The Big Picture: 2001 on Video

by Thomas E. Brown

Have you seen Ben Hur, How the West Was Won, or Lawrence of Arabia? How about 2001: A Space Odyssey? All to often the answer to that question is "sure saw them on TV" or "rented it on video". While any number of intimate dramas may not be harmed by or may even be enhanced by, the small screen presentation, this is not the case with such epics. There is little similarity between seeing a spectacle on the big screen and seeing it on TV, whatever the source. No matter how well transferred a film is, even the best "THX certified" letterboxed laser disc of a big screen spectacular is a mere shadow of the theatrical experience.

There is no film that this is more true of than Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie was shot in Super Panavision 70, a process which produced a detailed & virtually grainless image, even when presented on the largest screen. When projected on the huge curved Cinerama screen, you really felt like you were there, experiencing the desiccated world of the man-apes, soaring towards Space Station V with Heywood Floyd, standing in awe at the base of the monolith, locked out of the Discovery by HAL, or swept into the Star Gate with Dave Bowman, and experiencing the next stage in evolution with the Star Child. Everything about the film was designed for that huge image. Not only did Kubrick compose his images for the 2.21:1 screen, but they were meant to be seen larger than life. Kubrick virtually challenged the space savvy audience of 1968 to find fault with his impeccable images and, in fact, the larger they were, the more realistic they appeared. There were always additional details you could see. Trademarks which are virtually invisible in even the best video transfers were easily read. Equally importantly the space environment was all around you. The scenes were even paced with the huge screen in mind: after all, you had to turn your head to see various elements enter the screen.

Having seen 2001 in every format available, (at least 8 times in Cinerama alone), I can attest to the fact that every lesser incarnation decreases its impact. From Cinerama, to flat 70mm to anamorphic 35mm, each reduction in image size and detail reduces the film's impact, as does each reduction in sound from the original 6 track presentation to the mono optical system used in the 35mm 'scope presentations.

Taking into account the fact that home video, at its best (currently the CAV laser format, as of this writing we're still waiting to see if DVD lives up to advertisement) has resolution only a fraction of that of 35mm film, let alone 70mm, can one actually experience 2001 at home, and get anything from the experience? The answer is, of course, yes, although seeing these images on the little screen captures little of the true feel of the big screen experience. Kubrick's vision is compelling, powerful, and thought provoking in any format. Still, until you have seen this film in a large screen, preferably 70mm, venue, you can't really say you've seen 2001 as Stanley Kubrick intended it to be seen. Luckily there is currently a pristine 70mm print in circulation. Even so, far more people will experience this film in a video format than ever will on the theatrical screen, and, there are several video releases which do remarkably well in capturing the feel of 2001.

Before commenting on the different video versions of 2001, one comment (depending on your home video sound system): the best video versions of this film can equal, or even better what you may obtain in your local theatre. Although watching a movie from VHS tape through TV speakers can be less than inspiring, there are any number of home theater sound systems which come remarkably close to the theatrical experience and the impact of a excellent sound can be far greater than one might expect in making a video movie seem like the real thing, even if you're watching the picture on an NTSC TV.

Because 2001 is a true widescreen movie shown theatrically at 2.21:1 (this figure is the "aspect ratio" of the film, determined by comparing the width to the height of the screen. Most home TV sets have a 1.33:1 aspect ratio) in the original 70mm run, panned and scanned versions of this movie simply cannot capture it, no matter how skillful the panning and scanning. The earliest video versions were truly pathetic, with important parts of many shots simply eliminated. The majority of the Star Child's climactic appearance was invisible in this version, for example.

Even the later pan and scans, although an improvement over the original version couldn't capture the movie. You literally saw only about 1/2 of each scene and none of Kubrick's compositions could be properly appreciated. Frequently it is impossible to see where things are in relation to each other, because of the limited field of vision. In order to fit the opening titles on the screen, the famous opening sunrise had to be freeze framed, right before the first title, with the titles appearing over the frozen image of the sun half risen over the earth. 2001 is simply a film which cannot be viewed properly in a panned and scanned version.

Luckily there are several well done "widescreen", or letterbox versions of this film, which capture the film well. The 25th Anniversary VHS tape is available in letterbox format and is about as good as one could expect from the low resolution VHS format. Certainly for the $19.95 price tag, it is worth having (sorry I can't comment on whether this is available in PAL in the letterbox format).

If you're a 2001 fan lucky enough to have a laser disc player, there are six disc versions the best of which come remarkably close to the theatrical experience. These versions are:

1. MGM Pan and Scan. Not worth it, for reasons expressed above.

2. Japanese letterbox CAV set, the first letterbox set available. I haven't seen this, but reviews I've read indicate it falls far short of the later American transfers and isn't worth having, it is probably costly as well.

