The Sacrifice Redux

This article is a companion piece to the comparison/review of the three DVDs of The Sacrifice currently available: The Kino on Video version (R1/NTSC), the Artificial Eye version (R2/PAL), and the Cinefil/Imagica version (R2/NTSC). We attempt to show that no acceptable version of The Sacrifice exists on DVD as of this writing (October 2003). We wish to acknowledge valuable contributions by Steffen Bieker, Keith Rose, Kimitoshi Sato, Per-Olof Strandberg, and the

MARCH 2004 UPDATE: A new master has been produced by the Swedish Film Institute. The quality of the resulting Region 2/PAL disc is superb, and is now our DVD of choice. See DVDBeaver's comparison. Most problem areas have been dealt with. For example, this frame — ruined on all previous DVD versions of Offret, as shown below— looks like this on SFI's new disc. The only drawbacks: non-anamorphic transfer, slight horizontal cropping, and disappointingly low on bonus materials considering the wealth of material available in SFI archives. But, highly recommended as the best Offret DVD to date. See also our February 6, 2004 newsbrief.

Brightness and contrast issues

Shortly after the very first release of The Sacrifice on DVD, by Kino on Video, we started receiving concerned letters from some of our readers — a common complaint was that the color temperature was seemingly "off." When Artificial Eye subsequently released their own version of the film, it became clear that it too suffered from the same suspected problem. To illustrate, take the following scene, where we show a screenshot from the Kino release on the left and the corresponding frame from the Artificial Eye release on the right; they look virtually identical:

The Sacrifice, Kino, U.S.A. (R1/NTSC/Letterboxed) The Sacrifice, Artificial Eye, U.K. (R2/PAL/Anamorphic)

The problem here is that this is not what many of us remember seeing in the theatre... A somewhat darker and more muted tone would seem more appropriate in this scene. For the longest time, the only "proof" of this (beyond vague memories from having once seen it in the theatre) was that Michal Leszczylowski's documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, included on both discs, in quoting this exact scene reproduces it as follows:

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Kino, U.S.A. (R1/NTSC/Letterboxed) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Artificial Eye, U.K. (R2/PAL/Letterboxed)

This is closer to the correct atmosphere, but it does seem to be a bit too much on the dark side — not surprising since it is after all a mere quote within the context of a larger documentary and no effort has presumably been put into faithfully representing the scene. Enter the Japanese Cinefil/Imagica release. The Japanese, in our books famous for their attention to detail, actually appear to have gotten the color temperature spot-on:

The Sacrifice, Cinefil/Imagica, Japan (R2/NTSC/Letterboxed) The Sacrifice, NHK TV broadcast August 20 1993, Japan (Letterboxed)

Many would agree that the above left screenshot is closest to what they observed when seeing the film in the theatre. (Shown on the right, for reference purposes, is a screengrab from a Japanese TV broadcast.)

This awful luminosity/contrast-boosting seen on the Kino and Artificial Eye releases has another unfortunate side effect: a loss of image detail due to the finite dynamic range of the medium. The following image pair shows, as just one example, how the Japanese release faithfully reproduces the out-of-focus TV antenna on the roof of the house (left), while the Kino and Artificial Eye DVDs show no antenna at all (right). Also note the tree branches. This is clearly unacceptable treatment of a work of Art. (Click on images for larger versions.)

Cinefil/Imagica, Japan (R2/NTSC/Letterboxed). Note the beautifully balanced color tones, perfectly preserving Tarkovsky/Nykvist's painstakingly applied color reduction technique. Frame as shown by both Artificial Eye (R2/PAL) and Kino (R1/NTSC). A total lack of balance; luminosity has been pushed beyond the saturation point and clipping has set in.

If the Japanese version had come in an anamorphic transfer this would indeed have been the ultimate The Sacrifice DVD, from an image-quality point of view. It is, regrettably, letterboxed. Neither does it carry English subtitles. Moreover, among the three discs discussed, it is the only one to suffer from PAL-speedup (the film runs 4% too fast). Only the Artificial Eye DVD has an anamorphic transfer of the film; the encoding is however seriously flawed, in certain cases actually rendering the film less well-defined (i.e., more blurry) than its non-anamorphic counterpart from Kino on Video. This is the topic of our next section.

Video encoding problems

Look closely at the screenshot from the anamorphic Artificial Eye DVD on the left. Several individuals have independently sent us similar screenshots. If you have a good monitor you'll notice that there is something seriously wrong here, presumably with the disc's video encoding. Note the horizontal lines streaking through the image. The effect can be artificially suppressed somewhat by enabling the "BOB" filter when using DVD-playing software. It can also be suppressed by watching the movie on a non-progressive scan TV-set. But none of these solutions are really acceptable. This graphic shows the credits, progressive vs. interlaced. The problem does appear less apparent, by virtue of being more "blurred-out," in interlaced mode. This may explain the fact that a common complaint, among those who do not own a progressive scan DVD player and TV, is that "the Artificial Eye transfer is very blurry." The next set of graphics (submitted by Steffen Bieker of Germany) show some further examples of this phenomenon.

Note the split branches! Click, and scroll down. Progressive scan on left. De-interlaced on right. Click to enlarge.

When asked to comment on the issue, Artificial Eye stated that they had used a brand new DigiBeta copy recently obtained from the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), and that if there should be a problem with the disc, the blame would reside with the SFI. The SFI has stated, on at least one occasion, that nothing could possibly be wrong with the DigiBeta that was delivered to AE, as the master tape has been made at SFI's very best laboratory facility, using only the best in modern technology, and that it would be next to impossible to further improve upon it. Artificial Eye and the Swedish Film Institute are thus pointing the finger at each other, and, as it stands now, we do not know who is at fault...

Flawed source elements

All three DVDs discussed in this article originate from the same negative. The film elements used are in a rather bad shape, and it shows. There is no evidence of digital clean-up whatsoever. The rather egregious film-sourced anomaly shown on the left is just one example (click to enlarge). What you see here is a tape splice. It is white, so it must be in the negative. The straight lines are from the edge of the tape, one piece on each side of the print. It is apparently a rather cheap tape: the busy, schmutzy stuff is adhesive that has oozed out the edge and been pushed around. The frame immediately prior to this frame contains the matching mark from the other end of the tape splice. All three DVDs exhibit the same splice. This, and numerous other blemishes, could easily have been cleaned up prior to DVD mastering. The film is, in our albeit somewhat biased opinion, most certainly worth such an additional effort. (Footnote on the screenshot shown here: This book on Russian icon painting which Alexander receives as a gift in the film is Michail Vladimirovic Alpatov's Ryskt Ikonmåleri (Russian Icon Painting). This particular Swedish edition was published in 1984 on Gidlunds Förlag. 330 pages, 203 colour plates, captions in Russian and Swedish, format 34.5 cm x 27 cm. ISBN 91-7021-433-6 (hardbound). Search for a used copy using the search engine).


It does in actual fact not require a significant effort to get any film made within the past 20 years to DVD without such artifacts, glitches and flaws. Nevertheless, here we are today without a single satisfactory DVD version of Tarkovsky's most recent film. The good news is that the SFI is currently (autumn 2003) in the process of re-mastering The Sacrifice for DVD. If anyone is in a position to create the Ultimate Offret DVD (maybe even a Box Set — one may dream), it would surely be the Swedish Film Institute. We are looking forward to this upcoming release of Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice with breathless anticipation. [SEE MARCH 4 2004 UPDATE IN PREAMBLE]  end block
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