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

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

RAH on King Kong

Before being joined in discussion with Warner Home Video's Senior VP of Catalog Marketing, George Feltenstein, Executive Director of Publicity Ronnee Sass and Ned Price, VP of Mastering for WB Technical Operations on King Kong, I went to my files and located the January, 1989 issue of American Cinematographer, the only publication to which I've been a subscriber my entire adult life.

In his fine article entitled Old King Kong Gets Face Lift archivist Scott MacQueen noted:

"King Kong is not the sort of film we think of as endangered. It has never been "lost," and even the legendary fragments censored in 1938 have been back with us since 1969. Kong is one of those ubiquitous "classic films" that we take for granted. It is also a lesson in point. Until Turner Entertainment Company assumed ownership of the RKO film library for domestic distribution in 1988, master elements on King Kong and many other RKO titles existed only as nitrate materials."

"In early 1988, Turner Entertainment purchased the RKO library and began an inventory of the holdings. "Out of 735 titles we found close to 300 features for which RKO never made safety fine grains or negatives," says Richard May, Director of Film Services at TEC. "We found that there was safety fine grain material on the smaller pictures - the "Wheeler and Woolseys," the Tim Holt westerns, all these little things that no one ever heard of. All of the big pictures - like the Astaire / Rogers pictures, Crossfire, Murder My Sweet - were nitrate fine grains."

"King Kong was a victim of its own success... The large number of prints... manufactured... probably wore out Kong's negative. The earliest surviving material on Kong is a master positive made from the camera negative in 1942. This print was the backbone Richard Dayton [of YCM Laboratories in Burbank, CA] relied on in preparing new master elements on Kong. The history of heavy negative use is printed right into this 1942 master."

"One of the sad things were the repairs built right into the camera negative before the master positive was made," says Dayton. 'There was a lot of repair work. When Kong falls from the Empire State Building, there's a glitch because some of the frames are missing and one frame is replaced; it goes two generations farther down, then back again rapidly.' Additionally, having mothered subsequent editions... the master positive reflects 45 years of additional use."

This is where our story begins. The material above is supplied with appreciation to and with the kind permission of American Cinematographer.

I should note that American Cinematographer is one of the oldest and most respected publications in the world dealing with motion pictures. It has been one of the staples of the industry since 1920, and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in cinema technique and history.

You can visit the ASC website here and their subscription page here. Your subscription will support the ASC in their efforts to educate and to save the history of our chosen field. It may be one of the most important $19.95 purchases you make.

King Kong

King Kong: The DVD Interview

The following is a discussion held on August 25, 2005 between George Feltenstein (GF), Senior VP Theatrical Catalog Marketing for Warner Home Video... Ned Price (NP), VP of Mastering for Warner Brothers Technical Operations (Warner Brothers Pictures)... Ronnee Sass (RS), Executive Director of Publicity for Warner Home Video and RAH (RH), an innocent bystander.

Robert Harris (The Digital Bits): There are nasty rumors going around, and I don't know if this is you, George or Ned, but am I correct in what I'm hearing that at the very end of the film the bi-plane that shoots Kong?

George Feltenstein & Ned Price: Yes...

RH: That the pilot of the plane is now Ned, and George is at the machine gun.

GF: No. No.

RH: You haven't stuck yourself in there?

Ronnee Sass: Tempting as it may be... We don't want to destroy any of the history...

RH: Why don't we begin first with Ned. We all know this has been a problem film for decades. What I know about it... I was able to track the original negative for 10 or 12 years. I know they made a lavender which went to the UK. The original negative has disappeared. I don't think anyone ever found any destruction records on it unless you did.

GF: Nope.

RH: There are rumors that it may still survive, but you guys certainly don't have it.

NP: I never consider a negative destroyed unless I find paperwork, we continue the search until the elements are found or destruction has been documented. We've located original camera negatives for fifteen features in the last two years, previously thought to be lost, these titles include Anthony Adverse (1936), David Copperfield (1935), San Quentin (1937), The Women (1939) complete with Technicolor sequence and the one missing negative reel for The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948). We located censored or deleted sequences for six films, including Public Enemy (1931), City for Conquest (1940) and Top Hat (1935).

RH: Which is the proper position to take certainly. What did you have to work with? Because the best surviving element was always in the UK, and that's what Bill Everson used to make 16 mm prints from.

NP: I think the best element was the dupe negative from London. That was 1933. It was manufactured from the lavender.

RH: It was from the '33 lavender then. And we don't know if the lavender exists.

GF: No, we don't.

RH: So this is before the film was darkened for re-issue.

NP: Yes, this is a 1933 dupe.

RH: It should be gorgeous, then.

GF: Well, it's aged a little.

RH: Haven't we all?

NP: The sync was off at the head and tail, which is corrected. End credit music was correct, but end titles were wrong. This element has a great rating card at the head which says "This film has been rated horrific."

RH: Horrific? Really? Is that going to be on the DVD as an extra?

GF: No. This is the first time I'm hearing of it.

RH: What is your overall feeling about the state of the elements and what you've been able to do with them?

NP: Well, given what we had to work with, I think we did quite a lot with picture and track. I never consider restoration of a film definitive, we will revisit if a new element is found, or a new technology is developed. I never consider anything done and always want to go back and tackle it again.

RH: Everyone does.

NP: I'm very pleased with what we have. It's heart wrenching to not have the original camera negative as a source. I always imagine what the film could have looked like.

RH: Well, you're starting two generations away, but I bet it's going to be the best that anyone's seen in what, the last 30, 40 years anyway.

NP: Yes, I think it will be.

RH: How does the extra 250-300 feet of cut material look. How far back did you get on that?

NP: We found a decent dupe of them.

RH: Was that part of the dupe negative from the fine grain?

NP: Yes, this material was cut out of the 1933 British dupe, and so we just lost a frame on each side. It was rolled up in a separate can.

RH: Really?!

NP: Interestingly, the deletions were out of sequence on the roll as if they had cut it once, gone back and cut it again.

RH: Do you have the material that came from Philadelphia?

NP: Actually I do, we acquired the footage from a collector.

RH: But you're using the other element...

NP: That's correct, the UK deletions were different than the US censor cuts.

RH: Okay. So this must be a lot nicer.

NP: It is, a lot nicer. We also have a 1942 domestic version, a print, which gives us a snapshot of the condition of the original camera negative. And so we could tell that it was missing frames because of damage. Dupe sections, cement splices in the picture and the track, It was notched, and had repairs, but the print was in fair condition, but they had flash frames all the way through on cuts which was another problem, and that was the domestic version. And then, we found a nitrate dupe negative which had moisture damage.

RH: So you've been around the world with this.

NP: Oh yeah. Literally.

RH: Leaving no turn un-stoned.

NP: Well, obviously there are always more stones to be unturned because we found more material this time than the last. We've done a thorough job, but I hope to find even more in the future as Archives and Studios complete inventories.

RH: Excellent. I'm sure that whatever it is, everyone who buys this is going to be thrilled. They should be tipping their hats in your direction for the amount of work that's gone into this thing.

GF: And money.

NP: And money, yes. It's been quite an expensive project.

GF: That's just what Ned has been working from. On top of that there's the clean up, and you know this Bob, the clean-up can take four times as long as mastering and color correction and everything that comes afterward. We'll call it color correction even though it's black and white.

RH: Well, same thing.

NP: We should use the British term "grading".

RH: How about timing?

NP: Yes, the term timing is good. Do you want to address the audio source as well?

King Kong

RH: Sure.

NP: We used the variable area track on the British dupe, we also used 35mm composite nitrate print and 16 mm print that contained an overture.

RH: A legitimate overture?

GF: From what I understand, and I've heard both sides of this, there was an overture specifically created just for the Grauman's Chinese premiere. I don't know if that is accurate. I also know someone who claims to be an authority on these kinds of things who claims there never was an overture. But regardless the right time seems to be similar to records on what the film ran at Grauman's. That's 104 minutes and 22 seconds.

RH: Did you check NY state censorship records? Did you get that far?

GF: No, we only went as far as California. (laughs)

RH: Okay, because that's always a fun source.

GF: That's how we got some of our information on Showboat.

RH: What is the release date on this DVD, by the way?

RS: November 22.

RH: George, can you give me any information that has not been discussed as far as extras.

GF: We waited eight years into the DVD era to release King Kong, and there was a very good reason. The same reason we waited more than four years to release Citizen Kane. There simply were no film elements acceptable to Warner Bros. for our quality standards. Although we own the RKO library outright, the previous owners sublicensed certain international rights many years ago, and those licensees had released DVDs of these films, but we felt we could do better if we waited to find better film element sources. The improvements in DVD authoring technology over the years also are certainly a benefit. We always wanted to get it out, but we wanted to get it right (or as best as we could) the first time, and so when Ned and his many talented colleagues finally assembled a series of elements they considered worthy of release, we knew we could start moving.

Soon thereafter, when Peter Jackson had arrived in Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards in 2004 (and take home his Best Director statuette among others), he learned we were preparing the original Kong for DVD, and asked to meet with us. We knew he was one of the world's foremost Kong experts. When we met he expressed his interest in working with his talented crew to recreate the infamous "missing spider pit sequence" that was cut from Kong before its original theatrical release. So among the many enhanced content special features on our new Kong DVD, there's a fascinating piece on how Mr. Jackson and his crew went about this. They recreated many of the original models used in the stop-motion animation in the sequence, but Mr. Jackson has in his own KONG collection, one of the actual original models from that portion of the film. The model was much too old and delicate to be used in this re-creation sequence, but they needed to know how this puppet worked inside, so they could build a new one that worked and looked like the original. They took in the vintage original model to a hospital and had it x-rayed. This whole process was documented for the DVD while these talented artisans were filming this little re-creation of a missing two and a half minute sequence. It's really quite fascinating.

RH: This is starting to sound like Forgotten Silver, certainly one of the finest mockumentaries ever created.

GF: Yeah, it's really amazing. I underscore this - we do not support cutting this into the motion picture because it was not part of the release, and it is not the missing footage. It's very, very clear that this man who loved King Kong so much so that it's his favorite film, and it made him want to be a filmmaker. He and his colleagues really got together as a labor of love to try to re-create this. And fortunately the script, photographs, and surviving sketches and storyboards gave them enough to go on to make it really close to what they think it really was. And they're very clear about that. But the icing was that they matched the grain structure and the look and the grey scale of the surrounding footage so that it really looks authentic. And I have not seen King Kong umpteen times like most people have. I've seen it once or twice and was basically waiting around for something beautiful like what Ned and his company have done. So I wasn't familiar enough to know where the old footage stopped and the new footage that Jackson shot cut in. They present the footage with bookends.

RH: And is it transparent?

GF: I couldn't tell where the old ended and the new began. Someone who's a lot more familiar with the film might be able to, but I couldn't, and we were watching it projected in a digital cinema.

RH: Well, for a lot of people, I think that alone is going to be worth the price of admission.

GF: I certainly think so. The passion that went into putting so much effort into reconstructing an approximation of 2 minutes of lost film is quite fascinating. There are many other special features of the disc, many of which had Mr. Jackson's involvement. Additionally, we are proud to have commissioned Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions Ltd to create a new documentary on Merian C. Cooper, the true father of the Eighth Wonder of the World. The title, I'm King Kong: the Exploits of Merian C. Cooper is a great one, because he was the creator of this character and he was such an adventurer himself. He was more like Carl Denham than anybody else in the world. So I think that people will be thrilled by the whole way that we present all of this. And there's a whole piece dedicated to Max Steiner. This is really one of the first landmark film scores. And tributes are paid to Willis O'Brien... even David O. Selznick's involved in that he gave Cooper and Schoedsack the freedom to do what they wanted to do. And then we have all the existing footage from Creation, which you know is the film that they were making at RKO that was stopped when they started making King Kong.

RH: Right.

GF: So, that footage came from the Library of Congress but the shots were all out of order and they were just kind of a mish-mash. What Peter Jackson and his team did was that they utilized the original shooting script intended for Creation so they put it all back together in proper order. That's just a nice little bonus.

RH: You've got a two disc set and a three disc set?

GF: It's a two disc set and it's loaded. And we have many different configurations in how we're selling this, but the content of the two disc set is the same whether you buy the two disc Amaray or the two disc Collector's Set that comes in the tin with a digi-pack inside, the disc content is the same.

The difference is that inside the gorgeous collectable tin you also get the reproduction of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre opening night program, which is 22 pages and incredibly sumptuous. Obviously it's a reproduction and it's been shrunk down in size, like we did for Gone with the Wind, but it's very readable and quite beautiful.

RH: The inclusion of the reproduction of the Kong program was one of the many highlights of Ron Haver's "David O. Selznick's Hollywood." I've never seen an original, but was told that the covers were actually made of thin sheet copper.

GF: But there's more. We have a poster offer where they can send shipping and handling and get a 27x41 repro of the original 1933 poster - one of the posters - there was more than one style. And then we have postcards inside that are repros of other Kong posters.

RH: Then you have the three disc set with Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young and...

GF: Mighty Joe Young comes with the two disc Amray of Kong in what we call the King Kong Collector's Set. That will be part of the solicitation that we have now. All of those are available singularly as is the Last Days of Pompeii and we wanted to put that out now because of Cooper and Schoedsack, but we didn't feel it was proper to package them with Kong or Mighty Joe Young because they have nothing in common other than special effects.

RH: So Pompeii is not going to be part of the three disc?

