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

Robert A. Harris - Main Page


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 Bacon.

Alec Guinness

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 (hopefully) enjoyed.

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 progressively better.

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 elements?

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 Room*.

I noted discussions on The 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 market.

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 misleading.

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 transfer rate.

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 raised.

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 maximum.

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 estate.

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 overall resolution.

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 Bailey.

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 a ride.

***

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 dropping.

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.

Robert Harris

---

* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK 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.


Robert A. Harris - Main Page


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