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

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

A Robert A. Harris Interview:
Columbia's Grover Crisp on Dr. Strangelove


[Editor's Note: Grover Crisp is the Vice President of Asset Management and Film Restoration for Sony Pictures Entertainment.]

Robert A. Harris (The Digital Bits): What is the background on picture elements for Strangelove and their format?

Grover Crisp (Sony / Columbia): The original 35mm picture negative, as is well known, is long gone, destroyed in the 1960's through overprinting at the time. Columbia, like many studios, often made their release prints directly from the original negatives for decades, even up into the early 1970's. As you know, this is one of the reasons why we have the need to restore films to begin with. There are only a couple of original elements on this title, two fine grain master positives, only one of which is in decent physical shape. We made use of this and a couple of other elements for the new HD transfer.

RAH: The new DVD has a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

GC: Yes, because the film was shot for theatrical exhibition and most definitely was meant to be projected in a theater 1.66, the standard flat "widescreen" ratio in Europe, though it can be, and usually is, projected safely in 1.85. Since we were going to retransfer the film for the first time in HD, we decided it was time to create a video version in the correct theatrical aspect ratio in addition to the familiar TV safe full frame version that has been released before. If you look at the full frame transfer from 10 years ago, the source of the previous DVDs, you can see the matted 1.66 framing running here and there throughout, but nothing is consistent in that regard. A lot of people don't realize that most films meant to be projected 1.66 or 1.85 are actually shot full frame and are only matted to the correct ratio in the projector. This accounts for the lack of consistency of the frame exposure in this particular film that I alluded to because at the time it didn't really matter what was outside the 1.66 framing. In other words, you weren't going to see it when projected. That is why sometimes you can see on certain films boom mikes or other objects at the top of a frame on some full frame film transfers. Strangelove is no different, except that, for the initial home video releases, Mr. Kubrick obviously preferred the full frame version, and there are at least two DVD versions already released that way. But it is never shown in a theater that way, and I think the absolute point of all this is that the idea of releasing it 1.66 was to finally give those consumers and collectors a version in the original theatrical aspect ratio, as projected in a theater, not as it is literally exposed on the negative. Many consumers prefer the original aspect ratio or, at least, the choice of it, which is what we are giving them. I do recall, however, having seen posts on some websites in which some people are confusing the OAR definition as being inclusive of everything that was recorded in the camera. Maybe that is what some really mean by OAR, but that is not how we normally define it.

RAH: Agreed.

GC: If that were the case, then all non-anamorphic titles would be released full frame and I seriously doubt people would really like that. Strangelove is never projected theatrically 1.33, though that is essentially what some people who usually want the correct theatrical aspect ratio seem to think Strangelove is, and it is probably just the result of confusion caused by the previous multi-aspect ratio releases.

RAH: What do you take away with you when you read the threads on HTF?

GC: Mainly, I am impressed at how passionate people are about movies. I think it is great that so many people want access to so many pictures. I have read some posts regarding Strangelove, of course, but I appreciated the remarks on HTF of someone named Patrick McCart, which were very reasonable and astute about the new transfer, which it sounds like may have been run on TCM already. Most people seem to be relatively well-informed and open minded. There was an early posting, not on HTF, about how "wrong" this new transfer is, especially in terms of the aspect ratio, but I think the issues about how and why this new DVD differs from the previous ones have been somewhat misunderstood. I think, if anything, a frustrating thing for someone like me is the occasional assumption we see on some websites that we are not doing our best to put out the best quality we can. At least, for our own projects, that is not the case. For one thing, we took great pains to try and remove as much of the dirt and abrasions as we could without affecting the image in any negative way, or creating unwanted artifacts. There is so much stock footage and process footage in this film that was inherently dirty from the beginning that it was not practical to try to remove it all. I always have mixed feelings about removing things like that, from a historical perspective anyway, as I am sure you do, since one of the goals of restoration is to be able to display the film as it was originally produced and released - having it look and sound the way it was on the first day it hit the screen theatrically. On film, that is always the goal. But for any video format, the demands of the medium are that you go much further with it, whether it is changing mono to stereo or "smoothing" over the optical dissolves, or whatever. So, we sometimes take out inherent, production-related anomalies, like positive dirt and scratches that were present when they made the film. Strangelove is full of these inherent problems, and there are still some left which one would think would be accepted as just the natural result of the production itself. However, we did try to remove as much actual damage as possible. I think most consumers will appreciate the fact this is a sharper, better looking transfer with a lot less dirt and other problems than has ever been available before.

