain, and the source appears to have had some hefty sharpening applied at key junctures, usually the shots of Rachael which are out of focus (and there are several).

  5. Hi!

    It's great to see this kind of comparsion. But for me, i feel like we've hit TL;DR with 4k resolution. When you need to scale images with 150/200/400% to see little (sometimes none) differences, i think we can say that we hit a wall in terms of image resolution. To me it's like 96/24+ audio files. It doesn't make sense to human ears/eyes.
    Do i plan to buy an 4k TV? Yes, because you can see the differences sometimes (specially in PC games), but i think that the industry will have a hard time trying to sell anything with more than 4k resolution in the future (at least to the mainstream public).
    As for HDR, that's where i find that everything makes sense (such as OLED TV's... that contrast and that colors, good stuff!). Now it is in the hands (or eyes) of the directors the power to make the UHD standard shine.

    1. Yup. Nail. Head. Hit.

      Which is why I'm also doubtful we'll see much adoption of 8K video in the foreseeable future.

  6. Thanks for this analysis as it's very insightful. I'd be curious if any of the Sony "Mastered in 4k" 1080P blu-rays would be even harder to discern from their UHD counterparts. Comparing any one of the Spiderman 1,2, or 3 (Maguire) or the Men In Black movies would be a good place to start. I'd be willing to lend any of the 1080Ps if someone else could provide one of the UHDs.

    1. Hmmm, great idea. Although ultimately the early 2000's "Spidermen" movies were 35mm negatives, as were the Men in Blacks. As we've already seen last time with Interstellar, even a modern 35mm conversion doesn't add much resolution.

      I'll have another movie comparisons up in the next day or so to further peek into 35mm source to 1080P vs. 4K resolution "benefits" if any.