What Started All This

*If you don’t want background, skip to “How To Make It Happen” for step-by-step directions*

I love the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series.  The story is engaging, the humor is on point, and the artwork is beautiful.  A glaring issue, however, is that Nickelodeon has only ever released the show on DVD (which I have purchased…twice) and the quality of some of those episodes is barely better than that of a VHS tape.  I’m not sure what the reason for this is but the fan community has been clamoring for a better quality release for years, myself among them.  Yes, the show was originally aired on TV in standard definition and animated in a 4:3 aspect ratio but the art wasn’t drawn with fuzzy, double lines was it?!

A few months ago, a couple fans on /r/thelastairbender announced their intentions to undertake a remastering project of the entire show.  Using a collection of video filters and de-interlacers, they would extract every frame, redraw the images at a larger scale, put those images into video, and release them at 1080p HD.  When the /r/remasteringATLA team shared examples of their work, the fan community nearly lost their collective mind.  After being ignored by the original broadcaster for so long, here was what they had been desiring – a better quality release of their favorite show.

The process to take (very) poor SD animation and create new HD animation was intensive, requiring the latest computer hardware.  These fans literally created more detail in each and every frame of all 61 episodes – at an average of 44k frames per episode – to remake their favorite show in HD.  A quick summary of the process was posted by one of the team members:

First off we’ve got TFM and QTGMC. These filters combine two fields into one progressive frame. The method we’ve come up with correctly de-interlaces 99.9% of the frames in every episode.

After the footage is de-interlaced we have to dehalo the episode (though not always, it depends on the disk). Dehaloing reduces the visibility of white edges and lines in your footage, like this. For episodes 1-4 we’re using the Vine filter (which is very strong), and for ”medium” haloing episodes (9-25) we use DeHalo_Alpha. The comparison I shared uses the latter filter.

Then there’s the most important filter called Waifu2x. We use that to increase the resolution of the footage from 640×480 to 1440×1080. Since this filter is pretty new and specializes in anime footage, it does a superb job at creating more detail by analyzing the frame and estimating how it should look in the end (by using existing HD anime as a reference). It also has a built-in noise removal function which reduces artifacts. Example is pretty obvious.

The example above includes every filter I mentioned here except for the dehaloing stuff (since the original footage looks fine in that regard).

After the footage is upscaled to HD resolution we apply WarpSharp2. This filter detects edges (and black lines) and makes them thinner. This better suits the HD look of your average cartoon.

Lastly there’s debanding, which adds a bit of grain/noise to the footage. This makes it look more natural and it also hides encoding artifacts. If we don’t re-add some grain, our footage will look like the image on the right.

And there you have it!

Three months after their project began, the /r/remasteringATLA team released the completed results to the community and it was beautiful…and big.  60+GB in fact!  Since I had purchased the dvd collection previously, I had no heartburn over obtaining this fan-remastering to add to my collection.  I started up a random episode and marveled at the quality.  Never before had I seen my favorite animated show look so good!  I could easily put them on my Plex server and stream to my phone whenever I wanted, but the dream was to have it on Blu-ray: physical, tangible media.  Into Google I dove, researching ways to make this a reality.  Little did I know, I was taking on way more than I originally intended.

Headaches and More

Let’s set the stage: there are 61 episodes in the complete series which means 61 files, each a gigabyte or more in size which needed to be put onto physical media.  The first two Books (seasons) are 20 episodes each and the third has 21.  Yes, I could have grabbed a 64gb USB stick off amazon (which I debated doing a few days into the process after many setbacks) but that wouldn’t fulfill my true goal.  I decided to use single layer Blu-ray Discs, which hold 25gb each, since I already had a spindle sitting around.  This made for all three Books fitting on just three discs which I was extremely happy about – plus, 3 disc Blu-ray cases are not that hard to find online!  Combine the case with some custom artwork and it would look right at home next to the original DVDs!

But I could not simply burn the data onto the discs.  While this would work if I wanted to pop the disc into a computer with a Blu-ray drive and play the episodes with VLC, it would not allow them to be played in most set top players connected to a TV.  Doing so would be similar to simply placing the files on a USB stick.  What I needed to create was an authored Blu-ray disc, like one would buy a movie on at the store.  These have menus, a specific video and audio codec, and file tree that is read by the machine.  I’d never attempted to do that for blu-ray and the last time I made a few DVD’s with menus was back in 2005 – but how hard could it be?

Very.  The problem, and this is sorta leading us off on a rabbit-trail, is that it is 2016 and the majority of people stream their HD content.  Netflix, HBO Now, iTunes, Ultraviolet, and others provide great quality video over the internet for a small subscription or purchase price which is driving more and more people away from buying actual physical media.  Combine this with the fact that most home videos are recorded on cellphones and played back on the same devices or streamed to TVs with a ChromeCast or AppleTV, and it leads to there not being a huge need for authoring Blu-ray discs by the general public.  A very, very small number of people have this desire which means that large software makers are focusing their development on other areas.  I don’t fault them for doing so but it made my life more difficult for a while.

