| As has been
publicized over the past several months, we have been in the process
of taking the original 1987 Matterhorn release of “Law of
the Ninja”, and digitally remastering it on DVD for eventual
distribution over the internet.
was a tedious process begun in 2007, the 20th Anniversary of the
film. There were many technical issues, not the least of which
was the problem with the original master. It was a third generation
dub, as you can see off of the frame capture below:
With today’s computer technology,
it was possible to re-master from the source material, giving
a much cleaner image (even though it is at VHS resolution). Below
is the same frame restored:
How was this possible on a zero budget?
To understand things, it’s best to go back in time two decades
ago, when I first made this film.
I was able to borrow a video camera (circa
1979 technology) from Damien Memorial High School. I shot this
film during the summer between junior and senior years. Here’s
a pic of the camera from the original shoot:
This camera had to be plugged into a VCR.
It wasn’t until X-mas that my family actually bought a camcorder.
I had to lug the family’s stereo VCR around on a wheelchair
for this shoot. Several extension cords were needed to plug into
whatever power source was available, since the VCR did not run
We shot the film on 3 VHS video tapes. When
it came time for the editing process, I had to buy cables in order
to connect the two VCRs that my family owned. My raw footage was
placed in one machine, and I recorded the dub on the other. Each
shot had to be “dubbed” to the recording VCR. This
was to create the “picture edit”. The result was that
the final cut was a 2nd generation dub. There were no sound effects,
music, or clean dialogue.
The main problem with my picture cut was
that many of the shots needed to be a lot longer than desired.
You see, whenever you’re working with tape machines, the
machine needs to get up to speed before it records, otherwise
you get a lot of glitches. It was impossible to do a split second
shot—everything had to last long enough for the recording
VCR to capture.
I also wanted to incorporate wipes and fades
from scene to scene. The video toaster machine I had could only
wipe and fade to black. So what you had between each scene was
a LONG black transition. These transitions and long cuts gave
the film a very slow pace. To give you an idea—the original
cut was 67 minutes. (The remaster is now only 42 minutes, and
that’s with added shots.)
After finishing the picture cut, the next
step was to create the sound design. I had been working with Andrew
Petterson over the past year and a half via snail mail and sending
cassettes to each other with his original musical score. When
I finally received his final mix, I was ready to incorporate it
into the film.
When I originally shot this film, I intended
to dub all of the dialogue as well as sound, so there was no attempt
to get clean sound during production. The camera’s mounted
microphone was the only audio source, and the quality was poor.
In order to complete the sound mix, I bought
an audio mixer from Radio Shack, two microphones (for ADR), and
several connecting cables to hook all of this together. Sound
effects were provided by a Casio SK-1 audio sampling keyboard.
A sound effect could be recorded and then played at the desired
pitch via the piano keyboard. The downside was that only one sound
effect could be played at a time, and the mixer only recorded
to one track.
The setup for the final mix was the source
VCR to recording VCR for picture, and all the audio sources (mics,
cassette deck for music, SK-1 for SFX, and various live foley
items) were plugged into the mixer, which was then routed to the
recording VCR’s audio inputs.
The source tape was the 2nd generation picture
edit. We recorded each scene live. I had to have the dialogue
dubbed, music cued, and all sound effects and foley effects performed
simultaneously since we only had one track to record audio. If
a mistake was made, we started from the beginning of the scene.
Finally, the master copy was complete! But
the result was now a 3rd Generation dub. As you probably know
with videotape, each copy of a copy results in a lower quality.
Once you get to the 3rd generation from the original, ghosting
and other picture artifacting becomes a big problem, as well as
glitches and tracking issues. Below are a couple more screen captures
to illustrate this problem:
Not having access to a Chiron machine or
other subtitle generator, I had to shoot the credits static on
blank paper. This made for a very boring credit sequence.
After finally finishing the original movie
after dedicating 3 years of my life to it, I was glad to have
it done. But I was never satisfied—I always wished that
I had access to professional equipment. But in 1987, that stuff
would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. I had to settle
for what I had.
To give copies to friends and enter into
film festivals, I needed to dub those off of my 3rd Generation
Master–which now meant that each screening copy was a 4th
When I began my professional career in the
1990s, Law Of the Ninja remained my own private secret—my
first feature film that I produced, directed, & starred in
through my own trial & error process. As I began working with
up and coming directors, I realized that each of them shared my
passion for the filmmaking process, and many of them had begun
their careers the same way as I did.
Time wore on, and at the dawn of the 21st
Century, the cost and means of film production finally came down
to the point where ANYONE could afford to make their own film.
I began to re-think all those movies I made with my family in
the backyards of Hawaii and San Diego…perhaps it was possible
to do something with them.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss the genesis
of the Law of the Ninja Special Edition, and how I was able to
make lemonade out of a lemon. Stay Tuned!