Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A "Dumbo" for our times

With the Walt Disney Company obviously celebrating Dumbo’s 70th anniversary a year in advance (at least in Europe) with a lavish Bluray Edition and Hans Perk hopefully starting an ongoing re-evaluation of the animators’ work on that film, I couldn’t help comparing the two DVD editions I have (2001 vs. 2010). Both of them represent contemporary technicians’ interpretations of the original Technicolor film while each version goes into a wholly different direction. 
Never trust DVD colors.

On a side note, a company that has taken all necessary steps to erase production dates from the audiences’ minds in order to sell their timeless and not-so-timeless films indistinguishably from contemporary releases (a preposterous idea in itself) is now celebrating their oldest classics with rather broad interpretations of release dates, in big letters nevertheless.

Suddenly it has become fashionable to sell old movies - the older the better it seems, with Bluray anyway – because then people can appreciate how technically advanced these films must have been back then and most of all: what a marvellous job the restoration team must have done.

Why restorations are products of their time
There are three things I try to keep in mind when studying/reviewing a restored film:
  1. Restorations are commissioned in order A) to keep a work of art from decaying for good and B) to be able to get new audiences interested in it (i.e. widen the range of buyers).
  2. Taking option B) into account, it is the job of restorers (highly skilled artists and technicians) to appeal to current tastes as well. So I assume that they know very well what they are doing when they use state-of-the-art post production techniques to "enhance" technical aspects so that a film superficially looks like it was made today. This usually is done carefully with the supposedly original artistic intentions in mind, trying to make things look like "they were intended to" and "correcting technical flaws" of the original.
  3. This pushing process, of course, has to take into account the specific medium/technical equipment (Youtube, an old television set, a HD display or an IMAX screen) the restored movie has to look good on.
So while not even period movies can successfully conceal their time of making (look at the fashion, haircuts, editing and acting style of a western set in the 1880s and you can at least guess the production decade), restorations are always bound by equally time-dependent restrictions of current technology and taste. Therefore a restored film always tells us something about the period of both production and restoration.

On a superficial level there seems to be a long way from the 2001 DVD and the current Bluray release. It just feels like Super8 compared to a 35mm. Which paradoxically brings us straight to the heart of the matter as Dumbo was shot and released on 35mm in the first place. It just didn’t look like that at all on the 2001 DVD. The new version doesn’t even look like it was shot on film any more. In fact, with the final assembly being made completely digital, it is more accurate to say that elements of the source material were shot on film. The picture has been so thoroughly expurgated of every grain of history that the slightest cel shadow becomes a distraction.

Stunning though it may look to the average BD buyer, to me it’s a mixed blessing. But as I have the same general reservations and objections (removing the grain and everything that held backgrounds and cels visually together) against this that I have already stated concerning recent platinum restorations I will no longer tax your patience about them. I can still enjoy the Bluray, though, in case you wondered.

Back to the roots and beyond
It's the beyond that is of particular interest here. The 2001 version isn't a full blown restoration, but its colors also seem to be quite far from the Technicolor original.

2001 (always on the left)  vs.  2010 (always on the right)

At first glance the left picture is a lot lighter. Looking at the skin color I also notice some greenish yellow tint that looks rather pale and unnatural.
On the other hand the right picture is darker and feels more saturated, although the red uniforms are a lot brighter in the left picture. Instead Mrs Jumbo's pastel cloths are more saturated. The greenish tint is gone so the green parts are in stronger contrast to the brownish yellow tent. Overall the right picture looks somewhat warmer, most notably in the skin colors. Color correction based on white balance doesn't do the job with these restorations as the colors seem to have been adjusted separately.

The obvious difference is the change in value and hue of the purple keepers. I believe what we have here is a case of "correcting" something that served a purpose. It is true that these keepers are in dark colors throughout the sequence and especially the purple ones should never have been pushed to plain red as the ringmaster is always identified by that color among them. There is also a hint in the left image that the blue of the keepers once was different from the pastel blue Mrs Jumbo cape. I also don't think that the purple (now red) keepers were meant to stand out because of that. So the left picture can't be wholly correct on that instant either.
But while the 2010 version "restoring" color continuity (making the keepers dark in ALL shots of the scene), it is disregarding the composition of the shot as a whole. This sequence is an action scene consisting of many short shots that have to read at first glance. Yes, there are many color continuity errors on Dumbo, but this wasn't one of them, I believe.

