on King Kong
Before being joined in discussion with Warner Home Video's Senior
VP of Catalog Marketing, George Feltenstein, Executive Director of
Publicity Ronnee Sass and Ned Price, VP of Mastering for WB
Technical Operations on King Kong,
I went to my files and located the January, 1989 issue of American
Cinematographer, the only publication to which I've been
a subscriber my entire adult life.
In his fine article entitled Old King
Kong Gets Face Lift archivist Scott MacQueen noted:
"King Kong is not the
sort of film we think of as endangered. It has never been "lost,"
and even the legendary fragments censored in 1938 have been back
with us since 1969. Kong is
one of those ubiquitous "classic films" that we take for
granted. It is also a lesson in point. Until Turner Entertainment
Company assumed ownership of the RKO film library for domestic
distribution in 1988, master elements on King
Kong and many other RKO titles existed only as nitrate
"In early 1988, Turner Entertainment purchased the RKO library
and began an inventory of the holdings. "Out of 735 titles we
found close to 300 features for which RKO never made safety fine
grains or negatives," says Richard May, Director of Film
Services at TEC. "We found that there was safety fine grain
material on the smaller pictures - the "Wheeler and Woolseys,"
the Tim Holt westerns, all these little things that no one ever
heard of. All of the big pictures - like the Astaire / Rogers
pictures, Crossfire, Murder
My Sweet - were nitrate fine grains."
"King Kong was a victim
of its own success... The large number of prints... manufactured...
probably wore out Kong's
negative. The earliest surviving material on Kong
is a master positive made from the camera negative in 1942. This
print was the backbone Richard Dayton [of YCM Laboratories in
Burbank, CA] relied on in preparing new master elements on Kong.
The history of heavy negative use is printed right into this 1942
"One of the sad things were the repairs built right into the
camera negative before the master positive was made," says
Dayton. 'There was a lot of repair work. When Kong falls from the
Empire State Building, there's a glitch because some of the frames
are missing and one frame is replaced; it goes two generations
farther down, then back again rapidly.' Additionally, having
mothered subsequent editions... the master positive reflects 45
years of additional use."
This is where our story begins. The material above is supplied with
appreciation to and with the kind permission of American
I should note that American
Cinematographer is one of the oldest and most respected
publications in the world dealing with motion pictures. It has been
one of the staples of the industry since 1920, and is highly
recommended to anyone with an interest in cinema technique and
You can visit the
ASC website here and their
page here. Your subscription will support the ASC in their
efforts to educate and to save the history of our chosen field. It
may be one of the most important $19.95 purchases you make.
King Kong: The DVD Interview
The following is a discussion held on August 25, 2005 between
George Feltenstein (GF),
Senior VP Theatrical Catalog Marketing for Warner Home Video... Ned
Price (NP), VP of Mastering
for Warner Brothers Technical Operations (Warner Brothers
Pictures)... Ronnee Sass (RS),
Executive Director of Publicity for Warner Home Video and RAH (RH),
an innocent bystander.
Robert Harris (The Digital Bits):
There are nasty rumors going around, and I don't know if this is
you, George or Ned, but am I correct in what I'm hearing that at the
very end of the film the bi-plane that shoots Kong?
George Feltenstein & Ned Price:
RH: That the pilot of the
plane is now Ned, and George is at the machine gun.
GF: No. No.
RH: You haven't stuck yourself
Ronnee Sass: Tempting as it
may be... We don't want to destroy any of the history...
RH: Why don't we begin first
with Ned. We all know this has been a problem film for decades. What
I know about it... I was able to track the original negative for 10
or 12 years. I know they made a lavender which went to the UK. The
original negative has disappeared. I don't think anyone ever found
any destruction records on it unless you did.
RH: There are rumors that it
may still survive, but you guys certainly don't have it.
NP: I never consider a
negative destroyed unless I find paperwork, we continue the search
until the elements are found or destruction has been documented.
