The Perils of Prepping DVDs: Distributors Find Challenges in Releasing the Likes of "Swoon," "The Battle of Algiers," and Iranian Classics
by Wendy Mitchell
You pop the new DVD of "Swoon" into your player, hit the play button and can enjoy the sumptuous look of Tom Kalin's landmark 1992 film -- what could be easier? Playing the DVD of this New Queer Cinema classic (about the Leopold and Loeb murder in the 1920s) might be easy but creating it wasn't such a piece of cake. In putting together this release, Strand Releasing (working with Killer Films and Fortissimo) faced a number of technical challenges -- which other DVD distributors regularly face as well. Killer Films' Charles Pugliese, the DVD's producer, explained, "If New Line says they want to make a DVD of 'The Lord of the Rings,' they have everything there and they put a featurette on there, they are done. But we had to do so much more than that."
The rights to "Swoon" were held by New Line for many years (its indie division Fine Line had released the film theatrically). Killer Films got those rights back in 2004 and worked on a deal with Strand Releasing to bring the DVD out. But there was a long road ahead -- Marcus Hu, co-founder of Strand, said, "We had to do a digital re-transfer of the entire feature, we re-lit the entire feature, we re-did sound, we cleaned up dirt and scratches from the negative, it was really a painstaking process. The film never looked that good back in 1992." Hu didn't want to reveal the amount of money that went into preparing the DVD because, he said with a laugh, "everybody would say, 'They are insane!" But for a film he felt so passionately about, "It feels like the right thing to do." (Fortissimo Film Sales, which had recently struck a foreign-rights library deal with Killer, helped pay for the "Swoon" transfer.)
The film was re-worked at Technicolor in New York, supervised painstakingly by director Kalin and his cinematographer Ellen Kuras ("Swoon" was her first feature), looking at every frame of the film. The entire process of preparing the film for DVD release took several months. "Killer Films had to track down all the elements and it was nightmare," said Hu. "We do 12 to 15 DVD titles per year and this was definitely one of the hardest titles we've worked on."
Killer's Pugliese worked with Kalin to track down all of the original elements. Pugliese had to contact labs in Seattle, Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles, and trek to Killer's storage space in New Jersey to find all the pieces. And he enlisted actor Craig Chester to do a commentary track along with Kalin, Kuras, and producer Chrsitine Vachon. "The whole thing was just kind of an unearthing, a search for all these elements that people hadn't cared about for awhile," Pugliese said. "It wasn't one-stop shopping." Kalin took all those elements, including the original negative and archival footage from the 1920s that was used in "Swoon," and re-compiled the film for a new DigiBeta. "It really was some archeological process," Kalin said, adding that he wished they had originally made an IP (a fine grain print made from the camera negative that can be used to make subsequent copies).
Kalin edited the film himself in 1991, but after a decade or so, he said, "I didn't have a single written editorial note. I was amazed at how much I really remembered. I was able to reconstruct stuff based on just seeing it." The team used Discreet's Flame editing hardware system to correct the minor scratches and other damage that had been done to the 12-year-old negative. (No edits were made to structure of the film -- Kalin said that would be a "really wrong-headed thing to do.")
Hu of Strand said if there's anything that filmmakers can learn from this example, it's to "Keep track of your elements, make sure they are stored well, and make sure that the line producer gives you an inventory."
Of course, Strand isn't the only DVD distributor to run into headaches prepping films for release. Marc Mauceri, a VP at First Run Features, oversees the production and marketing of their DVD titles, said, "In most cases with newer films, assuming you have a high quality master on DigiBeta, you don't have to spend anything" to get the film ready for DVD release. But still, he said, "All films present their own unique little problems."
