Vinegar Syndrome is a Gas, Gas, Gas
Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of the plagues
affecting motion picture elements is vinegar syndrome (VS).
Where one can have nitrate decomposition on older stocks which have
not been well cared for, and decomposition in early safety
tri-acetate stocks (in which the base breaks down), we have vinegar
syndrome for all acetate based safety stocks - inclusive of both
audio and picture elements.
What does this mean and how does it affect film restoration?
A film element with VS will shrink, off-gassing acid as it
deteriorates, sometimes leaving a perfectly good emulsion layer
unusable. The process will sometimes self-start, but in most cases
it makes itself known when an element is improperly stored (think
South American or Floridian conditions) with high temperatures and
humidity, has not been properly washed during processing (leaving
unwanted chemicals still imbedded in the film), or after
rejuvenation - a chemical treatment used for scratch removal on
release prints. On occasion, some wonderful individual has actually
used treatment on original negatives.
Once VS begins, there is little that one can do to stop it. It can
be slowed via lower temperatures. The film can be stored in sealed
bags with chemical sieves, which will literally eat up the off
gassing. Or it can be stored in vented containers, allowing the
gasses to escape. One additional problem is that VS will spread,
contaminating other film elements.
The extant 70mm print of The Alamo,
as well as the majority of deleted scenes from It's
a Mad... World, have VS. Several months ago, Ron Epstein
photographed a roll of affected Mad World
should still be available on HTF.
Once the condition makes the element unstable, it will shrink to a
point where it cannot be replicated, before it eventually turns to a
wonderful sticky gob and, finally, highly delicate dried film, which
self-destructs when touched.
A Few Notes on Grain Structure, Black and
White Film Stock and How They are Represented on Home Video
Early black and white stocks, going back to the late 19th century,
had a much more coarse and granular grain structure than their
modern counterparts. Not that the early emulsions couldn't be the
palette for magnificent images - they were just grainier.
First or second-generation print elements derived from these stocks
can still yield superb results in current transfers. They just look
different. As a guide, take a look at some of the early Chaplin
titles, which were overseen by David Shepard for Image
Entertainment. Some of these titles are so well transferred, from
such beautiful materials, that we now see things Chaplin never
intended us to see - things, in years past, that would have been
lost in poor optics and film grain.
Film stocks got progressively better, with higher speeds and finer
grain. They allowed for photography under lower light levels.
Contrast ranges also got better and images looked cleaner.
That said, I must give warning that once you get past a couple of
film generations, those beautiful black and white images, whether
reproduced originally in a palette of soft grays, or in the more
contrasty form of stark black and whites, will begin to look not
only overly grainy, but like bad dupes of King
Kong, in which all that is seen in close-ups are eyes and
I've said in the past that grain is our friend. It is the basic
structure of the filmed image. It just needs to be represented and
reproduced properly. And as I'll go into a bit later, that grain is
what helps to identify films as film. Some of the more recent
transfers of some very high profile films, such as
Citizen Kane and
North by Northwest*, have been
digitally cleaned to a point where the film grain has been removed,
yielding an almost shiny, grainless image. I'm not saying that these
transfers are bad. They're not. It's just that they're different,
and not representative of the actual film. They are, for all intents
and purposes, a modification of the film into a fully digital, video
product. And some of them can look quite lovely.
In the early days of the cinema, all prints were derived from the
original negative until it simply wore out. Negatives were re-cut
for different versions of a film. Foreign versions would be
constructed of second and third quality takes. Fine
grain-duplicating stocks (also known as "lavenders")
arrived in the 1930s, allowing the original negatives to be
preserved and duplicated for future use.
Kodak released its first commercially available roll stock in 1889,
but it was not until 1922 that panchromatic stocks (capturing the
visible spectrum) and dupe negative stocks were released. Until that
time, with the use of orthochromatic stocks, film was incapable of
capturing the entire spectrum of light. In motion picture design,
scenic elements, costumes and makeup were structured in various
colors to make them look proper on film.
In the 30s, faster and finer grained stocks appeared, along with
the first real fine grain duplicating material, leading to early
preservation and quality duplication.
Plus X film (a black and white staple) appeared in 1938, to be
quickly replaced in 1941 with 5231. In 1950, the changeover began
from nitrate to safety-based films. The nitrate stocks had an
absolutely clear base, which came into play especially with
Technicolor prints. Safety based stocks had an off-clear color,
In 1954, Tri-X 5233 (high speed camera negative) arrived. In 1956,
along came the new Plus-X 4231, later 5231. 1958 gave us a new dupe
negative stock, 5234. And in 1959, Double-X 5222 appeared (a higher
speed negative stock). Things progressed through the 1960s with even
faster and finer grained stocks.
If you sample black and white films from various periods, and if
the transfers are from prime elements, the difference will be quite
There are major films which survive today at best in third
generation elements, as both the original negatives and fine grain
positive duplicating master are just...
