In celebration of the recent Gamera: The Complete Collection box set on Blu-ray, contributor Jeremy Williams interviews James Flower. A producer at Arrow Films and project manager on the Gamera collection. Arrow has released a number of Toho films in the last decade, including The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, Dark Water, Pulse, the One Missed Call Trilogy and the Ringu Collection, one of Flower’s favorite Arrow Video titles from last year.
Jeremy Williams: So to start off how long of a process was it from the licensing talks to release of the set?
James Flower: I’m not entirely sure when talks started, but Arrow have had a good working relationship with the Kadokawa Corporation for a while, including the release of our The Ring(u) Collection boxset at the beginning of last year, which included a new in-house restoration of Hideo Nakata’s original film. Kevin Lambert, our Head of Catalogue at Arrow, is a huge Japanese cinema buff and was already a big fan of Gamera. I was first appointed the job of producing the Gamera set in January 2019, with an initial eye towards an August 2019 release. Various things caused the release to be moved back more and more, but it was all ultimately to the benefit of the project as it gave us the time to find more material and further develop our plans for the boxset, which were originally much more modest.
What were some of the difficulties involved with this particular release, if there were any that is?
Initially, the main challenge was to just get my head around the franchise, being a total newbie to not just Gamera but tokusatsu cinema in general. I love doing research and really getting stuck into a project, finding out ways to contextualise a film and present it in a new and exciting way, but this was twelve films from different eras and styles, with multiple versions in some cases. Again, this is where time was on my side, as the delays gave me the time to learn even basic skills some fans may take for granted, like being able to name all the films in sequence! I’d never done a project of this size but it was a challenge I really enjoyed getting my teeth into.
Once it was time to actually enter production (authoring of the discs, and the design of the packaging once Matt delivered his artwork), that was even trickier – we’re only a small team at Arrow in relation to some companies (especially the major studios) and trying to get everything to the finish line with only the barest minimum of screw-ups involved a lot of plate-spinning, to the point where I needed a two-week break for exhaustion! A few mistakes I’m slightly embarrassed by crept into the final set, but I’ll never tell what…
You had mentioned during Kaiju Con-Line about initially the set was going to be released last year in a more barebones set. I’m curious if you wouldn’t mind re-elaborating about what all would’ve been in that set? As well as what lead up to deciding to push the release and include everything that we are getting in the set?
Originally I was given the brief of cramming everything onto six discs (two films per disc), in more standard-sized packaging with only one short book. That seemed fine to start with, but once I really started learning about the franchise’s rocky history on home video, and all the opportunities to draw upon from its 50+ year history, six discs clearly wasn’t going to cut it. If we were going to improve on what previous companies had done, and include all the previous extras as well as alternate cuts like Gammera the Invincible to make the definitive release of the series, we needed more. Eventually, we settled upon eight discs and the disc layout used for the final set as the best combination without letting costs spiral out of control. (Budgets are finite, profit margins are shrinking, and you can’t just add on infinite numbers of discs without it affecting your overall spend.)
There were some other very crucial factors that led to the boxset expanding in size and scope. Firstly, how much we loved and were excited by Matt Frank’s artwork, as it slowly but surely came in one monster at a time throughout the year. Secondly, when we found out we were able to license the Dark Horse comics, doing larger (kaiju-sized!) packaging started to make more and more sense to better present them, and we looked to similarly-shaped examples like our Herschell Gordon Lewis collection and Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman box for inspiration. Lastly, of course, the huge commercial success of Criterion’s Godzilla Showa set (which hadn’t even been announced when I started work on Gamera) gave us the courage to take a giant leap and do something much bolder than we’d originally envisioned, the logic being that even if we did half as well, it would still be a big hit. I’m very pleased to say that gamble has paid off – not to mention relieved!
As far as the films sourced from Japanese prints what kind of sources did Kadakowa give you? As I know the Heisei trilogy were sourced from their recent 4k remasters/restorations. For instance were they the Raw HD masters before any sort of digital cleanup or DNR had been applied? Was Arrow even provided with 4K resolution masters for the Trilogy or were all the films sent over as 1080p masters?
