BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
For three-quarters of a century, The Wizard of Oz has taught the world lessons about home, heart, wisdom and courage. Now, the musical fantasy that turned Judy Garland into a cultural icon returns with even greater depth — in 3D.
The Wizard of Oz: An IMAX 3D Experience opens Friday for one week only at hundreds of big-screen theaters throughout North America, including six in South Florida. Ten days later, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment releases the film on Blu-ray 3D, standard high-definition Blu-ray, DVD and downloadable UltraViolet streaming video.
“If you’ve never seen it in a theater, this is the paramount opportunity,” Oz and Garland historian John Fricke said. “It’s not going to come around to IMAX and 3D on a regular basis. And they have only seven days to see it. And four days later, they can take it home.”
Warner Bros. is spending $25 million to market the 3D release, including a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy promotion through Oct. 10 featuring Oz characters Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West.
L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Filmed by MGM in late 1938 and early ’39, The Wizard Oz won Oscars in 1940 for Best Song (Over the Rainbow) and score. Garland also won a special Academy Award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance.
MGM re-released the film theatrically in 1949 and 1955. The following year, it entered the public’s consciousness when it debuted on CBS-TV. With a few exceptions, it ran annually on network television until 1997, then moved to cable. In 1980, Oz became one of MGM’s first films to appear on home videocassette.
Directed by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind), Oz is the oldest major film to be converted to 3D for theatrical release, said Ned Price, vice president of mastering for Warner Bros. Technical Operations.
It took a decade for the 3D conversion process to be perfected before Warner Bros. allowed Oz — the company’s crown jewel acquired years ago along with the rest of the classic pre-1986 MGM film library — to be released in the format, Price said.
“We’ve tested 3D conversion on this feature for maybe 10 years,” Price said. “The conversion processes and the tools at that time were not satisfactory. They were more like cutouts than 3D. The didn’t have the sophistication and shading like they do now.”
Previously, modern 2D films including Titanic, Jurassic Park and The Lion King have been converted to 3D. Because of its age and filming methods of the time, Oz presented special complications for 3D technicians, Price said.
Early film stock contained lots of grain. Digital photography has no natural grain. It’s added electronically to make today’s motion pictures look more film-like.
“The Wizard of Oz being a Technicolor film photographed in three separate strips has a fairly high grain structure in it,” Price said.
In the 3D conversion process, technicians had to make sure Oz’s grain structure didn’t “lie flat and look like a wall” over the action, he said. “It had to live within the dimension.”
Five years ago for its 70th anniversary, the Oz three-strip Technicolor negative was scanned at 8K high resolution, still considered state of the art. That was the scan used for the film’s first high-def release in 2009, and for the current 3D and Blu-ray releases, Price said.
Price assures that the 2013 Blu-ray release, which also contains a new making-of documentary, improves upon the 2009 high-def disc by further repairing picture fluctuations between the three Technicolor strips. “It alleviates issues in the camera negative that we couldn’t have previously,” he said.
The high-res scan reveals a few anomalies that Warner Bros. technicians decided not to remove: a stray hair here, a photographed fly there. Now during the Munchkinland sequence you can see a spot on Garland’s blue gingham dress — where dog Toto drooled on her, Price said.
When Oz debuted in August 1939, movie palaces often had screens several stories tall. The current IMAX release actually replicates the original theatrical experience, Price said.
“It’s a film that lends itself to large screen and more event-like viewing,” he said.
Fricke, whose latest book, The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, will be released Oct. 7, said despite the technology involved in making and restoring Oz, the film is best known 75 years later for giving 16-year-old Judy Garland “the cornerstone of a star’s immortality.”
“You do a Greta Garbo imitation or Clark Gable imitation, no one knows who you are,” he said. “You do Judy Garland and they understand. You put the pigtails on, the dress and the shoes and you’re home.”