• Emperor 2.0

    By Peter Becker

    We’re getting a huge amount of mail about our edition of The Last Emperor, specifically about the aspect ratio, which is 2:1. Some people seem to believe that we’ve lost our minds, forsaken our mission, and taken it upon ourselves to crop the sides off the picture. Others assume we just got careless. Either way, a rising chorus is asking how we could do this to Vittorio Storaro’s Academy Award–winning compositions. And to Bernardo Bertolucci’s framing. The answer is, we couldn’t, and we wouldn’t, and we didn’t do anything to violate the filmmakers’ wishes. This is the way the filmmakers want the film to be seen.

    From the start of this project, Bertolucci has insisted that Storaro have ultimate approval of the mastering of the feature. This master was made in Rome under Storaro’s direct supervision, with Bertolucci’s approval. When we asked Storaro about the framing of the film, he unhesitatingly told us that the correct aspect ratio for The Last Emperor was 2:1, even though the film was commonly projected at 2.35:1. He told us that The Last Emperor was the first film he shot specifically for 2.0 framing, and Bertolucci backs him up. Our mission is to present each film as its makers would want it to be seen, and in this case the director and cinematographer asked that we release their film in the format they say they had always envisioned. We had quite a lot of discussion over this, and we certainly knew it would be controversial, but in the end the decision was not made by us. It was made, as it should be, by the filmmakers.

    I can understand how people might be upset about this. The general rule of thumb where widescreen films is concerned is that wider is better, but in this case it’s not so obvious. I recently had the pleasure of joining producer Jeremy Thomas at a screening of The Last Emperor, and I asked him about this issue. Was it really true that they had envisioned the film less wide than the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in which it was commonly screened? Thomas said that they had originally hoped that all of the original release prints would be in 70 mm, framed at 2.2:1 or 2:1, but not 2.35:1 or 2.33:1. Thomas said Storaro and Bertolucci filled the wider frame knowing that there would be 2.35:1 prints in circulation as well, but that they always knew they were shooting a format wider than what they hoped to release.

    So, in short, while some viewers may prefer the wider framing, the filmmakers must have the final say. This is not a case of our losing track of our mission, but rather one of being true to it.

22 comments

  • By Sean Armstrong
    December 17, 2008
    03:23 PM

    When one is framing a composition for film or television, and one is trying to protect multiple aspect ratios (i.e. 1.78:1 and 1.33:1), One usually does not narrow the frame. Instead, one leaves addtional space on the top and bottom of frame for adjustment. Therefore, If a film is shot in the 65mm format, a 2.35:1 presentation of the film will have the top and bottom of frame cropped and sides will remain the same in both aspect ratios. Apocalypse Now may be slightly different as it was a multi camera shoot. The bulk of the film shot in Technovision Anamorphic and several other shots done on Mitchell 65mm spherical. The same process was used on Tucker. That being said, this does not mean that on the shooting day, the cinematographer did not optimize his framing for 2.20:1 or 2.0:1. As there is no commercial benefit to transferring this films in 2.0:1 or 2.20:1 instead of 2.35:1, I trust that Storaro's decision is based on his artistic sensibilities. And that is good enough for me.
    Reply
  • By Jason Clark
    December 20, 2008
    02:19 AM

    I also agree with the above comments. While this is a more extreme example, I think it's analogous to this situation: If Steven Spielberg came to you wanted to release Close Encounters again in DVD/Blu-Ray with Criterion, but he wanted his "new print" in which all the aliens are digitally changed to where they all look like walkie-talkie's, would you honor that request and only release it that way even though it would be obvious to everyone else except for Mr. Spielberg that this would be an obvious disturbance to the integrity of the film? In the case of The Last Emperor, would it not be better to look at the filmmakers original intention at the time the film was made (i.e. preserving the 2.2:1 ratio), instead of changing it to what they see fit for the movie now? Would the integrity of the film from when it was actually made not be disrupted? That should be Criterion's mission: to preserve the integrity of the the director's and cinematographer's choices that were made when it was actually made. If not, then who knows what certain directors might wish for their older films to be now. We've all seen the disastrous results in Spielberg's changes to E.T.
    Reply
  • By Steve Hodge
    January 08, 2009
    03:34 PM

    Having seen the original release of Emperor in Century City, I was immediately disappointed by the elected cropping of the Criterion dvd version. Amazon shows the BluRay version ratio as 2:20:1. Looking on your site, I see that the BluRay version is 2.0:1 - same as the dvd version. Had the BluRay version been in 2.35 or even 2.20:1 - I would have purchased it again in BluRay. I agree with Jason Clark's assessment of the situation present and future.
    Reply
  • By Joe Newton
    January 08, 2009
    11:51 PM

    Back in September when I pre-ordered this blu-ray edition, I thought I read in the Criterion blog that it would include both aspect ratios, 2.35:1 and 2.0:1. I was disappointed today when I received the new blu-ray release only to find that the disc only contains the 2.0:1 aspect ratio as indicated on the back cover (but wrongly indicated on Amazon as 2.20:1, as another commentator above reports). I was further disappointed to find that the audio, while clean, doesn't have the punch or dramatic bass that I remember from the theatre and DVD versions. I'm very sorry to post a negative comment. I wanted to love this disk. I could probably live with the aspect ratio but losing the punchy, bassy audio is even more disappointing. Hopefully I am wrong about that and need to tweak my home theatre audio, although everything else sounds good on it right now. Thanks anyway to Criterion for all their efforts and trying to keep this wonderful film in print.
    Reply
  • By Joe Newton
    January 11, 2009
    11:39 AM

    I would like to correct my previous post and would be happy if the web site manager would remove both my comments (previous and this one). I would like to apologize to everyone involved in making this disc for any disparaging remarks I made above. The audio is better than the 1987 Artisan Director's cut although not as good as my memory of it, would could well be false. I do not have the expertise to analyze it further, but it is definitely as good as and probably better than the 1987 dvd. The blue-ray picture is, of course, orders of magnitude better. Now you can discern the film grain, especially in the sky. While purists would cringe, I would wonder if noise reduction or something to smooth out the nervous grain would enhance the film. Despite some disappointment and criticism of the blu-ray disc, I am still happy to own it and view it. It is vastly, vastly better than the 1987 Director's cut DVD, which is all I could view before. Although, I am now curious to view the new Criterion DVD release. Thanks again to Criterion for keeping this film in print.
    Reply
  • By Robert Smith
    January 14, 2009
    07:11 PM

    I originally saw The Last Emperor in 70mm at the wonderful old Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco. I saw it 3 times, and have subsequently seen it a number of times on my 2.35 Laserdisc. I love this film as a work of art. Seeing it in 70mm was one of my top theatrical viewings of any movie. What I value is what I saw and reacted to. I am sorry that Mr. Bertolucci and Mr. Storaro do not respect the experience that I and millions of others had with this film, and now choose to belatedly impose their own ideas. I suppose I really don't care what they think. If they want to redo their movie, that is fine with me, as long as the original version is still fully available and not suppressed. It is an artistic outrage that this aspect ratio change has occurred. The Criterion Collection should support the FILM AS IT WAS ORIGINALLY EXHIBITED, not some half-baked revisionism of hired hands involved in the original creation. Berlolucci, in particular, should understand that art exists in a social context and that once you put that picture on the screen, you have shared it and have an obligation to your audience. As to the Criterion Collection, you have lost your way. You should take a look at your justly famous LD's of 2001, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters (all of which I own). Now look at the recent Blu-rays. The Blu-rays expand upon the Criterion LD's using the new technology, and even improve the presentation of picture and sound beyond what was possible 20 years ago. I spent last week comparing your Blu-ray of The Last Emperor to my 2.35 LD and also my memory. In addition to the travesty of the change in the aspect ratio, I would also fault the grain, color and the 2.0 channel soundtrack on your Blu-ray. I am sorry to say that my disenchantment with your organization has been hightened. I am now dropping all of my preorders for your Blu-rays and will look at them on Netflix before investing in your now-suspect product. I do NOT thank you for keeping this film in print. You have promulgated a false version of this movie, and are running the risk that future generations will never know what it really looked like.
    Reply
  • By grover giles
    January 14, 2009
    10:54 PM

    my blu-ray copy of the film is center channel only until the movie camera in the film (chapter 21) turns for a close up of the emperor's wife then gradually expands to stereo surround is this correct?
    Reply
  • By Simon
    January 15, 2009
    01:58 AM

    So, without a doubt, the Criterion team can say they did not pan and scan the image *at all*. If it was meant to be 2:1 from the beginning then a simple crop would be all that is necessary.
    Reply
  • By Lemmy Caution
    January 15, 2009
    03:59 AM

    Wow, what a let down. I was so excited to hear about Criterion's entry into the blu-ray market but this is a major disappointment. I've always been in awe of the transfers and presentation of their catalog in the past-- this seems like a first generation Fox Lorber DVD. The film grain/noise is outrageous and the picture is cropped from the original 2:35. I've seen criterion standard def DVDs that look better than this. What happened? You guys let Storaro put this out? Unbelievable. I pay the extra amount for Criterion titles to own the DEFINITIVE version of the film. This just isn't it.
    Reply
  • By Levi Adams
    March 02, 2009
    01:06 PM

    Criterion should know by now that "cropped" is a dirty word among cinephiles living in this bargain-bin digital age. No matter what the reason, or by whose request the film has been cropped from its original format. I'm not going to argue that one format is inherently better than the other, but you should not disgrace the integrity of the original release by removing part of the picture! In my humble opinion, Criterion's role should be one of analog-to-digital film archivists. When you have a remarkable, award-award winning piece of cinema, why spend so much time, effort, and money on the project, only to release a disc that is so dramatically different from what people have seen for the past 20 years?!? The resolution here is a simple one: Always stick to the original theatrical release, keeping as much of the picture in tact as feasible for the integrity of the picture. If the director/producer/cinematographer insists that the film should be revised, then let them produce a second release, complete with crew interviews explaining why he/she/they felt it was important to drastically edit the original film.
    Reply
  • By Levi Adams
    March 02, 2009
    01:42 PM

    I just wanted to add one more note to this topic. A line from the About Us section of this website states, "Each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen." In this statement, you make the false assumption that every filmmaker intended for their films to be seen in their original format. (uncut, original aspect ration, etc.) But this is obviously not the case. It seems that this controversy has raised an important question for those who hold the reigns at The Criterion Collection. Do you give ultimate respect to the original film, or to the filmmakers' revisionist wishes? Again, my opinion is that you should give precedence to the former, lest you unnecessarily run the risk of putting yourself in the unsavory position of disappointing the viewer and then placing the blame on individual members of the film crew.
    Reply
  • By Brian D. Sadie
    March 16, 2009
    08:16 PM

    Dear Readers, and particularly Criterion Employees: I believe that, for Criterion, the issue of framing and aspect ratio ought to be simple, since the aim is to release definitive and complete versions of a film. When possible, and particularly when necessary, you include different versions. I should think this one warranted at least presentations of both the original release and newly-asserted aspect ratios. I hope Criterion revisits this title with these considerations in mind. Sincerely, Brian D. Sadie
    Reply
  • By Sean William Menzies
    May 06, 2009
    07:28 PM

    Storaro may have tried to frame The Last Emperor for 2:2 or 2:1 but there are still a few pan and scans in the film: At the Forbidden City lake when the high consorts are in the boat, Pu Yi and Pu Chieh are extreme right and the scan must jolt over mechanically to find them (it's interesting that in the 3h40m television version, this scan is not so severe.) In the back of the limo, when Pu Yi and his wives are on their way home from the "second" coronation ("you want some gum?") there is a shot of all three across the screen which is tight even in 2:35. To barely get them all into the new 2:0 framing, it looks as if a slight squeeze was done. Even then, they still don't fit and Pu Yi's head goes off the right of the frame almost entirely, leaving his chin behind. During Pu Yi's first coronation: there is a shot scanned over to the left to include the prayer singer in the frame, throwing the rest of the frame's original geography off kilter, way off kilter. Not to mention the digital grading to highlight the old photographs of prospective brides during the bride-choosing sequence (the lightened bubbles float over the photos eerily). I do not remember this when I saw the film theatrically. A friend who works at Disney just restored Sleeping Beauty, which had originally been framed for 2:55, but had only ever been released at 2:35. When this friend approached the execs with the news that he had discovered parts of the image that had almost never been seen before and asked them how he should proceed with the new theatrical and blu-ray releases, "2:55 or 2:35" they without question decided on 2:55, since after all, the imagery is there. This isn't a matter of cropping top and bottom for 1:85 or cropping Super 35 for a 2:35 release, The Last Emperor was shot 2:35 and looked extraordinary in 2:35. How could Storaro not be proud of every silver halide of the original frame? I don't blame Criterion at all, and the film still does look beautiful in 2:0, but the cropping is obvious. Even people who don't know what's to the left and right wonder what's going on. Call me a purist.
    Reply
  • By Conrad Felber
    July 07, 2009
    07:33 AM

    All of this brings us to the age-old question: Does art exist in a vacuum? I say, "No." Once art has been foisted upon the public, the question of "ownership" becomes murky, at best. If Leonardo da Vinci was suddenly brought back to life and then demanded that lipstick and rouge be reinstated on his beloved "Mona Lisa" masterpiece, would the Louvre grant his request? I think not. And that's ONE artist, who produced ONE painting. A motion picture is a truly collaborative effort, involving hundreds of people (and, in the case of this particular film, thousands!). I grow weary of directors talking about their artistic "vision" when they compromised their "vision" in the first place (no "true" artist would ever do so). If Bertolucci and Storaro so desperately WANTED their film to exist in the 2:1 aspect ratio, then why didn't they SHOOT it that way? It may be somewhat bizarre to second-guess the "artist(s)" themselves, but in this case I really do think they are wrong. Simply put, "The Last Emperor" should have been left "as is."
    Reply
  • By Thomas Williams
    November 19, 2009
    03:08 PM

    Having finally seen Criterion's four-disc DVD set and the Blu-ray, I applaud the big-C for the quality of their transfer. However, I do think that another set is warranted - one which presents the film in both aspect ratios. I would buy it in a heartbeat.
    Reply
  • By Patrick
    November 01, 2010
    07:56 AM

    So is the film on the 4-disc (deluxe, NON-blu-ray) edition 2.35:1 or 2:1? Amazon is listing it as 2.35:1, while listing the blu-ray version as 2.2:1.
    Reply
  • By Antti
    June 15, 2011
    05:35 AM

    If I read correctly Criterion's posting here, Storaro's vision was always to present it in 2:1 aspect ratio, even if he might have shot it in other format. Maybe technically you have to shoot in 2.35:1 and then do the cropping when you show it? Anyway, I think some of the people writing here seem to going overboard with their reactions. Do you really think that you have more rights about this film than the people who conceived it?
    Reply
  • By RRR
    June 16, 2011
    07:59 AM

    Unfortunately Antti, they really do believe they have more of a right to the film than its creators. You would have noticed this about Criterion fans, they get very mad when Criterion releases a film they don't like because they believe it has been nationalized somehow. It's like when Star Wars nerds claim to know more about the mythology of Star Wars than George Lucas himself. And you are right about intentions. Storaro and Bertolucci are not playing "revisionists" as people are saying in this thread. They are not adding CGI or removing wires or coating it with waxy DNR. They are just asking that the film be released in the way that they initially intended. It's quite reasonable actually. People are talking about preserving the look of the original film and blah blah blah. That's what Criterion is doing. The original film is 2:1.
    Reply
  • By Jeremy Mathews
    September 09, 2011
    02:59 AM

    ANTTI & RRR: "The original film is 2:1" is flat-out false, and anyone who has tried to convince you it's true is a liar or ill-informed. Criterion may have provided a murky, non-declarative Jeremy Thomas quote in a half-hearted attempt to justify Storaro's foolishness, but that doesn't make it true. As Mr. Menzies points out above, the print has been pan & scanned—meaning it could NEVER have appeared that way in a theater because that isn't how film projection works. The scans were done in post, digitally. That is, unquestionably, revisionist.
    Reply
  • By Sean Menzies
    June 09, 2013
    01:47 AM

    If Storaro had intended The Last Emperor to be 2.1 and had even shot it that way, why the need to pan left or right as in this blu ray and DVD release? Corresponding shots in the theatrical and "tv" versions on Criterion's four disc DVD release have slightly different panning.
    Reply