The Warner Home Video exec talks about the six-year project he spearheaded to restore this classic to its original form
It isn't often that I get to speak with a big-wig executive like George Feltenstein, the senior vice-president of catalog at Warner Home Video, and it isn't often that I get to talk about such a classic film that is finally brought back to life in an amazing way like How the West Was Won, which comes back to DVD in a three-disc Ultimate Collectors Edition on September 9.
Feltenstein was the key figure in the six-year restoration project of this film, that not only was restored and remastered, but this historical film can finally be seen on DVD in the way it was meant to be shown. This film, originally released in 1963, was one of only two films to be filmed in the Cinerama format, which was essentially three cameras rigged together during filming, which was played on three theater screens, side-by-side, resulting in an enormous 2.89:1 aspect ratio. While this was the last Cinerama film to be shown, subsequent prints of the film merged the three screens into one 2.35:1 aspect ratio print, which resulted in "join lines" which ran down the screen where the screens would meet and confuse viewers. Now this classic has finally been restored to its original 2.89:1 aspect ratio without the cumbersome "join lines" and this film looks simply astonishing (Watch for my full review soon). I had the chance to speak with Feltenstein over the phone about this amazing new DVD set, and here's what he had to say.
I watched the film last night and it was just amazing. I loved it.
George Feltenstein: It is amazing. I just watched the Blu-Ray disc over the weekend, from start to finish. I had obviously seen pieces of it as we were working on it, but I watched it from start to finish twice and it's just amazing how contemporary it feels and I'm so proud of what we've achieved in making it a visual experience that's just gorgeous instead of disgusting (Laughs).
Yeah, it almost makes me wish I had a bigger TV, to tell you the truth.
George Feltenstein: I said the same thing and I have a 52-inch flat-screen, which I love, but it felt too small for the scope of this. I wish I had this 100-foot projection like rich people with home theaters do.
So, how did this whole undertaking start? Was this just something you've wanted to do for awhile or was it reaction from viewers, that they were sick of the join lines, or how did this whole undertaking start?
George Feltenstein: It's all of the above, really. For me, personally, I've been working with this library on home video for 22 years, first at MGM and then at Turner and now here at Warner Bros. I followed the library through its ownership. I was involved in the first release in VHS and the letterboxed LaserDisc, which was important at its time. My first viewing of this movie was when I was about 8 years old, in the early 70s when it was on ABC Sunday Night Movies, in pan & scan. I knew what Cinerama was. I was a precocious little person. I kept asking my parents, 'Why can't they fix that? This big grey goop down the screen. What is that?' Of course, nobody ever every bothered to explain why the film looked as terrible as it did. We weren't just dealing with the horrible join lines, we were dealing with the fact that, after the initial Cinerama exposition, MGM optically reduced the three panels onto one 35mm scope image, so you had an incredible increase in grain, lack of sharpness, diffusion of color and light and the film just looked awful. Even despite that, it's such a good movie that it made a ton of money, in general release, on television and on video. I always had hoped that we could eliminate the join lines but I would make facetious comments like, 'Yeah, when are we gonna get rid of the join lines on How the West Was Won?', thinking that it was like, 'When are you gonna find the Lindbergh baby?' or something. But it really happened. I'm very protective of the films in the library and I'm cautious to see that they get the most proper care when we release things. That was a factor but another factor was - on the documentary on the disc, the guy who did that documentary, Dave Strohmaier, he is, I would say, very primarily responsible for the resurgence in interest in Cinerama, on a single-handed basis. He was very very persistent in campaigning us to pull the negatives out on How the West Was Won and, eventually, a new print was struck, which was shown at the CineramaDome and all that. This has been an 8-year process and all of that has brought us to today where we finally pulled the original negatives out, did a full photo chemical restoration. Our technical people wrote the software programs that figured out how to rewind these three disparate panels with different focal points and different color balancing, and could be able to, frame by frame, at a tremendous amount of labor and effort from hundreds of people over a two-and-a-half year period, to actually create the final master that you got to view.
Wow. That's awesome. Have there been plans to show this at the CineramaDome or show this in regular theaters, now that this is finally down to the proper aspect ratio which is 2.89:1, I believe?
George Feltenstein: Well, at the Dome, there actually is Cinerama equipment installed. It's one of only two places in the United States where there is Cinerama equipment installed and, two days before the DVD and Blu-Ray hit the streets, on Sunday September 7, that morning, we will be showing How the West Was Won in true Cinerama, using the original three-projector system, on the curved screen. That is a unique experience, but in fact, it will be somewhat deficient because, Cinerama, as projected, always reveals the join lines and they could never fix that in projection. What we have now, theoretically, we could use digital cinema and project what we have created on that curved screen and technically improve upon using the three projectors and everything, but there's something purist in us that would not allow us to do that. We've got the Dome, we've got the projectors, we've got the print, we should show it as it was originally shown. But, we can now, and we will be, visiting film festivals and repertory cinemas throughout the world for events with the digital cinema presentation of this new master, which can be projected on a huge screen with magnificent results.
In a lot of the aerial shots, it almost has an IMAX feel to it.
George Feltenstein: Absolutely. This could now be a candidate for IMAX and we have a very good relationship with those folks. If this release has the success factor that we believe it does, I don't think it's inconceivable that such a thing could possibly happen. This is a kind of film that is not dated, because, even though it was made 40 years ago, it was set 140 years ago and it, I feel, somewhat contemporary in its sensibilities and it's done with such care and accuracy and detail that just really stands the test of time. The only thing that stood in the way prior to this was the technical limitations of new perfect film elements and a film system that is no longer usable. We solved that and by doing what we did, we also created perfection in preservation elements so that the film will be able to be viewed for years to come. We made a digital film-out so that we could actually make a 35mm or 70mm print if we needed to, so now this can be shown anywhere with that perfection, so it's something that we're very very pleased about.
Do you have a favorite scene from this that is more enhanced in this version than maybe the other release?
George Feltenstein: I think that the whole film is so incredibly, dramatically different, but one scene that always stands out in my mind is the big attack of the Indians as they're going down the plains and when they're riding down the river raft in the rapids. Of course, some of the rapids stuff they did actually process photography in the studio where they did it in front of a green screen and boy that looks terrible. The great quality of this restoration and Blu-Ray presentation really show off those really cheesy shots where they didn't actually do it and tried to cheat it. In the 60s, people were still very tolerant of that kind of thing, now they just wouldn't stand for it. Aside from those few shots, there is one shot where they're in the covered wagon and the wagon turns over.
George Feltenstein: That used to be so marred by the join lines and now it's absolutely, ridiculously unified. I'd like to think that Marian C. Cooper is smiling down on us for having conquered the Cinerama join line problem.
The Cinerama format really seemed to be vastly ahead of its time. Do you think there is technology involved, right now, that could actually bring this three-format panel back? There's not only the Dome but there are Ultrascreens that are out there now, that are three movie screens. Do you think that might be possible for a resurgence?
George Feltenstein: I hope so and I think that the fact that when we did run How the West Was Won at the Dome in 2003 and again in 2005, the place sold out. The box office grosses were huge. Cinerama was created to lure people away from their television sets and back into movie theaters. Now, people have movie theaters in their homes because of the change in technology. I think that what you're talking about is what gets people back into the communal experience that you have in a theater, both of which feed off of each other and that's why our industry is in such a wonderful position right now. Accordingly, I totally concur with what you're saying, that there could be all sorts of other things. We just announced a big 40th Anniversary presentation of Woodstock and Woodstock, albeit in 16mm, Woodstock is famous for its multi-screen presentation.
The technology is really out there and it seems totally possible. Even with 3-D coming out now too, that's kind of the new wave, where they're drawing people into the theaters and out of their homes.
George Feltenstein: Yeah. This is a movie that I think people are going to discover on DVD and especially as a Blu-Ray item. I've had people tell me they're going to buy a Blu-Ray machine just so they can have this. I think that this were the kind of thing that, if it were playing in a theater, after having seen it at home, they're going to want to see it in a theater. That's why this is a really wonderful achievement. The folks that we worked with at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging achieved by taking this old technology and bringing it into the 21st Century.
I understand the format in this film was very difficult for the actors because they weren't really sure what lens to look at. Was it one camera with three lenses?
George Feltenstein: No, it was three separate cameras. Three separate cameras, three separate pieces of film. That's the difficulty. If you listen to the commentary, they talk about how difficult that was. The three cameras were kind of tied together. There's pictures of it on the documentary how they did that.
If there is a possibility of this coming back, do you think that might be a hindrance for the actors because it was so difficult back then?
George Feltenstein: I think that could be the case, but technology is such now that the limitations of the past are virtually non-existent. They could really do anything these days.
So, what's next for you? Do you have any other big restoration projects that you are launching in the near future?
George Feltenstein: Yes. We're actually working on some huge ones right now. Woodstock is one of them, which we just announced, which will be coming out a year from now, with the 40th Anniversary. The magnificent 1954 version of A Star Is Born, with Judy Garland and James Mason. It's a 6K restoration that we're doing. That's one of the earliest CinemaScope movies and it's a masterpiece, as far as we're concerned and that is something that we're restoring the picture and the sound for a whole new presentation. Then, what I think is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie, North By Northwest. That is one of our big big restorations for next year because the camera negative is totally faded and we're unable to make good 35mm prints of the film. Using technology digitally and what's left of the negative and the safety separations, we're rebuilding the film, rebuilding the color and then after doing this restoration, we'll be doing a digital restoration that can become a film-out and create new good prints again on this film. The 50th anniversary is next year and that's a big project for us. Then next year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and those are coming out on Blu-Ray as well. So, there's a lot happening here and we're dedicating a great deal of time, energy and resources to these restoration projects to give people better presentations of magnificent films that will last forever.
So will these all be released in big boxed sets like How the West Was Won Ultimate Collectors Edition with a bunch of souvenirs and stuff like that?
George Feltenstein: Yes. We're working on these things right now and we have some very, very nifty ideas. The consumers are going to be really, really happy.
Finally, now that this can finally be seen in the way it was originally meant to be seen, do you think this will bring the old fans of the movie back that were hesitant of picking it up because of the join lines or the transfer?
George Feltenstein: Absolutely. I think as much of a success as this film has been, and it has been one of our top 10 classic films for the last 20 some odd years that I've been around, I think why people resisted buying it is because the viewing experience was so encumbered by the technical limitations. This film has finally fulfilled the vision of its creators that was always limited by the technology of the past. With those limitations now gone and the image now so beautiful to look at, we feel a whole new generation of hundreds of thousands of people, we expect, will be rushing to their retailers all around the world - because this is a worldwide release, both in standard definition and Blu-Ray - we feel that this is really one of the major home video events in the history of our industry.
Well, that's about all I have. Thank you so much for your time, George.
George Feltenstein: My pleasure, Brian.
You can watch How the West Was Won in all its newfound, 2.89:1 glory (it still blows me away, honestly), when the Ultimate Collectors Edition hits the DVD and Blu-Ray shelves on September 9.