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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Motion Picture High Fidelity

Viewed today on a normal video monitor, this properly famous verbiage placed beneath Paramount's VistaVision logo makes little sense.

For, like other large format photographic processes, VistaVision (VVLA) needs to be seen on a large screen to be appreciated.

This process came into being experimentally in the late 1920s, and then was forgotten.

In the early 1950s Paramount was seeking an alternative to CinemaScope with its highly distorted anamorphic images, and looking at past experiments, decided to move in the direction of large format. In the late 1920s Paramount had backed a process called Magnafilm, which used a 1.85:1 aspect ratio shooting on 56mm film. Paramount, while not wishing to use the Magnafilm process because of its non-standard stock, processing and laboratory work, like the idea of a larger negative format and put Loren Ryder, John Bishop and others to work on a project using Fox's old Natural Color cameras, which photographed two frames at a time. It was via a conversion of these cameras that a new system was created. Originally termed Paramount's "Chinese" camera, the Lazy 8 device became known as the Butterfly camera because the two film magazines were side mounted, making the unit take on the form of a butterfly. VistaVision was born.

The original concept behind VVLA was one of a system which could be used to create high quality images in virtually any format or aspect ratio.

The initial concept was to release films in one of three formats: 8 perforation horizontal 35mm VistaVision, a 4 perforation version derived from the large negative which could be projected by normal means and lastly, the ability to create anamorphic prints, which could be cropped as needed and with varying compressions.

VistaVistion aspect ratios

Anamorphic VistaVision prints would be projected via SuperScope adapter lenses, mounted on a theatre's pre-existing primes.

Although the first feature shot and released in the new VistaVision format was the 1954 production White Christmas, research carried out during the restoration of Hitchcock's Rear Window* showed that Paramount's experimental "Chinese" camera was put to use photographing background plates of the action seen from the room in which the film takes place. After some initial experiments, this concept was discarded and all production photography as it is now seen was shot in standard 35mm 4 perf on the specially constructed stage.

There is some question as to whether White Christmas was actually presented in 8 perf VVLA, but it appears to have been screened in that format at least in Los Angeles.

The first VistaVision show to be released in multiple prints in 8 perf was the second film shot in the system, Strategic Air Command (1955), with some prints run scope in a 2:1 aspect ratio.

With one unique exception, soundtracks for the 8 perf prints were optical, with a standard 35mm sized track appearing at the top of the frame. The cropping of a like sized area at the bottom of the frame brought the projected aspect ratio down from 1.5:1 to 1.85:1.

Many of the VistaVision productions had tracks which were Perspecta encoded, giving the impression of stereo as audio would be moved from speaker to speaker via control tones.

The projected image size of VistaVision was in many cases kept the same width as for 4 perf 2.55:1 CinemaScope productions with its notorious optical anomalies, with additional screen height added. The 8 perf image could easily handle a fifty to sixty foot wide screen, while the 4 perf reduced dye transfer prints gave an incredible image in slightly smaller venues. However it was presented, VistaVision was literally "Motion Picture High Fidelity" in both picture and sound, as the audio would move past the heads at twice the normal 90 feet per minute speed of 180 feet per minute.

VistaVistion projection

For production, VistaVision was a simple and elegant process as it allowed a large format image to be captured on internationally standard 35mm stock, which could be processed anywhere in the world. 65mm, on the other hand, could only be processed in a very finite number of laboratories.

During the short period (eight or nine years) in which VistaVision was used for production photography, it was used for approximately 80 films, with Paramount having the highest representation of productions (about 65). Warner Brothers used the process for a single film, the beautifully produced and incredibly gorgeous The Searchers*. Universal-International used the process three times, and MGM three, most notably for Hitchcock's North by Northwest* and for High Society. The only other production entity to use the process for multiple productions was Britain's Rank, the most notable being Powell-Pressburger's Battle of the River Plate, aka Pursuit of the Graff Spee (1957).

The VistaVision process dovetails technically with that of Technirama, which was developed by Technicolor, using converted three-strip Technicolor cameras rather than the extant Paramount owned VistaVision gear.

Using the same basic 8 perf format, Technirama films were photographed with a 1.5 squeeze anamorphic lens (provided by Panavision), which yielded an uncompressed image (using the entire area of the negative frame of 1.5:1 aspect ratio) of 2.25:1.

Via this methodology, a Technirama film could be release printed and projected in either a standard 35mm 4 perf CinemaScope/Panavision anamorphic or could be optically unsqueezed and printed from the original negative elements to create Super Technirama 70 productions, such as Universal-International's Stanley Kubrick directed Spartacus*.

Technirama Spartacus

Although there were several VistaVision productions shot in black and white which also showed off the advantages of the system and its positive attributes, there had to be something that historically would be the downside. And that element was the photographic stock on which the color productions were shot - Eastman Color 5248.

It is this stock which is the bane of the archival arm of the motion picture industry today. Kodak released their original color negative stock 5247 in 1950. Two years later, in 1952 it was replaced by 5248, increasing emulsion speed and bettering grain structure. It is 5248, which was in production from 1952 until sometime late in 1959, on which virtually every American and British film were shot and every one of those films has, to some extent, faded, most noticeably in the yellow layer.

This is where is gets interesting. For some reason, be it differences in processing or incremental changes in what was basically the same emulsion, the fading which we now see in these films can go from slight to total.

The films least affected were those produced early on, in the 1952-3 period. And then beginning in 1954 the fading characteristics get continually worse and worse. As an example, we can look at the Hitchcock productions during that period. While the 1953-4 Rear Window* was overprinted and the negative damaged, what was left of the original elements still had some vibrancy remaining and could be at least useful for something.

In 1955's The Trouble with Harry, exterior scenes which were fully exposed are of some use, while night scenes and interiors (thinner negatives) are virtually gone.

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is of very little value, the current DVD derived from the black and white separation masters, while the 1958 Vertigo* could be maneuvered somewhat in processing for some scenes.

North by Northwest* (1959) is quite faded and was brought back digitally in low resolution for DVD release via a newly created interpositive from the faded original, which then went through a color correction process at LDI. While the color is not perfect it is close enough to make this release a very positive viewing experience.

What all of this means is that the core of color VistaVision productions have few viable original negatives which are printable.

Because of this, very few, if any color VistaVision films being transferred to DVD can be viewed via original negatives or new interpositives derived from an unfaded original.

VistaVision productions making their way to DVD have been few and far between, but when these productions are properly handled, the difference between them and their 4 perf brethren can be both unmistakable and visually breathtaking on a high end home video system.

I have been able to identify less than 20 films so far released and some have been quite problematic and unrepresentative of what VistaVision can offer. The look of these films on DVD also ties in with Paramount's newly formed asset protection program. It is via this program that pre-print elements are created for transfers, and there seems to be a dividing line of 1999 in which the way that these films were handled changed drastically for the better.

The problems with the early Paramount releases inclusive of White Christmas, To Catch a Thief, The Court Jester and Funny Face come from the separation masters being optically printed to create a 4 perf dupe, with all of the requisite increase in grain and contrast. These have not been pretty pictures, nor have they in any way been representative of the quality that VistaVision could offer. War and Peace, a more recent release has faired a bit better, but still does not possess that VistaVision look.

Things have recently improved, however, with the release of the black and white Fear Strikes Out (1957) and the upcoming Gunfight at the OK Corral* (also 1957). The Gunfight* transfer is derived from a number of different elements which were mixed and matched under the watchful eye of Paramount's Head Librarian, Steve Elkin. While it sounds as if Steve might be standing behind a desk reminding borrowers that film elements must be returned on time, his job is a great deal more intricate than that, as he is positioned dead center in Paramount's film preservation and restoration area.

Faced with a faded original negative, there were a number of different avenues which might have been taken. Mr. Elkin determined that the best route was to create different elements to bypass different problems. Portions of the film were transferred from a new 8 perf dupe negative derived from the separation masters, while other portions came from a new element created using a recently developed process from Cinetech, in which black and white masks are created and multiple exposures made in an effort to bring back a portion of a faded yellow layer. The transfer was made in 8 perf.

I have mentioned in the past that separation masters from these early periods were not always produced, and when produced were seldom examined for quality. What the new release of Gunfight at the OK Corral* also points out are obvious problems with the old separations in which an optical flaw has created what appear on the film to be white dots in bright areas, most noticeable in the bright blue skies. Except for very expensive digital work, there is very little that Paramount could have done to alleviate this problem, and thus it becomes a wonderful lesson in the travails of film preservation.

In many areas, the separations simply would not register due to shrinkage, and Cinetech's process was used to create the transfer element. Parts of Reels 2A, 3B, 5A and 5B came from this alternate source. You can get further information on the process from the Cinetech web site.

What Paramount offers us in Ron Smith's transfer is a superb representation of what the original looked like in terms of accuracy of color, sharpness and grain structure. Most important, it replicates the VistaVision look and should give those with large screens a very good concept of what the process could place on the motion picture screen. One look at the Paramount and VistaVision logos at the beginning of the film, in their full crystal clarity and knife-edged sharpness give us a precise idea of what is to follow.

With Paramount's upper management being preservation and restoration savvy, I'm hopeful that as additional titles are restored and preserved, that those few Vista titles which pre-date the current quality trend will be re-visited and re-transferred.

The Paramount VistaVision Films (in order of Variety review dates):

Yellow = Available on DVD


White Christmas
Three Ring Circus


Run for Cover
Strategic Air Command
Hell's Island
The Far Horizons
The Seven Little Foys
We're No Angels
You're Never Too Young
To Catch a Thief
The Girl Rush
The Desperate Hours - coming June 10
Lucy Gallant
The Trouble with Harry (now with Universal)
The Rose Tatoo
Artists and Models


Anything Goes
The Court Jester
The Birds and the Bees
The Scarlet Hour
The Man Who Knew Too Much (now with Universal)
The Leather Saint
The Proud and the Profane
That Certain Feeling
Doctor at Sea
War and Peace
The Vagabond King
The Mountain
The Search for Bridey Murphy
The Ten Commandments
Hollywood or Bust
The Rainmaker
Three Violent People


Fear Strikes Out
Funny Face
The Buster Keaton Story
Gunfight at the OK Corral* (coming April 22)
The Lonely Man (coming April 22)
The Delicate Delinquent
Beau James
Loving You (Trimark)
Omar Khayyam
The Joker is Wild
Short Cut to Hell
The Devil's Hairpin
Hear Me Good
The Tin Star
The Sad Sack
Wild is the Wind
Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (produced for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)


The Buccaneer
Spanish Affair
Teacher's Pet
Desire Under the Elms
Another Time, Another Place
The Matchmaker
Hot Spell
King Creole
Vertigo* (now with Universal)
Rock-a-bye Baby
The Geisha Boy


Last Train from Gun Hill
The Five Pennies
The Jayhawkers
L'il Abner


One-Eyed Jacks

One unique VistaVision presentation was produced in 1956 for release by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as their visitor center film.

Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot is a 35 minute film which was projected in Vista at Williamsburg for years until converted to 70mm. It was a unique production, as it was the only VistaVision film, as well as the only production based upon 35mm stock to feature a full 6 track magnetic soundtrack.

The Non-Paramount VistaVision Productions (for the record):


Value for Money - Rank


Away All Boats - Universal
The Black Tent - Rank
High Society* - MGM (April)
House of Secrets - Rank
The Iron Petticoat - MGM
Richard III - Lopert (now Criterion)
The Searchers* - WB
Simon and Laura - Universal


An Alligator Named Daisy - Rank
Battle of the River Plate - Rank
Doctor at Large - Universal
Ill Met by Moonlight - Rank
The Pride and the Passion - UA
The Spanish Gardner - Rank
Triple Deception - Rank


Dangerous Exile - Rank


North by Northwest* - MGM

If you'd like to learn more about Paramount's VistaVision process, the only place that one need visit on the web is this link at The Widescreen Museum.

While we're still in Paramount territory, I recently received an e-mail requesting my opinion on a DVD which could be used to show off someone's new 5.1 system and how it compares to mono. I had to tell them that the best disk via which one can demo the difference between a mono and 5.1 system has not yet been released on DVD.

My vote goes to the opening titles sequence in Paramount's Rustler's Rhapsody, a charming little comedy about the "B" westerns. While this is nothing that would earn the noble asterisk, I'd love to see Paramount release it. It would be the best audio demo that money could buy.

The Cole Porter Collection

Just as I thought that I was safe in wrapping the piece on VistaVision, I received word that Warner Home Video was about to release one of the great musical of the 1950s, High Society* as yet another Vista release. But what I had thought to be the singular release of the Charles Walters' directed opus turned out to be an entire collection of Cole Porter musicals which will be available both as single releases and as a five film Cole Porter Collection.

This is great news as it begins to fill in a number of gaps in the musicals list which was offered several months back and which will now be updated at The Bits.

As a 1956 production, High Society* is at the center of the problematic Eastman color period. I'm pleased to report that Warner's Ned Price has really done his homework on this project, which has apparently been in the works for about three years. The elements which he has created and the transfer and compression which brings it to DVD make the film look as it has not in years. But the technical wizardry doesn't stop there.

It has been rumored that because this was Bing Crosby's initial production (one of the producing entities was Bing Crosby Productions) for MGM, having recently left Paramount after decades, that he requested and MGM granted his wish that the film be photographed in VistaVision. Whether this is accurate or not I don't know for certain, but this information has been out there for years. Fact or fiction, it makes sense and the film benefited by it.

High Society* was initially to be a CinemaScope production and the intended audio design was full stereo, which would be heard via the print's magnetic tracks. When the change was made to VistaVision, essentially a monaural process, MGM's longtime head of audio Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer) warned the studio that they would not be able to release in stereo. Regardless, the audio stems were recorded and prepped for stereo, and the studio has chosen to finally use these elements for a full stereo mix, which is cause for celebration.

From the opening logo to the brilliant silver main titles and the production photography beyond, High Society* is now a treat for both the eye and ear. My hat is off to Mr. Price and the work that he has put into bringing High Society back in perfect form.

Rather than create a long documentary on Porter, information has been split into five shorter featurettes, each corresponding to a distinct film.

The Porter Collection* covers a period of 18 years and is inclusive of several types of film technology. It begins with a 1.37 black and white 1940 production, Broadway Melody of 1940* with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. This DVD includes The Big Premiere, an Our Gang comedy featuring a young Robert Blake. The 63 year old film looks terrific on DVD.

The next film was shot on Ansco color, another problem area, and had a limited release in 3-D. This is another great transfer and Kiss Me Kate* looks much as it did half a century ago. Its interesting seeing Bob Fosse in an early role, inclusive of one dance number in which he was allowed to choreograph his own dance. Even then it had the Fosse style. As an added extra Kiss Me Kate* also features a music only track.

Next comes High Society* in VistaVision and Eastman color, followed by two CinemaScope Eastman color films, Rouben Mamoulian's 1957 Silk Stockings*, based upon Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and George Cukor's 1957 Les Girls*.

Apparently Mamoulian, who was one of the great pioneers of audio and the way that it was used with image in the early days of sound at Paramount with films like Applause, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Love Me Tonight was not a big fan of wide screen cinema and its necessity to fill a wide proscenium. Whether or not the song was precipitated by the director's feelings, the Fred Astaire - Janis Paige number "Stereophonic Sound" is a treat.

With the exception of Broadway Melody*, all of these films are in stereo.

The Cole Porter Collection, which lists at $90 should street at $65 or less. The films individually will be available on April 22 at a list of $20, and streeting at $14. While it can only currently be found on Amazon, I suspect that normal sources be come in closer to $60 or slightly less, making the films a bargain at under $12 each.

A Few Colors

One of the pleasures of discovering new films and directors is viewing something for the first time by a director that you've never heard of that leaves you stunned when the experience is over.

This was precisely how I felt upon my initial viewing of The Double Life of Veronique, the tale of two women who are...

I don't want to give a bit of this film away, for that time when it becomes available on DVD. Suffice to say that it is an extraordinary achievement from a great mind of the modern cinema, Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died far too young in 1996 at the age of 55.

My discovery of Mr. Kieslowski's work was a major point in my appreciation of modern eastern European cinema. Although he had already been making films for twenty years, I was totally unaware of his work, although I had heard of, but not seen, The Dekalog.

Soon after Veronique came a film simply entitled Blue RAH.

From my initial viewing I knew that something special was being offered. Roger Ebert, whose reviews I follow as obligatory reading, commented: "There is a kind of movie in which the characters are not thinking about anything. They are simply the instruments of the plot. And another kind of movie in which we lean forward in our seats, trying to penetrate the mystery of characters who are obviously thinking a great deal. "Blue" is the second kind of film."

And yet, I had no idea what was to come until White RAH appeared shortly thereafter, and its sometimes meandering story began to strangely intermesh with Blue.

And then came the final third of the Three Colors Trilogy, Red RAH, and it became very apparent that Kieslowski was a cinematic genius, and I waited for his next work, which was never to come.

Mr. Ebert borrows a comment made by Mr. Kieslowski in regard to a scene from one of his films, which is the only thing that I'm going to tell you about this trilogy. I would be doing a disservice to attempt to categorize, review or really even comment upon this extraordinary work of cinematic poetry.

I will simply give these three films the new and special RAH rating, by which I will suggest their blind purchase. I would also suggest that those of you who are unfamiliar with these films do no research in advance. Read no reviews. Just go into them cold.

"At this moment, in this cafe, we're sitting next to strangers. Everyone will get up, leave, and go their own way, And then, they'll never meet again. And if they do, they won't realize that it's not for the first time."

- Krzysztof Kieslowski

A note to Disney - The Three Colors Trilogy, like all Disney releases avoids any reference to production or release dates. As I can see no downside to allowing this information to be shared with the public, I can't understand why the studio still avoids the use of dates, which can be helpful in placing titles in historical perspective.

Bits, Pieces and Misc. Rumors...

A look at Columbia's newest offerings in the SuperBit lineup continue to impress with marginally better image quality. My preference would be to see all SuperBit titles released as two disc sets however, so that one does not have to inventory one version for a better image in addition to the version which it betters, which is inclusive of extras.

The most recent that I've checked against the original releases have been From Here to Eternity*, Seven Years in Tibet, Legends of the Fall*, which was beautifully photographed by John Toll, whose work comes across cleaner in the new release and Labryrinth.

Columbia has been releasing a number of their black and white classics from the 1930s and 40s which I'll get into in detail in a future column.

There is a rumor out there that we may be seeing a double bill sometime before the end of this year of the 1953 3-D production, House of Wax along with the film on which it was based, the two-strip Technicolor 1932 Mystery of the Wax Museum. If this is true, it's a great idea and I can't wait to see what they'll look like on DVD.

Catching up with older releases - A Time Capsule

Ron Epstein, from Home Theater Forum, often makes note of the fact that he is seeing the majority of classics for the first time thanks to DVD. But you don't have to go back fifty years to find a classic that you've missed.

Robert Mulligan has given us To Kill a Mockingbird*, Summer of '42 and Love With the Proper Stranger. He directed a film in 1991, which never got to see, which has some of the tones and textures of Mockingbird*.

It is a tale of two sisters growing up in Louisiana in the late 1950s; an incredibly perfect multi-layered film, with wonderful performances, a terrific score by James Newton Howard and beautiful cinematography by Freddie Francis.

And there was one performance of a quality which only comes once every decade or so. That was the portrayal of the younger sister, Dani, by a 15 year ingénue, in her first film.

Two decades ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with Lillian Gish, and one of our topics of discussion was the difference in acting with and without the use of words.

One of the things that she explained was the importance of an actor in the silent cinema to be able to use their face to emote a full range of expressions. Miss Gish was known for her eyes and the way that they alone could tell a story and connect with an audience.

The young girl in Mr. Mulligan's film, The Man in the Moon RAH, has that ability.

In spades.

This is something rare in the modern cinema. Many actors tend to rely on dialogue alone to express themselves or have a limited range of facial emotion. This young actress was able to use her incredibly expressive face and add to it a wonderful presence and body language. She has a naturalness and believability that would cause any dolt watching this film in 1991 to sit up and take notice.

When I view a film for the first time, I usually attempt to place myself in the period in which it was released to see it in the correct perspective.

There is a scene not too far into the film, in which the young girl is following a boy into a store. With a normal actress she would, well - follow him into the store. Once you get your hands on this DVD watch the end of this shot as she is about to walk out of frame. Within about 20 frames - that's less than a second - her face tells the entire story. Had I been at a screening of The Man in the Moon RAH in 1991, I would have left the theatre in amazement at the performance that I had just witnessed.

I cannot suggest more highly that you get a copy of this DVD and see for yourself the performance that Mr. Mulligan drew out of this 15 year old first-timer, and what she gave her audience.

For those who are unaware, the young girl that I've been referring to is still working.

Her name is Reese Witherspoon.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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