There are very few actors who have been considered chameleons. I'm
not speaking in terms of heavy makeup a la Chaney, but rather an
actor's ability to transform themselves by the way that they move,
stand and speak, into totally disparate characters. Gary Oldman has
the ability to do this, but usually with the help of some makeup.
The only current working actor I would place in that light without
any aid of makeup is Edward Norton.
But for over forty years there was another. And looking over his
curriculum vitae, the interconnections found there between other
actors, directors, cinematographers and others reads like an
encyclopedia of the British film industry. A veritable British Kevin
Sir Alec worked his way through years of stage performances, finally
appearing for the first time on film in David Lean's 1946 Great
Expectations*, one of the mainstay classics of both
Dickens and of cinema in the 1940s.
Beginning with Expectations*
and fanning out from there are a myriad of inter-relationships
starting with Lean, John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Ronald Neame, Guy
Green and many others, and going on to include the likes of
screenwriter William Rose. I bring this up as I noticed it while
viewing the splendid new offering from Anchor Bay, appropriately
titled The Alec Guinness Collection.
While many of the younger readers will know Sir Alec as the sage of
Star Wars fame, the
classically trained actor began in Dickens, but found his own voice
in the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s through the mid 1950s.
Ealing began in 1929 as ATP, Associated Talking Pictures. A small
studio was built under the aegis of Basil Dean, a theater director.
The location for the studio was Ealing Green. Through the late 1930s
the studio was the production center for not only ATP, but also for
Gainsborough - another producing entity headed by Michael Balcon
(grandfather of Daniel Day-Lewis), who had also been affiliated with
Gaumont British through which some of Hitchcock's early films were
produced. In the late 30s, Balcon had an arrangement with MGM to
serve as the British production center for Louis B. Mayer. Goodbye,
Mr. Chips came from this partnership. And from it another
name in the Guinness list - Freddie Young, director of photography.
After ending his relationship with MGM, Balcon, was in need of a
production center. Ealing became that entity. Originally a
subsidiary of ATP, Ealing Studios, Ltd was the actual company which
owned the lot. And with the rise of Balcon, films which hitherto had
been made at Ealing, were now produced by Ealing. Over a period
between 1938 and 1959, Ealing became one of the British
standard-bearers for films of quality. Ealing was the home of
directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton,
Robert Stevenson, Anthony Krimmins, Harry Watt, Alexander
Mackendrick, Robert Hamer, Seth Hold and others.
But when one thinks of Ealing, one must think in terms of the films
which made it famous, the studio becoming an adjective. The Ealing
Comedies. Dark comedies all.
Beginning in 1949 and running through 1956, the Ealing Comedies have
stood the test of time. When someone speaks of THE classic British
comedies, they speak of Ealing. And when speaking of Ealing
Comedies, the consummate bits of perfection which must come to mind
are those which star Sir Alec.
There are four. Kind Hearts and Coronets*
(1949), The Lavender Hill Mob*
(1951), The Man in the White Suit*
(1951) and The Ladykillers*
(1955). Anchor Bay has offered these hors d'oeuvres with a fifth
non-Ealing comedy, the 1953 The Captain's
Paradise*. I'm not going to tell you anything about any
of these films other than that they must all be viewed and
But precisely how much is a DVD worth these days? I unfortunately
came up with a strange and disquieting comparison. I stopped into my
local Borders to pick up a copy of Hollywood
Ending. $28 for a recent film?
I next visited Sam Goody's and found the very same DVD offered for
$32.99. Possibly its me, but that just seems expensive.
The set of four Guinness Ealing Comedies, listing at $70 for the
set, is available at DVD Empire at the amazingly low price of only
$56. The very same set of four Guinness Ealing Comedies is also
available via Deep Discount DVD for $42. The
Captain's Paradise*, available only as part of the boxed
set is... free.
What's the quality, you ask? Several of the original negatives for
these films were lost in a laboratory fire in London, so we have
what we have. That aside, these are all A quality transfers, with
the exception of Kind Hearts*,
which I would classify as slightly lower, as produced from a film
element with small problems. The
Ladykillers* especially, is a mid-fifties Eastman Color
beauty. I cannot recommend a current offering more highly.
For more information on Ealing Studios, I suggest the book by
Charles Barr from Overlook Press, which served as the background
research for my comments.
Something interesting has been occurring recently regarding the
quality of DVD releases in general. They've been getting
As a direct result of the higher quality of DVD, there has been a
necessity to both revisit older releases and give them new
transfers. But along with this has been a very positive situation in
which we can now look to the majority of the studio releases and
make the assumption that the films are going to look superb. While
there are occasional missteps, this is becoming more and more
infrequent. But is there a means of making the DVDs look even
better, assuming that you have access to superior quality film
The answer would seem to center around transfer speed, ie, more bits
per second. While some films, especially of shorter lengths, have
been authored with higher speeds, the norm for films of normal
length was to somehow make them fit. And that might mean giving up a
DTS track, foreign language tracks or other niceties.
The first (and only) studio to make a point of their use of higher
transfer rates, and to brand their releases, is Sony.
The SuperBit Releases
Beginning with the re-release of several of their higher profile
titles, which might benefit from the higher rate because of more
available information on the film or in the original hi-def
transfer, Sony offered titles such as The
Fifth Element* (which many had already considered as
being of "reference" quality), Dracula*
and The Mask of Zorro*. More
recent offerings have been The Patriot*,
A Knight's Tale* and a title
which has stirred up a bit of controversy, David Fincher's Panic
I noted discussions on
Home Theater Forum querying if Panic
Room* could be considered a "true" SuperBit
title, and decided to look into the situation. Was Sony merely
marketing sizzle? SuperBit. It certainly makes it sound as if
something special is being delivered. But is it?
One of the major misnomers of video distribution was the concept
that another superior product was being offered, albeit in another
way, via Lucasfilm's THX branding of certain video releases. And
quality was all over the place.
The problem with THX was less with Lucasfilm and more with the
studio marketing departments. Designed to strictly control the
inputs and outputs of video and audio signals, THX made no
representations toward the actual quality of any release, but rather
simply was meant as a guidepost telling the consumer that all of the
equipment through which the various electronic signals were run,
were all up to a certain quality. No one from Lucasfilm ever was to
make creative decisions. They were simply to make certain that all
of the quality on the master made it through to the videotape,
laserdisc or DVD.
The marketing people, however, used the THX branding as a sales
tool, telling the consumer that they were purchasing a video of
superior quality, which had somehow been approved by Lucasfilm. And
from this came some of the ugliest, least viewable videos to hit the
Certainly there were quality releases, but it didn't really matter.
The quality releases would have been high quality without the THX
logo, which again, simply made certain that the hardware and
software were functioning properly together. In the end, it was very
However, having viewed a number of Sony's SuperBit releases, and
having compared the earlier lower bit rate discs with the newer
SuperBits, I can comfortably say that the SuperBit technology and
releases are not only of higher quality, but worthwhile releases.
There is a great deal more going on here than marketing sizzle,
especially now that Sony is going the route of multiple disc
releases. So that rather than ending up with a higher quality film
without the extras, you can now have it all. I would go out of my
way, and pay more to have a film on SuperBit.
Before I go into specifics, I must offer a single caveat. For those
of you who have not yet moved up to a high quality monitor,
especially of a larger size, the difference may not be noticeable,
if it is noticed at all. The differences in these releases are in
direct relationship to the quality of one's playback equipment.
Therefore, if you plan to NEVER upgrade your equipment, SuperBit
technology will do little for you, and you can probably skip the
rest of this discussion.
If, however, you plan to upgrade or already possess the video
hardware to make your neighbors envious, then SuperBit is for you.
Here is what I have discerned from the various releases...
