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Gordon Meyer

Gordon Meyer

Monday, 26 November 2012 15:51

The Gizmo Guy - Is it Digital or Celluloid?

By Gordon Meyer
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During the holiday week, while I was in St. Louis visiting family, we decided to traipse over to a nearby AMC multiplex to see SKYFALL, the latest James Bond film.  Surprisingly enough, this particular AMC location appears to be one of the few remaining that still runs 35mm on at least some of its screens.  Following the digital pre-show filled with local and national ads, the trailers began in all their filmic glory, right down to the scratches.

Now to be fair to the projection staff at the Creve Coeur AMC, while visible enough to let me know I was watching actual 35mm film instead of a cluster of glowing pixels, the scratches really weren't that bad and the print itself was pristine.  In fact, since, back in my college days, one of my work study jobs was as a projectionist (running 16mm, 35mm and 70mm, thank you very much), there was actually a bit of nostalgia for me when I saw the telltale changeover cues in the upper right corner of the screen every 20 minutes.  

I make no bones about the fact that, in many ways, I'm a traditionalist.  I love the almost intangible feel of film, which is why I spent so much time over the summer raving about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' "Last 70mm Film Festival."  But I have to admit that with all the advancements in digital cinema, it's getting harder and harder for even seasoned observers to easily tell the difference between film and digital.

Of course one of the reasons for this is that camera vendors like Arri and Panavision take great pains to help filmmakers achieve the look and feel of 35mm film through a variety of means, beginning with a 24 fps frame rate and the use of lenses carefully engineered to provide a film-like look.   Once digital post became the standard and the use of negative cutters increasingly rare, the visual differences between digital and film based projection became smaller and smaller. 

Think about it. If a movie has been completely cut digitally and then that digital version has been transferred onto fine grain film stock, thus essentially losing a generation, which is going to more accurately reflect the director and DP's vision?  The first generation digital print or a digital to film transfer?

When it comes to older films that were completely shot and edited on film, I still love the idea of watching them projected on the big screen from an actual film print.  It's kind of a "circle of life" thing, I guess.  But after seeing SKYFALL on film, then briefly slipping into an adjacent auditorium where it was screening digitally, I have to honestly say that, if it weren't for the occasional scratches or changeover cues, I couldn't have seen the difference.  In fact, if anything, the digital version actually looked better because the image was rock solid, without the classic film jitter.

As someone who reveres tradition, I hope that there will always be a place for 35mm and 70mm exhibition.  But this was another reminder to me that for the overwhelming majority of theatres in this country, the handwriting on the wall has never been stronger when it comes to the way movies will be shown.  Circle of life.

Monday, 05 November 2012 22:10

Hey Kids! Let's Put On A Show

By Gordon Meyer
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A friend of mine is co-starring in a play called “Judy and Patsy on a Blue Day” and I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it.  That’s because it was created by one of countless community theatre groups here in Southern California, whose members are passionate about live theatre.  I was about to say, “…even if their members sometimes lack talent,” but in the case of the Toluca Lake Players, the group who created this particular bit of entertainment, there was quite a bit of talent on stage, and even more passion even with a miniscule audience on hand.

This is really more of a salute to the pluck of the TLP rather than a formal review of the play, which was written and directed by Dean Scott Schulman, who also served as the show’s pianist.  Getting the formalities out of the way, the play begins in 1972.  Alice Blue (Cali Rossen) and her pre-pubescent daughter April (Gabrielle Cheldin) are coping with the absence of David, Alice’s husband and April’s dad, who’s stationed in Vietnam as a chopper pilot.  April gets teased at school because instead of listening to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, she prefers Judy Garland, while her mom idolizes Patsy Cline.  Meanwhile, up in Heaven, Garland (Theresa Falco-Callari) and Cline (Yvette Nii) are close friends who keep an eye on the Blue girls with the help of a heavenly Messenger (Allan Anderson).

It’s very much in the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show,” school of theatre.  The performance space is the community hall of the Toluca Lake Methodist Church.  There’s no proscenium, stage or curtains.  Lighting and sets are about as simple as you can get.  In other words, technically, it’s a bit rough.  At the performance I attended, the one spotlight they had blew in the middle of the show forcing them to improvise with the use of the remaining stage lights, but it was OK.  As for the play itself, while genuinely touching at points, it’s really more of an excuse to showcase classic Garland and Cline songs than anything else.  But there was something infectious about the show and the performers that I really admired.

