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A few words about...™ The African Queen -- in Blu-ray

A Few Words About

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#1 of 151 Robert Harris

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Posted March 20 2010 - 02:19 AM

From all appearances The African Queen was definitely not a "fun" shoot.   Encamped in the Belgian Congo for much of the time, and with other scenes taken in Uganda before returning to LA, the production played havoc with the cast, crew and apparently the film stock.

For those who might like to read about it, copies of Ms. Hepburn's The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind is available at all price levels at Abebooks.com.  Want a copy signed by Ms. H. You'll find it there.

Look at any original dye transfer print, and certain things become extremely obvious. Contrast was always inconsistent -- I have no idea where the film was processed, how long it sat before getting shipped to the lab, under what conditions it was shipped -- color is occasionally on the murky side from natural lighting, and early matte shots combining the Queen with backgrounds look precisely like what they are.  Keep in mind that The African Queen was produced six decades ago.

Over the following decades, the original elements sat in less than stellar conditions, until Paramount (through Viacom, which does not own all rights to the film) finally was given permission to scan the original elements in the UK.

Scanning is generally easy, as long as the elements aren't severely shrunken, have splices that hold together, aren't notched multiple times, and aren't held together by rolls of adhesive tape.  Taking those scans and actually doing something with them can however, be a totally different story.

Some three-strip films fit together like butter.  Properly stored nitrate (not acetate) can generally hold its dimensions and yield a superior image.  Here, shrinkage was beyond that of the normal digital functions, and hand fitting had to come into play.

The audio, derived from optical sources, is what it is, and it sounds quite good.

What I'm leading up to here is the fact that after viewing Paramount's new Blu-ray of John Huston's 1951 classic (even more "classic" than The Princess and the Frog), that the Blu-ray essentially looks as the film has throughout the decades when properly printed. Some scenes can look brilliant in that way that only three-strip Technicolor can, and others, due to the necessities of filming in Africa in 1951, without a plethora of generators and banks of lights, look as they were filmed.

My point is that one should not expect a film that looks like either The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind.

I've seen some comments on line regarding the Blu-ray not having uncompressed audio, and I'll throw my nickel's worth in on that situation.  A digital track reproduces audio perfectly as what it is.  If produced well, uncompressed audio makes everything cleaner, sharper and better.

But take an old track, that may not have been recorded under the best of conditions, especially in analogue, and the final playback can be heavily affected by the actual playback mechanism.  I'll give you an example.  When 70mm prints were struck on "Vertigo," all except for one, were produced in the new DTS 70 system, with DTS timecode printed along the edge of the film.  The DTS system will produce whatever you feed it, and precisely.  When we compared the DTS prints against the single magnetic print, it became very evident that the quality of the original tracks did less well in playback via the digital system than through magnetic analogue.  The DTS system actually reproduced the old tracks too well.  What we had lost was a smoothing that one gets in the analogue world.  With neither compression nor analogue, the tracks were just a bit too revealing of problems.

That said, might an uncompressed digital track of a sixty year old film sound worse than a compressed track.  Very possibly.  Is there anything to be gained by going uncompressed in this particular situation?  Possible, but doubtful.

As an aside, I've seen The African Queen with two different main titles sequences, one with clear lettering, as has been used here, and another with yellow titles.  I have no idea which were originally used where or for what purpose.

Several years ago, an original print was taken to the UK and run for DP Cardiff, with notes taken by the studio's Barry Allen. These must have come in helpful toward bringing this disc to fruition.

So there you have it.  The African Queen finally arrives in not only DVD, but Blu-ray from Paramount.  And to my eye, it looks as it should.  Grain has an overall natural appearance, with only an occasional hint of it holding in place.  Color and densities are what they should be.  Here is one of the true classics of the cinema, in rare and near perfect form, scanned in the UK, put together, color corrected and readied by Warner's MPI in Burbank.  If you feel the need to write a letter to the studio and thank someone, aim it directly toward Ron Smith.

This will be one of the truly important classic releases of 2010, and should be in every serious library.  Only a single decision remains. Does one purchase one of the Blu-ray editions that will emerge on March 23, or wait for the (still in process) 3-D version due in November, rumored to be inclusive of small vials of live leeches which can be used, a la Rocky Horror Show, while in a proper viewing environment.

I'd probably buy it now.

High Recommended.

RAH


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#2 of 151 ahollis

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Posted March 20 2010 - 02:40 AM

As usual, you clear up a lot questions, thoughts and comments that have been made the past couple of months.  It is very appreciative and I will enjoy the film more this time around with the background you have provided and knowing the work that was involved to getting it to me.
"Get a director and a writer and leave them alone. That`s how the best pictures get made" - William "Wild Bill" Wellman


#3 of 151 Johnny Angell

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Posted March 20 2010 - 03:05 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert Harris 

This will be one of the truly important classic releases of 2010, and should be in every serious library.  Only a single decision remains. Does one purchase one of the Blu-ray editions that will emerge on March 23, or wait for the (still in process) 3-D version due in November, rumored to be inclusive of small vials of live leeches which can be used, a la Rocky Horror Show, while in a proper viewing environment.
 
Oh, wow!  Leaches in 3D, how could I pass that up!/img/vbsmilies/htf/smiley_wink.gif

I've always loved this movie.  Even on SD broadcast TV, it shines.  This movie has one of the most unlikely romances in movie history.

I don't know what extras are on the disc, but this movie cries out for a commentary by a film historian and a top-notch "making of doc."  Look to the Universal (still only SD) releases of the classic monster films.  Excellent commentaries that are chock full of information and very good "making of" docs.

I know, I know, I should be satisfied with the film.  It's just that this film would have so much to documented.


Johnny
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#4 of 151 Heinz W

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Posted March 20 2010 - 03:17 AM

Very good to hear Mr. Harris, I've been anxiously awaiting your thoughts on this title. After waiting over a decade for The African Queen on DVD I'm pleased that I can now skip the DVD entirely and go right to a hi def Blu. While I know not to put too much into the screenshots over at DVDBeaver after the Contact debacle I was nevertheless concerned that a few shots looked overly greenish. My fears have been for naught apparently, and I can look forward to finally seeing this long-time personal favorite as never before.

#5 of 151 Mark B

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Posted March 20 2010 - 04:18 AM

I've seen the "yellow titles" and it looked to me as if they were created for a cropped re-release.


#6 of 151 EnricoE

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Posted March 20 2010 - 05:21 AM

a 3d version of "the african queen" /img/vbsmilies/htf/confused.gif

anyway... i haven't seen this film in years... i think last time i saw it was 15 - 20 years ago on tv. looking forward to a great presentation of true classic /img/vbsmilies/htf/smile.gif


#7 of 151 Dick

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Posted March 20 2010 - 09:52 AM

This single-disc Blu-ray and DVD has an hour-long documentary, and the more expensive box throws in some promotional materials, but there will be no commentary.

The Jack Cardiff (cinematographer) commentary is still available on the DVD from region 2, which also includes the trailer. I have just ordered this from Amazon UK and will report on how it looks. It will make a good companion piece to the Blu, although this PAL edition will not be a fully restored one.

#8 of 151 Guest__*

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Posted March 20 2010 - 02:00 PM

I have never seen the film! Maybe bits and pieces over the years, but what a treat to view it for the first time in this new edition!

#9 of 151 David Norman

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Posted March 20 2010 - 02:07 PM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Eric Scott Richard 

I have never seen the film! Maybe bits and pieces over the years, but what a treat to view it for the first time in this new edition!
I envy you then -- other than new releases i can only think of the first time I saw Notorious that had the same affect on me.  There are a few films which I revel in and this is one of them.   My gorgeous Laserdisc Boxset now will have some company with the new BluRay, but the LD set will be mine for life and I may take it with me if I can figure out how.

 

 


#10 of 151 ahollis

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Posted March 20 2010 - 02:28 PM



Quote:
Originally Posted by David Norman 




I envy you then -- other than new releases i can only think of the first time I saw Notorious that had the same affect on me.  There are a few films which I revel in and this is one of them.   My gorgeous Laserdisc Boxset now will have some company with the new BluRay, but the LD set will be mine for life and I may take it with me if I can figure out how.
 
I have the same feelings for my laserdisc copy.  It will never lose that loving feeling.

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#11 of 151 Nelson Au

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Posted March 21 2010 - 06:53 AM

 I have to admit I have not seen The African Queen either. I had seen bits of it as a young teen during the 3:30pm afternoon movie after school, but I never saw it in it's entirety. 

This sounds like a really nice release! Now to decide to get the deluxe box with the reproduction of Hepburn's book or regular BD.

By the way, The first time I saw Notorious was on the Criterion laserdisc way back in the day! I was rediscovering Hitchcock in the late 80's early 90's.


#12 of 151 Mike Frezon

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Posted March 21 2010 - 07:35 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert Harris 

I've seen some comments on line regarding the Blu-ray not having uncompressed audio, and I'll throw my nickel's worth in on that situation.  A digital track reproduces audio perfectly as what it is.  If produced well, uncompressed audio makes everything cleaner, sharper and better.

But take an old track, that may not have been recorded under the best of conditions, especially in analogue, and the final playback can be heavily affected by the actual playback mechanism.  I'll give you an example.  When 70mm prints were struck on "Vertigo," all except for one, were produced in the new DTS 70 system, with DTS timecode printed along the edge of the film.  The DTS system will produce whatever you feed it, and precisely.  When we compared the DTS prints against the single magnetic print, it became very evident that the quality of the original tracks did less well in playback via the digital system than through magnetic analogue.  The DTS system actually reproduced the old tracks too well.  What we had lost was a smoothing that one gets in the analogue world.  With neither compression nor analogue, the tracks were just a bit too revealing of problems.

That said, might an uncompressed digital track of a sixty year old film sound worse than a compressed track.  Very possibly.  Is there anything to be gained by going uncompressed in this particular situation?  Possible, but doubtful.
I'm not sure I understand Mr. Harris' explanation above about the lack of uncompressed audio. 

If a film is transferred properly, Blu-ray provides a better vehicle for home viewing than DVD because of the higher video resolution.  If the audio track is transferred properly, uncompressed audio provides a better vehicle for home listening than an uncompressed track. 

Or would it also be better to view The African Queen on DVD rather than Blu-ray because of the inconsistencies in the filming process (and the problems with the film elements)?  Maybe the lesser video resolution would provide a "smoothing" of the video presentation that would be more pleasing to the eye? 

By RAH's reasoning, the Blu-ray of The African Queen may too accurately reveal the limitations of the original elements.


There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


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#13 of 151 Doug Otte

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Posted March 21 2010 - 08:44 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Mike Frezon 




I'm not sure I understand Mr. Harris' explanation above about the lack of uncompressed audio. 

If a film is transferred properly, Blu-ray provides a better vehicle for home viewing than DVD because of the higher video resolution.  If the audio track is transferred properly, uncompressed audio provides a better vehicle for home listening than an uncompressed track. 

Or would it also be better to view The African Queen on DVD rather than Blu-ray because of the inconsistencies in the filming process (and the problems with the film elements)?  Maybe the lesser video resolution would provide a "smoothing" of the video presentation that would be more pleasing to the eye? 

By RAH's reasoning, the Blu-ray of The African Queen may too accurately reveal the limitations of the original elements.
 
I agree with you, Mike.  I have great admiration for Mr. Harris' knowledge and expertise, but I'm a little confused by the audio remarks here and elsewhere on the Web.  There's a lot of speculation about why Paramount used a low bitrate DD track - maybe the original track sounds bad, maybe the mix was poorly done, etc..  The only way to know the answer is if Paramount told us that, due to the poor condition of the original track, DD sounded better to their engineers.  However, the best thing would have been to put both tracks on the disc and let each viewer decide which track is preferred.

Doug



#14 of 151 Johnny Angell

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Posted March 21 2010 - 08:52 AM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Mike Frezon 
By RAH's reasoning, the Blu-ray of The African Queen may too accurately reveal the limitations of the original elements.
 
I think that is what he's saying, but I think he was addressing what is often a knee-jerk reaction: "what, no uncompressed audio!"  I think he's saying in this case, don't sweat it.  Heck, even standard DVD's can reveal what the theatrical audience didn't experience in the theater in older films.

I'm thinking of the original War of the Worlds in which you can see the wires holding up the martian machines on the DVD.  Does it mean I want to go back to VHS tape?  Nope.

Absolute fidelity to something created 60 years ago, fidelity that may surpass what theatrical audiences had available to them, may not always be a good idea.




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#15 of 151 Robert Harris

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Posted March 21 2010 - 09:06 AM

You're right on track here.  Our plain vanilla DVD audio that's been with us for a decade can do a better job of reproducing audio than theatres in the '50s.  Keeping in mind that much of the projection hardware in the early '50s was then decades old, with amplification and speaker systems that weren't especially transparent of the optical tracks being played.

Are we seeing more, both good and bad, in a Blu-ray of a sixty year-old production.  Certainly.  And in many cases, digital manipulations should be made before a project is considered complete.  The resolution of dye transfer prints of The African Queen had less in terms of actual resolution than you're going to see on your home screen with original elements scanned at 4k.  Precisely the same situation with the audio.

It's important for the viewer to both understand what they're seeing and hearing, and to be reasonably forgiving for those things that might have been a bit less transparent sixty years ago.  That said, I'll note once again, that overall Paramount's new Blu-ray of The African Queen is stunning.

