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.

This 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 on batteries.

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 Generation dub!

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!