Slayers and Horrors of HD Remastering

Buffy and Angel’s Inept Journey to High Definition

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution and development of graphics in digital media. Today we’ll be examining the television effects of the late ’90s, as exemplified by the series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and Angel, its later spin off series. We’re also going to touch on the absolute mishandling of the remaster…


Back in the ancient times of 1997, American television was graced with a monster-slaying teenage drama the likes of which had never been seen before or since. A show that is responsible for many tropes of television and film, and which holds a dear place in the hearts of nerd kind: Buffy the Vampire Slayer [ 1 ].  Created by Joss Whedon, this series was based upon the movie of the same name [ 2 ], which was written by Whedon. The show (and movie) is about a valley girl named Buffy who discovers her destiny as a slayer of vampires and other evil forces. It’s a very camp-filled ’90s show that hit a certain sweet spot of teenage drama, supernatural wonder, comedic charm, and sexual tension. While it is by no means a masterpiece of art, there is a lot that this show did with practical and digital effects that is worth looking at. Likewise, the spin-off Angel [ 3 ] built upon the success of this show, and its effects are a further refinement of that process. Given the success of both shows, how they achieved their effects are something worth looking at.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

As with many shows of the ’90s, Buffy’s start was slightly rough in terms of pacing, but its practical effects were decent, even in the first few episodes. Naturally, one of the main features of the show is its vampires, most often as villains, but with some exceptions of reluctant allies like Spike, or the one truly good vampire, Angel. Each vampire has a regular mode with no makeup and a full vampire mode that uses practical makeup effects. Usually, this face is characterized by larger brows, exaggerated facial lines forming a permanent scowl, colored contact lenses, and of course, fangs [ 4 ]. Most of the time, the transition between these faces is done just out of frame, using a tried-and-true method of editing film together to achieve the transformation effect, but there is also a CGI transition between the two. This is done reservedly, but it is done rather well, with a speedy blending of the actor’s normal face and their vampiric face. Some transitions later in the show, such as with Angel, are slightly slowed down, bringing a more visceral feeling to the transformation. Practical effects remain the primary method of delivering the supernatural creatures in the show, mostly for budgetary reasons. In fact, the primary reason that vampires are “dusted” when staked, including clothes, is due to this budgetary constraint, as having the clothes fall empty to the ground would have been more expensive to shoot [ 5 ]. This dusting method remained in the spin-off, Angel, and is one of the defining aspects of the “Buffyverse,” as well as having effects upon external media featuring vampires. 

While the first season of the show didn’t go overboard with its CGI, there were still some interesting effects, such as the barrier that holds The Master, big bad of the first season, in check [ 6 ]. As the show ran for six years, there was a slow improvement in the overall visual effects, owing to the improving technology of the early 2000s. The threats grew in scope as well, introducing powerful demons for Buffy and crew to battle against. The landmark episode Once More, with Feeling, apart from having some of the more fun CGI effects in it, such as the musical demon being able to remove his own mouth with sleight of hand, sparked the idea of the “musical” episode that many television shows copied [ 7 ]. The season finales in particular pull out as many stops as they can in the CGI department to give the expected payoff of the season build-up.

The absolutely disastrous “remaster” of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in HD reveals how little effort went into making the show presentable, resulting in an upscaled mess where crew members are often seen in shots.

Angel, as one might expect, built upon the success of its parent show, with better practical effects and better CGI, with some episodes featuring more spectacular vampire deaths, such as Season 1 Episode 1, when Angel kicks his vampiric foe out of a window, and he erupts into flames on his way down [ 8 ]. The practical makeup effects are heavily increased during Season 2, with the introduction of Caritas, the demon karaoke bar, and its eccentric owner, Lorne, a demon who can read auras when someone sings [ 9 ]. The various kinds of demons have different appearances, alongside other kinds of supernatural creatures that are featured in it. Angel is a more matured show, while it still brings a good amount of camp and humor to its episodes. I mean, when you have a demonic karaoke bar in your show, you are absolutely inviting many avenues of humor. Plus, the surreal champion joust towards the end of “Judgement” might break the suspension of disbelief completely, had this show and its predecessor not established that this sort of thing is “normal” in-universe [ 9 ]. This show ultimately had a shorter run, but still managed to showcase a good combination of practical effects and CGI that the first show pioneered, adding its own flavor to the “Buffyverse.” Even in its first season, we got quite a feast for the eyes in the finale, with a massive explosion destroying the building that the gang was using as their headquarters (as well as Angel’s apartment), and a “spirit” effect for the now slain Oracles that Angel was going to for guidance [ 10 ]. The show continues to display a great combination of practical and digital effects through all its seasons, particularly in its season finales, which it also picked up from its predecessor show (it does involve a lot of the same writers and directors, after all).

The Remastering

This long-beloved piece of late ’90s television has been long wanting a digital remastering for its longtime fans. In recent years, that process has finally been taken up, but unfortunately, so far, it has been mishandled beyond incompetence.

While I am far from the first person to level criticisms on the remastering of the classic show, it’s worth the effort, in my mind, to take this horrible implementation of a remastering process to task. It has been said that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that is certainly the case with a show as beloved as Buffy. The fact that someone—multiple people in fact—were paid to deliver such a hacked-up product, while par for the course in capitalism, is infuriating. Particularly where such a beloved show is concerned, extra care should have been taken to ensure that the original vision was preserved and properly improved. This is something people have wanted for a long time, and would absolutely buy, but in this iteration? It’s a travesty. Okay, enough ranting; let’s get to it.

Off to a Bad Start: 4:3 Into 16:9

As we begin this slog, our first critique must naturally be about the attempt to change the show’s visual formatting from the smaller 4:3 aspect ratio into the larger and more modern 16:9 ratio. Naturally, there is a desire when it comes to modern remastering of older shows to give us more of it. There is, however, a serious problem where old television is concerned, and that is that it was made specifically for a 4:3 formatted home screen. Back before large screen televisions were commonplace, showrunners had to keep the small screen in mind for their broadcasts, fitting what they could into the frame. This smaller resolution meant quite plainly that less could be shown, so what you did show had to be important to the scene. Action shots needed to be considered more carefully so as not to miss key motions.

Like Buffy, its spin-off series Angel aired in a 4:3 standard definition aspect ratio. “Upgrading” the footage to 19:6 high definition reveals issues like the titular Angel, a vampire, with a clearly visible reflection in a gym mirror.

Trying to upscale a 4:3 show into 16:9 is possible because most television cameras do in fact shoot in 16:9 and are scaled down for the eventual broadcast. Scaling the film up, however, is not always desirable. In some cases, there are things outside the 4:3 framed shot that should not be visible in the final product, like off-set areas or crew. This is absolutely the case in at least one episode of Buffy, where the remastered version shows other parts of the film crew that were supposed to be off screen but are now visible thanks to the upscaling [ 11 ]. Other episodes contain shots that show lighting and sound equipment that was supposed to be out of frame, so it’s not an isolated incident. 

To add insult to injury, there are a small number of these frame “goofs” that were “corrected”—that is, if you can call zooming into the shot to cut out the excess without fixing the resolution, resulting in the image being low definition once again, a fix [ 11 ]. Other problems with this change in resolution include cropping out parts of the shot that were originally there [ 12 ][ 13 ]. Comparing the original broadcasts to the remastered episodes, there are so many changes to what is—and is not—included in the frames that listing them all here would be a bit ridiculous. Sometimes characters that were out of frame are now in frame, and their dialogue doesn’t match what their face is doing in that frame. Other times, half of the scene or more is no longer visible in the shot, to the point that parts of the actors’ bodies are cut out of the shot as well. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of guiding principle behind these various cuts, crops, and zoom outs. It’s as if someone threw darts at a board to determine how they would edit the shots.

This same issue appears again in the remastered version of Angel, where the show was originally filmed in 16:9, but cropped for 4:3, and there were certain show effects that actually depended on this ratio, such as in Season 2 Episode 1, where the crew is in a mirrored gym, and the titular character, Angel, is off frame, as the shot focuses on the mirror, and is shown later in the shot, to play in the idea of vampires having no reflection. In the remaster, you can clearly see the actor in the widened frame, ruining the effect [ 9 ].

The show creator, Joss Whedon, is on the record as stating that he doesn’t want Buffy to be 16:9. In a tweet from Dec. 13, 2014, he stated “Buffy was shot in 4×3 cuz TVs were shaped that way. Widescreen Buffy is nonsense. (Firefly was shot wide—Fox cropped it.) #aspectratiowoes” [ 14 ]. I’m inclined to agree with that thought, regarding both shows, especially given how poorly the show cropping and resolution have been handled thus far.