The value pattern on the right has most certainly been altered for color continuity's sake. A thing that one would never do on a live-action movie. It would never read fast enough in black and white. If you look closely enough you see spots of brighter purple in some areas. Note also that the blue keepers' hems are purple as well and not orange like in the old version and earlier in the film.

So how could the original have looked?
We, who don't have access to the studio archives, will never know (Dumbo hasn't been theatrically re-released for about 30 years around here).

Based on these pictures, does the 2010 version come closer to the original than the 2001?
On the one hand, the right image feels closer to a possible original because of the clear color separation and darkly saturated colors of Technicolor. Remember, in those days, the green layer was still printed in black as well for richer darkness. Also, the Technicolor consultants used to make sure that human skin looked warm and healthy all the time.

On the other hand the "corrected" color continuity destroys an easily readable composition. Also, the inked outlines on the keepers have been partially obscured by digital repainting (a problem of value contrast as well). When seen in motion there is a lot more going against it what with all the grain and organic flickering erased.

But which one looks better then?

Both the 2001 transfer and the digital restoration were prepared for audiences who grew up on animated features colored in the computer. With VHS and DVD visual "richness" used to be "enhanced" by pushing contrast and saturation. Over the years garish TV shows have pushed the boundaries of how many saturated colors next to each other one could bear. So subtle and rich (warm and dark) color schemes have recently been favored to lift the films off TV fare. Just think of The Princess and the Frog with all the glowing New Orleans sets that display subtlety in the form of many different shades of the same color in one image.

On a small standard TV set subtle colors were a matter of luck and the picture had to compete with brighter light sources all around the living room. So pushing the saturation and brightening the image seemed fairly reasonable. As a matter of fact, the target audience were very small children or rather their mothers and they like light and pastel colors, as marketing tells us (and them).
Look at that DVD on a HD display (flatscreen or projection) and your eyes hurt. Light surely isn't the issue with today's displays. Oversaturation is, if anything. So all that had to be pushed for standard television is now already there in the hardware. Again it is only reasonable to pull down the brightness and have darker colors saturated. In that area, the new Dumbo attempts to rival all the Princess-and-Frog-type of richness - earning much praise from critics for it.

Individual shots
Each of these pairs illustrates at least one of the above concepts. They also show that each shot has been worked over individually.

Here the left picture is brightened (look at the burnt out top of the post) while the right is maybe even darkened. All that is playing in the unlit part of the tent is treated that way. The 2010 version just goes much further than previous video versions could have dared. On the left: there's the green tint in the bright areas again. On the right: the keeper colors have not been tampered with.

Left: the straw looks like green grass on the edges and the pool of light is burnt out; right: stronger value contrast, darker like all the tent shots.

Here the left looks warmer and more natural while the right has a bluish green tint. Also Mrs Jumbo's gray trunk reads better in front of the brown sheet.

As the naughty boy's white clothes sport green stripes in all the other shots in both versions, this (on the left) may well be a painting error that was corrected (on the right) for continuity's sake.

Here it seems, the 2001 technicians feared the ringmaster's expressions wouldn't read in silhouette on a tv screen so they pumped up the brightness resulting in unappealing cloth colors. On the right the richer darkness seems to be emphasized.

The garish pushing of primary colors in older Disney DVDs was certainly pulled back in 2010 because on an average HD display red pops out anyway.

On the left, we have standard night time. The whole picture is blue like in many day-for-night scenes. This is clearly optical color grading at work which of course is common in live-action films. It might have been that way in re-release prints yet I doubt that the original was planned as a two-color scheme (blue and pale yellow) and then optically reduced to blue. The 2010 version is a lot brighter, though, showing more subtlety and supporting the thesis that for normal TVs concepts had to be pushed to the extreme to be understandable.

Conclusion: All quibbles aside, this restoration is the one looking best on today's equipment regardless of historical accuracy. Had the 2001 edition been transferred more carefully (no boosting and edge-enhancement) or from the consecutive-exposure-negative (more subtle colors and less grain) rather than from a contemporary print, it might have stood the test of time next to the aseptic Bluray.

I myself prefer the strict historical approach. Wouldn't it be marvellous to have access to the 35mm version as well? Maybe someday resemblance to the original becomes fashionable enough to be a selling point. I can dream, can't I?

the left-hand screenshots are taken from this Special Collection DVD from October 2001,
the right-hand screenshots from the 70th anniversary Bluray + DVD edition from March 2010 (Screenshots taken from the DVD which is identical to the BD except for resolution and compression). Unfortunately, neither of them includes John Canemaker’s great commentary track that is on the American 2006 Big Top Edition which I do not own.

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