86 This 66: The TV Classic Route 66 Hits a Dead End on the Hi-Def Highway

February 14, 2008

Update, 9/15/08: I haven’t purchased the reissued Season 1 Route 66 DVD set yet.  But word on the street has it that while the second half has been redone in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the first fifteen episodes are still presented in the original mediocre 16mm transfers.  I guess it’s up to the individual consumer to decide whether the glass is half full, or half empty.  The complete Season 2 will be released on October 21.  7/14/09: The name of the Infinity Entertainment spokesman with whom I corresponded for this piece has been redacted at his request.  He is no longer affiliated with Infinity.

Thus far I’ve refrained from turning this blog into a report on home video issues, even though I do keep tabs on them, because there are many other sites which perform that function ably.  I’m also not fond of people who use their blogs as bully pulpits to harangue others less civilly than they would in person.  But I’m suspending precedent and decorum today because I’m outraged by the offense that’s been committed against one of my favorite TV shows of the ’60s, Route 66

Last week, a new collection of Route 66 episodes was released on DVD.  This time, unlike in the preceding batch, every episode was shown in an incorrect aspect ratio that deletes a large swath of picture in a brutal effort to make the image conform to the dimensions of high definition TV sets.  This has been tried by the studios before, when Warner Bros. released the first season of Kung Fu in faux widescreen.  Outraged fans shamed the studio into correcting its mistake in subsequent volumes.  But now it’s happening all over again, and to a TV classic far more important than Kung Fu.

Last October, Route 66 made its DVD debut in a package consisting of the series’ first fifteen episodes.  I was overjoyed, because Route 66‘s combination of powerful writing (Stirling Silliphant’s beat-styled dialogue and existential, wanderlust-driven narratives introduced the counterculture into mainstream television), exceptional guest stars (New York-based casting gave unknown actors like Gene Hackman and Alan Alda key early roles), and location shooting in cities all over the U.S. made it a unique treasure.  I’d seen all 116 episodes already, but I was delighted that a new, younger audience would have the opportunity to become conversant with this offbeat masterpiece.

Then reality set in.  The first fifteen episodes were transferred to DVD mostly from sixteen-millimeter prints, rather than the far better looking tape masters that were broadcast on the Nick at Nite network in the late ’80s.  The image quality wasn’t abysmal, but it was fuzzy and flat-looking enough to turn off many viewers who might be discovering the show for the first time; and there was the further problem that one of the first season’s strongest episodes, “A Fury Slinging Flame” (about nuclear paranoia), was cut by five minutes.  All of this was especially frustrating that Route 66‘s “sister show,” Naked City, had received a partial DVD release on the Image label a few years earlier, and those transfers were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

The problems seemed to stem from the fact that Sony, which owns Route 66 (along with the rest of the old Screen Gems TV library), had licensed the show out to an entity called Roxbury Entertainment which is, to put it kindly, inexperienced in the arena of home video.  Roxbury is the operation of one Kirk Hallam, a producer of hack movies who optioned the property’s film rights and is currently trying to leverage a Route 66 remake out of development hell (which is exactly where it belongs).  I guess DVD rights to the original series were part of the deal – the best part, some might say, but so far they’re being treated more like that piece of toilet paper that sticks to your shoe when you leave the bathroom.

Then, last week, Infinity Entertainment Group (Roxbury’s distribution partner) released Season 1, Volume 2, in a form that had many fans longing for the battered 16mm transfers from the first batch.  Mr. Hallam had kept his promise to begin transferring the episodes from superior elements (what he referred to as “fine grain masters of film” in an interview), and indeed the level of clarity and detail was beautiful.  But someone made a catastrophically wrong-headed decision: to “enhance” the image for widescreen televisions by cropping the shows from their original 1.33:1 (4:3) compositions to a 1.78:1 (16:9) framing.  If you don’t understand the technical jargon, it means simply that 25% of the original image has been lopped off the top and bottom of the frame. 

The unique circumstances of Route 66‘s production – it was the only major television show of its era to be filmed largely outside New York or Los Angeles – make it the worst possible candidate for this butchery.  On the margins, the part that Infinity/Roxbury have seen fit to efface, is precisely where Route 66‘s cultural significance is located: in the architecture, the advertisements, the un-Hollywood faces of the local “background artists,” the uncluttered skylines that share the frame with Martin Milner and George Maharis. 