For one thing, the actors in the three singing roles (Garland, Cline and the Messenger) have dynamite voices and really delivered, especially Nii as Patsy Cline.  I also liked Rossen and Cheldin, who were very believable as mother and daughter and in the darker second act, both delivered very heart felt performances as their characters dealt with a personal tragedy.

But what I really want to tip my hat to is the idea that this small band of artists, with more passion than budget, had such a strong commitment to live theatre and stretching their creative muscles that they and their supporters put in a good deal of time and energy into writing, staging and performing a show populated by truly talented people.  Unlike many Equity waiver shows around town, it’s not about being a talent showcase since not a whole lot of people even know about this group and its work, in spite of a nice article in the Toluca Times. This was a labor of love for the people involved.  It’s about wanting perform for the pure love of performing, whether there are less than a dozen people in the audience or an auditorium packed to the rafters.

Is “Judy and Patsy on a Blue Day” great theatre?  Honestly, no, more than anything else because of what I consider an adequate, but far from exceptional book that focuses much more time on replaying the classic songs of Garland and Cline than on telling a story.  In spite of that weakness, I salute writer/director Schulman and his very talented cast for getting it done as well as they did and for having so much fun in the process.  Given the choice between staging a play from the Samuel French catalog or creating something original, they took the braver road of creating an original piece.  I liken it to one of the first out of town tryouts for a new Broadway show.  You know going in it’s likely to be rough in spots, but you hope to see the gem beyond the roughness. 

It’s the kind of community theatre that deserves support not just from the Toluca Lake Methodist Church and neighboring community; it deserves support from anyone who likes to encourage talent.  This is one of the places where new talent can develop and be nurtured, which is why I think it’s important to support the efforts of not only the Toluca Lake Players, but similar groups as well.

“Judy and Patsy on a Blue Day” runs through November 18 with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM.  Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the door.  The church is in North Hollywood on Cahuenga at Whipple.  For more information, call (323) 653-3498.

By Gordon Meyer

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            Filmmaker Eli Roth was the keynote speaker at last week’s Film Marketing Summit.  Now frankly, I’m not a big fan of the kind of gore Roth has chosen to specialize in.   But after listening to him talk, I have become a fan of his as a a total filmmaker.  Roth is the kind of guy who not only manages to maximize his production values, even when shooting on modest budgets, he’s also very aware of the fact that this is a business and his name has developed some serious brand recognition.

            Roth has embraced social media as an exceptionally cost effective way to market his films and his name as a brand – something mentor Quentin Tarantino taught him.  He often gets his fans engaged even before a single frame is shot and has become quite savvy at the use of Twitter in particular as a way to interact with those fans and build early and passionate word of mouth.

            I mentioned the advice given to him by Tarantino, but filmmakers creating a brand around their names dates back pretty much to the beginnings of commercial movie making with directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks and producers like Walt Disney.  Tarantino has very consciously built his personal brand, as have filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.  But Roth consciously takes it a step further, not as a matter of ego, but as an exercise in marketing.  While all of the filmmakers I just mentioned no doubt treat their names as public brands as well, Roth really takes that branding to new levels.

            For example whenever he meets fans who want their pictures taken with him, he asks them to use Twitter to send them those pictures so he can share them with the rest of his fan base.  This kind of personal connection with his fan base has led to a passionate and loyal following, which is also why whenever he’s involved in a new project, he’s adamant about having his name prominently displayed in all advertising and promotional materials as a way of protecting and reinforcing his personal brand.  

            Roth has become the consummate filmmaker in the era of social media.  He plays his social media connections like a fine violin and as a result is able to generate excitement and awareness for his projects on a grass roots level with minimal expense.  Don’t be surprised if PhD candidates study his branding strategies for their dissertations.  You really could write a book about his effective guerilla marketing strategies.  And it would be one Hollywood could well benefit from reading. 

By Gordon Meyer
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  A few weeks ago, I attended Variety’s annual 3D Entertainment Summit in Hollywood.  Naturally there was lots of talk about improvements in camera and conversion systems, sneak peaks at Q3 and Q4 movies that will be released in 3D (as an aside, the footage we saw from LIFE OF PI looks amazing), and even a sneak preview of a Hollywood classic that’s in the process of being converted to 3D (TOP GUN –the opening dogfight segment they showed us blew me away).   There were also demonstrations of the latest generation of glasses-free home displays, including a new technology from Dolby that looks very promising, though still not quite ready for prime time.

            But there was also a consistent theme through many of the panels that was echoed just last week at Variety’s Film Marketing Summit – that of the theatrical audience experience and the importance of giving those ticket buyers an experience so immersive that they cannot replicate it at home.  Even though packaged media sales have slid in the last few years, home entertainment continues to be a critical revenue stream for the studios.  But that revenue stream is also heavily influenced by the exposure a film gets from its theatrical release. 

It’s no surprise that, generally speaking, the better a film does theatrically, the better it will do in the home market.  Of course the lion’s share of how well a film does theatrically is determined by how good a movie it is. (Duh!)  But a big part of it, especially when it comes to 3D releases and what percentage of the box office comes from 3D versus 2D screens is heavily influenced by the in-theatre experience.  And it’s that very in-theatre experience that was discussed in detail during both events.

            Good clean sound, creatively mixed and presented is, of course an important part of the equation.  Look at how George Lucas’ use of the then new Dolby Stereo system put that technology on the map back in the late 70s and early 80s.  But multichannel sound has become a mature technology and most theatres have it more or less right.  The 3D experience is another story.

            The history of motion pictures confirms that the public loves the IDEA of 3D.  Ever since movies and 3D were first married in the 1920s, every time a new 3D cycle was launched the public response was always strongly positive.  But up until the current age of digital technology, the actual theatrical experience always left a lot to be desired, especially when it came to the eye strain that came from images that were so often slightly off in terms of registration.  Digital technology has, indeed, solved a lot of those issues, which is why this wave of 3D releases has been going on for close to a decade, especially in the international market.  But there are still presentation issues, especially when it comes to screen brightness.

            During one of the 3D Summit panels, participants lamented the often sloppy presentation that exhibitors offer their patrons when it comes to 3D movies.  The image brightness in a 3D movie is going to be darker because of the glasses needed in theatres and it doesn’t matter whether it’s RealD, Dolby or active shutter.  So in theory, exhibitors need to compensate for that light loss by boosting screen brightness.  Industry experts like Lenny Lipton have stated that you need a screen brightness level of at least four foot lamberts just to achieve an acceptable brightness level and that six foot lamberts or brighter is considered optimal. 

In fact, last summer, Paramount and director Michael Bay made it a point to encourage exhibitors to run TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON at six foot lamberts or brighter, even going to the extent of creating special digital prints optimized for that brightness level.  Frequent surveys consistently state that the satisfaction rate for audiences is not only consistently and markedly higher when the screen brightness for a 3D presentation is at six foot lamberts or brighter, the audiences are much more likely to encourage their friends to see those 3D movies at venues with the brighter images.

Many of the panelists raved about the demonstration of a new laser based projector lamp technology at this year’s IBC show in Amsterdam and how eye popping the picture quality of Martin Scorsese’s movie HUGO was when shown in 3D at a whopping 15 foot lamberts.  In contrast, it seems that most theatres these days still run 3D at between 2.5 and 3.5 foot lamberts, resulting in dingy, grey images on the screen, not to mention increased eye strain from the darker image and less than happy ticket buyers who just paid a premium for their 3D experience, but instead endured a substandard presentation. 

This is one of the reasons that ticket buyers have become increasingly selective about which movies they are willing to shell out extra bucks for in order to see them in 3D.  The novelty of 3D has worn off – which is a good thing.  Now when audiences choose to see movies in 3D versus 2D, it’s because they know the 3D will noticeably enhance the movie going experience. 

But the theatres have to play ball and give provide that premium experience, which means constantly monitoring screen brightness and replacing those expensive xenon lamps more frequently than they may be used to.  It’s not just 3D movies where proper screen brightness makes a difference. 

Last month, National CineMedia’s Fathom Events series Sony’s newly restored LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as a one day only special event.  I know some of the folks at Sony who were responsible for this 4K restoration.  They spent a lot of money painstakingly scanning and cleaning up the picture from Columbia’s 65mm original negatives in order to create a truly stunning image on the big screen and are justly proud of their accomplishment. 