Color Correction, or The Lack Thereof

Another important aspect for any remaster, one which I have talked about before, is color correction. This is the process of taking the original film and altering the coloring to change the visual presentation of a scene. This change can influence the overall mood of the scene, and can also change basic aspects of it, like making a daytime shot appear as though it is a nighttime shot. Indeed, in Buffy, there are instances of this all over the place, as basically every episode contains some level of color correction.

As if the awful issues with aspect ratio differences weren’t enough, the tasteless lack of color correction in the “remastered” Buffy footage reveals just why color correction is so important in the first place.

So, when it comes time for the remaster, and the remastering team must go back to the original film and re-apply the correction, what do you think they did? If your thought was “Surely they took care to correct the colors as necessary,” you’d be sadly wrong. It seems that the new team either ignored color correction completely or decided to add their own filters. For example, in the episode Anne (Season 3, Ep. 1), there is a scene that is supposed to contain a sunset. However, without the proper color correction, the scene looks very washed out and white, like a cloudy mid-day, rather than a sunset [ 15 ]. In other episodes, new coloring filters take place of the old, changing a scene from dark to orange, or pink-hued.

In addition to the color corrections, there are several issues with the overall brightness of the HD remaster. In Season 1, Episode 7, titled Angel, there is a scene in a bedroom that is supposed to take place at night, but the brightness in the HD remaster makes the scene look as though it is taking place during the day—which is a problem for one of the characters in this scene, namely Angel the vampire [ 16 ]. This brightness issue is present in other episodes as well, causing many scenes to look far too bright, and some scene transitions to make no sense, as a previous scene was very bright, and the transitioned-to scene that takes place in the same general area is very dark, such as Season 3, Episode 15, Consequences [ 16 ]. Brightness and coloring in individual episodes is far more important than most people might realize, and that importance is sadly highlighted in these mishandled processes.

Special Effects—When You Just Can’t Stop Being Lazy

When it comes to special effects from old television, there is an easy solution, at least compared to other issues with old film. Special effects are, naturally, added to the film in post-production, meaning that you can go back and change special effects later if you wish, making them better than their original implementations. This sort of special effect remastering is present in classic shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation. That show had great care and detail given to its special effects overall, and its remastered version is considered one of the best. Yes, this is a lot of work for any special effects team to go back through every episode where a special effect is present and redo it, but to present the proper artistic vision of the show, it is what should be done. 

Sadly, Buffy does not have such care given to its special effects. Some of them in Seasons 1 and 2 have, in fact, been redone. However, the special effects that have not been touched have, instead, been up-scaled, which means that the effects have been literally blown up or zoomed-in-on. This up-scaling has two terrible effects, the first being that it just makes the original special effect look worse than when it was originally aired. It’s like if you took a picture in low definition and just zoomed in on it. The second effect is that when you zoom in on a special effect, you are in effect cropping the scene, even more than it was already cropped for this remaster [ 11 ]. Imagine, if you would, the iconic teleportation special effects from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You’ve probably seen at least the remastered version of this effect, if not the original show, or maybe even the effect from the many TNG movies. Now imagine that, instead of remastering that effect for higher resolutions, it was just zoomed-in-on, or blown up, to match the newer resolution. It would probably look grainy and worse than the original effect, wouldn’t it? Now imagine that happened every time someone was teleported for an entire season of the show. That would be horrible, right? I think so, and not just Buffy, but really any show that is going to be remastered deserves more than that.

Thanks, I Hate It

Hardcore fans of Buffy aren’t the only folks who have cause to complain here. Members of the original Mutant Enemy production team have expressed their discontent with the handling of the remaster of this classic show. Michael Gershman, then director of photography, said:

“It’s a shame to have all of my work thrown in the garbage. I tried to give Buffy a texture that would turn a teenybopper show into a serious dramatic presentation. Alas, once any piece of art leaves the artists hands, control is lost. Sorry everyone can’t see the work in its original incarnation[ 11 ].”

Producer and writer Steven DeKnight tweeted: “Somebody should be indicted…” [ 17 ].  Stunt Coordinator Jeff Purit said: 

“Mike Gershman (our Director of Photography) worked extremely hard to create a dark look for the show and the people who did this transfer really ruined that. Not only did the darkness help to hide stunt doubles, but it gave the show a creepy feel that was needed to carry the stories forward. They should have consulted him about this. I’m not trying to put anyone down here. I’m only saying that turning over color correction to a gang of spider monkeys is not the way I would go. They don’t seem to care about the look of anything and they leave the room smelling like monkey urine. Just sayin’. 🙂[ 11 ].”

From these reactions from the original team, and the evidence of our own eyes, it’s easy enough to see that the remastering of Buffy has been so poorly implemented that the only possible restitution is to have the process redone entirely. At the time of writing, Disney owns the rights to the show, so they are our only hope to have this travesty corrected. A show as impactful, and as important, as Buffy deserved the care given to other shows with such a cultural significance to television and film.

Before we close, there is an additional aspect of remastering that I think we should touch on, that is relevant to this show: authorial intent and creative control. We live in an age of extremely complicated copyright laws (which hopefully at some point will be cut down into something more reasonable), contractual agreements, and conflicting desires when it comes to what a director or team of show runners wants and what the corporate body financing the show wants. I’ve touched on how remasters and remakes can run afoul of becoming the “never finished masterpiece,” where a director or studio wants to keep changing things over and over ad nauseum, with directors wanting to alter their original art to reflect what they see as their definitive artistic vision, and studios wanting to keep making more money from “special” and “enhanced” editions of the same product. This remaster of an iconic show is an example of the latter. The original showrunners didn’t get a say when it came time to remaster this beloved show; given their quite vocal critiques and oppositions to what has been done with the remaster, we could say with some certainty that they would have done things differently. 

Whether or not it would have been solely Joss Whedon or some combination of the original Mutant Enemy team, we can’t say for sure, but we can say that these collaborative creators would have taken much more care for the show they put so much work into. Another bit of damning evidence against Fox, which has quite the sordid history with Whedon and his shows, is that other shows that were filmed at or around the same time as Buffy on that network have not been handled this poorly. This, even more, makes it look like Fox was just trying to cash in on the fame and success of Buffy without giving any care for the remastering of the show. At time of writing, there is a concentrated fan effort to get Disney to notice the poor handling of this show and take it up for another go at remastering. We can only hope that the monolithic mouse takes notice and agrees with the fans.

Remastering and Preservation

The other related topic, which I have touched upon in other articles, is the idea of the preservation of media. While I don’t think anyone could argue that a well-executed remastering of a series of movies is a net positive, there still needs to be due consideration given to the original visual presentation of that media. There is a context that can be easily missed if all we ever see is the shiny, new and improved version of our visual media, that context being the technical limitations of the time, and how those were either worked around or overcome in order to produce a coherent visual presentation that, at least somewhat represented what the creators of that media had in mind. People can become very creative, even with the simplest of tools at their disposal, and this is something we clearly see in the original showing of Buffy. The use of proper color filtering and lighting effects gave some scenes that extra gothic feeling that they needed to sell the practical effects of their supernatural creatures. What was left out of the 4:3 frame, which is mostly things never intended to be seen by the audience, kept the suspension of disbelief going, and forced a certain kind of creativity with how every shot was framed, so that important action, dialogue, and set pieces wouldn’t be missed. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and we can certainly see that come through in Buffy and even Angel, not to mention other shows of the same era. These shows carved a path for others to follow in terms of their visual presentation, and that should be something we don’t take for granted.

Images:

  1. “The absolutely disastrous ‘remaster’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in HD reveals how little effort went into making the show presentable, resulting in an upscaled mess where crew members are often seen in shots.” James, Emily st. “Fox Is Remastering Buffy in HD — and Now There Are Crew Members in Shots.” Vox, 29 Jan. 2015, www.vox.com/2014/12/12/7385261/buffy-ruined
  2. “Like Buffy, its spin-off series Angel aired in a 4:3 standard definition aspect ratio. ‘Upgrading’ the footage to 19:6 high definition reveals issues like the titular Angel, a vampire, with a clearly visible reflection in a gym mirror. ” “Angel Aspect Ratio ‘Mistake.’” Imgur, imgur.com/gallery/f1MKFxt
  3. “As if the awful issues with aspect ratio differences weren’t enough, the tasteless lack of color correction in the ‘remastered’ Buffy footage reveals just why color correction is so important inthe first place.” Herieau, Kévin. “Buffy in HD: Issues and Original Team’s Reactions.” HorrorBuzz, 3 Dec. 2016, www.horrorbuzz.com/episodes/buffy-hd-issues-original-teams-reactions

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