Friday, March 19, 2010

"Re-Mastered" Classics

The advent of home video has made it economically feasible for studios to release "director's cut" versions of many films. This is a good thing. It allows one of the original film creators to show what was originally intended without marketing restrictions like running time, strong content that might affect the rating, and studio edits meant to target particular audiences.

Director's cuts normally don't mess with the original film frames - just the editing. A wholly different story is the practice of editing the original frames to make it look nicer or more interesting. I'm not talking about film restoration - which attempts to bring the film back to its original state. I'm talking about what is now often called "re-mastering". The first example of re-mastering that I can recall is when they started colorizing black and white films. This is a difficult thing to do, and the first attempts looked horrible enough to be distracting. Later attempts began to look more realistic, but that is beside the point I want to make here, which is that the original director shot the film in black and white and tailored his art and interpretation to accommodate that medium. One of the characteristic stengths of black and white film is what it does to the lighting - how the sharp contrasts affect the mood of the scene, etc.. In any artistic endeavor, I will always defend the integrity of the original form, mainly because an outsider will inevitably deviate from the original artist's vision.

In the digital age, re-mastering has taken a whole new turn. Now someone, including the director himself, can modify the actual content of the original film. This introduces the possibility of even greater transgression than simple colorization. When George Lucas released his re-mastered versions of the original Star Wars trilogy (billed as "enhanced"), I had to at least check it out. I found the additions of digital characters and scenes to be nothing more than a distraction from the story - complete gratuosity timed to generate new interest in the films prior to the release of the Phantom Menace. When you know the original scenes after many years, it's hard to remember the impact of seeing it for the first time, and the temptation to "spice it up" can even draw in the director - or maybe just George Lucas. The end result will most surely take away from it. Even the sound re-mastering they claimed they improved just drowned out the superb original music score and added more noise. The only redeeming aspect was the inclusion of previously deleted material - like the meeting betweeen Jabba the Hut and Han Solo in episode IV, which falls in line with the comments on editing changes above. I fully back the digital fixing of Jabba's appearance to match the scenes in ROTJ for the sake of continuity. But when I bought the DVD set for my library, I made SURE it was not the re-mastered version.

This brings me to what prompted this entry in the first place. A re-mastered version of the entire original Star Trek series has now been released by Paramount and is currently being shown on late night public television. I first heard of it on Youtube where you can watch previews of side-by-side comparison of the original and re-mastered scenes. They are almost exclusively a re-work of the exterior model shots of the ship and space phenomenon. What to make of this? Some of the planetary background shots are absolutely stunning and remind me of the CGI simulations of the solar system created by NASA for its satellite expeditions. It really makes you feel like you're traveling in deep space. Although the ship looks very cool and they kept it true to the original, there was a certain realism to the fuzzy appearance of the original model shots (they were actually quite good for their time). Digital just looks too clean - even though movie-goers have gotten used to seeing it that way now. There are significant deviations from the original rendering of the planets and space creatures. It's hard not to like both versions in this case. It's often the cheesey-ness of vintage sci-fi that makes it memorable, so you can't just throw them out. On the other hand, it's the stories and the characters that made Star Trek what it is, not the effects, so bringing them up to date isn't all that bad. Remember, no one is changing the basic content of the scenes, just the appearance, and I think Mr. Roddenberry would have been pleased with the results. Have I compromised here - or just made an exception? Who knows. It would be interesting to see what other fans think of the new, re-mastered, Star Trek.

If you decide to watch the comparisons on Youtube, I must warn you that the resolution and color of the youtube video is much poorer than the actual footage which you can watch on DVD or TV. In many scenes, you can't even make out the stars. Such comparisons are good for getting a feel of what was done, but the quality of the new footage will not match up to the originals even when shown next to them online.

I want to leave you with a really wonderful documentary short on the Star Trek remastering effort. Below is the first of the two part episode. In addition to the new CGI, it also shows you the original film restoration and the incredibly accurate live recording of the original thematic score - complete with soprano voice! You can hardly tell the difference.

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