"Slimed By The Tape"
by Mark Fleischmann
(from Newsday 1989)
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and the rest of the "Ghostbusters" crew are back with their brash humor and unlicensed nuclear accelerators. And the box-office success of "Ghostbusters II" ($29.4 million in its opening weekend) is inspiring a lot of folks to rent the original and watch its eyecatching, screen-filling special effects a second time. Few of them will feel the astonishment I did when I rented a well-worn "Ghostbusters" tape (RCA/Columbia) from my neighborhood video parlor and compared it with the brand-new disc release. There was the vast gulf between the Criterion Collection disc, which delivers the full widescreen image using the "letterboxing" technique, and the tape, which is cropped for the shape of the TV screen. The experience was a perfect textbook lesson on the advantages of letterboxing and the virtues of the laserdisc format in general.
Most widescreen movies released on video are "panned and scanned." a process that selectively crops the image at the sides to accommodate it to the narrower TV screen. Letterboxing, the mode favored by film buffs, adds blank bands at the top and bottom of the screen to frame the image at its full width. I stacked up two high-quality TV's - a 13-inch set atop a 19-inch monitor - and synchronized the tape and disc to run simultaneously. The diminished height of the letterboxed version made it the same size on the 19-inch set as the tape version playing on the 13-incher, so visual comparisons were easy to make. The result: At least once every five minutes, sometimes every five seconds, I saw the movie mutilated by the scanning process.
In several shots, the four major Ghostbusters were clearly visible in the letterboxed disc version; they were trimmed to three - or even two - on the scanned tape (Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson were the most frequent victims). Scenes with three characters on the disc routinely showed two on the tape. When the scanner found Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd on opposites of the screen, he panned back and forth as they spoke, inserting an alien camera mover never contemplated by director Ivan Reitman. When Sigourney Weaver levitated, she lost her feet. Another shot sliced out her TV. Much of the intricate sets and location shooting, including the palatial 55 Central Park West, were lost at the sides along with dozens of extras. The list could go on. But the point is that anyone watching a scanned tape of a film composed for the wide screen is seeing only half the movie - and that's a shame, because half the charm of "Ghostbusters" is its heady spectacle.
The laserdisc version of "Ghostbusters" offers several other bonuses. Criterion - which never misses a chance to stuff its movies-on-disc with documentation - provides the complete script and storyboards in still frames, other insider notes, interviews with the principals, some negligible deleted footage and split-screen comparisons showing a couple of scenes before and after effects were added. The tape doesn't show the ghost assaulting the computer operator, the storyboard cartoon showing John Candy in the role ultimately played by Rick Moranis, the creation of the ghost affectionately nicknamed Onionhead (aka Slimer), the lovely chalk sketches of the colorful "proton beams," or Sigourney Weaver's commemorative poem.
This is not to imply that RCA/Columbia's tape is a cheat. Most mass-market movie tapes are scanned because video executives believe the public isn't ready for letterboxing. And the scanning job here is a good one. But if you want to really see "Ghostbusters" - to enjoy the interplay between actors visually as well as aurally, to watch the choreographed chaos tumble across the screen, to wallow in the special effects in their full widescreen compositions, spacious and grand - there is only one true path to visual enlightenment. Watch the disc.
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