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Why Do Some Old Movies Look So Bad?

You have some favorite movies from your childhood. We all do. Occasionally, we’ll find them re-released in a new format. “Updated for Blu-ray” or something similar will be prominently displayed. But you pop it in your player, and it looks like crap. All pixelated and blurry. Other times, you’ll get an old movie on a newer format that looks great. Clear and sharp – it looks as good as any modern movie. Why do some old movies look so bad while others look so much better? Let’s discuss!

Shooting On Film

The main difference between older movies and modern movies is how they are filmed. All older movies were shot on film. There are different types of film, film quality, and preservation methods, but the medium was always film. These days, while some movies are still shot on film, others are shot digitally. This means that they are converted directly to a digital file. Even modern movies shot on film are usually converted to a digital file so that the special effects can be added as well as other mastering effects.

Remastering Older Movies

In order to re-release older movies on new formats, the original film must be rescanned. There are many things that can affect the look of the movie during the process. The condition of the original film, the quality and type of film that was originally used, the time and care taken during the conversion process, and more can make a big difference in how the updated transfer looks.

One aspect that many people don’t consider is how well the original movie was shot. If the original movie has scenes with poor lighting or high film grain, then any direct transfer will look bad. In order to “clean up” these older movies, a lot of time and money must be spent in order to remove these artifacts and issues.

Film Grain

If you had to describe what you are seeing in these older movies that look so bad, you could call it film grain. Film grain can be part of the original film or introduced because of a poor transfer. Most of the time it is a bit of both. When you take an older movie and transfer it to a format with higher resolution, there are going to be “gaps” in the picture. This will make the picture look grainy. Blowing the picture up onto our modern, high-resolution, huge screens doesn’t help at all. If the original film is of high enough quality and the scanners you use have sufficient power, you can get very good transfers. But any imperfection in the original film (even specks of dirt on the film) will create issues. These will usually have to be addressed manually.

Take Away

There are a lot of factors that affect how good an older movie looks. With some older films, it is nearly impossible to get it to look really good even with the best scanners and a team of people doing everything they can to clean up the transfer. Other films, shot on high-quality film by experts in optimal environments can look phenomenal. Most movies fall somewhere in the middle. If you love the movie and want to share it with your kids, just do what I do. Tell them that’s how movies looked when you were a kid. Oh, how we suffered!

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