View Full Version : Hi Def DVD - Bad Idea?

10-15-2005, 11:20 PM
Welcome to the new world of digital cinema. DVD’s with the clarity of 35mm film. That may sound as a welcoming thought long overdue until what was softly covered up comes into sharp focus.

In the 1970’s, a man named Tom Cooper ran some movie houses in Los Angeles. Motivated by both profit and preservation, he struck clear pristine prints of old films, like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind” on 35mm film. Thank goodness he did, or else these films, and many other classics would no longer be fit to be seen. Unfortunately, even forty years ago, films from the 1930’s and 1940’s had already deteriorated to the point of being impossible to watch.

Take the film, “Duck Soup,” for example. This Paramount classic of the Marx Brothers only existed in complete form on 16mm film. Blowing 16mm up to 35mm means also blowing up the ‘grain’ in the film, causing some scenes to appear as if they were made in bad light with bad film stock. Only parts of the film existed in 35mm. That is why, to this day, the film is made up of poorly edited scenes and bears little continuity to its original release.

Unfortunately, Cooper went out of business, along with many other independent theater owners when corporations took over film production and management. Enter video! First, VHS butchered film by making every 35mm print slightly out of focus, giving it that soft look. The reason being the scan lines in television didn’t even come close to the clarity of 35mm film. The 35mm prints used to make those videos continued to deteriorate, although they were now on plastic substrates. Laser improved clarity somewhat but DVD has improved it even more and given us a glimpse of the conundrum we are about to face.

At last, with increased resolution in ‘hi-def’ televisions and scan lines exceeding 1000, we will finally approach the sharp clear picture of projected 35mm film in the privacy of our own home, and that will be a major problem for those who own the content. Like a house, film needs constant work to maintain its structure. It must be free of dust, scratches, fading, shrinking, and the ravages of humidity. Even bacteria like to eat film. Hence, all prints, whether on nitrate or any substrate, will eventually deteriorate over time. Repeated showings, runs through film projectors, editors, printers will result in less than perfect prints, stocks, and negatives.

However, this is the digital age! We can eliminate all of that and make perfect prints of films that will last for decades if not forever, right? WRONG! It would take hundreds of technicians going frame by frame over millions of frames of thousands of films, some only a few years old, going all the way back through film history for decades, to clean and restore these prints. And my disillusioned friends, no corporation will spend either the time, the resources, or the money on such a project, and that will be the most glaring problem in the next decade.

Once you go to hi-def, every scratch, every defect, every flaw will be blown up into its most ugly form. The clearer you make the picture, the more apparent every tiny flaw will be. Some recent reprints of films have given us a hint lately. Look closely at the box releases of the Marx Brothers films, or the three strip technicolor films of Flynn to see how full of flaws these prints have at only 480p (progressively scanned 480 lines of horizontal resolution). Imagine how horrible they’ll look at 1080i (lines of horizontal resolution interlaced)? They’ll be impossible to watch. Even films like “Star Wars” with the full backing of techno-wizard George Lucas behind them show a the lighted box of a ‘traveling matte’ moving across the screen following a fighter through space. We accepted that in the theater in 1977, but today’s audiences won’t when they see it in hi-def on their big wide screens. They’ll think, “What is that junk?”

I can attest that the clarity of “The Wizard of Oz” in 35mm (a new print) is quite a site to see (and one lost to a distant place in time). The detail on the screen is just impossible to describe. Brush strokes of paint on the scenery. Dust on the stage from repeated dance numbers not completely cleaned between takes. Even the blood shot eyes of Burt Lahr. But flaws in the print? Scratches running down the side? Water blotches in the frame from humidity? Pops in the soundtrack? There were none. Nothing to interfere with the joy of seeing their performance. That will not be the case when the new hi-def DVD arrives and these old prints will clearly show their age with major artifact. Speaking of which, that will technologically bring us full cycle back to the days when scratches and pops were common on records going round and round on discs at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. We got used to it then, we’ll have to get used to it all over again.