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:
Not nearly so much feeling of bustling Youngstown, Ohio in the claustrophobic DVD version:
A cool store sign . . . that would never catch your eye on the DVD:
The lovely Lois . . . with hat, and without:
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:
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: