Hollywood classics, catalogue titles and cult favourites are beginning to receive the prestige treatment of a new 4K scan, often from the original camera negative. But what does it mean and should you care?

Just prior to the millennium, we were in awe of the video and audio quality delivered by a new digital format called DVD. Then along came Blu-ray to blow us away all over again, and now we have the eye-candy that is 4K UHD.

The ongoing pursuit of technical perfection in home entertainment has created a new breed of collectors that appreciate – and sometimes obsesses over – the quality of a film’s digital transfer.

“When an old classic receives a 4K restoration, collectors get goosebumps”

Terms like “a new 4K scan from the original camera negative” have become a selling point for studios, and particularly niche labels dedicated to releasing catalogue titles and obscure cult films with all the digital bells and whistles afforded to a deluxe restoration of Lawrence of Arabia.

So should you care whether a film has been transferred in 2K, 4K, from the original negative, an interpositive, or an archived 35mm print? That’s a definite yes! The higher the K, the better the resolution of course, and the original camera negatives (in good condition) provide the best possible source print.

Blade Runner in 4K2K and 4K scans may not mean much to the average consumer, who just want a good quality copy of a film on the disc format of their choice, but to the diehard collector and cinephile, it’s an assurance they are getting the highest quality transfer of a film, and that the process has been treated as a labour of love.

Most films are shot digitally now and are going to look fantastic in HD and UHD anyway. It’s when an old classic receives a 4K restoration that collectors get goosebumps.

A great example of a 4K scan making a world of difference to a film is Umbrella Entertainment’s recent Blu-ray release of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Prior HD scans of this vibrant and artistically composed horror masterpiece have suffered from desaturated colours, making the new transfer – sourced from a 4K scan – a revelation, even for those who know the film intimately.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind on 4K

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Similarly, the 40th Anniversary edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind boasts a spectacular new 4K restoration, with boosted contrast, amazingly deep blacks and colours that really pop. Granted it’s a darker looking transfer and some might still prefer the brighter and warmer look of the 30th Anniversary edition on Blu-ray, but the blacks are significantly better and it looks stunning all round.

There can be a downside, however, though it’s a minor quibble and will depend on how much of a purist you are. The increased resolution brings out the warmth and naturalistic look inherit in film, but it can also enhance the grain, which can be severe in some cases. But a few grainy night shots are preferable to the application of DNR (Digital Noise Reduction), which wipes away the film grain – and much of the fine detail with it. The result leaves actors’ faces resembling a waxworks exhibit. Anybody who owns a copy of the original Predator on Blu-ray will know exactly what I mean.

So why can I buy The Emoji Movie in 4K UHD (hypothetically, of course) and not Suspiria, you may well ask? Creating a 4K UHD master is expensive and isn’t cost effective for smaller labels, but the good news is that you don’t need a 4K UHD set-up to appreciate a 4K scan – the results on a 1080p Blu-ray and player can be just as impressive, and a side-by-side comparison with an earlier transfer will show you just how great the difference can be.

Bridge on the River Kwai in 4KNew release blockbusters might be Hollywood’s bread and butter and best-sellers on Blu-ray, but the demand from collectors for older catalogue titles in HD and UHD remains strong. The major studios have answered the call with 4K UHD editions of classics like Blade Runner, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Dark Crystal, and the aforementioned Close Encounters, while Umbrella have announced a new 4K scan of Aussie cult favourite Razorback for Blu-ray sometime in 2018. Hopefully this year will see further catalogue classics joining the range. It’s time to open the vaults…

Check out our reviews of several classics on 4K Ultra HD, including Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and more.