RAH: What other problems were inherent in the element?

GC: One particular problem is chemical staining in a number of areas in the film, but particularly in the bomb blast footage at the end of the film. This kind of problem is very difficult to deal with because you can only remove it digitally, which can leave digital artifacts that you don't really want. But we tried to lessen the obvious annoyance in those problematic areas. Additionally, we tried to fix as many of the inherent mislites - literally hundreds - as we reasonably could. Like the stains, these mislites are printed into the element where most of the shots are joined.

RAH: As an annotation, "mislites" refer to incorrect timing changes built into the fine grain element.

GC: Also, since we were working with primarily a substandard second, and a little bit of a third, generation film element, the lack of sharpness is evident. Better than the fourth generation print used for the old transfer, I think, but the film will never look as sharp as we would like it to look. I really wish we had the original negative to work with, but unfortunately we are captive of the quality of the material that is left.

RAH: What are your feelings about the new transfer and how it compares with the previous?

GC: Considering we were able to remaster in high definition for the first time, I think the new one will look especially good in a downconverted NTSC or PAL display. The HD image itself is superior to the old SD one, but you won't really see the full impact of that until Blu-Ray hits the market. Aliasing in the old transfer, like in the B-52 shots and especially in the war room, have been substantially removed in the new transfer. The new one is sharper and has better contrast and density. However, the "darker" nature of the transfer does indeed render less detail in the surrounding image in certain scenes. This has less to do with us "wanting" to make it darker than with the fact that the old transfer was so blown out in the highlights that you could see details that really did not matter in the overall scheme of the image and which the focus of the lighting within the scene indicated they were probably not intended to be so high-lighted to begin with. We didn't set out to intentionally make a much 'darker' transfer, but the film element itself led us in that direction. As you well know, high contrast images often give the appearance of sharpness when in fact it really isn't there, which is a factor in the old transfer.

RAH: I've mentioned the contrast issue in other threads; specifically how it related to dye transfer Technicolor, which was generally not as sharp as direct positive, so the HTF readers are aware of that. You've now worked with enough DPs to be aware of the proper direction to take. Gil Taylor, who shot Strangelove, is 90. What concepts or advice have you received from others in the field?

GC: Without doubt, one of the things the cinematographers I have worked with, including Kovacs, Hall, Roizman, Poster, Zsigmond, stress is the fight against overly contrasted images and adding the proper density. Look at the DVDs of the restored versions of In Cold Blood or Lilith or In a Lonely Place and you will see what I mean. I always think of what [Giuseppe] Rotunno reportedly said during the Fox/Academy restoration of All That Jazz, when he kept wanting the answer prints darker, with the apparent loss of some detail - "Just because I shot it doesn't mean you're supposed to see it." I think this is a good thing to keep in mind and kind of what I was referring to when I said we let the film itself lead us in a certain direction. You can't force it to look one way if the inherent information is not in the image. It just will not look right, and, to me, the old transfer does not look right in terms of contrast and density; it merely replicated accurately what a theatrical print would look like at the time of the transfer. And, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity with better elements and today's HD standards and the ability to color correct in ways we couldn't before.

RAH: So, the major problem with the old transfer was that you were locked into using the only viable element available to you at the time, which was that print.

GC: Correct.

RAH: Kubrick knew at that time that you were forced to use release prints?