But when I attended the Fathom screening at AMC’s Woodland Hills theatre, the image was so dim that objects that were clearly intended to be seen as white were as grey as dirty dishwater.  Much of the detail that Sony’s restoration team labored over to restore couldn’t be seen because of the dark screen image.  Several of my fellow LAWRENCE fans in the audience, who had seen the 1989 restoration in 70mm commented to me about how dark the image was as well. And we had all paid a premium over the AMC’s normal ticket pricing to see this one day only event.

Theatres absolutely have to watch the bottom line in order to make a profit and stay in business.  But when they’re competing against movie watching on flat screen displays at home, on computer monitors, tablets and even smartphones, they also need to provide audiences with the kind of immersive experience that they simply can’t get any other way.  That means investing what they need to so that both picture and sound are not just adequate, but so good they knock your socks off.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012 18:44

The Force Now Resides With The Mouse

By Gordon Meyer
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By now, you’ve no doubt read the big news.  The Walt Disney Company has just acquired Lucasfilm, Ltd. for $4.05 billion.  The plan is for Lucasfilm to operate autonomously the same as Disney’s two other high profile acquisitions, Marvel and Pixar. A very big part of the news was also the announcement that STAR WARS Episodes VII, VIII and IX are finally on track with Episode VII slated for a 2015 release date.

Even though George Lucas has been coy about the existence of a sequel trilogy for years, back in the 80s, when the original trilogy was in production, the official word was that this was the middle trilogy of an intended nine film saga.  The question of a sequel trilogy arose again when Lucas announced plans for the production of the prequels, but he quickly shut that down, no doubt more for the personal reasons of just not wanting to commit another decade of his life to overseeing the continuation of his baby more than anything else.

The good news is that, while Lucas will remain on board as a creative consultant, he’s pretty much handed the reins to veteran producer Kathleen Kennedy, who learned her craft as a creative producer through her long collaboration with Steven Spielberg.  Considering Lucas’ close friendship with Spielberg, it’s not surprising that Kennedy would be tapped to take over the Lucasfilm empire.

Personally, I think this is good news for STAR WARS fans.  First of all, they’ll finally be able to see the entire nine film saga as originally envisioned by Lucas 35 years ago – but hopefully with really good writers and directors.  Don’t get me wrong.  Lucas created a marvelous universe with the original STAR WARS and a very compelling collection of characters.  The strength of the franchise is built on that original trilogy and the universe Lucas and his colleagues brought to life. 

But as Lucas became more successful, he seemed to lose touch with the elements that made the original films so compelling.  It wasn’t until the third film in the prequel trilogy that the story quality even began to approach the original film or its first sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  But Lucas was the 800 pound gorilla.  STAR WARS was his creation and he had the financial resources to not only make the movies he wanted, but also to continuously fiddle around with the older films.  When I bought my Blu-ray copy of the original trilogy, I was planning to sell my DVD copy until I realized that there were a number of differences between the two versions, both of which had been altered from their original theatrical cuts.

But now that Lucas will be more or less out of the picture, how does this bode for the franchise?  I’ve already begun to see growling from fans, anticipating that “corporate control” of Lucasfilm will result in a series of really bad movies.  But if Disney’s ownership of Marvel and Pixar are any indication, I’m cautiously optimistic.  Disney’s top management appears to respect the Golden Geese they have acquired, including the creative alchemy the creative heads of those divisions possess. Judging by both the creative and critical success of THE AVENGERS, Disney’s ownership of Marvel hasn’t caused any creative compromises.  While Pixar has had its ups and downs, overall the quality of their films remains high.

As for Lucasfilm, with Kathleen Kennedy at the helm, I’m cautiously optimistic.  Of course no one will know for sure about the quality of the next STAR WARS films until Episode VII comes out in two and a half years.  But Kennedy’s years both with Spielberg and her personal track record as a partner in the Kennedy/Marshall Company have demonstrated that she knows story and storytellers.  If anyone can pick up the STAR WARS baton as a producer and bring the franchise back to what fans are hoping for, it’s Kathleen Kennedy.

Meanwhile, thanks to a very savvy deal with Fox on the original STAR WARS, Lucas walks away with a cool $4 billion in cash and Disney stock and a legacy as an innovator in the way movies are made and marketed.  Not a bad retirement package.

