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Blu-Ray Review: Supernatural – The Complete Fourth Season

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Winchesters in Blu-ray? Whoa! [Long pause of stunned silence.] Give me a sec. I need to wipe the drool off my chin.

Anyway, when it came time to do my yearly pre-order with Amazon, I struggled over ordering my first ever Blu-ray set for Supernatural. I wasn't convinced Blu-ray quality compared to broadcast HD would be all that mesmerizing and worth the cost difference over the standard DVDs. I previously bought season one of Chuck on Blu-ray and the results were disappointing. After spending most of the summer debating, my über-techie husband made clear his preference for Blu-ray. Now that I've seen these disks, the hubby is made of win.

A casual viewer may not notice, but for a mega-fan like me who's watched these episodes numerous times and nitpicked every detail, the difference is mind-blowing. Naturally, since my left brain is as curious as the right, I had to know technically why these discs were so superior, especially when Chuck was less than impressive. What I found out is that Supernatural season four took a new adventurous leap in filming technology and the results are making them look pretty smart.

What’s a RED Camera?

The first three seasons of Supernatural were shot on 35mm film. In season four they switched to digital video and decided to go all out, breaking new ground in television cinematography by using the new cutting edge RED digital camera, which films in a digital 4K format. 4K is hardly popular, even though it offers by far the best resolution at 4096 x 2034. This format is four times greater than the 1080p HD standard. Many consider it to be the way of the future, thus Supernatural chose to stay ahead of the game.

Still, 4K is not widely accepted yet, especially in television (I'm still trying to find another show that uses it). Films are slow to adopt it because of distribution issues with movie houses which have to buy all new 4K digital projectors to support it. A lot of TV shows, including Chuck, still use 16mm film. The producers of The Shield recently refused to release their latest season on Blu-ray, stating that with Super 16 cinematography the quality would not be there. Others say it comes out fine, but after seeing what's possible with the Supernatural set, it isn't as good.

Why use digital 4K? It is probably more resolution than a TV show needs right now, but there are many advantages. For one, it’s way cheaper to store long term and distribution is more cost effective. Also, with source material at that high a quality, the studio is not limited to one output format as technology changes and grows more advanced. For example, the current home video high standard is 1080p HD. Should the world eventually transition to 4K players, or even 2K players, Supernatural season four and beyond can be re-released without any degradation in quality. Even with the current lower resolution norm, an image in 4K looks better when taken down to 1080p than shooting directly in that format.

This Supernatural Blu-ray set only comes with four discs. That's because the blue laser, which operates at a wavelength of 405 nm as opposed to the red laser cousin at 650 and 780nm, allows greater storage capacity per disc. Blu-ray is a cheaper alterative for distributors because they need fewer discs and still have plenty of room for bonus material. Still somehow consumers are charged more for Blu-ray sets. Go figure.

What About The Content?

Okay, for those who don't want to read the technical manual, how did Supernatural season four translate when I actually put the DVDs in the player? Awesome. I really enjoyed this year’s set, so much more than last year’s. However, I had the right tools needed for such a comparison. There’s a common misconception that all one has to do is get a Blu-ray player, hook it up to the TV, and you’re good to go. Sadly, that’s not the case. This disc looks amazing on my Hitachi 42” plasma TV that has been properly calibrated for higher definition formats, but on my Samsung widescreen TV there isn’t much of a difference. Actually, the picture quality is so inferior that a new TV to replace the Samsung is now on the wish list.

When it comes to the actual material, I didn't notice much of a difference in season four compared to the other seasons thematically, which is good. It still felt like it the same show, despite the new cameras. RED cameras have the same depth-of-field control that 35mm cameras have and can use many of the same lenses. The same grainy quality is there too, a choice that’s deliberate. The tone of this show is gritty and dark and a cleaned up digital picture often gets complaints from viewers that it looks too fake and computerized. You don’t exactly want your horror show looking bright and colorful like Pushing Daisies.

The close-up shots on Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, a trademark for this show, are far more vivid in Blu-ray when each come into focus. There isn't a flaw on the boys' faces (except for the intentional cuts and bruises after a fight scene) and I give makeup tons of credit for that. Action, visual effects, and, yes, even the crying are better too because they are more defined. Those tears that go down Jensen’s face, you can see them glisten! Heck, even the Warner Brothers logo practically smacks you in the face. Granted the differences in many places are marginal, especially the darker scenes, but again, this is a horror show.

One scene that absolutely blows me away comes from "Jump The Shark," with the full shot of the Impala sitting next to the lake. Whoa. When Blu-ray is at its best, it's even better than being there. I paused that scene and used it as spectacular wallpaper for my living room. I don't remember that shot being as glorious when I saw it on TV. Ditto for the ending scene in “Wishful Thinking,” although it could be considered a bad thing that the stunning picture quality distracts me from Dean’s heartbreaking confession about Hell.

The menu options are different. It's not necessarily worse, just different. Gone is the pop-up main menu that loops the closing credits theme over and over again until you finally put words to it and sing along. Blu-ray jumps right into the first episode and you have to be savvy enough to find the right button on the remote to bring up the menu on the bottom. It is set by default to skip the opening "THEN" segments, so that has to be changed on the menu with each viewing.

As for the other extras, don't expect Blu-ray quality on all of these. That doesn't make them any less enjoyable though. For one, the features use clips from the entire season. Season three’s collections didn’t go much beyond “Jus In Bello.” I’m sure the writers' strike had a lot to do with that though. I absolutely love the fact that the full episode commentaries are back, even though they only happen for three episodes. Considering those episodes are “In The Beginning,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and “Lucifer Rising” (three of the strongest episodes of the season) the information revealed in them is a huge treat. They offer so much more than the short commentary snippets from last year.

This year's gag reel is better than last year's because it’s longer and possibly better than season two's as well (season one still wins though). Maybe because I've never laughed harder at watching Jared Padalecki's impromptu and totally hilarious dance routine in front of the creepy theatre in "Monster Movie." It's even in black and white, which somehow makes it funnier. The gag reel also again shows how much of a good time these guys have together, which delights just about every fan.

Also fascinating is the amount of preparation and information shared in the three-part documentary, The Mythologies of Supernatural: From Heaven To Hell. They manage to get expert testimony from those who represent many varieties of faith: Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and even paranormal investigators. Given the huge mixed bag out there on stories and scripture involving angels, God, Lucifer, demons, purgatory, and even legends like sirens, no wonder Supernatural is able to carve out its own niche and not be proven wrong. There doesn’t seem to be a right.

The extended and deleted scenes once again prove why they were removed and edited to begin with. The only scene I wish they kept came from “Lucifer Rising,” when Chuck asks Castiel why he chose to help Dean. Castiel’s reasoning comes from something Dean always says, “What the hell.” Yeah, I was on the ground with the rest of you that saw that, holding my sides too.

So, if you think the Winchesters looked amazing in HD broadcast, Blu-ray won't disappoint (assuming you have a player and good TV which are coming down in price all the time). Just from what I read about the technology, anyone who has season three's Blu-ray set should be more impressed with this year's. That's only a theory though. Now I have to buy season three in Blu-ray to prove it. Hmm, sounds like a really tough exercise.

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About Alice Jester

  • Wanghis Khan

    thanks… i was just wondering about which version to get… also, do you know if the future dvds of dexter would be in this format? that should would be worth it, too

  • James Howard

    Nothings compares to 35mm film,digital video 4k still being video and never,never have the quality and texture of film.If you want “the look of film” is easy…as steven spielbeg says…DO IT ON FILM,digital,red one and others are just an imitation.
    A professional cinematographer.