Interview: Kino’s Bret Wood Talks Steamboat Bill Jr. on Blu-ray

The release of Steamboat Bill Jr. on Blu-ray marks the second time Buster Keaton has been represented in HD on Blu-ray. As with The General, disc producer Bret Wood graciously gave DoBlu an interview discussing the disc at length, and the source of the prints used.

For those who didn’t read our previous interview, can you tells us who are are and what you do?

I’m Bret Wood and I produce most of Kino’s silent/classic projects, which entails helping curate the content for DVDs and Blu-rays, supervising film transfers, working with production manager Brian Shirey to obtain musical scores and assemble the finished product. I’m also an independent filmmaker. My third feature as director, The Little Death, will be released in 2010.

Where was the source material for both versions of Steamboat Bill Jr discovered, especially the Killiam version (a version comprised of alternate cuts)?

We began the project with only the Killiam 35mm element, which we obtained from Worldview Entertainment, the company that owned the Paul Killiam film collection. We were satisfied with the image quality in comparison with the existing master from our own 1995 release, but were disappointed that it lacked the sharpness, clarity and stability of our recently-upgraded master of The General. Tim Lanza of the Douris Corp. (the company that owns the Keaton library, from whom we have licensed most of the other Keaton titles) volunteered to send me reels from four different elements in their collection, for the sake of comparison. When looking at the best of these elements side-by-side with the Killiam FGM (fine grain master), the Douris element was found to be clearly superior. That was also when I noticed slight variations between the two, and realized it was an alternate cut.

How much clean-up work was done? How long did it take?

Essentially no digital cleanup work was performed on either version of Steamboat Bill, except for the very meticulous shot-by-shot shading in the film transfer process. We try to avoid artificially enhancing the look of a film and fortunately the Douris element was good enough to present as-is. If we had only used the Killiam version, we probably would have cleaned it up by applying image stabilization and retouching specific blemishes, but would have refrained from using a global digital video noise reduction process. Since the Douris version looked so good, we decided to leave the Killiam version untouched.

What generation are the film elements? Was this another 35mm FGM like The General?

My guess is the Douris element (a 35mm dupe picture negative) was struck from an original nitrate print, so it would be two generations from the original negative. The Killiam element was a 35mm fine grain master. In my estimation, it was struck from a dupe negative, which would make it three generations from the original neg. For the sake of comparison, our recent release of The General was mastered from a 35mm fine grain master which was struck from the original nitrate negative… so it is one generation from the source.

In my previous interview with you, I asked about some of the edge enhancement spotted on the disc. You stated that, “That’s the problem with digital finishing. No matter how well you do it, it isn’t going to be perfect.” However, the Killiam version on the disc has no such problems. Why is this?

There should be no discernible digital artifacts in either version, because we did not use any noise reduction or enhancement on the masters. In this case, the battle becomes the fight between Blu-ray compression and film grain, especially in scenes were there are not a lot of sharp edges, and the computer is trying to interpret subtle variations in a single color. And this problem does not only occur in old films. Earlier this year, Kino Lorber canceled the Blu-ray release of Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun (a Lorber Films release) because we could not produce a clean enough picture. The Sun was shot on video, and was heavily digitally enhanced in post-production. Maybe we’ll revisit the film in the future, but current compression technology could not accurately render the “video grain” without creating residual artifacts.

Is the hot contrast an issue with the source print or was this digitally done? I noticed Keaton’s eyes actually disappear into pure white during the jail scene.

It’s really interesting. I felt like the Killiam element looked washed-out much of the time, especially in the sunlight scenes, and attributed this to poor labwork when the print or negative was made. But when we got the Douris negative, it had the same blanched look. I’ve concluded that’s the way the film was originally shot by Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings.

Why was this not tinted like The General?

We couldn’t produce any record that the film had ever been tinted, and there were no indications on the leader that the film should be tinted, so we left it black-and-white. In the case of The General, the leaders had tinting instructions. We don’t know for sure if these were original instructions, but made the decision to tint it.

Were there any potential musical scores you considered to go along with this release but didn’t use? Why the Biograph Players for the uncompressed score? When was this track recorded?

The Biograph Players score was newly-commissioned. We had access to the Lee Erwin organ score and Bill Perry piano score, but these were both monaural. We felt it important to have a full-sounding score (in 5.1) for the film. Having recently collaborated with the Biograph Players (C. Edward Hupton, John Francis, and Joe Kerr) on the Clarence Brown/Norma Talmadge film Kiki, and being very pleased with their work, we asked them to prepare a traditional score for Steamboat Bill Jr.

In general, what sacrifices need to be made to put a film to put it on DVD as opposed to Blu-ray, like Steamboat Bill which is being released on both formats?

Releasing films on Blu-ray is a higher-stakes game than DVD, so we have to be more cautious when selecting films for release. The two variables are audience demand and the availability of a top-quality HD master. Sometimes one will slightly outweigh the other. For example, we recently issued Pandora and the Flying Dutchman on Blu-ray. This is not a title people have been requesting on Blu-ray, but because we gained access to the 35mm negative of the recent Technicolor restoration, we decided it was worth the investment. On the other hand, we released Steamboat Bill Jr. simultaneously with the DVD-only release of Lost Keaton (the low-budget Educational Films shorts of the 1930s). Even though we mastered the films in HD, from 35mm archival elements, the picture and sound quality are not up to our Blu-ray standards, so we decided to withhold a Blu-ray release. As a result, that release didn’t get the critical attention it would have, if released on Blu-ray, but we probably would have faced some criticism for the condition of the films. At this stage in the Blu-ray game — as we are pioneering the release of silents and early talkies in HD — we can’t afford any blows to our reputation.

Thanks Bret!

Note: Stills used in this article are from FilminAmerica.com

  • Waverboy

    Mr. Wood failed to explain why the beloved Gaylord Carter score isn't present and accounted for, when every other Kino release of this film has included it, as well as the old Blackhawk film prints. This is a major defect for fans of this film, and I would think they are a major part of the intended market for this release. Before I heard Carter's score wasn't going to be included, this was a sure buy for me, but now I'm not so sure. I can't imagine this film without it. What the hell gives, Bret?

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  • gamereviewgod

    Working on a live follow-up. I'll ask then. Could it be a rights issue?

  • Waverboy

    Mr. Wood failed to explain why the beloved Gaylord Carter score isn't present and accounted for, when every other Kino release of this film has included it, as well as the old Blackhawk film prints. This is a major defect for fans of this film, and I would think they are a major part of the intended market for this release. Before I heard Carter's score wasn't going to be included, this was a sure buy for me, but now I'm not so sure. I can't imagine this film without it. What the hell gives, Bret?

  • gamereviewgod

    Working on a live follow-up. I'll ask then. Could it be a rights issue?

  • Pingback: Steamboat Bill Jr. Review | DoBlu.com()

  • The company that owned the Paul Killiam film collection.