Watching Video or Watching Movies

By Stu Kobak

     Sitting in a small room attached to a home theater at CES (Consumer Electronics Show),  I nit-picked state of the art video display with one of the savvier experts around. I was describing some small problems in the image playing in his display theater. He patiently explained some of the difficulties inherent in milking the most out of the video cow. What prompted my most obvious attack was ringing in the image of a familiar   DVD, a defect I had never before noticed. A number of video friends swear by the movie as a reference DVD for their comparative evaluations. While I agree with them as to the visual quality of the DVD, the content was very difficult for me to get through. Which brings us to the crux of this think piece. When does watching the video so intently get in the way of watching the movie.
     This was the question posed by the video expert sitting across from me. Now, remember, I have a lot of respect for this guyís opinion, but it seemed off-track coming from a man promoting the Valhalla of high end imagery. Well, the truth is, itís difficult to argue with his statement: if you are so focused on the minute details of the video quality, you canít be enjoying the film to its fullest.
     Initially, I agreed with him, As long image  quality is transparent enough not to call obvious attention to itself, itís doing its job, which is to present the sound and images of the artist. Supposing there is a bit of excess ringing around the edges of heads and tall buildings. Do you think a slight graininess of the image is enough to detract from a good story? It shouldnít be. Now, I wonder, is this some sort of sacrilege? Am I deserting the camp of the video purists? Will they brand me a turncoat? I think not. The movie must come first and everything else is secondary. Would I rather see a perfect looking DVD of a miserable movie or a reasonable transfer of an engrossing film? The answer is an engrossing film every time.
     Stop right there. Donít jump to any conclusions. I am not abandoning the quest for video purity. I still believe that every effort should be made to present the best image on video. Find the cleanest elements, take great care in delivering them on the best media. Present them on the best equipment you can afford and stay on top of the image, making sure the equipment remains within tip-top performance parameters.
     Everythingís a judgment call when it comes to making the best images available on video. How far do you take electronic image cleaning before the DVD becomes too soft. Weíve seen examples of films virtually robbed of their character by overzealous electronic manipulation. At what point do you begin to crank the sharpness because a cloud of softness is beginning to fog the image of the filmmaker? Thatís hard to say. I like the feeling of looking into the soul of actor through his eyes. That means the image must be sharp enough for me to enjoy those telling close-ups.
     As for me, I believe that I have trained myself after years of critically watching high-end video to separate the evaluation of video image and movie image. I can make a judgment that a film has been enhanced past the point of bettering the image without sacrificing the excitement of watching movies.
     There are some films for which image and sound quality is all-important. These are those reference discs that videophiles like to throw on to show off the merits of home theater. Some of them may even be good movies, but when the snippets and effects scenes are set up as examples of the potential of the video and audio experience, thatís what takes priority. Even bad films can serve a purpose of sorts if the image and sound is of reference quality. In the high end home theater there is no other reason for their existence.
     So it falls on the reviewer not to lose sight of what is most import about video software: Itís the movies.


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