Saturday, August 20, 2005

Joe Ranft R.I.P.

Most of you have probably never heard of Joe Ranft, but chances are that you have seen a movie he has written or heard his voice. Ranft was the head of the story department at Pixar, the animation studio responsible for such hits as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. Ranft was one of Pixar's writers and co-wrote two of their biggest successes (Toy Story and A Bug's Life. He provided the voices for Heimlich the catepillar in A Bug's Life and Wheezy the penguin in Toy Story 2. Ranft was killed Tuesday in an accident involving the Honda Element he was riding. He was 45 years old.

Ranft attended the California Institute of the Arts along with Pixar directors Brad Bird and John Lasseter. His student film attracted the attention of Disney and he began his work there in 1980. He wrote the story for The Brave Little Toaster and wrote on the screenplay for The Rescuers Down Under before going on to such important Disney projects as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. He provided the storysketch for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and supervised the storyboards for The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. At Pixar Ranft played a role in nearly every movie they made. On the forthcoming Cars he supervised the story.

Ranft did a good deal of voice work, beginning with providing the voice for Elmo St. Peters in The Brave Little Toaster in 1987. He provided the voices of Heimlich on A Bug's Life, Wheezy on Toy Story 2, Jacques on Finding Nemo, and additional voices on The Incredibles.

Joe Ranft was a remarkable man who worked in nearly every aspect of animation. He was considered one of the best storytellers in animation today. In fact, his profile at Salon.Comsimply described him as a "story man." He was loved by his fellow animators at Pixar, not simply for being a great talent, but also for being one of the kindest, gentlest men around. I don't think it is truly possible to measure the enormity of his loss not only to Pixar, but to the animation community as a whole. He will most certainly be missed.

Monday, August 15, 2005

American Movie Classics Not Classic Enough

It seems that it is official. American Movie Classics is not showing enough movies that are "classics." For those of you who may not have heard, Justice Bernard Fried of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled last month that American Movie Classics had in fact violated its contract with cable giant Time Warner in showing more recent films. According to AMC's contract with Time Warner from September 1993, which was extended in 2000, the cable channel was restricted to showing films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In October 2002, however, AMC changed its format from a channel which shows classic films to one which shows more contemporary movies, largely in an effort to appeal to young people.

AMC is expected to appeal the ruling. Rather than cancelling their contract with AMC, some expect Time Waner to simply negotiate a lower fee to carry the cable channel. It should be pointed out that earlier in this year AMC obtained the rights to show 22 Warner Brothers movies from Time Warner, including Batman Begins and Million Dollar Baby. The film rights from that deal are not affected by the outcome of this ruling.

Personally, I would prefer that Time Warner simply drop AMC. For that matter, I would appreciate it if other cable companies followed suit. When American Movie Classics first started years ago, it was a channel that showed older movies. Granted many of those older movies were not what I would consider "classics," but at least they were older movies. The sad truth is that beyond Turner Classic Movies only a few channels (cable or otherwise) show any films made before 1980. While it is true that AMC still shows older films (last week they showed Dr. No and High Noon among others, they also show a lot more recent films. Of course, this cuts down on the number of older films they show. For anyone who loves old movies, this is not exactly a desirable situation.

Here I should point out that I am not biased against younger movies. I love movies both old and recent. Indeed, my DVD collection not only boasts Hitchcock's 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and that old Danny Kaye film The Court Jester, but such recent films as Hellboy and Hero. That having been said, I do wish the various television outlets would show older films more often.

Of course, much of the reason AMC changed its format was a perception that Turner Classic Movies was simply doing the same thing they were doing and being more successful at it. Personally, I don't think this is a valid reason for AMC to have changed their format. Given how rarely movies made before 1980 are shown on most channels, it seems to me that there was enough room for at least two classic movie channels.

I suppose that one could bring up the fact that what constitutes a "classic" is largely subjective. For some people The President's Analyst is a classic comedy from the Sixties. For others it may just be an old movie. Too, I suppose that even how old a movie must be before it can be considered a "classic" probably varies from person to person. Some might a movie released only ten years ago a classic, while others might maintain that a movie must be at least twenty to thirty years old before it can attain "classic" status.