For those who are regular readers of The
HTF, I have borrowed back some of my earlier postings. I
see no reason to re-write what has already been written. For those
with that odd sense of humor who will undoubtedly comment on HTF
something on the order of "It was written then...," I'll
beat you to the punch.
Film doesn't lie!
For those of you who have not yet discovered that multiple
actuations of a button found on your DVD remote will bring up the
constantly changing transfer speed as your disc is read by your
player, this is probably the first place to go - possibly even
before reading further. What you'll find there is a readout,
measured in megabits per second, within a range of zero to ten. But
this doesn't give you all the information you need. On top of the
numbers, you must believe your eyes.
The average DVD will be found to play mostly in the 3-7 area, with
occasional peaks as necessary for a quality presentation without
digital flaws. The compression is constantly changing based upon the
"needs" of the individual frames/shots. The SuperBit
titles have a higher overall bit rate, sometimes as much as 50%
higher, with generally higher highs and higher lows in comparison to
the non SuperBit titles.
During compression - and I'm being really basic here - the actual
numbers which read out are almost meaningless, as they are dependent
upon what is on screen, and how what is on screen inter-relates on a
frame by frame basis. The lower the level of movement, the lower the
level of change from frame to frame, the less need for a higher
If one were to look at Beauty and the
Beast from Disney, or any high quality animated film, in
which backgrounds are generally stationary, you'll note that the
transfer rates don't need to be terribly high to generate a high
quality digital image. On the other hand, if a scene in a live
action film has a great deal of movement, rapidly changing
foreground and background or high detail, which the compressionist
would like to see make it to the final product, the bit rate must be
Therefore, it doesn't matter what the actual numbers happen to be,
the final analysis is what is on screen. Some shots do not need to
register more than 3.5-4 to look fully developed on your screen.
Others need a faster bit flow and less compression.
I did a full comparison of both The Mask
of Zorro* and The Patriot*.
While the original releases, which were quite beautiful in their own
right, had a transfer range in the mid 3s to the high 8s and low 9s,
their SuperBit incarnations work within a range starting in the mid
4s and hitting a full 10 on numerous occasions. And the difference
in overall resolution, within those scenes which are affected, is
MAJOR. In general scenes, for which a higher rate was not a
necessity, it is much less obvious, or of no higher quality.
One scene which I sampled from The
Patriot* takes place in the second floor of a home
between Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. Outside the window a
revolutionary battle is in full swing. A comparison of details in
long shots brings forth a smoother, more satisfying image with
slightly more detail. But there was also a close up in the room
where the camera picks up Gibson's eyes. In the original release,
one can make out the color of his eyes. In the SuperBit release,
details can be discerned, which in the earlier example were nowhere
to be found.
In The Mask of Zorro* there
are several scenes and shots which, via the higher rates offered by
the SuperBit technology, are appreciably cleaner with more detail,
better depth to shadows and less noise.
The Mask of Zorro* is a 137
minute film. The Patriot* is a
165 minute film. This means that the DVD is made up of almost
240,000 frames, each which must be compressed in an
interrelationship to those coming before and after.
Panic Room* is a 112 minute
film, or approximately 162,000 frames. And it is a totally different
film than The Patriot*. And by
this, I'm not referring to story, but rather, to the type of
information on each individual frame. Where Patriot*
has hundreds of extreme long shots, many of them digitally created,
with huge amounts of foreground and background action, Panic
Room* has many stationary shots.
In the best of all worlds, The Patriot*
cannot fit on a single layered DVD, so its 240,000 images are split
in some fashion between two layers, each of which was designed to
hold, on average, 194,000. Therefore, Panic
Room* was pressed as a two layered disc, with each layer
intended to carry 135 minutes of regularly compressed "entertainment."
Again, being simplistic about it, one would use 135 minutes as a
The quality of a digital video release must initially be based upon
the quality of the original transfer from film, which in turn is
based upon the availability/selection of a high quality film
element. That beautiful transfer can be either destroyed, or come to
us as reference quality, by its handling in compression.
