The importance of restoring feature films has never been more pressing than it is today, as classic films age and new digital restoration, storage, and exhibition technologies mature, altering what had been a fairly traditional restoration paradigm for decades. With digital cinema, DVD, Blu-ray, digital stereoscopic exhibition, and much more, the need to continually maintain and update assets in film libraries to repeatedly monetize on them via different releases at different times is growing on a daily basis. These trends raise a host of issues about film restoration.
Millimeter recently spoke with three industry veterans with deep involvement in this arena. They include Grover Crisp, VP of asset management and film restoration at Sony Pictures; Janice Simpson, president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists; and Andy Maltz, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Science and Technology Council.
Beyond the traditional notion of restoring film negatives, we live in an era with lots of video restoration work going on, different releases of classic movies going out in different formats at different times, the rise of digital cinema, and so forth. Given all that, how would you properly define the term “film restoration” today and put it in context alongside all that other work going on?
Crisp: [At Sony], when we talk about film restoration specifically, we mean going back to the original film negative, or the best surviving film elements, and doing our best to recreate restored film elements that would allow us to replicate the experience that people had in viewing a film print the first day that film was released.
There are now, increasingly, times where we need to go back and create new HD masters, as well, and sometimes that means going back to the film itself to create better film elements to start with. Other times, it might mean taking a remastered element from five to 10 years ago and just remastering it again in high definition to get a better result than we got back then — partly because the technology has improved so much in the last 10 years, especially where HD transfers are concerned and with the software we have available to clean up images. But that process we would call “remastering,” even if it is a very high-end process. We don't use the terms “film restoration” unless we are going back to work on actual film elements, and we don't use the term “video restoration” unless we are working on a project that originated in video from its inception.
Maltz: “Film restoration” has traditionally meant you have your finished film print, and you go back to those elements and do a photochemical operation and repair work to basically generate a new film print. That is generally what the term meant.
Now, though, with all the digital processes available, some people call some of those processes ‘digital restoration.’ Purists believe that is not a restoration and is more of a reinterpretation because you are using tools and display technology that were not available to the original authors of the motion picture. Some people think that makes it something different than what the audience saw the first time. So, in that sense, it cuts both ways.
Simpson: A lot of people also use the terms “restoration” and “preservation” interchangeably, so I think it is a good idea to be clear about terminology.
“Restoration” means different things to different people with different interests. Generally speaking, “preservation” means extending the life expectancy of the original material, while restoration is more about doing things to help preserve it — but without, I think most people would agree, changing the integrity of the original image. So while a restoration project might remove scratches and dirt, it is generally accepted that we would not try to change the image by enhancing the colors beyond the way the original filmmakers intended. Purists want to create the original experience as much as possible, in that regard.
How can any project truly replicate the original experience when all the tools used, the film stocks, and the display mediums are all different than when those movies were first made and released? Home video in any form, even broadcast viewing, was not even envisioned at the time many classic movies were created. How can you ever be sure a project primarily adheres to maintaining the intent or integrity of the original work, when sometimes, it's impossible to even determine that — let alone achieve it?
Crisp: That's an important point. It has always been the case that restored movies cannot possibly look dead-on exactly like they did the day they were originally released. I mean, if you took a three-strip Technicolor original negative from 1948 and made a print today, and you knew what you were doing, it could, in fact, look gorgeous. But it would not look exactly like it did in 1948. That's because of changes in the stocks and the printing processes. It's always related to technology. The whole photochemical world has changed so much since those classic movies were made — the optics are sharper, the stocks are different, and all that tends to leave you with a sharper image than you had back then, not to mention the arrival of all the digital tools. And with liquid-gate printing, for example, you can make prints without flaws that you could not do back then in the traditional printing process. So that is always a challenge.
Also, even when you restore a film and have a new negative and restored elements, once you transfer it to a new display format like high-def or DVD, it becomes a different animal. There will always be flaws that clearly were part of the original production value, either in how it was shot or how it was printed originally, and you can't avoid it. But now we can sometimes remove those flaws for different versions. If we do that, are we adhering to what the filmmakers would have wanted? In some cases, these days, it's the filmmakers themselves going back and making those decisions.
Simpson: It always helps if the original filmmakers are around to participate in the process. But, of course, that is often not the case with older films. Plus, people are watching these movies on DVD or Blu-ray, and that is a different experience.
Still, I think the DVD boom, from the point of view of many archivists, has been a great thing. The reason for that is that it has convinced management at studios and many libraries about just how valuable their film libraries are, and they are starting to monetize those assets and put that money into the collections, and so more restoration work is happening as a result.
