Will Oz Be Wired…or Not?

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray restoration of The Wizard of Oz will be out less than a month from now, debuting Tuesday, 9.29. The restored classic will also have a one-day showing on screens nationwide on 9.23, and a special 11 am screening at Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall (a program presented by the New York Film Festival) on Saturday, 9.26.

But no one has yet spoken about the key qualitative aspect regarding this upgrade of America’s most beloved family film. In a phrase, the question every videophile across the nation will be asking as he/she opens up the Blu-ray package (or as they attend the Oz theatrical screenings) will be “what about the damn wires?”

Presumably the Blu-ray upgrade will look measurably sharper and more distinct than any video version seen before. But does this mean the wires that hold up Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow (to assist in the illusion that he’s hanging from a wooden post among the cornstalks) will look even more vivid than they did in the last Wizard of Oz upgrade, which came out in 2005? Ditto the wires that hold up those flying monkeys serving Margaret Hamilton‘s Wicked Witch of the West?

Nobody spotted the wires when The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939. They couldn’t have with the coarseness of film stock and 1939-era projection technology and the process of three-strip Technicolor alignment being what it was. And nobody ever spotted the wires on any of those TV showings in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, or on VHS or laser discs or even on early DVDs. But they were easily detectable on WHV’s 2005 Special Edition, and one can only guess how much clearer they’ll be on the new Blu-ray. Unless wiser heads have prevailed, of course.

One way to deal with the wires would be for the Wizard of Oz images to be slightly softened so as to bury them in a kind of simulated 1939 haze. But the smarter way — hello? — would be for the wires to be digitally erased. I would ask Warner Home Video’s George Feltenstein for a comment, but my experience is that WHV publicity always blows me off on questions like this. Today is Sunday — I’ll try them tomorrow morning.

Obviously the Blu-ray upgrade will be fighting itself if WHV technicians decide to soften the image. This would negate the improved clarity and improved three-strip alignment and the extra-sharp focus that could and should be a dividend of the new Blu-ray version, and is what people will certainly be looking for when they buy it.



You can see the wires in the above photo (taken off my old 36″ West Hollywood TV) but if you have any kind of recently-manufactured big-ass flat screen, they look much more vivid than indicated here

Let’s hope and pray that WHV went with digital erasure on Oz. It’s been used by other video distributors in the remastering of older films with wire issues (including Mary Poppins and North by Northwest), and is clearly the only enlightened way to go. [Update: HE reader Drew McWeeny informs below that "the restoration work on Oz this time is nothing short of revelatory. There are about four places in the film where they removed wires, but otherwise their efforts were focused on making sure that this is the single best version of a three-strip Technicolor film that I've ever laid eyes on."]

Digital wire removal infamously wasn’t used for the 2005 Paramount Home Video upgrade of the 1953 War of the Worlds.

Byron Haskin‘s sci-fi classic provides one of the lushest color-baths in Hollywood history and has always looked sumptuous. But the 2005 DVD pretty much ruined the suspension-of-disbelief element because of the way-too-visible cords holding up the Martian spaceships. You can see them plain as day during scenes of the initial assault against the military…a thicket of blue-tinted wires holding up each one.

Their presence makes it absurd when Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) explains to General Mann (Les Tremayne) how the Martians keep their bright green ships aloft by using “some form of electro magnetic force” and “balancing the two poles” and so on. The illusion is shot.

The obvious solution was for Paramount Home Video to digitally erase the wires, but they didn’t ask for it (i.e., didn’t want to pay for it) and the pooch was screwed. It would have made perfect symmetrical sense to have done so. Just as digital technology had made this 1953 film look sharper than ever before, it followed that digital technology was needed to recreate the original illusion. The wires weren’t that visible 56 years ago, and they weren’t as visible in Paramount Home Video’s 1999 DVD. Obviously the 2005 War of the Worlds DVD was the provider of “detrimental revisionism” — it showed an image that wasn’t meant to be seen.

