Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Color Me Concerned

It’s strange to think back on a time when the mass-colorization of black & white films felt like a real threat. Back in the 80s, with studios sitting on hundreds (no, wait – thousands!) of black & white titles, and a new market for “sell through” VHS tapes rapidly opening up, colorization looked to be a viable means to market older films to a younger generation that had grown up in a world of color film and television only – provided, of course, that they weren’t watching music videos or commercials. .

The first to fall victim to the process had to be recognizable enough to get people interested, and preferably in the public domain to forestall interference from filmmakers. Wikipedia says that Cary Grant was pleased with the work done on Topper – a statement that the Scribe has grave reservations about. Topper looked, for lack of a better word, like poop. Each frame was air brushed with garish pastels that bore little resemblance to their real-world counterpart. The delicate interplay between light and shadow that could be found in even the lowliest poverty row programmer had been obliterated, as each scene took on the appearance of a page from a disturbed child’s coloring book. Most filmmakers were horrified at the notion even before seeing what the results may be, and the appearance of Topper confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Ted Turner, an early proponent of the process, mentioned how wonderful it would be to enjoy Citizen Kane in glorious color. Welles, now well into the wine peddling/celebrity panelist phase of his career, was properly and publicly outraged. Unlike Frank Capra, Welles still had the power to sign off on any alterations to his masterpiece and would be able to fight off any attempt at vandalism. Other filmmakers would work with studios on the process; usually for financial reasons. George A. Romero had never seen any real money from Night of the Living Dead thanks to some fast moves from the Walter Reade Organization, the films original distributor, that resulted in Image Ten (Romero’s company) having their copyright removed from the prints. Because of its PD status, anyone could release the film on home video – and as anyone who ever glanced into the movie bargain bin back in the 80s and 90s could tell you, almost everyone did. Working with Hal Roach to colorize the film allowed Romero to finally copyright the work and make some much deserved scratch from his grand labors. Eventually, the controversy seemed to die down; legal restrictions would keep most classics safe, and the results were still too ugly even for the average viewer to bear.

But like Rasputin, colorization is a beast that just will not go down. Recently, companies like Legend Films have greatly improved the technical aspects of the process (and actually do quality color-timing work on films like Scorsese’s The Aviator, so they’re not total black-hatters), and while there’s money to be made, it’s hard to blame a corporation for doing what comes naturally. What is a crushing disappointment, however, is the participation of Ray Harryhausen (a noble and true idol of the Scribe) with Legend in the colorization of many of his 1950s classics – all beautifully filmed in black & white. Sony/Columbia released a 50th Anniversary disc of 20 Million Miles to Earth earlier in the year, and that same edition has just become the first Harryhausen film to be released on a high definition format (Blu-ray, for those playing the home game). But what should be a cause for celebration is nearly spoiled by the Legend Films colorization job that has become the disc’s main selling point. I didn’t quite believe the ballyhoo on Legend’s website - http://www.legendfilms.net/ – trumpeting the enthusiastic involvement of Harryhausen with the process, and was deeply saddened to read the lineup of his classics that are in the coloring on-deck circle (read it yourself, I can’t bear to list them). But on the commentary track for the new disc is the master himself, waxing rhapsodic at the beautiful job done by Legend, and thankful that people can now see the film in glorious color. Now I’ll take Ray at his word that he would have originally made the film in color had they been given the money, but I’d also be tempted to look on the back of his neck for a tell tale band-aid, or check the trunk of his car for a giant seed pod. While the color job is far better than the travesties of 20 years ago – shadows now have a fighting chance and colors no longer bleed into each other like facial make-up applied with a Mauser – it does not, in any conceivable way, look anything close to right. The Ymir (so named in subsequent promotional materials but not in the film proper) itself is now rendered in a bright green, and seems about as magical as a certain ubiquitous insurance company mascot, and skin tones are just as pasty as ever. The original black & white version was included as well, and luckily it’s the same luminous transfer previously issued by Sony. The image features much less grain than the older edition, and is easily the best that the title ever has on home video. The new Blu-ray disc is the same as the previously released 50th Anniversary standard definition package, with the exception that the feature now features a full 1080p transfer. The increased resolution frequently reveals flaws in the source material, luckily Sony’s master seems up to the job – it’s a gorgeous transfer. Though the Scribe is eager, his HD screen-cap resources are meager, so I’ll point you to the good folks over at the invaluable DVD Beaver (http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews34/20_million_miles_to_earth_blu-ray.htm) for a detailed comparison of color and black & white screen grabs that give an excellent impression of the differences, so go and judge for yourself. As for this viewer; these films live and breathe in beautiful black & white and anything else is defacement, period.

Ray Harryhausen is hero to many of us who grew up on a steady diet of his wondrous stop-motion effects work from Sinbad, Jason, and Nemo straight through to Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans. Short of gluing all manner of Dino-festoonery on some poor lizard.(I’m looking at you, Bert I. Gordon), stop-motion photography was the only practical means of achieving creature effects on film. Instead of being overwhelmed by the painstakingly exacting work, Harryhausen managed to give all his creations a distinct personality, and make them come to life in a way that a sweat-soaked man in a monster suit could never approach. 20 Million’s Ymir is no exception, with Harryhausen managing to coax emotion out of both a small clay statue (one frame at a time!) and out of an audience in equal measure. The film does occasionally falter; leading man William Hopper is a poor man’s Kenneth Tobey (and I’m talking third world poverty, here), and the Italian locale provides for lots-a waving of-a da hands and-a talkin like-a dis. The picture as a whole isn’t up to It Came From Beneath the Sea, produced by Columbia 2 years earlier, but the Ymir was arguably Harryhausen’s finest creature work to date.
Latter day effects masters Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet join Ray on the commentary track, though the bad taste left by their snarky, insulting track for Warner’s The Giant Behemoth still remains. The presence of Harryhausen seems to keep them in check, and the track is interesting until someone mentions how great is to finally see the film in color (they’re watching the colorized version while recording the track). It’s on the point of recommending that we run aground. It’s a wonderful picture, and a necessary addition to any nerdly grotto; but to patronize this edition is to support a ghastly practice, and who knows if we’ll ever get the chance to own this film – particularly in high def – sans color additives? Thanks to Netflix (and the lack of a logjam of requests for 50 year old Sci-Fi titles) I was able to get a copy right away, and I recommend you do likewise.
Say it ain't so, Ray!