GF: It's not part of any set. It's available singularly. Just like Point Blank with the last film noir box.

RH: You mentioned the new Cooper documentary, as one of the extras with the new Kong set, which has been created by the UK company generally considered to be the leader in the field, certainly from these quarters. How did this come to pass?

GF: Kevin and Patrick approached both Warner Bros. and TCM about doing a documentary on Merian C. Cooper. They knew that the Jackson Kong remake was coming, and figured that we'd be doing "something" at least on the TCM end. They didn't know about the WB restoration of Kong itself, so the timing was fortuitous.

At first we thought... no one knows who Merian C. Cooper is.... but then we realized what an amazing, unconventional life he had, a wondrous one, and that this would be the perfect opportunity to tell the story. Both WB and TCM agreed to partner up on this, as we also did with Photoplay on Garbo.

The documentary was shown at Telluride over Labor Day weekend. It is narrated by Alec Baldwin (Kenneth Branagh was unavailable to Kevin for this and Garbo) and scored by Carl Davis. It's an hour long and covers his whole life from WWI adventurer, to jungle explorer, to documentarian, to writing Kong and selling the idea to RKO, saving the studio, them making him head of production (who knew he thought to team Fred & Ginger), through his WWII adventures, onto the Ford collaborations and ending with Cinerama. It's still really fascinating, and it will be on Disc One. All the other documentary material is on Disc Two.

RH: While it would be nice if Photoplay could do more documentaries, their work is quite hand-crafted and time consuming. Who are your other high end documentarians?

GF: Warner Home Video uses lots of very talented companies. We just finished working with wonderful folks at Spark Hill on the extras for our new 2 & 3 disc releases of The Wizard of Oz who just did a magnificent job, because in 1993 when we gathered everything together for The Ultimate Oz laserdisc, and the existing 1999 DVD ported over almost all of those special features. So, I thought: how do you solve the challenge of creating something new that people will want to buy? Create even more new extras, and make the disc even more fun. Regardless, without question the most compelling reason to buy either of the 2 new Oz DVD sets is the new Ultra-Resolution transfer, which I finally got to see two nights ago on a test disc, and it blew me away. The picture is beyond belief, just as Gone with the Wind was last year, and the new 5.1 track is really going to shock the pants of off folks. It's astounding. After I finished watching it, I complemented the hell out of Ned on what he had done.

NP: Well, it's not just me. It's actually a small army of people in the Archives, Film labs, Audio houses and Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging which is our in-house facility. Bill Rush and Craig Johnson were responsible for locating the new material.

GF: But Spark Hill really created some magnificent new features for The Wizard of Oz… And then there's another gentleman, and I don't know if you know his name, but you will because we're going to work with him a lot, and his name is Gary Leva. He did the special content for THX 1138 and we had him do a new piece for Ben-Hur.

The older piece for Ben-Hur was done for the old MGM Home Video by Turner Home Entertainment. And although Mr. Heston chose not to participate in it, it's a very thorough and entertaining show documenting the history of Hur. However, for this new 4 disc release, I thought we really needed something phenomenal, and we really needed something new... so Gary worked on that... and he has George Lucas on camera comparing how he based the chase in The Phantom Menace on the chariot race in Ben-Hur… and you've got Ridley Scott and his crew people who worked on Gladiator, explaining how they used Ben-Hur as a reference. And cutting back clips of Gladiator and Ben-Hur, and the Gladiator people saying "They didn't have CGI in those days... they just had Buddy Gillespie, they just had Yakima Canutt, you know. They had to do it for real."

And that's a wonderful touch, to have contemporary artists and talent, saying how much their work was inspired by Ben-Hur.

Another person who has done some very high profile projects, as well as some which have gone beneath the radar, is Kim Aubry... Do you know Kim?

RH: Sure.

GF: Well, I'm prejudiced about the impressive work he has done on Coppola's new cut of The Outsiders: The Complete Novel because it's our film... I think what he's done for that is sensational. However, Kim's exceptional work is seen on many DVDs. He's done great work on The Godfather… even this little Paramount movie, Danger Diabolik. He's created all sorts of stuff for that and it's a film I only know by title, but he made great special features for it because he had a passion for it. He's a unique and exceptionally talented individual.

So there are a lot of other people out there who can create notable special features besides certain people who are attached to certain directors.

RH: We're talking about Cooper and Schoedsack. One of the later Cooper films, for which I believe he served as Executive Producer, I'm told is in the works, and that would be The Searchers

GF: Ned, talk about The Searchers.

NP: I've pursued getting... I don't want to say acceptable, but balanced picture from the camera negative for about five years. I test the negative when we have new and more powerful color correction tools. I pull the camera negative out again, and see if I can pull the color back, and I have to say that camera negative is dead.

RH: It probably was years ago.

NP: Mean Streets, contains a clip from The Searchers, you can see the negative was completely faded in 1973.

RH: That makes sense.

NP: We've taken the VistaVision A and B roll separation masters... all 48 reels and scanned each of the records in at 4k resolution. The separations will be combined with the same "ultra-res" process we use for three-strip Technicolor negatives... we will output a new set of separation masters from the restoration.

RH: Will you be eventually recording out new separations there?

NP: Absolutely. We've been creating YCM separation masters on all of our new films at WBMPI. I'd like to make a few comments about quality. You asked why Warner Brothers would go to this degree in our mastering process. We are now mastering in 4k resolution which allows us to create new elements for the vault in full 35mm resolution. We were previously working at a small fraction of the film information which allowed us to make nice, but temporary, distribution masters. I consider high definition mastering a "rental" format, because my experience with the library is that you will have to remaster once higher resolution is available. The industry is often fooled into thinking the new "state of the art" technology will never be surpassed. Now that we're working in film resolution, we're not just getting a video master, we create a new film element to put in the vaults, which will take the form of three-strip YCMs for color features.

RH: How are the 8 perf seps fitting together on The Searchers.

NP: They're working, which is great... I did not know if they would be successful as separation masters were never proof printed up until the late 1970s.

RH: Is there a plan for The Searchers at this point?

GF: We're going to finish it...

RH: So you're going to finish it first...

NP: It's a new concept...

RH: Can we go into the specifics of the Kong picture elements, what has survived and what was done with it?

NP: Certainly. YCM Laboratories in Burbank received all of the elements, cleaned, repaired, test printed them and created a "road map" which we follow in the 4k scanning process. Richard Dayton and Eric Aijala identify the best pieces of each element which is a terrific amount of work and I'm sure you have experienced how thorough and dedicated they are from your restoration projects.

RH: Are you inter-cutting the elements shot by short or trying to do it sequence by sequence to better match image quality?

NP: You try to go by sequence, but occasionally you go by the shot, as long as it matches.

RH: Are you using any digital grading to try and make shots match better?

NP: Oh, you bet. You have to, really to match elements.

GF: But we're not using any digital magic to change the film, and that's the important thing.

NP: Just film in and film out.

RH: So you're really not putting yourselves in the pilot seat?

GF: We're not putting ourselves in the biplane and we're not erasing or removing the sticks.

NP: I did a cross sampling of people in the industry and got all "yeses" when George got all "nos." It was a really difficult decision, but they're in the final master. These were props, certain things that were visible on screen in 1933, but could have been fixed now and are fixed for all current releases...

GF: But if it wasn't fixed in 1933, it should stay that way.

RH: I'm all for fixing certain things, like matte lines as in Ben-Hur

NP: We've fixed those... you're talking about the matte lines in the raft sequence?

RH: Precisely.

NP: When I'm mastering, my theory is that we're creating an element for current distribution... The original elements are preserved in their original form... then I take George's money and create a new distribution version for audio and picture.

RH: I totally agree with that position... because when a modern audience looks at what are essentially optical artifacts... it stops the film. It affects the performances... it affects everything in a negative way.

NP: It removes you from the experience.

RH: I'm a great believer in that.

NP: Tell George that...

RH: George has heard it.

NP: You're aware that this isn't the first time that Kong has been re-visited.

RH: I know that work was performed about fifteen years ago...

NP: I recommend an article by Scott MacQueen that was published in American Cinematographer in January of 1989, which deals with the subject.

Once we completed physical restoration and scanning of the image, it was time to move into the "grading" and digital restoration work. Kong was handed over to Ray Grabowski at our in-house facility, who completed scene-to-scene and in this case often frame-to-frame correction. He's one of those guys who can, and will go frame by frame where necessary. He did a beautiful job, he completed Gone with the Wind last year.

GF: And I saw it going frame by frame when I went over and watched a little bit of it...

RH: And I bet you hated sitting there watching it that way...

GF: But I was really impressed how meticulous the operator was. It was really astounding because you have to have such patience...

RH: But let's be honest, George... There are no dance numbers... you didn't want to stay...

NP: There are now... We put them in...

RH: Thanks, gentlemen... and Ronnee. You're doing terrific work. Always a great experience chatting with you.


Warner Home Video's long awaited DVD release of King Kong is set for November 22nd.

Robert Harris

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

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