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page created: 3/24/05




Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

On DVD Re-releases

It seems a reasonable bet that when High Definition DVD players become available in the fourth quarter of this year, that they will be the centerpieces of a new niche market. I've got to believe that regular definition DVDs will continue to be produced for the foreseeable future, with the new HD variety taking their place on store shelves nearby.

The nice thing about DVD software and players, which gave them easy access to the home marketplace around 1997, was that they could be cabled into any old television that happened to be around, be it a late 1940s Dumont or the latest Runco or Sony device.

The difference in the coming marketplace is that no one need even bother with an HD-DVD player unless they already have the appropriate HD monitor. And that will keep the masses away from HD-DVDs for at least the short run.

But even with that in mind, I find it odd that we are still seeing a proliferation, from some camps, of re-issues, "anniversary" and new special editions of films already in release in perfectly good editions.

I would fully expect that this would be the final year for Superbit releases from Sony, if any are even in the pipeline, as anyone who is that highly attuned to image quality is the prime early adopter of the new HD format. They'll be the first on line to buy the initial offering of HD players, and for them, SB, which has served us well, will shortly be an oxymoron.

Not long ago, Sony released two beautifully produced, very high-end examples of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, now in its third incarnation as an "Ultimate Edition." (I had thought that the world "Ultimate" was owned by Universal.)

These two new DVDs are perfect for those who have not yet added these films to their libraries, but with HD looming in the near future, I don't see any upgrade potential, even though they are higher quality than their predecessors and have added extras.

In a similar situation, word is out that the Bond films have gone through the LDI process and will be released at some point in the near future on DVD. The last incarnation of the series has now been pulled from distribution.

My question is this:

Do we really need the Bond films out for the third or fourth time on DVD in a slightly cleaner rendition, when the current release is perfectly serviceable? While there are a handful of shots in the earliest that might need a bit of restorative help, no one can tell me that the productions from 1990 onwards have been problematic transfers. Is MGM cleaning up films that don't need to be cleaned up? No matter.

The problem with this, from a conceptual position, is that rather than a release of new titles from some of the studios, we're getting these "re-treads." I know that there is time and effort that goes into the release of these films, which seemingly do not have upgraded video, but there are so many films which have not yet made it to DVD, and especially with HD very much on the horizon, it seems like so much wasted effort. In addition, a very astute buyer base looks askance at some of these releases as double, triple or even quadruple dipping.

It isn't my intent to highlight the studios playing this game. I won't bore you with a list of the films that haven't yet made it to DVD and should, as the list is obvious. I should make the point, however, that standard definition DVDs are not going to be disappearing in the short run, which means that new product from the studios in standard definition should be welcomed.

One final point before we move on. I have no problem, nor should anyone who appreciates the DVD format, with an occasional well-upgraded release of a title that made its initial appearance at the dawn of DVD software. What we do not need are "anniversary" or whatever special editions that have precisely the same transfer that has been available for some period of time.


A View from the First Quarter of 2005

If we take a quick look at recent releases, the same story told in 2004 seems to be playing out once again.

Warner Brothers Home Video

The list of their most recent releases reads like a required viewing list for a college level film course on classic comedies and musicals:

Brigadoon* in a beautiful new transfer with outtake musical numbers and more.

Bells Are Ringing* with a featurette, outtake musical numbers and alternates.

Two three-strip Technicolor releases - both up to Warner's usual extremely high standards for their Technicolor productions:

The Band Wagon* - one of the greats - in a two-disc set with commentaries, two documentaries - one on the film and another on director Minnelli, an outtake musical number and dailies; and the proper look of beautiful three-strip Technicolor.

Easter Parade* - another of the "greats," also in a two-disc set with commentaries, a "making-of" documentary, the American Masters documentary on Judy Garland, an outtake musical number and more. Ditto for three-strip.

Once again, WHV and their technical support staff has made the best of the old three-strip elements toward the creation of spectacular DVDs:

Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be*, one of the funniest and most thought-provoking comedies of the WWII era.

George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story* in a beautifully re-mastered transfer with commentary; two documentaries - one on Ms. Hepburn and another on Mr. Cukor, plus additional shorts and other material.

Bringing Up Baby*, Howard Hawk's brilliant 1938 comedy with two documentaries: A Class Apart - a feature length film on Cary Grant, and The Men Who Made the Movies episode on Howard Hawks.

Plus Stage Door*, the classic Dinner at Eight*, beautifully transferred from the finest surviving elements, Libeled Lady*, also from surviving materials, but a bit worse for wear around the edges; the Technicolor Ivanhoe, Bette Davis in The Letter* with a recently discovered alternate ending, and from beautiful pre-print and a late WB musical, Fred Astaire in Francis Coppola's Finian's Rainbow*, with a commentary by Mr. Coppola.