 

By Gordon Meyer

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“There’s real energy here and a sexual edge that has me on board.” 

As soon as would be novelist Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe). began talking about his devotion to “interiosity” and “exteriosity” in the new play SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck, I knew I was in the right place.  Dating back to my film school days, I often encountered people who had this pompous way of talking about what true storytelling is all about using all sorts of fancy language intended to make the listener think the speaker was exceptionally intelligent, when it was simply showing off.  In SEMINAR, a quartet of twenty something scribes have pooled their funds a twelve week private writing seminar with a celebrated author who is supposed to be some kind of genius.  Needless to say, they don’t exactly get the kind of nurturing support from Leonard (Jeff Goldblum) that they expected.

SEMINAR is more of a character study than a play.  Although there is a story line, it feels episodic in nature.  The scenes follow each other chronologically, but the transitions from scene to scene often feel almost arbitrary and non-organic in their flow.  In spite of this flaw, I found the play to be very entertaining, thanks to both some very witty dialog from Ms. Rebeck and exceptional performances by both Goldblum and Aya Cash, who plays Kate, the young woman whose massive rent controlled New York apartment serves  as the main setting for the play.

Kate’s story is the first one shared with the class and Leonard nor only humiliates her by the brutal way he tears it apart after reading only the first few sentences, he continues to rag on her story as a textbook example of bad writing that “nobody gives a shit about” throughout much of the play. But Kate is both stronger and more resourceful than she appears and comes up with a clever way to redeem her self esteem.  Cash gives the role a very real sense of humanity, vulnerability and subtle sexiness that I really enjoyed.

Near-Verbrugghe and Jennifer Ikeda as Douglas and Izzy give good performances, but nothing that blew me away, though to hold your own opposite Goldblum in front of over 1500 people is no small feat. The character of Martin (Greg Keller) is ultimately revealed as the protagonist of the play.  Martin is almost as acerbic as Leonard, but is so protective of the writing he seems to be passionate about that he doesn’t want anyone to see it.  While watching Keller’s portrayal, I kept thinking of the character Leonard from the sitcom THE BIG BANG THEORY, who Keller seems to channel.  Lo and behold I’m not alone. Variety’s Bob Verini got the same impression. But even with that similarity, I bought it.

As for Goldblum, in spite of his star billing, while Leonard is certainly the catalyst for everything that happens in the show, he’s not the central character.  This is more of an ensemble piece and Goldblum’s stage time is a lot briefer than I had expected.  But he delivers his profanity laced dialog with split second timing and conviction, including a powerful monologue near the end of the play.

Writing can be a frustrating and lonely task, filled with emotional angst, vulnerability, professional compromises and boatloads of rejection, often ugly in tone or inference.  But, when it works, it’s also exhilarating.  While I have no idea how autobiographical SEMINAR is, I can tell you that, between my own writing experiences and those of several friends of mine who are professional writers and authors, she hits the nail on the head in her play, including some of the digs at Hollywood which the opening night audience ate up with a spoon. 

Although it’s a flawed play, it’s also a very entertaining and insightful one – and as I said above, a play that every working writer or aspiring writer ought to see.

SEMINAR plays at the Ahmanson through November 18.  For more information, go to http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/Seminar/

 

Director Genndy Tartakovsky and Producer Michelle Murdocca
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

By Gordon Meyer
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In late July, the folks at Sony Pictures Animation invited me to an advance look at “Hotel Transylvania,” their latest 3D CG animated feature.  They showed us a few work-in-progress segments followed by a discussion with voice actor Selena Gomez, producer Michelle Murdocca and director Genndy Tartakovsky. I shared my initial response here.

The film opened on September 28 with a $40 million opening weekend, making the folks at Sony very happy campers.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Tartakovsky earlier this week, basking in the afterglow of his film’s success at the box office. For those not familiar with Tartakovsky and his work, after graduating from CalArts’ celebrated animation program, the Russian born Tartakovsky spent several years at Hanna-Barbera where he created, wrote (or co-wrote) and directed the original series “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack,” “Sym-Bionic Titan” and “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”  George Lucas personally chose Tartakovsky to spearhead that project. “Hotel Transylvania” is his first feature and had already been in development for many years when he came on board.

