Interview: I'm not Captain Technical says Baz Luhrmann

posted on Saturday, 18th May 2013 by Steve May

home cinema  Blu-ray 

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Baz Luhrmann, visionary director of The Great Gatsby, is a big fan of Blu-ray. 'It's actually quite disturbing. As a filmmaker you start to see things on disc that you didn't see in the original print,' he says with a smile. The film maker is talking technology to Inside CI at Chateau Marmont, in the Hollywood Hills. Built in the 1920s and located high above Sunset Boulevard, this legendary hotel is the personification of old school Studio glamour and a regular haunt for the charismatic director. The two seem in perfect harmony.

"Blu-ray is an incredibly powerful medium - I love the fact that it can reveal layers of the creative process, with PIP and extras," he says. "I'm not Captain Technical but I am the captain of the audience, I represent the audience member who has a meaningful relationship with the film, and Blu-ray can make that relationship deeper..."

Creating artificial reality
Comparing the theatrical experience with Full HD Blu-ray, Luhrmann goes on to say that the movie image can sometimes seem "too sharp" on disc which can negatively affect visual effects. "The fact that a film was shot soft can mean you'll need to go and degenerate the sharpness when it's mastered for the disc medium." He cites as an example the remastering work which was done on Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. "There are painted backdrops that look great on film because the medium is softening and reflective. On Blu-ray disc that illusion can be broken. What we do is create artificial reality - you know what you're seeing is artificial, but the emotions and storytelling feels real. So the creative process is 'Do I still believe in that world or is that shattering the illusion?' You must believe in the world."

When it comes to the remastering process for disc a film maker can change just about anything, he notes. "The question is when is something part of the language of the film and when does it just distact? When I made these films, the cinematic language was constrained by circumstance. I know that in the original gas station sequence in Romeo + Juliet, the sky varies between perfect blue and white. During the remastering process I evened it out, so that it was all blue. But then it started to feel wrong. So we ended up adding only a little blue to the white sky. As a result I feel that the Blu-ray is different but still familiar - yet it has more depth."

Superb demo discs
The Great Gatsby
, like all of Luhrmann's work, is visually arresting and will doubtless prove an interesting alternative to big budget action films when it comes to showcasing upscale home theatre systems. The movie may have received a critical mauling, but there's little doubt the Blu-ray will look spectacular. Talking more about the widely lauded remastered Ultimate Editions of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, the director says: "We came straight off the original camera negatives into the digital realm, and then rebuild the colour grade shot by shot. This is of course, from a creative point of view, the optimum."

The resulting Blu-rays are superb demonstration discs. "With both films I tried to recreate that MGM-style tri-colour reds and blues," he recalls. "I feel we arrived closer at that goal with BD." The three-strip Technicolor process was characterised by its saturated colours, a look the director set about replicating when the films were remastered. "I went through the movies shot by shot, beat by beat, doing colour correction. It's a meticulous process, taking out a little cyan here or magenta there," he says. "Every frame for me evokes emotions and memories…"

Describing the process as "quite lovely" he recalls that a fresh digital intermediate was created which offered plenty of scope for creative post embellishment. The temptation, he says, is not to go too far. "Film is an illusion. Everyone on film is in slow motion." When it comes to revisiting movies on Blu-ray, or remastering for 4K, Luhrmann argues a little bit of restraint is called for. "My personal philosophical position is to keep it familiar, but make it a deeper experience. An audience has a relationship with a film that grows over time, it's ongoing. But I don't want people to come to a film and not recognise it, like a friend who's had surgery. I see flaws during the process that I want to change, but the bits I hate may be the bits an audience loves. There's a lot of self governing involved."

Luhrmann recalls an optical step printing process in Moulin Rouge, used to give a slow motion effect during one of the big dance numbers, as a case in point: "That was grainy and just bad. It takes you out of the movie because it's just not good, that's when you use the opportunity to go in and clean it up."

"There's this old saying you never finish a film, it's taken away from you. And for me that's very true," he laments. "You never know when you'll get to revisit again, you don't know if the end of the road is nigh."

Luhrmann goes on to suggest that the most advanced technology isn't always an enhancement. 7.1 multichannel audio isn't automatically better than 5.1, he notes, and sometimes even mono is just perfect. 'A Big Band recorded as a singular source, wouldn't work remixed to multichannel. Why would you suddenly be sitting in the middle of Glenn Miller's orchestra? Technology has to enrich without fundamentally changing the original material. I'm a bit of a sound nutter - but the end result has got to be great without being a trick."

The Great Gatsby will be released on Blu-ray this autumn.

 

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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