For a show that went off the air (in its original run, anyway) more than 20 years ago, few TV series continue to inspire such incredible devotion from their fans as Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now in limbo once again after the end of its two-season run on Netflix, the continuation of MST3K feels more inevitable than ever, because the dedication of its fans is a well that never runs dry. And I’ve found one fan in particular whose zeal for MST3K has created new, alternate versions of more than 80 classic episodes, at the cost of a dozen or more hours of labor for every single one. This is arguably the ultimate MST3K fan, right here.
I say that as someone who has dedicated no small amount of time to writing about MST3K myself. I’ve interviewed series creator Joel Hodgson for Paste, and I’ve interviewed the cast of the Netflix reboot as well. Hell, I even wrote a massive ranking of all 197 post-KTMA episodes, including the Netflix era, and that 70,000-plus word piece didn’t exactly get done overnight. But even our MST3K coverage pales in comparison to the effort made by this YouTuber, who goes by the moniker (and channel name) GaryInMotion.
GaryInMotion (his first name is likely clear, but he requested to simply go by the name of the channel) is the creator of something he calls MST3K “Cinema Editions,” a long-running project to present the films of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in their best possible looking and sounding versions. That means finding all new, cleaner, higher resolution or remastered versions of everything from The Day the Earth Froze to Zombie Nightmare, before painstakingly editing the riffing from the original MST3K episode into the resulting Cinema Edition, removing the show’s signature “shadowrama” effect in the process. To date, GaryInMotion has done this on more than 85 full episodes and 25 shorts, over the course of two years, and he plans to keep going until he’s presented the entirety of MST3K in sparkling clarity—or as good as can be found, anyway.
In doing so, he’s turned the focus back on the films themselves, which in some instances makes a case that perhaps certain MST3K films weren’t quite as bad as they originally appeared to be during broadcast. Because GaryInMotion has often found versions of these films with much improved audio and visual quality, it gives the audience a chance to see what it might have been like to witness something like Eegah in a theater during its original release—complete with the bonus of audio riffing from Joel, or Mike, or the bots. It’s a series for people whose curiosity about the films themselves goes beyond the norm of the average MST3K geek.
It should be noted that GaryInMotion does not monetize this YouTube series in any way—he does it simply for the love of MST3K, and as a hobby that runs parallel to a career in Hollywood sound effects/dialog editing. Even among the fellow MST3K geeks, the series doesn’t seem to be extremely well known—but it really should be. The sheer amount of time and effort that this guy has put into every single episode, investing his own time and money into sourcing new versions of these films, makes it one of the most loving tributes that the series has ever seen.
Impressed by the massive volume of work that these Cinema Editions have entailed, I conducted an interview with GaryInMotion over the web. He replied with a huge amount of detail on how exactly he’s pulled off more than 80 entries in the series to date.
Tell me about your background in editing. It sounds like you worked on some notable films that the genre geeks would know?
GaryInMotion: I cut my teeth as an apprentice sound effects and dialogue editor in Hollywood during the mid-1980s, working for the studio system on anything I could get my hands on. Luckily it was right in the middle of the horror resurgence, and I found myself working on the camp classics Puppet Master, Warlock, I Come In Peace (aka Dark Angel) and the remake of The Blob.
I was fortunate to be mentored by one of the great sound guys from Return of the Jedi, Bill Mann. Before he let me touch a foot of film, Bill told me to study the opening 7 minutes of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller, The Conversation. Each shot in those opening scenes is carefully crafted to get the audience to focus on the conversation of two people as it’s captured by surveillance team members moving through a busy city park. That film forever shaped my understanding and appreciation of film sound recording, editing and mixing.
Do you still work in that field today?
GaryInMotion: I do some occasional editing for a couple of actress friends I made along the way. However, these days the culmination of the sound and visual editing experience, along with animation and visual effects, have all been applied to my work in the tech industry. I get to create something new everyday, that people around the world see on their mobile devices and desktops.
How did you initially conceive the Cinema Editions concept?
GaryInMotion: Recalling a classic Tom Servo riff, “You know, just because you can edit, doesn’t mean you should.” That’s from Devil Fish (aka Monster Shark).
As all ideas (good and bad) start with “what if?” I asked myself, “what if fans could watch the full, uncut versions of the films featured on MST3K without losing the hilarious riffing?” What would the experience be like if the films were viewed in a similar atmosphere as the writers had when they were working on the show’s scripts? How would I go about doing this without bringing about “sacrilege”? Would anyone watch it?
I also wondered if a majority of the show’s fans had even seen the uncut versions of any of the films riffed. I myself had only seen a handful: Laserblast and Hangar 18 (as a kid in the theater), and Soultaker and Hobgoblins on home video. Prior to MST3K, I had never even heard of things like Prince of Space or Teenagers from Outer Space (Those were a bit before my time). So I bought a few of the full-length films on DVD and watched them with fresh eyes. Two things became immediately apparent: First, as if pre-programmed, I would automatically and out loud, riff at the appropriate time in the film (mirroring that of the episode). And second, there’s so much story lost when you edit down a film.
What kinds of things did you discover had been edited from the films?
GaryInMotion: One of the amazing things I discovered when watching the full-length films was that certain riffs were derived from situations created by the editing for broadcast. Classic case in point: Three quarters of the way through the film Mitchell, Crow comments: “Wait, wasn’t John Saxon in this movie?” It’s hilarious because it’s true, as his character seemed to have simply disappeared halfway through the story. Spoiler Alert: When you watch the uncut version, you discover that John Saxon’s character is killed when his dune buggy flips and explodes after an extended chase scene with Mitchell himself, Joe Don Baker. You can’t un-see that, unless you never did. It completely changes the story of the film.
What were your biggest priorities in creating these Cinema Editions?
GaryInMotion: As I’m not using any footage from the television show itself, the clean up of the episodes is exclusively to the audio track. To this day, even the re-release of a lot of the episodes contain a ton of hiss and other background noise that can make Joel, Mike and the bots hard to hear. So making their audio sound as good as the look of the new uncut print is key. Speaking of the quality of the film shown in the episodes, there are in fact a handful of the episodes that have prints that look better than the best available uncut versions. The Startfighters is a great example. Every copy of that film I’ve been able to get my hands on is a poor dub of a dub. I’d love to have the print they used on the show!
Where are you finding better-looking versions of these films for your episodes?
GaryInMotion: I have many distribution sources (public and private), as well as fans of the channel who often provide me leads on who might have a film I’m looking for. With every film, I do a lot of research and communication to find and purchase the best possible master available. Out of print titles are the toughest to track down, and the most expensive. The most I ever paid for an original out of print film was $200 for the extremely rare widescreen The Last Chase starring Lee Majors (KTMA Episode 20).
What does your actual process of creating a Cinema Edition look like?
GaryInMotion: I bring the masters of both the uncut film and the MST3K episode into Adobe Premiere. Occasionally, I’ll start in After Effects if I need to fix something a little more complex (such as timecode burn-in). Once in Premiere, I start with assessing what I’m working with and determine what needs to be tweaked before I begin editing. This usually includes sound leveling/EQ/de-noise, grading corrections, picture enhancements and frame alignment.
When it comes down to the editing, the uncut film’s video track is visual master, and the MST3K sound track is the audio master. The uncut film’s sound track serves as a guide for the MST3K audio to edit against. The film’s audio track is completely muted, except during any scenes not included in the original MST3K episode. This is where the film’s audio is meticulously and seamlessly (as possible) mixed with the MST3K audio to create a new master.
A glimpse at what editing a Cinema Edition looks like.
Editing the audio is definitely the heaviest lifting of this process, but the mixing is what takes the most time. The goal is to have both audio tracks sound nearly imperceptible to one another in the final mix. Back to my study of The Conversation: There’s a scene where Gene Hackman’s character takes all the audio tapes from his surveillance team, lock-syncs the recorders together, then proceeds to live mix them for the cleanest dialogue stream in a new master. It’s similar to the method I’ve adopted for the Cinema Edition mix.
Foreign-based films such as the “Gamera” series are tricky, in that if an alternate English-audio track is not available, I’ll mix in the original foreign language track and bring in subtitles. However, when there is no English audio track, nor subtitles available, I have to out-source an interpreter to translate the audio and create a transcript. Then I hand-build the subtitles into the final mix.
When all is said and done, an average film takes anywhere between 8-14 hours of work to complete.
Is it impossible to leave the theater silhouettes intact while doing this, because of aspect ratios and such?
GaryInMotion: This was both a technical and a creative decision I wrestled with when I started. Yes, I could spend the time roto-scoping/masking, upscaling and otherwise enhancing the 4:3 shadowrama so that when married with the uncut film, it looks like the entire show was done in HD. But that’s not at the heart of what I’m trying to do with the Cinema Editions. My versions are meant for the (bad) film purists who want as beautiful of a print available, with the added bonus of the riffs from the show. If fans want the version with the opening/closing titles, host segments and shadowrama (essentially, the original broadcast episodes) there’s plenty of places to view those. Still, I worried about what fans would think by the omission of the iconic shadowrama effect.
I had one fan reach out to me shortly after the channel was a couple of months old. He totally got hit when he said, “These Cinema Editions are like if you were in a movie theater, with Joel, Mike and the bots sitting behind you riffing away at your own private showing. And when the cut segments appear and you don’t hear them any more, it’s because they went out for snacks … they’ll be right back.” I was like, “Yes, thank you!”
Which episodes have the most dramatic improvement from what the film looked like/sounded like in the initial broadcast? Are those the ones you’re most proud of? If not those, which are your favorites that you’ve touched up?
GaryInMotion: There are so many, but hands down the film that I’m most proud of is The Day The Earth Froze. The MST3K version was from a heavily edited and poor quality television cut of the film. When I obtained the Finnish-only version (called Sampo), I noticed that there were scenes shot only for the television version that were not included in this new print. That meant a bunch of riffs had to be removed (as their corresponding scenes no longer existed). I ended up resequencing the entire riff narrative from scratch to essentially build a new version of the show. The fan reviews were mixed: They loved that they could now actually see and hear the original film and loved the story, but were thrown by the absence of some of the riffs they remembered.
My other favorite restoration is the classic short Mr. B Natural: The Final Cut. That second part of the name comes from the fact that there exists three versions of this short: The one you saw on MST3K, a public domain version, and the print I was able to obtain. Combined, they represent the final and most complete version of this short, including the film leader and promotional card at the start. Also unique to the “final cut” was the audio mix which includes the guys from MST3K (Joel, Trace, and Bill) and Rifftrax (Mike, Kevin, and Bill), performing together (virtually) for the first and probably only time. The varying quality of the three different prints stands out when viewing, but the overall effect is something I had envisioned for years and was thrilled to complete.
What was the most difficult episode to finish, and why?
GaryInMotion: That would be The Unearthly, with John Carradine. This episode originally aired on the show in blue-tint and a 4:3 aspect ratio. Restored to black and white and widescreen, unfortunately the digital master had timecode that would constantly drift. The film was shot at 24fps, and there were no audio pitch variations, but it simply would not lock timecode. So I had to isolate, cut and re-sync every single line of dialogue throughout the entire film. To compensate for gaps created by editing all the dialogue, I had to also create a background audio bed from soundtrack elements to mix in and fill those holes. It’s basically starting from scratch. The entire process took 20 hours over a two week period. I almost called it quits after that one, but the results are something I’m really happy with. I hear from a lot of fans commenting on the great picture and sound, which makes the grueling process worth it.
Have you ever heard from anyone connected to the show—former cast, crew members, writers, etc—who have seen these versions? What did they think of them?
GaryInMotion: This ongoing project has always been for fans of the show and film lovers. That someone actually tied to the show would view or comment on it would be a bonus for sure, but to my knowledge that hasn’t happened yet. I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the show’s return in the Kickstarter #BringBackMST3K campaign and be a part of thanking Joel for making us all laugh for 30+ years. My dream is to someday be any part of the post-production process for future MST3K projects. Well, that and 100K subscribers.
You know, there is a strange, but funny by-product of having really good prints of these films out there for fans to view. I’m part of Generation X, and I’ll occasionally get a message from Boomers or older who’ve never heard of, or seen Mystery Science Theater 3000. Someone will have stumbled upon one of the 50’s sci-fi films and comment, “After years of trying to find a decent looking version of this film to watch, I found your channel. However, the viewing of the film was ruined by having these idiots talking over the whole thing!” I’m guessing they won’t be subscribing.