3 & 4. CAV and CLV Criterion disc sets. CAV is 6 sides, including "specials" the CLV is 3 sides without specials. These sets both use the same transfer, done in 1988 by the Voyager companies' legendary Maria Groumbos Palazzola. This was transferred from a 35mm "anamorphic" source (at the time of this transfer there was no 65mm/70mm telecine equipment in existence). The transfer was done in association with Full Metal Jacket's editor, Martin Hunter and "dailies" of the transfer were sent to Stanley Kubrick in England. Kubrick faxed back comments and Palazzola has written that he required 6 runs through with changes before he would approve it. The transfer was "state of the art" for 1988, with good image detail, fairly low grain and good fidelity to Kubrick's detailed color scheme. Even today the Criterion transfer is worthwhile viewing and no version -- except the as-yet-unreleased (although broadcast) digital transfer from a new print supervised by Kubrick, using new technologies -- captures the deep black of Kubrick's space scenes as well. Unfortunately, in order to keep this deep black, many of the stars visible in the theatre simply cannot be seen, lessening the impression that the spacecraft are moving against the background. The sound was transferred from a 6 track magnetic master into the Dolby Surround format, and is as good as one could hope, adding greatly to the "you are there" feel which the small screen presentation cannot capture visually. Thankfully the film is presented with the overture and entr'acte music (short excerpts of Ligeti's Atmospheres) and an extended playing of The Blue Danube at the end as "walk out" music. Following Criterion's practice these are presented over a black screen.

The aspect ratio of this transfer is approximately 2.21:1, which is the 70mm aspect ratio, but this is misleading. This is because the transfer was taken from a 35mm "scope format" interpositive which was presented at 2.35:1 in the theatre (resulting in a strip being lost from the 70mm image in the theatrical presentation). When transferred to video, at 2.21:1 the sides of the 2.35:1 35mm image are also slightly compromised. Nothing important is missing from this version, but there is a small amount of image missing from the top, bottom, and sides of the original picture. The result is actually a slightly larger image than would have appeared otherwise.

5 MGM CLV "budget" transfer 3 sides. This is the first transfer of 2001 done from the original 65mm film, and the entire image, including the parts not visible in the Criterion is visible. The sound is equal to that in the Criterion. Reportedly Turner had a great deal of trouble with a "too red" oversaturated look and had to re transfer the film to get this result. Even so the color leaves much to be desired, and the prevalence of earth tones look very little like Kubrick's color scheme. The transfer also varies in brightness from shot to shot making this, in my view, the worst version of the film, short of the pan and scans. The film is presented with amusingly inappropriate chapter titles, the funniest of which is "Beating the Bone".

6. MGM CAV 25th Anniversary CAV box set, 6 sides. This is reportedly the same film to tape transfer as the CLV version, but it has been meticulously color corrected shot by shot before being mastered for laser disc. The result is the best video version, in my view, full of detail, low grain, with all of the stars visible and with the entire aspect ratio of the original 70mm presentation. Possibly this version does not capture the black of the space shots or Kurick's color scheme quite as well as the Criterion, but it comes quite close. Both of the MGM versions have the overture, entr'acte and walk out music, but place intrusive titles on the screen presumably so we won't think our TVs have broken (the CAV version has a more dignified looking title). Thankfully the 25th Anniversary CAV has re named the chapters "Beating the Bone" for example, is "The Evolution of Man". Unfortunately the closing titles of the film are placed on a different side from the end of the movie itself, so that we miss out on the intentional contrast between the powerful final strains of Zarathustra and the "post climactic" (and humorous) Blue Danube.

Although the Criterion disc set is issued with "special" elements these are primarily text material written by Arthur C. Clarke and science advisor Ordway, which are available elsewhere. Although worth reading, this material tells comparatively little about the making of the film and is not among Criterion's best special editions.

The "specials" in the MGM disc are pathetic, around 70 still frames showing Kubrick on the set, the space stewardesses in "cheesecake" poses, and some strangely miscolored advertising material. The "theatrical trailer" (which is also included with the MGM CLV disc) is for the "popular prices" release and is edited to make it look as if the film has a thrill a minute, it is also printed much too dark. The "production featurette" is a speech given by Clarke shortly before the film's release to newsmen who clearly haven't seen the film.

All told, the "specials" in either laser release are not worth considering in deciding which disc set to buy, and the much larger cost of the Criterion ($125) alone makes the MGM 25th Anniversary far more attractive at $70. For those interested in how the film was made, the reader is encouraged to read Piers Bizony's beautiful 1994 trade paperback 2001: Filming the Future. Although long out of print, Jerome Agel's The Making of Kubrick's 2001 is also worth reading.