Archive for January, 2013

The Looney Tunes DVD+R Project Part One

Wow, 2013, here we are! I have got so much coming up in the next twelve months that I should really use this blog that I was so happy to start well over a year ago.

I’ve got some rants, stories, commentaries, work projects, and other things that will come up in the future. But for today, I will be blogging updates on what will (hopefully) be my major non-work-related creative hobby of the new year. I won’t begin to pretend that this will interest everyone, and frankly I don’t care if it does or not. Get your own bloody blog.

This was actually something I had started well over a year ago and was well into the process of working on, but numerous life events–moving, releasing a feature-length movie, moving again, getting married, and then being indirectly involved in a drawn-out criminal matter dealing with truly one of the scummiest people on the planet–kept me a little preoccupied. But I like to think I can start this all up again at a comfortable, leisurely pace.

As all of my closest friends and family know about me–as do many of even my most casual of friends–one of my passions is classic theatrical animation, particularly the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons produced and/or released by Warner Bros. from 1929 to 1969 (and then some). I have been an avid fan and collector of not only the cartoons themselves but also of the characters for nearly a quarter-century now, and I am happy to say that my collection contains everything from half-inch Mexican plastic figurines to original animation cels from the actual productions.

But through it all, my true fandom lies with collecting the shorts themselves on home video. Warner Bros. has done an above-average job releasing them on DVD for the last ten years–in both multi-disc boxed sets and a handful of single-disc odds and ends–but there is still so much more left unreleased on disc. There are over a thousand shorts total in the Looney Tunes series, and about six hundred of them are still unreleased on DVD (or Blu-ray). I was always happy to supplement my collection with not only the previous VHS releases Warner had produced a generation ago but also my numerous, numerous recordings made off TV on both Beta and then VHS over the last two decades. I have always tried to store and archive my videos in the best conditions possible, but the fact of the matter is that tape simply doesn’t last forever. Unfortunately, I can’t play the waiting game any longer. These recordings will soon become goo even if I had them sealed underground in a temperature-controlled salt mine alongside the Johnny Carson vault. Although I’m fairly optimistic that Warner Bros. will eventually release everything on DVD over time–either through retail or through the awesome Warner Archive–I have twenty-plus years of videotaped material that I could be transferring to disc myself…just in case.

Please understand, this project and these updates are not advocating piracy, bootlegging, or whatever you want to call it. If Warner Home Video tomorrow was to announce that they will release the entire collection of shorts in one huge, 500-dollar boxed set, I would pre-order it without thinking twice (in fact, the studio has already made some of my work on this project moot, as you will read later). This is me trying to find a way to make over a hundred videos with over four hundred hours of material more compact and easier to access. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but VHS tapes are thick and bulky. If I can squash an entire bookcase of videos down to fifteen or twenty discs, well, to me that sounds like an insanely fun goal to pursue.

And while I’m offering caveats and warnings and the like, this is also not meant to be any sort of “advertising” for bootlegs. I’m not interested in selling copies of what I will end up with, nor is this some sneaky wink-wink way to promote a YouTube channel or anything. I’m also not really interested in trades for the discs unless you had something extremely super-rare like a pristine 35mm-sourced transfer of 1969’s Injun Trouble or the rest of the redrawn-colorized Porky Pigs or something. If all you’re going to say is, “I got a bad VHS dupe of Coal Black. Do you want it so I can get copies of your DVDs?”, then I will merely wish you a good day, sir.

I’m usually not one to even want to do this kind of thing. I remember buying a computer years and years ago just as DVD burning drives were becoming quasi-popular. The salesman tried in vain to talk me into getting one installed, promising that “Oh, you’ll be able to convert all of your VHS tapes to DVDs and blah, blah, blah….” I was unconvinced for one major reason: knowing the technology at the time, I would most likely have lost a generation in video quality. The salesman seemed to have thought that merely possessing a video recording of a broadcast was the same thing as owning or having access to a studio master tape, film negatives, remastering tools, etc. Or let me rephrase that: he either assumed that I did or he knew that I didn’t but was trained to act otherwise. I strongly believe that a lot of early “transfer to DVD” programs and hardware were marketed and sold intentionally ignoring the fact that no matter what–no matter how much disc space you use or how little tinkering you do with the files–your end result would have in almost all cases looked worse than your source recording.

Thankfully, times have changed a little and the technology in all areas has improved. I am still not 100 percent convinced that there won’t be some loss of quality, but like I said, I now feel like I am running out of time. I can now take that chance. I’m ready to say good-bye to one dead format and move everything over into another, dying format.