Compare, for example, Criterion's release of 1934's
The Scarlet Empress*, most
likely derived from a third generation element as an earlier stock,
and Paramount's release of John Ford's 1962 The
Man Who Shot Liberty Valence*. Then compare Valence
with Warner's recent The Women*.
Photographed in different styles, you'll note that while
The Women has the full range
of grays, all beautifully rendered in the new transfer,
Valence has a harder look,
reproduced for higher contrast with rich full absolute blacks, as
opposed to darker grays. You can compare these two to Universal's
release of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt*,
and his later Psycho*: two
totally different looking films.
Films reproduce in different ways. Compare James Stewart's jacket
(with its rich blacks) in the opening of Valence
to the representation of black in a 3-strip Technicolor film, the
1948 The Red Shoes*. In an
early scene, the impresario (played by Anton Walbrook) is shown in a
formal dinner jacket. In original prints of this film in
Technicolor, there is a distinct differentiation between the wool of
the jacket and shinier satin lapels. In the DVD, because of the
quality of the elements used to create the transfer element (well
out of the control of Criterion), all you see is black. Speaking of
Criterion, another Powell/Pressburger film worth owning in the 1945
black and white I Know Where I'm Going*.
While we're on black and white, you'll find another interesting
example from 1965 in Otto Preminger's In
Harm's Way - a huge production with an all-star cast, and
one of the few black and white films to be blown up from 35mm
Panavision to 70mm for release.
As an aside, when I suggest DVDs I feel merit your viewing, I'm not
suggesting that you purchase them all. There are certain titles that
I would suggest as part of a collection. When I feel that these are
genuinely worth your putting out funds to acquire them, I'll
generally say so. As a guide, these titles will be followed by an
asterisk when mentioned. I would suggest the addition of
Red Shoes* (for those of you
who don't yet own it) and Scarlet
Empress*. In Harm's Way
is a good rental item and is suggested as such.
Another superb black and white film which was recently restored - a
beautifully done restoration job which was a joint project between
Fox's Schawn Belston, UCLA's Bob Gitt and the Motion Picture
Academy, with laboratory work handled by Paul Rutan of Triage
Laboratories - is another John Ford film, How
Green Was My Valley * , the Best Picture of 1941. Rather
than using the standard fine grain stock, Belston came up with the
concept of using Eastman separation stock 2238, purposing it for
something other than its official design.
And speaking of films worth purchasing, there are a few more for
your consideration (including a recent release which has made its
way from theatrical distribution to its gathering of Academy Awards
and quickly out as a DVD special edition).
We're in a rather extraordinary time. For the last 75 or so years,
The Academy has made its pronouncements of Bests, only to have them
disappear from our landscape, sometimes hardly surviving.
But with laserdiscs (and now DVDs) as the new collectors' medium,
these films are finally available to us in editions which mirror
their artistic value.
One such title is the new A Beautiful
Mind* (widescreen version) from Universal. With a perfect
transfer and a good representation of extra elements, this is a Best
Picture that should be acquired. If you think back just a few years,
you'll see how long it took for Best films to make their way to us
in top quality editions. Universal's speed in releasing Ron Howard's
film (especially coming after the late 2000 release of
Gladiator* on a timely basis
as a special edition) is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.
Keep in mind, that Best Picture releases from the past twelve years
are only represented by eleven titles. And of those eleven, only
seven are in special edition form. Unforgiven
is coming in the near future, along with a new version of
Dances with Wolves. But going
back to previous decades, we can find hardly any special editions of
these great films.
There have been lists made of what Best Pictures are available on
DVD. An interesting addition will be to find out just how many Best
Actors, Actresses, Color and Black and White Cinematography and
Editing awards are represented.
While we're on new releases, I'm also going to suggest the purchase
of two other titles.
First, O Brother, Where art Thou?*.
The special edition of the Coen's film has been turned into a great
DVD with the inclusion of myriads of extra materials, inclusive of
another short by Eric Young, who was the DVD producer of the Disney
In O Brother, Young takes us
on a tour of the digital process which allowed the Coen's and
cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also photographed
Beautiful Mind, to bring us
the dustbowl images via Kodak's CineSite facility. This is another
quality technical short, which does a superb job of explaining the
technical and making it understandable.
The other recent DVD release, which I never thought that I would be
recommending, is that other December 7th film. Not
In Harm's Way, but the
Pearl Harbor: Vista Series*
Viewing Michael Bay's cut of this film has not changed my mind
about its inherent script problems. But one element that this film
possesses is the bravura attack sequence, lengthened in this cut,
that should be setting CGI standards for future releases.
On top of this - in a four-disc package - we are offered multiple
technical tours behind the scenes, taking in varying levels of pre
and post-production, explaining just how this sequence came to be.
