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Warner Goes Big, and Small for Blu-ray

26 Jul, 2012 By: Chris Tribbey

Warner Home Video has made Blu-ray Disc collector’s editions for famous films an art form.

Beyond the physical extras — including books with rare photos and production art — the studio painstakingly restores and remasters the content for high-def, seeks out added content to include with the sets and creates new bonus features.

“[Blu-ray] has given us a reason to go back and rediscover material that otherwise we would never be looking for or presenting to the consumer,” said Jeff Baker, EVP and GM of theatrical catalog for Warner Home Video, speaking July 26 during a roundtable discussion with the Blu-ray Disc Association. “We want to put as much time and effort into creating a package that’s compelling, because we don’t know when the next opportunity will be.”

But just because the studio puts so much effort into collector’s boxed sets, it doesn’t mean Warner isn’t keeping an eye on the budget Blu-ray business as well.

In the past 12 months the studio has seen a “significant” uptake on consumer purchases of lower-priced Blu-rays, according to Jeff Baker.

“In the under $10 retail segment of consumer purchases for Blu-ray in 2011, 15% of the business was under $10 purchases,” he said. “We’re estimating this year 35% of the business will be in the under $10 segment. So consumers are saying, if we can get the price down low enough, they do want to replace their DVD library with Blu-ray films.”

Speaking with Andy Parsons, SVP of corporate communications for Pioneer Electronics and chair of the BDA promotion committee in the United States, and Ned Price, VP of mastering for Warner Bros. Technical Operations, Baker also gave a hint at what consumers can expect in 2013 when Warner turns 90.

“We’re going to be converting a lot of films to Blu-ray next year, including five best picture winners that have never been on Blu-ray,” he said.

Here’s a selection of the Q&A portion of the roundtable:

Q: Could you please talk about new techniques that Warner has been experimenting with to extract images from older films such as Red Dust, Test Pilot and A Guy Named Joe that have damaged elements?

Price: One of our largest challenges is creating algorithms to correct density fluctuations from photo chemical processing of the films. Density pulsation also occurs in color film as a result of dye fading. We loose density in the negative as well as color layer. The emulsion layers of a color negative deteriorate unevenly which creates color pulsation as well as density flicker.

Q: Warner has been looking at 3D tests for The Wizard of Oz for years. Are you encouraged this will be going forward in the near future?

Baker: We are testing many films while watching consumer interest and demand from theatrical exhibition to the home on 3D. Conversion costs from 2D to 3D are quite high ($4 million to $6 million). Until they come down further it will continue to be a deterrent in our converting library films to 3D.

Q: It's been a long time since we've heard anything regarding Blu-ray and managed copy. Can you offer any update on the feature?

Parsons: We are hearing that AACS, the entity that is responsible for implementing managed copy, should be launching the capability soon. In the meantime, a great aspect of Blu-ray is that many titles are being offered in combo packs that include a DVD and "digital extensions" such as digital copy and UltraViolet that allow us to extend our home theater experience to other locations such as an airplane seat or hotel room or anyplace we want to watch movies.

Q: When looking at the enhanced content aspect of your releases, what do you generally look for? Do you use outside archival sources or is it primarily internal as in the case with Ben-Hur?

Baker: We first look internally to mine assets. However, in the case of Ben-Hur and other films, we have gone to third parties to help us source and or develop assets.

Q: Are there any plans to start releasing Warner Archive titles on Blu-ray? And is there ever a time when you released a film on Blu-ray that may not have had the monetary stats to back up its release because Warner felt it was important? Is financial feasibility more important to a release than the film's impact on film history?

Baker: We are not yet ready to convert archive titles to BD. We are hopeful that more economically viable tools in the near future will make this possible. Yes, I have green-lit numerous conversions to Blu-ray that did not meet short-term financial thresholds, and we will continue to. We believe that the long-term growth in Blu-ray will provide adequate ROI in the future.

Q: Can you tell me why some movies such as Blade Runner are given multiple releases while other classics fail to get one?

Baker: Sometimes it's based on consumer inquiries and demand; other times it's based on finding new materials. In the case of The Exorcist, we released it on Blu-ray in 2010 (37 years old), we have plans although it has not been announced, to re-release The Exorcist in 2013 with new extra content. I cannot disclose what it is, but it's rich.

Q: To what extent is your selection to preserve or restore library titles filmmaker-driven (for example, the recent efforts with End of the Road, which were spearheaded by Steven Soderbergh)?