Columbia/Sony

Columbia, which has a smaller library, at least until the MGM/UA titles come under their aegis, is offering some superb new product.

Interestingly, we seem to have hit the Richard Quine jackpot. Mr. Quine began his career as a child actor, making the move to directing in 1950 with a number of short films, followed by his first feature in 1951. His first major hit came in 1955 with one of Columbia's new DVD releases, the re-make of My Sister Eileen*, the original 1942 version of which had him playing a role taken by Bob Fosse in his re-make. The film is presented with its original stereo audio intact.

Mr. Quine, who is probably best known for Bell, Book and Candle, is also represented by It Happened to Jane (1959) and Strangers When We Meet (1960).

Also from Columbia, John Huston's 1949 We Were Strangers*, with Jennifer Jones and John Garfield, the long version of Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory, Fred Zinnemann's Behold a Pale Horse, and Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing.

As is the case with many films from the 1940s and '50s, you'll note an occasional problem with softness or wear, as some elements may no longer exist in prime condition.

The real news from Columbia however, is the impending release of the partially reconstructed version of Sam Peckinpah's 1965 Major Dundee. Columbia's asset protection guru, Grover Crisp has been working on this project beginning with searches for elements for almost a decade. More on this later in the column.

20th Century-Fox

Fox has also been active in the classic's department with new additions to their Studio Classics series with the Technicolorish Leave Her to Heaven, Return of Peyton Place, (a dubious selection for the brand) and a film that is a proper addition to that brand, Joseph Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives*. The film is pure, literate Mankiewicz.

Sir Carol Reed's huge The Agony and the Ecstasy with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison is the current large format addition to DVD.

J. Lee Thompson's 1964 black comedy, What a Way to Go!* is another welcome addition, beautifully transferred with its highly colorful production design intact. This is actually an interesting release, as I believe it marks the first DVD to be released in "smell-o-vision" shocking pink packaging. I'm not certain precisely what the scent is, but the concept is in the strawberry, bubble gum, and cotton candy area.

For the first time, I can recommend a fine film that can be purchased for the scent of the packaging alone.

Two other Fox titles have been licensed to and released by The Criterion Collection. Jules Dassin's Night and the City* and Thieves' Highway* could have been easy candidates for either a noir package or as Fox's Studio Classics releases. Regardless, no one would be giving them the care and feeding of Criterion's number 273 and 274.

The most important recent release from Fox must be Otto Preminger's 1944 noir Laura*, about which nothing need be said except, if you don't own it, buy it. One of the greats finally arrives on DVD with an alternate ending, commentaries and documentaries. Released concurrent with Laura as the initial Fox noir group are Call Northside 777 and Panic in the Streets.

A couple of technical point regarding Laura… Those of you who have added copies to your libraries will note that in a few scenes the image tends to "twitch" or become un-aligned on a frame-by-frame basis. This appears to be shrinkage or damage in one of the earlier-copied pre-print elements. The other point which will be rather obvious is something that shows up reasonably often in films through the fifties, before laboratory techniques really became modernized.

In a number of shots it will be noted that a higher contrast area next to a lower contrast area appears to have something that looks like a comet tail or something akin to the wake of a boat coming off the aft, generally traveling up, as we're actually looking at the film upside-down.

This is "Bromide Drag."

I attempted to come up with the words to explain this simply, but ended up going to two of the industry experts.

John Pytlak, Senior Technical Specialist for the Eastman Kodak Company for his aid. He explained it as follows:

Bromide drag can occur when processing film in a continuous processing machine. An area of high density uses up the developer. This stale developer clings to the film in a laminar layer, such that areas around the high-density objects may have insufficient development, which shows up as a streaks or a comet tale.

The interesting thing is that the laminar layer stays with the film during processing, keeping fresh developer from coming into contact with the film. It is this layer that must be broken up with fresh streams of developer via turbulation and agitation.

The name "bromide drag" comes from the bromide ion, which is byproduct of development.

And then from Paul Rutan of Triage Laboratories in Hollywood, one of the few labs (you can count them on the fingers of one hand) that can professionally and properly handle archival elements:

We actually call "bromide drag" the "directional effect", which it really is. Directional effect is caused by a rapid depletion of developer in heavily exposed areas.

This is basically what happens in laymen's terms.

It occurs when an area of heavy density passes through a poorly replenished or turbulated soup. The heavily exposed areas suck up the developer solution to develop those areas (such as heads and black hats) and, because the developer is suddenly weak, effectively under-exposes the area just past the heavy exposure, until the replenishment catches up. This causes a white (or black, depending on the element) streaking or halo effect. Normally B&W is processed from tails to head, causing the drag to go upwards.

Potassium Bromide is used most in a metal and hydroquinone developer. It is also created as a byproduct of normal development, and if a developer is reused for the need of longer processing times with subsequent processing. There is also an effect called bromide drag, which can happen when a developer has a high content of bromide- the negative will appear streaky after development. Bromide can also create a warm tone look and is used in warm tone paper developers for this.

Directional effect is caused by a rapid replenishment of developer in heavily exposed areas. Bromide drag is a general streaking effect caused by a build up of Bromide Sulfate in a soup that is poorly turbulated.

Bromide drag is a commonly used term for both defects.

Both can be remedied by proper replenishment and turbulation.

You'll see bromide drag on any number of older films. Now you know what you're seeing. Once the effect is part of the preservation element, there is very little that can be done to work around it.

Disney

The big news from Disney Home Video, of course, was the release of a true classic animated feature, Bambi*, in a beautifully rendered DVD. Nothing more need be added. A great DVD of a great film.

The 22nd of March is one of my favorite films of 2004, Marc Forster's Finding Neverland*, which is highly recommended. And finally, arriving later than scheduled, but welcome nonetheless, is Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind*. I do have one problem with this release, which returns, once again, to Disney's habit of placing release dates on their packaging which as nothing to do with the film represented. A close look at the reverse of the Nausicaa* packaging will tell you that this is a 2005 release. Can we not do away with the the date release box and allow the public to be aware of the year of production? It would be nice if those viewing the film didn't have to research the fact that Nausicaa*, produced in 1984, was only Miyazaki's second film as director, and not his latest.

In breaking announcements, the another true Disney animate classic Cinderella (1950) will be released to DVD in October.

MGM

MGM gives us two important films to begin the year, a beautifully transferred new edition of Martin Scorsese's modern classic Raging Bull*, acknowledged as one of the finest films of the 1980s, in a new two-disc set with commentaries and extras, and the initial release of his New York, New York, it the complete 164 minute version.

There is, however, a problem with MGM's re-packaging for the creation of a Martin Scorsese Collection. While Raging Bull* looks absolutely beautiful, and offers a myriad of additional material, making it one of the "must buys" of the season, New York, New York is technically lacking. I'm one of the fans of the film, which is filled with beautiful set pieces, and was looking forward to a beautiful (and proper) 1.66:1 transfer.

The problem, in normal MGM fashion, is that we got half way there. While 1.66:1, the disc is non-anamorphic. For those without widescreen monitors, this means that the image is "window-boxed" or surrounded on all four sides by a black frame. And there is little that can be done about it.

Zoom in and two things occur. First you lose the 1.66, which becomes 1.78, and second, the image, which is being enlarged, becomes soft. Not good on either count. This could easily have been solved by a two-sided disc, if the 1.66 non-anamorphic was found to be essential. As it is, all of the commentaries and extras are for naught, as the quality of the film, the most important element of a DVD, isn't there.

I was hopeful around the time of the release of Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremburg, that we had seen the last of MGM's non-anamorphic transfers, but this is not the case. Universal, which probably had the best technical area in the early days of DVD, were releasing 1.66:1 anamorphic five years ago.

Warner Home Video was releasing anamorphic LASERDISCS more than a decade ago.

What is it that MGM doesn't get?

On a more positive note, MGM has released another early three-strip Technicolor production. The 1939 UK version of The Four Feathers* is considered to be the best of the lot, and the element which was used for transfer by MGM, while showing some shrinkage and other dupe-related anomalies, is a more than acceptable example from the early Technicolor era, and one of only ten films produced in that manner for 1939. Recommended.

Universal

While we wait for the Gary Cooper films from Universal I'm going to return to the discussion of a recent release, Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930).

The UCLA Film & Television Archive beautifully restored Hell's Angels, and it is their work that serves as the basis of the DVD. My initial thoughts regarding this DVD left me in a bit of a quandary. While the pre-print elements were superb, the transfer looked different on each of my monitors. The better the monitor, the less wonderful it looked. It appears to be an analogue transfer ported over to digital, but I'm still not certain. My disappointment was also heard regarding the fact that the film was seemingly dumped into the market with no real excitement, no fanfare, and absolutely nothing extra on the DVD.

That said, this is the DVD, which we have, and anyone with an interest in film history, and especially in one of the great "event" films in cinema's history, should not pass up this release.

I'm hopeful that with the Cooper films, Universal will finally see fit to do right by their own classic library, but this remains to be seen. The Cooper set is a mix of Universal and Paramount pre-'49 titles.

The Cooper set will be five films on two double-sided discs. While this does help bring down the price, my preference for packaging would place each film on its own disc. While Universal's decision to market their Legacy sets was a well thought out promotion, I find that most people keep their discs shelved in alpha order, which is defeated by the Cooper concept.


On to Part Two

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

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