One of the things that attracted Tartakovsky to the project was the idea of Dracula as the father of a teenage girl with Adam Sandler’s voice.  “I got very excited about the opportunity to present a comedic Dracula to a new generation.  Some of my favorite monster movies were movies with comedic takes like ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.’ I thought this was right up my alley. “ Tartakovsky says he had a number of challenges, beginning with the fact that he was coming into a project that already had a crew, a script and had already started to build assets based on earlier drafts and storyboards.

 Writers were already wrapping up a draft by the time Tartakovsky came on board, but before he had an opportunity to put his stamp on the project. Up until then, he was accustomed to either writing his own material or at least strongly guiding it. “When I read that draft, it was in a different tone than the kind of movie I thought we were going to make. So I took it upon myself to re-write the movie where I was able to put in my own pacing and structure before we started to dig deep into the jokes and other things.”  Tartakovsky then showed his draft to Adam Sandler, who, in addition to voicing Dracula is also one of the film’s executive producers.  Sandler liked what he read and then turned the script over to Peter Baynham and longtime collaborator Robert Smigel for another round of rewrites.

Once he was satisfied with the script, Tartakovsky tackled character design and art direction.  “I liked many of the characters that were already designed, including Frankenstein, Eunice (aka Mrs. Frankenstein) and the werewolf man. But Dracula’s design was so far off from what I felt he needed to be for his character that I insisted he be re-designed.  My biggest influence was on the way we posed the characters and their expressions to be more in line with my style and sensibilities.  If you saw the old Frankenstein and the new one and the way they were posed, it’s almost like they were two different characters.”

Tartakovsky readily admits to being strongly influenced by the cartoons of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, especially with their pacing, exaggerated takes and strong physical humor and wanted “Hotel Transylvania” to have similar sensibilities. “That was my goal. In feature animation, the cartoony style of Warner Brothers was kind of taboo.  A lot of people told me that you couldn’t sustain a feature length story with that kind of animation and I always felt that was kind of ridiculous.  I wanted to make a big, broad comedy with characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.  I worked very hard on the pacing to make sure we delivered that kind of energy.”

As a major proponent of 3D, it’s no surprise that Sony wanted “Hotel Transylvania” to be released stereoscopically.  For someone accustomed to working in traditional 2D cell-type animation, this posed additional challenges for Tartakovsky.  “This was one of the more difficult things because I feel like 3D often takes you out of a movie.  I wanted the 3D to be effective, but no so much that it takes you out of the story.  What I found was that the type of composition and storytelling that I like to do actually fit into 3D really well. It became a really nice fit into the way it fit into the movie.”  At the recent 3D Entertainment Summit, Sony showed us some key set pieces from “Hotel Transylvania” that were dazzling demonstrations of how effective 3D can be when used properly. I’d have to say that for someone using that medium for the first time, Tartakovsky learned how to use 3D space, pacing and staging remarkably well.

 Meanwhile, Tartakovsky’s future plans include a new take on “Popeye” using CG animation and an undisclosed project that, he was not at liberty to discuss, but none the less was enthusiastic about.  Being a long-standing “Popeye” fan, especially the 1930s vintage Fleischer Brothers cartoons, I especially wanted more details.  Although the latter film is still in development, Tartakovsky did say his vision was to emphasize physical comedy with his take on “Popeye.” Considering his body of work to date, I am very optimistic as to what he’ll do with the characters.  Meanwhile, “Hotel Transylvania” is an auspicious feature debut for this talented artist.

By Gordon Meyer

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It began as a big budget salute to the low budget action/adventure serials of the 1940s and became one of the most popular movie franchises of all time.  Now for the first time, all four INDIANA JONES movies have finally been released to Blu-ray with Paramount and Lucasfilm’s “INDIANA JONES – The Complete Adventures” boxed set that came out just a few weeks ago.  It’s taken me this long to digest and savor the contents of the five disc set.

Technically, it’s not really “the complete adventures,” since this boxed set doesn’t include the “Young Indiana Jones” TV series.  But why quibble?  If it’s the features you want, this is the collection you need to have on your shelf.

The movies themselves have been available for a long time on DVD and VHS before that.  But the BD transfer is absolutely stunning and long overdue. I’m not going to put a lot of time or text into talking about the movies themselves because, presumably, the overwhelming majority of people interested in this boxed set will know them well. 

To me, the strongest of the four are the original “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK,” followed by “…LOST CRUSADE,” with “KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” and “TEMPLE OF DOOM” a distant fourth.  Yes, that’s strictly my own opinion, but it’s one echoed by the majority of fans because these movies are not just about Indiana Jones himself.  A big part of their success is also in who Jones bounces against both as prickly allies and formidable foes. 

That balance was at its best in the very first movie with Marion Ravenwood as Jones’ ex-lover who’s got more balls than most men in the franchise, in contrast to Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, who was basically a whiney wimp.  On the other hand, the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as Indy’s father proved to be one of the best pairings in cinematic history, not only because of their considerable talents as actors, but also because of the brilliant way screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and uncredited co-writer Tom Stoppard defined the characters and the way they interacted.

The set comprises of five discs – one for each of the four movies and a fifth one with the lion’s share of the bonus material. The bonus material on the movie discs themselves is limited to trailers.  However that fifth disc is a virtual treasure trove of fascinating content that’s a mix of new and previously produced bonus material from the earlier DVD boxed set, along with a rarely seen 1981 “Making of” feature on the original film.

Not surprisingly a large portion of the bonus content focuses on the first film with not only two featurettes in the “Making the Films” section but also the hour long “On Set With Raiders of the Lost Ark” with a generous amount of archival behind the scenes archival footage that as both a film buff and a serious student of film production and writing provides a fascinating insight into what was involved in making the 1981 original.

The fourth section of the bonus disc contains a dozen short pieces that take a much more specialized look at the various components of the franchise, including stunts, sound design, critters, locations and how the iconic “melting face” effect from the climax of the first film was accomplished. About 1/3 of these vignettes are older bits of bonus content in standard def, 

Although it looks like most, if not all of the bonus features were recycled from earlier home video releases, it doesn’t matter.  To me, this is the definitive Indy collection where everything that’s available is in one compact package.  The transfers are absolutely stunning, as is the sound transfer and really show off the BD format, especially for those people with really good hi def displays.  The bonus disc is a virtual film school class on the elements involved in producing a big budget action movie, though I would have liked to have seen a separate piece on the writing process.  (Writers are all too often the forgotten element, even though without the writer, nobody else would have a job!)

Here’s the bottom line.  If you’re a fan of the franchise, the new BD boxed set is pretty much a must have, even if you already own the older DVD version.  The boost in picture and sound quality is that good.  If you don’t already have the older DVD box, but love good old fashioned bigger than life adventures with a mystical element, what are you waiting for?

By Gordon Meyer
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Since 1962 was the last time the original Cinerama process was used for a feature, normal film to digital transfer systems simply aren’t able to handle Cinerama. For us cine-geeks, it was very interesting to watch the features on how both of these movies were digitally restored.   Unfortunately, the original Cinerama color elements of both films had deteriorated to the point that it would have been cost prohibitive to restore their color and use them for this restoration.

 Let’s face it. The commercial market for these films is pretty modest at best, so the folks at Cinerama, Inc. (sister company to Pacific Theatres), couldn’t exactly cost justify the kind of restoration that Warner Bros. did for HOW THE WEST WAS WON.  In addition, because a frame of Cinerama film is 50% taller than normal 35mm film (six sprockets high instead of four) and at 26 fps runs slightly faster than standard 35mm movies, finding a telecine operation that could even handle the transfers was a major challenge.  But considering the source material and budgetary constraints the restoration teams had, they did a damned good job and both discs include comprehensive documentaries on what was involved.

In the early 1970s, a 70mm version of THIS IS CINERAMA was re-released to theatres.  The 65mm negative from this version was the basis of the THIS IS CINERAMA transfer, while a faded, 35mm archival print of WINDJAMMER from the Swedish Film Institute served as the source material for the latter film.  In both cases, the restoration team was able to clean up scratches and dirt while largely bringing back the faded color, which was especially challenging for WINDJAMMER.  While the featurettes on how these films were restored gets a little techy for most members of the general public, they still tell an interesting story of the challenges of restoration – especially restoration on a modest budget – and indirectly underscore the importance of film preservation.

The movies themselves are frankly more curiosity pieces than great cinema, though they were incredibly popular in their time.  THIS IS CINERAMA is admittedly a technology demonstration more than anything else.  The film is a collection of short segments of various length, including capturing stage performances at the La Scala Opera House and the Vienna Boys Choir, spectacular aerial footage of various parts of the United States and, of course, the iconic roller coaster ride at the beginning of the film.  On a big screen, that roller coaster ride is still one of the most spectacular pieces of cinema ever filmed.  But on my 23” HD monitor, the impact frankly loses a lot, though it’s still fun to watch.

WINDJAMMER, produced by Louis de Rochemont, is more of a cohesive story.  In Norway, a group of young men and boys volunteer to go on an old fashioned 200 foot sailboat from Oslo to New York and back as part of a training program.  This film was actually shot using the competing Cinemiracle process that was more or less a Cinerama clone and was in fact shown at numerous Cinerama venues around the world since its three projector process was fully compatible with Cinerama. 

But de Rochemont’s team did something I only saw in one other three panel widescreen film, Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON.  During the New York segment of the film, they actually treated each of the film’s three panels as separate images that complemented each other.  In some cases, the filmmakers actually have multiple images in each of the three panels resulting in over a dozen images simultaneously projected.   This was probably my favorite part of the movie.

As I said in my P3 Update article, the success of Cinerama triggered the development of CinemaScope, Todd-AO, VistaVision, Technirama, Panavision and a couple of decades later, IMAX.  As a matter of film history, these movies are priceless treasures and slices of both cinematic and world history.  For that reason, they belong on any serious film buff’s shelf.

 

 

By Gordon Meyer
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I’m a film geek, and damned proud of it.  That’s one of the reasons I lobbied to do a feature on the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama which appeared in the September issue of P3 Update.  It’s also the reason why I’ll be attending screenings of THIS IS CINERAMA, HOW THE WEST WAS WON and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM at the Cinerama Film Festival this weekend.

I got a sneak preview of sorts thanks to the folks at Flicker Alley who released DVD/Blu-ray editions of two of the three panel Cinerama movies being presented at the Cinerama Dome this week, THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER.  You can enjoy reissue trailers for THIS IS CINERAMA here and WINDJAMMER here.

Of course nothing can really duplicate the experience of seeing these movies the way they were meant to be seen – on 70 foot wide, deeply curved screens with seven channel stereophonic sound (five front channels and two surrounds).   But since there are only three venues in the world capable of playing the Cinerama format, these discs are likely to be the closest most people will get to experiencing these rarely seen Cinerama features.

Both titles use a new technique dubbed “SmileBox” which more or less replicates Cinerama’s 146 degree curved screen.  Warner Home Video used this on their Blu-ray release of HOW THE WEST WAS WON a few years ago offering both flat screen and SmileBox versions of the film on separate discs.  But the producers of the THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER discs go a step further.  Their intent is to replicate the entire roadshow experience, so at the beginning of each feature you see the curved screen at the Cinerama Dome covered by a curtain as the overture/walk-in music begins. 

Since both films begin with prologues in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, you see the curtain open only part way for those prologues, framing the relatively small images.  Then, at the appropriate time, just as in a Cinerama theatre, the curtains open all the way to reveal the entire image on a curved screen.  When it comes time for intermission, once again the curtains appear and close over the intermission card as music plays – just as audiences would have experienced at a theatre’s roadshow presentation.   While it’s quite different from the usual home video roadshow presentation of a simple title card during the overture and intermission music, it’s a nice piece of showmanship on the part of DVD/BD producer David Strohmaier and his restoration team.

Both titles feature some pretty interesting bonus content, including “breakdown reels.”  Cinerama was an exceptionally complex process for exhibitors requiring projectionists in three separate booths plus an audio engineer to custom mix each performance – all in separate locations.  Since these were reserved seat roadshow presentations, the movies would often run in one location for a solid year or more.  Naturally wear and tear on the print resulted in the occasional break.  When that happened, a fourth projector kicked in with a breakdown reel to essentially stall for time and keep the audience occupied while the projectionists repaired the print.   The breakdown reels for both movies are interesting time capsules capturing the style of 1950s documentary film making – meaning by 2012 standards, they’re a bit hokey, but also interesting and fun to watch at least once.

Continued in Part 2

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