Originally Posted by Rob Tomlin What the hell is going on here?!
Simple. Criterion didn't create the HD telecine. I don't think they ever have, though I could be wrong.
Whenever Criterion releases a film, they generally license the rights to release it from whoever actually owns the picture. They're at the mercy of the content owner to provide them a D5 or similar HD master, and if it isn't up to snuff about all they can do is one of two options:
1) Request to the content owner that they make a new transfer.
2) Ask the content owner if we (ie: Criterion) can make a new transfer themselves.
The former seems reasonable, but generally the content owner has already spent money on what they consider a perfectly acceptable transfer, and have no interest in spending a small fortune because Criterion turned their noses up at it. Why bother? Discs that make most AVS members want to vomit get rave reviews from "professional" critics, and I think we can all agree that the film on the disc will indicate sales more than the A/V quality. There's little incentive for the content owner to make a new transfer unless they think it'll directly impact sales negatively, and honestly, I'm not convinced a substandard transfer has as much impact as we'd like to think.
The latter poses its own problems. Not only would Criterion have to spend a lot of their own money to make a new transfer (which, by all rights, should have been fine before they got to it), but they might not even be granted access to the film materials in the first place. The studio that owns the film may not grant them access to the negative because it's in bad shape and they don't want to risk harming it further. Should the content owners allow them to make a transfer from a positive print they'll create, making the print alone could cost several thousands of dollars, and that's BEFORE they telecine a new HD master from it!
Criterion certainly has a good - perhaps overly so - reputation, but I'm not convinced that many of Criterion's projects sell more than tens of thousands of copies to begin with. If the master really is awful, they can simply pass on the HD release (as they seem to have done with Salo). If the master is mediocre but still "good enough", they'll release it, as they have here. Odds are nobody else is going to release a substantially better looking transfer, and if they do, most consumers will be so confident in the Criterion name that they won't care to find out anyway.
When you're handed a crap video transfer there's only so much you can actually do with it. You can crop off information, but not restore what's already gone. You can add edge enhancement and noise reduction, but not remove it. You can color correct it, but if the levels are already shot (say, boosted contrast blooming) there's nothing you can do to bring them back. You can fix film damage like splices and scratches, but if those
are a substantial problem you might be better off just making a new transfer anyway. But again, who pays for it becomes the million dollar question.