The masters we received from Kadokawa for the Showa-era films are the same masters used on previous releases by Shout Factory and Mill Creek, with some minor additional optimisation on our end to compensate for things like black levels that are often notoriously quite variable in Japanese masters. The Heisei trilogy and Gamera the Brave were all delivered as 4K-resolution masters in SDR, though it’s worth noting that Gamera the Brave was originally filmed and finished in HD, and the 4K master is just an upscale, absolutely identical to the HD version. I’m afraid I don’t know very much about Kadokawa’s mastering practices, what materials were used and how the masters were created, so I’d only be able to speculate on that, but needless to say, Arrow did not add any DNR to the masters – this is something we strictly do not do, except on very rare occasions where it’s usually beyond our control. (Incidentally, I’ve been watching Criterion’s Zatoichi boxset recently and have often wondered if they were remastered by Kadokawa at the same time as the Gamera Showa films, as there’s some visual similarities in terms of the overall look of the masters.)
You mentioned that the masters for the Showa films are the same as the ones used for the Shout Factory and Millcreek releases. Can you confirm if the video glitch present in both releases during the beginning of the first film where the enemy jet is shot down is still present or was it finally corrected for this set?
Yep, that glitch in the first Gamera film is gone, at least as far as I’m aware.
As for the American cut of Gammera the Invincible that was included on this set. Where did you source the film for it to be included in HD?
From the beginning, I was adamant that we include Gammera the Invincible as a bonus feature on the set, especially as it had not had an official (i.e. non-PD), widescreen video release in the past except for the Neptune VHS release in the late-90s. For that release, Neptune had been able to create a new widescreen master from the original film elements held at UCLA, and we’d hoped to do the same in 2K for our release. Sadly, this was not to be. I do want to state for the record however that, contrary to speculation, this was not due to UCLA, who we’ve worked with. In the intervening years since the Neptune VHS, the physical ownership (note: not copyright of the film, which is a different matter) of the film elements changed hands to a major studio, who while friendly and supportive, were reluctant to allow access to the materials without legal clearance documents that weren’t available. This is unfortunate, but very common in Hollywood, where film studios are generally very leery of potential litigation and are averse to risk-taking.
Fortunately, a very good widescreen HD master from an original theatrical print had been made by Legend Films for use in their Rifftrax series, and they happily allowed us to use this master. We did some additional grading and clean-up on this master for the Blu-ray, and re-integrated some shots of an American jet pilot missing from the Legend/Rifftrax version by lifting them from the Kadokawa master for the Japanese version, using an analogue tape master for the dubbed audio in these shots.
With the set being labelled as a limited edition release, is it possible to know how limited this release is? For example will there be another pressing or a more standard version of this set going to be made available by Arrow at some point in the future? Especially for those that may have missed out on this set? I’m also a bit curious if the reason so much from past releases was allowed to be included is due to the fact it’s a limited release?
It’s no secret that the boxset has been limited to 8,000 copies – 5,000 in the US and 3,000 in the UK. At the time we decided that quantity, it seemed like a sensible amount for a niche product that would last until the end of the year, so we’ve been genuinely flabbergasted that it’s pretty much sold out within its first week of release! I’m very sad for those who wanted a copy and weren’t able to get one in time, as we worked very hard on it and I want everyone who wants a copy to get one.
We will, however, be re-releasing the films in “standard” editions, with just the discs in more regular packaging (i.e. no comic book, essay book, art cards, posters etc), at some point in the not-too-distant future, hopefully by the end of the year. I can’t give specifics on that yet, because we’ve yet to make all those decisions – we thought we had more time!
It being a limited edition boxset had no bearing on the contents – the discs will remain the same on future, smaller-scale re-issues, with all the same bonus features.
With all that has been included from previous releases. Including quite a few audio options that I was really surprised to see included considering how some recent releases of similar films have gone. But one thing worth noting that is absent from this release, (especially as it was the way many fans may have been introduced to the films) was Mystery Science Theater 3000. And so I’m curious to know if there were ever any talks of including any of the episodes featuring the Gamera movies on this set in any form? Or even the Rifftrax for the American cut of the first film?
We considered including the MST3K versions for about ten seconds before it became clear we just didn’t have the space to include them as well. Shout Factory have already done a very good DVD release of them in the past, and there just didn’t seem to be any point in repeating their work.
Was there anything included in the set (either on the discs or elsewhere) that you had to fight to include? Or is anything missing from the set because it wasn’t approved quick enough? If so any chance that it may see the light of day at some point in the future?