We've located original camera negatives for fifteen features in the
last two years, previously thought to be lost, these titles include
Anthony Adverse (1936), David
Copperfield (1935), San
Quentin (1937), The Women
(1939) complete with Technicolor sequence and the one missing
negative reel for The Treasure of The
Sierra Madre (1948). We located censored or deleted
sequences for six films, including Public
Enemy (1931), City for
Conquest (1940) and Top Hat
RH: Which is the proper
position to take certainly. What did you have to work with? Because
the best surviving element was always in the UK, and that's what
Bill Everson used to make 16 mm prints from.
NP: I think the best element
was the dupe negative from London. That was 1933. It was
manufactured from the lavender.
RH: It was from the '33
lavender then. And we don't know if the lavender exists.
GF: No, we don't.
RH: So this is before the film
was darkened for re-issue.
NP: Yes, this is a 1933 dupe.
RH: It should be gorgeous,
GF: Well, it's aged a little.
RH: Haven't we all?
NP: The sync was off at the
head and tail, which is corrected. End credit music was correct, but
end titles were wrong. This element has a great rating card at the
head which says "This film has been rated horrific."
RH: Horrific? Really? Is that
going to be on the DVD as an extra?
GF: No. This is the first time
I'm hearing of it.
RH: What is your overall
feeling about the state of the elements and what you've been able to
do with them?
NP: Well, given what we had to
work with, I think we did quite a lot with picture and track. I
never consider restoration of a film definitive, we will revisit if
a new element is found, or a new technology is developed. I never
consider anything done and always want to go back and tackle it
RH: Everyone does.
NP: I'm very pleased with what
we have. It's heart wrenching to not have the original camera
negative as a source. I always imagine what the film could have
RH: Well, you're starting two
generations away, but I bet it's going to be the best that anyone's
seen in what, the last 30, 40 years anyway.
NP: Yes, I think it will be.
RH: How does the extra 250-300
feet of cut material look. How far back did you get on that?
NP: We found a decent dupe of
RH: Was that part of the dupe
negative from the fine grain?
NP: Yes, this material was cut
out of the 1933 British dupe, and so we just lost a frame on each
side. It was rolled up in a separate can.
NP: Interestingly, the
deletions were out of sequence on the roll as if they had cut it
once, gone back and cut it again.
RH: Do you have the material
that came from Philadelphia?
NP: Actually I do, we acquired
the footage from a collector.
RH: But you're using the other
NP: That's correct, the UK
deletions were different than the US censor cuts.
RH: Okay. So this must be a
NP: It is, a lot nicer. We
also have a 1942 domestic version, a print, which gives us a
snapshot of the condition of the original camera negative. And so we
could tell that it was missing frames because of damage. Dupe
sections, cement splices in the picture and the track, It was
notched, and had repairs, but the print was in fair condition, but
they had flash frames all the way through on cuts which was another
problem, and that was the domestic version. And then, we found a
nitrate dupe negative which had moisture damage.
RH: So you've been around the
world with this.
NP: Oh yeah. Literally.
RH: Leaving no turn un-stoned.
NP: Well, obviously there are
always more stones to be unturned because we found more material
this time than the last. We've done a thorough job, but I hope to
find even more in the future as Archives and Studios complete
RH: Excellent. I'm sure that
whatever it is, everyone who buys this is going to be thrilled. They
should be tipping their hats in your direction for the amount of
work that's gone into this thing.
GF: And money.
NP: And money, yes. It's been
quite an expensive project.
GF: That's just what Ned has
been working from. On top of that there's the clean up, and you know
this Bob, the clean-up can take four times as long as mastering and
color correction and everything that comes afterward. We'll call it
color correction even though it's black and white.
RH: Well, same thing.
NP: We should use the British
RH: How about timing?
NP: Yes, the term timing is
good. Do you want to address the audio source as well?
NP: We used the variable area
track on the British dupe, we also used 35mm composite nitrate print
and 16 mm print that contained an overture.