As I searched for a program that would help me do what I wanted to do, I found options in 3 main categories: hobbyist, consumer, and professional.  The hobbyist category seemed centered on one particular program that had ceased development in 2012.  The consumer options were either bundled with HUGE software packages which included actual editing software (which I didn’t need – FCPX is my tool of choice) or were crippled in their capabilities.  The professional category made my wallet cry.  I didn’t have need for a Hollywood level piece of software and I didn’t want the episode quality to take a hit by having to Roxio or Nero compress the heck out of the files (plus paying for a huge bundle when I only needed 1 specific tool seemed silly).  So I was left with only one option.  Enter: multiAVCHD.

There is a scene in the film “A Knights Tale” which perfectly sums up my feelings about this program.  William has dislocated his shoulder in an attempt to lose the tournament due to his desire to prove his love for Jocelyn.  Now, however, she has changed her mind and told him that if he loves her, he will win the tournament!  Chaucer attempts to psych William up before he barrels down the field at his next opponent.  “There she is”, Chaucer says while pointing to Jocelyn in the crowd, “the embodiment of love: your Venus!” With a stoic face William tersely responds “And how I hate her.”

I hate multiAVCHD.

Let me be clear though: multiAVCHD (eventually) did what I needed it to do.  And I am grateful to the original developer who released it for free many years ago.  With it, I was able to take my collection of files and get them to play on our stand alone Blu-ray player which was the original goal.  But it took close to 24 hours over the course of 4 days to figure out how to and work around all of its many quirks.  And that is not counting the additional 26 hours in processing time once I figured out the process that would work.  Since the program had last been updated in 2012, the developer wasn’t able to answer questions and the online forum for the users was far from active. I was forced to sift through dozens and dozens of old forum posts, some dating back to 2008, hoping to find someone talking about a problem similar to mine:

  • 1440×1080 resolution HD videos
  • Create a simple menu to select individual titles from a list of episodes
  • Playback episodes in a 4:3 ratio with black pillar boxes on the sides
  • No compression/loss of quality to the original files.

I consider myself pretty well versed when it comes to computers/software/and multimedia projects.  But I’ve never, in all the technical projects I’ve undertaken in my adult life, become so disheartened at my lack of progress as I did when creating this authored Blu-ray project.  The entire process was 2-steps-forward-1-step-back…sometimes 3 or 4.

Here’s a sampling of some (but not all) of the problems I encountered along the way:

  • Starting with a program and then realizing it would cripple the output…4 different times before settling on multiAVCHD
  • Crashes when editing menu options due to…
  • Missing certain plugins at the onset
  • Inability to select specific episodes from the disc menu only after burning to disc
  • Random menu music showing up only after burning to disc
  • Episodes auto playing only after making .iso
  • 4:3 video being squished to 16:9 video
  • Crashes when making too many menu adjustments at once
  • Discs failing to burn
  • Book Three being too large for a single disc after 9+hours of transcoding

In the end, it all came together.  I feel like it aged me slightly but it was worth it to be able to pop in a disc and select any specific episode to watch!

 

– – – – –

 

How To Make It Happen

After so many days of struggling with such a steep learning curve, I’ve figured out a lot regarding multiAVCHD and authoring HD video onto Blu-ray discs.  I’ve decided to make a How-To so that, if you are looking to replicate my project or do something similar, you won’t have the same issues I did.  With any luck, those using multiAVCHD for the first time won’t become as frustrated as me!

Before you begin:

Download the right programs (windows only):

  • multiAVCHD
  • AviSynth
  • ffdshow
  • Haali Splitter
  • TSmuxeR
  • ImgBurn
  • Virtual CloneDrive
  • Leawo Blu-ray player (or other software to test playback such as PowerDVD)

Make sure you have the right hardware:

  • Blu-ray burner
  • Two 25gb BD discs (Books 1 and 2)
  • One 50gb BD disc (Book 3)
  • A powerful PC that you won’t need to use while it transcodes the files

Other helpful programs/gear:

  • Pixelmator (to create menu images)
  • A Macbook Pro or other computer to make said images
  • Empty Blu-ray Disc cases
  • A printer with nice paper OR access to a local print shop

 

– – – – –

 

Step One:

To begin the process, you want to mux your files from .mp4 to .m2ts with TSmuxeR so that multiAVCHD does not try to compress/convert them which would lead to quality loss.  While there are scripts out there to create a batch conversion, I couldn’t find one that did not look questionable so I ended up doing each of the 61 episodes individually.  Thankfully they each only took about 55 seconds on my rig so it wasn’t too bad to get done over the course of one evening.

Step Two:

Import your new .m2ts files into multiAVCHD, one season at a time.  This will allow you to build a custom menu for that specific season with a title card to match (while you can use the built in options for a menu screen, I chose to make my own backgrounds).  Before moving forward to the menu settings, it’s best to get the individual episodes set up correctly.  Click properties for one of the episodes to begin and then refer to the screen shots below to see my example.  I can not stress this enough: SAVE OFTEN.  When the program crashes (not if but when), you don’t want to lose your hard work.  Save your project so that you can recover quickly.

 

1: Title – You don’t need the episode number in the title since whatever order they are listed on the previous screen is what order they will be in on your disc.
2: Poster Image – I took a screenshot of the title card of each episode with VLC and used them for posters. If you don’t specify, the program will use a random screenshot.
3: Chapters – I used 24 per episode.  Click auto to make the program do it for you.
4: Transcode – more on that below
5: Preview – make sure it looks right

Something I learned unfortunately later on in the project (as in, after I had already burned the first book to disc) was that the Blu-ray specification requires that 1440×1080 video be automatically pushed into a 1920×1080 aspect ratio – to get around this, we want multiAVCHD to “uncrop” the video files and add the vertical black pillars.  There is no way for it to do this without transcoding each file individually which is very time consuming.  Thankfully, with the right settings, there is virtually no loss of quality.  Refer to the screen shots below for more information on the settings for this.

1: change to “1440×100 (4:3)”
2: make sure Uncrop is set to “1920×1080”
3: Select “2 Pass Fast” for quality – feel free to experiment with other settings but, if you value your time, don’t select any higher 2 Pass option.  Seriously.  Learn from my mistakes.
* Verify – You can make sure that the aspect ratio change is correct by looking at the lower left hand corner or the video preview.

Repeat that process for EVERY EPISODE. Once it is done, click ok and go back to the main screen so you can move on to the nitty-gritty process of building the menu.  This is by far the worst part of the entire project.  The previous steps were simply tedious but now it gets into tweak-test-tweak-test; take your time, keep calm, and don’t give up.  See the screenshots below for a look at my settings but feel free to experiment with your own!

Once you are satisfied with your menu settings, you can tell multiAVCHD to begin the long, long process of building your project for that season.

The transcoding (telling the program to add the black pillar bars on the sides) is what makes this project take so long.  If you don’t transcode, the output would be done in minutes (but the video would look like someone sat on it).  The plugins required for this are very CPU intensive and, because it is an older program, it can not take advantage of newer 64bit plugins.  With my i5 processor, it took 8-9 hours per season.  Plan your nights accordingly and you can let your PC run while you sleep (CPU usage at times got to 90% so doing anything else at the same time would be a nightmare).

Step Three:

After the menu/transcode process is completed, multiAVCHD leaves you with a collection of folders and files that need to be burnt onto a disc.  However, discs are not cheap.  After multiple screw ups, I found it best to test the output before burning them to physical media.  Use ImgBurn to create an .iso file which can then be mounted with Virtual CloneDrive.  Open the mounted disc image in your player of choice (I used Leawo even though it was buggy) to verify that the .iso works as you want it to.  DO NOT delete the folders from multiAVCHD after you are done making an .iso unless you are absolutely sure you don’t want to save the newly transcoded .m2ts files for a different project.  Otherwise you’ll have to do the whole transcode over again!

Did I mention you need a large amount of free space on your hard drive for this project?  You do.  By the end of Book Three, I had a little over 200gb taken up by all the individual steps.

Step Four:

Does everything look like it should?  Are you positive?  Then open ImgBurn again and burn the .iso to a Blu-ray disc!  Books One and Two will each fit on a single layer disc (25gb), however, much to my chagrin, I discovered that Book Three required just a tad bit more space.  You can either split the season in half or use a dual layer (50gb) disc (which is what I did since I didn’t feel like going through the transcoding process 2 more times).  These are considerably more expensive at around $4.00 a disc but it was a cost I was willing to pay to make my dream a reality.  When burning, set the speed to the lowest possible (like 2x).  ImgBurn created 4 dual-layer coasters for me.  Like I’ve said before: learn from my mistakes!

Step Five:

Enjoy your HD remaster of Avatar: The Last Airbender on any Blu-ray stand alone player!  I tested my discs on a PS4, Samsung player, and PC with no issues.  If the menu is skipped in your machine, check to see if the settings on your player are to blame.

 

PLEASE NOTE:
I am not advocating the act of illegally downloading any particular show. The rights to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” belong to Nickelodeon/Viacom. If you enjoy the show, please purchase your own copy on DVD before looking for the fan remastered version (no, I will not provide a link to it).  However, here is a (plain) link to the Amazon listing for the DVD.

 

To Sum Up: multiAVCHD sucks. but it works.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the results and a little proud of my ability to figure out a new program mostly on my own.  I’m half assuming that this writeup will barely do more for others than the forum posts I found for myself (but at least it is all in one place).  This is because most of the settings seem so obvious now that I have looked at the screen for so long.  But I know that is not the case with a fresh set of eyes.  If anything doesn’t make sense, comment below and I will try to help you troubleshoot your efforts.

Good luck!

 

 

Sources:
http://insideofasmallbox.blogspot.com/2010/08/tip-how-to-make-avchd-menu-without.html
http://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?t=143744
http://forum.videohelp.com/threads/323915-1440×1080-stretched-at-1920×1080
http://forum.doom9.org/archive/index.php/t-135795.html
http://avidemux.org/smif/index.php?topic=16668.0
https://www.videomaker.com/article/f14/14211-authoring-blu-ray-discs
http://multiavchd.deanbg.com/tutorial.php
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