The sewers of Vienna haven’t looked this good in a long time. Thanks to Blu-ray-technology and classic-DVD distributor the Criterion Collection, Joseph Cotten’s famous chase of Orson Welles through the Viennese sewer system in “The Third Man” finally has been restored to the crisp beauty director Carol Reed envisioned; the stunning black-and-white contrasts have been rescued from the muddled presentation of low-def formats.
Since its founding in 1984, the Criterion Collection has used the latest in home-video technology to bring cinephiles classic, foreign and cult films in the highest quality possible. Starting Tuesday, the folks at Criterion have a new weapon in their arsenal with Blu-ray. Debuting with Mr. Reed’s classic in the high-def format are “Bottle Rocket,” “Chungking Express” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” More are soon to follow.
However, taking full advantage of HDTV is no easy task, according to Lee Kline, Criterion’s technical director. “Somehow I think they think that it miraculously gets from some piece of film” onto the DVD, Mr. Kline says of people’s thoughts on the transfer process.
It is far more complex than that.
The first trick is finding a print suitable for transferring.
The prints that are shipped to theaters invariably are damaged as they run through projectors manned by ill-trained operators: They get scratched, broken, taped back together and otherwise mangled. As a result, Mr. Kline and his cohort of techies scour the globe for the original film elements.
“If they’re French films, we see what’s in the vaults in France; if they’re Italian films, we go to Italy; Japanese films, we go to Japan,” he says. “In some cases, there are no original negatives; there’s just second or third generations, positives and negatives of varying degree.”
After finding the cleanest print possible, Mr. Kline and company run the film through a Spirit film scanner. “Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve learned how to use this machine and make really good high-definition transfers,” Mr. Kline says.
Finding the print is only half the battle: The restoration process looms. “Removing reel changes, scratches, dirt, debris, flicker, shaky images, out-of-focus stuff” as well as correcting color and other little touch-ups are performed on the prints to ensure that the movies look like they did when they were first run.
Criterion’s transfers have always been great - previous releases have been transferred in high def and “downconverted” to fit onto traditional DVDs. Still, viewing the first four films in Criterion’s high-def lineup is awe-inspiring: The picture is so sharp you can actually see the film grain, to Mr. Kline’s delight.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot here is what to do with film grain on Blu-ray, because now film grain is really noticeable,” he says, adding that some of the filmmakers themselves are surprised.
“I remember when [Albert Mazelson] saw ‘Sal’s Mini,’ he said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to redo it’” because of the grain. “We showed him some of the things we could do, and it didn’t look very good. … We kind of talked him out of electronically reducing the grain. We calmed it down a little and arrived at a compromise, but we never took the grain out.”
Filmmakers appreciate the care Criterion takes with its releases; “Bottle Rocket,” for example, is the fourth of five feature films on which director Wes Anderson has collaborated with the company. In addition to overseeing the transfer, Mr. Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson recorded a new audio commentary.
Not content with simply offering the best picture quality in the business, the Criterion Collection adds an unparalleled selection of bonus features to many of its releases. Consider the Blu-ray release of “The Third Man”: For a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $39.95 (less at Criterion.com and still less at Amazon.com) you can learn as much about the craft of filmmaking as any week of film school can teach.
Sifting through all of the extras will take you the better part of a day. The disc is packed with documentaries about the making of the film, an introduction from Peter Bogdanovich, an abridged reading of Graham Greene’s treatment as the film rolls, and two commentary tracks, one by film scholar Dana Polan and another by director Steven Soderbergh and writer Tony Gilroy.
The Soderbergh/Gilroy track is especially intriguing, a glimpse into the creative process through the eyes of two of Hollywood’s brightest lights. It’s a crash course in screenwriting, managing actors, framing shots and any number of other topics an aspiring artist needs to master.
Along with its foray into Blu-ray, Criterion has beefed up its Web site: For the first time, a portion of the Criterion library will be viewable over the Web. Every month will see a new “festival,” and the movies in this festival can be seen for free on Criterion’s new networking site, TheAuteurs.com. November’s theme was Cruel Stories of Youth, and it featured such films as Peter Brook’s “Lord of the Flies” and Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants.”
A limited portion of Criterion’s library can be viewed online outside of the festivals for $5; that $5 can then be used as a credit toward the purchase of that disc if, after viewing the movie, one deems it a “must-own.”
Additionally, the Web site features essays by film scholars, top-10 lists by pop-culture figures and a guide to the worlds of Italian neorealism, the French new wave, Samurai cinema, and other currents of world cinema. It has an avalanche of information for veteran and neophyte art-house fans alike.