James Cameron Has Been Digitally Tinkering With Aliens – Will We Like What He’s Done?

We all know how popular George Lucas’ decision to digitally tweak the Star Wars series has been – heck, with the announcement of Blu-ray versions of those films in the last few days, the angry online bonfire was quickly relit and bearded effigies thrown on in huge numbers. On the other hand, I think there’s a consensus that the Final Cut of Blade Runner is the best of all versions, if not indeed a huge leap on from what was already a wonderful film.

But some smaller alterations can draw much less attention like the Blu-ray of The French Connection. Overseen personally by William Friedkin, it’s such a hideous mess that Owen Roizman, the film’s cinematographer, has disowned it. This odd transfer is an absurd folly of fiddling without caution.

And right now, Hitchcock’s Psycho is available on Blu-ray in the UK, with a US release to follow. This, too, is creating small ripples of controversy, at least with Jeff Wells. He’s adamant that the film should be in a 4:3 aspect ratio, or close, where the disc is at 16:9. I respect Wells’ passion, but Hitchcock wanted Psycho to be seen in the wider aspect ratio, and documentary evidence contemporary to the film shows this.

In a new interview Ryan Turek has conducted with James Cameron, the director discusses what he’s done digitally to the Blu-ray transfer of the Aliens Extended Edition. Here’s that interview in full, but I’ll pull the key quote out afterwards.

I just did a complete remaster of Aliens personally with the same colorist I worked with on Avatar. It’s spectacular. We went in and completely de-noised it, de-grained it, up-rezzed, color-corrected it, end-to-end, every frame, and it looks amazing. It looks better that it looked in the theaters originally. Because it was shot on a high-speed negative, that was a new negative that didn’t pan out too well and got replaced the following year. So it’s pretty grainy. We got rid of all the grain. It’s sharper and clearer and more beautiful than it’s ever looked. And we did that to the long version, to the director’s cut, the extended play.

The key phrase here is “completely de-noised it, de-grained it.” The film’s grain is a significant element of Aliens‘ aesthetic. Just dialling it down by a few degrees, if that were even possible, would still up-end the purists, but I suspect removing it entirely is going to be very noticeable indeed.

But I’m still not convinced they won’t like it. Indeed, a grainless look could well be the future. As more and more digitally-shot, digitally-edited, digitally-distributed pictures enter the market and take up screening time, tastes might slide strongly towards the grainless. That’s not a defense of the practice, of course, but the other argument is for preserving the director’s intentions. And here we are: the director wanted this scrub-up, and his satisfaction with the end result is very clear.

By the way, if you watched the interview you will also have heard Cameron say that he considers the shorter, original release of Avatar as the “definitive” one, and that a third, considerably longer version could be headed to DVD in the future. This man is a publicist’s nightmare: neither of those sentiments will seem very helpful to next week’s Special Edition release, the thing he’s supposed to be promoting. But nothing he’s saying is silly, and I’m very convinced by his arguments.