To Kill A Mockingbird appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Fans tend to regard “catalog” releases from Universal with a healthy level of skepticism, as the studio has provided more than a few problematic releases. I’m happy to say that Mockingboard escapes mostly unharmed.
Mostly, but not entirely. Probably the biggest controversy will relate to the transfer’s use of digital noise reduction. This clearly accompanies the image – heck, a featurette on the disc eagerly acknowledges this fact – but the level of DNR varies. The shots most heavily affected come from those that used optical zooms; rather than push in with the camera, the filmmakers created “zooms” after the fact. The technique emphasized zoom since it blew up the original photography.
Because they felt this magnified grain would create a distraction, the Blu-ray’s producers decided to use noise reduction techniques to “equalize” the grain. Rather than eliminate the grain entirely, they averaged it out; they figured what the scene’s “typical” grain would be and used it for the whole scene, rather than have the viewer see varying/escalating grain.
They should’ve left the film alone. The “equalization” tends to make the pushed scenes look fuzzy and odd. The method means that one potential distraction – from the varying grain – simply gets substituted with another, as the muddiness of the “equalized” shots is just as off-putting, if not more.
Outside of those occasional scenes, though, I thought the transfer looked good. I got the impression a bit of noise reduction was used elsewhere, but in light amounts, so we still got a natural look to most of the image. Sharpness was usually tight and well-defined, without many obvious examples of softness. Jagged edges and shimmering didn’t mar the presentation, and I witnessed no edge haloes.
Black levels appeared quite good, as they usually looked deep and dark in an image that offered some positive contrast. Occasional outdoors shots seemed a bit too bright, though. Shadow detail also looked fine, with mostly appropriate levels of opacity, and the image lacked print flaws beyond a speck or two. Overall, the Blu-ray created an appealing representation of the movie.
In addition to the film’s original monaural audio, the Blu-ray tossed in a DTS-HD MA 5.1 remix. Frankly, I continue to prefer the original mono, but I found little about which to gripe when I listened to the multichannel track, as it maintained a subdued soundfield. Music boasted gentle stereo spread across the front, though the instrumentation wasn’t particularly well-defined. I got a vague impression that strings favored the left side of the spectrum, but otherwise the mix didn’t delineate the elements with particular clarity.
Effects mostly stayed with general neighborhood ambience such as the chirping of birds. A few scenes featured elements like cars as the moved from one side to the other, and the occasional piece popped up in one spot. For instance, when Atticus shot the rabid dog, the rifle fire came from the front left. Overall, though, the mix lacked a lot of activity. Surrounds echoed the music and effects in a minor way but failed to play an active role.
Audio quality was fine and resembled the sound heard on the original mono track. While I did have more trouble than usual comprehending dialogue during To Kill A Mockingbird, that resulted from the accents and delivery of the actors, not from the quality of the audio. Speech really sounded quite natural and warm for the most part. A smidgen of sibilance appeared on occasion, but not enough to cause real concerns. Effects also seemed nicely rounded and relatively deep.
Only the score sometimes came as a slight disappointment, as it sometimes appeared a bit thin and dull. However, Elmer Bernstein’s music also could present more dynamic tones at times; I thought it varied a little too much, but I found it to satisfy through most of the flick. For a 50-year-old movie, this film's audio mix seemed pretty good.
As I noted earlier, I didn’t prefer the 5.1 track to the mono version. While I didn’t encounter any real problems with the multi-channel mix, it simply seemed unnecessary. Occasionally a 5.1 remix of a mono film adds spark. Mockingbird didn’t need that extra pizzazz and didn’t benefit from it. I’m not sure why anyone bothered to remix such a quiet film.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the ”Legacy Series” DVD from 2005? Audio was a wash, as the 50-year-old material didn’t offer much room for sonic improvements. On the other hand, visuals worked a lot better, as the Blu-ray was tighter, cleaner and more attractive overall.
The Blu-ray replicates most of the DVD’s extras and adds some new ones. The first attraction comes from a running audio commentary from director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula. It's a pretty flat affair that seems spotty with not a lot of substance. Their remarks usually fall firmly in the "he's great, she's great, they're great" camp with little insight into the production or analysis of the film.
Early on, we hear some good discussion of working with the kids, and they also touch on the less-than-pleasant personality of one of the actors, but that's about it. The rest of the comments tend toward blunt praise. It also didn't help that a lot of dead air mars the proceedings. This commentary isn't without merit, but it's a very lackluster experience; you’ll learn much more from the documentary that appears next.
Called Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill A Mockingbird, this piece features interviews conducted in 1997 with director Robert Mulligan, producer Alan Pakula, screenwriter Horton Foote, composer Elmer Bernstein, Threatening Boundaries author Claudia Durst Johnson and actors Gregory Peck, Phillip Alford, Mary Badham, Collin Wilcox, Brock Peters and Robert Duvall. They cover the basics of making the flick such as the adaptation of the novel, why various primary participants were interested in the project, casting, locations and sets, the score, shooting the film and development of characters.
