Is "High-Def" Technology Ruining the Look of Classic Films?

This 63-year-old feature looked almost as if it had been shot last week. I was intensely aware of Moira Shearer's heavy make-up and could literally see Anton Walbrook's pores. It was fascinating, hypnotic, but also more than a little distracting.
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Watching Cameraman: The Life and Work Of Jack Cardiff (2010), Craig McCall's documentary on the gifted cinematographer known for his pioneering work on some of the best films shot in Technicolor during the forties, I was reminded of all the talent, care, and effort that went into creating the particular richness of color film from that era.

The British Cardiff, who died only two years ago at the ripe old age of 94, got his big break working with legendary director Michael Powell on Stairway to Heaven (1946), and went on to make two more classics with him: Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Just three years later, John Huston selected him to shoot The African Queen on location, a tricky and arduous job he carried off superbly.

Though Cardiff would remain active for another half century as both cinematographer and director, it's his work on the aforementioned three classics that assured his screen immortality. Had he not shot these three films, it's doubtful he would have become the first cinematographer ever to win an honorary Oscar.

Cameraman, a must-see for any film buff, made me all the more excited to try out my new Samsung Hi-Def System, featuring their new 8000 series LED screen (in my case the 55 inch model), and accompanying blu-ray/3-D player.

Expectantly, I popped in the Criterion Collection blu-ray edition of The Red Shoes (my personal favorite), and sat back to watch.

To say what came up on the screen stunned me understates it. How many times have I seen this gorgeous film over the years? Twenty times? Thirty? But never like this.

This sixty-three-year-old feature looked almost as if it had been shot last week. I was intensely aware of Moira Shearer's heavy make-up and could literally see Anton Walbrook's pores. It was fascinating, hypnotic, but also more than a little distracting.

Next I inserted The African Queen. Same deal. Never before had I been able to actually count Katharine Hepburn's freckles in a film. And strangely enough, my eye was drawn to all the sweat above Robert Morley's upper-lip.

I started to note other abnormalities, and wondered whether I was imagining things. Peripheral actors in crowd scenes seemed somehow unreal, their movements reminding me of those simulated figures in my son's video games. I even perceived some sound sync issues.

Was this all in my head? I needed a corroborating opinion -- an informed one.

So I brought over a director friend of mine. Viewing The African Queen, he too was taken aback, and after a few moments, said simply: "This is terrible. It looks like it was shot on video."

And right then I had to think of how Michael Powell, John Huston, and Jack Cardiff -- God rest their souls -- would react to what we were watching. I doubt they'd be pleased.

Could it be that with all our high-tech advances, we have wandered away from respecting what the original filmmakers had in mind visually? As Cameraman eloquently reminds us, cinematography has never been just about how a film looks, but the mood it creates, and how that reinforces and enhances the thrust of the narrative. It's integral, indeed vital, to the film as a whole.

Sadly, Huston, Powell, and Cardiff are no longer around to defend their work and vision. I recall how hard luminaries like James Stewart -- and yes, John Huston -- fought against Ted Turner's plan to colorize motion pictures in the eighties.

You have to wonder whether they'd be staging a new fight now.

Martin Scorsese (a champion of film preservation, who also fought colorization) is interviewed extensively for Cameraman. At one point he says that while digital technology can create "realistic" images and effects, the richness, immediacy and authenticity of the old days -- and old ways of shooting -- are gone.

Obviously he's referring to the way we shoot new movies, not watch old ones, so I would love him to weigh in how the look and feel of older classics are being altered when re-mastered, put on blu-ray, and played on high-def equipment (particularly the latest generation, represented by my new Samsung set-up).

Some may feel I'm exaggerating the issue. For one thing, you can adjust your screen settings to reduce the "shot on video" look -- but only somewhat. You just need to know you can (I didn't till I asked), and you need to know how.

But as one friend of mine put it, in our newest and best technology, why should we have to go in and adjust settings to make a movie look more like a movie?

On a more practical and personal note, I spend my life trying to induce people to watch great movies again before watching mediocre ones the first time, and the introduction of blu-ray does help that cause. By touting improved picture resolution and sound, it makes viewers curious to revisit the best movies from Hollywood's Golden Age. Otherwise, why would the industry be releasing them at such a furious clip? You can bet they're not doing it as a public service.

And ultimately, it's hard to argue that most blu-rays do make older films look cleaner, fresher, newer.

The critical issue, though, is do they look the way their creators intended them to look, when they were first released?

I wish I could say "yes" without equivocation.

Pondering this thorny question, I think once again of Jack Cardiff's incredible legacy, and suspect that we -- and what we like to call progress -- may have unwittingly betrayed him.

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