I don’t know about “fight to include” – Kadokawa were generally a very supportive partner, and rarely turned down our requests (with a couple of obvious exceptions I’ll get to in a minute). The main difficulty was trying to source some of the material from previous US releases, which took some detective work I can’t go into too much detail on, but needless to say, the folks at Shout Factory and Media Blasters were a big help in this regard.
In terms of anything missing due to time constraints, the main thing would be the lack of an August Ragone introduction to Gamera the Brave. The introductions he filmed for the first eleven films were all shot in one marathon session, and it was intended that a second day of filming would be scheduled soon after for filming his introduction to Gamera the Brave as well as some material on Warning from Space and another film. Sadly, COVID-19 struck and filming had to be cancelled – we tried to get the introduction to happen another way, but it wasn’t feasible in the end.
You also mentioned in the Panel during Kaiju Con-Line that you did attempt to include Gamera 4 and the Reboot short. Was any reason given as to why they weren’t allowed to be included? And were there any other things that were unfortunately denied inclusion on the set?
Kadokawa didn’t give a reason, nor did we press very hard – we didn’t expect to be given permission for them but figured it was worth a shot.
As far as the design of the packaging, was it ever talked about just having the discs housed in a more standard case that still came with the included comics, books, and etc.? I only ask as others like myself have noticed that sometimes cases like those tend to scratch the discs more as opposed to a more standard blu-ray case.
Once we decided to “go big or go home” with the packaging, not really – we felt it would be the most aesthetically pleasing way of housing the discs by foregrounding Matt’s art, and frankly, Blu-ray discs are not so easily scratched compared to DVDs. If you’re careful and take good care of the sets, then you shouldn’t have any problems. Though I will confess I also find them a bit of a pain in the butt to get out sometimes as well!
Another question I’m curious to know is with all that is included on the set with various audio options, cuts and bonus features. Was it ever discussed to have maybe one or two extra discs to house the bonus features to conserve more space on the discs for the films and for them to have more robust bitrates? Especially for those discs that essentially have three films on there?
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t really an option due to budget constraints – adding a couple of extra discs doesn’t sound like a big deal taken in isolation but the knock-on effect can be pretty huge in the long run, especially when you’re manufacturing thousands of boxsets which adds up to nearly a hundred thousand discs! Eight discs seemed like a pretty good compromise, and I’m very pleased with how it all turned out in terms of layout.
Just to make a quick point about video encoding – bitrate numbers don’t tell the whole story. You can have a disc with a full-on 40mbps bitrate that still has an inferior encode to one that’s compressed to half the size and bitrate. It’s all about who’s at the controls doing the work, what encoding and authoring software they’re using and how they’re using it; and Arrow are fortunate to work with some of the absolute best in the business at this. Engine House Media Services and Fidelity in Motion, our authoring partners on this project, did an absolutely stellar job at compressing and encoding all the material we gave them – I may be biased, but frankly, I don’t think you can tell the difference.
For all the materials included from the MGM Vault can you comment on the quality and kind of the materials you were able to use? Was any restoration worked required or done on any of them? As well as was anything left out from those materials for whatever reason?
Before I became a disc producer, I trained as a film archivist, and my favourite part of any project is where I get to dig into vaults (albeit metaphorically) and find material that hasn’t been seen anywhere before. The year before Gamera, we transferred some 35mm negative from the MGM vaults that turned out to be alternate footage from the edited-for-television version of RoboCop, in pristine quality! It was such a thrill to present that material in a dedicated featurette on our release of that film, and I was really looking forward to doing more of the same here.
Once we got the greenlight from MGM and Kadokawa to look at what materials they had, we received a list of their holdings for the Gamera films released by American International and Filmways, as well as Warning from Space. Bearing in mind the specific materials we were looking for – credit sequences, outtakes, trailers, and the original English dub audio tracks, we carefully made our selections based on the (sometimes very vague) descriptions, opting for 35mm materials when available (prior to the finished 16mm versions distributed to television). For the most part, I was stunned at the quality of some of the material we were able to transfer, especially after it had spent more than half a century in various vaults. That said, this is where the relative obscurity of these films works in your favour – often, these film elements haven’t even been touched since they were first shelved! As long as film elements are kept cool and dry and stored well, they’ll last for years, and these were no exception. I was especially thrilled to dig up American International’s TV spots for various films, which haven’t been seen by anyone in years, maybe even ever. We were able to get basically everything we wanted, except for the credits for Return of the Giant Monsters (which were sourced from a faded 16mm print) and uncropped Super Monster credits (we had the cropped version in HD and the uncropped from a VHS transfer), but that’s pretty good going!
One thing that also really excited me and a bunch of other fans about this set was that when the dubs were mentioned to be included. It was also stated that they would be getting remastered. Which I think is a first for any of the Gamera dubs unless I’m mistaken. And I would love to know more about all that was done and what were the shape of the dub tracks that Arrow was provided with?
Right from the beginning, I wanted to include as many of the English dubs as we could – I strongly feel that, good or bad, they’re as much a part of the film’s history as its posters or trailers, and always worth preserving. Again, Shout Factory and some of the other prior distributors were a big help in this regard. In terms of the remastering, this was mainly regarding the dub tracks for the films released by American International and Filmways where we accessed the original optical tracks held by MGM – these were transferred, restored and synced to picture by Deluxe Media in LA. Generally they were in good shape but Deluxe did some great clean-up work, in addition to Matt Jarman from Bad Princess Productions in London, who helped us optimise some of the other dubs that were in trickier condition (I think he spent a full day with the Daiei dub for Gamera vs. Barugon!).
If this set sells well, and given the fact that Arrow has started doing 4K UHD releases. Is there any chance that Arrow will look into releasing the Heisei trilogy on 4K Blu-ray at some point in the future?
We don’t have any plans to release the Heisei trilogy on 4K UHD at the moment. If the format continues to be a success for us, who knows what the future may bring? I’d honestly say don’t hold your breath at the moment though.
Given that Arrow has announced that they will be releasing Warning From Space, any chance we could get any hints towards future releases in the genre from Arrow? Perhaps maybe an Arrow release of the Daimajin Trilogy or some Toho produced classic Sci-fi films?
Other than Warning from Space, we have one other vintage Daiei toku release of a similar scale/era coming up early next year, but nothing else in the schedule at the moment. Needless to say, after the success of Gamera, that may change very soon…
As you also mentioned in the Kaiju Con-Line panel about not knowing too much about Gamera before working on this set. Had you seen much of the Kaiju/Tokusatsu genre beforehand? Or was working on this set more of your first time really experiencing the genre?
I’ve been a huge monster movie fan and special effects nerd since I was a kid, but mainly of Western creature features that used special effects techniques more common here like animatronics and stop motion animation. I hadn’t actually seen too many Suitmation films other than the original Gojira and a handful of others prior to working on the Gamera project, more because of lack of opportunity than anything. I’ve really enjoyed working on it though, and it’s given me a huge admiration for the tokusatsu genre; I really hope I get to work on more!
What has been the most fun thing for you about working on this set? And would you be able to say that you have any personal favorite Gamera film(s) at this point? As well as has working on this set made you want to explore the genre more if you haven’t already beforehand?
At the risk of going all soppy, probably the biggest pleasure of working on the set has been working with Matt Frank. His passion for the project, his generosity in offering advice and contacts, and of course his tremendous art was just a hugely galvanising part of working on the set, and it would not be the beast it is without his input. We’ve since worked together on another project that should be out before the end of the year – I can’t wait for people to see his art on that one!
As for my favourite Gamera film, that’s a tricky one! Depending on which mood I’m in, probably a coin toss between Gamera vs. Guiron and Guardian of the Universe.
So im curious as apparently some fans have noticed that the Texarkana dub isn’t the full version as it’s missing portions of the redneck dub where it reverts back to the regular dub. When there is a version where it shouldn’t. Any chance of a plan to fix that issue?
Regarding the Texarkana dub, it’s been established that the version on YouTube was never released to disc and its origins are unknown. We just included the only version that was made available to us, which was the full version previously released on ADV’s DVD, which does not dub all the actors in the film.
Again thank you so much for being a part of making this set a reality as it truly is a fantastic collection of all things Gamera that I would never have thought could be included on a home release outside of Japan.
It’s been my pleasure – I’m still pinching myself we were able to pull so much of this off!