RH: A legitimate overture?
GF: From what I understand,
and I've heard both sides of this, there was an overture
specifically created just for the Grauman's Chinese premiere. I
don't know if that is accurate. I also know someone who claims to be
an authority on these kinds of things who claims there never was an
overture. But regardless the right time seems to be similar to
records on what the film ran at Grauman's. That's 104 minutes and 22
RH: Did you check NY state
censorship records? Did you get that far?
GF: No, we only went as far as
RH: Okay, because that's
always a fun source.
GF: That's how we got some of
our information on Showboat.
RH: What is the release date
on this DVD, by the way?
RS: November 22.
RH: George, can you give me
any information that has not been discussed as far as extras.
GF: We waited eight years into
the DVD era to release King Kong,
and there was a very good reason. The same reason we waited more
than four years to release Citizen Kane.
There simply were no film elements acceptable to Warner Bros. for
our quality standards. Although we own the RKO library outright, the
previous owners sublicensed certain international rights many years
ago, and those licensees had released DVDs of these films, but we
felt we could do better if we waited to find better film element
sources. The improvements in DVD authoring technology over the years
also are certainly a benefit. We always wanted to get it out, but we
wanted to get it right (or as best as we could) the first time, and
so when Ned and his many talented colleagues finally assembled a
series of elements they considered worthy of release, we knew we
could start moving.
Soon thereafter, when Peter Jackson had arrived in Los Angeles to
attend the Academy Awards in 2004 (and take home his Best Director
statuette among others), he learned we were preparing the original
Kong for DVD, and asked to
meet with us. We knew he was one of the world's foremost Kong
experts. When we met he expressed his interest in working with his
talented crew to recreate the infamous "missing spider pit
sequence" that was cut from Kong
before its original theatrical release. So among the many enhanced
content special features on our new Kong
DVD, there's a fascinating piece on how Mr. Jackson and his crew
went about this. They recreated many of the original models used in
the stop-motion animation in the sequence, but Mr. Jackson has in
his own KONG collection, one
of the actual original models from that portion of the film. The
model was much too old and delicate to be used in this re-creation
sequence, but they needed to know how this puppet worked inside, so
they could build a new one that worked and looked like the original.
They took in the vintage original model to a hospital and had it
x-rayed. This whole process was documented for the DVD while these
talented artisans were filming this little re-creation of a missing
two and a half minute sequence. It's really quite fascinating.
RH: This is starting to sound
like Forgotten Silver,
certainly one of the finest mockumentaries ever created.
GF: Yeah, it's really amazing.
I underscore this - we do not support cutting this into the motion
picture because it was not part of the release, and it is not the
missing footage. It's very, very clear that this man who loved King
Kong so much so that it's his favorite film, and it made
him want to be a filmmaker. He and his colleagues really got
together as a labor of love to try to re-create this. And
fortunately the script, photographs, and surviving sketches and
storyboards gave them enough to go on to make it really close to
what they think it really was. And they're very clear about that.
But the icing was that they matched the grain structure and the look
and the grey scale of the surrounding footage so that it really
looks authentic. And I have not seen King
Kong umpteen times like most people have. I've seen it
once or twice and was basically waiting around for something
beautiful like what Ned and his company have done. So I wasn't
familiar enough to know where the old footage stopped and the new
footage that Jackson shot cut in. They present the footage with
RH: And is it transparent?
GF: I couldn't tell where the
old ended and the new began. Someone who's a lot more familiar with
the film might be able to, but I couldn't, and we were watching it
projected in a digital cinema.
RH: Well, for a lot of people,
I think that alone is going to be worth the price of admission.
GF: I certainly think so. The
passion that went into putting so much effort into reconstructing an
approximation of 2 minutes of lost film is quite fascinating. There
are many other special features of the disc, many of which had Mr.