As for myself, I believe a movie can be considered a "classic" only if it has stood the test of time and is generally considered a great film by most people. Using this as a standard, much of what American Movie Classics now shows could not be called classics. Chain Reaction was made in 1996, yet AMC was showing it just a few years ago. Even if it hadn't received horrible reviews, I don't think Chain Reaction could be considered a classic because it hasn't been around long enough. Friday the 13th was released in 1980, twenty five years ago. I would say that is probably old enough for a film to be called a "classic." Unfortunately, most people would not consider Friday the 13th a great film by any means. I would then say it is not a "classic." Sadly, these sorts of films--movies made less than twenty years ago or films that are, well, just plain bad--occupy as much time on AMC as true classics do, sometimes more.

There was a time when I watched AMC a good deal. Here was a channel where I could see everything from classic Hitchcock films to classic John Wayne Westerns to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers. Since 2002 I have watched AMC much less than I once did. In fact, I can often go months without tuning it in. For me it is simply a case of not liking what they are showing much of the time. I really have no desire to watch Fatal Attraction or Missing in Action--films I could probably see on TNT, TBS, and USA as well. While AMC may have altered their programming so that it differs a good deal from that of Turner Classic Movies, they have also made themselves more like every other cable channel out there. I won't even start on the commercials. At any rate, I would be very happy if the various cable companies would take a stand and let AMC know they should switch back to showing classic movies, or else.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


The video cassette recorder or VCR, as we know it, has been around for about thirty years now. I think it is safe to say that it revolutionised the way people watch television. In 1965 an individual who wished to watch a television show had to do so whenever the networks or local stations aired it. In 1985 that same individual could simply record the programme and watch it at a later time.The VCR also brought motion pictures to the homes of common people. No longer would the individual have to wait for his or her favourite movies to be shown on television or re-released to theatres.

The video cassette recorder or VCR was the result of several developments over the years, the first of which was the invention of video tape and the VTR or "video tape recorder." In the early days of broadcasting, the need arose among the television networks to be able to delay broadcsts to the different time zones across the United States. After all, a television programme airing at 8:00 at night on the East Coast would air at 5:00 in the afternoon if broadcast live to the West Coast. Film took time to be developed, so that many programmes aired live on the East Coast would not be seen on the West Coast until days later. Film also tended to be costly. There was then a need for a way in which the networks could record a programme on the East Coast so that it could be viewed on the West Coast later that night. For that reason in 1951 Ampex began work that would result in the world's first video tape recorder. In March 1956 Ampex would market the VRX-1000 (later renamed the Mark IV). At a whopping $50,000, only large corporations, educational insitutions, and governments could afford them. In the United States, CBS (Columbia Broadcast System) would become the first network to use video tape extensively.

Here it should be pointed out that in the Fifties and Sixties, video tape did not come in cassettes. Instead, just like audio tape at the time, all video tape was reel to reel. And just as audio tape was eventually marketed to the average person, so too would video tape. By the mid-Sixties companies would introduce VTRs for home use. In 1964 Sony came out with the CV-2000, a video tape recorder for use in the home. Sony introduced it to the United States in 1965. The CV-2000 did not prove to be a roaring success, with less than a thousand of the machines sold in the United States. In 1966 Ampex released the VR-6275, another video tape recorder for home use. The VR-6265 was revolutionary in that it actually allowed the individual to record one TV show while watching another, just as today's VCRs do. At around $1500, however, the VR-6265 was too costly for anyone but the rich and video tape enthusiasts willing to pay its price. Like Sony's CV-2000, the VR-6265 would not bring video tape to the masses. Despite the few private individuals to actually own VTRS, the first pre-recorded movies would come out on video tape in 1967, well before the advent of the VCR!

It must be pointed out that not every attempt to bring video to the home involved magnetic tape. Both CBS and RCA introduced systems that utilised holography instead. In 1967 CBS introduced Electronic Video Recording or EVR. 20th Century Fox even agreed to sell films in the EVR format. Unforutnately, for CBS, EVR proved too costly to mass produce. RCA called its competing system "HoloTape" and later "SelectaVision or SV," a term the company later used for their magnetic tape. RCA's HoloTape is historic for one simple reason--it was the device meant for home use to utilise laser technology--years before CD and DVD players! Unfortunately, RCA found itself in dire economic straits in the early Seventies. Further development of HoloTape or SelectaVision proved to be too costly for them to continue. They discontinued research into the system in 1972.

It is with the early Seventies that we see the advent of the VCR. The first VCR is generally considered to have been produced by Philips. Philips developed a system they called "Video Compact Cassette" or "Video Cassette Recorder (that's right, the Dutch electronics giant coined the term)." The machines were equipped with primitive timers, using rotary dials, and could record up to an hour. It was about the same time that Sony introduced U-Matic, its own video tape cassette format. Although U-Matic would eventually fall out of favour for home use, it would continue to be used in professional and industrial settings for literally years. In 1972 Avco introduced its Cartrivision system. Cartivision allowed for two hours worth or recording. What is more, it was the first VCR for which pre-recorded tapes were manufactured, AVCO having struck a deal with Columbia Pictures. Despite this, Cartrivision was a failure. Introduced in 1972, Avco abandoned the project in 1973.

Given the relative lack of success with which Philips' VCR, Sony's U-Matic, and Avco's Cartrivision systems met in the early Seventies, it would seem that the average person was not ready for home video. All of this would change in 1975 when Sony introduced its new system, one would which would become one of two major industry standards for the next several years. Sony introduced the Betamax to the United States in 1976, touting it as a means of recording one's favourite programmes. Both Disney and Universal sued Sony, claiming that recording on the device constituted copyright infringement. Fortunately, the American Supreme Court would rule that taping programmes in one's own home was protected by the "fair use" excepition to American copyright laws. Betamax could record up to 4 1/2 hours and quickly became a favourite with video enthusiasts. Unfortunately for Sony, it would soon have a rival on the market.

In 1976, another Japanese company, JVC came out with the VHS (Video Home System) format, the standard format for all videocassettes today. VHS had an advantage over Betamax in that it could record longer periods of time. While many claimed Betamx had a better picture, VHS soon became the more popular format. By 1980 70% of all VCRs sold used the VHS format. Eventually, video rental stores would drop Betamax all together, providing only VHS tapes for rent. Sony continued to manufacture Betamax VCRs for the United States until 1998. They continued manufacturing them in Japan until 2002, finally abandoning the format altogther.

While both Betamax and VHS formats were marketed as a means of recording one's favourite programmes, both created a market for pre-recorded movies. In the United States they also created a whole new type of retail store--the video rental store. Perhaps because of the costs of pre-recoreded movies in the late Seventies and early Eighties (believe it or not, they could cost as much as $50), video rental stores sprung up across the U. S. For a few dollars an individual could rent his or her favourite movies, as well as a machine to play them on. Suprisingly, video rental stores continued to exist even after the price of pre-recorded movies dropped (Video Land here in Huntsville was open for about twenty years before closing down). Chains of video rental stores even sprang up, including Blockbuster.

VCRs have been around in one form or another since 1970. As is often the case, however, it seems that they might soon become obsolete. DVDs of pre-recorded movies often offer more than their VHS counterparts--one not only gets the movie (often in widescreen format), but many extras as well ("Making of..." documentaries, audio commentaries, et. al.). With the advent of the DVD recorder, it has become possible for the average person to record his or her own DVDs, getting a superior picture and sound quality than one would have on VHS. There has also been the development of such DVR (Digital Video Recorder) services as TiVo and ReplayTV. DVRs record a broadcast on a hard drive for replay later. Like the DVD recorder, one gets a better picture than one would with VHS. It would seem that the VCR's obsolescence could then well be inevitable. Already many video rental stores (including the Blockbuster chain) have reduced the number of VHS tapes they carry or have even dropped them altogether. Some retailers, such as Best Buy, have ceased to carry VHS tapes altogether (although both WalMart and Target continue to do so, contrary to popular belief). It would seem, then, that soon VHS may go the way of the dinosaurs. Vinyl records replaced records made of shellac. CDs replaced vinyl records. I rather suspect that DVD recorders and DVRs could replace VCRs before long. Regardless, VCRs will have their place in history, having changed the way people watch television forever.