'The Fifth Element' Superbit R1 vs. Original R1
Bjoern Roy , October 8th, 2001

I just got my first Superbit titile 'The Fifth Element'. Comparisson against the original R1 DVD. (I also have the new R2 SE DVD, which has several issues and is far subpar IMO to both R1 versions.)

The SB version has a fair bit more horizontal detail in ALL scenes, but in SOME the difference is HUGE. There is no increase in vertical detail at all. The increase in horizontal resolution is NOT DIRECTLY due to the higher bitrate, but rater INDIRECTLY. Let me explain:

DVDs are usually slightly filtered to remove the highest frequencies, thus limiting the finest detail.

1) In the vertical dimension this is done to minimize interlace flicker artefacts on regular TVs. This wouldn't be necessary if DVDs where optimized for progressive output.

2) In the horizontal dimension its done to minimize aliasing artefacts in the DVD players output stage. Not all DVD players can fully resolve 6.75Mhz patterns, some show heavy aliasing if such frequencies are present.

But there is another, more important reason why filtering high frequency information (in both dimensions) is used: it reduce the ENTROPY (real information, detail) of the image. And the lower the entropy of the encoded material, the lower the MPEG bitrate can be, without yielding a considerable amount of compression artefacts.

Think of it like this. There is a consensus about a certain threshold of compression artefacts that you don't want to surpass. On the other hand, going far beyond this threshold isn't necessary, because there is a point of diminishing returns.

Now, if you encode your transfer and choose the bitrate in each scene in a way, that you are always reasonably above this artefact threshold, the result will be certain amount of space that you need (average bitrate * running time). If you simply don't have the space for this on the DVD (due to extras, single layer or whatever), you need to make a decision:

a) Either you save bitrate in several scenes, thus surpass the artefact threshold which results in visible MPEG blocking (esp. in darker scenes) and mosquito noise artefacts.This is obviously a bad choice, but if used carefully isn't too obvious, especially if you have your black-level calibrated properly, becaues blocking is most noticable in the lowest IRE levels, which are hardly distinguishable once calibrated.

b) Or you reduce the overall entropy of the image by filtering away the highest frequencies. Now, as mentioned above, a lower entropy means that you need less bitrate to achieve that same artefact threshold! So you can now lower the bitrate slightly in all scenes without introducing any blocking or mosquito noise, but get a slightly softer picture. Like so many things, its a tradeoff.

But, if you have the space available, like on the extra-less superbit titles, you can use the opposite reasoning. You can choose NOT to filter the content at all, leaving the original entropy intact. If you do so, you will need to raise the bitrate in most scenes to a higher level to achieve an artefact free image. If you have a full dual-layer disc to spare for a movie with not-too-long running time, you can even run the bitrate close to its possible maximum most of the time.

Col/Tri's transfers from day one used route b) to dodge compression artefacts. Their transfers are always slightly soft, never quite reaching the highest amount of achievable detail as Criterion's 'The Rock' , Warner's 'The Pledge' or Fox's 'X-Men'. On top of that, their encoder is said to be the most efficient, thus yielding the least amount of artefacts for a given bitrate. Combine these two issues and you will understand why Col/Tri transfers over the years constanty yielded among the least amount of compression artefacts. Compare early (1997-98) Warner transfers to Col/Tri and you will see what i mean.

Now, given the above, why in gods name would Columbia introduce 'Superbit' titles (which have higher bitrates) if their transfers are among the least compression artefact plagued off all? Easy: the higher bitrate allows them to open the throttle on detail while remaining their picky standards for compression artefacts. As easy as that.

At least thats what i hoped for in theory. But thats exactly what happened on Fifth Element SB. The horizontal resolution, that was filtered on the old transfer is now completely unfiltered, yielding the highest amount of detail possible on DVD, and indeed, it matches the magnificent transfer of 'The Rock' in this regard.

Edge Enhancement:
Probably to compensate for their slight filtered softness, Col/Tri transfers always show an unpleasing amount of edge enhancement. Read my EE guide if you want more info.

While i was quite certain (or at least hopefull) that Col/Tri would open the throttle on detail on their SB titles, the first thing that popped into my mind was "maybe they reduce the EE while they are at it!". Note that i tried to clarify in some recent threads that by simply increasing the bitrate, you don't affect the amount of EE artefacts at all. You decrease a different edge artefact called mosquito noise, but the trace-contoured halos that us videophiles hate so much, stay where they are.

But i am ULTRA happy to report that at least on the Fifth Element Superbit DVD, they did indeed reduce at least the horizontal EE a considerable amoung. Fifth Element never was one of the very strong EE contenders anyway, it was just a bit too much for the most picky souls like me.

A concrete analysis of the improvement is that the amplitude of the ringing stays the same, but the frequency increased by a fair amount, which means that the halos are less disturbing, because they are thinner.


Everything else:
The Fifth Element transfer has always been reference quality in every other aspect: Shadow detail, contrast delineation, black level, color tone and saturation. Perfect. And the new SB transfer does indeed inherent all these characteristics. In all these aspects they look almost identical.

I have read reviews where people found a difference in shadow detail, better colors (esp. in the faces) etc... Must be a psychological thing, because the measured difference is never more than 1-2%. Apart from the higher resolution and less compression artefacts in darker areas (remember Fifth Element was a single layer disc), the discs look basically completely alike. Print defects etc. are the same as well, so the same master was used.


Screenshot comparison

Stop talking, show us the meat!

Read the Screenshot 1-0-1 on the main page for info about how these screenshots are obtained.

Note: The SUPERBIT version is always the one at the TOP or the LEFT of the image.

As i said in the review above, the difference in resolution is in the horizontal dimension. That means that vertical edges are going to show more definition! You will find that horizontal edges look practically the same.

End credits. Look at the M's and N's.

Another piece of text. Look at the 'FE'

Emblem. Vertical lines actually distinguishable. Less ringing.

Diva. So much horizontal detail, that the bicubic filter propagates some aliasing.

Curtain. Wow. Also, the vertical yellow line on the left is sharper and rings less.

Look at the little dark windows at the top of the ship (upper right). Was a blurry mess!

Necklace, pattern in fur and detail in hair!

Vertical lines in that bridge.

Subtle difference in detail. Yeah, right. Also look how those vertical lines on the left are distinct without ringing.

Buttons at the right side.


Conclusion and final thoughts

How do i rate the improvement? On my setup, with my eyes, the improvement isn't subtle. The picture is so much more detailed, so much clearer. The difference, at times, is as big as going from a non-anamorphic transfer to an anamorphic one, only here in the horizontal and not in the vertical dimension. In other scenes, the improvement is still noticable but not quite as dramatic. Although the term is abused, the image looks a lot more '3-dimensional'. Thats what added resolution does.

Few people have a system as revealing as mine. Nor do most people have as critical an eye as i have. On my second, lesser, system, i only see the difference slightly because i know its there. So i wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people have a hard time seeing the difference and call the new Superbit DVDs a marketing ploy.

But for videophiles these titles are great news. I really hope the other Superbit DVDs show similar improvements. This is at least a step in the right direction for Col/Tri, whose transfers just never reached the best of the other studios, detail wise:

(not supposed to be comprehensive! No animation listed on purpose)
Warner: The Pledge
New Line: Blade, Seven
Criterion: The Rock
Paramount: Braveheart, Rules of Engagment, Ferris Buller
Fox: X-Men, White Men Can't Jump
Universal: U-571, Pitch Black
MGM: Hannibal, Tomorrow Never Dies
Dreamworks: Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan
Disney: Remember the Titans, The Insider

Starship Troopers from Col/Tri being their best effort yet (no EE, high detail). The rest just look alike, the 1.85:1 transfers (Hollow Man, Vertical Limit) being better than the 2.35:1 ones, which i wouldn't choose a single one from as being reference.

But this new Fifth Element SB transfer is up there with the best of the other studios. So while its a shame that Col/Tri needs a 'Superbit' label to achieve what others have been doing for some time now, its still a good thing!

Best regards
Bjoern Roy



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