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Black & White on Blu

The Seventh Seal

By : Chris Tribbey | Posted: 09 Oct 2009

Ask an average Blu-ray Disc consumer what they’re buying for their player, and they’ll probably say its the latest big-budget action adventure.

But for studios, film experts and enthusiasts alike, black-and-white content on Blu-ray is just as amazing as any bright and colorful blockbuster. And sometimes it’s better.

“Without qualification, black-and-white films deserve to be on Blu-ray,” said John Lowry, founder of Lowry Digital, which specializes in digital restoration. “It’s a fabulous opportunity to show those movies the way they were meant to be seen in the first place.”

He and other experts agree that Blu-ray presents the first opportunity to show the best of black-and-white films in the home, especially older fare. Warner Home Video has done Casablanca, and Paramount Home Entertainment put both black-and-white and color versions of It’s A Wonderful Life in its Nov. 3 release. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment gave Dr. Strangelove special Blu-ray treatment, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment did the same with Young Frankenstein. Criterion has worked magic on a number of black-and-white classics, including The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows, Last Year at Marienbad and The Third Man.

Robert A. Harris, a film archivist, preservationist and restorer, quoted producer and founding studio executive Samuel Goldwyn, when talking about black-and-white vs. color on Blu-ray: “When someone asked him how long a film should be, his possibly apocryphal answer was ‘as long as it’s good.’ Same thing for black-and-white vs. color,” Harris said.

“I would question whether there is a place for garbage color films in high-definition,” he continued. “There is little difference between bringing classic color titles to Blu-ray as opposed to black-and-white. The easiest color material is the pre-1955 three-strip Technicolor. Eastman negatives have the fade problem. A film element is a film element, regardless.”

Van Ling, an independent Blu-ray producer, said black-and-white classics on Blu-ray offer an opportunity to introduce some of the best films ever made to a new generation that has only seen them on TV.

“Many folks are under the impression that black-and-white films are somehow visually inferior to color films, but in many cases the exact opposite is true,” he said. “Monochrome film can often have a sharpness and clarity that color film just could not match, even decades later.”

He said the biggest challenge for studios is to find the best original elements possible and “do a restoration that brings the film alive in all of its original vibrancy and clarity.”

“When done right, it can take your breath away in the same manner that an Ansel Adams photograph can,” Ling said.

Bill Hunt, editor of TheDigitalBits.com, suggested that Blu-ray early adopters and classic film fans are most likely to appreciate black-and-white content in high-def. “It’s really the same challenge in delivering any classic film: making sure the original film elements are in top condition, and then doing a really good job of scanning and mastering,” he said.

George Feltenstein, SVP of theatrical catalog marketing at Warner Home Video, said black-and-white films on Blu-ray are following the same pattern they did with DVD.

“If we want to go back 12 years, nobody wanted to go near the classics for DVD,” he said. “We believe that Blu-ray is a transformational way to represent these films. And the proof was in the pudding with Casablanca.”

The Casablanca Ultimate Edition Blu-ray release in December 2008 earned high marks from nearly every high-def reviewer, Feltenstein said.

For Warner, cleaning up a black-and-white film for Blu-ray isn’t an easy or cheap process. “There’s an extraordinary expense in bringing these to Blu-ray,” Feltenstein said.

Next, Warner hopes to bring some of the Marx Brothers black-and-white comedies to Blu-ray, as well as films starring Errol Flynn, Betty Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Look for the 1941 The Maltese Falcon on Blu-ray from Warner in 2010, Feltenstein said.

Hunt praised Warner’s work on classics, but said Criterion “is setting the standard.”

“Watching a Criterion black-and-white title in a home theater projection setting, it feels like you’re sitting in a real movie theater,” he said. “The image looks like film — as it should. I really can’t wait to see films like Seven Samurai on Blu-ray.”

For Criterion, which prides itself on only working with the best film elements available for the best films available, working on black-and-white Blu-ray has been a labor of love.

“Now we’re able to replicate more precisely these films as they first appeared,” said Lee Kline, technical director for Criterion.

He pointed to the July Blu-ray release of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as a great example.

“Once you look at Blu-ray, you can’t imagine watching the DVDs of these films ever again,” he said.

Both Kline and Feltenstein noted that when making a black-and-white film ready for Blu-ray, the studios have to be careful not to treat the original film grain as noise.

“We’ve done some electronic grain reduction here and there but not completely eliminated it,” Kline said. “We’re still feeling that out with Blu-ray, but we feel grain has to be close to what was originally presented.”

For black-and-white on Blu-ray, unlike newer, color fare, “It’s not about sharpness, it’s about dynamic range. How black are the blacks, how white are the whites?” Lowry said.

It’s not just the major studios trying out black and white on Blu-ray. Kino International announced in September the Nov. 10 release of Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy The General on Blu-ray. Thanks to an original print that survived with only minor problems, Kino was able to make an HD transfer out of a 35mm print and paint out the few blemishes left over.

And it’s not just older films either: consumers can find Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) from Warner Home Video and a little-seen, black-and-white version of The Mist (2007) from Genius Products as Blu-ray releases.


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