In 1993 The X-Files hit the air. The show was one of the defining moments of my (media) life, right from the first “nobody down here, but the FBIs most unwanted”-statement from Fox Mulder, one of the best personalities in any show/movie ever. Mulders somewhat reclusive nature sat well with me at the time, and still does. The show was brillantly shot, had nice framing and the use of shadows was excellent.
They say perceptions alter over time, but X-Files has always been special to me. I especially like the “monster-of-the-week” – episodes, and I still buy into a lot of the overlying story arch.
In the mid-to late 90’s I started buying the show on LaserDisc. There were two episodes on each disc, with a price of 48USD (converted from 315DKK), but then you also got a collectors card! You can collect them all. I still have all the LaserDiscs!
The show is shot on 35mm from day one, and like Star Trek: The Next Generation, all effects was created on video. This means, that if you want to make a new print from the 35mm original, then you have to redo all the special effects. This, of course, does not include practical effects which was made in real-life. But something like the worm from ‘Ice’ would have to be redone, unless you still have the CGI worm and can superimpose it on the new transfer.
There is also the issue with format. 35mm is 1.33:1 (4:3), so either they shot it open-matte (the whole area) or they used anamorhic lenses. I doubt this, though they used it for the movies to get the 2.35:1 ratio. If they shot it open matte, and they want it to be 16:9 widescreen, they need to reframe the show. This could mean that they crop the top and bottom to force the aspect ratio. All this brings up the concept: why should everything be 16:9 ? In the old days, you chose the aspect ratio from what you wanted to do; in Taxi Driver you have 1.66:1, which is very narrow and claustrophobic. Ben Hur is very wide to get the sweeping widths of the scenery. This 16:9 standardization, one-size-fits-all is problematic. However, if you want the X-Files in HD and all the bells and whistles, 16:9 is the price you pay for sanctuary.
Then there is the issues with IPs (intellectual property). Sure, Night of Living Dead (1968) is public domain, so I can make a game from it, right? Yes, you can, but does that mean that you are allowed to use the actors faces? or the music? Some X-Files episodes in 1993 may have been easy going on these terms, and that could have been kosher back then or nobody cared. Nowadays the landscape may have changed. Look to Nintendo and Disney to see how fiercely they are protecting their IPs. As an example, Segas excellent game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing names Sonic before Sega! In the, even better, follow-up game, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, they removed the Sega name completely. Their IP, Sonic, is better known than the company name.
I understand that not all people love X-Files like I do; and I understand that Star Trek: TNG is better loved, and will sell a lot better. But it was still hard to watch TNG getting all the nice releases.
So let us get on with the comparison. I have chosen one my favorite episodes of the show, season 1’s excellent John Carpenter’s The Thing rip-off, titled “Ice”. I will take screenshots from the HD 1080p version and the standard definition .mkv version. The episode in 1080p is weighing in at a whopping 3GB and the lesser SD is at 500MB.
In the beginning of the episode Mulder, Scully and the rest of the group is standing at the airport. First, we have the SD version (rescaled to a lower resolution, to fit the page)
And the same shot (roughly) in 1080p (rescaled to a lower resolution, to fit the page):
As you can see in the images, they did in fact crop the top and bottom of the original 35mm frame. This makes me cringe, since that means that you are losing information to get 16:9. However, if you look at the sides, you can see that there is a lamp post on the right and you see more of the blue tank on the left. This means that they didn’t use the complete 35mm frame width when sourcing the show to video. You gain information in the sides and lose information in the top and bottom.
I have created a superimposed image. it is not very precise, but will give you the gist. The red box is the 4:3 version, the green is the 16:9 version. You end up losing image in the 16:9 version, but to no great extent. No cinematographer would have a problem with losing such a small amount of picture information. Keep in mind that the frame doesn’t have to be cropped in that exact spot every scene: you could choose to just cut the bottom, for example, if you wanted to show the nice window in the image below.
The next images show the Alaska station. The HD version is more than just reformatting and sharper images. It seems like there has been an effort to improve shadow detail, it looks like a gamma boost has been used. Note how sharp the text is; I cannot figure out if the text is redone. It probably is, with the same font.
Mulder and Scully comparison.
I could state my opinion. But I won’t. I will state the correct answer, which is an universal truth: The 1080p 16:9 edition of The X-Files is the better one. Whether you are new to the show or an old war horse, this is the best thing that could happen to The X-Files. The new transfer from the original 35mm is gorgeous, upping the shadow detail without losing black, producing amazing sharpness and incredible color reproduction. There is also a slight amount of beautiful film grain.
I have seen “Ice” countless times, but this time I noticed the Black Knight 2000 pinball machine in the background (I owned that machine several years ago). The environment where the drama takes place is lifted to a whole new level.
Bottom line, The X-files is an even better show now.
Thanks for reading.