Archive for February, 2013

The Looney Tunes DVD+R Project Part Two: The Saga of Duck Dodgers

Hey, who wants to hear the latest on my ongoing project to transfer all of my Looney Tunes video cassettes to digital DVD files?? Of course you all do!

One of the littleĀ side things I wanted to do for this project was something that, curiously, Warner Bros. themselves has yet to attempt: edit together a complete version of Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2th Century. Now, if you’re not a cartoon fan, your response might be, “What?” And if you are a cartoon fan, your response will most likely be, “Why waste your time, Greg?”

Duck Dodgers and the Return… is a 1980 sequel to the much more known and celebrated theatrical short Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century. The cartoon was the result of a recent re-appreciation of the original film in the wake of the big-budget sci-fi movies of the late 1970s such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course Star Wars. In fact, George Lucas even reportedly had the cartoon shown before one premiere screening of his movie. Since it seemed as if a Star Wars sequel was all but inevitable, Warner Bros. commissioned the one and only Chuck Jones to produce and direct a sequel to his 1953 classic. Though it was never officially stated anywhere, it seemed as if the goal was to produce something that could be paired theatrically with Lucas’s eventual The Empire Strikes Back.

Sequels are usually so hard to pull off anyway; it doesn’t matter which franchise or director one’s speaking of. It is the rare follow-up that can even possibly live up to the expectations of the original. Off the top of my head I can only think of a very few: The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United (or whatever that one was called), Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2. Consider that small selection versus the countless Madea movies, the endless American Pie spin-offs, and the increasingly tiresome Scary Movie sequels and spin-offs and rip-offs that seem to come out on an annual basis. The odds are stacked against a sequel from even being entertaining let alone worth the time and effort…to say nothing of the money wasted, which is quite ironic considering the raison d’etres for sequels are almost always financial in nature.

If this had been the Chuck Jones of the mid-1950s then he probably could have pulled off a Duck Dodgers sequel with little to no fuss. In the early part of the decade he directed an entire trilogy of cartoons in which Bugs and Daffy square off before Elmer Fudd’s hunting rifle, all three of which are usually considered among the director’s best. And really, Jones had already sorta done a follow-up to Dodgers with the 1956 Rocket Squad, which obstensively was meant to be a Dragnet spoof but contained many of the same visual and comedic trappings of the earlier sci-fi film. But unfortunately, starting around about 1962, Chuck’s films took on a slower, more pedestrian approach. The speed and quick cutting that defined the Road Runner series was traded in for extended pointless monologues and micromanaging of otherwise incidental characters or story elements. Such over-examining of things wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the stories in Jones’s shorts started to suffer as well. Longtime writer Michael Maltese had fled Warner Bros. for the higher salaries of Hanna-Barbera by the end of the ’50s, leaving Jones with newcomer John Dunn, whose skills as a Looney Tunes gagman varied wildly at best. Even when Jones was fired from Warner in 1962 and was able to recruit Maltese to write for him again while directing Tom and Jerry for MGM, some creative spark was missing. Jones’s humor was becoming more literal; he wanted his films to become more intellectual, but his evolving style was clashing horribly with the characters he was directing. This was most evident when Chuck went back to working on Warner Bros. productions in the late 1970s. Bugs Bunny started becoming a wandering philosopher, a poet who would name-drop Ray Bradbury almost randomly. This was no longer the Chuck Jones to handle a fast-paced, whiz-bang follow-up to a film that supposedly helped influence Star Wars.

