4K Ultra HD: Into the Vaults — Prepping Films for 4K Ultra HD is a Journey of Discovery

With theaters and production hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, home entertainment is putting its best foot forward this holiday season.

Content owners are polishing catalog classics in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with high dynamic range — the highest standard in home entertainment.

With new releases slowing, blockbusters of yesteryear are filling the theatrical slate gap. The “Back to the Future” franchise, “Resident Evil” franchise, “Rambo” collection, Alfred Hitchcock classics and 1980s icon Top Gun are among the titles shooting to 4K UHD.

“During the quarantine we have seen a significant uptick in consumer interest in 4K as people spend more time at home,” says Vincent Marcais, EVP of worldwide marketing at Paramount Home Entertainment. “Fans are recognizing how the format delivers the very best at-home viewing experience for both new and classic films.

SEE ALSO: Indies Go 4K

“We have been actively meeting consumer demand for fresh content with new 4K releases and maximizing drafting opportunities, such as the new 4K releases of Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop in anticipation of the theatrical release of Coming 2 America. Plus, we have seasonal releases like Shutter Island for Halloween and It’s a Wonderful Life for Christmas. These releases give fans the chance to see some of their favorite classic films at home like never before.”

“Given the lack of new theatrical content across the industry, this is the perfect time for fans and families to revisit their library favorites, particularly on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc,” says Lexine Wong, senior EVP of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “The restoration and upgrade efforts for the films often make it feel like you’re seeing the movie for the first time, given the increased resolution and wider color space.”

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is bringing some “hilarious and hard-hitting movies” to the format over the next few months, Wong says, including the ‘Jump Street’ films, Whiplash and District 9.

“In addition, we have the perfect way for a ‘Resident Evil’ fan to spend time at home: our six-film Resident Evil Collection, debuting on 4K UHD in November, complete with an extended cut of Resident Evil: Apocalypse and hours of special features,” Wong says.

Independent suppliers are taking the 4K plunge during the pandemic as well.

“Sadly, COVID-19 has been a boom for our business,” says William Lustig, president of Blue Underground (which is distributed by MVD Entertainment Group). “One of our concerns as we were approaching our 4K UHD May street date [for Blue Underground’s first 4K titles, Zombie and Maniac] was if our collector customer could afford the higher SRP. My guess is even with the higher price tag, it’s still a cheap date.”

“Cocooning at home” during the pandemic has accelerated interest in 4K, says Tony Vandeveerdonk, EVP at Well Go USA Entertainment. Well Go’s first 4K release was the martial arts film Shadow in August 2019. Now, the supplier has a smorgasbord of action films coming in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the fourth quarter. Due Nov. 24 is Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, a sequel to the successful Korean hit in which a soldier and his team battle hordes of post-apocalyptic zombies in the wastelands of the Korean Peninsula. Coming Dec. 15 is the complete “Ip Man” collection, the successful martial arts action franchise.

The stay-at-home movement has “absolutely” boosted catalog interest, says Jeff Nelson, an executive at Shout! Factory’s horror imprint, Scream Factory.

“Our physical media sales have been very strong,” he says. “Nowadays, most people have the latest TV and player device technologies, including 4K TV. People are stuck at home, spending so much time watching series and movies, revisiting some of their favorites on disc.”

Meanwhile, collectors are waiting eagerly for 4K UHD classics to fill their shelves.

“Our readers are excited for a number of forthcoming 4K titles right now, mostly catalog fare given the current state of new releases,” says Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits, a home entertainment enthusiast website.

“There’s the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy from Universal, 300 and V for Vendetta from Warner, the ‘Resident Evil’ films from Sony, Godard’s Breathless from Studio Canal, Mad Max (1979) and Spaceballs (1987) from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, John Carpenter’s They Live from Shout! Factory, Kick-Ass and Total Recall from Lionsgate, even Chernobyl and Westworld: Season 3 from HBO.”

“2020 has been an expensive year for 4K movie collectors,” adds Adam Gregorich of Home Theater Forum, another enthusiast site. “Over the past two weeks alone … I personally have upgraded to new 4K versions of The Goonies, The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection and even Arrow Video’s Flash Gordon. It’s not just studio releases, a year ago I wouldn’t have thought that companies like Arrow would be investing in high-quality 4K catalog releases of licensed titles.”

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The Art of the Makeover

Studios are restoring and remastering classics to please enthusiasts eager to collect them — efforts important to buyers.

“The most important aspect of all these releases is a proper restoration — going back to the original camera negative whenever possible so these films are truly improved and have a proper HDR color grade,” Hunt says. “New Atmos or DTS-X mixes are appreciated too, but people really want to make sure the original audio mix is included as well.”

Paramount Pictures charges Andrea Kalas, SVP of archives, with the critical task of getting classics ready for their close-up in 4K UHD. The keys to a good makeover are finding the best source materials, finding a good colorist, not forgetting the audio, working with the real experts and being discerning, she says.

Paramount’s archive team, (L-R): Nikki Jee, Andrea Kalas and Charlotte Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

As far as source materials, Kalas says, “We always try to use the original negative of a feature finished on film, or an original digital intermediate (DI) for a feature finished digitally. When we scan for HDR, we scan at 16 bit so that we are capturing as much color gamut as possible from the original source materials.”

Going back to the original is also key at Universal Pictures.

“On Jaws, Back to the Future, Psycho and The Birds, original 35mm film negatives were scanned in 4K on an ARRI scanner, capturing the film at the highest resolution in order to achieve the best-quality restoration as possible,” says Michael Daruty, SVP of global media operations, part of the Universal’s content management group. “A full 4K workflow was utilized for color grading with various digital tools used for image stabilization, deflicker, dirt, scratch removal, damage repair and grain management as required.

Psycho included scenes from a German print for the extended version. For Vertigo, the original VistaVision negative was used to scan on a Northlight scanner. Rear Window used the original negative with replacement shots from the three layers separation masters to replace faded dupe and optical shots. A Northlight scanner also was used.”

The indies, which are increasingly dipping their tows into 4K, are scrutinizing the process as well.

“We do endless quality checks, removing any and all age-related dirt, scratches and damage,” says Blue Underground’s Lustig. “You can’t do 4K without personally supervising every step. No compromises. The devil is in the details.”

“On the upcoming Ip Man: The Complete Collection 4K release we did a restoration on the first three films: Ip Man, Ip Man 2 and Ip Man 3,” adds Well Go’s Vandeveerdonk.

The colorist is key, says Paramount’s Kalas.

“Once the film is scanned, or the DI is restored, it is moved to a facility where we collaborate with experts in using tools which can achieve the best HDR look,” she says. “At Paramount we work with our on-lot facility, Digital Post Services, as well as several other facilities in Los Angeles. The colorists start with a reference — a video master or a print that represents the look of the film as it was originally released. With catalog masters, the colorist must know the history of motion picture technology to make sure the film is upgraded respectfully and beautifully. With older titles, dirt and scratch work is also done to make sure the picture is pristine.”

Audio is half the film, as they say, and restorers must pay attention to the audio in restoring a film for 4K as well.

“In some cases, like for Top Gun, a Dolby Atmos mix is done to accompany the upgraded picture,” Kalas says. “In all cases, we make sure the 5.1 mix is in good shape and will make adjustments if, for example, we find that capturing a better source will achieve a better mix.”

“We also make sure the Dolby Atmos surround-sound technology is added to all our 4K releases,” says Well Go’s Vandeveerdonk.

It always helps to go after the creative source in restoring a film, Kalas adds.

“We’re extremely lucky that many directors and cinematographers are happy to collaborate with us on these remasters and restorations,” she says. “Their input is invaluable, as their insights on how a film was made and the decisions that went into its look help us to faithfully restore the film in keeping with the filmmakers’ intent.”

“On Jaws and the ‘Back to the Future Trilogy,’ we worked very closely with the filmmakers throughout the process,” says Universal’s Daruty. “We welcome filmmaker collaboration as we strive to provide them with the highest-quality representation of their films while maintaining their creative intent.”

Jaws director Steven Spielberg “was intimately involved in setting the initial look of the film and then checking reels throughout the remastering process with a final sign-off at the end,” he adds.

Likewise, “Back to the Future” producer Bob Gale and director of photography Dean Cundey were involved throughout the remastering of all three films, he says.

“Both Mr. Gale and Mr. Cundey provided creative input and approval at various stages of the process,” Daruty says, adding DreamWorks Animation was “closely involved” with the 4K HDR remaster of The Croods as well.

For Warner’s Sept. 22 4K release of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the 4K remastering was done using a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging, with Kubrick’s former personal assistant Leon Vitali working closely with the studio team during the mastering process.

A restorer-remasterer must also be discerning — taking each scene’s aim into account — in realizing a film in the new format.

“HDR can give brightly lit portions of a scene more presence than was originally intended — for example, a scene with a lot of bright window light needs to be toned down so the scene is not about the windows, but the action,” Kalas says. “The colorist can make sure that they are reining in this over-brightness so the scene truly benefits from HDR, but is not altered by it.”

HDR can reveal “excessive noise,” notes Daruty, especially in older films or films where multiple elements are used.

