Editor’s Note: Throughout the years, I have been asked more times than I can count: “Who has the best “Gulliver’s Travels” on video?” I now have a definitive answer to that question: Thunderbean. The 1939 Fleischer feature had fallen into Public Domain and numerous distributors have put it out on VHS and DVD over the years. In 2012 Paramount did a restoration on their original negative – but have not created an answer print nor mastered it digitally. I had hoped to use that restoration when I appeared on TCM that year. We did a search for a good, complete copy with all its original titles, but the print obtained by TCM was the best that could be gotten at the time. I went to Serge Bromberg in Paris and Steve Stanchfield in Detroit and both were intrigued with the challenge to restore this classic film. After 18 months work, Stanchfield has just completed his restoration – and its now available to purchase.
I just received my copy yesterday and I cannot rave about this BluRay enough. The restoration is magnificent – I dare say its better than any print I’ve ever seen. The Technicolor is vibrant, the sound crisp and clear. If you already have this film – throw it out and buy this permanent upgrade. If you are not a fan of the film… buy this DVD/BluRay set because this restoration will make you a fan. Steve has already done “the Lord’s work” with his previous DVD compilations – but this may be his most important restoration yet. I’ve often said that the quality of blu-ray discs are equivalent to 35mm prints. Thunderbean’s release restores this classic animated feature to a quality and a format that virtually allows it to live on for generations to come. It’s something Paramount (and the major studios) should be doing, but leave it to the fans and historians to do their job. Now its your turn. Support this project and buy this video. You will not regret it.- Jerry Beck
The new Thunderbean set, Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels is finally done- and all but a handful of the pre-release copies have arrived or are on their way to everyone that ordered them.
It’s a big milestone for Thunderbean- the first Blu-Ray release. The set also comes with a DVD version of the film as well.
Rather than talk about the actual film, I thought I’d write just a little about producing the project – the history of the set and some of the things we did.
Producing a set for this particular film was something I had thought about many years ago; I loved the idea of releasing the film from the best material I could find, since it seemed so unlikely that we’d see are release from the studio that made it. The film has been a staple of public domain tv packages, companies selling 16mm and Super 8mm prints, VHS tapes and onto dollar DVDs. Moreover, I had always thought that some of the versions I had were firmly in the ‘acceptable’ category.
In 2009, a company called Koch Vision released a BluRay of the feature. I was excited to see the results once I had heard they had located a 35mm print and were doing a restoration from that material.
The sad news was that the version they released on BluRay looked nothing like the original film. While they had claimed that a complete and meticulous restoration had been done of the film, the results looked as if their standard def television transfer was blown up and then run through a filter that made the final results look more like a mosaic. The image was also cropped and stretched to fit an HD aspect ratio, and in some sections at least appears to use every other frame of the actual film (making all the animation on 2s, while many of the scenes were on 1s). Here’s an article that documents the release, from DVD Beaver.
I had mused at the idea of transferring a 35mm print at that point, but decided it probably wouldn’t be a good investment – and might get confused with this Koch version anyway.
About a year and a half back, I got a call from Jerry Beck, looking for a better copy of Gulliver to run as part of the TCM cartoon show that he would be appearing on. A handful of us searched high and low, trying to find the best possible copy of Gulliver Travels with it’s original titles and complete. No such print was to show up in 35mm, but an acceptable 16mm print was used for the showing.
From all of that searching, a few choice 35mm elements eventually became available, and I was lucky enough to take a look at a few and transfer the best print. The result was a ‘raw’ transfer of the film. The Animation Internet Database members helped to fund the transfer, and everyone that helped got a copy. This group-funding effort wasn’t intended to go beyond the initial discs; I thought perhaps someday I might do a set.
During last year’s Cinevent show, I showed my friends Stewart McKissick and John McElwee the transfer, and both of them were stunned. They suggested a BluRay release, and both offered their talents and assistance to make it happen. I was in the middle of quite a few projects already, but agreed that it would be a good project. I listed a pre-release back in late September last year, thinking there would be some interest and it might help to move the project forward. It seems there was much more interest than I ever thought! We started progressing even faster through the restoration, with a planned release sometime in November.
The next steps of the project were much more difficult than I thought they would be. As nice as the material looked, there was an amazing about of cleanup to do digitally to make the release look decent. Since the material we were using was a 35mm print from the late 50s, it had seen it’s share of wear, plus the negatives that were used to strike the print was likely old printing materials- it was full of dust and dirt! During the transfer, we wet-gated the film to hide abrasions on the print, but the dirt was still an overwhelming tasks. It was easily the hardest project to clean up out of any of the films we’ve done.
The digital restoration software looks for dirt before and after a frame to guess what is dirt. It does a pretty good job, but often does TOO much, especially to animation, where it can think that the lines of a character are dirt. After much adjusting and learning the best settings and hundreds of hours of manual cleanup, we managed to make a greatly improved version of the film while keeping the characters intact. It’s not perfect by any means- but quite stunning and beautiful.
Color correction on the film was a challenge too. It’s tempting to ‘pump’ all the colors and make everything glow, but it made more sense to me to try and present Gulliver as the film was made, with as close to the ‘look’ of the original film as possible. Since we were coming from a Technicolor print, there’s a reel change every 10 minutes, and with that change, a color shift pretty often. Various filters were used in the making of Gulliver besides the three color separation filters that were used during filming, and we did our best to reproduce the colors and balance scenes based on a basic ‘look’ for each sequence.
In the end, four different prints were used, with the body of the film coming from one print. I found that most of the Technicolor prints were timed in a similar manner, though it was clear that the lab timing was really off in some reels, making a whole reel more yellow or green usually. The first steps of color correction revealed the beautiful hues of the film, but it was still a ‘best guess’ to adjust each sequence.
The cartoons on the set are from various sources as well; some are from 35mm prints, while others are 16mm. They came out overall very nice, and I’m happy to have them as part of the production.
The actual 35mm print was hard-matted to academy aspect ratio, including the rounded corners. Instead of zooming in the image to make the corners flat, we’ve left them just as they are, showing the full picture on the actual print. While some other collections claim to be showing ‘more image’ than was seen before, the truth is we’re seeing what was originally on the film print now. I had considered doing some grain reduction to the material, but in the end, loved the original look of the Technicolor print, so we left the film looking like the film.
Bonus features are always something I look forward to most in producing a set, and for this set, I spent the better part of the year digging through old archives discs, looking for Gulliver-related material I had saved over the years. An amazing amount of cool things showed up on Ebay, and the collecting community was very mind in scanning and lending me various things, from books to publicity art to teacups. In the end, there’s plenty of bonus features on the set. Here’s the bonus menu screen to give you a hint:
One of the biggest challenges was getting the authoring of the BluRay to look as good as possible. Since I had never built a BluRay title myself, I hired a company to put the final disc together. To my shock and horror, they just couldn’t do it! Every ‘master’ that came back had many issues, from problems with the colors to buttons just not working. I was in a stew, and with customers writing daily asking were their discs were, I found myself sitting down and trying to learn new BluRay authoring software myself.
Happily, in the end, it turned out very nice- though months late and as many lessons learned in how to produce a title. This year marks 10 years that we’ve been producing DVDs, and 26 years since we put out first VHS collection together. I’m confident that we’ve done right by the Fleischer studio in presenting their film in a beautiful copy, and I hope everyone enjoys the new set that gets it.
The video below will give you a little taste of the quality we achieved.
And here are a few frames for you to scrutinize even closer…