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Project Mercury: A New Frontier DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   Spacecraft Films
Release:   2005
Length:   More than 24 hours on six discs
MSRP:   $84.99
Extras:   Original documentary; rare footage from every test flight and manned mission; astronaut selection press conference; multiple angle views of launches and recoveries.

Studio's Synopsis: This is history. For the first time man was poised to leave the Earth and venture into outer space. Designed as America's first manned spacecraft, Project Mercury flew six successful missions and developed the early experience that would take the U.S. to the moon. This 6 DVD set is filled with over 24 hours of rare material, newly transferred digitally. The most comprehensive set of material on Project Mercury ever assembled.

Review: Asking Spacecraft Films producer Mark Gray to rank Project Mercury: A New Frontier amongst his company's products is a little like asking a proud father to rank his children.

After all, Gray has overseen projects on every manned Apollo flight, including each of the lunar landings. He's put together the most complete sampling of Project Gemini video material ever offered. He's also focused on a number of different planes for his Aircraft Films division. In short, there's a lot to like about everything Gray has ever put on the market.

So if Gray won't say it, somebody should. Mercury is a very special package.

"Different folks have different interests and favorite missions that appeal to them," Gray says. "That said, I think this is the most comprehensive set of material we've done. That's mainly because most of the material was just not available anywhere, and making new transfers of some of the film — especially the stuff that was shot on 35mm — makes it look as though it were yesterday. This set is certainly one of my favorites."

The biggest problem with Project Mercury is that once the original documentary is finished playing on the first disc, it is almost impossible to decide where to go from there. With so much rare material to see and hear, there is an undeniable desire to get through it all as soon as humanly possible.

Want to see virtually everything related to Alan Shepard's historic first U.S. suborbital flight? It's here. Gus Grissom and the sinking of Liberty Bell 7? Check. John Glenn? Bingo. Scott Carpenter? Oh, yeah. Wally Schirra? Yep. Gordon Cooper? Definitely. Deke Slayton? He is included at several points as well, though he never flew a Mercury spacecraft.

Glenn and Carpenter were the first Americans to orbit the Earth, and complete audio from the flight director's loop is available for both flights. Listening on a decent surround- sound system, it's almost like being right in the middle of mission control.

At the outset of every project, Gray creates a list that is the bare minimum of what it will take for him to consider a set complete. On Project Mercury, he found that and then some. Gray's quest for the most complete picture of the Mercury program became what his wife called his "white whale."

"I was always after one other elusive piece of something that just had to be on the set," Gray says.

"There is a romance to Mercury that we hopefully captured," he adds. "This was the invention of manned space flight — at least for the U.S. side — and the seemingly primitive nature of its execution is really endearing. There's a great deal of stuff on the set that is somewhat amusing, especially today, just because of the little ways we've changed. Preserving and presenting the feeling of this time is in my view very important.

"There is just so little actual material available on Mercury, and what is available is sometimes overshadowed by over-produced documentaries seeking to simply generate drama or Hollywood visions of Mercury. While this can be fun, it's also nice to see what it was actually like also."

Research for Project Mercury was, according to Gray, much more intense than other sets. It took "considerable time" to find everything on the Mercury minimum list. Imaging for the early manned space program was handled by both NASA and the Air Force.

Audio is also sometimes tougher to find, because Gray usually includes pre-flight and immediate post-flight interviews in his products as opposed to recording original interviews.

Really, the only things Gray wanted and was unable to include were television transmissions from Cooper's flight and Grissom's onboard 16mm film.

"I'm afraid time and the Atlantic Ocean made [the MR-4 Grissom film] impossible," Gray jokes.

Finally, the task of finding everything he wanted was made more difficult by various materials being mislabeled or misdocumented.

"I'm proud to say that we were able to clear all those questions up and document it all properly, I hope," Gray says.

Although he had figured out the problem before Project Mercury's release, Gray tests viewer knowledge with a clip that was originally labeled as having been shot from the periscope on Shepard's flight. Before the sequence begins, a title screen teases: "MR-3 Periscope? You decide."

Watch closely as the segment comes to a close. For the briefest of moments as the craft dangles under its parachute, a beach comes into view. Shepard, however, was nowhere near land when Freedom 7 splashed down. The answer?

"MA-3 was unmanned, was an abort and came down within sight of land," Gray says. "Apparently, this was mislabeled MR-3 somewhere along the way. The footage matches MA-3 perfectly.

"There are usually clues that match on almost any piece of footage. In this case, it was also confirmed by a careful look at some old markings on the leaders.

"This sort of thing could easily have happened, as the flights took place within a couple of weeks of each other. I must admit I actually knew this before putting out the set, but thought it would be fun to see what sort of responses we saw on the footage," admits Gray.

Still, Gray found that some of Mercury's early material was "much better documented" than he expected. All in all, he found several gems that surprised him.

"The sequence where the spacecraft is being lifted by crane into an above ground swimming pool is priceless," Gray says. "I was also surprised by the really spectacular film of Kennedy and Shepard after his flight. I've always seen this is black and white, and was really pleased to see it in this kind of shape.

"By the way, something I noticed about this sequence... watch Jackie in the background. She wants the President to pin the medal on Shepard, not just hand it to him, and she finally gets her way."

Digital transfers were made of more than 280 reels of 16mm and 35mm film over the course of about six months. That left Gray with more than 60 hours of images to wade through and weed out. Surprisingly, Gray says the decisions weren't as difficult as one might imagine.

"There is always stuff cut, but in Mercury, it is shots that didn't have any significant value," Gray adds. "That helped us make room for the stuff that does. On this set, there wasn't anything I felt as though we left behind that we really wanted to include."

The results of those digital transfers are simply amazing. Images that were taken 45 years ago appear to have been shot yesterday. The Spacecraft Films transfer is sparkling in comparison to the original.

"The Mercury onboard footage now resides at the National Archives and we were lucky enough to be able to get to the original film in order to make the transfers," Gray says. "The film was in really nice condition, and the colorist did a nice job in dialing it in. The real difference is simply making a good, solid transfer on 21st century equipment, then some simple processing... not too much, just enough to clean it up a bit.

"Since the old stuff was made on equipment about as advanced as setting up a camcorder to record off of a projector and a white wall, today's transfers are just really nice. The key is getting as close as possible to a nice piece of film."

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