In a tiny room lit by the glow of a TV monitor, director Oliver Stone is working on Born on the Fourth of July: ”Pull in on Tom Cruise. Pan past the wheelchair Hold it, the lighting’s all wrong!”
The movie was shot a year ago and already has been seen by millions. But now Stone is meticulously calling the shots — the close-ups, the pans, and the subtle shadings — again.
Instead of barking orders to a production crew on a set, Stone is practically whispering his ideas over the shoulder of technician Loo Levinson. Under Levinson’s fingers are controls that can change a movie’s color, framing, and editing — almost everything, that is, except what the actors do and say. Together they are transferring Born on the Fourth of July from film to video.
Video is changing what it means to be a film director. For years, many directors looked at video as a necessary evil at best. ”I’m not crazy about it,” Steven Spielberg said in a 1985 interview. ”It cheapens everything that went into that movie.” But today, with VCRs in 70 percent of American homes and revenues from video vastly outstripping those from theaters, directors are coming to terms with the medium. Spielberg himself showed up at a convention of video store owners last summer and humbly made his peace with the the small screen. Instead of ignoring video, he and other directors, such as Stone (whose Fourth of July comes out later this year), Brian De Palma, and Stanley Kubrick, are becoming involved in shaping how their their movies play on video.
A director’s work on a movie once ended with the final cut. Now video is bringing directors back to their movies months and even years later. Most of their effort is put to ensuring that a movie on video stays as faithful to their theatrical version as possible. (Without meticulous corrections, the picture’s color, brightness, and framing can all be thrown out of whack during the conversion.) But video also gives directors a chance to change their pictures and remove flaws. And, as the influence of video grows, some directors are even altering how they shoot their movies, adapting their images to the TV set while they are still on the movie set.
”The reality is that more people will see my films at home on video than in theaters,” notes director Susan Seidelman, whose She-Devil arrives on video next month. ”The cassette is also sort of the permanent archive, the one that everybody’s going to see and remember from now on. So the director has a responsibility to see to it that the video version is as good as or better than the theatrical release.”
The crucial decisions affecting how a movie looks on video are all made during the film-to-tape transfer, a painstaking process usually lasting several days. For the video version of The Untouchables, Brian De Palma made more than 1,200 changes and corrections in cropping, color, and other particulars. During the transfer of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg’s director of photography, Allan Daviau, had 750 amendments made during the 18-minute mine-shaft segment alone.
This year, about half of the movies coming to video will have been transferred under the supervision of their directors or cinematographers. But this trend has developed quite suddenly. Until this year, most movies were transferred by video technicians working unassisted. The results have left some directors horrified. After thousands of cassettes of Yentl had been manufactured and packed for shipping in 1984, director Barbra Streisand saw a copy and had every tape destroyed. The picture was too green, she told the video company. Streisand insisted on personally supervising a new transfer of the film and brought it closer to the sepia look it originally had.
Perhaps the most controversial part of converting movies to video is the process known as ”pan and scan.” When a movie shot for the wide screen plays on the relatively square TV screen, the edges of the picture inevitably get cut off. If two characters are standing at opposite ends of the frame, for instance, the transfer technician can either cut from one to the other, or electronically ”pan” or slide from one side of the frame to the other. It’s those cuts and pans that drive directors crazy. As Spielberg said about one of his early movies on video, ”It had a cut where I didn’t want to cut, and a pan where I didn’t want to pan.”
In some cases, particularly on laserdisc, movies are released in the ”letterbox” format, allowing the full width of the movie image to appear on the TV screen with black bands above and below. A handful of directors (such as Spielberg with The Color Purple and Woody Allen with Manhattan) have the clout to demand that some of their movies be released letterboxed. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in both letterboxed and pan-and-scan versions.) But letterbbxing is very unpopular with viewers, so most movies continue to be panned and scanned.
”I’m stunned that all directors haven’t always been there for the pan and scan,” says Steven Soderbergh, who closely supervised the small-screen adaptation of his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape. Because of his involvement, Soderbergh says, he was able to ”save” several key scenes.
One dramatic shot in sex, lies, for example, shows actress Laura San Giacomo surreptitiously watching Andie MacDowell. Since they couldn’t both fit on the video screen, the transfer technician suggested either cropping out one character or quickly panning back and forth between the two. ”Either way, you’d lose the whole point of the scene,” Soderbergh explains. He worked out a compromise and had the picture ”squeezed” (electronically compressed to fit more of the original frame on the screen) and allowed a slight pan that looked like a camera movement made on the set during the original production.
Not every director strives just to recapture the experience of seeing a movie in the theater. In some cases, they want to improve on it. After Batman was criticized during its theatrical run for being too dark, director Tim Burton made a point of having it noticeably lightened for video. ”It looks completely different — a whole lot better — on tape,” says Lou Levinson, head of the mastering department at Modern Videofilm, with whom Burton worked on the transfer. The change was uncommon, Levinson explains. ”Seventy percent of the directors have their films made darker than they were in the theaters, because they think movies are more serious when they’re dark.”
For the cassette release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, director Leonard Nimoy took advantage of the transfer process to change the movie’s brightness level for a more dramatic effect. Nimoy felt the climax of the movie — when Admiral Kirk is fighting the Klingons hand-to-hand on a planet on the verge of exploding — came out wrong in the theatrical release. For the video version, he electronically increased the brightness of each shot in the sequence, to build tension. ”It doesn’t look anything like the theatrical release,” says Pat Miller of TransAmerican Video, who worked on the video transfer with Nimoy and his cinematographer.
But directors’ efforts to adapt films to video aren’t just affecting the movies viewers see at home. Video is also changing the movies we see in theaters. ”When we were shooting She-Devil, I would watch through a video monitor with bars on it marking both the wide-screen image and the TV-screen frame,” Susan Seidelman says. ”We shot it knowing we wanted it to work for video as well as for theatrical release. I was very aware that everything I wanted had to be in the TV frame. Fortunately, because She-Devil is a comedy, we didn’t have any problem shooting with video in mind, because comedies tend to work best in close-up. It’s not like a Western, where you have miles and miles of scenery and a horse on a side of the frame.”