RAH

Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny Angell View Post



I think that is what he's saying, but I think he was addressing what is often a knee-jerk reaction: "what, no uncompressed audio!"  I think he's saying in this case, don't sweat it.  Heck, even standard DVD's can reveal what the theatrical audience didn't experience in the theater in older films.

I'm thinking of the original War of the Worlds in which you can see the wires holding up the martian machines on the DVD.  Does it mean I want to go back to VHS tape?  Nope.

Absolute fidelity to something created 60 years ago, fidelity that may surpass what theatrical audiences had available to them, may not always be a good idea.


 


"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did." T.E. Lawrence


#16 of 151 Mike Frezon

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Posted March 21 2010 - 12:49 PM



Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert Harris 

Are we seeing more, both good and bad, in a Blu-ray of a sixty year-old production.  Certainly.  And in many cases, digital manipulations should be made before a project is considered complete.  The resolution of dye transfer prints of The African Queen had less in terms of actual resolution than you're going to see on your home screen with original elements scanned at 4k.  Precisely the same situation with the audio.

Then why should we be okay with lossy sound for The African Queen but want to see the film on the higher resolution video format? 

I am unclear why you draw the distinction between the audio and video sides of the presentation?  /img/vbsmilies/htf/confused.gif


There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


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Dieting with my Dog & Heart to Heart/Hand in Paw by Peggy Frezon


#17 of 151 Robert Harris

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Posted March 21 2010 - 01:07 PM

Mike,

Although I have had no discussions with anyone at Paramount in regard to the audio, I know the people there and trust their judgement. More importantly, there is a conceptual difference between the audio situation and image.   I have no problem with the audio as is, and it sounds much like a 35mm print on quality equipment.  The video may have been "massaged" just a bit to make it look proper.  We were never meant to see what a film looked like directly off of Tech OCNs.  This is all to the good.  Compare the image of Wizard of Oz to that of Gone with the Wind, and you'll readily note the differences and what was learned in house between those jobs.  One does the best that they can, and one learns along with way.  From what I'm seeing on AQ, what was learned between those two has been put to very good use here.  This is a beautiful release.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Mike Frezon ">




Then why should we be okay with lossy sound for The African Queen but want to see the film on the higher resolution video format? 

I am unclear why you draw the distinction between the audio and video sides of the presentation? 

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did." T.E. Lawrence


#18 of 151 Mike Frezon

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Posted March 21 2010 - 01:36 PM

Robert:

Thank you for your continued responses.

I appreciate your critique that TAQ is a quality release and that the audio is fine.  I am looking forward to it very much. 

Do you see the logic of my argument above, however, that if a higher resolution video presentation gives a greater chance for a more accurate home theater presentation...that the same would be true for a higher quality audio format? 

Or, do I have that wrong?


There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


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Dieting with my Dog & Heart to Heart/Hand in Paw by Peggy Frezon


#19 of 151 Mark-P

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Posted March 21 2010 - 01:56 PM

Mike,
I think the fault in your logic is that you are assuming image quality and sound quality from the 1950s are on equal footing. Truth is, the original elements of celluloid from the 1950s were high resolution and high-definition video strives to recover that resolution. But optical sound recordings from the 1950s were by no means high-fidelity and reproducing them in a lossless audio format is of no benefit as a compressed format is all that is needed to faithfully reproduce the original sound elements - it's just a waste of real estate on the disc.

#20 of 151 Mike Frezon

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Posted March 21 2010 - 02:16 PM

Well, Mark...I've got to figure that there's probably plenty of room on that Blu-ray disc for the uncompressed audio format.

So, let's try to deal with a 'perfect world' hypothetical--that there is room for the best audio & video tracks on the disc.  Even if the original sound elements are "less than perfect"...  Even if they are "poor"...  Wouldn't it make sense that the uncompressed audio would bring that "less than perfect" or "poor" soundtrack to the home viewer in the best possible way?

You see, I figure if there's a film with a middling video transfer and a middling audio transfer...people understand that the Blu-ray disc of that film is going to still be a better home video presentation of that film than a parallel DVD release.  And why I figure the very same would be true for the audio track of that film (if uncompressed audio is used), it seems like many people think it doesn't matter to pass-through that soundtrack in the best format possible. 

There's Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. Bullseye, he's Woody's horse. Pete the old prospector. And, Woody, the man himself.Of course, it's time for Woody's RoundUp. He's the very best! He's the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild west!


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Dieting with my Dog & Heart to Heart/Hand in Paw by Peggy Frezon






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