Paramount has finally released their highly anticipated Blu-ray version of George Pal’s 1953 science fiction classic "The War of the Worlds". Paramount’s 4K restoration of the landmark film occurred several years ago and at that time, fans wondered when it would be available for consumer purchase on Blu-ray even though it has been available on iTunes. The 4K version had several public screenings including one at the Fox Tucson Theatre. Last summer Turner Classic Movies aired it.
This month’s release of the Criterion edition marks the first commercial Blu-ray release of the film in the U.S. Australian based Via Vision Entertainment, under license with Paramount, released their Blu-ray version this past May.
Both the Via Vision and Criterion releases offer the same 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack and a new alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack created by sound designer Ben Burtt. In addition, both releases share material that first appeared on the 2005 Paramount DVD release. This includes an audio commentary by film historian Bob Burns, author Bill Warren and film director, producer and actor Joe Dante; a recording of the original Mercury Theatre on the Air radio play of 1938, a copy of the 2005 documentary The Sky Is Falling about the making of the original film and the theatrical trailer. The Via Vision version includes a photo gallery, audio commentary by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, and a featurette on H.G. Wells all of which appeared on the 2005 release. The Criterion version includes a radio program from 1940 that features a discussion between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells both of which also appeared in the 2005 release.
The only unique feature to the Via Vision edition is an exclusive audio commentary by film
critics Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman. This pales in comparison to the new material offered on the Criterion edition.
Criterion offers an audio interview with producer George Pal from 1970 that is not that informative. In addition, the audio quality of the interview is poor and as it plays, your television screen is locked onto one scene from the film during the whole interview. It would have been better if the producers opted for a slide show offering listeners rare and interesting clips of Pal’s life while the audio plays.
The most interesting of the new material included in the Criterion edition is a feature called “Movie Archaeologists.” Here visual effects supervisor Craig Barron shows stills and footage of various scenes from the film that have never been seen before. These include a clapboard clip of Chesley Bonestell’s matte painting of the planet Mercury that was part of the film’s opening “tour of the planets” sequence. In this clip you models of mountains and rocks are placed in the foreground of Bonestell’s artwork.
In this feature, Barron also presents some astounding raw film footage showing the “magnetic blisters” or transparent bell jar force fields that the Martian’s created with the war machines to protect them from Earth’s weaponry. Shown is separate footage of the bell jars with black squibs or charges stuck to the exterior. These are set off and the resulting footage shows exploding impact points where artillery shells hit the shields during the first Martian confrontation with the military. That footage is then superimposed over the original advancing war machine which is then combined with the rest of the visual and sound effects to produce the final sequence.
Barron also goes into great detail explaining how the Martian war machine weapons were produced and filmed. For example, raw footage of a cutting torch are shown being filmed using fans to focus the molten spray into the forward shooting spray of the heat rays emitted from the Martian war machine cobra head. He also walks you through how the wing tip skeleton ray was made.
Academy award winning sound effects designer Ben Burtt joins Barron and explores how the various sounds were created for the film. The sequence concludes by having them both assemble and apply their findings against a backdrop of original raw footage sequence from the film showing the Martian war machines destroying downtown LA. Using this raw footage of the war machines advancing through a miniature downtown LA street set a flame, Burtt and Barron go into great detail on how each visual and audio effect for this sequence was made. They add the visual and audio effects that they recreated to this original footage. The end result is a modern sequence from the film that is difficult to distinguish from the original film. It is a very effective and educational application of their research.
The second Criterion featurette is called “From the Archive.” Here Barron and Burtt are joined by Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas to explain how the film was restored.
Those who have seen the 4K restoration are quick to note the conspicuous lack of wires that the iconic miniature Martian war machines models used for filming. Most do not remember that the wires were present in the original 1953 theatrical release; you just could not easily see them.
As a visual effects artist Barron worked on such films as "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." He won an Academy Award in 2008 for best visual effects for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Barron served as a consultant during Paramount’s original frame-by-frame restoration from the original Technicolor print.
Here they explain how the Technicolor process worked by mechanically aligning three different red, green and blue negatives to make one single color print. Because each frame is basically composed of three individual frames that are laid one on top of each other it was always a challenge to keep things aligned. This produced an overall “soft” look to the film that helped blend the super thin wires holding up the Martian war machines into the background so they can’t be easily seen.
The Technicolor process produced a very rich and overall darker image with more contrast. When Paramount produced Eastman prints for airing the film on television they created a color reversal internegative or CRI print. This print is made deliberately light so that television studios can regulate the contrast for broadcast. Television prefers a lighter print because this allows them to bring out more of the fine detail that can be lost in the television broadcast. As a result, some of the original intent of the filmmakers got lost. Prints tended to be much brighter than what the filmmakers originally used. These versions are what succeeding generations saw growing up, not the original version as shown in theaters in 1953.
When the original three negatives were scanned for the restoration and re-combined digitally, the wires appeared in a super sharp resolution and clarity. The wires were never intended to be seen by the film’s producer George Pal, the director Byron Haskin, or Gordon Jennings, the special effects artist who built and operated the mechanical war machines.
In this segment, they explain how that as you take this process of restoration into digital and you take the original Technicolor masters, you scan them at 4K directly into the computer. When you went to the movies in 1953 you watched a print on film, one that was several generations away from what actually went through the camera. In the digital world, you don’t have generations of prints. The digital version is the original print so there is no degradation in image quality no matter how many copies you make therefore you’re bypassing the whole release print phase. They point out how beautiful the original Technicolor copies were but they were kind of soft because of the Technicolor process not because of making multiple release prints.
If Paramount did nothing with the original 4K scans, the film would have been shown in a way that the filmmakers could never have intended or anticipated. As a result, Paramount digitally altered the 4K scans to produce the same degree of soft image that audiences originally experienced when they first saw the film in 1953.
Many fans first saw this film on television that were broadcast using prints that were two stops too bright so they remember the wires fondly. But Barron notes how he and others on the restoration team pushed to make sure that they made that viewing experience as close as possible to what people would have seen when they walked into a theater in 1953.
Noted science fiction historian and artist Vincent Di Fate, a fan of the original 1953 Pal film, spoke about the film. “When you watch a CRI print of 'The War of the Worlds' you can see every matte line and every wire.” In talking about the film Di Fate noted that, “They called these CRI copies ‘Technicolor’ because they are matched to the Technicolor matrix so it looks like Technicolor except that it doesn’t have the density of Technicolor. As a result, most people who think they’ve seen 'The War of the Worlds' have never really seen it. It’s like looking at rear projection shots of 'King Kong.' Light is in the surrounding space of a still where normally there wasn’t any but that’s because they’re not being projected 50 feet across to a theater screen as originally intended. They’re being backlit and the difference is significant.”
“Films like 'The War of the Worlds' were very much products of their time” declared Di Fate. “Filmmakers back then knew what they were doing and no one ever anticipated that their movies would have the kind of shelf life that they have today and would be scrutinized with the dizzying array of tools that we now have available.”
When Paramount released the second DVD version of the film in 2005, they announced that they had done some color correction. The color correction was for the flesh tones. No one ever accused Technicolor of having natural-looking flesh tones. Flesh is way too orangey to be real honest-to-god human flesh but when you screw around with flesh tones, you distort all the other colors, which is exactly what happened in the 2005 release.
During Paramount’s 4K restoration they adjusted each image so that it matches the original 1953 Technicolor release print. The end result is a classic film transferred from a format that no longer exists (35mm Technicolor theatrical film) to a format that does (digital 4k) while at the same time preserving what the original Technicolor release looked like because that represents what the filmmakers originally intended.
Some argue that the slightly blurred Technicolor image looks magical, nostalgic or dreamlike which is what the filmmaker intended. In the original 1977 release of "Star Wars" there is a notable scene in the cantina when bounty hunter Greedo confronts Han Solo about a botched job he did for Jabba the Hutt. In the original release of the film, it was Han who first shoots Greedo but in later versions, Lucas changed the film to show Greedo first shooting Han. The “Han Shot First” has become a rallying cry among fans who wish to keep the original film as is. For them, this is as classic example of a filmmaker going too far because the change not only alters the original scene of the film but also its original narrative.
But the changes made to the 4K version of Pal’s film did not alter the original narrative in any way so does this make them less invasive?
Barron confides in the Criterion featurettes that what he and others at Paramount are trying to do through such restorations is to protect the legacy of not only the filmmaker’s original intent but also to preserve the legacy of the studio’s film library.
Film, for the most part, is going away. There’s still some shooting of film but it is rare. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" was shot on film. But for the most part, 35mm prints are a thing of the past so in translating these classic films into a new medium it is essential that the translation is as respectful as possible to the original filmmakers wishes.
George Pal’s original 1953 big-screen adaptation of Well’s original novel remains, to this day, one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. In 1953 it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and since its release, has gone on to inspire many in their careers. In 2011, the film was added to the United States’ Film Registry in the Library of Congress noting that the film is “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” The Registry noted how it used “the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age” and that its special effects were “soul-chilling, hackle-raising, and not for the faint of heart.”
Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Robert Skotak during a recent interview by the author, told how he was five years old when he and his brother Dennis first saw the film at the local Boys Club while growing up in a Detroit suburb.
“The Boys Club received a full 35mm projector and a major sound system that were both donated by the Fort Wayne military installation that was not very far from where we lived. They set all of this up in a huge auditorium just like a theater. They would then show every Thursday nights free movies,” said Skotak in recalling when he first saw the film.
“Neighbor friends of ours told us that they were going to show this new film called 'The War of the Worlds.' We never heard anything about the film other than its title and from that we thought the movie was a World War II film. I liked war movies and when the film started playing, lo and behold you would see all this stock newsreel footage. But as soon as we saw those amazing Bonestell paintings, we knew the film was something different. It became a night that lives forever.”
“Here I am 72 years old and that night is still vivid in my mind. When we went home that night, my brother and I drew what the saucers looked like on index cards because we figured that we’d never see this movie again. There was no way to ever see these things again.”
“When the Spielberg version of the film came out in 2005, Dennis and I went back to that same Boys Club in Detroit and took pictures of me on the steps holding up Al Nozaki’s original working script from the 1953 film.”
The new Blu-ray release of "The War of the Worlds" demonstrates how technology can be used to preserve the way a film was originally intended to be viewed by audiences during the time of the film’s original theatrical release and not in a way that today’s technology allows it to be seen. After seeing the new 4K transfer on both the Criterion and Via Vision releases, I think Paramount made the right decision regarding how to make it look. The transfer in both releases look absolutely breathtaking with rich deep colors and the restored sound is amazing. After watching both I could not tell the difference between the two releases. I noticed in both versions that they did retouch the blue-spill in two scenes --the oil tank explosion and the war machine's approach to City Hall – but those were both pretty obvious flaws in the original film and worth fixing.
If I had the choice of which Blu-ray release to purchase, I would choose the Criterion edition if only for the additional extra features that are very good and found nowhere else.