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A Few Words About A few words about...™ Moby Dick (1956) -- in Blu-ray (1 Viewer)

Robert Harris

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Reviewing this particular release is a difficult task, as there is far more going on behind the scenes than will ever be evident on screen.

There were a myriad of problems, beginning in pre-production, with the decision to produce 35mm dye transfer prints with a unique appearance, mimicking that of 19th century whaling engravings and illustrations. Monochromatic, but still having color.

While that process was heralded as something new, in reality it was something old.

The concept was to shoot the film normally on Kodak's Eastman Color 5248 stock, and then manipulate the image during the Technicolor dye transfer printing process, by adding a fourth image -- black & white -- to tone the entire look of the film down. That fourth image was derived from the magenta dye layer of the negative, and was a return to the earliest three-strip dye transfer process, for which a silver record was necessary to yield the desired image.

That process was used from c. 1934 through the mid-1940s, when a new formulation of printing dyes made it unnecessary.

Prints produced in that process had a magnificent look to them, and both Mr. Huston, and his DP, Mr. Morris, were well aware of the look of prints during that era. The only question was, could Technicolor take a step backward and once again, print the three dyes on top of a modified black & white print?

They could.

And it was magnificent.

The problems began, when the process was only used for the initial prints, normally 300-400. Any reprints would be problematic.

At a certain point, the look of the film seemingly no longer mattered.

While there was legend and lore, few people actually did their homework.

The film was printed normally, in Eastman Color, possibly given a sepia look, and that was it. For video release, things became even more obtuse.

And then there's the MGM situation. I can almost hear someone at the current company, being asked about how the problem might be solved, and ending up sounding much like General Murray -- "I may as well tell you it's my considered opinion, and that of my staff, that any time spent on [Moby Dick] will be time wasted."

Over the decades, the unstable stock faded, and at some point, someone, presumably at MGM, decided to make a duplicate printing negative from the separation masters.

Only it was improperly produced, and yet accepted. Odd black levels, mold damage, and poor registration of the records, made for a lovely image.

Then that negative went through a telecine, adding more layers of problems.

That master was delivered to our friends at Kino Lorber, for use on their DVD of the film, and their release perfectly replicates that video element. It is what it is, and especially at DVD quality reproduction, any time or expense to alleviate the problems, would have gone virtually unseen. That's not saying that anything incorrect was done at KL. It wasn't. They put out what was given to them.

The next problem was that for a Blu-ray release, in which the resolution grows six-fold, every wort, scratch, mis-registration, and screwy level of image reproduction would now scream at viewers.

In that form, the MGM master would have been totally unreleasable.

The point must be made, that beginning with a poorly produced film element, and then putting that element through telecine in probably the cheapest way possible ("image? check!") now gave the folks at Twilight Time a possibly headache-inducing problem.

The film is important. There is no way, outside of an expensive full-on six-figure restoration, to make it look as it did in 1956.

So the video master was sent in for an eight month spa treatment.

Creating a perfect representation of the film from the element supplied would be an impossible task. Can't happen.

So the question really came down to, "Can lipstick is put on a pig, and have it come away looking far better than the pig that it is?"

The answer, within reasonable parameters, was yes. But that's also why the project took eight months.

This was a pig that wanted to stay pig, and every time Mr. Kimble worked to solve a problem, that pig would end up rolling in mud again, and then return for another spa treatment.

We're talking layer upon layer of baked-in crap.

To my eye, there is absolutely nothing else, that has not been done, that might have helped the film in any way.

To the uninitiated, it may appear quite gorgeous, and it does do a wonderful job of mimicking the original, while never quite getting there, which is an impossible task.

Registration errors have been removed. Scratches and YCM dirt eradicated. Black levels massaged, where possible.

But most important, original prints protected at the Library of Congress, were accessed and examined, as a guide to the proper look and textures of this incredible film.

And that look, has been reasonably returned.

Some might ask, "Where does that leave us?"

Easy.

It's doubtful that MGM will do anything about Moby Dick, it's an old whaling picture, with no current stars. Nary a Walther PPK in sight, nor bloodied boxing gloves. There is nothing here that speaks to popular entertainment.

In the end, Twilight Time's Blu-ray, and Mr. Kimble's work, are a success, as that pig has been roped and held in place while all of the lipstick was digitally applied, in an absolutely beautiful, meticulous and consummately professional way.

Make no mistake, this is not a restored film.

But the amount of digital work performed, has not only brought this video master back from the precipice, but along the way, has yielded a lovely looking Blu-ray of a superior entertainment.

Twilight Time has stepped up to the plate on this one, and chosen to handle a problem, not of their making.

It was done out of the love for cinema, and respect for their Blu-ray audience. What they, and Mr. Kimble have given us, is a wonderful job, allowing us to get far more than a glimpse what might have been.


Image - 3.5

Audio - 4

4k Up-rez - 3.75

Pass / Fail - Pass

Highly Recommended

RAH
 
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Peter Apruzzese

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Thanks for the preview - sounds like they made the best they could of a problem element and I'm grateful they took the time & effort to do so. Hoping to watch it this weekend.
 

Ahab

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Thanks much for all the info. Am really pumped up now about watching this.
Given the difficulty of trying to transfer a book like Moby Dick to the big screen, I think Huston and Bradbury did a remarkable job.
 

Bob Furmanek

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I certainly applaud this noble effort but rather than manipulate a severely compromised dupe element, would the results have been more accurate to the original visual palette if the existing 35mm dye-transfer prints were scanned and cleaned of dirt/damage and anomalies?
 

Robert Harris

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I certainly applaud this noble effort but rather than manipulate a severely compromised dupe element, would the results have been more accurate to the original visual palette if the existing 35mm dye-transfer prints were scanned and cleaned of dirt/damage and anomalies?

Would would MGM do that? And no, as there are perfectly good elements available to do it properly.

It's a lose /lose situation

The new Blu looks fine.
 
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Josh Steinberg

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Unfortunately mine hasn't arrived yet -- I generally order my Twilight titles on the first day of presales, but generally seem to get them in the later wave of shipments. Wonder if they're shipping based on last name rather than order number or what. Obviously it's not the end of the world, but it seems a little more than coincidence that every time I'm among the last to receive my copy.

That said, I'm eagerly anticipating this one. Was hoping to have it for the Thanksgiving holiday but clearly that wasn't meant to be.
 

Malcolm R

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Unfortunately mine hasn't arrived yet -- I generally order my Twilight titles on the first day of presales, but generally seem to get them in the later wave of shipments. Wonder if they're shipping based on last name rather than order number or what. Obviously it's not the end of the world, but it seems a little more than coincidence that every time I'm among the last to receive my copy.

That said, I'm eagerly anticipating this one. Was hoping to have it for the Thanksgiving holiday but clearly that wasn't meant to be.

That would be odd. Should be FIFO (first in, first out).
 

John Doe

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thx for the review, Robert.

I'm not buying this botched BD. TT should've restored the movie themselves. They have that kind of money.
 

Josh Steinberg

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Assuming that somehow TT could even gain access to the elements needed for a restoration (MGM might prefer them to stay in their vaults), looking at the math, it's just not possible (or reasonable in my view) to expect TT to restore the film.

We know based on prior TT releases, chats here at HTF, etc., that they only have a license to sell 3000 copies of this title. If they sold all 3000 copies at the full price of $30, that's a maximum total gross of $90,000. We know that they will likely give away some copies for promotional reasons, as well as eventually sell some copies at a discounted price - so while it's theoretically possible they could gross $90,000 on this title, the reality is that the grosses will be at least somewhat lower. It also costs money to author whatever transfer to a disc, money to design the packaging and artwork, and money to physically press the discs, print the artwork, and have them assembled at the replicator. I think in past TT chats, they have hinted that $15 of every $30 disc goes to cover expenses in making that disc. So that $90,000 gross is, best possible scenario, $45,000 in profit. Whenever they put a disc onsale or give it away, the expenses don't change, so that comes out of the profit end, meaning that they will likely profit less than $45,000 on this title.

Robert Harris has stated that a full restoration would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Based on prior postings, chats and interviews with TT, and reading between the lines a little, the best profit they could hope for would be less than $45,000.

The amount of money that TT will make on this title is a drop in the bucket to what a full restoration would cost.

On the other hand, by all accounts, the movie looks fantastic on the Blu-ray, and looks great on home screens. Repertory bookings are all but extinct these days, and the vast majority of places that show repertory cinema are showing it from DCP or a Blu-ray, not from a restored print. MGM, I suppose, could have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a restoration that has zero chance to recoup that money. MGM was unwilling to do this. TT wanted to put out a disc that reflected what the movie originally looked like, so they took the extra step of having the movie worked on in the HD realm to simulate that original look. I have no idea what it cost them, but I'm sure it was a labor of love, and not out of any notion that they'd get rich doing it.

Isn't this what we want studios and distributors to do? To give us a home video version that approximates as best as possible the original theatrical release? This new disc will be closer to what the movie originally looked like than any previous home video version, or even any prints made in decades. I for one am applauding this effort and am eagerly awaiting my copy.
 

Dee Zee

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Thanks RAH, ordered my copy yesterday. Never saw the DVD and only remember seeing this film on TV back in the 60s. So seeing the film for "first" time really when I get the Blu.
 

Cameron Yee

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I admit I have not seen this film since high school English class. But the film history is, as always, fascinating.
 

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