“Specific to recent restorations, the grain patterns on the optical shots in the negative used for Back to the Future, The Birds and Psycho were challenging as we tried to manage the optical grain and resolution differences to make sure that they did not produce artifacts or create enhanced noise in HDR,” he says. “For Rear Window, additional challenges with color fading in the original opticals were replaced with sections from the YCM yellow layer separation master.”

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Best Facing Forward

Home entertainment box art is an often underappreciated, but essential, element in any release. It’s both a piece of art designed to evoke the content and attract collectors, as well as a sales tool.

For the 4K unveiling of its Jaws: 45th Anniversary Limited Edition, Universal added special lenticular art — a printing technique that adds depth and movement to an image — of the iconic great white shark on the package.

To attract home entertainment enthusiasts, Hunt maintains that “original poster artwork on the cover never hurts.”

As part of its catalog push, Lionsgate amped up this customer-facing component for its 4K Ultra HD catalog releases of the horror classic Halloween and the anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell — both hitting the market in September in time for the gift-giving season.

For the 25th anniversary release of Ghost in the Shell, which arrived in stores Sept. 8, the studio commissioned two different box art concepts, one for the national SKU designed by Martin Ansin and another for the exclusive Best Buy Steelbook, designed by Orlando Arocena.

“Having been a movie-crazed kid during the ’80s — growing up on laserdiscs, Betamax, VHS — and fascinated over awesome and goofy past designs for entertainment releases, I can tell you that what I believe works best is a clear legible title with a visual graphic (illustration or photo composition) that evokes a need to watch from the viewer while also reinforcing the movie’s personality,” says Arocena.

Although Arocena had several pieces of tribute art he had previously created, Lionsgate wanted completely new artwork for the Ghost in the Shell Steelbook. In the end, Arocena created two interlocking works for the Steelbook slipcase and box, evoking the dual nature of the film’s protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi.

“Lionsgate was totally open to seeing innovative ideas that would incorporate the slipcover in such a manner that it would be a representation of the Major’s organic layer over her bioroid mechanical shell,” says Arocena. “A secondary illustration with minimal transparency overlay on the primary steelcase illustration of the Major’s creation story results in a direct physical representation of Ghost in the Shell — a unique take for any steelcase collector to be happy with.”

Lionsgate also created a special Steelbook for the Sept. 29 release of the 1978 horror classic Halloween, available exclusively at Best Buy.

“Putting ourselves in the right mind frame for a Halloween fan wasn’t very difficult, since I’m a huge fan of the movie,” says artist Justin Erickson, part of a husband-and-wife team at Phantom City Creative that designed the new artwork. “In the conceptual stage, we explored different ways of portraying Michael Myers and different printing methods that could be fun. With so many different editions and releases of Halloween on the market, I wanted this release to stand out and make fans of the movie happy.”

The final artwork features the iconic combatants made famous by the horror classic, the murderous Michael Myers and the virtuous Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The two belonged on the box, the team decided.

Halloween IS Michael Myers and Laurie Strode,” Erickson notes. “Myers’ mask is so iconic, and Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fantastic performance where you genuinely care about Laurie Strode and whether she makes it to the end of the movie or not. Right away both the client and I wanted to feature Jamie Lee Curtis in the artwork. To explore all avenues, there were concepts that didn’t include her, but we always gravitated toward the ones that featured her.”

The design also employs an understated sepia tone, which Erickson notes evokes the mood of the film better than a blood-soaked cover.

“While a red color scheme was explored, the sepia version was my favorite from the beginning,” he says. “Halloween is a slasher — THE slasher film in my opinion — but it’s remarkably bloodless. What makes the movie stand out is the menace of Michael Myers, the atmosphere and tension created by [director] John Carpenter and the performance of Jamie Lee Curtis. The fall tones of the sepia color scheme gave us an honest representation of the film. Fans of Halloween would spot a piece of artwork that didn’t match the movie in a heartbeat and avoid it like an apple in a candy sack.”

Both Arocena and Erickson keep the collector in mind when creating the box art that will sit on their shelves.

“Even if I’m not a fan of the property, hearing the fans of it love the art makes me very happy,” Erickson says. “With projects like this, it’s not about me in the end.”

“The most satisfying part of being invited to collaborate and create box art has to be the rewarding notion of being an official contributor to that movie’s evolving history,” Arocena adds. “Having a few aficionados of the movie express their appreciation is always a win for me as well.”

In addition to the art on the box, studios are also embellishing what’s inside with bonus features and other goodies. For its 4K Ultra HD combo Steelbook of It’s a Wonderful Life, due Nov. 3, Paramount Home Entertainment is including a mini reproduction of a vintage poster. The disc has the black-and-white film in 4K high-definition, as well as a colorized version on Blu-ray, along with three special features: “Restoring a Beloved Classic,” “Secrets From the Vault” and “It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party.”