Four years ago I spoke about this issue with John Lowry, the head of Lowry Digital who’s done some great clean-up and/or digital restoration work on loads of classic films. He was the one hired by Paramount Home Video to clean up War of the Worlds .

“Our job is always to serve the wishes of the client…we do what the client says …and we didn’t have orders to clean up the wires,” he said. “Plus we were working on a very tight budget.”

Lowry faced a similar issue when he was doing the digital remastering of Alfred Hitchcock‘s North by Northwest. “We were working on the scene when the crop duster plane crashes into the gas truck,” he recalls, “and there were 25 or 30 frames of that particular shot in which you could see three wires holding up the rather large model of the airplane.

“And I said to myself, my God, too obvious…it spoils the illusion. And I asked myself, what would Hitchcock do? I knew what he would do. Take the wires out of there. So I did, and the Warner Bros. people approved.

“But ever since then we’ve been very attuned to original artistic intent. And with today’s technology, anything that interferes with the story-telling process or which degrades that process, is dead wrong. We got rid of the wires on the Mary Poppins DVD, for the Disney people. We asked and they said ‘get rid of them’ but they had the money to do it.

“When we were working on the snake-pit scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark you could see all kinds of reflections in the glass separating Ford from the snakes, and there was a very conscious decision made by Spielberg to take the reflections out.”


The North by Northwest plane crash scene

34 thoughts on “Will Oz Be Wired…or Not?

  1. Wire removal is one instance where the Movie Gods are always happy and appeased. WAR OF THE WORLDS was only the worst offender. It’s one reason why I haven’t gone Blu; carelessly transferred classics, which already look like hell on standard DVD in this regard, will always look much worse in HD.

  2. .Carelessly transferred classics, which already look like hell on standard DVD in this regard, will always look much worse in HD.

    And properly transferred classics will always look much better,

  3. I’m ok with the occasional wire making an supporting appearance but the forest of cables above those martian ships is a real eyesore… that’s when I’m content to channel Joan Crawford… “No wire hangers!”

  4. I’m always on the fence about this. On the one hand, I feel the original film should be preserved as part of the historical record, and as a tribute to the immense talent of those who made the technological limitations of the time work for them. I also worry that “Well, let’s remove a few wires…” may eventually lead to “You know, the heat laser effect could have been better… And those Martian ships are pretty obviously models, so maybe we should replace those with something CG…”

    On the other, it seems like cleaning up matte lines, wiping out wires, removing reflections or camera flashes or whatever, is probably well within the realm of cosmetic fixes for unintended technical defects and substantially improves the viewing experience. But as unlikely as it is to happen, I think the best solution would be to simply have both a “fixed” and an “original” cut on the same disc.

  5. But will the Blu-Ray “Wizard of Oz” offer a multi-channel mix of “Dark Side of the Moon” as a bonus track?

  6. That said, there don’t seem to be enough pre-80s (pre-90s?) classics on Blu-ray to adequately judge the matter.

  7. I especially like your comment about what Hitchcock would have done with “North by Northwest.” You mean the same Alfred Hitchcock who used rear-projection that wouldn’t have fooled a cow on any and all occasions, including shots intercut with location shots? That Hitchcock?

    Hey, why not just reshoot all those movies? And recast them with modern actors? And cut all that annoying period music and replace it with hip-hop? That’ll be more modern.

    Some things are the way they are for a reason.

    Bah.

  8. So, when William Friedkin reworks the imagery of his OWN film, it is blasphemy, but when an arbitrary computer jockey digitally erases parts of an image from another film it’s a good idea?

    Are you crazy? Didn’t you see the “upgraded” star wars. Ew.

  9. There’s a universe of difference between removing wires from War of the Worlds and the extreme reworking of the special effects in Star Wars.

  10. The comments by “hunterd” and “Dave” are absurdly purist and indicate you guys didn’t really read the piece. You guys don’t even address the basic issue. Are you saying it’s better to have the wires visible in War of the Worlds and The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins and North by Northwest? Your reasoning sounds pretty Luddite to me.

