Kubrick Questions Finally Answered
An In Depth Talk with Leon Vitali
Stanley Kubrick was no stranger to controversy, but nothing has been more discussed or debated than his work released after his death. Kubrick aspect rations, sound formats, gaffes and edits have been debated and discussed, and until now, with little insight from the 'Kubrick Camp'.
DVD Talk was approached by Warner Bros. PR agency as a key spot for long time technical assistant Leon Vitali to communicate once and for all the real story of The New Stanley Kubrick Collection. DVD Talk members were invited to posted their toughest questions which were used to create this interview.
Leon was open and honest with his answers, and provides a clear and definitive look at the wishes and vision of Stanley Kubrick as well as the work that has gone in to creating The New Stanley Kubrick Collection.
First question is quite simply, would Stanley Kubrick have approved of some of the new 5.1 stereo surround re-mixes in the DVD set?
Absolutely. We started talking about doing all this work four years ago. Stanley was very aware that everything was going to have to be redone anyway because of high-def. That was basically sort of the key to the whole thing. When we discussed it, and planned it out, we knew we would have to really start from scratch. Stanley had already spoken with a guy called Chris Jenkins about redoing all of these mono-mixes into 5.1 and 2-track stereo. Chris was the one who helped us with a re-recording of 2001 and whom Stanley admired very much.
So all that had been discussed and you know, not planned because we didn't even have time to do that. But most definitely it was absolutely the next thing we were going to do after Eyes Wide Shut and after we cleared all the theatrical and video releases on it. So it was absolutely always planned and if you say "Would he approve?" all I can say is I used his mono-mixes absolute Bible for levels, so what can you say? I don't think you can try any harder to keep to what it was, add the original mono-mix and separate the tracks out to 5.1 stereo.
So the 5.1 tracks are not new tracks, but more mirrored tracks from the mono mix?
I'll tell you exactly what we did. We had a triple track (DEM), which are on 35 milomagnetic and those are sort of masters that all the mixes are made from: the print masters, sound and what have you. So we had those. We went back and we found almost all the music that was used in his films, you know? We found them through either record companies or in one case, we had taken the recording from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. All over the place. We found all the sort of source music he actually used. And then we cleaned up the tracks, the effects and the dialogue, and then we went into the mixing station and went from there.
All I can say is that we used his original material, the source, and didn't deviate from it. There have been no changes. The levels in musical effects from the dialogue, they're balanced out exactly the same as you would have heard in the mono's.
What's new in the new Kubrick set from a technical point of view. What is some of the work that has gone on to prepare and restore these movies for the second release?
It started in the lab, at a place called YCM, where I made print from the original negative so we could see exactly what condition they were in. In the old days, negatives got used all the time to make printing materials that you use to make theatrical releases or sometimes in the early days even to make the theatrical releases. We went through all that to see what we could fix; sometimes you get perf damage and stuff like that which just makes them very difficult to file without tearing. So we fixed all the damage and made new interpositives. The interpositives is just one generation away from the internegative and the interpositive stock now is 100 times better than it was ten years ago when the first video transfers were done. They hold the blacks really beautiful, they're nice and clean, and they have a nice tonality. We took that interpositive and then went to the TeleCinie transfer, we did it all digital. We did it on the film Spirit 2000, which meant we had to put the element up once which concerted the information into data so I could work as much as I needed to without having to go back to the interpositives again. So picture wise you'll see some pretty significant improvements,
Were you involved at all in the first round of DVD?
In the first round of DVD's? Only in that we started working on that just before Stanley died. We were getting stuff sent over from Burbank. We were having tests done, low compression, what have you. But Stanley died. It turned everything totally upside-down. I just had to go in and sort of work on all the post-production on Eyes Wide Shut, so it was basically edited work and working it out.
There was a lot of rumbling in the DVD community when the set came out from a director who is known to be fanatical about the perfection in every picture and every element of his work. And then to have a print of The Shining that had dust on the gate.
Yeah, I know. I know. But you have to remember one other thing. In the early days of video when the video market was starting, Stanley was not into videos at all. I think if you look at the very first passes on The Shining or in Barry Lyndon, and certainly 2001. We had no involvement in those things at all. It was only after Full Metal Jacket that he started to get involved in any way in the video side of the film market, which is what it is now. It's all a part of the same animal really. So what you can say is that from the very first releases of his videos to when he started to get involved, there's a huge difference. Everything just changes and develops. It's sad that Stanley died when he did, but he did and that's what we have to understand.
The toughest thing for the DVD consumer is, especially around the first release, was the very strong message from Warner Bros. that everything was to his specifications.
Absolutely. And just so you can understand even more, the entire restoration process which I did and we're working towards was planned before Stanley died. The whole process of going from the source material to DVD and the marketing. Just things in the whole process were well underway when he died. There's no way the Warner video could have gotten the first collection out so soon after he died. All that was decided before Stanley died. He wanted the collection to go out, to go off the back of Eyes Wide Shut. You know, he was a businessman. But of course he was, everyone was aware of just how fantastic it was going to be two years later, with the element and the transfer you can get now.
One of the areas of greatest debate in the DVD community is about aspect ratios. The two films that people talk about the most in terms of aspect ratio are Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, maybe because those are the ones that have been seen theatrical by the DVD buying audience. But people will go through kind of frame by frame and say "In the trailer of Eyes Wide Shut, you can see a sign on the street that you can't see on the full frame video. You can see an extra character…" So how do you address the differences between the theatrical releases of Eyes Wide Shut and of Full Metal Jacket in the DVD releases?
The original video release of Full Metal Jacket was in the supervised hands and owned by Stanley. The thing about Stanley, he was a photographer. That's how he started. He had a still photographer's eye. So when he composed a picture through the camera, he was setting up for what he saw through the camera - the full picture. That was very important to him. It really was. It was an instinct that never ever left him. What he wanted the videos to reflect was how he shot the film through the camera, what was on the original neg and what his composition when he was shooting it was. That's why Full Metal Jacket is in full frame. If people looked, okay? What you get on the video that you didn't get in the theatrical because of the 185 masking, was what Stanley was invisioning. You assume these soldiers in the world that they're in. And he uses wide angle uses to shoot. I mean an 18 millimeter lens was the commonest one. He used 24 sometimes. Wide angle lenses. It was important to him the relationship between things. You can see in Full Metal Jacket how small the people were in relation to this huge landscape.
The thing with Eyes Wide Shot, it was how he saw the thing through the camera and how he set it up. That's what he wanted to reflect in his videos. He did not like 1.85:1. You lose 27% of the picture on 1.85. Stanley was a purist. This was one of the ways it was manifested.
If full frame was so important why didn't Kubrick release them theatrically that way?
After Barry Lyndon, more and more theaters were showing films 1.85 or in Cinemascope even if it wasn't shot that way. He had no control. He couldn't go around every cinema and say "You show this film in 1.66" as you could with Clockwork Orange, because then the projectors had 1.66 mask. With multi-plexes things are different and so they only show a film in 1.85 or in 2.21, the Cinemascope. You know? You cannot put a mask in 1.66 as it should be for Clockwork Orange. You can't put a 1.77 in as it should be for Barry Lyndon and that's what Stanley understood with The Shining onwards. He realized that his films we're going to be shown in 1.85 whether he liked it or not. You can't tell all the theaters now how to show your movies. They say it's 1.85, that's it. Stanley realized that masking for 1.85 would far outweigh having 1.66 projected at 1.85. We did a re-release of Clockwork in the U.K. and it's 1.66. It's composed for 1.66. It's shot in 1.66, and the whole shebang. Well, you know, they had to screen it in 1.85. I can't tell you how much it hurt that film.
That must have been awful.
It's horrible. It's horrible. It's heartbreaking. I mean, it's heartbreaking. You realize that when we got to The Shining, this was after the release of Barry Lyndon, this is how it was all being done. He realized that the best thing he could do is to at least do it so that he understood that beside the 1.85 frame line, they were going to have the composition that he would want you to see. From The Shining and Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley had marks on the camera lens so he could see where the 1.85 lines. He composed his shots for 1.66, which is the full screen, but he wouldn't be hurt by going to 1.85 if he had to do it.
So he did the reverse of what most directors do, who look at the 'TV Safe Area', Stanley looked at the '1.85 Safe Area'.
But with the DVD technology, with the fact that studios often put out films in both wide screen and full frame, why not put out both versions? Considering that when you look at the theatrical experience of these films, which the film existed in this format, why not put it out the way it was theatrically on one side and the way that Kubrick wanted it on the other?
Well, I can only say this, that Stanley always insisted that the video transfers were done the way he shot them through the camera. That's point one. Point two had Stanley been alive, I could maybe have said to him "Well, why can't we do exactly as you suggested?" Right? But he isn't. I can't make that kind of decision, nor can anybody else. You have to be, one of a better word without sounding pretentious, you have to be true to what you know somebody wanted. Unless they tell you something else. That's just the way it was. The way it is. I can't make that kind of decision, nor can anybody else. Stanley's desire, Stanley's wish was really what I had to go by.
One of the most profound questions that was asked in the forum, and something that I'm sure in time maybe 25 years from now, people will ask this question. That is do you think that honoring Stanley Kubrick means doing everything that he wanted or asked?
Understand that Stanley was very aware of the digital technology that was coming out, which is one of the reasons why all this work was going to happen. You should also realize that he was very excited about the thought of digital projections. I mean, one thing that we were always frustrated by, however good and however much people went out of their way inside the laboratories, it's not 100% reliable. You get problems. Digital technology kind of gets rid of all that. You know those kinds of problems. There are chemicals in the lab, which aren't always stable. So digital technology and digital projection was something he was very exited about. He really was.
I did a test reel on 2001 projections and I can't tell you how beautiful it looked. It would have been, he would have loved it, absolutely loved it. It was clean. It was really sharp, but with a real bite to it. The colors were brilliant and the blacks held. You know, you don't have problems with copies that are too light or too dark, or because of a lab process. He was very exited by the thought of that. I would say that the only thing that you could say, when you talk about the wishes and visions of the director and do you honor him, you're talking about aspect ratio. If digital technology means they can still be screened in the format that he wished them and he shot them and wanted them to be, great. But if they can't, then bad. But what can one do?
That's a great segue to the next question, about 16x9 enhancement. There are a lot of 1.66 films that are being released in this collection that aren't anamorphic enhanced. Apparently this has been done with other films by window-boxing the film and not losing the picture information. What is the argument against doing that? What is the decision not to, especially with the fact that they're going to be high-def at some point anyway. Certain adjustments are going to be made to fit the 1.66 into a 16x9 space.
Well yes, but then what you will have is you will have the mats down the side. I mean, you know, what can I say? I understand how seriously some people take it, but anybody who would seriously go into an art gallery and say they saw the Mona Lisa and suggest that should put at a mat at the top and a mat at the bottom because it's going to make it look like the way we want to see things in 2001? Stanley was an artist. He was an artist. You know? He was not a journeyman. He had his own ideas and he had his own way of expressing them, and it was very important to him. I don't see what the difference is, really. Then saying that someone is a great poet and they had a quaint way of expression in the 1800's that's outdated. It would be horrendous. I mean he was an artist. I know there are some people who don't think that cinema is art, but it is.
I own a 16x9 TV, so I can understand the argument for window-boxing. Eyes Wide Shut is a great example of a film where my experience was much worse at home than in the theaters. Looking at a 1.66 print on a 16x9 TV, it's stretched. So you get that same miserable effect that must have happened that you described Clockwork Orange in England. Maybe at this point the population of wide screen TV users isn't big enough to worry about it. Maybe it's the same kind of thought of, well, in general, people have 4x3 TV's and let's look at that.
In the U.K., you know, I have got to say that when they started showing films in "envelope," which is how they refer to it sometimes. In other words there's a 1.85 format where you have a mat and top and bottom and it looks kind of wide screen. I mean the number of people who just didn't get it, didn't like it and didn't understand it was phenomenal. It really was.
Whichever way you go. You're damned if you don't. You know? He was explicit and clear about what he wanted and how he wanted it, and I cannot do anything except follow those sanctions, is basically what they were.
Sure. I understand. I'm sympathetic to you. I understand where you're coming from. I think one of the things that they may have prepped you for this interview is the fact they picked the DVD Talk community to ask the tough questions and hopefully lay some of these issues finally to rest, which I don't know if you ever can.
We may never will.
The toughest thing I think about Kubrick as a film viewer, as a film buff, is that he had such a strong policy of never discussing his films.
And then you have a posthumously release of his work and a very strong statement from Warner Bros. saying, "These films are exactly the way Stanley wanted them. We have explicit instructions..yadda, yadda, yadda." And then two years later, we've got kind of an opening up of this great documentary that Jan did, which was finally, for me, and I studied Kubrick, I learned more in those two hours than I had had previously in my totality about Stanley Kubrick.
Interesting, wasn't it? There was nothing in there that I didn't know, but I found it just interesting to watch.
You know, nobody put the pieces together to present this man and his work in that depth, and really present the picture of him. So I guess we're kind of left probably where we've been left almost with every Stanley Kubrick film, with some people arguing and shouting and some people scratching their heads, and I guess it's fallen onto people like yours and Jan's hands to kind of carry on and now do some explaining.
Think about it. You could say, because everyone goes on about the perfectionism of Stanley. It's true. I mean, you know, you work your socks off to get it as good as possible. So all I've got to say is, "Okay, fine." So why did he keep the helicopter blades in the front end of The Shining when you're hovering over the hotel?
Right. And that's one of the questions. Was that a mistake?
No, it's not. See, that's the other thing about Stanley. If you look at Eyes Wide Shut, there's a shot of Tom as he's walking down the street when he first goes into the jazz club to meet his friend Nick Nightingale. And if you look carefully, there's a huge bounce on the crane in that shot, which most people miss. They do. But there's a huge bounce. Once you see it, you can't not see it. But the thing is there were probably about 35 to 40 takes of that shot. The thing was that everything in that one particular take of Tom's acting, the pace, the way the extras were coming in the background and leaving, and the cars going by and the way the camera tracked with Tom and stopped. It just happened so beautifully and stopped in the precise way he wanted it to stop when Tom stopped. You know, that was the take he wanted to use and he would just say "Well, it too bad about the bounce, but that's the shot I like."
And the thing with the helicopter thing though in The Shining, there were lots of things if you really dissect his movies where you could say, "Well, that's funny." In Clockwork Orange when Malcom has been thrown out of his parents' house or ejected out of the house, the tide is in and out on in about ten seconds from cut to cut. You know? What does it matter? What does it matter?
I'm looking at my sheet of questions from our forum here and somebody had said that in the bathroom sequence with Sydney Pollack, it is said somebody caught a steady cam operator reflection.
Well, it was actually the focus puller, and he was stuck there. When that was seen, when Stanley saw it, he just shrugged his shoulders. It was the acting that he was after and he said if people noticed it, they noticed it. You know? We'd do something about it when we come to the video because we knew we could. But you know, well, you saw the documentary. I think it explains a lot about him. Somebody said he wasn't always an easy man to understand. You know, he always came from a basis of knowing what he wanted and made his vision absolutely on those grounds and nothing more.
Given that, sometimes he released many of his films in mono, some of them were 1.85 in the theaters and then 1.66 at home. It seems like once the film left his care and went out into the world, it changed. In some way, in some form. Whether it's the projector light is dimmed down and the print is dark because of it, or I have a 16x9 and 1.66 stretches. Of all the things that were out there, was there one element that was most important to Stanley to preserve? Was there something that crop it, play it, mono-stereo it, whatever, but preserve this? Was there an aspect that was most important to him?
Absolutely and I'll tell you exactly what it was. First of all, the reason why the only film that he made apart from Eyes Wide Shut, that was recorded in mono, in stereo, was 2001. Now he recorded in stereo because A) he could, and B) because it was 70-mil and how ridiculous to have a 70-mil picture with a mono soundtrack. And you know that the release is going to be in theaters which can show 70-mil. They're not going to want to show it and hear it in mono, so the two go together.
All the other movies, what he understood was if they were going into cinemas, they may or may not have decent stereo sound. And you know even right up to Full Metal Jacket, I'll tell you because we checked about 300 cinemas in the U.K. He had people checking cinemas over here in the U.S. when we released Full Metal Jacket. And even by 1987, some cinemas hadn't even looked at their sound systems for like ten years. What Stanley understood was that if you made a stereo track and the sound system was no good, you've lost half your sound. It sounds terrible. His notion was better good mono than bad stereo.
That was the whole thing about why he did his films with mono mixes right up until Eyes Wide Shut. Because by Eyes Wide Shut, you had your multiplexes. The majority of cinemas, sound wasn't an important thing because the public understands. They like sound now. Ten years ago or twelve years ago, fifteen years ago or twenty years ago, sound, even for filmmakers, it was the last consideration. You know? It just needed a soundtrack.
The most important thing, and I cannot stress this too much. The most important thing for Stanley, when it came to his theatrical releases was this: That everywhere, whether you watched the film in Hong Kong or Singapore or Buenos Aires or New York or London, everyone should have the opportunity of seeing the best quality that you could possibly see on film. Okay? The starting point was we didn't stop after we finished the editing. We went into the labs and we checked all the prints and we never used used print for a third world territory for one of a better word. Quality for him was so important. You know, even a farmer in Chili should have the chance to at least see the best possible print in theaters at least for the first two or three days, a good print conscientiously looked at and checked the quality and said you know, with his best regards "Enjoy the film." I mean that was so important. That's why the work never stopped because he was constantly in the lab overseeing this kind of work, you know? It was very important to him. Very important to him. And it never left him, right up until the day he died.
On Eyes Wide Shut, I have to tell you, we spent hours and hours checking release prints. We looked at one in five prints, all the prints that were made in the world.
Oh my God.
One in five prints. We checked it. From the U.S., out of somewhere like 27,000 reels that were sent to them, there were 14 that came back. That's unprecedented.
Wow. That must have been a huge undertaking.
It's a shame that he didn't have the time, past Eyes Wide Shut, to spend on the DVD collection. I think, and I'm sure you're finding now, especially as he said going in and helping 2001 in terms of the colors and helping it be realized again in it's full glory. It would have probably would have delighted him to play with the digital technology and get closer to what he saw through the lens.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I can't tell you. I think really, you know, when we talk about the people who worry about the aspect ratio, so it becomes like the most important part for one of a better word, an "operation." It seems to me that when you look at one of Stanley's films, if you look at it ten times, you're going to see something different in it anyway. And it's going to make you think differently from how you saw the film the first time. You know, it's always a new experience. That's the most important thing.
In doing the digital transfer of Kubrick's films did you also do work on Fear and Desire and The Seafarers.
No, absolutely not. And I'll tell you why. Because we come back to the same thing. Stanley withdrew Fear and Desire and right up to I would say the day he died, he never wanted that picture to be seen. In terms of the other early films, he was ambivalent about them. He knew what they were and, little documentaries and what have you. He wasn't going to go out and promote them, but he didn't mind if people saw them. And Day of the Fight he was quite proud of.
But Fear and Desire, it would be a rarity for anybody to actually see it?
Oh, if they get to see it, it's because somebody's got a copy of it somewhere and we didn't know about it. He wouldn't want anyone to see it.
Obviously Kubrick shot cans and cans and cans and cans and reels and reels and reels of film for each of his films. Has that work been archived and is it being saved so that at some point people can be able to get a window into his creative process?
I'll tell you right now, okay, on Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, some little parts of 2001, we had thousands of cans of negative outtakes and print, which we had stored in an area at his house where we worked out of, which he personally supervised the loading of it to a truck and then I went down to a big industrial waste lot and burned it. That's what he wanted.
He didn't want anybody to either show…because basically in Eyes Wide Shut, there were four middle scenes which were cut out of it otherwise everything that he shot is on the screen. But those are gone. Basically, for the most part anyway, all you're going to see are like maybe 20, 30, 40 takes of the same thing, but for some reason, whether it's the tracking shot that had stopped halfway through because something had gone wrong or the acting was bad or flubbed line or what have you, were basically the same. What's there to see? You know? What is there to see? People know he took hundreds of takes sometimes. That's known about him. But for him, it's what was up on the screen.
It's not that I don't sympathize or understand why people get agitated, but when you come down to it, I would rather have it the way Stanley wanted it than the way a lot of other people. You could have had a hybrid of 100 ways of showing his films if it wasn't for Stanley being insistent about the way he wanted them to be seen.