Jackson's involvement. Additionally, we are proud to have
commissioned Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay
Productions Ltd to create a new documentary on Merian C. Cooper, the
true father of the Eighth Wonder of the World. The title, I'm
King Kong: the Exploits of Merian C. Cooper is a great
one, because he was the creator of this character and he was such an
adventurer himself. He was more like Carl Denham than anybody else
in the world. So I think that people will be thrilled by the whole
way that we present all of this. And there's a whole piece dedicated
to Max Steiner. This is really one of the first landmark film
scores. And tributes are paid to Willis O'Brien... even David O.
Selznick's involved in that he gave Cooper and Schoedsack the
freedom to do what they wanted to do. And then we have all the
existing footage from Creation,
which you know is the film that they were making at RKO that was
stopped when they started making King
GF: So, that footage came from
the Library of Congress but the shots were all out of order and they
were just kind of a mish-mash. What Peter Jackson and his team did
was that they utilized the original shooting script intended for
Creation so they put it all
back together in proper order. That's just a nice little bonus.
RH: You've got a two disc set
and a three disc set?
GF: It's a two disc set and
it's loaded. And we have many different configurations in how we're
selling this, but the content of the two disc set is the same
whether you buy the two disc Amaray or the two disc Collector's Set
that comes in the tin with a digi-pack inside, the disc content is
The difference is that inside the gorgeous collectable tin you also
get the reproduction of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre opening night
program, which is 22 pages and incredibly sumptuous. Obviously it's
a reproduction and it's been shrunk down in size, like we did for
Gone with the Wind, but it's
very readable and quite beautiful.
RH: The inclusion of the
reproduction of the Kong
program was one of the many highlights of Ron Haver's "David O.
Selznick's Hollywood." I've never seen an original, but was
told that the covers were actually made of thin sheet copper.
GF: But there's more. We have
a poster offer where they can send shipping and handling and get a
27x41 repro of the original 1933 poster - one of the posters - there
was more than one style. And then we have postcards inside that are
repros of other Kong posters.
RH: Then you have the three
disc set with Son of Kong and
Mighty Joe Young and...
Joe Young comes with the two disc Amray of Kong
in what we call the King Kong Collector's
Set. That will be part of the solicitation that we have
now. All of those are available singularly as is the Last
Days of Pompeii and we wanted to put that out now because
of Cooper and Schoedsack, but we didn't feel it was proper to
package them with Kong or Mighty
Joe Young because they have nothing in common other than
RH: So Pompeii
is not going to be part of the three disc?
GF: It's not part of any set.
It's available singularly. Just like Point
Blank with the last film noir box.
RH: You mentioned the new
Cooper documentary, as one of the extras with the new Kong
set, which has been created by the UK company generally considered
to be the leader in the field, certainly from these quarters. How
did this come to pass?
GF: Kevin and Patrick
approached both Warner Bros. and TCM about doing a documentary on
Merian C. Cooper. They knew that the Jackson Kong
remake was coming, and figured that we'd be doing "something"
at least on the TCM end. They didn't know about the WB restoration
of Kong itself, so the timing
At first we thought... no one knows who Merian C. Cooper is.... but
then we realized what an amazing, unconventional life he had, a
wondrous one, and that this would be the perfect opportunity to tell
the story. Both WB and TCM agreed to partner up on this, as we also
did with Photoplay on Garbo.
The documentary was shown at Telluride over Labor Day weekend. It
is narrated by Alec Baldwin (Kenneth Branagh was unavailable to
Kevin for this and Garbo) and scored by Carl Davis. It's an hour
long and covers his whole life from WWI adventurer, to jungle
explorer, to documentarian, to writing Kong
and selling the idea to RKO, saving the studio, them making him head
of production (who knew he thought to team Fred & Ginger),
through his WWII adventures, onto the Ford collaborations and ending
with Cinerama. It's still really fascinating, and it will be on Disc
One. All the other documentary material is on Disc Two.
RH: While it would be nice if
Photoplay could do more documentaries, their work is quite
hand-crafted and time consuming. Who are your other high end
GF: Warner Home Video uses
lots of very talented companies. We just finished working with
wonderful folks at Spark Hill on the extras for our new 2 & 3
disc releases of The Wizard of Oz
who just did a magnificent job, because in 1993 when we gathered
everything together for The Ultimate Oz
laserdisc, and the existing 1999 DVD ported over almost all of those
special features. So, I thought: how do you solve the challenge of
creating something new that people will want to buy? Create even
more new extras, and make the disc even more fun. Regardless,
without question the most compelling reason to buy either of the 2
new Oz DVD sets is the new
Ultra-Resolution transfer, which I finally got to see two nights ago
on a test disc, and it blew me away. The picture is beyond belief,
just as Gone with the Wind was
last year, and the new 5.1 track is really going to shock the pants
of off folks. It's astounding. After I finished watching it, I
complemented the hell out of Ned on what he had done.
NP: Well, it's not just me.
It's actually a small army of people in the Archives, Film labs,
Audio houses and Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging which is our
in-house facility. Bill Rush and Craig Johnson were responsible for
locating the new material.
GF: But Spark Hill really
created some magnificent new features for The
Wizard of Oz
And then there's another gentleman,
and I don't know if you know his name, but you will because we're
going to work with him a lot, and his name is Gary Leva. He did the
special content for THX 1138
and we had him do a new piece for Ben-Hur.
The older piece for Ben-Hur
was done for the old MGM Home Video by Turner Home Entertainment.
And although Mr. Heston chose not to participate in it, it's a very
thorough and entertaining show documenting the history of Hur.
However, for this new 4 disc release, I thought we really needed
something phenomenal, and we really needed something new... so Gary
worked on that... and he has George Lucas on camera comparing how he
based the chase in The Phantom Menace
on the chariot race in Ben-Hur
and you've got Ridley Scott and his crew people who worked on Gladiator,
explaining how they used Ben-Hur
as a reference. And cutting back clips of Gladiator
and Ben-Hur, and the Gladiator
people saying "They didn't have CGI in those days... they just
had Buddy Gillespie, they just had Yakima Canutt, you know. They had
to do it for real."
And that's a wonderful touch, to have contemporary artists and
talent, saying how much their work was inspired by Ben-Hur.
Another person who has done some very high profile projects, as
well as some which have gone beneath the radar, is Kim Aubry... Do
you know Kim?
GF: Well, I'm prejudiced about
the impressive work he has done on Coppola's new cut of The
Outsiders: The Complete Novel because it's our film... I
think what he's done for that is sensational. However, Kim's
exceptional work is seen on many DVDs. He's done great work on The
even this little Paramount movie, Danger
Diabolik. He's created all sorts of stuff for that and
it's a film I only know by title, but he made great special features
for it because he had a passion for it. He's a unique and
exceptionally talented individual.
So there are a lot of other people out there who can create notable
special features besides certain people who are attached to certain
RH: We're talking about Cooper
and Schoedsack. One of the later Cooper films, for which I believe
he served as Executive Producer, I'm told is in the works, and that
would be The Searchers
GF: Ned, talk about The
NP: I've pursued getting... I
don't want to say acceptable, but balanced picture from the camera
negative for about five years. I test the negative when we have new
and more powerful color correction tools. I pull the camera negative
out again, and see if I can pull the color back, and I have to say
that camera negative is dead.
RH: It probably was years ago.
Streets, contains a clip from The
Searchers, you can see the negative was completely faded
RH: That makes sense.
NP: We've taken the
VistaVision A and B roll separation masters... all 48 reels and
scanned each of the records in at 4k resolution. The separations
will be combined with the same "ultra-res" process we use
for three-strip Technicolor negatives... we will output a new set of
separation masters from the restoration.
RH: Will you be eventually
recording out new separations there?
NP: Absolutely. We've been
creating YCM separation masters on all of our new films at WBMPI.
