People don’t pay much attention to the name of the studio on a DVD. (Nobody I know says, for instance, “Let’s go rent a Paramount movie tonight.”) The single exception, of course, is the Criterion Collection, which has marketed itself as a boutique brand, touted—and deservedly so—for its classic catalog, fastidious transfers, and superb commentaries, booklets, and other “special features.”
Now it’s time to take note of another logo that almost guarantees high quality—Warner Home Video. At least since 2002, the video division of Warner Bros. has released one great-looking DVD after another. I know of no other label, in fact, whose output has been more consistently spectacular.
Last year, its two-disc DVD of Casablanca was a revelation—more luminous than any print probably since the film’s 1941 première. More recently, its box sets of film noir and gangster movies (including The Asphalt Jungle; Murder, My Sweet; Out of the Past, White Heat; and The Public Enemy) have been marvels of clarity. Its restorations of Technicolor classics—Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon, and Gone With the Wind—are breathtakingly lush and detailed: Look at the texture of clothing, the ripples of a curtain, the glistening steel of a railroad car—they’re practically 3D. I saw The Band Wagon in a restored 35mm print not long ago, at Film Forum in New York, and this DVD suffers hardly at all by comparison. Modern films as well, like Warner’s new two-disc “special edition” of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, are saturated with rich, natural colors. (If you disagree, you need to calibrate your television or buy a new one.)
Nearly a decade into the DVD era, most studios have figured out how to do at least decent digital mastering. Few major-label DVDs these days look bad. What puts Warner Home Video a notch or two (or three) above the rest? I talked with George Feltenstein, senior vice president for Warner’s classic catalog, and Ned Price, VP for technical mastering, as well as a few outside industry specialists. Here’s what I found out.
First, the condition of Warner’s film library is in relatively good shape. As a result of media meltdowns and mergers over the past half-century, Warner Bros. owns not only all the films made under its own studio logo but also all RKO titles and all MGM films made before 1986. (For details, click here .) In the 1960s, long before film preservation became a popular cause, MGM was one of two Hollywood studios—the other was Disney—that decided to preserve all its films. They spent millions of dollars to repair, properly store, and in some cases meticulously restore original negatives, black-and-white nitrates, or duplicate copies. As for Warner Bros.’ own black-and-white classics, original nitrates were long ago donated to the Library of Congress or UCLA, which stored them in temperature-controlled rooms and left them, ever since, untouched. To the extent possible, Warner DVDs have been mastered from the original negatives, preventing degradation in detail, sharpness, color, and contrast.
Then there’s Warner’s work with Technicolor. Even with careful preservation, color negatives fade over time. But Technicolor negatives can look as good as new after decades. This is because Technicolor films consisted of three black-and-white negatives, which ran simultaneously through a special camera. Light hit each film strip through a prism filter. Afterward, each film strip was coated with a dye, and the three strips were then aligned, on top of one another, to form a coherent color image. It was a complex, costly process, which lasted only from 1935-54. (For a succinct detailed elaboration, click here.)The point is that black-and-white negatives don’t fade. If the Technicolor black-and-white negatives have been stored well, and if some lab can replicate the Technicolor dye-processing, it should be possible to create a fresh print with perfect color.
This is why the DVDs of Gone With the Wind, The Band Wagon, Meet Me in St. Louis, and so forth look so stunning. They’ve been mastered from the original Technicolor three-strip negatives. In some ways, these DVDs have finer color and detail than even the original film prints. In the old days, it was difficult to align those three strips perfectly. The task became still harder years later, when the films were reissued (or turned into earlier DVD transfers), because the negatives had stretched or shrunk over time. If you need all three strips to get the right color, and you can’t line the strips up precisely, then the colors and the sharpness are going to be a bit off. However, with digital technology, the three strips can be aligned with absolute precision. This process isn’t unique to Warner—other studios made Technicolor films, too—but Warners is the first to go back to the three-strip negatives and realign them precisely as a systematic policy.
Another thing that makes the recent batch of Warner DVDs look so good: high-speed digital scanning. When a film is turned into a DVD, the first step is to scan each frame digitally and to store the data on a hard drive. The more times a frame is scanned, the more coherent is the resulting picture. Many DVD studios now scan films at “high-definition”—or 1,080 lines. Warners is one of just a few that scan at 2,000 lines (or, in the parlance, “2K scanning”). Soon, beginning with a Wizard of Oz reissue later this year, it will start releasing Technicolor DVDs scanned at 4,000 lines (“4K scanning”). This is a significant number. Engineers estimate that if you digitally reproduced all the information on a frame of 35mm film, you’d need about 4,000 lines of data. In other words, at least theoretically (and for more on this caveat, click here), 4K scanning captures everything that’s on a film.
Finally, the new Warner DVDs tend to come in the form of two-disc sets—one disc for the movie, a second disc for the special features. (Gone With the Wind has four discs: two for the movie, two for special features.) This isn’t just a packaging gimmick. Digital video, like digital audio, consists of a series of 0’s and 1’s, run through complex compressors, processors, and converters. You can only fit so many 0’s and 1’s—so many bytes and bits—on an optical disc. The more you load the disc with special features, the less space you have for the movie—or, more to the point, the fewer bits you can devote to each frame of a movie. The higher number of bits that go into an image, the better the image looks. So, the best way to present the movie is to put nothing on the disc except the movie. (Columbia TriStar started this practice with its SuperBit DVDs. A few other studios, not just Warners, have picked up on the idea.) A Web site called dvdbeaver.com has measured that the latest multi-disc Gone With the Wind has 55 percent more bits per second than a single-disc DVD that Warner released a few years ago.
But the true measure—besides whether the movie is good—is how good the movie looks. You can see the difference in the new Warner DVDs, and it isn’t subtle.