In addition, the program spreads its focus more broadly than that and also examines both the 1960s civil rights-oriented society in which the picture was made and the Southern culture of the 1930s time period of the film. We hear from a variety of folks who lived through each of those experiences, and their stories add a lot to the impact of the program. This roster includes Alabama attorney Cleophus Thomas Jr., and Monroeville residents AB Blass, Norman Barnett, and Ada Gaillard. They provide a feel for the South in this time period and reflect on that era. The two sides of the program combine neatly and add up to an excellent documentary.
After this we get A Conversation with Gregory Peck. And it’s a long chat too, as the program runs one hour, 37 minutes and 37 seconds. It partially presents live stage appearances during which he discussed his life and career. During the Q&A, Peck addresses what film of his he likes best, his feelings toward Audrey Hepburn and work with her, his family and religious upbringing, his experiences related to various flicks like Duel in the Sun, Mockingbird, The Boys from Brazil, Moby Dick and Cape Fear, how he met his wife Veronique, early acting parts and his approaches to roles, winning the Oscar, the impact of Gentleman’s Agreement and his political views, his family, and general memories.
“Conversation” mixes the live appearances with footage of Peck with his family and friends as well as some other interviews. This combines to give us a good look at his life, though I think I’d prefer more of a focus on the live pieces. The presentation makes these bits a little disjointed and occasionally redundant, so it’d have been nice to get a true evening with Peck. The program works pretty well anyway, and it shows us once more what a charming class act Peck was.
For something exclusive to the Blu-ray, we go to the U Control feature. Across other Blu-rays, this has been an interactive component that touches on different elements. In this case, we get a “Scene Companion” narrated by Peck’s children Cecilia and Anthony.
What does the “Scene Companion” offer? A standard picture-in-picture piece with a fancy name, essentially. We get remarks from Mulligan, Pakula, Foote, Peck, Foote, Bernstein, Badham, Alford, Peters, Duvall and Wilcox. The “Companion” delivers info about the opening sequence, the novel and its adaptation, cast and performances, music and a few other areas.
Much of the “Companion” focuses on those interview soundbites – some of which come from the previously discussed documentary. When Anthony and Cecilia Peck pop up, they usually offer biographical information about a variety of cast and filmmakers.
Like many picture-in-picture programs, this one suffers from erratic execution. We do find some good material, but a lot becomes redundant after “Fearful Symmetry”, and the new bits aren’t that exciting.
In addition, we encounter vast expanses of dead air, so you often have to wait a while for new pop-up clips. If “U Control” offered a better interface and let you easily skip from one segment to another, I wouldn’t mind so much, but that’s not the case. To jump around, you need to go back to the main menu each time. That gets tiresome, though it’s still better than having to sit through the whole movie for so little information. The “Scene Companion” has its moments but is too frustrating to be worth the effort.
A one-minute, 31-second Academy Award Best Actor Acceptance Speech comes next. We see Sophia Loren announced Gregory Peck’s victory and hear his simple 40-second set of thanks. Wow – a big-name star who gets on and off in 40 seconds? I think Cuba Gooding leapt about for longer than that before he even bothered to speak!
More honors come down on Peck in the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. This 10-minute and one-second clip shows Peck as he chats about his long career. He gives this a very personal and charming touch as he provides a tribute to others and many entertaining stories. It’s a great little clip.
The plaudits keep on keeping on during the 10-minute, nine-second Excerpt from Academy Award Tribute to Gregory Peck. This consists entirely of a speech made by his daughter Cecilia. She tells a few nice stories about her dad, but this isn’t nearly as interesting as Peck’s own comments in the AFI piece.
After this we shift to a 1999 featurette called Scout Remembers. As one might expect, the 12-minute, one-second piece presents a chat with actor Mary Badham. She talks about her casting, working with Peck, and her reflections on the flick. Badham simply tosses out happy happy joy joy remarks here with little of interest. I don’t doubt she did have a great experience, but her comments don’t add up to anything very compelling.
The disc concludes with an interesting theatrical trailer for Mockingbird - complete with a circa 1962 introduction from Peck – and a featurette titled 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics. In this nine-minute, 13-second reel, we hear from Universal Studios Vault Services VP of Image Assets/Preservation Bob O’Neil, Universal Studios Technical Services VP Peter Schade, Kodak Pro-Tek Media Preservation VP of Preservation Services Rick Utley, Universal Studios Digital Services engineer Henry Ball, Universal Studios Technical Services mastering supervisor Phil Defibaugh, Universal Studios Technical Services mastering supervisor Ken Tom, and Universal Studios Technical Services supervising sound editor John Edell. They cover all the procedures used to bring Mockingbird and other movies to Blu-ray. It’s a reasonably informative take on the subject.
A second disc tosses in a DVD Copy of Mockingbird. This gives us a full-featured version, so it’s more useful than the emasculated DVDs that come with some Blu-rays.
My feelings about To Kill A Mockingbird remain fairly mixed. It has some strong points but lacks much focus and seems like a fairly pedestrian effort at times. The Blu-ray delivers quite good visuals, solid audio and a fine roster of supplements. This becomes the strongest home video representation of the film to date.
To rate this film visit the Legacy Series review of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD