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Transfer Trouble: Formats and Video Fudging

Jon Voight bites the dust in a rare 'scope image from Fearless Frank. 'Anyone out there
even heard of this Philip Kaufman fantasy?

Or, How Dare They Mess up the Transfer of My Favorite Film!

Criterion, one of the class acts of lasers and now DVD, is the company that launched the concept of extra content on home video. This week they released Akria Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro, a pair of crossover samurai epics embraced by art film lovers and action fans alike. One of the first companies to release letterboxed lasers, and to list the aspect ratio right on the packaging, Criterion's DVD boxes say both pix are mastered at the appropriate ratio for TohoScope, 2:35 to 1.

Yojimbo isn't. Like the previous lasers , the film is at something more akin to 2.0, or 2.1 to 1. Sure, it looks fine, but that's no relief to fans like film critic and author Stuart Galbraith, who had the previous Yojimbo laser, and, looking forward to the new releases, trusted the packaging. He already has a Japanese laser at the proper aspect ratio, in the original stereophonic sound that hasn't made it to the Criterion disc.

Chances are few American DVD fans are going to get fussy over Criterion's new samurai disc - Yojimbo is just too entertaining for that. As elitist and finicky as they are, Criterion must compete in the marketplace like everyone else; how otherwise does one account for their Pan 'N Scanned laser of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (reproduced by Fox Lorber on DVD), which puts the lie to the 1:66 AR listed on its own packaging?

Home Video disappointment can come in many forms. Consumers willing to pay for titles they can see on television want something for their money, and are often buying a title for specific, almost personal, reasons. Back in the early 80's it was a big step just to see films transferred from decent negative sources; prior to VHS (and Beta) home video, most television movies were splicey 16mm prints shown on 'film chains': heavy-duty projectors pointed directly into the lenses of television cameras.

When laserdisc introduced letterboxed movies (with, I believe, Die Hard - ?), a whole generation of videophiles was born, just as hifi stereo had created a subculture of audiophiles in the 1950's. With bigscreen televisions and ever-improving audio gear, a lot of disposable income not already commited to cars or sports started going toward home theater.

Letterboxing introduced a confusing array of film formats. The black letterbox bars seemed to change shape and size with every new laser. Curiosity grew about a body of information which previously concerned only studio postproduction people and dedicated projectionists. Image put out educational booklets explaining why the fullscreen laser transfer of Pee Wee's Big Adventure showed Pee Wee pulling an endless chain from his bicycle saddlebag. The transfer ruined the gag by unmasking the 1:85 cutoff area, which revealed the chain feeding upward through a hole in the bottom of the basket. Savant's start was an illustrated page on Letterboxing and Pan 'n Scan for MGM Home Entertainment. Its most popular example showed how a fullscreen transfer of A Fish Called Wanda should have been rated 'X': in John Cleese's comedy nude scene, the open frame revealed not only his private parts but in some angles showed him to be wearing blue jeans!

When telecine colorists weren't accidentally showing too much, they were finding other ways to alter the way films ended up on video. Savant isn't going to surprise many readers by revealing that studios commonly reformat movies even when they say they aren't.

Much of the talk about aspect ratios from the studios themselves is just plain misleading. Couple that with the static from anti-letterboxing zealots and the new fervor of 16:9 widescreen tv fans, and there isn't a week goes by that some particular transfer doesn't result in a mini-controversy. A recent example is Silverado. This Western was shot in a process called Super Technirama, which turns out to be unlike Technirama (an older squeezed Vistavision process), but instead a variant of SuperScope . Like SuperScope 35, Super Technirama uses the soundtrack area of a normal flat 35mm frame for added image, and is meant to be optically reprinted wider for projection ... In other words, it is functionally identical to Super-35, the format championed by James Cameron. Sony /Tristar manufactured thousands of DVD's of Silverado at the wrong aspect ratio. Savant doesn't know whether they just opened up the top and bottom of the frame or cut off some of the sides, too, but Sony immediately acknowledged their mistake and started remastering the film at its official screen shape. They've also given notice that anyone dissatisfied with the first discs can swap them for the replacements when they become available. This exceptional attention to consumer satisfaction is just the kind of Sony attitude that needs to be trumpeted loud and often. When fans squawk about DVD problems, the typical studio response is blank stares, shrugged shoulders, and marketing excuses.

