The Quandaries of the Blu-Ray World

Sorry for two entries in a row about DVD and home theater.  The blog will certainly be open for other branches of discussion, vis a vis film of course, with post-topics ranging from film studies, to film history, to rediscovering great filmmakers currently in the doldrums of obscurity, to new technology, to the actual joys and heartbreaks of making a film firsthand (and finding ways to cope with those heartbreaks).

For now, though, let's talk about the recent new entry in the pantheon of home theater history, and the capitalist Ferris wheel: one o' them new-fangled Blu-Rays.  Oh no, the B word (that is, for you collectors who have invested untold sums in your standard-def DVD collections, like myself confessedly)!  I have had many discussions with other video "enthusiasts" and connoisseurs heretofore about the concerns with the new format.  One of the problems, it would appear, is contained within the name Blu-Ray itself.  The picture looks awfully...oh, what's the, blue.  The images on Blu-Ray transfers seem to mysteriously possess a coolish color-timing and a kind of uniform "frost" over the image.  One need look no further than the uber savvy transfer-quality critics at DVDBeaver to make that observation.  Furthermore, the skin-tones become a distraction on a great deal of these sampled Blu-Ray images.  In addition to this, there would seem to be a uniform darkening of transfers, which in my opinion is suspect (although of course the images are sharper).  Some noteworthy examples of this are in the reviews of the Blu-Rays of The Ipcress File and Batman Begins.  And check out the actress Capucine in bed on a screen-capture from the Blu-Ray release of The Pink Panther.  That is the most glaring and obvious example I could find of this "cool image" phenomenon.  The only transfer I have seen so far that has countered (and bettered) the SD in correct color timing is the Blu-Ray of Fanny and Alexander.  Once again, those Criterion boys and girls do fine work.  There is warmth in the hues of these images as evident in the screen captures (particularly the skin-tones) that makes for a beautiful, balanced Blu-Ray transfer.  They faltered a bit, however, on their DVD of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

A few months back, I had a Blu-Ray of my feature film A Trip to Swadades made.  And what a fascinating experience it was!  First of all, the visual style and look of the film are quite anomalous and counter to the "clean" images people are accustomed to seeing in today's film market.  When filming Swadades, the super-16mm 7222 black-and-white Kodak stock was underexposed throughout shooting, and pushed in processing at the lab (pushing, for those who do not know, is compensating for lack of proper exposure during processing, heightening grain, giving it an aged feel and, as a side effect, distinguishing the blacks, whites and grays in black-and-white filmmaking in cases of wide-latitude for image exposure).

The compression and burning took all night long, and onto morning, beginning at noon the previous day and ending at 7 a.m. the next day.  When the DVD came into my possession, I had an immediate look at it with great inquisitiveness.  The hyper-grain naturally present in the image was readily apparent in the Blu-Ray.  The grain popped in an extremely self-conscious way (I wanted people to be aware of a different look, but not to the extent that it would take them out of the film and distract/bother them).  No cool problem, because of course there was no color to be had.  Also, the titling in the opening credits sequence were not properly formatted prior to compression, and every bit of text was stretched tall and skinny.  This is a peril that we only became aware of how to fix later and after the fact.  HD compression requires special titling that down, any of you planning a Blu-Ray DVD compression in the near future!  I am grateful I have that disc, but on the other hand, I am not eager to show the film in that form to anyone.  First-time viewers are, in fact, forbidden from seeing the movie like this on their first go-round with the movie.

My discontent with outsourcing of home-theater formats is very apparent.  Hey, I was bitter at first when VHS was being made obsolete by DVD, as I am now with the Blu-Ray outsourcing.  However, whereas my initial DVD issues in the early 2000's were mostly bull-headed, I believe my Blu-Ray skepticism to warrant some merit.  The image is certainly much sharper, but the transfers so far are a tad messy in their color temperature correction in terms of the cool hues.  If you view me as an albatross, so be it.  I am perfectly happy with my SD DVDs, and if they are made obsolete, I assure you, I will be among the last of the converts.  Maybe by then, as what happened with SD DVDs, they will have mastered the process of color-timing Blu-Rays.  Remember those first DVD releases from the late 90's?  Ever wonder why companies are disposed to re-releasing those?  Working out the kinks in a new system...

A Walk Through the Grey Market (or, Confessions of a Bootlegger)

I have decided to open up the forum with a post concerning a topic near and dear to my heart, and to the hearts of other lovers of cinema esoterica.

I am an avid video collector, with 12,000 titles on both DVD and VHS (I added the comma to make it clear that none of those zeroes are typos...and yes, I indeed still collect VHS and they're still worth an awful lot to collectors). Many of the titles in my collection were never released in any video format throughout the 30+ years during which recordings of movies have been sold for home viewing. Recently, I became aware of a film in my collection that many people, for some reason, have been hunting in vain. Some who came my way claimed that they had been searching for the film for decades now, until they discovered I owned it and was willing to end their quest. The film is called Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, starring Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms, and directed by Alan J. Pakula in 1973. Ever hear of it? Want a copy?  No?  Well, let me tell you, eventually orders for copies of the film came pouring in until, ultimately, I wound up having to service 18 customers, some saying they would have paid "anything". And they're still coming! Some of my customers even wound of telling me stories involving their memories of the first time seeing the film and the impact it left on them.

In speaking with a friend of mine who likewise is a consumer of esoteric "grey market videos" (i.e. a polite term for bootlegs of old movies the MPAA could often give a damn about), he brought up a rather interesting point. There are obviously people out there who are interested in the titles that never made it to these formats. Why don't the studios get off their asses and do something about it? Or, better yet, why don't more "boutique DVD labels" get a hold of some of these titles and do their own treatments of them if the majors are not interested? If the Love and Pain experience taught me anything, it is that my friend was right. There is a demand. It is there. People are willing to pay, they are often desperate to find certain titles.

Of course, many problems do enter into the picture. For one, things like copyright issues, music clearances, licensing and video rights (precluded from pre-1977 studio contracts) prevent many titles from reaching the shelves of video stores. Video rights is the major issue though. You see, prior to home video formats, when films were made, home video royalties were not considered because home viewing formats simply did not exist, that is outside of personal film prints, which were of course free and clear of such obligations. Video wasn't even considered an ancillary market. Now, of course, they are their own ball of wax in the world of movie marketing. Thus, many pre-1977 titles have quite frankly disappeared. When I was walking the Paramount backlot over the summer, I passed their film vaults, and all the time wondering what unreleased titles lurked in those vaults. Then came the news of the Universal studio fires, which hit their vaults and destroyed many prints. I cringed when I heard about this, and wondered how many neglected films in Universal's vaults went the way of the dodo.

Many have turned up on grey market by people having taped them off television, often on late-night broadcasts from geographically centralized stations in the 80's. I own many grey market titles that fit those conditions. Some titles are in the studios' back catalogue, where titles with seemingly little demand can fester indefinitely.

The point is this: there is a demand for many titles. I can't make a case for all of them (hey, how many people really want a copy of 1970's Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion...and yes, that is a real film), but many people are willing to lay down the money for them. Like I said, often the quest to find these titles are epic...for people, it can be a journey. The "search stories" I have heard are worthy of their own films. An Army colonel in Fort Benning told me with great relish how he and a buddy went to see the film The Carey Treatment in 1974, how they had been talking about the film since then and how difficult it was finding an available copy. I furnished him with one and you cannot imagine how thankful he was. Another guy from Australia told me that he and his wife met at a screening of Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing and, when they were having marital issues, a halfway-through viewing of the film on 80's Australian TV inspired them to reconcile.

So until the studios or boutique labels start picking up the slack and getting those back catalogue titles released, I feel it my duty as a film-lover and collector to service people who just might have a late-Preminger craving, or need an early-Losey fix, or what-have-you. The "Whatever Edition" of Clueless isn't helping you get those backlog titles out there, Paramount, or for that matter the "Don't Go Into the Water Edition" of Jaws (how many frigging DVD releases have there been of Jaws for Pete's sake?). A question of priority, ladies and is time to welcome the biggies into the collector's sphere.