Building A Better DVD Set: A Review of Shout! Factory's Transformers Season 1 Box Set

.....Like the fans of film and television in general, animation fans are a spoiled lot these days. With minimal exceptions, TV shows are released on DVD in abundance, and as aired. Many shows, old and new alike, have robust special features. Media Blasters and World Events Productions have gone as far to re-assemble Voltron using fresh transfers from the 16mm negatives made by Toei (producer of Voltron's two component series), slap the sets in nice tins with excellent artwork and features-and that's before discussing the long-awaited release of the US-only Fleet of Doom special and the original Japanese shows, Golion and Dairugger XV. Other Japanese shows are available at a level unheard of even as recently as the birth of DVD a decade ago. Disney has all but obliterated its suppressed distribution list with its acclaimed Treasures series. And the list goes on and on and on and on.
.....However, for one segment of the cartoon-viewing public, the DVD era has been an exercise in teeth-gnashing frustration. Fans of '80s cartoons have received a great number of incomplete and/or altered DVD releases: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (and its spin-off, She-Ra) is available only in a time-compressed format, with "Diamond Ray of Disappearance" missing about 3 minutes. Dungeons & Dragons has seen 9 of its 27 episodes appear with music replacement (only to see that music appear in another episode in the box set as intended). Kidd Video is currently in limbo because the heavy use of cover songs and music videos. MASK is a victim of rights issues. And, Robotech, despite having a complete release, is a minefield because of the excessive, overlapping web of re-issues.
.....However, no release of an '80s cartoon has been as botched as those of the Sunbow library. The Transformers, which was the first series Rhino released on DVD in earnest (after releases of G.I. Joe: The Movie, Transformers: The Movie, and ports of VHS releases of episodes of The Transformers and The Inhumanoids), became the poster child for Rhino's bungling. The decision to remaster the show quickly became a curse when the 35mm negatives proved to be incomplete, as the re-takes for the first season's episodes (and it turns out that there were a great deal of re-takes) were edited in after being transferred to video, and the negatives for those re-takes were largely missing. While Rhino did find some footage of the re-takes (including the original broadcast masters), the decision was made at some point to maximize picture quality, meaning that a great deal of extremely obvious errors were kept in (with some extremely poor examples of video editing made to cover the most blatant errors of all). To add insult to injury, the new 5.1 sound mix prepared by Magno Sound featured tons of obvious new effects, and a few episodes (such as "Transport to Oblivion") did not have the original mono available on the "2.0 Stereo" option.
.....The final straw for Transformers fans was, fittingly, the season finale, "Heavy Metal War". As presented on the Rhino DVD, the episode features the type and quantity of errors (accompanied with multiple substandard attempts by Rhino to correct other errors) that must have made Marvel and Sunbow's execs recoil in horror upon viewing the footage in 1984. Among the errors: pan shots that don't pan, multiple instances of all three Decepticon jets (Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker) being miscolored, missing and/or incorrectly applied effects animation, incorrect backgrounds, unfinished artwork, backwards transformations, missing foreground layers, missing camera zoom-ins, Megatron not disappearing when called for, miscolored shots of Megatron, off-model humans, and "frozen" animation. An analysis of the episode implies that a good 6 minutes of the episode required re-takes in 1984. Rhino was lucky if it properly fixed half of that footage. And, as an embarrassing coda, the fourth disc of the set featured lengthy comparisons of the 35mm transfers and the broadcast masters, as well as detailed explanations of the various errors, the animator dandruff and hair that was filmed, and even explained that the thick black lines littering the original episodes were in fact signs of the tape splices used to insert re-takes. All in all, this footage, lasting nearly a full hour with only random bits of the show's background music and occasional uses of the actual broadcast audio (the option to toggle between the original audio and the new 5.1 mix having not been enabled) laid bare the extent of Rhino's foul-ups. One bit of spooge photographed had the comment, "Ask Dr. Rhino," implying that it was something too nasty to refer to on a DVD tied into a kids' show. Unfortunately, that was not what fans asked Dr. Rhino about.
.....The set sold well despite complaints, and while the number of botched re-takes dropped (mainly due to a severe lack of re-takes in the rest of the Sunbow canon), the 5.1 mix stayed, with the second set of Season 2 episodes only having the awful 5.1 mixes. Neil Kaplan, who had nothing to do with the Sunbow run of The Transformers, was interviewed. A pair of Botcons were covered, but they dwelled on some rather dubious matters. An interview with Michael McConnohie featured rather odd comments about voice acting god Frank Welker, Ron Friedman's interview on the first G.I. Joe box set featured repeated "hints" by the writer that he'd appreciate copies of the box set he was being interviewed for, and Marv Wolfman's interview was conducted outdoors with a fair amount of noise in the background. Coupled with Rhino's total lack of communication in response to fans, and it was apparent that the Sunbow sets lacked a certain professional polish.
.....Fast-forward to 2009. Transformers: The Movie had received a stunning restoration (in widescreen and open matte formats, no less) in 2006 for its 20th Anniversary, but promises of further releases were halted when Sony shut down the subsidiary that had handled the DVD. Hasbro, aiming to further promote their rather terrible live-action G.I. Joe and Transformers movies, awarded home video rights of the classic Joe and Transformers (which Hasbro had acquired, along with the rest of the Sunbow library, in 2008) to Shout! Factory, a company founded by ex-Rhino staffers. However, in a move strongly contrasting with the Rhino experience, Shout! Factory's producer, Brian Ward, not only declared himself a fan of G.I. Joe and The Transformers, but he used the company's message board to solicit help in identifying flaws in the DVDs of both shows (to which your humble webmaster contributed, it must be noted).