Actually, the technical process is one I’m already well used to. Digging through video tapes and the like and converting them into digital files was how I acquired some of the stock footage that I used in my documentary feature Yankoheit 27. I also performed an archival dig through my ancient recordings of The Ren and Stimpy Show in order to supply research materials for my friend Thad and his awesome, awesome, awesome book on the history of the series coming out this year. And two years ago, I took a dozen of then-gridlocked-by-copyright episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and made DVDs of them for birthday gifts (a huge task now since negated by Shout! Factory’s recent deal to release MST3K episodes based on Universal Studios’ classic ’50s sci-fi movies). So I’m quite comfortable and familiar with the actual physical task involved; it’s mostly of matter of getting organized.

The first step in this whole endeavor was, naturally, seeing what had already been released on disc by Warner Home Video, which shorts were still unreleased, and then seeing which of those shorts I already had on tape. Getting a list of shorts not on DVD was relatively easy; my fan site The Bugs Bunny Video Guide was formed with that essential purpose in mind. The real task was cross-referencing that information with the 160 VHS and Beta tapes in my collection; some store-bought retail items, some fan tapes from trades, and many more recordings made off TV.

Luckily for me, I suppose, I had already logged all of my Looney Tunes tapes and recordings and made a running total of what I still needed, what was available where, which versions of shorts I had, etc. After all, you don’t get to be considered obsessed about anything unless you’re ready to make many tedious, mind-numbingly long lists.

By my count, I had 572 cartoons on tape that had not been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Now, that doesn’t complete the studio’s filmography at all; there are still many, many shorts and variations that I simply was never able to acquire for one reason or another. That’s not really the point of the project anyway; it’s merely to transfer what I do have so that I can still enjoy it until the time that the material gets released officially. And I should add that my number includes alternate versions of some of the same shorts: all the black and white Porky Pig cartoons, for example, were colorized at least once–a batch in 1967 and then all of them throughout the 1990s. I am a completist. I love the black and white versions; they are the original, authentic versions of these cartoons and they are a joy to watch…but I also get a kick out of being able to compare them to the computer-colorized attempts of the 1990s. As for the 1967 redrawn versions…well, they are a perverse guilty pleasure for me. If you have never seen one of these abominations, you can’t possibly call yourself a movie fan. These Korean-made monstrosities are what people imagined in their heads back in the 1980s when Ted Turner first started colorizing the classic movies he owned.

Also in my count are my copies of shorts that Warner themselves had botched on their own official releases. In 2010, to cite the major example, two single-disc DVDs were released–Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire and Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl–in which cartoons originally released after 1953 were cropped to be presented in a fake “widescreen” format. The Looney Tunes cartoons were always produced and animated in full frame, but because the widescreen format was the big new thing in the late ’50s many theaters projected them matted in order to conform with the rest of the program. In the process, visual gags get clipped off, characters’ heads and feet got lopped off, and a lot of the backgrounds and visual designs that were so crucial to the artistic quality of the shorts in that era were compromised. These DVDs marked the first time Warner Home Video has ever “experimented” with the formatting of the cartoons, and only after six entire boxed sets had been released in full frame with most of the major entries from the “widescreen era”–What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, Robin Hood Daffy, etc.–presented in their intended full frame aspect ratio. It’s not like the studio offered a choice; it just simply said, “Okay, four hundred cartoons in, and we’re switching to widescreen versions.” I’m sure collectors of anything reading this understand and agree that collections need to be uniformed. To suddenly tinker with something mid-stream is a bit of a cheat. To use an obvious example, it would have been like if the recent remastered Beatles CD were only in mono up until “the white album” and then only in stereo after that. I like to believe that Looney Tunes fans are as passionate about the shorts as Beatles fans are about their music, so if Apple was smart enough to offer a choice between mono and stereo versions, then why wasn’t Warner smart enough to offer a choice between widescreen and full frame?

But I digress. So, between five to six hundred. Where the heck do I begin? I’m dealing with cartoons spread out over 160 videos–not to mention all the other numerous bumpers, commercials, title cards, and other miscellaneous items that would make great “bonus features.” I needed to see what all I was going to work with and find out how to best arrange them. Before I even started copying and burning, I wanted to program the DVDs and lay them out.

I thought this was going to be the hardest step, because surely I just have too many odds and ends…they couldn’t POSSIBLY be organized into single-disc DVDs with any individual themes, right? I just knew I was going to be stuck with some crazy layout like a disc with three Bugs shorts, a Tweety, a solo Elmer Fudd, and ten random Merrie Melodies from the 1930s. But surprisingly, utilizing a skill only those of us who assemble Songographies and cartoon video guides possess, I was able to sort them all out and put them into a rough draft of disc lineups as good as anything found on any of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets.

Allowing some wiggle room for disc space, tape problems, and the like, here is approximately how the discs are going to be laid out:

1. Bugs Bunny: The 1940s and 1950s
2. Bugs Bunny: The 1950s and 1960s
3. Bugs Bunny vs. Yosemite Sam
4. Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer
5. Daffy Duck and Porky Pig
6. Daffy Duck: The 1940s
7. Daffy Duck: The 1950s and 1960s
8. Speedy Gonzales
9. Speedy Gonzales vs. Daffy Duck
10. Road Runner
11-12. Black and white Porky Pig
13. Colorized Porky Pig (1967 versions)
14-19. Colorized Porky Pig (1990s versions)
20. Tweety: The 1950s
21. Tweety: The 1950s and 1960s
22. Hippety Hopper and Sylvester Jr.
23. Porky Pig and Sylvester (as in solo shorts of each)
24. Bosko and Buddy
25. Buddy
26. Foghorn Leghorn and Henery Hawk
27. Cool Cat and the Seven Arts era
28. Chuck Jones Mini-Series: Ralph Wolf/Sam Sheepdog, Inki, and the Three Bears
29. The Evowution: Egghead to Elmer Fudd
30. Looney Tunes All-Stars
31-35. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1930s (one-shots)
36. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1930s and 1940s (one-shots)
37-39. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1940s (one-shots)
40. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1940s and 1950s (one-shots)

In the process of assembling the lineups for these discs, I was already picturing the menu designs and disc artwork in my head. I wanted both to be simple; again, something uniform. I will most likely be utilizing the iconic concentric circles of the Warner Bros. bullseye opening. It’s not the most mind-blowing concept for a Looney Tunes DVD, but those rings can be presented in a variety of different colors for each disc, giving each DVD its own identity while make it all (hopefully) pleasing to the eye as a whole.

BUT, all of this cloudtalk was meaningless if I didn’t actually sit down and start transferring cartoons into files for burning. I decided to do the most logical thing (to me, anyway): start with the oldest videos and work my way up. Some of my Warner Home Video cassettes date back to 1982, and a few are about as rare of Kryptonite (I’m talking Looney Tunes Video Show #4 and 5 rare). I suppose it could be argued that I should have started with my own recordings first because any commercial release is replaceable, but my attitude is that if there is something wrong with one of my own tapes then it’s a problem no matter when I get to it. I’m willing to accept a loss of one of my tapes; replacing a VHS tape in 2013 that was hard to find ten years ago is another story.

In cases where the same cartoon appears on numerous Warner VHS tapes, I am deferring to the more recent releases, as the studio attempted to make better video masters for commercial release in preparation for their eventual DVD release (restoring title sequences, etc.). For the former Turner-owned package of pre-1948 cartoons, whenever possible I am sticking with the MGM Home Video VHS releases of the early-to-mid-1990s, as they used complete prints with the bullseye sequence and had not yet replaced the end tags with the “Dubbed Version” endings as seen on Cartoon Network from 1995-on. The only thing that would prevent me from using the MGM videos would be their occasional knack to somehow “read” when they’re being copied and therefore fade the contrast in and out again and again. In all cases, I am trying to use the best known VHS-era master in my possession.

Yes, it does sound like a lot of fuss, but you have to understand how cartoon fans think. Most of us want perfection or, barring that, at least a clean picture without logos, interruptions, or edits. Some collectors were so paranoid about this that–I kid you not–a number of them were convinced that Warner releases manufactured on leftover VHS stock (as in duplicating a Bugs Bunny release over, say, an unsold Superman II cassette) meant a lesser picture quality. There was a very brief time in collector circles where people were actively avoiding “rainbows” at the beginning of the Warner VHS releases, a clear indication of a reused cassette.

My first goal was to get the 1982 Looney Tunes Video Show releases and then the 1985-86 Golden Jubilee tapes done with. My Golden Jubilee videos in particular had been heavily replayed over the years, so I wanted to make sure those were transferred over before they melted before my eyes.

In my first batch, I was able to get eight cartoons from the various Golden Jubilee videos transferred, nine from the Looney Tunes Video Show volumes, and even five from the 1988 Cartoon Cavalcade series and two more from two 1990s Bugs collections. Funny enough, since I had transferred these shorts, Warner Home Video released two DVD collections–Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles and Porky & Friends: Hilarious Ham–that covered four of the shorts I had converted. As I said, I am more than happy to see that happen. If more releases get announced for this year that take some more off my list, I’ll be a happy camper. It will result in less work for me, more space on my own discs for my project, and high quality copies of more cartoons out on the market.

I have got a very, very, VERY long way to go. I will keep posting updates big and small here on my blog. Again, I don’t know who exactly will find interest in this project. If you’re one of them, then stick around. This is only the beginning, folks!

Comments off