TWILIGHT TIME DID NOT KNOW ABOUT ARROW/CARLOTTA REMASTER
Glenn Kenny, this week's guest DVD columnist for the New York Times, investigated the two Blu-ray versions of Brian De Palma's The Fury that came out this year. (The column was posted to the web on Friday, and appeared in the print edition of the NY Times today.) About five years ago, Kenny explains, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment mastered the film for high-definition, but then the recession led to soft Blu-ray sales, and the project was shelved. Kenny explains what happened after that:
Fox’s cold feet spelled opportunity for Twilight Time, the boutique label specializing in limited-edition high-definition versions of studio fare with collector appeal. (For instance, one of its early releases was a Blu-ray of “The Egyptian,” a 1954 CinemaScope building-of-the-pyramids epic that was the first wide-screen outing for the golden-age Hollywood master Michael Curtiz.) The company licensed “The Fury” from Fox, and using the high-definition master provided by the studio, released a Blu-ray in March.
The release was well reviewed, with the restoration and preservation expert Robert A. Harris (who oversaw, among many other projects, a new rendition of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films) praising “color, shadow detail, resolution.” Mr. Harris, writing on Home Theater Forum, a tech-savvy and often argumentative site, noted, in the argot common in such forums: “The grain structure is totally filmlike. So much so that when we hit a long dupe shot,” viewers “can easily see the difference.”
And there, for some viewers of the Twilight Time “Fury,” was the rub. De Palma is a technical virtuoso and “The Fury” one of his most bravura works. He and the director of photography, Richard H. Kline, pulled out the stops with focus manipulations, cleverly orchestrated effects and rear-projection work. Composite, or dupe, shots are put together in a lab, combining materials shot under different conditions. Merging and rerendering these elements creates an inevitable downgrade from the quality of the original camera work; that’s what experts mean when they say a particular shot looks “dupey.”
In the first half-hour of “The Fury,” there’s a car chase in which Cassavetes’s sinister C.I.A. officer pursues an on-the-run Douglas, who hijacks a police car. It’s a night scene, shot in low light, with a number of composite shots. To top it off, the climax of the scene takes place on a foggy pier. “That scene in particular, and some other night scenes, always looked a bit problematic to me, especially compared to the surrounding day shots,” said James White, a freelance DVD producer who lives and works in Britain. “They really suffered, on account of the ‘pushing’ of the film stock, the heavy noise-to-grain ratio, the process shots. None of it really fit in well with the rest of the picture.”
Mr. White was part of the team at Arrow Video, a British genre and cinephile DVD/Blu-ray label, working on a version of “The Fury” for British distribution. In tandem with the French label Carlotta and the Australian concern Shock, the company financed an entirely new high-definition transfer, using advanced film-scanning technology, and the movie’s original negative (which includes the shots put together from different sources in the lab) for the picture source.
“When people say that the Twilight Time Blu-ray looked the way they remembered it in theaters, well, it probably did,” Mr. White said. “Because, to my eye, the version on that master looked like an inter-negative, the source from which 35-millimeter prints were actually struck for distribution. Using the camera negative, you’re offered so much more in terms of contrast, color and detail.”
And it’s true, the night scenes in the Arrow “Fury” have a smoother, less garish look than those on the nonetheless very watchable Twilight Time release. These two versions of “The Fury” caused some controversy among buffs in the Home Theater Forum thread following Mr. Harris’s review, and elsewhere. Many home theater mavens own region-free Blu-ray players that defeat the blocking technology meant to keep foreign-made DVDs unplayable in the United States and vice versa. For them, comparing the two versions was easy. Mr. White, for his part, said that in the online world of Blu-ray assessment, “people play favorites, and it gets out of hand.”
As it happens, Twilight Time has been subject to a lot of criticism over its limited-edition business model, which the label’s co-founder, Nick Redman, calls a “clean” model that satisfies studios licensing the product and in a sense guarantees the ability to put out more obscure material.
“The critics of our limited-edition model think that we’re somehow artificially depriving all the millions of people that would really want a copy of a given movie from having it,” Mr. Redman said. “In fact, an edition of 3,000 is completely in line with what 99 percent of all catalog releases will sell. The other thing we’re criticized for is our price point, which is $29.95 — completely in line with every other label, including Olive and Criterion, but because we are available at only one retailer (although now there are some copies available at TCM), we can’t participate in the discount deals that other labels that go through Amazon and the big-box retail stores can do.”
These sticking points, Mr. Redman said, might have contributed to the bad blood over “The Fury.” The label’s edition is, even so, a success, as it’s sold out. The Arrow “Fury” remains available, although you need a region-free player to watch it. While Mr. Redman stands by the Twilight Time edition of “The Fury,” he allows that he’s learned something from the kerfuffle: “Had we known that Arrow and Carlotta were planning to create a new master, we might have gone in on it with them. But we didn’t know.”
Mr. Redman said he now believes that better communication between international DVD and Blu-ray producers is essential to the survival of the formats. “As the studios back further and further away — and people are dreaming if they think the studios are not backing further and further away — from physical media,” he said, “it is going to totally default to the independent labels in each territory in the world to synergize and work together as best they can to make those libraries viable for those handful of people left who want them on disc.”