The man in charge of the artistic management of the home cinema versions of some of James Cameron best films for over 20 years, reviews the situation of Blu-ray and the future of High Definition.
Van Ling: It’s a bit like the early days of the DVD. We have a feeling of deja vu, don’t you think? All those people who, when DVD arrived, sold their laserdisc collection, are now selling their DVDs! Blu-ray has gone through the same development phases: the early years were a bit like the wild west: a few pioneers explored the frontiers, tried new things, fought to overcome obstacles and took some arrows in the back. The outside world was mistrustful and doubtful…Today, things are starting to be more defined...
HDvision: Effectively the problem is the same as when the DVD arrived. Publishers are recycling old masters from several years ago into in Blu-ray. Once again, I feel some of them are doing it all wrong and dragging the medium down.
Van Ling: It’s true. We have fallen back into our old ways… It is an eternal dilemma. Should you do a fresh transfer, or just adjust, clean and restore the existing ones? There are sometimes unknown factors. In the case of the recent T2: Skynet Edition, released last year, we were unable, for both financial and logistics reasons, to strike a new master and have it validated in time. So we used the HD transfer of the DVD Extreme edition of 2003, which was already approved by James Cameron and have simply made some minor modifications, eliminating any flecks manually, etc. On the other hand, for Abyss, we have been waiting for Cameron to approve the new HD master for several years! As you know he has been a bit busy with Avatar.
HDvision: Let’s talk about James Cameron’s films. Avatar is available in a gold standard Blu-ray version but the same thing cannot be said about the rest of his back catalogue... Let’s start with Terminator, a disaster, which does not even feature the original mono mix !
Van Ling: I plead not guilty! I had nothing to do with the release of the Blu-ray version of Terminator – even though the publisher included part of my bonuses off the DVD edition. You may remember, when this disk was released in 2006, there were so many problems with the Blu-ray format (which was not ready and was rushed to avoid HD-DVD taking its place), that the programmers cut the discs down to the bare minimum. I don’t understand why they cut out the bonuses. Probably to save space…. They only used an extract of my documentary. Why not use it all? Well, it’s all in the past, a new HD digital restoration of the film, re-mastered using the original negative has been launched. I will do my utmost to ensure that the original mono mixing is on it, all the old bonuses incorporated and include new ones, such as unseen TV trailers for example or live BD extras. It should also include a bonus tribute to Stan Winston. We were in the process of working on it last year when we had to stop following MGM’s financial problems. So, for the time being the project is mothballed.
HDvision: Argh! Let’s move on to Aliens, which had to be re-transferred from scratch into high definition, as there was no HD master in existence. James Cameron have recently triggered a virtual tidal wave, by announcing that the film had been «de-grained» and «de-noised».
Van Ling: The restoration of Aliens was supervised by Fox and Lightstorm, James Cameron’s company. Concerning the technical problems, including the grain issue…. It’s truly a slippery slope, especially for films considered to be classics. It is easy to fall into the trap of revisionism. You correct one thing, then another, then yet another as you have already corrected it and you end up making major changes. We are in the thick of the issue with new transfers of old films. Transfer to HD using the most recent technology is always tricky. It is necessary to be very careful, as the supplementary resolution provided by Blu-ray is very unforgiving …
HDvision: Don’t you think that there is room for manoeuvre to make invisible corrections, above all when the fault impairs the coherence of the film, for example Bishop standing in a hole in the ground in the climax of Aliens, or the shadow of the crew members appearing in the shot in Blade Runner… all these things become more apparent in HD?
Van Ling: I agree with your point of view and I think that making minor cosmetic adjustments doesn’t pose any problems, especially when it involves a problem due to the high resolution of the format. If these defects distract you from the story and you can correct them without altering the integrity of the film, then you can do so, on condition that the director consents. But when we start to rationalise things like « we are going to make the film better », « let’s restitute our original intention » (Star Wars, Superman 2 Donner’s cut), or « let’s make the film more accessible to today’s audience » (colourising a black and white film, or the re-visitation of the original Star Trek TV series), I think that we are responsible for ensuring that the original version is still available. Millions of people remember a film on their first viewing. Imagine their reaction when they re-visit it in Blu-ray and notice that their friend has undergone cosmetic surgery which has made them unrecognisable.
HDvision: I have a pure geeky question. I dream of one day seeing, in Blu-ray, the alternative TV version of Aliens, the one which is a hybrid of the cinema edition and the special edition, which is my favourite. Is this likely?
Van Ling: In the event that the TV version is edited and approved by the director, as in this case, then why not? Often film makers do not like to make compromises demanded by TV or airlines. Therefore there is little interest in including such re-edits as a bonus. But many alternative versions are very interesting. This is why we have included the alternate future ending in the T2 Blu-ray. As you know, James Cameron edited a version of Abyss for the airlines in which the submarine does not sink! I have even seen a version of Speed, in which the bus doesn’t crash into the airplane in the airport! I believe that these variations are educational, as long as they remain a supplement to the original edit.
HDvision: When will we FINALLY see Abyss in HD?
Van Ling: (laughs) I have high hopes for Abyss in Blu-ray! A HD master was produced back in 2005, but James Cameron never had time to validate it. Now that his work on Avatar is over he is promising to examine the matter. However, I believe that he probably will be starting from scratch again, with a new transfer.
Van Ling: As far as True Lies is concerned, the truth (no pun intended), is that I started work on a special edition in 2001. But after 9/11, the project was put on hold and there has been no progress since. I hope that the situation will be resolved one day… In any case James Cameron has promised that it would in various interviews.
HDvision: OK, Titanic? We know that Cameron is preparing a 3D version, which will necessarily be followed by a re-mastered 2D Blu-ray. But what happened to Ed March’s documentary which should be in the edition 4 DVD of the film?
Van Ling: The documentary has not been included in the DVD re-issue, officially because James Cameron wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to take part in it. He was the only one of the leading actors not to have given an interview for the documentary, and as far as I am aware, still hasn’t done so. I don’t believe that we will see this documentary as long as it is not completed. I haven’t seen it myself as I have been busy working on the other bonuses (cut scenes, photo galleries, etc).
HDvision: Let's talk about 3D conversion. Titanic will be an emblematic example. How will stereo films infiltrate the Home Cinema domestic market?
Van Ling: It’s a real technological challenge, a battle of heart, mind and eyes. James Cameron has been thinking about it for a very long time and it is certainly the next stage in Home Cinema… Now, I’m not a fan of converting 2D films into 3D or colouring black and white films. It can fundamentally change the original artistic intentions. Directors of photography filmed in monochrome using totally different lighting concepts from colour, so adding colour to a film absolutely does NOT give the same result as if the film had been shot in colour. We can only consider it legitimate if the original film maker is involved (such as the recent colourisation of Ray Harryhausen’s films, done by the master in person). And again, in general I prefer the original black and white version. The same applies to 3D. I am sure that if you ask him, James Cameron will tell you that films shot in 2D are framed for this and that all 2D to 3D conversion is a compromise. If you are not careful, and if the transfers are not done correctly, it could even harm the audience’s comprehension. This is why he is taking his time with Titanic.
HDvision: We are touching on the heart of the problem that you mentioned earlier: the modification of works for posterity. I once had a colorful exchange with Rick McCallum (Star Wars producer) who is very categorical and argues that Lucas has the right to do what he wants, i.e. change colours, special effects, or editing … I wonder what will happen to the original trilogy in 3D, even though the new one might lend itself to it very well...
Van Ling: Film makers have the right, both legal and creative, to impose cosmetic surgery on their offspring in Blu-ray or DVD. But when they do so, they risk destroying something intangible which made these films unique, admired experiences. The audience must realise that what often makes a film unique and fascinating is not the film maker’s original intention. It is the way that the film evolves due to budget or time restrictions and the resulting improvisation. Would Jaws have been so successful if the mechanical shark had not had problems and Spielberg had filmed from lots of different angles, instead of suggesting its presence?
It was in producing the Special Editions of Cameron’s films that I became very sensitive to the problem. He thinks of everything. He always insists on the fact that all we are doing, (when creating a special), is adding scenes that were cut for timing reasons, something made possible by the Home Cinema market. He insists that the original edit should still be available in an identical quality to the long version. In his opinion, each of the different versions of his films, are « director’s cuts », each valid according to its medium.
HDvision: Technical or space limitations apart…. Don’t you have the impression that, in general, publishers are quite simply against the principle of interactive bonuses? The latter complicate their basic task, rooted since the days of VHS: selling films on a medium, end of story. Moreover, doesn’t the success of Avatar in "film only" version prove that they were right?
Van Ling: Publishers are torn between their desire to release discs with just a film on and releasing collectors’ editions featuring bonuses, simply because it also sells. They lean towards the first option because their market studies demonstrate that financially, it is more profitable to offer the general public the film on its own. Now, it is a sad fact that the general public is not interested in bonuses. If we take the DVD, hardly anyone buys a film just for the bonuses.
HDvision: But that’s not true! I’ve done it lots of times. When DVDs feature fascinating bonuses, I buy them out of curiosity even if I don’t like the film because I want to see the bonuses! I’m not the only one!
Van Ling: But you are a film buff. Apart from film buffs, no-one buys the disk of a film that he/she does not like simply because the bonuses look interesting. Certain fans of the Blu-ray format have sent a very clear message to the studios that they are only interested in the film, its image and sound quality. They don’t care about bonuses! I don’t know whether to blame them or not. They argue that bonuses take up space which could be used to improve audio and video quality, in spite of Blu-ray’s capacities.
HDvision: I share this opinion too. However to satisfy everyone, would it not be simple enough to put bonuses on a second Blu-ray if the bonuses are filmed in HD, or on a second DVD if they are filmed in low resolution?
Van Ling: The studios are doing everything that they can to satisfy « film only » fans, as they are core purchasers of the new format. But at the same time, they include all the bonuses that they can on the Blu-ray containing the film, given that they do not cost anything and barely take up any space, encoded in SD. And do you want to know why? As absurd as it may seem, market studies demonstrate that the average purchaser, who is only interested in the film, prefers to buy a edition containing 6 bonuses which he will not watch, rather than one with 2 bonuses (which he will not watch either), when given the choice!
HDvision: It doesn’t make sense...
Van Ling: Nevertheless that’s what the marketing studies say! Publishers don’t ask themselves the question in rational terms, as you do, but monetary. It’s what they call « added value », value that they can calculate in terms of expenses and profits. While the price of the bonuses is justified by the supplementary sales created by said same added value…so they are prepared to include bonuses. We others, bonus producers, are the most irrational optimists in the world. We kill ourselves creating exclusive content, even though we know that less than 10% of purchasers will watch it.
HDvision: I am starting to understand why Avatar has been reissued with bonuses... At the same time, clearly, Blu-ray is a format which can also be developed by focusing on the interactivity that it offers, and the possibilities that it opens, as this is its essence?
Van Ling: Blu-ray is a hybrid format which combines the principle of the DVD and the Internet. It offers many possibilities in terms of interactivity. Not everyone understands this and this is why times are hard. We need to be resourceful in finding studios, or studio managers, who understand this and are prepared to help us push back the frontiers of the format and enhance the prestige of discs and bonuses. When dealing with executives who are thinking people, it makes a big difference on the end quality of the discs. But I’m not worried, capabilities will explode once authoring and programming software products are accessible to all developers. When the format is finally democratised and everyone will be able to design or publish a Blu-ray without paying an exorbitant entrance ticket. And it is imminent. We are only at the beginning...
Interview by David Fakrikian
Special thanks to Scott Hettrick & Van Ling