I'd like to make a few comments about quality. You asked why Warner
Brothers would go to this degree in our mastering process. We are
now mastering in 4k resolution which allows us to create new
elements for the vault in full 35mm resolution. We were previously
working at a small fraction of the film information which allowed us
to make nice, but temporary, distribution masters. I consider high
definition mastering a "rental" format, because my
experience with the library is that you will have to remaster once
higher resolution is available. The industry is often fooled into
thinking the new "state of the art" technology will never
be surpassed. Now that we're working in film resolution, we're not
just getting a video master, we create a new film element to put in
the vaults, which will take the form of three-strip YCMs for color
RH: How are the 8 perf seps
fitting together on The Searchers.
NP: They're working, which is
great... I did not know if they would be successful as separation
masters were never proof printed up until the late 1970s.
RH: Is there a plan for The
Searchers at this point?
GF: We're going to finish
RH: So you're going to finish
NP: It's a new concept...
RH: Can we go into the
specifics of the Kong picture
elements, what has survived and what was done with it?
NP: Certainly. YCM
Laboratories in Burbank received all of the elements, cleaned,
repaired, test printed them and created a "road map" which
we follow in the 4k scanning process. Richard Dayton and Eric Aijala
identify the best pieces of each element which is a terrific amount
of work and I'm sure you have experienced how thorough and dedicated
they are from your restoration projects.
RH: Are you inter-cutting the
elements shot by short or trying to do it sequence by sequence to
better match image quality?
NP: You try to go by sequence,
but occasionally you go by the shot, as long as it matches.
RH: Are you using any digital
grading to try and make shots match better?
NP: Oh, you bet. You have to,
really to match elements.
GF: But we're not using any
digital magic to change the film, and that's the important thing.
NP: Just film in and film out.
RH: So you're really not
putting yourselves in the pilot seat?
GF: We're not putting
ourselves in the biplane and we're not erasing or removing the
NP: I did a cross sampling of
people in the industry and got all "yeses" when George got
all "nos." It was a really difficult decision, but they're
in the final master. These were props, certain things that were
visible on screen in 1933, but could have been fixed now and are
fixed for all current releases...
GF: But if it wasn't fixed in
1933, it should stay that way.
RH: I'm all for fixing certain
things, like matte lines as in Ben-Hur
NP: We've fixed those...
you're talking about the matte lines in the raft sequence?
NP: When I'm mastering, my
theory is that we're creating an element for current distribution...
The original elements are preserved in their original form... then I
take George's money and create a new distribution version for audio
RH: I totally agree with that
position... because when a modern audience looks at what are
essentially optical artifacts... it stops the film. It affects the
performances... it affects everything in a negative way.
NP: It removes you from the
RH: I'm a great believer in
NP: Tell George that...
RH: George has heard it.
NP: You're aware that this
isn't the first time that Kong
has been re-visited.
RH: I know that work was
performed about fifteen years ago...
NP: I recommend an article by
Scott MacQueen that was published in American
Cinematographer in January of 1989, which deals with the
Once we completed physical restoration and scanning of the image,
it was time to move into the "grading" and digital
restoration work. Kong was
handed over to Ray Grabowski at our in-house facility, who completed
scene-to-scene and in this case often frame-to-frame correction.
He's one of those guys who can, and will go frame by frame where
necessary. He did a beautiful job, he completed Gone
with the Wind last year.
GF: And I saw it going frame
by frame when I went over and watched a little bit of it...
RH: And I bet you hated
sitting there watching it that way...
GF: But I was really impressed
how meticulous the operator was. It was really astounding because
you have to have such patience...
RH: But let's be honest,
George... There are no dance numbers... you didn't want to stay...
NP: There are now... We put
RH: Thanks, gentlemen... and
Ronnee. You're doing terrific work. Always a great experience
chatting with you.
Warner Home Video's long awaited DVD release of King
Kong is set for November 22nd.
* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.
RAH Designates a film worth
of "blind" purchase on DVD.
HERE to discuss this interview with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum.