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

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Goofy, Mickey, a Loveably Reluctant Dragon, Film Grain and Censorship

It's the word... not Grease, but Grain.

There have been numerous discussions on the HTF site about the positive and negative attributes of whatever it is that videophiles see as represented as "grain."

And unfortunately, it seems to be confusing, as grain appears as different anomalies, sometimes as not even grain at all, but rather as video noise which viewers assume is grain.

Grain structure, size, shape and density has changed continuously over the more than one hundred-year history of the motion picture.

Take a look at a still frame of a very early film and the grain, which makes up that still image, will appear to be huge. Set those frames in motion, however, and tie in with the magic of persistence of vision, and the effect is minimized as the grain structure and location changes from frame to frame, giving the appearance of a much less grainy image.

With the print stock being slower in speed, and therefore less grainy than its negative counterpart, one would see (in original prints) a positive image of that actual grain structure which was exposed to light and processed to stabilize the resultant image.

With multiple stages of dupes (especially when produced from improper elements or via poor lab techniques), that original grain structure is softened and eventually lost, replaced by an unattractive buildup of contrast and additional grain, which covers not only the details of the original photographed image, but also the delicate balance of grays which would make up the black and white image.

Color film is affected in a similar manner, with a like buildup of grain, color and a loss of midrange tonalities, as the areas of darkness and light lose all information which once made up the middle range of tones for both color and density.

With the exception of the most modern releases - the past 10 -15 years - a top quality transfer will normally allow a film's grain structure to be visible, as is proper.

The latest of Kodak's negative and duplicating stocks are so finely grained that on many motion picture screens at full size, their grain is all but invisible. Which means that on video, the grain structure should be transparent.

Which leads us to recent some DVD releases that have been all but rendered as video. No longer looking anything like the filmed product that they were these overly homogenized digital representations have gone way past the concept of "clean-up," in which minus and plus density defects and miscellaneous detritus are removed, and the product exits the digital process with either no grain structure - or some other film's grain structure.

This is akin to changing the smile on the Mona Lisa.

And this is where it gets ugly.

I've known enough directors of photography, filmmakers, laboratory technicians, digital technicians and members of the Kodak fraternity to know that these folks ain't dolts.

Each and every individual has more technical information in their brains to fill an encyclopedia. And each and every one of them knows that grain structure is NOT an artifact to be worked around and diminished, but rather, like an atomic nucleus, is the very center of matter in the film world.

Film grain is to the motion picture as an artist's brush strokes are to a classic oil painting.

While holding the actual image and subject in place, image exchanging the brush strokes in a Renoir landscape or portrait, a Van Gogh, a Monet, Cezanne or, even more appropriately, a Seurat. We would be left with paintings of familiar subject, but alien structure.

Which means that when I see the representation of a piece of filmed entertainment, or even worse, acknowledged filmed art on DVD, and I know that good film elements are available, which would have enabled the replication of that filmed image to digital video.

And that resultant digital image no longer looks like film.

I'm unhappy.

Let's look at a few examples.

Disney's recent release of the classic Snow White* is not only a wonderful set of discs, but a beautiful representation of this 20th century artwork. While it has been shorn of Disney "dust," those flecks of matter which would adhere to the original cells during exposure to the camera and while the overall image has been scrubbed clean of the film look, I can still appreciate it as a new and different edition, in no way attempting to "restore" the original. Rather, this is a new edition, a fully new representation of the original work for a new audience. Which makes it a totally successful release.

On the other end of the scale, Paramount's recent releases of Roman Holiday* and Sunset Blvd.*, while in no way representative of the original works, are quite acceptable on DVD as the extant film elements were in so poor a condition that a certain amount of digital "magic" became necessary. The picture elements used for the work were third or fourth generation, which exhibited very little, if any, of the original grain structure. When you have virtually nothing to work with, you do what you can, and Paramount allocated huge amounts of money in an attempt to bring these films back to their former glory.