GC: Actually, the prints were supplied by him and the old transfer was done here in LA, though not personally supervised by him, but certainly he approved the print to use and the transfer itself. Over the years, as we needed to make prints for theatrical exhibition - this film is very popular in repertory - each and every print was personally screened by Mr. Kubrick in London before he would allow it to be sent out. And he was forever fighting the overly contrasted look of the prints when he made them, to the extent that, on occasion, he would make a print off of one dupe negative one day, then another print off of a different dupe the next day, and then decide which "look" he preferred at the time. I deeply sympathized with his dilemma since it was very difficult to get a consistent and satisfying look because of the inherent substandard qualities of the surviving material. The old transfer reflected these properties.

RAH: Did you attempt to make any changes or updates using modern technology, or did you follow what he had set to film?

GC: We did not attempt to re-direct the focus of anything, did not do 'windowing' to any scenes, nor - most importantly - try to impose our own aesthetic on any scenes. By this, I mean, as we transferred each scene, we were mainly adjusting for contrast and density to get a normal transfer, and not making aesthetic decisions based on what we thought the scene should look like. We let the film speak for itself. Therefore, in adjusting the contrast and density of a particular scene, the detail in backgrounds might be more obscured than previously, but it was a natural by-product of getting the focus of the lighting within the scene right based on the inherent content of the film element. We took the same approach with every scene in the entire film, which was transferred side-by-side looking at the old standard def transfer the entire time, so it is not like we didn't know this would look a little different. Our approach was to render a sharper, cleaner transfer without the built-in contrast and blown out highlights of the release print used for the old transfer. I would point specifically to these scenes regarding the inappropriately blown-out sections of the old DVD that we tried to correct - the sun lamp scene (notice how you can barely see the actress' legs in the old one, and in the new one you can see her and even more detail in the backgrounds as well) and practically all the war room scenes, where the previous transfer had highlights so blown out that a lot of detail was actually obscured, not the other way around. There had to be compromises here and there because of the nature of the elements, no question, but I feel good about most of the choices we made and the ones I don't feel good about had more to do with the lack of a good film element to work with than anything else.

RAH: How do you look at this politically?

GC: If you mean the aspect ratio, I think it is an interesting topic, and I suppose some will somehow attempt to make more out of it than there really is. First, considering all the discussion over not releasing DVDs in the correct theatrical aspect ratio, I would have thought most people would be rather pleased about this facet of the new DVD, and I think they will be if this version is considered on its own merits. We were certainly conscious of Mr. Kubrick's previous desire for full frame, but even though some people may think it somehow heretical to release it letterboxed correctly, the only answer I can give is that no disrespect was intended and the earlier full frame versions are already there for them. The correct theatrical aspect ratio, I think, adds value to this new DVD for the collector. Second, changing the contrast and density to a more proper look - which I discussed with Leon [Vitali, SK's right hand man] several times - does indeed render it darker, with certain detail more 'obscured', but it is closer to what the film really is. But only a bit "closer", since it will never look exactly like it may have in 1964, and that is because of the lack of original film elements. And, since there is no original negative, and we have to contend with what exists and the way they were made, I think this is a good and honest attempt to create a transfer and DVD that more closely resembles the theatrical experience of this film.

RAH: I know you've had a number of projects in the works, to which you return when something positive occurs, such as finding a new bit of film or audio. Is there anything that you're comfortable discussing for public consumption?

GC: You and I discussed the missing elements and various ideas surrounding Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965) years ago when Sony / Columbia had done a thorough search of our elements in known inventories. The problem was that we couldn't find much. The studio did not keep most of the trims and outtakes or sound mix elements (no 1/4" dailies, for instance), and definitely did not keep any lifts or deleted scenes in either positive or negative form. A few trims existed, but most of that is just for what is already in the film. Some minor outs exist in negative form, but no audio pre-mixes, or anything like that, existed. I knew we had a slightly longer version in the separation masters, but they were incomplete. We continued our search and consolidating worldwide inventories and, frankly, struck gold this past year, when we found a complete soundtrack for a longer version. Complete and finished in every way. This led me back to looking for picture to match and, sure enough, the track matched the version in the seps.

RAH: To cinephiles, this is exciting and important - especially to the many Peckinpah fans out there. This material had been thought lost for nearly forty years. When did it all start to come together?

GC: I started looking into this film seriously around 1995, and I believe inspecting the minimal amount of trims that existed was one of the first things Mike Pogorzelski did at the Academy when he started there as an archivist. Michael Friend [founding director of the AMPAS archive] and I decided to bring AMPAS in on the project, the project being to determine just what we had here in terms of picture trims, to see if anything was really of use. It was a useful exercise and Mike inspected other elements, of course, but it led nowhere, looked hopeless, and I did not have time to put into it then. Plus, we were missing some key reels, two records from different reels of the seps and one reel of original negative, all of which had some of the longer scenes. So, in the intervening years, storage facilities closed, we move things around, and we looked for new or misidentified material all the time, but especially in the period of '97 to 2002.

RAH: When did you decide to take on the project in earnest?

GC: I finally decided to tackle this film about two years ago, knowing at the time we had incomplete elements, and decided to work with Tom Heitman at Cineric laboratory in New York. He and Balazs Nyari, who owns Cineric, are some of the key people in the restoration lab business in this country, always willing to push the envelope and try new things. I had worked with Cineric on Funny Girl, the fade process titles like The Man from Laramie, Bell, Book and Candle, My Sister Eileen, etc. Plus, I knew we would have to recombine the seps for about half the film to get the new scenes and Cineric is very good at handling recombination of masters, Tech 3-strip shows, odd formats, and so forth.

RAH: How about the audio?

GC: Initially, I thought we would need to go back to square one with the audio and re-record a lot, which was one of the reasons I was postponing getting into it to begin with, but in the course of going through all the audio tracks - which had been done once years before - the longer version magnetic track, a complete mono DME [A DME is a three stripe containing Dialogue, Music and Effects] was identified. It was never identified prior to that as differing from the other tracks. All audio elements, whether magnetic, optical, English, Music and Effects, all foreign language tracks, including French - every bit of it matches the short version as originally released. So, it was only in deciding to go through all of it again that we discovered this one lone magnetic element that was longer. Same number of reels. Both versions are eight double reels, with four common to both versions, four different. Not much in the way of editing or rearranging of scenes was done. The deleted scenes were basically just lifted - however, and fortunately, not until after the seps had been made.

RAH: There's no doubt that you're looking under every rock and going through every frame of every element. It had been rumored that a cut of the film in the area of 143 minutes was the preferred Peckinpah cut. The current version runs about 124. How close have you been able to come to the grail?

GC: After all the searches and all the work, we are creating the longest version we can for which we have completed English audio. Outside of the approximately 12 minutes of footage in the seps, there really is nothing more and I realistically don't expect to see anything turn up in the future, so we might as well go forward with what we can right now.

RAH: That's a huge difference, if you've gotten the running time up to the 136 minute area. If you can find the time, it might be instructive to discuss several of your other projects. For now, I'm sure the question that's going to be asked on HTF is "When is Major Dundee going to come out on DVD?"

GC: We are rapidly approaching completion of the restoration and will transfer it in HD in the next two months. Incidentally, I screened a work-in-progress print for about half a dozen of the top Peckinpah scholars just three days ago and they were really enthusiastic about it, both the quality of the work and the version we have. It is not, technically, a director's cut, of course, since the director is not with us, but we have put back scenes that they had only heard about before, including from Peckinpah himself, and had never seen. The release for the new DVD looks to be around June of 2005. It will be preceded by a theatrical release, beginning in April in New York.

RAH: This is going to be exciting news in the home video area. We just went online at The Digital Bits with a conversation with Warner's George Feltenstein, who has been working hard to create a higher quality home video software environment with the Warner library. The good news here is that Columbia also has someone in place, not only overseeing asset protection, but working actively to reconstruct and restore their library while holding the line on quality. I understand that you've recently gained a voice in all library remastering and what elements are selected. This portends to be a very good thing for the studio, with more control over original aspect ratios and proper versions. Let's try to talk again soon.

---end---

The Digital Bits would very much like to thank Grover Crisp for his efforts to bring great Columbia classics like Dr. Strangelove to DVD, and for taking the time to speak with us.

CLICK HERE to discuss this interview with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum.


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