Although preservation and restoration are not the same thing, aren't they inexorably linked? Isn't the issue of whether to do what some people call a “video restoration” instead of a more expensive “film restoration” a big concern? Aren't many studios and libraries remastering to high-end digital formats or mediums, which preserves the film nicely for digital releases in the cinema or on DVD, but which does not address the issue of preserving the original negative or creating extremely high-resolution original elements for future releases? Is there a danger of having material preserved well in limited-resolution digital formats, but not so well on a higher-resolution film negative?
Maltz: Especially once you get the movie into the digital environment, all the different formats become very important as an issue. There are so many different formats in use today to capture with, encode with, and store as files. They all have different color formats and perspectives and depth, and work has to be done with each of them to make them consistent with something else. As a result, one way or another, you get a reduction in quality out into the marketplace sooner or later.
That is an issue we are concerned about, and our committee will soon have a report out about it. But generally, when it comes to the preservation of digital images, we think that having fewer file formats overall, and standardizing those formats, is probably a good idea. It takes so much effort to preserve digital assets, and if you spread that effort over a dozen formats, you can have a higher risk of getting things wrong.
For now, most people are convinced that, ultimately, the best way to archive and preserve a movie remains on a film negative. But it's also true that people are working hard on digital archiving formats, and that there will be more of that in the future, and so, we have to make some decisions about some of these issues. That's why we have a groundswell of activity going on at the Academy right now revolving around digital archival issues.
But if the best version of a particular movie is HDCAM resolution, when a film negative could give you between 3 1/2K and 8K horizontal resolution, depending on a number of factors, then you have to ask yourself if that really involves preserving the material. And that is a big concern today — using 2K workflows, 2K acquisition, and mastering workflows. What results from that is a lot of 2K material going into libraries. And therefore, those archives are of a lower quality overall than 40 years ago, when everything in the library was on a film negative. You see that a lot in home video releases, where digital artifacts show up on newer content that is a lot lower-quality level than material you have from 40 years ago.
Simpson: It's generally agreed that motion picture film remains the proven long-term storage medium, and I doubt the studios will be giving it up for that purpose any time soon, since digital formats are still unproven over the long term for archival purposes.
So the idea is that archivists and restoration people always want to work from the best available “first” material. If the original negative is available, that is what they want to use. If it is not available, then they will work with the best available source material. That could be anything: a 16mm print, a video copy, some other dupe, or whatever. But it is true that cleaning something up in video and making an HD master of that version does not, in and of itself, constitute the notion of preserving the original version of that work.
Crisp: The other thing to keep in mind is that studios, for the most part, have the wherewithal to take care of their libraries. But a lot of independent libraries and productions are greatly at risk in terms of preserving the original material. A lot of that has to do with the cost of creating preservation elements, and also the way the industry is set up. A group of people may come together to make a movie, and if the film is not a hit and doesn't end up in the right hands, the negative might sit in a lab for many years. There is a lack of structure and financial wherewithal outside of studios to do what needs to be done for those films, so in those cases, producers sometimes just do what they can, which may mean creating video masters, and that's all they are able to do.
But the whole area of high-def exhibition, Blu-ray Disc — it raises the bar once again for us in terms of the image quality that the consumers are expecting, and much of it is consumer driven. The things we could get away with on standard-def DVD, in terms of image flaws, are no longer acceptable, because it is so visible in the new formats. So, yes, the studios are frequently going back and remastering, and re-examining their HD masters and doing lots of cleanup with those images.
Where does all this leave the film laboratory in restoration work? With the tools increasingly moving over to the digital realm, and the exhibition of much of this material being on DVD or Blu-ray at home, doesn't that put the focus on the issue of digital remastering, more than photochemical remastering, outside the need to still make a film negative at the very end of the process?
Crisp: I would agree that the digital world is the future for restoration work, just like it is the future for production. To some degree, we are already there, like when we did our first full-4K restoration job on a complete film at Sony — Dr. Strangelove. [See digitalcontentproducer.com/di to read more about restoring this classic.] That's a film that, as recently as five years ago, I tried to get a project together to do a full-4K restoration job and could not find any facilities ready to do that work. But, then, in the meantime, the whole digital intermediate revolution came along, and it suddenly became viable to do 4K as facilities geared up for that kind of work.
When we restored On the Waterfront a couple of years ago at Cinetech [Valencia, Calif.], though, we used a hybrid combination of photochemical and digital processes. So, I don't want to downplay that there will be a need for photochemical processes for a long time, and they have made lots of improvements in those technologies in recent years. And certainly, no one is giving up film negatives for archival purposes any time soon.
But, for the labs to survive long term, they will need to create new business models that are built around [digital] technology. Traditional photochemical lab work will go away eventually. That's just the case because of the advances in the techniques and processes in terms of digital technology. But it will take a long while for that to happen.
RESTORATION FOR BLU-RAY