For the Nov. 3 release of the 4K Resident Evil Collection, Sony is adding archival featurettes that have been previously unavailable on disc.

Universal, for the first time ever, is including two versions of Psycho — the cut used for TV and home entertainment releases for the past 50 years as well as the original version seen in theaters in 1960 — in its 4K Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. The film was trimmed to receive an ‘R’-rating for a 1968 theatrical re-release and that is the version audiences have seen on previous home video releases, until now. The Hitchcock collection also includes Vertigo, Rear Window and The Birds with extensive bonus features for each film.

Warner has bowed a 4K special edition of The Goonies on Amazon featuring a replica of One-Eyed Willy’s treasure map inside the box shaped like a treasure chest. It also includes five collectible pin-on buttons​ and an iron-on embroidered patch.

4K Ultra HD Blu-ray All-Time Top 50 Sellers as of 8/29/20

Quality Counts

Spectacular box art and extensive remastering and restoration is quality wrap for an already valuable gift in the 4K Ultra HD with HDR format, industry observers say. The resolution of 4K is four times sharper than HD, while HDR offers brighter brights and darker darks, as well as wider color gamut, to create a more vivid and lifelike picture.

“The difference in 4K UHD HDR from HD is stunning with enhanced depth of color, increased image definition, brighter whites, darker blacks and overall better luminosity,” Universal’s Daruty notes.

“High dynamic range expands the visible color gamut so the full palette of colors used to make a film is available,” adds Paramount’s Kalas. “This is most evident in scenes with nuanced color like sunsets, or scenes with many vibrant colors. Textures are also much more evident — costumes made of fabrics like silks or velvets are apparent in a way they weren’t before. HDR tools, when used well and appropriately, provide a superior experience overall to the film lover.”

“Consumers love to revisit their favorite movies, and 4K UHD gives them a crystal-clear experience in the home, above and beyond anything that has been delivered before,” says Sony’s Lexine Wong. “It’s the perfect way to re-experience a movie with friends, family or on your own and have it feel like a pristine opening weekend screening in the home.”

Indeed, consumers have been buying 4K. While U.S. sales of 4K UHD Blu-ray players peaked at 884,000 units ($154 million in revenue) in 2017, sales have been relatively steady at 559,000 ($98 million) in 2018 and 514,000 ($85 million) in 2019 and are projected to total 478,000 ($78 million) in 2020, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Meanwhile, Statista projects that global 4K UHD TV sales surpassed 100 million units (108 million) for the first time last year, growing tenfold from 10 million units in 2014. On the digital side, 4K entices consumers as well. At TVOD service FandangoNow, when a film is available in 4K, more than a quarter of sales are in the format.

Last year, employing the support of major directors, the UHD Alliance, an industry group dedicated to growing and supporting the UHD marketplace, announced Filmmaker Mode, which displays movies and television shows as they were intended by the filmmaker and disables all post-processing (i.e. motion smoothing), preserving the correct aspect ratios, colors and frame rates. Supporting directors include Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Coogler, James Cameron, Paul Thomas Anderson, J.J. Abrams, Ava DuVernay, M. Night Shyamalan, Damien Chazelle, Ang Lee, Judd Apatow and the Duffer brothers. Consumer electronics companies also signed on.

A year later, the UHD Alliance is seeing expansion of consumer electronics support for the Mode.

“The UHD Alliance has seen incredible support from CE hardware companies incorporating Filmmaker Mode into their 2020 product line,” says UHD Alliance president Mike Fidler. “We have full-line representation from both LG and Samsung, Panasonic supporting it in their markets outside the United States, Vizio planning to update their entire 2020 line, TP Vision/Philips announcement of support, and the support from Kaleidescape in high-end home cinema. With the rise in direct-to-consumer delivery of movies and episodic TV to homes, we anticipate strong demand throughout the fall for new and larger TVs that can deliver an exceptional home cinema experience utilizing Filmmaker Mode.”

Indeed, the home entertainment industry is taking advantage of its time in the spotlight during COVID-19 by doing what it perhaps knows best — polishing classics from the library to feed consumers’ appetite for home viewing — while many are stuck in the home.

“Although we look forward to delivering new content into theaters and the home, we are enthusiastic about our 4K UHD catalog slate, both for the rest of this year and beyond,” says Sony’s Wong. “This is the optimal time for cinematic ‘comfort food,’ and 4K UHD is the ideal way to deliver that experience into the living room.”

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