Due to the discussion on The HTF,
I went to my local Borders and purchased a copy of Panic
Room*. After viewing, and sampling the bit rate, there
was no doubt in my mind that, albeit in different packaging, Panic
Room* IS a SuperBit release.
Sony offered it as a SuperBit ONLY release at a sell though street
price of under $20. The only difference between Panic
Room* and other SuperBit releases is that it contains
some additional track information, which takes up very little real
I was confounded seeing disgruntled comments on The
HTF about the release, because it didn't fit into a
pre-determined, totally stripped format, which can be predicated by
either the film's length or a combination of length, detail and
movement within the frames.
I'll repeat. This is a 112 minute film on a double layer disc,
capable and designed to hold 270 minutes of compressed information.
One also has to take into consideration that this is a David Fincher
film, which in this case means that the frame includes a great deal
of darkness, and dimly lit images, which is the single most
difficult thing to bring across with high quality on DVD. In Panic
Room*, it is more what you DON'T see than what you do,
that makes the difference in viewing pleasure based upon a higher
I don't know if the film was even released on VHS, but if it was,
then a brief look at a tape will give you some idea of precisely how
noisy this film might have looked. It is only because there is no
non-SuperBit release that the transfer is calling attention to
itself. But going along with Sony's edict for quality transfers AND
the fact that this film was only 112 minutes, gave them the ability
to do a general release in SuperBit on a single DVD.
Have other companies released films with a high bit rate? Certainly.
One such title which easily fits into this mold is the new release
from Warner, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood*. This 116 minute film also has a high bit
rate and one of the most beautiful transfers that I've recently
viewed via a new production. It's obvious that a great deal of care
went into this release.
As an aside, I went into Ya-Ya
blind. I knew very little about it other than it was billed as a
women's film. Wrong. It's a people film with superb performances, a
many layered story and absolutely beautiful cinematography by John
Seemingly, the major need for SuperBit is less with films which run
under two hours, and more for films of longer running times, where
the digital squeeze to both hold quality while adding features
becomes an oxymoron. And this would answer the question of why Panic
Room* was available as a SuperBit release at regular
prices. The other side of the Panic Room*
coin, which should be brought to light however, is that had Sony
wished, it could have released the film as a single layer disc --
but did not. They held the quality and went for two layers.
Sony has created this as a signature product of high quality, using
the trade term "SuperBit." In releasing Panic
Room* as such, the studio is simply allowing the audience
to know that while this is not being offered as a premium priced
product, it fits within the guidelines of a certain quantifiable
quality upon which the audience should be able to rely.
The final product is a combination of transfer and compression...
and finally authoring. Many titles which COULD be released with a
high bit transfer rate are not. What must be understood is that the
film elements and transfer quality must both be of high enough
quality or the SuperBit compression (or whatever another studio
might wish to call it)...
...WILL MAKE THE FINAL PRODUCED DVD LOOK WORSE, as all of the film
element and transfer flaws begin to show.
What Sony has created via their SuperBit label is a viable working
example of what THX might have (and should have) been, but never
became since a confused audience never understood what it was. The
fact that it was sold as a product of higher quality was a misnomer,
created via poorly thought out marketing. THX merely meant that the
recording hardware was working at a certain index had nothing to do
with the quality of the final product.
Sony, in marketing their SuperBit tradename, has created and IS
DELIVERING a higher quality product, albeit one which has its
greatest value when played back on the high quality systems which
some of you enjoy.
A couple of additional releases are noteworthy for quality. First,
somewhat lost in the flurry of publicity for the new release of Singin'
in the Rain*, was a title which needed a much more
serious re-visiting. Unforgiven*,
the multiple Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1992, was one of
the earliest Warner titles to make its way to DVD. As such, it was
based on an older transfer, which when ported over showed flaws
which were not obvious on laserdisc.
There were no blacks. Shadow detail was crushed. And this being a
dark film... the new transfer and release to a double disc DVD has
provided a fresh and rich look to this film, with thick blacks and
detail down in the shadows. The majority of the noise and problems
of the earlier version are gone, and Unforgiven*
now deserves a place on your shelf.
Another new release, which I've just had the opportunity to view, is
The Sum of All Fears*, newly
minted by Paramount in a beautiful widescreen anamorphic transfer.
Paramount hits a high quality standard once again. Although it takes
a while to re-visualize the Jack Ryan character created by Harrison
Ford, now placed in the hands of Ben Affleck, once it takes off,
this "horrifying vision" as Roger Ebert calls it, is quite
While I prefer not to make negative comments about DVDs in this
column, the difference between two discs which I viewed last night
makes it an unfortunate necessity.
I first watched the newly minted E.T.*
from Universal. I've been reading a certain amount of Uni-bashing on
line and think that it is unjustified.
First, let me say that the new transfer is about as perfect as is
possible in NTSC. The pure amount of controlled shadow detail and
densities within Allen Daviau's images are the most beautiful I've
seen. Kudos to all involved at Universal.
On the bashing side, it seems quite obvious to someone unaffiliated
with what apparently went on behind closed doors, that changes were
made very late in the production plan to add the 1982 version of the
film to all offerings.
I don't believe that there is any plot on behalf of Universal to
trick people into purchasing a more expensive version of the release
to obtain the original cut of the film. But rather, things occurred
so late in the production of discs, packaging, etc, that the fact
that the 1982 version is only mentioned on an enclosed insert and
that some additional elements were dropped in its favor was
unavoidable. What has happened is that everyone is being given both
versions of the film. Without publicity. Without fanfare. I don't
see the downside.
I also purchased the new High Noon,
one of my personal favorites. This is the third time that I've
purchased the DVD, always hoping that they'll get it right.
Well... they haven't.
The first release was so horrifically compressed that it appeared
that digital worms were moving in actor's cheeks during close-ups,
with synchronization problems on top of it.
The second release had a better compression scheme, but was still so
digitally reworked that it bore absolutely no resemblance to that
other High Noon. The one
directed by Fred Zinnemann, produced by Stanley Kramer and
photographed by Floyd Crosby.
Now, with the new commemorative special super release of a purported
High Noon, we are treated to
the same transfer with odd contrast schemes, strange electronic
sharpening, and no grain whatsoever, totally removing any evidence
that this was ever a "film."
The fact that the publisher continues to give us added extras like
commentary tracks and documentaries is much like the additions to
Rio Grande and The
Quiet Man... like gilding a large semi-attractive cow
In the hope that things might have gotten better, I purchased the
new "Collector's Edition" of Rio
Grande at the same time. As I can't believe that they
have attempted to create a better disc than the previous release,
which is also almost as unwatchable as High
Noon, it will be returned unopened.
That would make three new releases of important films brought out
concurrently, and all in horrible transfers, where beautiful
transfers can easily be accomplished. Precisely who can the "Collectors"
be that might want to watch these releases?
To end on an up note, I also screened MGM's new DVD of one of the
great political comedies of the mid-1960s, Norman Jewison's The
Russians are Coming!, The Russians are Coming!*
Very much a product of the cold war, this wonderful film has been
released in a new anamorphic transfer. For those who have never seen
it, this little film, which in many ways brought the Russians and
Americans closer together, is a treat.
For the uninitiated, it should be mentioned that Russians*
was written by a gentleman named William Rose... who also penned
The Ladykillers* (which
starred Sir Alec Guinness)... as well as (along with his wife Tanya)
another of the great, great, great, great comedies of the 1960s (It's
a Mad Mad Mad Mad World)... which was directed by Stanley
Kramer (the producer of High Noon).
Kevin Bacon can rest now until next time.
* Designates a film worthy of
purchase on DVD.
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.