Can a film look better on video than it did in theaters?
Theoretically, no way. By most measures, a frame of movie film has four times more resolution than one frame of a DVD — and eight times more than one frame of a VHS cassette.
So how come Disney’s new VHS release of A Bug’s Life, the Pixar feature that crawled past competing ‘toons at the box office last fall, looks just as detailed as, and way more psychedelically colorful than, what I saw in theaters?
Simple: Because Disney and Pixar have taken the original computer data used to create their animated film — if you can still call it a film, since there’s no actual celluloid involved at this point — and electronically rechanneled it directly into VHS and DVD editions. That’s a far superior approach than outputting the imagery to movie film and then copying that version onto video. (That’s how the computer-animated Toy Story and Antz were transferred to home-viewing formats — and why they don’t look as good as Bug’s Life.) As the Disney folks describe it, a normal film-to-video transfer is like looking at a fax of a fax; you lose a lot of detail compared with the original image. Watching the directly downloaded Bug’s Life on video, it’s as if Pixar’s artists unplugged the computer monitors they used to create their shots and lugged them over to your house. (And I should know: I took a leave from EW back in 1995 to write a book about the making of Pixar’s Toy Story.)
Boosting picture quality is an important plus for a movie as dependent on visual dazzle as A Bug’s Life. The plot, about a colony of ants banding together to fend off nasty grasshoppers, doesn’t have the sheer-genius ineluctability of Toy Story, but the gags are just as inspired. (”Hey, waiter,” yells a fly at an insect bar, ”I’m in my soup!”) And the imagery, especially on video, outsoars Buzz Lightyear: Whenever the setting shifts to an early-morning outdoor vista, the colors look like they’re emanating from an actual light source. The blue and lavender faces of ants Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) and Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), which looked vibrant enough in movie theaters, now look like resplendent, freshly painted car chassis.
Along with goosing up the image quality, Pixar and Disney have done something else revolutionary: For the ”standard” VHS version that fills up your whole screen, they’ve literally remade more than half the shots in the feature. You may not have even noticed, but in theaters, Bug’s Life had the broad, twice-as-wide-as-it-is-high Cinemascope shape typically used for big live-action epics. That means that when it came time to translate, say, a shot of two ants at opposite ends of the screen into a TV-shaped square, one ant would have to get bumped out of the picture (except in the ”wide-screen” tape and DVD editions, which preserve the original compositions with black bands above and below the image).
To solve the rectangular-peg-in-a-square-hole problem for ”full-screen” VHS — which will far outsell the wide-screen versions — Pixar’s artists reworked their movie shot by shot. About half the time, they went ahead and cropped off the sides of the original image. For other shots, however, they’ve re-crunched the original computer calculations and magically extended the image’s borders, so that figures toward the sides don’t drop out of the frame. In other cases, animated figures have been moved closer together to minimize the impact of cropping.
Of course, re-rendering so many of the rich images in Bug’s Life was far more time-consuming and way more expensive than just pan-and-scanning them. Disney could have decreed that for video, Pixar would have to do to its original images what the grain-stealing grasshoppers propose doing to the story’s upstart ants: Squish ’em! Instead, they custom-fitted their work to another medium — and in some ways have topped how the film looked in theaters. Now that’s a move that’s good for the whole colony. All versions: A-