And then there are the releases that fall in between. The bottom of the barrel is those from Artisan. Formerly great films from the Republic library have had every bit of life squeezed out of them electronically. What remains, I find them painful and virtually unviewable.

Filmmakers know how to use grain structure. An example which I've mentioned previously were the Chaplin releases from Image. The most perfect film elements were sought out and rendered so perfectly to video, that they were too sharp, revealing too much of the underlying image, which ultimately, in the print state, several generations down the road, Chaplin knew would have been hidden in film grain. Wires and other physical production artifacts, once hidden from the audience became all to clear.

Changes in grain also reveal other anomalies we were never meant to see. Kodak's newest incarnation of color print stock now reveals the circular glass (or clear plastic) base for the "floating" pen in space in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But to view a film produced (especially) during the first 75 years of this great invention with its original film grain intact and even more so, when replicated from an original 35mm nitrate element, the difference is immediately apparent.

What I'm attempting to get across here is, film grain is not the enemy. It is not something to be abhorred, to be electronically filtered out like some sort of unwanted noise.

Moving film grain is never something annoyingly "grainy." It simply exists, the element that when exposed to light and processed captures Groucho Marx's mustache, Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant's dimple, Paul Newman's eyes and Grace Kelly's smile.

While it may be a certain falcon representing the "stuff" that dreams are made of, it is film grain that embeds and breathes life into that falcon and those players who surround it. There is a direct connection between story, set, actors, effects and everything else which a cinematographer captures on that pliant roll of light-sensitive stuff we call film. And there is a direct connection between the world which is captured on that piece of film; embedded within the grain structure of the emulsion which contains it, and that print or video image which it can produce when handled properly and with care.

Take it away; digitally remove it; soften it; throw that image out of focus and the performance suffers.

Abel Gance probably relayed the concept best.

When working on his 1971 "sonorization" of his classic silent film Napoleon, he pulled rolls of original nitrate from vaults where it had been held for almost fifty years. He felt that bringing his original negatives into the light and creating new elements from them was much like the discovery and opening of an ancient Egyptian tomb and the discovery of numerous amphoras filled with ancient grain.

It was Abel's thought that allowing light to once again hit the silver grains which made up his aging images, was much like that of the grain contained within those Egyptian vessels which when opened, would allow the grain stored within to be scattered to the winds, much like his film - to live again.

Like film grain, a bit of minus density dirt, known as "sparkle," is part of that film image, and is perfectly acceptable transferred to DVD. The final product of a film transferred and distributed via DVD does not have to be cleaner than an operating room.

Film grain is not the enemy.

Disney does it right.

With its now continuing series of Treasures, Disney is now offering the second round of classic releases. For a company overusing the term "classic" for years, these are films that truly fit that classification.

Disney has also chosen extremely wisely in working with Leonard Maltin as a guide through their cartoon history. Leonard has been writing about these miniature works of cinematic art for well over thirty years and one look at his eyes as he discusses the history of these films in the disc's introductions and bonus materials, and you know that this is much more than a day's work for him. He loves these films. And his passion is totally understandable.

The Complete Goofy* and its companion piece, Mickey Mouse in Black and White*, each released in a limited edition of 125,000 beautifully produced metal tins may well be destined to be Disney collectibles, and are among a small offering of DVDs which may actually be worth more in the future than their current cost.

As the number of DVD players continues to skyrocket, one must make the assumption that these collections will not be found on store shelves 18 months from now, which may be why some collectors have been picking up multiple copies, with one for viewing and others for investment.

During the period from 1928 through 1935, there were approximately 75 black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons to hit theatre screens around the world. The new collection contains a very fine selection of 34, all of which are listed and selectable. I did a cursory search for "Easter eggs," something that I find a total waste of time, and found nothing else obvious.

The Complete Goofy* contains 46 out of a probable 49 Goofy vehicles. The final two films, Freewayphobia No. 1, and Goofy's Freeway Trouble AKA Freewayphobia No. 2, as well as How to Ride a Horse (which may be found as part of The Reluctant Dragon on Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio*) were not included in this set as they were "standalone" pieces. Therefore, with those exceptions, the Complete Goofy*… is.

The above numbers should be reasonably accurate as they come from Leonard Maltin's 1980 opus on the subject, appropriately entitled Of Mice and Magic, a book highly recommended for further research and education on the subject.

The fact that Goofy* is virtually complete will hopefully set in motion the mechanism for the release of similar product by other studios. I'd love to see Universal offer the Complete Woody Woodpecker, and Warner position the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies either in multiple sets in either character or chronological order - or even more appetite whetting - as a magnum opus encompassing the entire series from start to finish in a single huge boxed set.

And now to Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio Collection*.

I fear that this DVD may get lost or overlooked between Goofy* and Mickey in Black and White* and that would be terrible pity. This collection of a number of "behind the scenes" Disney films is inclusive of the 1941 release The Reluctant Dragon. With war looming and a loss of foreign sales income to help support the near completed Dumbo and the in production Bambi, the studio needed to get something into domestic release quickly and this amalgam of a live action tour following the exploits of Robert Benchley as he visits Walt, combined with several animated works is a pure Disney gem.

While the major Disney animated features received theatrical distribution every seven years or so, The Reluctant Dragon was a seldom seen rarity. Because of its unavailability, this is one of the true Disney collector's items, and I would urge the purchase of one of these 150,000 units. The transfer from original black and white and Technicolor elements is superb and beautifully representative of the original film. It should not be overlooked.


Quiet Days in Clichy, a new release via Image, admittedly will not be to everyone's taste, and is about as opposite from Disney product as can be found, short of X-rated productions.

Produced in 1970, and very much a film of the 60s, it became, along with I Am Curious (soon to be available from Criterion), one of the films which brought about not the end of censorship, but a more logical approach to non-pornographic art, inclusive of film and literature.

Based upon the book by Henry Miller, the film is basically a "buddy" picture, tracing the exploits of Joey and his roommate Carl as they make their way through virtually every available woman of age (or not) in Paris. The score by Country Joe sets the style of a balladeer as he discusses the film's occurrences in song.

Even more interesting than the film itself is a featurette, Dirty Books, Dirty Movies: Barney Rosset on Henry Miller. Mr. Rosset was and is the force behind Grove Press, a company which published works by quality authors whom otherwise would have gone unread and unavailable because of the threat of censorship and criminal prosecution over the written word.

This short interview with Mr. Rosset will either educate you or remind you as to precisely how far freedom and speech in the arts have come in the past 40 years.

This disc offers what is probably the strangest publicity quote ever used to promote a film: "Morally offensive. A portrait of human depravity." - The Catholic Bishops Board of Review.

Which reminds me of a rather amusing tale from my restoration partner Jim Katz, who during his tenure in publicity (the 60s) at UA was responsible for interacting with various censorship organizations. Jim is about as anti-censorship as one can get. He tells of one particular instance in which he had to meet with a gentleman representing a religious order, demanding for changes made to films before release.

It was after a private screening of Goldfinger that the gentleman made reference to the name of one of the lead characters, but refused to utter the character's name. "I don't understand," Jim pushed, for more information. "Which character?"

"You know," the gentleman replied. "The one in the plane."

"There were several characters in the plane," Jim offered, watching the man squirm as if on his way to hell. "Which one?"

"That woman," was the answer, "You know."

"There were several women."

"Well, Miss... Miss..."


"You know... Miss... Galore."

"And your problem is?"

And so it went.

The look of DVDs to come.

I normally wouldn't comment on DVDs which are neither final product or which won't be available in the near future, but with a "go ahead" from Sony, a few comments about what I'm seeing quality-wise on the new batch of screeners.

In a word - beautiful.

Beginning with MIB 2, which has now been released, and continuing with XXX and Autofocus, these new transfers send a message that the bar has been raised for minimum standards of DVDs. And if these pre-production examples of 2003 product are any indication, next year's releases of new product are going to be more perfectly rendered to video than ever before. Once these presentations have been massaged with final color correction and the possibility of SuperBit compression, and all the bells and whistles added for final releases. You get the point.

Where only a couple of years ago, the release of a new title to DVD could be a very "iffy" situation, it appears that releases of extremely high quality will now become the norm, leaving those releases which do not hit the quality marks as being the newsworthy items.

2003 should be a great year for new releases.

Kudos to Artisan

Like many people who buy DVDs in great numbers, I recently purchased the new Glengarry Glenross from Artisan, and decided, after reading all of the material enclosed with the discs, to send in for my five dollar rebate.

I wanted to make certain that I did everything correctly and by their rules, as a good 25 - 30% of rebates never seem to come to pass.

I read everything twice. My assistant read everything, and then did the requisite paperwork and enclosed the required proofs of purchase, receipts, etc.

The upshot was the recent receipt of a simple folded piece of mail from Artisan's fulfillment house, explaining that we had not responded with purchases within prescribed time limits.

We could find no time limits during which the "other" DVD must be purchased.

Just one more reason, after High Noon, The Quiet Man and the release of other poorly done classics, to love Artisan.

Litigating OAR

The studios have been getting away with it for years.

It all began when CinemaScope initially appeared in the early 1950s. While some theatres were newly equipped with much wider screens, some older houses merely cropped the top and bottom of their extant screen to create the illusion of width, albeit on a smaller canvas.

And those audiences which viewed widescreen films within the walls of these ill-prepared theatres were unknowingly the recipients of a well-prepared, yet deeply deceptive fraud. They were seeing a much smaller projected image than intended by the film's creators, and yet were paying full price for their tickets.

When widescreen home video came into play, many laserdiscs were proudly emblazoned with banners promising "Deluxe Widescreen Edition."

But it wasn't the widescreen edition that was deluxe, but more properly the pan and scan full screen edition. It was the full screen which needed additional processing, time and the investment of additional monies for creation. The widescreen edition was simply the film as it had been seen in theatres. No big deal here. Repetitive of the theatrical experience and a waste of screen real estate with those black bars.

And on to what I understand is the subject to be heard by the courts, and which will most likely make its way to the Supreme Court as an issue of violated Constitutional rights.

I have been shocked to learn that many "widescreen" releases, well...


Well, they are, but then again, they aren't.

Anyone who spends a bit of time reading The Bits or HTF will likely understand that every one of the studios is perpetuating a fraud upon the consumers with their continual pushing of "widescreen" and the use of the ubiquitous term "OAR."

For the uninitiated, OAR stands for Original Aspect Ratio, as relates to the shape of a motion picture image as projected within the confines of a motion picture theatre via a projection system.

Those of you who have read about the subject understand that the entire OAR concept is another fraud being perpetuated by the studios.

Motion pictures as properly projected in the real world are NOT RECTANGULAR!!!

The actual area of projected image is TRAPAZOIDAL!!

Therefore if a film is to be presented properly in its OAR, then the resultant image as seen on a television device MUST BE TRAPAZOIDAL in shape.

If it is not, then the software is a fraudulent release.

The current suit doesn't seem to bring these facts to the fore. It understandably attempts to simplify the problem in relating that a widescreen image is many cases simply a cropped (at top and bottom) flat image.

And the suit in question correctly identifies this fraudulent activity by the studios via which image information is stolen from the licensee of the home video rights.

In short, the licensee is getting much less than they bargained for.

Rather than receiving more information on the sides, the image being delivered has, in many cases, been shorn at the top and bottom yielding less information.

I applaud the fact that this situation will finally be heard by the courts. Hopefully the public, which has been mistreated and literally stolen from over the years will somehow be compensated, and that these deceptive practices will end.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of 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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