Price: We approach library preservation from two angles. Preservation work is primarily motivated and funded on behalf of the corporation. Title selection is based on physical condition of materials, rather than the current popularity of a title. The corporate preservation efforts are not motivated by sales. However, the results of our corporate preservation efforts are made available for sales division use. Sales-driven requests often initiate preservation as well as restoration, as was the case for End of the Road. We often have filmmakers championing films that have influenced their work, so that it's made available to the next generation of developing filmmakers.

Q: What would you say to the argument that Blu-ray is simply another phase in the format world and soon we won’t have the need for physical items as everything will be avail via cloud technology?

Parsons: We think that Blu-ray and online distribution serve different needs, with Blu-ray offering the best possible HD picture and sound due to its very high capacity and bandwidth — it has roughly 10 times the data transfer rate as the average U.S. broadband connection. This makes it ideal for big-screen home theater viewing. Streaming, on the other hand, is great for casual viewing of content on smaller screens or handheld devices such as tablets or smartphones. Also, since content tends to come and go from streaming services, your copy of a Blu-ray title will always be available to you. We believe Blu-ray sits, and will continue to sit, at the center of home entertainment for quite some time. Digital extensions such as digital copy or Ultraviolet enable Blu-ray collectors to extend their content library to their mobile devices. And, a connected Blu-ray player not only plays CDs, DVDs, BDs, 3D Blu-ray and BD Recordable, but also serves as a gateway to streamed content. It's not really a zero sum game — physical media and online distribution can and will coexist for many years to come.

Q: I know the Blu-ray format keeps adding new features. Can you tell us what we can expect in the future?

Parsons: We are always keeping an eye on new developments in theatrical and home entertainment, but for the moment, we are focusing on continuing to encourage adoption of the Blu-ray format we know and love to the widest possible audience around the world. Adding new capabilities is not something we do lightly, as we need to keep the millions of existing Blu-ray players in mind. It's important to maintain backward compatibility as much as we possibly can.

Q: Which movie presented the most difficulty to restore for you and your team?

Price: The two most challenging — but ultimately most satisfying restorations — were North by Northwest and Ben-Hur, due to characteristics of the original camera negative stock and physical condition. Color fading was the most difficult hurdle. Both features were shot on an early single strip camera negative, which was poor at capturing color and had poor dye retention, meaning that color faded very quickly. The negatives also sustained physical damage due to the popularity of the titles and multiple theatrical re-issues.

Q: It is my understanding that the original negatives for Singin’ in the Rain were lost in a fire. How did you go about putting this film together again and with such high quality for Blu-ray?

Price: The studios maintain master positive protection elements on all titles. We scanned 35mm three-strip nitrate master positives for Singin' in the Rain, which were manufactured by MGM at Technicolor in 1952. To their credit, Technicolor materials were extremely well made, and the transition from protection masters to original camera negative (the original negative for the last reel, which includes the "Broadway Melody" sequence) still survives. We did use a small amount of grain reduction on the optical sections from positive masters due to the heavy grain content due to generation loss.

Q: Is there such thing as “too sharp” within the era of Blu-ray and restoration? How do you maintain the classic look within a technologically advanced format?

Price: There is no such thing as "too sharp," unless you are artificially enhancing the image. We never "dumb down" an image in order to make it look more like a theatrical release print, as our goal is to mine all the image inherent in the original photography. I've never encountered a film that did not hold up to scrutiny of high resolution. The craftspeople always exceeded the limitation of the capture medium. We do encounter the occasional wig line, but we find that the "fix" (hand painting) is typically worse than the problem.

Q: Would you discuss any special challenges involved in restoring or remastering a 3D title such as Dial M for Murder?

Price: The 3D titles produced in the 1950s have unique problems. The single strip titles are faded differentially, meaning that the left eye negative has faded differently than the right eye negative, so making them match seamlessly is quite challenging. On the positive side, the 3D camera work from the ‘50s is impeccable, so there was no need to manipulate the 3D design for the home market.

Q: In a time when 35mm is slowly disappearing from exhibition, yet needs to be utilized to create these beautiful Blu-ray editions, is there any thought on future restoration work down the line when we have no primary sources to go by?

Price: The current preservation medium for the studio is still 35mm film. We do archive the original digital production files, but until there is a long-term, industry-accepted digital archive solution, we will continue with creation of film materials.

About the Author: Chris Tribbey

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