.....Sweetest of all has been the announcement of complete series sets scheduled to quickly follow the initial box sets for both G.I. Joe and The Transformers. Those sets will cost $145 and $140, respectively, while individual sets will chime in at about $20-$30 less than the awful Rhino sets. The artwork on the individual sets is even better-The Transformers Season 1 set mimics the style of the old Hasbro toy art, right down to the grid and the red and purple skies. Familiar characters like Prime and Megatron are rendered by a capable artist (albeit in the style of the modern comic books, which is a more detailed take on the Sunbow designs), and welcome to fans who derided the poor interpretations on the Rhino tapes and DVDs. The liner notes continue this style, with one exception: the front and back covers feature silhouettes of Prime and Megatron, with appropriate Autobot and Decepticon symbols superimposed of each character. Inside are synopses of each episode (with, at last, the identities of each episode's writer!), each episode's original airdate (which varies wildly from the story continuity order), a screen grab for each episode, DVD credits, and a note on the re-take issue. Also included is an ad for the first G.I. Joe set (with some Transformers comics on the other side of the sheet) and a black-and-white Autobot symbol magnet. The packaging is on par with the best of the '80s DVD sets.
.....The contents of the discs themselves meet this standard, even if the trailers on Disc 1 (other than one for the latest Mystery Science Theatre 3000 collection) don't seem well suited to the tastes of Sunbow fans. The trailers and the rendition of the opening theme (the gunked-up version from the Rhino sets, it must be noted) are extremely loud, though, especially since the sound on the episodes is a rather quiet stereo remix of the original mono tracks (and it's the only audio option). The menus mimic the look of the first part of the first season intro, and once the "Play All"/"Episodes" screen appears, there's a cycle of Transformer animations, most culled from the commercial bumpers. When selecting "Play All", viewers receive the option on both discs to play the multi-part episodes as a movie, or as aired, something that it took Rhino until Season 3 to implement.
.....The episodes for the most part behave the same as their Rhino counterparts (save the re-takes), but have far better chapter stops: after the intro, after the recap (when applicable), after Act 1, after Act 2, after Act 3, after the preview (again, when needed), and like the Rhino discs, a ghost chapter after the credits. However, there's no option on the episode select screen to select chapters before starting-a curious departure from the DVD norm. The end credits are the same as the Rhino discs, unfortunately, so the credits are not consistent with the real deal. The bit rate on all episodes appears to be increased (due to the missing audio track, I suspect), and the anti-aliasing and DVNR that the Rhino set had are greatly reduced. Even "Countdown to Extinction", an episode completely sourced from the broadcast master on both sets, looks better on this new set.
.....However, re-takes put into the episodes by Rhino and those put in by Shout! Factory look noticeably different: Rhino-added clips are grainier and have colors that are more washed out. Other than some minor color banding and snow in the overscan area in the clips added to "Heavy Metal War", the Shout!-added footage looks better than that re-inserted by Rhino. Unfortunately, some re-takes have been missed by Shout! Factory. The good news, though, is that they are almost entirely segregated to three episodes: The Ultimate Doom Part III, "A Plague of Insecticons", and "Heavy Metal War". The Ultimate Doom Part III's remaining errors are almost entirely the result of Rhino digitally fixing Shockwave's blinky, as well as problems with the sequence at the end with Megatron's space cruiser (an incorrect background for an exterior shot, the explosion of the Energon Cubes, and the dissolve from Prime to the cruiser's wreckage). "A Plague of Insecticons" (which, according to Brian Ward, has a particularly decayed broadcast master) has a miscolored shot of Sideswipe, as well as some wrong backgrounds in the thunderstorm sequence. And Heavy Metal War's remaining few errors involve Wheeljack and his Shock Blast Cannon, the roll call/line-up of the Constructicons (which has a very subtle difference in takes revolving around Long Haul's movements), and two examples of Rhino video editing: Starscream by the transfer machine (the glow of the Rectifier Chip chamber was inserted) and Huffer towing away Prime's trailer at the start of Act 3 (Huffer was altered because the original take has his cab turning red when he pulls away with the trailer). The remaining errors in the entire set are a blue Starscream at the start of The Ultimate Doom Part II, an incorrect transition at the end of "More Than Meets the Eye" Part III (along with correct footage in the recap borrowed from the prior episode, when the real recap had footage with a white zero on Wheeljack's bomb), a missed "glow" effect for Reflector's viewfinder in "Divide and Conquer", and a couple of stray Red Decepticon logo Skyfire's and missing snowing effects (from the snowball fight at the beginning) in "Fire in the Sky".
.....While the above would normally have me screaming, it's the assurance by Mr. Ward that these errors will be corrected for the complete series set, and replacement discs will follow as well. As of this writing, the complete series set ships in two days, and it's been about ten since the full load of errors were posted on the Shout! Factory boards. That's an outstanding turnover, especially for a box set with niche appeal, and worthy of applause. And for fans of '80s cartoons, it's a long overdue victory in the quest to see quality releases of the shows they love.

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