Stargate SG-1 is one of the greatest science fiction shows of all time. It has terrific characters and amazing world-building, with top-notch writing and beautiful production design. Even the visual effects hold up well some two decades later.
But in today’s era of high-definition video and 4K Ultra HD televisions, Stargate also shows its age. The series premiered in 1997, when broadcast standards called for standard definition 480p video and 4:3 aspect ratios. That’s also what fans own at home: MGM has put out the show on DVD three times in North America, but never on Blu-ray. Today the SD copies of our favorite episodes can look a bit … well, muddy.
But what if Stargate SG-1 could be remastered in HD? How good could this show look, with the right tools and a bit of investment from MGM?
One fan by the name of “CaptRobau” set out to answer that question. He used the Gigapixel AI upscaling tool, which uses machine learning to interpolate missing pixel data and smooth and sharpen images. (Gigapixel maker Topaz Labs has a free online tool for testing its upscaling on short clips.)
The difference is best seen on a 4K display in 1080p, if you have that option. And watching the video below on a mobile device will make it harder to see the improvements, since the smaller screen doesn’t need as much image data to produce a sharp picture. But check out the results:
The results of CaptRobau’s preliminary tests on Stargate are mixed. As he states, the source material for Seasons One through Three has quite a lot of grain — resulting in a good deal of visual noise being upscaled along with the shot elements. (These seasons were reportedly shot on 16mm film.)
With Season Three or Four the production studio switched to 35mm film, and the AI upscaling results get steadily better as the source material improves. There is less noise in clips from Seasons Four and Five, and less still in Seasons Six and Seven.
Although Seasons Eight, Nine, and Ten were filmed in digital HD it’s not clear that CaptRobau made use of the 720p copies available online. More likely is that the converted material here is, like earlier seasons, the 480p SD edition pulled from the DVD releases. These look pretty good — but the upscaling certainly doesn’t reach the quality of the 720p versions from the studio. In these later episodes the upscaled images thus show less overall improvement, more closely matching the original.
Overall the AI upscaling software seems to do better with static and close shots, especially close-ups on an actor. Edges are sharper and facial features are more crisp. But shots with significant motion, or at a long distance, did not see much improvement. That seems to be especially the case with complex VFX shots, such as the Stargate falling into the Vorash star in “Exodus,” or the dragon in Season Ten’s “The Quest.”
The assembled ground forces of the Goa’uld appear noticeably sharper in “Summit,” being largely stationary. But notice that the moving troop transport ship at the top of the image doesn’t see as much improvement over the SD picture.
Skin textures certainly look visually sharper thanks to the interpolated pixels — but the AI rendering also tends to make skin appear finely pixelated. The result is an image that is certainly sharper than the fuzzy SD image, but still a bit “off” for viewers who have become accustomed to seeing true skin textures in HD.
“The quality of the source material is everything,” CaptRobau says. “Some seasons gave much better results for certain types of shots than other seasons.”
Should MGM be interested in investing in a proper remastering of the series, on the other hand, they would of course come to the project with more resources — including the original film that Stargate SG-1 was shot on. The series moved to digital cameras only in Season Eight. (That’s why only the final three seasons are available in 720p HD from online streaming services.)
So what would it take for the studio to bring the entire series into the HD era?
FEASABILITY (AND STAR TREK)
Digital upscaling alone would be only a half measure, which the studio perhaps is not eager to take. This appears to be the route that Farscape took, making for a Blu-ray set (and, starting this year, HD streaming online) that looks much better than the original … but still a ways off from high-def standards for modern productions.
This certainly does seem to be an option. But a complete, top-down remastering of Stargate SG-1 would entail a much larger investment, perhaps even going back to the original 16mm and 35mm film and recutting every episode shot-for-shot (as was done for the 2009 release of Children of the Gods: Final Cut). Most of the show’s computer-generated visual effects sequences would also likely need to be redone from scratch, as Paramount did with its HD remasters of Star Trek (2006) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (2012).
There’s also the need to remaster the audio for each episode, ideally bringing it up to the current standard of 7.1 digital HD surround sound.
That’s a multi-million dollar investment for the studio, essentially requiring that the 154 episodes of the show’s first seven seasons (minus the already remastered pilot movie) go through the post-production process all over again. That’s not just an upscaling project; it’s also negative transferring, editing, visual and sound effects, score, and color timing. The ultimate question for the studio, of course, is whether there is enough appetite in the market for such a project to turn a profit.
Notably, Paramount itself found that its physical disc sales of the remastered TNG didn’t meet its projections — due in part to the rise of streaming media. In 2017 producer Robert Meyer Burnett estimated that it would take something close to four years and $20 million to remaster the seven seasons of DS9 or Voyager, because of how they were produced. (CGI work, for example, was done low-res and stored on NTSC video tape.)
The hope of many working in the industry today is that AI upscaling can make key parts of this process faster and cheaper, since it improves upon the resolution of existing footage rather than requiring a labor-intensive return to source material. But it seems likely that the technology will have to get better before MGM or Paramount would lean on it to create an HD product.
Read more about his upscaling work on his blog.
What do you think? Would you hand over your hard-earned dollars if MGM released a proper Blu-ray or 4K edition of Stargate? Let us know in the comments!
On Twitter: @leaufai