Today Infinity issued a press release which crushed fans’ hopes that this was a mistake soon to be corrected, and went on to insult the intelligence of those who complained by claiming that there’s “some confusion in the marketplace about some of the technical aspects of this restoration process.”  No, Infinity, we’re not the ones who are confused. 

Then there’s a ludicrous attempt to put a positive spin on the mutilation of the image.  Quoting the press release: “High Definition transfer which requires an update to the 16×9 aspect ratio for new HD TV Broadcast and future Digital Media delivery, i.e. Blu Ray DVD and HD Internet.” [Sic]  Wrong: there are films (like Casablanca) with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio available in HD, and those have mostly been presented on hi-def DVD in a proper pillarboxed format.  Cropping to 1.78:1 for HD is not a requirement, it’s a (bad) choice.  More press release excuses: “During the film transfer, the post production house used a process called tilt and scan which allows a Telecine technician to examine each scene individually and center the frame on the action.”  Terrific!  I’ll enjoy watching these so much more knowing that the 25% of deleted picture was chosen judiciously by a technician fifty years removed from the original production rather than simply chopped off the top and bottom. 

There’s plenty more to mock in that press release, but instead I’ll move on to report some clarifications that an Infinity spokesman was gracious enough to provide in an e-mail today.  Regarding my most crucial questions, as to whether Roxbury would reissue the Season 1, Volume 2 set in 4:3 transfers and what aspect ratio future volumes (if any) would use, the spokesman would comment only that: “The state of future releases is unknown as of now.  Discussions have been going on between IEG and Roxbury continually.”

When I pressed for details on whose idea it was to hack off part of the image for 16:9 formatting and why, the spokesman fingered a third party: “The post production house took it to widescreen without our knowledge.  We received complaints about the picture quality on Volume 1, so we decided to invest a large sum of money to telecine the second volume for the ‘die hard fans.’ Ultimately, we caused a larger problem when it was taken to HD/Widescreen.”  That represents a more forthright admission of error than anything in today’s press release. 

But wait, what about this part of the press release: “While we tried to remain as true as possible to the original programming, our overall goal is to not only make the program available once again on television, but to optimize it for the next generation of broadcast and television standards.”  Or the Infinity spokesman’s response when I asked who, exactly, made the decision to crop for widescreen, Infinity (which has distributed some exceedingly well-produced early TV packages, like Suspense and Man With a Camera) or Roxbury (which has no such track record).  The spokesman wrote that “it was a joint agreement between the two parties. The decision was made without knowing that making it widescreen would ruin the cinematic qualities.”  Well, okay, I’m with him on the “ruin” part, but now I’m confused.  It seems to me that Infinity is trying to have it both ways: Oops, we messed up and Forced widescreen is good for you - learn to like it.

But I’m hoping it’s really true that this was just a telecine gaffe, because that means it can be fixed easily on future Route 66 DVDs – and because it would put to rest the speculation that Infinity/Roxbury opted cynically to sacrifice their DVD consumers in order to peddle new 16:9 Route 66 masters to hi-def TV channels whose viewers want their screen filled with image no matter what the cost.  Just like in the good old pan-and-scan days of VHS.  It’s maddening to have to combat this ignorance over and over again.  Come on, people: remember Procrustes?  That thing with the bed did not end well for him.

I do think there’s some sliver of hope that we’ll see subsequent seasons of Route 66 in their proper format (and they’d better be derived from those same pristine film elements).  But that’s still not good enough for fans who would quite reasonably like to own the entire series in a watchable format.  And though I strongly encourage Infinity to find a way to remaster and reissue their Season 1, Volume 2 set (and ideally the entire first season), I can’t imagine that such an endeavor would be economically feasible even for a much larger company.  (That Kung Fu fix from Warners?  Still waiting on it.) 

