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The Big Year End Update

There’s some people who have been waiting a long time for this, and once again, I do regret that I was not able to fulfill a lot of people’s expectations once my illness derailed me in September. I have no idea what it was, and as late as November I still wasn’t feeling 100% well.

There will still be a release in time for Christmas as I promised back in 2020, so do not worry about this. It will be a public release of all the stuff I’ve collected over the past couple of years; from the rest of Fifth Gear, to all the tapes and CDs I’ve collected this year, to HUNDREDS of pre-2002 episodes, and of course, my long-touted picture archive. Thanks to everyone who sent e-mails during this time, even if you didn’t get a response until very recently. Everything else is unfortunately (but temporarily) dead in the water because of a few mitigating circumstances and my increased responsibilities.

Back when I originally made those promises for TGCC v2.0/TGUP v5.0, I didn’t know my documentary efforts would be as grand as they turned out to be, and these past 12 months have been about me developing as a person and becoming far more efficient at accomplishing tasks than I used to be. The first Top Gear documentary took 7 months to make. I can now bang one out, provided my script is finished and nothing gets in my way, in about 15 – 20 days. Of course, this hasn’t always happened, but for a time, I was keeping a fairly decent routine, one I hope to return to next year now that I finally have the tools I need and my economic situation has at least gone from a dovetail to a controlled downward glide.

As I’ve stated before, I had to abandon the HD episodes early on, as the older version of Topaz was not able to correctly de-interlace the footage from the original HD broadcasts, not to mention the older video card I had was completely incapable of the task at hand. So I instead turned my attention towards the standard definition episodes. I will need further help to realise this goal.

But after finishing around 20 SD episodes, of which I believe I released two as teasers earlier this year, I came to a grim realisation.

The simple fact of the matter is there is no one source that has everything you’d want. At least not for the pre-HD series. As of now, every single episode post-S1 at least has around 5 different versions. And all of them have their own benefits and drawbacks to the point I no longer felt confident I could make definitive versions of each episode. Not to mention they were cutting a significant chunk of time into my other video projects which I deemed more important, since more people will likely see them.

The first of these are the versions that made it into most Top Gear packs throughout history; the original BBC Two rips (from S4 onwards at least). These are largely awful, because they were aimed towards as big of an audience as possible who didn’t always have massive hard drives nor the ability to play uncompressed, high-bitrate video. So they were crushed down from 576i/50 down to 352p, but not only that, but were done in such an extremely lossy, primitive manner which destroyed much of the original detail and clarity, something that went unnoticed for many years due to most people simply not caring. 352p footage should look and sound a lot sharper and clearer than whoever compressed them down to that size, likely using DIVX or similarly archaic software. But the problem here is in many cases, those are or were the only completely unmolested versions of the episodes with their original soundtrack. And on modern displays, these are just about unwatchable due to the sheer amount of compression used. The blockiness and fuzziness is extremely noticeable to anyone with a 1080p monitor or bigger.

The next versions are the TV rips of S6 – S13 I was able to grab through, as I think I’m now safe to disclose, Box of Broadcasts back during the time I was studying an Undergraduate course at University. I was amazed the first time I saw these, mostly because I’d never seen Top Gear at this clarity before. After many years of YouTube and the Scene releases, these were a breath of fresh air. Finally I could watch the episodes as I knew I’d seen them on TV.

Now, these are great, but they’re still not perfect. BoB compresses everything to an arbitrary ratio of 700MB/hour, so if an episode has a lot of dynamic scene changes and colour, it’ll look noticeably compressed. Plus there’s the channel logos and the fact several of them aren’t the original broadcasts, and have pieces removed from them. They’re good as a base, but a bit of a pain to work with.

Then we have the DVD releases, and these are very nice, as they are official digital releases, but are also annoyingly compressed in order to fit on a set number of discs, and were never reissued on Blu-Ray in order to take advantage of the much higher storage and potential bitrate (not that I’d hold out much hope; the US adventure to Bonneville looks absolutely HORRID on Blu-Ray for some reason, actually somehow worse than the DVD!) The DVDs also lack detail in high-detail scenes (such as car instrument panels and number-plates/trim pieces), but have higher detail in areas such as clouds.

They are also not true 50 FPS in the way they should be, as they do not interpolate properly when put into Topaz. This could just be a problem with the software, but it has otherwise worked fine with the iPlayer and SBS rips, as well as a few other DVD rips I experimented with, so at this point I am forced to square blame on the way the DVDs were made. Had the BBC not cheaped out and produced these box sets in as true a manner as possible, it would be far easier to work on them. As it stands, I will need to deinterlace and downsample them to 25 FPS to remove duplicate frames, and then interpolate the frames it should have had to begin with. I was not previously aware this is what they did, but it makes my job quite a bit harder as I now have to process each source twice to get the most out of them.

There is also the question of the episodes’ native resolution. The DVD rips, as crisp and clear as they are, do not appear to have originated from the 576 resolution masters due to telltale artefacting which indicates they were upscaled from a slightly smaller source, which at the moment looks like it may even be as low as 352. I will need to identify the approximate resolution these were originally blown up from so I can downsample them to that size and then blow them back up so that there is hopefully much less artefacting without losing too much detail.

I should also briefly mention the Scene release of Series 13 in 576p, the only such known release of pre-HD Top Gear in a higher resolution than 352p (S11 was also released by Scene member Moto in 404p at a noticeably higher bitrate than the 352p one, but a bit of a shame it was shrunk regardless).

Then we come to the iPlayer version. The version that completely derailed my planned 2021 release because of the fact it made a lot of my work from late 2020/early 2021 pointless because of how complete they seemed on the surface.

Unfortunately, the iPlayer version also has its drawbacks. To avoid letterboxing (as every episode during the Standard Definition era had this, particularly during the studio scenes), all iPlayer versions of the episodes have a weird, slight aspect ratio stretch to them, as well as being colour-graded wrongly with a slight but noticeable green tint, which for some reason has always been a problem of online streaming versions of Top Gear-related productions and I don’t know why. Those of you I’ve talked to in the last year or so will also know that certain other streaming versions are simply not worth it due to further cropping, despite higher bitrates and no watermarking.

Finally, we have the Top Gear website clips. Initially, I thought these were great, particularly the ones which clearly came from the master recordings, but quite a few of them appear to have been sourced from streaming versions of the episodes and thus are lossy. Also their framerate appears to be halved despite being interlaced. The coverage of these clips are incredibly thin and so I have not factored these into my comparisons as of yet.

Here are a few images for comparison.

The iPlayer version has a slight stretch to it as well as a tint, but is very competent on the whole. The current algorithms have issues with things such as road detail and obscured faces. The DVD versions look the best at first glance, with very crisp, fine detail in areas such as driver heads, clouds, and distant road signs, but closer details appear blurrier, such as number plates. The TV versions offer a good compromise between the two, but still aren’t perfect, with the new algorithms again wiping out a lot of detail. This was not a problem before, and seems to be down to a change in Topaz’s algorithm which makes it not worth doing this project right now until they sort their issues out.

Realistically, the only way this problem can truly be solved is if the BBC embark on a proper digitisation effort instead of half-arsing it by re-using the same iPlayer versions from the late 2000s. The worst part is they already exist for at least four full series of the show! Uncompressed .TS streams are available if you have access to the full BBC Redux service, and literally all the BBC would have to do is take the original BBC Two airings of S10 – S13 at the absolute least and slightly edit them to remove the continuity at the beginning and end.

Still, I will try and work as hard as I can to finish all my outstanding tasks in the coming weeks and months.

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