MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka


Finally, we’ve been given good reasons to go out and buy a Blu-ray player, and two of them are provided by animated films from a half-century ago. It’s taken far too long for studios to fulfill their promise of making the hi-def format something extraordinary. Until now, consumers have benefited mostly from the markedly better visual presentation – especially on titles dedicated to natural wonders and sports — but only occasionally from a greater menu of exclusive features. Until films intended for theatrical release are shot using digital equipment, the Blu-ray process can only do so much to improve the visual presentation. Pictures heavy on CGI look noticeably better than those shot on film, just as the concerts, sporting events and bikini shows presented on HDNet sparkle in ways network series don’t, even those shot in HD.

Animators have been way ahead of the digital curve, and their work will continue to drive sales of special DVD collections and Blu-ray discs.

Disney has bided its time with Blu-ray, preferring to wait until its BD Live Network – which allows kids watching the same movie in different locations to share the experience — was ready for prime-time. Fittingly, the company chose one of its crown jewels, Sleeping Beauty, to kick-start the program. Disney knew that consumers would need a very good reason to re-invest their inflated dollars in home-entertainment hardware, no matter how cool it is. The Blu-ray Sleeping Beauty: Two-Disc Platinum Edition: 50th Anniversary doesn’t merely hint at the potential for the format, it delivers the future to consumers in a package no larger than the average DVD. Unlike the first-generation of DVDs, which were devoid of commentary and bonus features, the Platinum Edition of Sleeping Beauty comes loaded with goodies. (Consumers are warned, however, that not all Blu-ray players are set up to connect to the Interact, giving an early edge to Playstation 3 users.)

Consumers won’t need a film critic to convince them of the superiority of the Blu-ray edition of Sleeping Beauty, as all the evidence can be found, right there, on the screen: the colors are dazzling; the improved depth-of-field and sharply defined borders to the drawings create an illusion of 3-D; and the wider 2.55:1 picture aspect reveals images long lost to haphazard cropping for TV screens. Home-theater buffs will appreciate the enhanced 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and restored 4.0 theatrical mix. (The standard DVD edition offers an enhanced 5.1home-theater mix.). And, of course, the digital presentation is free of dust, cracks and other visual artifacts, and will remain so until the next new format emerges. .

The DVD and Blu-ray editions contain a new making-of featurette, deleted songs, commentary and live menus in a real-time castle environment. The exclusive Blu-ray bonus material – including the Disney BD Live Network – allows kids to chat with each other via the Internet, send text and video messages, compete in games, tour Aurora’s castle, hunt for factoids and trivia, create a picture-in-picture environment and collect reward points for other Disney goodies. Naturally, the commercial potential for Disney seemingly is unlimited.

Meanwhile, Sony is doing its part for the advancement of Blu-ray by making several ofRay Harryhausen’s classic adventures available in collector’s editions. The master of special visual effects was as inventive as any of Walt Disney’s Imagineers, but much of Hollywood’s upper crust dismissed his work as purely commercial and of interest primarily to the Saturday-matinee crowd. Today, however, Harryhausen is credited with popularizing such essential techniques as stop-motion animation and Dynamation, which employed the split-screen and rear-projection techniques that would free human actors to interact with dinosaurs and walk on water, if the script called for a miracle. Although today’s kids might scoff at some of the special visual effects, an awareness of CGI won’t interfere with the enjoyment of classic myths, sci-fi fantasies and amazing adventures enhanced by old-school animation.

Sleeping Beauty and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad both are remembered for climactic battle scenes, involving the movies’ heroes and terrifying dragons. Just as the confrontation between Prince Phillip and Maleficent’s dragon was the end-product of exhaustive hand-painting and intricate brushwork, the duel between Sinbad and the dragon on Cyclops’ island was the result of countless hours of delicate manipulation of models.

Before anyone invests time comparing Sleeping Beauty to any of the films in the Ray Harryhausen Collection (besides Sinbad, there’s Earth vs. Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth), they should know that Disney was far more generous with its money than Morningside Productions and Columbia. Harryhausen labored under the constraints of a budget only a tenth as large as the $6 million allotted for Sleeping Beauty. This meant Harryhausen was forced to use cut-rate film stock and generic footage, and take the occasional shortcut. Even so, the hi-def transfer does wonders with the 50-year-old color schemes and period sets. What was sometimes difficult to watch on television or on VHS looks fresh on Blu-ray.

On the other end of demographic spectrum, producers of adult product also are in the vanguard of the Blu-ray revolution. With memories of the Beta-vs.-VHS war still fresh in their minds, the companies were as reluctant as anyone else in Hollywood to commit to Blu-ray, or the need to go hi-def at all. It didn’t help that Sony wanted to distance its brand, technology and kids-friendly PlayStation from any association with porn. Having already been burnt by refusing to license Beta for use by adult producers – and, thus, tipping the balance toward VHS – the company didn’t press the issue very hard.

Digital Playground was the first studio to commit to shooting all of its titles in hi-def, even if it could be fully appreciated by only a small fraction of its audience. The format fit perfectly with DP’s strategy of putting its popular contract players in exotic locations, and using the beautiful scenery to complement the sex, giving it an arty sheen. (Who wouldn’t want to make love to a beautiful woman or buff guy on a beach in Paradise?). DP’s epic CGI-laden adventure, Pirates – the most expensive adult movie ever made – brought storytelling back to hard-core, and it went on to set records. (It also was cut for an R-rating.) Other producers of classy porn followed suit.

A sequel, Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, was released on DVD and Blu-ray last month. The gala premiere was covered by several news and entertainment outlets, and its stars were given a cameo (their second) in HBO’s Entourage.

Blu-ray machines are expected to play a big role in the holiday gifting season. Prices have come down to Earth and the library of titles is constantly expanding. Netflix has added Blu-ray movies to its inventory. If history repeats itself, the success of children’s movies and adult films will fuel the marketplace. Everything in between will follow in their wakes.

October 10, 2008

– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon