The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents March 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Man in the Chair
Crossing the Line
DVD Playback
Ford at Fox
Jean-Luc Godard
Close Encounters
David Watkin
ASC Close-Up
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $39.95

On a starry night in Indiana, several unusual incidents occur. A confused pilot calls into radio control with a description of brightly colored lights in the sky. In the moments that follow, toddler Barry (Cary Guffey) is delighted that something seems to be visiting his home and runs into the darkness to see what lurks outside, much to the distress of his sleepy mother Gillian (Melinda Dillon).

Nearby, a power company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), lost on a rural road while investigating a mysterious power outage, witnesses blinding lights in the sky just above him. His truck is then violently shaken and lifted briefly before the lights move on, illuminating different parts of the fields below. Roy chases the lights in his truck and almost mows down Gillian, who is in pursuit of her son. Moments later, several fast-moving spacecraft appear to Roy, Gillian, Barry and other onlookers before vanishing over the highway as police cars chase them. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a top secret international research team headed by Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) is investigating similar phenomena, and their work will eventually involve the fates of Roy, Gillian and Barry, among others.

The science-fiction fantasy Close Encounters of the Third Kind was an idea that had long gestated in young director Steven Spielberg’s mind, and he began work on the project shortly after wrapping Jaws. To bring the magical light show to life, Spielberg tapped cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (Deliverance, The Deer Hunter), with whom he had worked on The Sugarland Express (1974). Zsigmond and Spielberg wanted to give Close Encounters a sharp, contemporary look, with attention paid to the many layers of light and shadow in the story’s largely nighttime skies. To realize the picture’s extensive visual effects, Zsigmond worked closely with special-effects photographer Douglas Trumbull, who created the luminous optical illusions on 65mm to ensure maximum quality when reduced for optical printing on Zsigmond’s 35mm anamorphic canvas.

With support from BSC members Douglas Slocombe, ASC members Laszlo Kovacs and John Alonzo, and a second unit led by Steven Poster, ASC, Zsigmond created a rich, colorful panorama against the inky black and starry sky that is entirely unique and has since taken on iconic status. For his efforts on that film, Zsigmond won the Academy Award. (For his vivid work on many films and numerous contributions to the field, he was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.)

In honor of its 30th anniversary, Close Encounters was recently released in an Ultimate Edition. This impressive three-disc set contains the 135-minute original theatrical version released in 1977, the 132-minute special edition released in 1980, and the 137-minute director’s cut released in 1997. All three picture transfers are clean and sharp and feature generally good contrast, a quality that was often lacking on the 1997 DVD of the director’s cut. Zsigmond’s work is well captured, illuminating even more attention to shadow-and-light layering than the 2001 DVD. The audio, presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, is generally crisp, with heavy bass. The 5.1 track has some problems with distortion during heavy activity, making the DTS track the clearer and more satisfying of the two.

Each version of Close Encounters has been given a separate platter, and Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent feature-length documentary about the production is spread out over the three discs. Originally produced for the 1998 laser-disc edition of the film, this exhaustive documentary includes substantial interviews with Spielberg and principal cast and crew, including Zsigmond and Trumbull.

Additional supplements are as follows: on disc one, a six-minute theatrical trailer from 1977; on disc two, the theatrical trailer for the director’s cut; on disc three, a promotional featurette from 1977 called “Watch the Skies” as well as a newly produced 30-minute interview with Spielberg. Rounding out the package are a book of photographs from the production and a full-sized replica of the film’s original one-sheet backed with a terrific, detailed “mapping” of each of the three versions.

Close Encounters has always had impressive incarnations for home screens, from early letterboxed VHS tapes to numerous solid laser-disc treatments of the various versions (particularly the landmark 1990 Criterion Collection release), but this package is truly the “ultimate edition.” For the first time ever, fans can easily compare the three versions in one package. With the help of this informative and dazzling new presentation, this enduring science-fiction fantasy will forever glow on, tempting us to believe that we are truly not alone.

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