    Lemme try this paragraph again on you two:

    “It would have made perfect symmetrical sense [for Paramount Home Video to digitally remove the wires]. Just as digital technology had made this 1953 film look sharper than ever before, it followed that digital technology was needed to recreate the original illusion. The wires weren’t that visible 56 years ago, and they weren’t as visible in Paramount Home Video’s 1999 DVD. Obviously the 2005 War of the Worlds DVD was the provider of ‘detrimental revisionism’ — it showed an image that wasn’t meant to be seen.”

    Do you get the part about the wires not being seen when the film first came out but digital technology changed the game by making them visible so it’s now incumbent upon digital technology to fix the problem? Nobody’s talking about changing anything or adding hip-hop, for Chrissake.

  11. The type of image manipulation under discussion enhances, rather than distracts, from the viewing experience. No one’s talking about story/editorial changes.

  12. I agree with Wells…. preservation of the original image is what’s important …. no wires. But then logic would dictate that grain is something that should be preserved also. But then who cares about logic??

  13. You’ll be happy.

    The restoration work on “Oz” this time is nothing short of revelatory. There are about four places in the film where they removed wires, but otherwise, their efforts were focused on making sure that this is the single best version of a three-strip Technicolor film that I’ve ever laid eyes on.

    You really have no idea how good the work they’ve done here is until you start comparing it to every other version out there. This is the same team that’s been supervising each generational upgrade of the movie, and this time, they seem to have accomplished something that makes them genuinely (and deservedly) proud.

    And wait till you see how much new information that 8K scan uncovered. Dorothy has freckles, for god’s sake.

  14. If George Pal were still alive do you really think he’d be screaming at the people doing the Blu-Ray transfers? “Don’t you DARE remove the wires holding up the Martian spacecraft! The wires are the SOUL of the film!”

    (no)

  15. Jeff, no one’s talking about “images that weren’t meant to be seen.” We’re talking about altering images that some people find inconvenient to ignore. So what if there are wires on the Martian ships? Who cares if I can see the ropes holding up Mary Martin in “Peter Pan.” It’s a reflection of the technology of the time that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of them. The technique of digitally erasing stuff is the first cousin to colorization. Just because we -can- do it doesn’t mean we -should-.

    The parting of the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments” couldn’t look phonier, but I wouldn’t want it replaced by a “better” digital effect just because it would look more “realistic.” If it became possible for George Lucas to digitally replace Harrison Ford in “Raiders” with Gable or Bogart, would it make it right?

    I’m no Luddite in this regard; I just think some things should be the way they’re meant to be. I don’t want a digitally-improved “Wizard of Oz” any more than I want a black and white monophonic”Star Trek.”

  16. Wells to Dave: You’re unreachable. You really are a Luddite. You’re saying “no intimate fondling or touching whatsover — no oral, no hand jobs, no finger fucking — because it’ll just result in a baby being born 40 weeks hence.” You just can’t seem to grasp the difference between restoring the original intended illusion and people wanting to mess with the original film in order to modernize it in a “Greedo shoots first” sense.

    Visible wires kill the magic. They weren’t supposed to be seen. The only decent thing to do is to remove them and thereby recreate the original illusion…Jesus.

    Do you think Victor Fleming and Mervyn LeRoy wanted the Oz wires to be seen, and that they wouldn’t have approved any discreet technology that would have kept them invisible for audiences-of-the-future? Or that Byron Haskin wouldn’t have cared one way or the other if the children and grandchildren of the original 1953 audience could see the Martian space-ship wires? Or that he would have preferred they be left alone on the 2005 DVD if there was an option of a digital wire erasure?

    Is your head encased in concrete?

  17. If it’s purist to think that an undoctored version of the film should be kept somewhere – ideally in a box set, but definitely in a vault – then I don’t mind being called a purist.

    I would take a brush stroke out of a Da Vinci painting, I wouldn’t replace a word of “The Great Gatsby” and I wouldn’t erase any wires. It doesn’t matter what should be visible or what shouldn’t be, it’s about remaining true to the original work. If people can’t handle seeing a wire or two, they have some serious enjoyment issues.

  18. Wells to circumvrent: The point I’ve been making over and over is that the original filmmakers “couldn’t handle seeing a wire or two.” They labored mightily to keep them hidden. They wanted very much for audiences to never see them. What is it about this that you’re not getting?

    Theoretically removing a word or a paragraph from Fitzgerald’s original final manuscript of “The Great Gatsby” or digitally smoothing over Leonardo Da Vinci’s brushstrokes is in no way analagous to digitally removing wires.

    Improved digital technology has made the wires visible in these films. So imagine if digital scanning technology had somehow changed the original wording in a certain “Gatsby” chapter, or had somehow diminished the ability of the naked eye to see the brush strokes in a Da Vinci painting. The idea here, to further the analogy, would be to use alternative digital technology to reverse these obscurings to that admirers of Scott and DaVinci’s art could appreciate their original intention.

    I have no problem with preserving the versions of Oz and War of the Worlds with the visible wires in a vault somewhere, or said versions being made available to purist dead-sea-scrollers like yourself as a “special visible-wires edition”….something like that. But LeRoy, Fleming and Haskin wouldn’t like it.

  19. For $60, they damn sure better remove the wires. Garland could stand to lose a few pounds, too.

    Seriously, though. As Jeffrey has tirelessly explained, the state of the art in 1953 permitted Pal and Haskins to use wires that would not have been seen in the theatrical presentation, the only form of presentation that existed at the time (B&W TV aside).

    Erasing wires (and matte lines, for my money) does not change the movie one iota. It actually gets the movie closer to its original presentation.

  20. I agree with Jeff on the wire removal. For commercial sale/mass viewing, it’s kind of a no-brainer isn’t it?

    However, I also agree with circumvent that these original versions should be kept somewhere. Even if it’s a dusty place and they aren’t touched by anyone for years.

    Hmm…maybe we could just store them in Joan Rivers’ nether regions?

  21. While I *hate* to go all DeeZee on anyone – The work on “Oz” is already unquestionably completed, and we will get what we gat.

    HOWEVER – Jeff and concerned posters have the time to actually make a critical difference on an upcoming release…

    I haven’t seen it mentioned here yet, but Huston’s “The Dead” is finally going to be debuting on dvd on 11/1.

    Unfortunately, it will be released by Lionsgate. Yes, Lionsgate – they of the “dump it full-screen/pan’n'scan, nonapmorphic, 2nd-generation-vhs-dub, uncleaned, unmastered, on the public” philosophy. (For example, see their July release of “Ironweed”.)

    Many of us have been clamoring for this film to be released for decades. It would be a shame to have it as disrespected as Lionsgate does to most of its (inherited) catalogue titles.

    Right now, there is still time to look into the studio’s plans and to make one’s self heard on the matter. There are many previous releases of “Oz” from which to choose – but none for “The Dead”.

  22. “Some things are the way they are for a reason.”

    Can you point to some evidence to prove that the wires were deliberate? Otherwise, it seems as if you’re just babbling. The logical end result of your argument is to never upgrade any film to HD at all; hell, most movies were originally intended to be seen once in a theater, so your argument really covers “There should be no movies on home video from before 1970-whatever” and none on DVD from before 1998.

    But, of course, it’s hard to apply to much logic to your silly point.

  23. “The idea here, to further the analogy, would be to use alternative digital technology to reverse these obscurings to that admirers of Scott and DaVinci’s art could appreciate their original intention.”

    Jeff – just so you’re aware, for future reference, “Da Vinci” is not a name. The man can only be properly referred to as “Leonardo”.

  24. Gordon, your proposal will come as quite a surprise to the many Da Vinci scholars and museums which refer to him by his last name, as well as all scholars and historians who routinely solely refer to the family name of the famous dead (where the family name indicates a single famous person, and not siblings or members of different generations with the same family name.)

  25. Baron – you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. “Leonardo da Vinci” was an artist named Leonardo who was born in Vinci. “da Vinci” is quite simply NOT his last name. I agree with you that many things wrongly refer to it, but just because Dan Brown does it, that doesn’t make it correct.

    If you want to take modern practices and ascribe them to Leonardo’s time, his proper last name would be “di Ser Piero”, which just means “son of whoever”, but definitely not “da Vinci”.

  26. No, you put “whoever” in the quotes properly, though you were creating your own tongue-in-cheek example.

    But this is no sort of “modern practice”. Leonardo has been historically referred-to as “Da Vinci” – with no confusion ensuing on the matter – for over a century. At the inception of this practice, no one was taking their cues from the execrable Dan Brown. Nor am I. (I was absolutely wrong in calling it a “family” name above – I know his family was not “the Vincis” – when I meant to indicate “surname”, but I certainly thought my meaning was plain enough.)

    Museums and scholar dedicated to the study of the man himself find no problem with the reference. It is simply not “wrong” or “incorrect” to do so.

    You rattled off plenty of reasons that Jeff’s point was – how did you put it, so there’s no confusion? – “silly”. To attempt call him out on a correct reference to Leonardo Da Vinci was a (silly) overstretch that waters down your actual point.

  27. Sirs,
    There are a lot of good films that could use fixing
    to make closer to the vision of film makers who
    were let down by technology of the day or lack of money.
    I wish some would spend a couple of dollars and fix the film The Twonky that was ruined by visible wires.
    but I am a fan of Hans Conried so I some what biased

  28. I’m highly amused here.

    “But this is no sort of “modern practice”. Leonardo has been historically referred-to as “Da Vinci” – with no confusion ensuing on the matter – for over a century.”

    That’s such an unusual way to phrase your point… you’re saying it’s not modern because it’s “over a century” old which, vagueness aside, seems unusual when discussing someone from more than five-hundred years ago.

    “(I was absolutely wrong in calling it a “family” name above – I know his family was not “the Vincis” – when I meant to indicate “surname”, but I certainly thought my meaning was plain enough.)”

    Your meaning was plain enough, that’s why I pointed out that it’s incorrect to consider “da Vinci” his surname.

    “You rattled off plenty of reasons that Jeff’s point was – how did you put it, so there’s no confusion? – “silly”. ”

    See, this is when I have to just call into question your general reading comprehension (which makes it make more sense that you keep arguing that da Vinci is his accurate surname), because I was arguing against Dave and agreeing with Jeff. Try to remember, Jeff is the one arguing in favor of the wire removal. As am I. Just as we wouldn’t remove a brush stroke from a Leonardo painting.

    “To attempt call him out on a correct reference to Leonardo Da Vinci was a (silly) overstretch that waters down your actual point.”

    I was correcting Jeff for two reasons, one because it’s a silly, easily correctable mistake that a lot of people make because they don’t know any better, and two because I like to take any excuse to bring it up on the simple grounds that it shows how little research Dan Brown did, that he didn’t even know enough to know that “da Vinci” wasn’t a name.

  29. And, if you find a scholar who calls the man “da Vinci”, you should find a better scholar. Seriously. I would be really curious to see what scholar you’re talking about, (though I wouldn’t be surprised that there are museums where employees don’t know enough about art to use the correct name).

  30. Gordon, this is a classic example of someone being *over* educated. That is, someone whose had a fact drilled into him that arrogant academics care about because they can use it to feel more important than everyone else.

    Say you polled 100 people on the street on “Who was da Vinci?” 40 of them would give you a blank look, or some wacky Jaywalking answer. 59 would give some accurate answer on a wildly varying scale of detail. And 1 guy would know exactly who you were talking about, but would correct you that you should be calling him “Leonardo” instead.

    Whatever the original naming conventions, the fact is that there just aren’t any other da Vinci’s in mainstream conversation. You don’t have to specify which da Vinci you mean. The man was significant enough that he can claim the whole geographic location.

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