First Run has a large catalog of VHS titles, and sometimes technical quality can make or break the chances of which of those VHS titles will come out on DVD as well. And, of course, sometimes a filmmaker's involvement can determine the DVD's release. In the case of Ross McElwee's 1986 Sundance winner "Sherman's March," First Run has had the film on VHS for a while and wanted to bring it out on DVD as well. "We knew that Ross and First Run wanted to put out a really nice edition. We knew that it would require a lot of time from Ross... we didn't want to rush him," Mauceri said. That title has been looked at for several years before finally making it to DVD this spring. As Mauceri pointed out, McElwee originally shot "Sherman's March" on 16mm with a very honest, warm look to it -- so he wanted the DVD version to look "true to the film" so they did just "a little bit of work" to the negative.
First Run is prepping a fall box-set of Michael Apted's "Up" documentary series, another one where striving for perfect quality wasn't possible. "On the 'Up' series we have limited access to the original film negatives that are in an archive in England. We just asked for the most recent DigiBetas they had made, and they looked fine," Mauceri says. Other foreign releases coming out this week proved more difficult -- for Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mahrjui's "Hamoun" and "The Cow," First Run wasn't able to get the original negatives from Iran, so they had to wait for Mahrjui to send them masters that he was creating. Many of them weren't acceptable, so they kept asking him to redo them. After several tries, they had versions that were good enough to release.
The company that sets the bar for what's "good enough to release" is the Criterion Collection. Their DVDs are held in high regard because of their comprehensive preparation and their production quality. Criterion simply wouldn't put out a DVD of a film that was in poor shape technically -- before the company sets its yearly release schedule, the technical director and his crew have already determined that they'll be able to make a high-quality new transfer. The 1929 German classic "Pandora's Box," for instance, has been on Criterion's wish list for years (even back in the LaserDisc days), but the surviving film elements just aren't in good enough shape for a DVD release that Criterion would approve.
Once a title does get on the schedule, the first step is to "look for the best possible existing elements so that we can make a new transfer (in high definition) of the material," said Criterion executive producer Kim Hendrickson. "In many cases it's a lot of hard detective work and in some cases it's an easy process if they have an original negative or an IP."
Hendrickson's most recent feat was co-producing (with Abbey Lustgarten) the forthcoming three-disc set of Gillo Pontecorvo's influential 1965 film "The Battle of Algiers." "This film is a very complicated story because it has fragmented ownership, which means you have fragmented elements," Hendrickson said. "We were working from the Italian version because that was the best film element, but we had to use the French-Arabic audio, that's the appropriate audio. And then we had to create new intertitles because the French intertitles had never been consistent. We'd have to insert shots, and confirm audio -- it was an incredibly complicated process on the part of our technical staff."
Because of the film's cinematic and historical importance, Criterion didn't think they could tackle its legacy on one supplemental disc, so they did two supplemental discs for a three-disc set (coming out in September). The extras for Algiers include a whopping seven documentary features.
The company doesn't have unlimited budgets to prepare its DVDs, but it doesn't try to necessarily pinch pennies either. "We're never so much driven by what it's going to cost to get it done, it's about what works best for the DVD and if we can do it," Hendrickson said. Time is also helpful -- Hendrickson and Lustgarten had more than six months to work on "Algiers" (they were also working on other DVDs simultaneously).
She said that doing old films doesn't have to be more complicated if elements are in good shape. "Doing 'Gimme Shelter,' we went back to 16mm A and B rolls and those look fantastic, absolutely beautiful. You can even find beautiful elements from the '30s," she told indieWIRE. But even Criterion can run into preservation problems -- they've especially had difficulty finding original camera negatives for Japanese films of a certain era.
New films, of course, can seem like a piece of cake. But they can offer at least one extra element that you don't always get with old films: a living director. "Some of the subjective decisions that we have to make when we're going a film transfer -- like color determinations -- the director and cinematographer will say, "it has to look like this," otherwise we're making the determinations," Hendrickson said. But usually it's a bonus to have the director's input, she's quick to add.
After all, the film is still the director's baby. For "Swoon" director Kalin, returning to his debut feature all these years later was hard work but ultimately an enjoyable experience. "If it had been closer to the time I made it, I might have had different feelings, but now it was a labor of love. It wasn't a chore." Although he added with a laugh, "It consumed my summer in a way that was surprising."