There are a number of good sites linked in Savant Links for direct information about the nuts and bolts of the process of Letterboxing vs Pan 'n Scan. Although the terminology used varies, most of them have it correct and give excellent illustrated examples. What follows is a set of observations and assertions on the subject, based upon the concerns and complaints Savant receives in his mail. This subject is Number 2 in Savant mail (with tech advice still Number 3 - too bad, as Savant knows zilch about the hardware of DVD).

Basic thought #1 - Every film is reformatted for Video.

Even Academy 1:37 movies, unless they are very slightly letterboxed, lose a bit on the sides when transferred to video. And most films are enlarged slightly or 'choked up' to guarantee filling the screen while trimming away the variable frame lines of different film cameras. A lot of original 35mm photography has circular vignetting at the corners, when the original lenses didn't quite cover the picture area. In many cases, with original negatives, etc., worn out or gone, the only transferable element is a reformatted film element.

Basic thought #2 - Aspect ratios for theaters aren't chiseled in granite.

Whereas the old Academy screens were pretty much standardized at 1:37, as soon as theaters began refitting for CinemaScope and widescreen in the 50's, all bets were off. Most houses couldn't knock down walls to make their proscenium wider, so screens were employed that used moving black fabric masks to reshape the projected area. Sometimes the 'giant 'Scope' shows ended up being far smaller than standard flat movies . When flat films changed to 1:66 and then (only officially) to 1:85, many a non-firstrun house gave up trying to keep up with the changes, and adopted a 'one-size-fits- all' policy. A lot just used the same 2:1 screen, and sloppily centered the projected image on it. Flat films were blown up larger and matted down, looking grainier and duller. Anamorphic films were allowed to spill off into the wings, cutting 2:55 and 2:35 down to 2:1 in many cases.

Look at the average drive-in screen (if there are any left around you). Everything projected on them filled the unchanging screen shape regardless of what the filmmakers had intended.

There was some industry confusion about this for a time in 1955. The Variety review for This Island Earth lists its aspect ratio as 'anywhere from 1:33 to 2:1," trying to get it booked into as many houses as possible.

Basic thought #3 - Aspect Ratios on video aren't regulated by law.

MGM Home Video's first letterboxed laserdiscs of Ben Hur preserved its original aspect ratio, in its true wide, wide shape. People were surprised to see such a narrow ribbon of image stretching across their screens. It was almost unreadable on a 19" televison. Even on a big monitor the average actor in a medium group shot had little facial detail. By comparison, Die Hard and Star Wars didn't seem very wide at all (on their first laser incarnations). Even when the packaging quotes a 2:35 aspect ratio, measuring your screen will often reveal a picture cropped down to a little wider than 2:1. The ratios quoted on marketing materials, if accurate at all, refer to the original movie and little else.

Reformatting is routine for a great many films, even with 'officially sanctioned' transfers. Perfectionist Vittorio Storaro, while rethinking many of the colors for the Apocalypse Now laserdisc, apparently had no objection to reformatting the film much less wider than its Technovision ratio. Purists grind their teeth over the practice, but most of the home video industry thinks it necessary to keep the figures onscreen big enough for average sized monitors. Ironically, this is less a problem with newer movies; directed through on-set television monitors, and edited on non-linear video screens, more and more theatrical movies are now directed largely in medium shots and closeups - the fabulous non-style of 'television coverage.' Extreme long shots are rare. No one would think of playing a full scene in a large room in a single master, as was once common.

In '93 or '94, Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog reported a much more sinister practice which he called Zoomboxing. In telecine, wider shots are blown up to make the human figures in them larger. To retain the 'letterboxed' look, the enlarged shots were than overmatted back down to the narrow ratio of the rest of the film. Watchdog showed examples from many films proving this was being done (Starman and Jurassic Park being noted titles). The letterboxing fan, who simply wanted to see all of the image, was cynically given a widescreen movie whose letterboxing was a complete hoax.

Basic thought #4 - There are no rules.

James Cameron, like many bigtime directors, oversees his home video transfers personally. Because he shoots in Super35, he doesn't Pan'n Scan the final, Anamorphic versions, but instead returns to the original flat negative, which has head & foot room never seen on theater screens. For flat versions, he trims a bit off the sides and adds a great deal to the top and bottom; he likes this reformatting so much he says he prefers those transfers to the letterbox versions more accurately following the theatrical presentation of the film. His philosophy is that The Abyss in a movie theater and The Abyss at home are such different experiences that they need to be reformatted ... thinking that goes against the whole concept of Home Theater (we want to watch movies, not television). Luckily, Cameron's films always came out both in letterboxed and reformatted flat versions. The director is so powerful, that fans should be grateful he didn't nix letterboxing altogether.

Every studio has a different policy for DVD; some put both flat and letterboxed versions on a single disc, others only one. Most opt for letterboxed for new releases. When library (older)1:85 theatrical films appear in pan'n scan versions instead of letterboxed, the reasons vary. Warners has put out a line of DVD's mastered from recycled laser transfers of films like Frantic and True Stories, clearly to avoid the expense of retransferring them. Given the general high quality of Warners discs, Savant would hope this to be just an experiment of the moment. Unfortunately, Warners couldn't resist taking this route when they decided to rush to market their Stanley Kubrick Collection. They reused the same laser transfers from the early and middle 80's; the discs Savant has seen have all been Pan'n scanned. The annoying thing about this is the evasive marketing gambit used to deflect criticism of the less-than-impressive transfers. Combining a (true) Kubrick quote that he prefers 'full screen' with the fact that the aged transfers of Full Metal Jacket and The Shining were 'director approved,' Warners proudly announced that the old and dull transfers were mandated by 'the director's wishes' ... cleverly using fan adulation of Kubrick as a way to silence protests and increase profits. It would seem possible that Warners wants to reissue the most desirable of the Kubrick Collection titles later as 'special editions,' an old laser ploy. How many versions of Goldfinger did you buy?

Basic thought #5 Kids and Comedy Fans are allergic to Letterboxing.

Titles considered kiddie or family films are often released only full frame, on the marketing theory that letterboxing is buff stuff and not for ordinary viewing. Modern animation films have to be blown up and Pan'n scanned to do this; Savant has worked with Don Bluth films and more often than not the animation pegs and unpainted edges of cels show when they are transferred true full-frame. This practice caused a minor uproar with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a 70mm title perfect for DVD which was manufactured only in a Pan'n scan version. The 'family rule' concept was applied also to Moonstruck; the marketers narrowed those who would tolerate letterboxing to disinclude romance lovers too. These were definitely marketing decisons as both Chitty and Moonstruck had fully letterboxed tape masters available. Remember Fierce Creatures?. It's a widescreen comedy almost completely ruined by Pan'n Scanning on DVD.

One good sign comes from Warners (who I in no way think are villains) which has remastered Bonnie & Clyde for letterbox and are doing the same to A Christmas Story, which is as kiddie and family-oriented as films get. [Note: this is in doubt now, see revision below.]

Thought #6 - Everybody goofs.

Warners may also be remastering The Searchers, whose first go at DVD severely cropped the movie while filling a 1:78, 16:9 frame. When the letterboxed laserdisc came out in '92 fans were pleased but surprised to see the VistaVision Searchers rather extremely letterboxed. Snapping up the 16:9 DVD, Western lovers found that the otherwise beautiful transfer was grossly overcropped, on both sides and on the top. Most of the cowboy hats on the DVD are bisected by the upper frame line, while plenty of foot room remains below. All the once-perfectly framed Monument Valley vistas look lopsided and crowded. The irony of this is that the picture quality is so improved over the laser that now neither version is satisfying to watch!

Sony's Jason and the Argonauts also seems to be a bit tight around the sides. Sony's fidelity to these kinds of concerns leads Savant to speculate that perhaps in cases like these, the elements used for the transfers might have the bad formatting built-in. This seems to be the case, in a more minor way, with the brand new half-a-million dollar restoration of Yellow Submarine - it has been proven to Savant on monitors that older vhs and laser copies show more head and foot room than the new DVD. The overly wide-looking framing diagram displayed on the box, by the way, is a complete joke.

Savant doesn't really know how to answer the reader who expected the error to be fixed and a new DVD released. Sony's costly fix job on Silverado was pretty exceptional; I doubt that suchsame for Submarine would be considered for a moment. The framing flaw is so minor few will consider it a flaw at all. The presentation is stunning - the Yellow Submarine DVD looks better (and sounds far better) than it ever did on a screen. Since the English 1:55 flat aspect ratio was routinely cropped for America to at least 1:66, we're still probably seeing more than was shown in theaters.

Thought #7 - In general, Video Companies don't want to go there.

Savant received some venemous mail back in '97 over the DVD's of the first three James Bond movies, which were handsomely mastered in 16:9. The first thing one reader noticed was that, when compared to the latest laserdisc versions, the framing looked off and a lot was cropped from the top and bottom . Of course there was! The lasers were 1:55 and and the DVD 1:78! I tried to tell the reader that the Bonds were commonly cropped to 1:85 in America and were shot to play well that way, but he demanded to know when the correction was going to be made. This was a culture crime and the video criminals had been put on notice. Okay, that's his right, I suppose.

The reader followed up his Email charges with letters to the studio that had absolutely no effect. They were put into the hopper with the letters railing over demonic propaganda being inserted into children's videos and the letters ranting about a sound effect missing from a James Bond movie. Just as Savant understands that Video is a business and the studios aren't Evil because they want high profits, he also tries to spread the word that when something isn't right on a DVD it is often no one's fault, indeed, quite the opposite. The overworked people mastering the discs are often confronted with such a jumble of variant versions and elements that they are lucky if they can get the scenes in the right order, let alone put on the version 'Mister Expert' at home remembers seeing. The Man Who Would be King had a different ending in American theaters than what's on the DVD, with a slow-motion closeup effect shot of Sean Connery falling into the Kafiristani ravine. 2001 has a missing line of Hal-9000 dialog. Thunderball once had entire reels remastered missing numerous sound effects, and used to have an entirely different music cue at the end when the airplane plucks Bond and Domino out of a rubber raft. Some versions of Bond films have the 'Bond will be back in...' titles removed from the end, and the music shortened or altered. Keeping up with all these variants isn't easy and often the only way problems are discovered is when a disc hits the public.

Obviously when mistakes are made in discs, or quality-eroding policy decisions are made, studios need to know. But Savant thinks the formatting variance of Yellow Submarine doesn't disturb anyone's experience with the movie. A danger is coming, when the market base for DVD broadens. Then the studios may be less influenced by the ex-laser fans who made letterboxing popular and who are the ones who vocally demand a more sophisticated product. Video corporate types would much rather market their DVD's to a complacent public that buys what's offered without question. Some studios are more arrogant than others, but in general, for the average HV exec, the less debated about technical details and the like, the better. Hopefully, as HDTV slowly grows, the widescreen revolution will kick in and all the benefits the 'connoiseur crowd' have demanded, will stay with us.

Studio people like to call us 'movie buffs,' which translates to them as a soft marketing target that sometimes makes amusing noises over some meaningless 'film buff' detail. To be fair, the studios right now are catering to us, too. But, as proven with The Kubrick Collection, the sales pros can manipulate the cognoscenti as easily as any other segment of the market. Overpriced and under-distributed, laserdiscs collapsed into a vanity format for Hollywood insiders and special collectors. But Savant doesn't think DVD will go the way of laser ... and prefers to believe that a demanding buyer base, and a more-hip studio mindset, will result in a contantly improving product.

REVISION: This letter from 'Mark' contradicts some common information about The Kubrick Collection and necessitated a quick change on the copy above: "Finally, it may have been me that told you that The Shining was widescreen in Japan....a Japanese Kubrick fan who owns an LD/DVD shop over there wrote me that while the film was remastered, it was erroniously listed on all of Pioneer's websites, sales & promo sheets as widescreen; This then filterd into online ads that sell R2 is apparantly full frame, or pan and scan, depending on who you believe. 'Mark'"

If the news of The Shining being letterboxed in foreign regions is false, then we don't have to get unnecessarily paranoid about Warner's Kubrick Collection. Savant's reasoning that they purposely put a spin on their marketing to snooker the Kubrick fans still seems logical, but at least they aren't so dishonest as to be concurrently releasing the same title letterboxed elsewhere. Savant feels upset that he repeated this (widely reported) rumor but wonders why none of the many DVD sites concerned about the Kubrick Collection didn't straighten this out much earlier. Apologies to all, and thanks to 'Mark' for the info.

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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