Jones hired the irreplacable Michael Maltese to help pen a script for Duck Dodgers and the Return…, not to mention bringing back many of the same animators from back in the day; optimistically hoping to collect lightning in a bottle once again. There has yet to be any definitive answer, but somewhere along the way Jones and Maltese had something of a falling out over the final script, with Jones throwing out most of Maltese’s material for a new story in which Dodgers is sent go after a meteor containing the last remaining source of yo-yo polish…a very derivative variation of the original Duck Dodgers storyline. Naturally, once at the meteor, Dodgers and Porky (as the Eager Young Space Cadet) run into Marvin the Martian, who is there setting up a missile to blow up the Earth. Dodgers makes a half-hearted attempt to stop him, but Marvin sics Gossamer (the giant, red, hairy monster Bugs occassionally bested) after him. The short quickly devolves into a weird pun-based miscommunication between Daffy and Porky, and the former soon chases after the latter, firing laser blasts into his ass. Meanwhile, Marvin is free to go on his merry way…to destroy our planet. Though Marvin pops up during the “That’s all Folks!” end tag to assure us, “Don’t worry, folks. After all, it’s only a cartoon,” the depressing cynicism in the short has won out. Chuck set out to repeat the triumph of one of his greatest cartoons, and the best he could come up with was a weak story that plodded between obscure gags and lame puns…capped with not only no resolution whatsoever but with our own supposed imminent destruction.

For SOME reason, Warner Bros. backed out of its plans to release the film theatrically, instead allowing Jones to construct a half-hour TV special called Daffy Duck’s Thanks-for-giving, with the new Dodgers short as its centerpiece. The special premiered in 1981 and would repeat a number of times, most recently in 1991, before being offered on home video. The actual Duck Dodgers and the Return… short, however, would quietly be added to the various television packages of the shorts over the years. I first discovered it as a part of Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon, which at time was stuck with all the leftover, undesirable cartoons that weren’t being used either in syndication or on (what was then) ABC’s The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show on Saturday mornings.

But here’s where it gets strange. Jones’s original cut of Duck Dodgers and the Return… hovers around the nine-minute mark, about two to three minutes longer than the average Looney Tunes cartoon. When the short was sent to television packages on its own, about a third of the footage was removed from it so that its length would conform with the rest of the library. The only place the missing scenes would ever be shown was within the Thanks-for-giving TV special. Even more frustrating, the short as seen in that special doesn’t include a title sequence, yet Jones clearly created one for it…it’s seen when the short is played on its own! Warner Bros. considers the shorter version of the cartoon as the “uncut” version, and it is the shorter version that has been included on various VHS and DVD releases over the years. All the removal of the footage does is make a bad cartoon all the more incomprehensible. Marvin is more or less removed from the third act of the story, including his final act of blowing up the Earth…thus making his end-tag plea for us not to worry a completely baffling non-sequitur.

Unlike with such classic shorts as Have You Got Any Castles? and Hare-um Scare-um, Warner Bros. seems to have no desire to edit together a “director’s cut” of the cartoon for release. All one would essentially need to do is glue the credit sequence from the shorter “uncut” version onto the footage as seen during the Thanks-for-giving TV special. Both the stand-alone short and the special have individually been remastered for DVD release, so it’s not as if any extensive restoration work is required. One could easily do it on their PC video-editing software.

So I did.

I was hoping this would be as easy as one, two, three. I already own the DVDs contain both the “uncut” short and the TV special. Theoretically for me it would just be a matter of ripping the respective files from the discs and plugging them into my editing software. This way not only would there be no risk of losing a generation from the transfer but also I would end up with a finished product that looked as good as what the studio had already released. The only thing I didn’t–couldn’t–anticipate was Warner Bros.’…gosh, how can I put this? Not giving a shit?

Upon ripping the digital files from the Thanks-for-giving special, I came upon a curious abnormality. The video for the special was rendered in thirty frames per second, but the audio was rendered in twenty-four frames per second! When presented together as-is on the Warner Bros. DVD they play fine, but if one was to take them apart they would end up with two incompatible frame rates, resulting in audio material that is out of sync with its own visual!

