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
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
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
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
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
Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be*,
one of the funniest and most thought-provoking comedies of the WWII
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, 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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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
Warner Home Video was releasing anamorphic LASERDISCS more than a
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.
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
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
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.