To illustrate the impact of the cropping, here are a few image comparisons between the DVD and one of my bleary old tapes.  They’re all from the first half of  “The Opponent,” an episode from Season 1, Volume 2 selected more or less at random (except for the fact that the great Lois Nettleton has been on my mind lately).  It’s a skid-row story in which the atmospheric ugliness of Youngstown, Ohio is as essential to the meaning as anything in the script.

Each of these may be a couple of frames off, but I hope they illustrate more eloquently than I have above why, to slip into consumer-ese, I’m giving this package the strongest possible DO NOT BUY advisory:  

pdvd_005.jpg

r66-3.jpg

Expansive skylines on the open highway?  Not so much any more:

pdvd_001.jpg

r66-1.jpg

Not nearly so much feeling of bustling Youngstown, Ohio in the claustrophobic DVD version:

pdvd_006.jpg

r66-4.jpg

A cool store sign . . . that would never catch your eye on the DVD:

pdvd_008.jpg

r66-6.jpg

The lovely Lois . . . with hat, and without:

pdvd_010.jpg

r66-8.jpg

Here’s Darren McGavin (giving a genuinely disturbing performance as a broken-down boxer) in a shot that loses all its seedy power when cropped:

pdvd_011.jpg

r66-9.jpg

Whither Otto Zempski?  For those of you who bought the DVD, it turns out he’s at a “Pre-Fight Gala.”  I’m thinking that Telecine technician scanned when he should’ve tilted on this one:

pdvd_012.jpg

r66-10.jpg

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17 Responses to “86 This 66: The TV Classic Route 66 Hits a Dead End on the Hi-Def Highway”

  1. Bob Lamm Says:

    Many thanks, Stephen. You’ve done a great job in taking on this battle and posing all the right questions and challenges to these hacks. As someone who watched ROUTE 66 as a kid and who has greatly enjoyed seeing these shows again as an adult, it is very distressing to read and view what’s happened here.

  2. Stuart Galbraith IV Says:

    Speaking of,

    I’ve been watching the HD DVD of STAR TREK – SEASON ONE which, of course, is in its correct full-frame aspect ratio.

    However, here in Japan NHK is currently also running STAR TREK at 1.78:1 (16:9) — the same as the Japanese HD DVD release — and I’ve been looking at five or ten-minute bits to see how it compares.

    The answer is: pretty awful. For one thing, what looks razor sharp in high-def 4:3 looks very grainy blown-up to 16:9. Also, as you’d expect, the framing looks okay here and there, but extremely awkward and distracting most of the time, for the same reasons you point out in your ROUTE 66 screen grabs. One thing I’ve noticed is that STAR TREK looks much worse than KUNG FU’s 16:9 transfer because TREK uses many more tight close-ups and claustrophobic framing where KUNG FU favors wide medium and long shots (and uses real exteriors that invite a more open frame).

    Why anyone, especially die-hard STAR TREK fans, would want to see significantly LESS of what they’re intended to see is beyond me.

  3. Mark J. Cuccia Says:

    Thank you for your report on this. I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one out here who is OUTRAGED by what Infinity/Roxbury did to R-66 on this 2nd-half of Season-One. And yes, I noted that most of the 1st-half of Season-One DVD was 16-mm, some with bad (muffled) audio, but that wasn’t as bad as butchering the tops/bottoms for (unnecessary) forced phony widescreen in the 2nd-half of season-one. And yes, I also notice that some of the 1st-half of season-one ep’s were the “edited-for-syndicated-rerun” versions.

    I hope that Sony/Columbia/Screen Gems will “take-back” R-66 for (re)releaseing (properly) on DVD.

  4. Wes Says:

    Thank you for your excellent work in taking Infinity to task on this botched DVD set. After reading the disappointing press release with its laughable (and false) excuses for the cropping, it was interesting to see the Infinity spokesman’s comments to you on the fake widescreen effect. Most astonishingly were his comments that this was done by a post production house “without our knowledge,” ultimately causing “a larger problem,” and that the “decision was made without knowing that making it widescreen would ruin the cinematic qualities.” All damning remarks from the horse’s mouth! I can’t imagine they could now continue down this path of “ruining” future volumes of this show.

    One thing I might add, which should be pointed out to the inept operator at the post production (butcher) house doing these transfers: All “widescreen” TVs have a ZOOM button, which gives the VIEWER the option to fill the screen (and crop) ANY program material. Their “tilt and scan” is NOT needed (unless they were using it as an excuse to charge more for the labor involved).

    Again, THANKS for blowing the whistle here. Maybe the rest of Route 66 can be saved, even if 25% of Vol.2 is now lost.


  5. What a pretty kettle of sandtrout this is! (a quote from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.) So, let’s get this straight; Sony Picture is so cheap with regards to it’s old TV programs (although it can give all of the attention to so-called ‘modern classics’ like The Shield http://www.theshieldtv.com/index.php when that’s on DVD)that they farm it out to a sub-company that’s as cheap as frack, to do the work that they should be doing themselves, simply because Route 66 is 40 years too old for them to pay consideration to.

    If they wanted to have this released properly, they should have given the DVD rights to Shout Factory (which I believe is part owned by Sony); they would’ve done a better job, as evidenced by their releases of SCTV, Playboy After Dark, and Ironside. What fans of Route 66 should do is complain to Sony and get them to drop the contract with this company, then have Shout Factory pick up the contract to do this show.

  6. Ronny G Says:

    Sorry to join in this discussion late, but if what the Infinity spokesman said is true that the fake widescreen effect was done by a post production house “without our knowledge,” than the post production house is at fault and should redo the set at their own expense.


  7. I’m VERY late to this discussion, but as a fan of ROUTE 66 (saw them in original broadcast when I was a teenager) and a guy interested in aspect ratios, I was fascinated. There would seem to have been some very strange decisions made by Infinity/ Roxbury. But I’m also puzzled. In the frames you show, there is more information on the right side of the 16×9 images than in the 1.33 broadcast versions. We know that films shot for TV allowed for a “safe area” but that ran right around the whole image area, and the left and bottom edges of the 1.33 frame are preserved in the wider images you show. As often happens with films that are shot “full frame” but projected in theatres at 1.85, there is a loss of information at the top (and sometimes the bottom too).
    A side note:, in writing a blog entry on aspect ratios in Godard’s films, I found that some DVD releases seem to stretch the frame optically a little to fill out the wider format. (That entry is here: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1592). I don’t think that has happened with the ROUTE 66 frames, but it’s something to watch for in other TV-to-DVD releases.
    Anyhow, thanks for a sensitive and serious questioning of this release. As you point out so eloquently, this remarkable series deserves better treatment.

  8. Dave Morrison Says:

    “…without our knowledge.” Yeah, right. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in this whole debacle. There’s NO way a telecine house would make a decision like that without prior approval. After all, they would almost certainly have to get somebody’s approval on the transfer before it was released to manufacturing. So, SOMEBODY would have to see this transfer and sign off on it. Here’s hoping that Roxbury will allow us all to send in our split-season boxes in exchange for a “proper” transfer in the new box. I can dream, can’t I?

  9. vic Says:

    I have both the full-season DVD sets that have been released to date and am eagerly awaiting the subsequent season(s) to be released; I hope these guys get around to it someday soon.

    Having never seen the original broadcast series, and being a Route 66 roadie and veteran of nearly 20 roundtrips off-interstate on the old highway in the past 15 years, I didn’t find the DVD’s cropping all that terrible. In fact, I’d have never noticed it were it not for your blog that I found while searching for information on any upcoming releases.

    Frankly, if the examples you gave are the worst of it (and why would you use anything less to prove your point?), I think the level of outrage exceeds the harm here. For example, in the Otto gala scene’s opening, there’s plenty of wide-panned view of the entire sign so that we can see what’s going on at the party. The other scenes you featured above seem equally anodyne from version to version.

    One thing I noticed, and I’m not sure whether it’s the original camerawork or this tilt and scan zoom/crop job, but there’s some awful camera panning and zooming in some of the earlier episodes that makes one wonder whether the camera operator (or post production “technician”, as may be the case) was paying attention or was watching girls walk by while he was supposed to be filming!

  10. Moshe Kapora Says:

    Neville A. Ross, above, mentioned “Shout Factory.”

    I was an infant-toddler when the “Route 66″ series was originally broadcast, so I wasn’t acquainted with it; but having always loved both (a) road trips [having traversed the USA several times, once with a wife and 6 kids in tow], and (b) “The Fugitive” TV series with David Janssen (we have all episodes on VHS videotape), I felt that “Route 66″ was a series I should have.

    I recently purchased the first 2 seasons of “Route 66″ and all four seasons of “That Girl” during http://www.deepdiscount.com ‘s 25%-off sale.

    Ignorantly assuming that all old TV series packaged in DVD box sets would be basically the same, I was astonished at the difference in overall quality between the “That Girl” series (excellent in every way, including navigating the DVD, the many types and amount of extras, the picture and sound quality) and “Route 66″ which seemed very amaturish, as if I created the DVD myself on a laptop.

    To find out that a full 25% of the picture has been removed – for no good reason – only adds insult to injury!

    Thank you very much for this interesting blog.

  11. Mark Says:

    A properly arranged telecine transfer of the film would include full details about the aspect ratio required by the client. This is no mistake by the post production company doing the telecine work. All such organizations doing this type are of work are very aware of all of the issues. I would prefer that all of the material on the film be retained in the telecine transfer, and then cropped to the original for final release. This is possible with the current technology, but it comes with a cost.
    I do sympathize with the organization attempting to decide how to release, as we all see 16:9 tv screens displaying 4:3 images stretched out horizontally to fill the screen much of the time. Very few seem to notice that everything and everyone in the picture looks strangely wide, and these are the idiots that want all images to fill the screen. (after all they paid for the real estate)

  12. Sony Guy Says:

    OK I’m EXTREMELY late to this discussion, but happened upon it while doing research and wanted to add one additional piece of information.

    Sony owns no part of this series and had nothing to do with sub-licensing the release. It did – at one time – hold TV syndication rights – but that’s all. No DVD, downloads, etc. This is true of many of the TV series in the Screen Gems library, as it was the way it did business in the 50s and 60s. They paid production costs in exchange for TV syndication. Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, Route 66, Dennis the Menace, etc. all fall under this category.

  13. One Who Knows Says:

    Well, I am the LAST to join this discussion, but I had to do something with my frustration. To make a long story short……The Route 66 Episode, “A Fury Slinging Flame” that is available now, has definitely been edited. I will only comment on two of the missing portions, because they are so important to me. One crucial scene edited was of my father, a local TV Reporter from the CBS affilliate in Odessa, TX, playing himself & doing a remote report on the goings on in the Caverns. The shot included the news van with the name of the station and town. Another small bit removed was when the ranger was instructing the reporters before going down into the caverns, where he said, “You CBS reporters, you can’t take those big cameras down into the caverns. I am assuming that these bits were edited due to some kind of legal issues regarding CBS. Luckily, my mother got me the Columbia House Collectors Edition version of this (and another) episode, so I have the unedited version with my father in it. Just an FYI.

  14. Ward Cleaver Says:

    Stephen, did you see this story from last month?

    http://www.retroist.com/2011/11/10/shout-factory-to-distribute-the-iconic-tv-show-route-66/

    Maybe Shout! Factory can re-master and release the DVD sets. I have the complete first season set, and yes, it’s pretty poor. I’ve also been recording them recently off of Retro TV, and it got me interested in buying more seasons. Have you viewed the second and third season DVD sets? If so, what did you think of them?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yeah, the Shout Factory thing is good news. I’d settle for just the fourth season — I bet remastering is a long shot. I’ve heard that the second and third seasons have some quality issues, primarily in the audio department, but I haven’t really investigated myself (even though they’re sitting there on the shelf).

      What I’m really rooting for, now that Sony’s ownership has lapsed, is for someone to pick up Naked City, which has even more episodes unreleased on DVD.

  15. Zobelle Says:

    R66 is a widescreen show. Your VHS tapes are clearly cropped and the common topline isn’t respected. They should issue the whole show widescreen on DVD, and you are wrong. Just because it was butchered to fit 4/3 TV back in the days doesn’t mean this squared travesty should be preserved, and it doesn’t matter that you prefer it just because you previously watched it that way for years.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Obvious trolling … or could you be genuinely unaware that all of American broadcast television was formatted at 4:3 until (at the earliest) the late 1990s?


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