I sadly lack the technical knowledge to either understand or convey how such a difference could occur. I can’t say I’m a frequent “ripper” as far as DVD files are concerned, but even with my small amount of experience–including working with other Warner Home Video DVDs–I have never come across an issue like this before. My guess–and again, this is based on nothing tangible–is that the video and audio elements were taken from two different sources; most likely one mastered for television and another mastered for some other form of distribution (maybe even international). It’s not impossible to master one product into two different frame rates, but it’s pointless, costly, and time-consuming. These had to have been sitting on the shelf as-is. But because these were latter-day Looney Tunes productions from the 1980s, the studio doesn’t care. It doesn’t consider this era of the studio’s cartoon library worthy of any real attention, even though they represent some of the final projects Mel Blanc had worked on.

My initial focus was trying to get the audio and video files back in sync with each other, but there was no good solution. I tried slowing down and then even speeding up audio in Audacity to no effect. There is probably some super-expensive, or super-complicated, professional-grade software that can correct this sort of thing, but my desire to seek such a program out rapidly faded; it would have been too much trouble tracking something like that down just for the sake of one project. I decided instead to go the long route: capturing the TV special and the short off the DVDs as I would a VHS recording. At least this way the corresponding audio and video elements would be in sync if maybe not in absolute perfect quality.

Sadly, doing it that way only solved a part of the problem. There was still a slight difference in the frame rates between the TV special and the stand-alone short; nothing too severe, but noticeable at the part where I needed to edit the two together. In the end I maybe lost a half-second of music at the edit. I am clearly not satisfied with the way it all turned out, but the considering some of the problems actual commercial-release Warner Home Video products have had, it could have been a lot worse, too.

But don’t worry, folks. After all, it’s only a cartoon!

TRANSFERRED DIGITALLY SINCE LAST UPDATE: The Fair-Haired Hare, Captain Hareblower, A Street Cat Named Sylvester, The Jet Cage, Greedy for Tweety, Tweety’s Circus, Catty Cornered, Muzzle Tough, Design for Leaving, Stork Naked, Zip ‘n Snort, Ready, Woolen and Able, Hip- Hip- Hurry!, Ain’t That Ducky, Racketeer Rabbit, Daffy Doodles, Little Orphan Airedale, A Feud There Was, Along Came Daffy, The Hardship of Miles Standish, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, People are Bunny, Bonanza Bunny, Wet Hare, Hare-Breadth Hurry, Devil’s Feud Cake, Dumb Patrol (1964), The Impatient Patient (1967), The Daffy Duckaroo (B&W), Mucho Locos, Snow Excuse, Feather Finger, The Music Mice-tro, Skyscraper Caper, See Ya Later Gladiator, Rushing Roulette, The Village Smithy (B&W), The Lone Stranger and Porky (B&W), Chicken Jitters (B&W), The Chewin’ Bruin (B&W), Porky’s Hired Hand (B&W), Porky’s Midnight Matinee (B&W), Porky’s Railroad (1967), Porky’s Spring Planting (1967), Ali-Baba Bound (1967), Notes to You (1967), Porky Pig’s Feat (1967), Porky in the North Woods (1995), Porky’s Building (1995), Porky’s Double Trouble (1995), Porky at the Crocadero (1995), Porky’s Tire Trouble (1995), Chicken Jitters (1992), Porky the Giant Killer (1992), Pilgrim Porky (1995), Porky’s Poor Fish (1992), The Sour Puss (1995, edited), Meet John Doughboy (1995), We the Animals Squeak (1992), Peck Up Your Troubles, Mr. and Mrs. is the Name, Big Game Haunt, Hippydrome Tiger, Feud with a Dude, Bugged by a Bee, The Mouse o 57th Street, A-Lad-in Bagdad, The Curious Puppy, Stage Fright, The Organ Grinder, I Like Mountain Music (redrawn by Turner), Honeymoon Hotel, The Lady in Red, Boulevardier from the Bronx, I Only Have Eyes for You, Clean Pastures, My Little Buckeroo, You’re an Education (edited), Gold Rush Daze, Hare-um Scare-um, Mighty Hunters, Saddle Silly, The Bird Came C.O.D., Tin Pan Alley Cats, Angel Puss, Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears, Bone Sweet Bone, The Shell Shocked Egg

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