Kim Aubry: Transferring Zoetrope's Vision Interview by Stu Kobak

      A pocket of inspired moviemakers thrive in the shadow of the giant sequoias. Cherishing independence, these Northern Californians are infused with determined artistic vision.  Zoetrope Studios, like the great trees, aspires to great heights. With the blossoming of DVD, Zoetrope has now incorporated DVD production into the vertical filmmaking process. Kim Aubry is part of the team that helps realize the vision of Francis Ford Coppola at his mini movie studio.
     Aubry, Technical Director and Vice President for Engineering and Technology at American Zoetrope has been part of the Coppola team since 1986. "
I had been a documentary film sound mixer, and also a freelance sound engineer and production trainer. Although I had been living in San Francisco for many years during the "Apocalypse Era" at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, I remained outside of the feature film world, preferring smaller scale projects. But my background was in public radio journalism, audio production and engineering. I filled in for a friend when Coppola needed to re-record the dialog for his film Gardens of Stone in 1986. This was during a period of contraction at the company, since One From the Heart which had led to the loss of Coppola's studio in Hollywood. But by 1986, Coppola wanted to bring back in-house post production facilities. We got to speaking after a session one day....Francis learned I had come from radio and I think that idea was interesting to him, since I was coming from 'outside' of the feature film world."
    Job description doesn't always define the scope of a man's work and in a free spirited environment like Zoetrope, Aubry looks to the big picture for inspiration. Post production may be his domain, but he considers his Zoetrope mandate to preserve the independence of the filmmaker. How can he do that? "Innovative use of technology and people in post production; bridging the gaps between different phases of filmmaking," observes Aubry. Making the journey from idea to film or DVD as seamless a process as possible is a prime objective for Aubry.
" For example, we built this DVD Lab at Zoetrope largely because we felt that the early DVDs we were seeing were fundamentally not taking advantage of all that the new medium offers. An example: Coppola is as concerned about the quality of projection in the cinema as he is about the script, shooting and sound mix. In the same way, we feel that the PRESENTATION of the film for home video viewers; the packaging of the disk, the supplemental materials, even the choice of typeface for the on-screen menus is a critical creative decision that has an impact on the viewer's 'experience.' How many wonderfully written, photographed and  directed  films have been marred in the viewers eyes by lousy projection or poor sound in the theater? By creating our own in-house facility for designing DVDs, we can control the look and make sure that the intent of the filmmaker is respected in the 'presentation' on DVD."
     "The great thing about my job has been the autonomy and independence to explore areas that are of interest to me, and...when I am successful, these areas for exploration and experimentation benefit the filmmaker and filmmaking process by opening up new avenues for creativity and sometimes, creative collaboration," enthuses Aubry. Working for Zoetrope presented a unique opportunity for finding an artistic pathway to realizing the artistic potential of film. "Coppola and his company have always chosen the road less traveled in terms of scope and method. In the 1970s and early 80s, Zoetrope was making feature films using technologies and practices unheard of in the film industry. Just being located 450 miles away in Northern California was unusual, a choice made by Coppola and his colleagues (like Carroll Ballard, George Lucas, Walter Murch and Philip Kaufman)  made in the early 1970s."
     Aubry's Zoetrope experience has included a broad range of work, including work on specific films outside his purview as Technical Director. His experience was very different on the three films he has worked.  "One was a  film we never made, Francis Coppola's The Adventures of Pinocchio. It was to have a computer generated human operated photo-realistic puppet living in a live action universe with human actors. Bram Stoker's Dracula was a fascinating project moving from pre-production through shooting and post...many technological firsts on a film that had a distinctively low-tech look and character. Finally, the revised edition of Apocalypse Now (scheduled for home video release sometime in 2001) has been a fascinating and very complex project."

Talking DVD

Apocalypse Now DVD Menu İParamount

Talking DVD in general with Aubry and specifically about some Coppola films sparked some passionate responses. While Aubry expressed a desire to raise the level of the home theater experience,  he does think there is a danger of losing sight of what is most important. "There is so much pseudo-expertise out there; I think some of the magazines and on-line sites have created a strange sub-culture of obsessive fanatics who don't watch movies but compare specifications and statistics...sort of like the people who keep score at the ball game and have their heads buried in their score cards instead of watching the infield. We aim to raise the bar in terms of zealously preserving high standards for film image transfer and sound transfer but doing this in context of the original. And we hope to provide DVD user interface design and DVD 'extra materials' that are beautiful, useful, and never gratuitous. In the process,  we hope to educate people who appreciate film, both about the films themselves and also about the medium. For example, there has been so much un-informed second guessing about the video aspect ratio of our recent Widescreen DVD releases. I have been trying to contact the reviewers one by one with corrections and some background information on exactly how and why we have chosen to transfer these films that were originally photographed 2.35:1 into 2:1."  Aubry has his own pet peeves about DVD: "FBI warnings, THX and studio logos, mandatory trailers, inconsistent terminology. Deceptive characteristics. Fake stereo in mono movies. Fake 5.1 stereo from films that were ONLY mixed for 4-channel Dolby stereo. Ugly gratuitous animated main menus that make you wait to push a button."    
     An ongoing controversy of framing has surrounded Apocalypse Now since its first widescreen high end video release on laser disc. On the recent Tucker release, I noted that several scenes seemed rather cramped at the 2.0 aspect ratio at which the DVD was presented. Aubry tried to explain the decision making process at Zoetrope. "Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer of Tucker, as well as Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart, The Conformist, 1900, and The Last Emperor personally supervised the Tucker transfer and took great care (and pleasure) in figuring out the best way to re-compose his original composition for television. The second guessing that goes on is understandable: for years, studio and broadcasters made horrid choices in panning, scanning and cropping. But the problem they were trying to solve is very real: for people with conventional televisions, there are only 486 active scanning lines in the vertical axis. A "politically correct" transfer of a 2.35:1 film would essentially utilize only 276 of these scanning lines resulting in the loss of a great deal of detail. 'Widescreen' DVDs go a long way toward solving this by rescaling the 2.35:1 image to fit onto a virtual 4:3 raster, but for people with conventional 4:3 displays, they will see a re-scaled DVD image of 276 lines. Storaro has decided that a compromise framing of 2.0:1 is a better choice for home video.  A little cropping of the sides in exchange for greater vertical resolution and a better presentation on a 4:3 display. Besides this basic re-framing, he subjectively determines, on a scene-by scene basis the best way to deal with scenes that require dynamic resizing ('Panning and Scanning Lite'). For me, this is logical...the original framing of the film is no more 'sacred' ....given the context of people watching this movie on VHS or DVD on a 9" screen instead of a 50 foot screen in the more sacred than the notion of video compression. Our compressionist carefully, artfully and, we hope, invisibly manages the bit rate and other factors so that the film survives translation into this different medium intact." Aubry's experience as a union trained projectionist in the 1970s adds another perspective to the aspect ratio issue: "It might interest you to know that in movie theaters, there is a tremendous inconsistency in the accuracy of the framing and sizing of film images on the screen. Projection lenses are made in focal length increments of 1/4" (this makes a huge difference in projected image size at typical screen throws of 60 -100 feet); furthermore, architects tend to size theater screens without considering the available projection optics. I can assure you that if you travel from screen to screen with some test film, you will see variations in sizing and cropping approaching 15% among the best commercial cinemas.  So I have always found it amusing that Home Video reviewers discussing laser disks and DVD complain about transfers where 2% or 3% of the picture width is apparently cropped."
    Aspect ratio is a subject you could go back and forth on ad nauseam. Ultimately, you have to grant the artistic talent that made the film prime authority in making choices when it moves from one display venue to another. Of course, it doesn't mean you have to be happy.
      Not surprisingly, film preservation is an area of concern to Zoetrope. "We have many deteriorating negatives that we are concerned with. We frequently enlist the studios' help in paying for preservation elements. Working on a new version of Apocalypse Now (the negative is ONLY 23 years old) has shown us that these precious images are not "indelible" and we are taking steps to ensure that humanity will be able to make high quality 35 mm prints in perpetuity. Digital archival systems are of great interest but are fraught with problems and concerns. Although the digital sample may be of adequate resolution and colorimetry to capture all readable data on the film record, (we are approaching that capability today with film scanners) I cannot think of a digital medium, form factor, or recording method that I know will be in use in just five years. So there are some advantages to having stable analog optical records. Eventually, the problem of digital archiving and maintenance will be resolved but there are too many questions at the moment to cause us to commit to a system or standard."    

 The Home Picture

     Dedication to work doesn't stop Aubry from being a family man. Watching films with his family is part of the Aubry routine. I wondered what his personal home theater is like. "Funny you should ask. I would say at the low end of mediocre....busman's holiday and so forth. I spend so much time working with our engineers to calibrate our screening rooms and mixing studios, and then stress out about the imperfections and inconsistencies going from mastering room to competitor's studio to the actual cinema where we may be previewing our films, that I have decided that at home, the idea is to keep things in perspective: keep it simple and don't worry. The system consisted of a 10 year old Onkyo A/V receiver (no digital audio decoding, but it was one of the few amps of the era that had equally sized 100 watts/channel power amps for Left  Center and Right, Polk 10s for L, C and R, Minimus speakers for Surrounds (yup, Radio Shack!) and a Velodyne subwoofer, and a 10-year old Panasonic 27" TV that is slowly dying. In fact, we have been in the midst of a remodeling project in our home and this project has caused us to box up our 600 LPs, countless CDs, forty or fifty laser disks and dozens of kid's VHS tapes and live without television or music for several months. It has been great. But as a result of the remodel, I decided that I was sick and tired of looking at racks of ugly Japanese electronics chassis in the living room, so I just created a small closet specifically to house all the gear, and I just finished re-wiring the system with IR repeaters so now all one sees is the TV screen...some day to be replaced with a front projector (probably DLP) or, if they ever get them good enough and cheap enough, a flat plasma display."
     Some recent DVD choices for Aubry home fare have been Rushmore, The Third Man, Toy Story. His tastes in films range far and wide. Favorite directors include Preston Sturges, Coppola, Michael Powell, Welles, Jonathan Demme, Kurosawa, Stanley Donen, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Agnieszka Holland, Spike Lee, Eisenstein, Christopher Guest, Martin Scorcese. Families with a ten year old boy and a girl approaching seven frequently find themselves watching some of the kids' choices. Recent youngster's favorites include The Iron Giant, My Neighbor Totorro (Japanese animation), Annie Get Your Gun, some inspired irreverence with Beetlejuice. The Aubrys try to get out to the movies once a week, but the variety of home viewing took a hit "We used to have a wonderful resource which was a laser disk/DVD rental store near our home owned by film buffs. The 3 fellows who owned the store just shut their doors after 8 years...but funnily enough, they are now in DVD distribution; they have a small company called Fantoma and we even do their compression and authoring work."

DVD Production at Zoetrope

Tucker DVD MenuİParamount

 "We are not unique, but we are highly motivated perfectionists who aim to have the best possible looking and sounding transfer and encode," enthuses Aubry. " The compressor we use right now is made by Panasonic and we think it makes MPEG look fantastic compared to some of the other hardware that is out there in common use. We are extremely conservative when it comes to digital noise reduction. Other DVD facilities dial in varying amounts of NR to reduce the needed bit rate or total DVD size, but we try to err on the side of leaving the film as natural as as possible, preserving original characteristic grain structure, and we avoid that 'digital' TV look."
     While Zoetrope's Technical Director has obvious pride in the DVDs the company is producing, he was reluctant to respond to some scene specific questions I posed about Tucker: "I can't comment on specific frames. I think the work speaks for itself. I didn't see any gross defects...not that they don't exist but I personally have screened our encode several times and nothing jumped out at me that wasn't eventually repaired. The process of transferring 24 frame-per-second photographic film images into a compressed bit stream that can be viewed on an electronic 30 frame per second interlaced display is not perfect. I have noticed that sometimes, High Definition transfers exhibit new kinds of digital artifacts that we hadn't seen before...perhaps what is really happening is that as our expectations increase, so do our sensitivities to subtle aberrations. Let me recount a story: a few years ago a colleague...a young filmmaker... asked me to check out a scene from a classic film that is full of film optical effects. He pointed out a poorly made traveling matte in a transition between scenes...of course, he was playing it frame by frame on a VHS, and he acted shocked that a great filmmaker would allow this imperfection in a masterpiece. I reminded him that in proper context....people would see the film projected at 24 frames per second and the slight-of-hand that is cinema works perfectly; it was a very effective transition and never intended to be scrutinized under the magnifying glass one frame at a time. Seurat's pointillist paintings don't look so great at close range, either."
    Working to minimize any DVD defects means stringent attention to quality control as outlined by Aubry "After the first pass at encoding a feature, our DVD compressionist sends Digital videotapes down to a a company in Hollywood that specializes in providing "third party" objective technical review of the material...sort of like an outside auditing company. These people are paid by the releasing studio, and it is part of our contract that we must satisfy them with our encoding quality and our DVD authoring. They email us back time codes and comments and we take a second pass at fixing areas they may have flagged. For us, using an outside company to review our work is a vital step...our own people though very skillful and dedicated, cannot catch every artifact, digital hit or dirt problem. Eventually, we send down authored material on hard drives to enable the releasing studio and the 3rd party QC company to "emulate" the title. Finally, when all navigational bugs and other defects revealed in emulation are resolved, we make a glass master and a set  of check disks which yet another third party tester uses to test in a matrix of DVD players. Believe it or not, there are certain makes, models, and firmware revisions in consumer DVD players that do not conform 100% to the DVD specification which means that some players act strangely with specific navigational or DVD programming differences. Sometimes, we have to spend days trying to figure out some subtle issue in our code that has to be patched so that a 1998 model X from manufacturer Y will be able to play our disk. Strange."
     I broached a pet peeve of mine with Aubry,  monitor size used in transfer of film to video and in compression as well. With home theater screens growing in size transfer flaws or compression artifacts are more likely to intrude. Projection sized images in transfer bays would make it easier to see irksome potential transfer and mastering details. Aubry responded "Many of our best film-to-tape transfers were supervised by Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro working at a Hollywood facility called Post Logic with Storaro's chosen colorist* Lou Levinson. I believe that the HD monitor they currently use in the HD transfer bay is 20" and it is viewed at fairly close range. I have been in some mastering facilities that have installed DLP or other digital projectors to make it possible to do color correction for "digital cinema" presentation. Perhaps this will eventually become the norm. But in defense of smaller CRT displays, I think it is fair to say that the smaller monitor may be an appropriate contextual device for transfers that will end up on smaller phosphor screens which are still the great majority of displays out there.  If you are saying that you are seeing too much dirt and other imperfections on your large screen display at your home, you may make a good case for larger screen monitoring in transfer, although...have you been to a cinema lately? Dirt and dust are an unfortunate part of the original medium, sad to say."
    Thus far, the Zoetrope team has done an outstanding job of delivering the goods on their DVD releases. Kim Aubry strikes me as the kind of guy that will work toward making everything at Zoetrope as good as it can be.  Next up from Paramount through Zoetrope is The Conversation, featuring audio commentary from director Coppola and sound editor Walter Murch. "Everybody wants to know everything about The Godfather. We hear that the three Godfather films are likely on the 2001 schedule at Paramount. We think that is a great development and preliminary creative meetings are just starting to discuss content, technical details, etc. And stay tuned for The Conversation DVD and also The Virgin Suicides DVD. Both look terrific."

Special thanks to Martin Blythe of Paramount Home Video for making this interview possible.

*telecine operator


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