Why Old Movies Look Better in 4k

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Have you ever wondered why old movies often look better in 4k than new ones?

Many people are perplexed why this is, HD technology did not even exist when many of these movies were made, how could they possibly look better than the new movies that use state-of-the-art technology?

There are two reasons why old movies look better in 4k:

For starters, older movies were shot on film cameras, which display more detailed images than digital cameras.

They also look better because there was no Computer-generated imagery back then, artists relied on practical effects which look much better in 4k.

In this blog post, I will further explain in more detail why older movies are often of higher image quality than new ones on 4k Blu-ray.

I will also recommend some older movies you should buy on 4K Blu-Ray.

Why Older Films Look Better in 4k


4k transfers/restorations are giving old movies a brand new life.

In most cases, the 4k Blu-ray editions of these films are of better picture quality than when they were projected in theaters with added grain reduction, color correction, and high dynamic range.

Your average older film even in the most pristine 35 mm print is not likely to even reach 2k resolution.

One of the reasons film transfers do so well to 4k Blu-ray is because film has more detail to the image, I will explain this further below.

Film adds more detail than digital

Analog film can be transferred to any technology available that can process the given images on a film reel.

Film does not experience the same limitations in pixel count as digital, 35 mm film (when digitally transferred) has as much if not more detail than a digitally shot 4k image.

16 mm film can be digitally transferred at about 2 million pixels, 35 mm can be digitally transferred at about 10-20 million pixels (4k level or above) and 65-70mm movies can get to 8k resolution or above.

When working with 35 mm film the director and other crew members have to downscale the image quality for 4k Blu-ray because the resolution is so high.

Digital 4k movies do not move the needle most of the time


In contrast, most movies shot with digital cameras are shot in 2k and will later be upscaled to 4k when they are released on 4k Blu-ray.

This is less than ideal as a 2k upscale to 4k is not noticeable to the untrained eye.

Most people will not be able to tell the difference in quality between the 1080p Blu-ray version of the movie and the 4k when this occurs.

However, there are some instances when buying a 4k Blu-Ray that was originally shot in 2k is worth it. Mad Max Fury Road certainly comes to mind.

Although it is not true 4k the HDR or high dynamic range in the film is stellar as you get a wider color gamut and more enhanced color contrast.

You also get better audio with a 4K disc as that film comes with a Dolby Atmos track.

Mad Max Fury Road is not the only film that falls into this category, I will mention more below.

Top 3 2K Upscales

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CGI/Visual effects are often not re-rendered

Most visual effects today are rendered in 2k as it is too cost-prohibitive to render them at 4k.

It also takes 4 times as long to render visual effects in 4k.

Because of this, the studio is stuck having to keep these effects at a lower resolution.

Or what they usually choose to do is upscale the image to 4k, which is a last-ditch resort that often produces mixed results in regards to sharpening the image.

Upscaling a 2k digital image to 4k does not provide much added benefit as we discussed before.

The people involved with the 4k Blu-ray process also have the choice to upscale all of the live-action/non-CGI scenes to 4k while keeping all the CGI scenes at 2k but this is not a good idea.


Upscaling a CGI-heavy movie to 4k can look terrible

Rendering CGI in 2k and everything else in 4k makes for a quite jarring experience and you can definitely tell how bad it looks.

A 2k CGI shot contrasted with a live-action 4k image stands out like a sore thumb.

HDR or high dynamic range can also expose visual effects due to its ability to heighten the contrast between lights and darks.

However, HDR and enhanced color grading can salvage CGI-heavy movies by adding color depth. Examples of this are films like Blade Runner 2049 (affiliate link), Dune, and 1917.

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On the other hand films with practical effects and minimal CGI look much better in 4k because there is no upscaling or rendering involved because the effects are not digital.

Example: Star Wars Prequels

4k movies produced by Disney often look terrible.

A great example of this is the Star Wars prequels.

All these visual effects were rendered in 2k and were shot with digital cameras that at the time could not produce 4k images.

Disney upscaled the 2k images to 4k for the 4k Blu-ray edition and it resulted in a very underwhelming 4k transfer.

Although HDR added improved contrast many believe the standard Blu-ray edition of the prequels is a better option than the 4k.

The prequels were a perfect example of a 4k transfer that made no sense and wasn’t needed.

Do not underestimate older movies on 4k blu ray

The lesson here is that do not underestimate old movies on 4k Blu-ray.

There is a common misconception that old movies will look terrible on Blu-ray because they did not even have HD technology when those films were made.

As you have learned from this post that is nowhere near the truth.

The bigger misconception is that the best movies on 4k are the newest blockbusters that utilize an enormous amount of visual effects.

One of the reasons 4K Blu-Ray will continue to prosper is because they have a massive catalog of films they can digitally transfer from their original film negative.

I wrote an article discussing in more detail why 4K Blu Ray is not dying if you are interested.

Choose wisely

A general rule of thumb is to go to IMDB.com and check the technical specifications for the film you want to purchase in 4k. Was it shot with 35 or 70mm film?

If it was shot in digital was it shot with a 4k camera? Also, make sure to look at review sites or watch YouTube videos that give a detailed analysis of the quality of the disc.

Some of the best 4k blu rays are older films

Some of the best 4k Blu-rays of all time have been older films. Films like Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, The Godfather, Wizard of oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Ben Hur, The Shining, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Vertigo are great discs to put into your blu ray player.

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