Deep Space Nine Upscale Project Update: ‘Sacrifice of Angels’


It’s been almost exactly a month since I published my last Deep Space Nine report, where I showed how different AI software could upscale the show to something approaching HD quality. Despite the ongoing pandemic, I’ve kept the Cascade Lake testbed and RTX 2080 crunching busily away, testing various permutations. Some folks have contacted me to express interest in working together, and I’ve learned some interesting things along the way.

I haven’t been able to find my DVDs, so I bought Season 6 brand-new and started working with that source. I chose Season 6 because it has some of the best space-combat scenes, including the largest battle ever staged in the Star Trek universe in the episode “Sacrifice of Angels.” SoA was the obvious episode to work with and the Defiant image above is from an upscaled encode. Here’s the full shot.

I had hoped that the DVD source would offer a better upscaling alternative than using already-encoded MKVs. I still believe it does, but guys, I have to tell you — the baseline DS9 source sucks.

I watched this show when it was broadcast on cable, on a new 24-inch TV my parents had just bought. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and watching it on DVD looks nothing like watching it on TV did 25 years ago. Obviously the base resolution is low, but that’s not the problem. The video is noisy, it’s much darker than I remember, there’s a clearly visible 3:2 pulldown/telecine effect, and distant vessels are often heavily aliased (meaning they crawl with jagged lines). The credits are particularly bad as far as image quality. If the rest of the show looked as bad as the credits, I’d never want to watch it. I may upload a few videos just to show how rough they are.

Click to enlarge

This is what 3:2 pulldown looks like. You’re literally seeing half a frame of information, which is why every other line is blank. There are a number of these moments in any given episode, and while they don’t prevent anyone from enjoying the show, they can be annoying.

NanaVisitor

Nana Visitor’s reaction to the DVD source quality… or a very lucky pause on my part. You be the judge.

What I’ve Been Working On (and Learned)

Here’s the honest truth: You can get a pretty good looking video if you just rip the DVD without deinterlacing or detelecine via Handbrake (use the H.264 Production Max preset) and then upscale it. While the half-frame transitions are noticeable and annoying, upscaling this way actually cleans up some areas that are otherwise quite jagged and “crawly” at specific points in the show. If you want a one-and-done solution and you aren’t bothered by the occasional half-frame, it’s a great option and I recommend it. The result is 70-80 percent of what I think is likely possible, best-case. If you rip the DVD using Handbrake’s detelecine option, it will solve the half-frame flicker, but at the cost of introducing additional aliasing that wasn’t present before. In my opinion, the telecined upscaled DVD looks better, on the whole, than the detelecined Handbrake output post-upscale.

My long-term goal with this project is to create a guide using as much free software as is possible (Topaz VEAI is obviously a paid purchase). I’m working with a reader who has done some incredible color balance changes, and I’m excited about what that might mean for the project.

What I’ve done for the past month? About 600GB of renders at 3-8GB each. I’ve been examining color grading with DaVinci Resolve, rescaling in that same application, various AviSynth filters for antialiasing, detelecine, and deinterlacing using algorithms like QTGMC. The truth is, I could accelerate the process if I focused on smaller clips, but I prefer to upscale the entire episode. That way, I can check any trouble spot or problem area in one area of an encode against all the previous settings I’ve tested, to see how that particular area was handled.

Another thing I’ve learned? The best version of Deep Space Nine would be constructed clip by clip, using optimized video processing settings for each. I have no intention of slicing and dicing episodes up by hand, but if there was an episode you truly loved, you could achieve some truly impressive results that way.

I want to show you a short clip from “Sacrifice of Angels.” First, the DVD source and second, the upscaled output with QTGMC applied. QTGMC is a deinterlacing filter, not a detelecine filter, and it works by creating additional frames. The final output does not have the hypersmooth look of interpolated sports video, but I’ve had trouble matching audio to the clip. There’s a lot of hands-on learning involved in this kind of project because ultimately, each video benefits from a different set of filters. For best quality, change both videos to top available playback source.

This is the original DVD source. Note how the nacelles on the Miranda-class starship (the two ships in the opening frames) shimmer. This is telecined output, which means they look much better in this video than they do if I detelecine the source using Handbrake. There’s a lot of noise in certain frames and some visible compression artifacts in others.

This is the upscaled video after I applied QTGMC deinterlacing to it via a buggy and difficult-to-parse application named StaxRip. It’s been incredibly useful to me in certain respects, but if I’m being honest, I’m trying to find an alternative because this app is rather ornery and difficult to use. It also only seems to output H.265. Figuring out how to use applications like AviSynth (current user level: Bad) is part of the experience. One of our readers, Shortstick, has contacted me to show off some of his own color grading work on DS9, with impressive results:

We are looking into how to combine efforts and further improve the show.

Why I’m Doing This

If you watched Deep Space Nine on TV growing up as I did, I have news for you: You never actually saw the work that VFX designers put into those battle scenes. Watching “Sacrifice of Angels” in upscale on a much larger display, I was struck by how incredible the shots were. The space battle in Insurrection may have had more expensive special effects and a few more years of CGI advances, but it didn’t involve half as many ships or as many complex maneuvers.

Until I started working on this episode, I never thought about how space combat evolved from Star Trek: The Next Generation to DS9. On TNG, battle is almost stately, with large ships firing at each other from static positions. The exception to this is stern chases, where the Enterprise is pursued by an opponent.

DS9 changed all that. The decision to introduce the Defiant and to make it a small ship completely changed the rhythm and flow of space combat. The Defiant wasn’t made for stately, sweeping broadsides — it’s an antimatter-powered flying gun that can absorb significant amounts of damage while it blows your ass into next week. Above all, the Defiant is fast, and Jadzia Dax is one hell of a pilot.

The entire battle “language” of Star Trek changed dramatically between TNG and DS9, largely on the backs of the VFX artists who were tasked with doing the work. DS9 didn’t just add more ships; it showed those ships doing more things, with background battles often as dramatic as the foreground shots. True, some people disliked the look and preferred the idea of a more spread-out fleet engagement, but I’m not one of them. I’m watching a show in which aliens with no concept of time live inside a stable wormhole. I don’t need the starships to stay far away from each other to enjoy the battle scenes.

Speaking of wormholes…

Watching this episode in standard DVD quality is like looking at a da Vinci painting with 500 years of grime on it. You can recognize the mastery of the work, but there’s a lot of schmutz between you and it. Thanks to advances in AI processing, we’re finally seeing consumer tools that can wipe the grime away — and not just for DS9, but for any number of additional shows. The artists that worked on these episodes deserve to have their work seen in something approaching the way it could have looked.

I’m never going to be able to make these old DVDs look as good as what Paramount could do. Heck, I’m never going to improve them as much as a professional video editor could do. But Paramount has no plans to upgrade DS9 itself, and that means the only way to restore the TV show to some semblance of how it could look is with a lot of elbow grease, filter testing, and one exhausted RTX 2080. I think the work deserves to be done, even if Paramount disagrees.

Interested in helping? Give me an email or sound off below. Got ideas or tips for using AviSynth? Get in touch.

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