And that folks, at $28 and change delivered, is $7 a disc for the
set - well worth the price of admission to anyone with an interest
in film production with digital technology. It could only have been
made better if Mr. Bay had taken the interview and discussion
process a bit more seriously. How many times is it necessary to
listen in while he chides his associate about possibly being out of
work or whether he'll hire him for a future project? While it's nice
to be able to meet some of the folks who (in the past) have simply
been names in credits, hiding behind the camera, I do believe that
the audience's time might be put to a bit better use. Still, these
discs do offer a great deal of valuable information.
More Than a Few Words on Aspect Ratios
Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures,
Widescreen Museum and Mr. Heston
At its most simplistic, an aspect ratio is just a shape. In film,
it becomes the proscenium arch surrounding the presentation.
In the very early years of cinematography, there were a number of
different aspect ratios, most rectangular. The ratios varied from
virtually square to large format wide screen. Things settled down in
the teens with what we now consider to be the classic Academy ratio
of 1.33 - 1.37:1.
When films shot under that classic scheme were presented in the
mid-1950s, they were generally cropped at top and bottom and
presented as a slightly wider image. Thus the many films are
considered proper at 1.66:1.
This change came along concurrent (and because of) CinemaScope,
which originally had an AR of 2.55:1 in its magnetic form -- later
2.35:1 in its optical format, with the optical track taking over the
left side of the image. Sometimes, this image was optically shifted
and centered. In other instances, such as Bridge
on the River Kwai*, the left side of the image was
unceremoniously lopped off - only to be finally corrected on the
present DVD from Columbia.
Films photographed on 65mm film were set at an AR of 2.21:1 or (if
photographed anamorphically as It's a Mad
World) at 2.76:1, and were projected in 70mm at anywhere
from 2.55 on up to 2.76.
But no matter what the AR, it was the intent of the director of
photography and the film director to have the final product
projected as closely as possible to not only that ratio, but with as
much of the image retained on screen as possible. There are specific
guides in projection (test loops can be used in the cutting of
apertures) which help hold these standards in place. But there isn't
much to be done in retaining picture information when a projection
booth is 175 feet away from the screen and two stories above.
Remember that flashlight and the cutout squares you made last week?
If you tried that experiment, you should now have some
understanding of how much better films can be (and in most cases
are) presented on DVD than they are in theatres.
On occasion, things can go terribly wrong in a film to video
transfer, and the wrong AR can be used. This generally occurs when
transfers are produced from a Super 35 element, which can provide
any number of different ratios, cropped in many different ways.
Or, one can go to extremes and choose which way a film should run
on your home setup. Transfers of a number of James Cameron films
have been made available in both open matte and 2.40 aspect ratios.
Is one more correct than the other for video? I don't believe so.
One represents the theatrical version of the film.
And then we have aspect ratio modifications - "modified to fit
The panning and scanning of scope productions arrived with a need
to broadcast the early wide screen productions on TV and to make
them available for 16mm non-theatrical venues incapable of screening
While I personally would prefer not to view a panned and scanned
version of a film, they are necessary. Not a necessary evil - just
necessary. The studios are in the BUSINESS of filmmaking. While the
business and the art of it can sometimes co-exist, the business will
generally win out. And because it is a business, the studios have
the obligation to maximize the earning potential of their product.
If this means panning and scanning a film for television (or for
those who prefer) it as a representation for home video, so be it.
And as long as proper widescreen OAR versions are available to us
for home theatre, there really isn't a problem. I'm certain that
some will disagree with my stance on this issue, but in reality it
shouldn't be an issue.
As DVD breaks more ground in terms of numbers of units, hopefully
those studios which have seen fit to only release non-OAR versions
of titles of "general release" or "children's"
product will see their way to creating proper OAR releases. Probably
the most egregious of these to my mind has been MGM's original DVD
release of Ken Hughes' film Chitty Chitty
Bang Bang. [Editor's Note: I have
it on good authority that there is serious talk at MGM about
revisiting this title on DVD in the near future.]
Now then... let me make a final note on film grain and how it
relates to digitized images, and also of the loss of that "film"
look in some releases.
We've come to a point where, with technology, we can make film look
like video - and this isn't a good thing. Film has grain and "sparkle,"
and always did. Now, grain is being removed digitally, leaving with
what I consider a dead look. And "sparkle" - those tiny
bits of imbedded dirt which appear as tiny white spots here and
there - is also being removed.
What's worse is that we are now being given, as added extras,
nondescript images of film before and after its "restoration."
A recent example is Z* from
Wellspring. This is a truly great and politically important
masterpiece of a film, which just doesn't look as good as it should,
even though we are treated to a "restoration"
On the other hand, we have a recent release from Sony -- Columbia
Pictures reconstruction of 1776*,
which has been beautifully rendered and left to look like...
1776 has a great image,
inclusive of "sparkle." And while I don't agree with some
things that Columbia TriStar Home Video has done, they've done right
by 1776. When they're right
and do a great job, they should be commended for it. So there you
Don't forget - you can
HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the
HTF's Ron Epstein for the
picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.