Confessions of an Early Adopter

Shopping for Blu Ray

Yesterday I took the technological plunge and brought home my first Blu Ray player. In fact, I am surprised that it took me nearly two years to make the decision to buy one, since when it comes to most tech toys I’m eager to adopt right away. Especially home cinema hardware. And so far I regret nothing. True, while most of my beloved films are not yet available in the high-resolution format, film studios are releasing new and catalog titles at a breakneck speed, no doubt fueled by the upcoming Christmas shopping season. However, the question that plagues any adopter of new tech is whether or not there is a marked difference between the “new” format (that being Blu Ray) and the “old” (that being DVD, and for those that never took that plunge, VHS and LaserDisc).

The short answer is “yes.” The slightly longer answer is “yes, if you have a high-def television and audio processor.” If you’re still living in a world of tube televisions and rudimentary stereo sound, then HD media is of no importance to you. Scanning a recent thread of a home theater forum, I read one post where someone asked if they should invest in Blu Ray technology even if they still have a CRT (tube) television. To me, that would be like fitting a spoiler onto your Ford Focus. Or purchasing the finest culinary equipment when your idea of cooking is dialing for Dominos delivery. In other words, why bother? Either way, I believe it’s safe to assume that HD technology is hear to stay. And, pardon the hyperbole, once you’ve tasted the quality of HD broadcasting and other HD media, it’s hard to go back to standard definition.

In my field, which is academic film studies, there is a certain pride in being a technological luddite. One of the purveying philosophies of the film scholar is that if it’s not projected on film (16mm or 35mm), then it’s not “authentic.” I use that term very loosely since — as I suggested in my last post — we cannot assume there is an original or definitive experience of any film. They are, for the most part, approximations. Used incorrectly, this framework can become a catch-all excuse for even the poorest quality film presentation. And it does not dispense with the erudite film scholar’s preference for a 35mm presentation over that of DVD. I once endured a 35mm screening of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry in a fourth year seminar that was almost entirely pink from wear. So, not only was Harry Callahan’s face a warm shade of lavender, but also the San Francisco skyline was bathed in shades of salmon and amaranth. Could this be part of Siegel’s mise en scene? No, just the professor’s preference for the feel of film over the pixely grains of digital. By this logic, even the poorest 35mm print is superior to the most pristine digital one.

The pride of celluloid authenticity makes little sense in this case. I’ve spoken to some professors who feel they’ve been pushed into the digital realm because of simple economics. It’s far cheaper to house a collection of DVDs than a library of 35mm prints. It has also become more convenient to find early cinema shorts and a wide range of international titles on high-quality DVD transfers than on expensive 16mm or 35mm prints. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the age of video that this dichotomy seems so trivial to me.

Make no mistake, I can see and hear the difference between a celluloid presentation and a digital or analog video presentation. But with the state of film studies departments as they are — at least the ones I’ve visited — I would hardly call the classroom presentation “pristine.” My study of sound film in the classroom has been hindered by poor sound reproduction to the point that some rooms are not even equipped to handle simple stereo playback! In some lectures and conference presentations I’ve had to cue my audience to low frequency stings because bass is non-existent.

My embrace of Blu Ray partly stems from this frustration. There’s no doubt in my mind that I fetishize the cinema experience to the point that I complain about poor maskings in theaters and poorly aligned loudspeakers. I appreciate the control of my own cinema environment. I like the lights to be dimmed to a certain level, the conversation hushed, and I especially like the comfort of my own sofa and ottoman. Even though I question the relevance of the “pristine” movie experience I, too, fall victim to its trappings.

Of course, sound mixers hate to hear that their work is being tampered with by over-eager cinephiles who insist on cranking the subwoofer and rear channels to “enhance” the sonic experience. If they could control how you set up your living room equipment, they would surely try.

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Which brings me back to Blu Ray. After doing some simple A/B comparisons of the same film on DVD and Blu Ray, the visual and aural differences were striking. DVD colors seem dull and lifeless by comparison. Re-watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind again on Blu Ray I was immediately struck by the level of detail that was missing from the previous DVD incarnation. I specifically chose a film that I thought I knew very well, and I was surprised to notice textures and definition in the alien spacecraft and visitors.

Ironically, the A/B comparison of this film highlighted for me the remarkable quality of 35mm film to be able to retain such deep blacks, vibrant colors, and sharp detail. For the last thirty years video has tried to play catch-up with little success. Remember when we were told that VHS came so close to capturing the details of real life that we could hardly tell the difference between the two? Now, “Is it live or is it Memorex” is down-right comical. Similarly, we’re being told now that HD media produces “the look and sound of perfect.” So, does that mean it’s better than real life?

And yet as I embrace this format I fear other developments such as digital movie downloads. Apple TV is one example of a growing number of services that allow users to download films onto their computers or media center hard drives. Do I really want to watch movies on my laptop? My iPod? No. Will “new media” encourage new viewing habits? Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing that digital copies will completely replace hard copies. In this sense, Blu Ray discs encourage viewing habits of the video age: pop something into a player and watch it on your television. However, companies like Apple who have invested in the wireless, objectless future with products like the MacBook Air and Apple TV have recently expressed concern with adding Blu Ray players to their products. Steve Jobs, as recently as October, stated that Blu Ray represents a “bag of hurt” due its licensing and hardware obstacles. Or maybe Apple is betting that the digital download will emerge as the real format winner.

Blu Ray isn’t perfect, though. There are some drawbacks that will invariably affect the way I watch movies. For one, there is the whole issue of repurchasing a slew of titles on Blu Ray. So, that means that now I have three copies of Close Encounters: Criterion LaserDisc, DVD collector’s edition, and now the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray. To connect the dots to my earlier post on multiple versions, I’d like to point out that this new edition contains all three versions of the film: the theatrical cut (1977) , the special edition (1980), and the final cut (which excises the interior of the mothership sequence, which Spielberg admits he should “never have done”).

The Blu Ray format also possesses some limitations. I can’t, for example, upload any Blu Ray frame grabs since my computer DVD drive does not support the format. That goes for classroom showings and conference presentations, too. So for the meantime if you want to see and hear How the West was Won in its Cinerama glory, you’ll have to knock on my door or invest in a player yourself. We will also have to wait for some prized films to be released in the format; namely the first Star Wars trilogy, much of the Criterion catalog, and my own personal favorite the Back to the Future series.

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this BluRay capture

Thanks to DVDBeaver.com for this Blu Ray capture

So, while Blu Ray may be another video format destined for the garbage heap in a decade’s time, it seems to provide the closest approximation yet to 35mm and uncompressed audio clarity. Even the purists must admit that these high-res formats force major studios to revisit their catalog titles and remaster worn out negatives and re-release forgotten gems. It’s no surprise that Blu Ray received a boost in credibility when the Criterion Collection announced earlier this year that they too will be releasing select titles in the HD format to satisfy their own interest in preserving and presenting acclaimed films in their finest quality. And to those who prefer to watch a pink Dirty Harry, I respect your commitment, but I’ll stick with the shiny disc.

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no hope

Film and Variations: On Multiple Versions

For the last few weeks I have been reading through back issues of Mix to get a sense of how the magazine has reported on the development of digital sound technology in Hollywood. One article that stood out from the rest examined the theatrical re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997. Larry Blake, the author of the piece and a sound practitioner himself, confronted the whole question of whether or not George Lucas was committing heresy by tampering with the “original” films. Essentially, Blake found that even in 1977 there were multiple “originals” in theatrical circulation. This finding also supports my view that, in some sense, we can never really discuss any film as a text without variation. There are, of course, expanded releases, “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” “remastered editions,” and “restored editions” that alter the ways in which we can study a film. There are also more subtle variations that quietly subvert a totalizing view of film as text. We need to consider the aural and visual differences between a film’s theatrical presentation and its home video release. And as Blake’s Star Wars analysis suggests, we also need to consider how multiple versions of the same film can exist in its initial theatrical run.

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To this end, I support what Rick Altman has already called for in his “heterogeneous” approach to filmĀ study, whereby film is understood as a experience or event that is mediated by various factors. Altman suggests that by “Ostensibly analyzing the film, cinema critics have been at pains both to homogenize the lived experience of film-viewing and to avoid undermining that homogeneity. Rather than recognize the legitimate existence of multiple versions of a film, based on diverse social and industrial needs (censorship, standardized length, colorization, foreign-language dubbing, etc.), critics have regularly made a fetish of locating the ‘original’ version.”

Calling attention to the heterogeneity of the film experience, Altman offers a film-historical approach that removes the need to refer to the film as a single phenomenon. Instead, we should embrace the multiplicity of spaces and versions of the cinema experience. To put this another way, Altman worries that by homogenizing film as a singular, unchanging text we miss an opportunity to explore the diversity of spaces in which films are presented and the various “social contexts in which the film is seen.” Specifically, he is pointing to silent film exhibition where feature films were shown with differing musical accompaniment or different ticketing and seating policies, thereby contributing to an altogether different experience of the same film.

The modern exhibition environment offers the same variation, even if it is less obvious than silent film practices. There are first-run theaters, second-run houses, drive-ins, and countless combinations of home cinema applications that skew any sense of a singular film experience. Can we honesty say that a state-of-the-art screening of, say, Wall-E at a digital cinema will be the same at a run-down mall multiplex? Or during a screening geared at mom’s and tots? David Bordwell has recently noted that at such parent-friendly screenings the “theatre is a little more illuminated than normal, the sound a little softer.” This ties back to Altman’s call for film studies to incorporate broader parameters in the analysis of films. Indeed, we might learn more about film viewership and audience trends if we consider the conditions under which films are exhibited.

One of the most understudied components is, of course, home viewing. When films were first shown on television, they were — arguably — poor imitations of what audiences experienced in the theater. In the post-widescreen era, films were truncated to fit on the relatively square-shaped TV screen, the audio mixed down to accommodate the puny mono TV speaker, and color films were often seen in black-and-white by home audiences who did not own a color set. By the time of VHS and Dolby Surround, home audiences were closer to experiencing the version of a film that filmmakers intended, but sound and picture were still augmented to accommodate the different platform. Even in the age of Blu Ray and High-Def TVs, mainstream films are translated to video in a complex process that often results in color and sound being slightly “off” from the theatrical (i.e., celluloid) standard.

In recent advertisements, Dolby Labs tells us that their latest home cinema technology, Dolby True HD, offers unprecedented audio clarity to home theater buffs by including uncompressed “lossless” audio that mirrors what filmmakers heard during the mix. It’s an outstanding format, but Dolby and other home audio manufacturers have been marveling at their ability to “bring the theater into your home” for decades now. The tools may be new, but the offer is the same. Which is why it is important to consider that there is no tangible way we can achieve equivalence between home and theater viewing.

This brings me back to Larry Blake’s Star Wars article. During the original release of Star Wars in May 1977 Twentieth Century-Fox released no fewer than four versions of the film to North American theaters. While audiences may have seen the same film, they heard three different ones. Star Wars was one of the first films to be mixed in Dolby Stereo and the very first film to employ a low frequency effects (subwoofer) channel, resulting in some very experimental mixing techniques. No one was quite sure how to best create a multichannel mix and the tools were not yet in place to ensure that the Dolby Stereo mixes were problem-free. By my count, there were four separate mixes readied for distribution: a 4-track master (LCRS, or Left, Center, Right, Surround), a 6-track version (LCRS+LFE), a 2-track Dolby mix (LR), and a mono track.

To be sure, the differences among the sound tracks were not merely cosmetic. Some sound effects, foley, and dialog were missing from some mixes. Ben Burtt recalls that as he and his sound crew scrambled to create the various mixes in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere “there was a lot of stuff [in the 2-track version] that wasn’t in the stereo optical [4-track], including lines of dialog and sound effects, because opticals were being cut in after the mix.” Burtt notes that the simple-stereo 2-track mix “was the first mix finished and was also the least complete creatively, because at that time the stereo optical [format] was an unknown quantity and Dolby wanted to test it and find out how it was going to work. That mix was rushed out of the door, and we didn’t think it was that important because it was only going to be heard in a few theaters.”

The second mix the crew readied was the 6-track version with the added low frequencies for 70mm engagements; these were considered the roadshow engagements and numbered only 35 across North America.

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Blake goes on to suggest in his article that “Even after the film was in theaters…the mix was continuing at Goldwyn, in order to creat what Burtt says was considered by Lucas to be the genuine article…in mono!” Since the majority of theaters were still wired for mono sound, George Lucas and his crew felt that most people would experience Star Wars that way. Unfortunately, this meant that Burtt needed to create an entirely new mix, one that was fundamentally different than the stereo versions. Recalls Burt, “By the time we go to the monaural there were even further developments: more changes in dialog, more changes in sound effects, different processing.” He goes on to joke that “There was an offscreen line of Threepio’s, where he says, ‘That’s the main power station tractor beam switch, and you’ve got to go there and turn it off.’ And that was not in the 6-track version of the movie; it was only in the stereo optical [4-track]. It wasn’t even in the mono print, and I don’t know how it happened, but we found that line and now it’s back in.”

Thus, even before the 1981 re-release — wherein the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added to the title crawl — and long before the CGI upgrades and Han-Greedo dilemma, Star Wars was released with multiple sound mixes. So, will the real Star Wars please stand up?

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title crawl

Some might suggest — as Ben Burtt has — that the 1997 redux version represents the most complete sound mix to date with every line of dialog, foley hit, sound effect, and music cue created for the film. But what about the more nuanced differences between home and theater presentations? Can a music or sound effect sting pack the same wallop at home as it does in a THX certified auditorium? More importantly, how do these changes in exhibition affect the film experience?

To help facilitate a broader discussion of this phenomenon, I believe we need to consider Altman’s “cinema as event” thesis. Even if we do not engage with the social dimensions of his platform, it is important to ask if a film text is a singular entity. We are conditioned to speak about films as singular texts. We tell our friends that we went to see this film or that film, not a version of that film.

To some, these variations are very minor and do not intrinsically change the nature of a film as text. But, as Altman contends, if we claim to understand the technical and cultural implications of a film, then it is important to consider the ways in which multiple versions contribute to this discussion. The “cinema as event” thesis affords us a more general flexibility to tackle this issue. It also provides a means by which we can discuss more dramatic changes to films.

Here I am referring to the process of renewal that we know as “remastering.” When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was being prepared for its DVD release in 2002 Steven Spielberg remastered the original print, added some material, and (infamously) removed other material, including the replacement of guns with walkie talkies in the hands of the government agents. Some have reported that the line about Mike not being allowed out on Halloween dressed as a “terrorist” was changed to “dressed like THAT” in the VHS release from 1988 and “dressed like a hippie” in the 2002 theater/DVD release. (Note the compositional changes in the two frames below: Elliot’s head and E.T.’s basket have also been repositioned).

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et retouch

As such, it becomes harder to differentiate among versions when filmmakers and studios prohibit earlier versions from being distributed. In an eleventh-hour decision by Spielberg, the 20th Anniversary E.T. DVD set also included the original 1982 theatrical version. Many applauded this decision because it provided audiences with the option of experiencing Spielberg’s first “draft” or his latest draft of the film. This is a trend that has continued with the releases of multiple versions of Blade Runner and Touch of Evil, but many fans of the Star Wars saga are still clamoring for a yet-to-be-released “original” version of the first trilogy. I’m sure there are countless other major and minor examples of films that have been irrevocably changed, where original versions remain unavailable on video or extremely rare.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made it clear that they believe these works of popular art belong as much to the fans as to the filmmakers who created them. In a South Park episode titled “Free Hat,” Cartman and the gang learn that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are planning to release a remastered version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in order to “improve history.” Parker and Stone mock the “re-re-re-release” strategy of studios and filmmakers with send-ups of Saving Private Ryan (the word “Nazi” is replaced with “persons with political differences”) and The Empire Strikes Back (where all characters were replaced with Ewoks). Traveling to Skywalker Ranch to confront Lucas and Spielberg, the boys plead with them not to tamper with Raiders. Parker and Stone essentially argue that the film belongs to the world and to change it would mean changing history and memory: “movies are art and art shouldn’t be modified.” A very recent episode of the series suggested that Lucas and Spielberg “raped” Harrison Ford and, by corollary, the boys for having Indiana Jones meet interstellar beings in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

south park

I have outlined two approaches to the study of multiple versions; one considers the technical differences between mixes and presentations, and the other considers the cultural impact of the altered, er, “remastered” version on the movie-going experience. They are very different approaches, since the more fine-grained model requires the critic to be mindful of different material conditions as opposed to obvious content differences within a film. Both, however, demand critics and scholars to be more precise about the definition of a film as a text or an event.

To help facilitate discussion on this topic, I don’t believe it is necessary to point out an appropriate method by which to release or “restore” a film. I sympathize with those who feel utterly betrayed by filmmakers who change their films. To take a macro view of this trend, we should consider that perhaps we experience approximations of films that change over time. I doubt that even directors and editors experience their films in the same way from venue to venue, year to year.

As a film student this can be incredibly frustrating. One of the chapters of my Master’s thesis was devoted to the innovative sound design of Apocalypse Now. Right in the middle of my research it occurred to me that my analysis could be deemed completely subjective and baseless since I was hearing the film in my home, on DVD, in an audio format that did not exist in 1979 (5.1 Dolby Digital). How could I honestly write with authority about the movement of sound, the spatial dynamics of sound, and the textures of the sound track when I was hearing an altogether new mix?

This is a question plagued by many film scholars who give themselves the job of historicizing the technical and aesthetic qualities of cinema. To study early Technicolor (as Scott Higgins has admirably done) or sound design in the 1970s requires a caveat: material conditions change. Can we productively analyze Technicolor stock qualities based on a remastered DVD of Gone With the Wind? How about the study of mise en scene using a full frame copy of Blow Out? If we tow the party line of film studies, then there is no real difference. A film is a film is a film. But we know better, don’t we?

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