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First Person: Restoring Film with Digital Recombination

Scott MacQueen is senior manager of library restoration for the Walt DisneyCompany in Burbank, California. Phil Feiner is president/COO at Hollywood’sPacific Title & Art Studio. In 1999, both companies, along with restorationlaboratory Cinetech of Valencia, California, restored the William Wellmancomedy Nothing Sacred. The companies restored substantial portions of theoriginal film, but one reel suffered damage to the point where traditionalphoto-mechanical and photo-chemical restoration methods were notsufficient, causing them to try a tricky digital recombination technique.MacQueen and Feiner offer Millimeter readers an inside look at therestoration process they used on reel 1A of Nothing Sacred.

Nothing Sacred-a 1937 screwball comedy directed by William Wellman,produced by David O. Selznick, filmed by W. Howard Greene, and starringCarole Lombard and Frederic March-was among the first three-stripTechnicolor feature films ever produced. Within five years of its release,the film changed hands, setting in motion a long chain of printingcompromises that degraded the integrity of the original film elements overthe last 63 years. As a result, audiences have not seen the film as thefilmmakers intended, and the original negative was rendered unsuitable forrerelease, DVD mastering, or even long-term archiving.

When the Walt Disney Company acquired the ABC/Capital Cities film library,it became clear that Nothing Sacred and other David O. Selznick-producedfilms required intensive restoration to provide the best possible mastersfor home video and cable delivery and to guarantee long-term viability ofthese assets in the company’s library.

The original 1937 prints of Nothing Sacred had been made usingTechnicolor’s primitive dye-transfer process from matrices created directlyfrom the three black-and-white nitrate separation negatives exposedin-camera. In 1943, the movie was reissued using the less expensiveCinecolor process, utilizing only the Magenta (green channel) and Cyan (redchannel) camera negatives to manufacture two-color prints with a distinctlyunnatural red-orange and blue-green palette. At that point, the main-title negatives were altered to remove the “Color by Technicolor” credit, as well as afurther technical card naming Technicolor color consultants. The originalnegative trims were discarded, and the changes were made to the protectionmaster positives. The altered negatives continued to be used to makeCinecolor prints throughout the 1940s.

The Reel 1A ProblemIn late 1998, the eight reels of the full show (supposedly, 24 rolls ofnitrate separation negatives) were taken for printing to the restorationspecialists at Cinetech, a motion-picture lab with great experience inprinting old three-strip negatives. That’s when we learned there were only23 rolls. The Magenta negative for reel 1A was missing, and the other sevenreels were in poor condition. The reasons for this are complex but typicalof historical film-handling practices.

When Nothing Sacred was released to television in the 1950s, the Magentacamera negative was used to make direct 16mm black-and-white reductionprints. Consequently it was subjected to extensive, repeated handling onoptical printers and became severely worn and damaged. By the time Disneyreceived the negatives in 1998, the Magenta record was in dismal condition.Reel 1A was completely missing, and the other seven rolls were riddled withperforations that punched and ripped through the picture in many places.Poorly made replacement dupe sections and back-patch repairs bore witnessto decades of rough laboratory handling.

Cinetech did a remarkable job repairing the damaged record of the existingreels and successfully printing them, carefully checking and repairing thereels between each pass on a slow printer. The result of that work is thefinest representation of all but the first eight minutes of Nothing Sacredthat has ever been seen, far surpassing even David O. Selznick’s personalnitrate print, which we consulted during the restoration.

But we still needed to solve the serious reel 1A problem. Without anadequate solution, there was no hope for offering a quality restoration forthe first eight minutes of the movie. The missing Magenta negative was acrucial element, since Magenta is the most important color record. Itcontains the greatest tonal information and is the arbiter for grain,sharpness, and flesh-color rendition.

More Bad NewsNitrate protection master positives of reel 1A from 1937 were available,however, and we turned to these next.

Cinetech performed a recombined internegative test for us, and that testconfirmed our worst fears. Typical of that era, before fine-grain masterstock was introduced, these masters were put on black-and-white print stockin 1937, made optically through inferior lenses, and riddled withphotographic dirt, grain, hard contrast, soft resolution, and muddy colorrendition caused by incompatible gammas. Content-wise, the masters alsoperpetuated the revised, rather than the authentic, title cards. Briefconsideration was given to duping Selznick’s 1937 nitrate print, but testsshowed that its inherent grain, muddy color, and softness were as bad, orworse, than the recombined master positives.

At Disney’s request, Cinetech then performed tests to see if ablack-and-white dupe negative of the Magenta record from the master portionof reel 1A could be made and printed in register with the original Cyan andYellow camera negatives. As expected, however, this approach didn’t workbecause of several factors, including variable shrinkage of the nitrate.

The 1937 master positive, having been made optically, had slightlydifferent geometry from the camera negatives. Distortion of the latitudeand longitude of the image caused the recombined color photography tokeystone, meaning that while the three colors might register at the bottom,toward the top, the new Magenta record shifted geometry on both theeast/west and north/south axes. These field orientations, induced in the1937 optical manufacture of the master, could not be solved viaconventional printing. Since the new record simply could not be made tofit, this approach had to be discarded.

A Digital SolutionThese problems led Disney to ask Pacific Title & Art Studio’s restorationdivision to test digital recombination techniques by scanning the highestgeneration nitrate elements: the original Yellow and Cyan camera negativesand the Magenta nitrate master positive. The hope was to perform electronicregistration, color balancing, and artifact cleanup and to output adigitally rendered internegative of reel 1A that would seamlessly match thequality of Cinetech’s conventional three-strip restoration of the rest ofthe film.

Simultaneously, Disney saw the opportunity to authenticate the main-titlesequence and asked Pacific Title Mirage to investigate utilizing David O.Selznick’s personal nitrate dye-transfer print for scanning, as it was theonly existing version that still retained the 1937 main title and colorcredit cards. The scans of these two shots would then be incorporated intothe final output in order to meet our objective of providing an authenticversion of the highest quality.

While artists were grappling with these technical challenges, we wereinformed that Nothing Sacred had a European television sale pending, and wewere given only 18 business days to scan, process, and turn around theentire reel so that Disney could fulfill the European air-date commitment.

Pacific Title Mirage first scanned the original Yellow negative, then theMagenta positive master, and then the Cyan negative, frame by frame, usinga Cineon Genesis Plus digital film scanner. Maximum tonal and color valuewas insured by scanning the Cineon files at 10-bit log. Eachcolor-separation element comprised 12,415 frames-a total of 37,245individual photographs since each of the three records had to beindividually scanned, steadied, and cleaned.

The ProcessThe first step of the digital restoration process involved cleaning thescans. This required extensive work due to the age of the film and theabuse it had suffered. Poor workmanship on the Magenta master wasparticularly problematic. A first pass was done using automated tools inCineon software to remove as many defects as possible. Next, digitalpainters used Avid’s Matador paint package to manually repair dirt andflaws under operator control. Some sequences, particularly the famousSelznick International logo and the two title shots scanned from thenitrate print, exhibited excessive grain, which needed to be electronicallyreduced. The cleaned files were then composited in Cineon.

Recompositing started with stabilizing the three records, so that theywould not bounce against each other frame by frame. Next, scene by scene,the records were aligned as necessary. Sometimes, this involved a simplereposition, while other frames required induced distortion to “stretch” or”warp” one of the records to fit the established geometry of the others.

With the records cleaned and registered, a preliminary color composite wasrendered out. Disney supplied the conventional answer print of reel 1B,manufactured by Cinetech, which became the “aim point” for Pacific Title’sfinal output. The preliminary render was then scene-to-scene timed for bothcolor and contrast, and that process was followed by final smoothing workon the transitions for the main-title inserts.

The final version was then rendered and outputted by a Cineon Lightning IIfilm recorder onto Kodak 2244 Intermediate, a stable color-negative film ona polyester base.

At last, Disney had a healthy reel 1A to combine with the rest of thetraditionally restored film. Cinetech completed final answer printing,after which several interpositives of the full feature were manufacturedfor telecine and archiving. The European sale was met with time to spare,and a DVD release of the restored Nothing Sacred was recently announced forrelease later this year. Disney has also manufactured new polyester YCMmasters from both the nitrate originals and the digitally renderedinternegative.

Thus restored and preserved “in a tradition of quality” (to quote David O.Selznick’s personal motto), Nothing Sacred will now remain viable forcenturies to come.

Only a handful of U.S. facilities offer film-restoration services. Themajority specialize in photo-chemical surgery on ailing motion pictures.The fledgling art of full-digital restoration is handled by an even smallergroup because of the huge cost involved in digitally scanning and recordingfilms. Industry experts say routine, full-digital restorations offull-length motion pictures will have to wait until such costs come down.In the meantime, a small group of facilities are forging ahead on selecteddigital restoration jobs, in cases where film elements are missing ordegraded to the point where traditional techniques won’t do the job.

Following is a sampling of U.S. film-restoration companies. The list is notmeant to be exhaustive, but it includes the major facilities that Hollywoodstudios routinely use to restore full-length feature films using eitherphoto-chemical techniques, digital techniques, or a combination of both.

CFI Film Preservation Services/Technicolor Film Restoration Services, HollywoodThe recent merger of Technicolor’s restoration division with longtimeindustry player, CFI, has resulted in a combined facility, with over 20restoration specialists operating out of CFI’s headquarters in Hollywood.The company primarily specializes in photo-chemical restorations in both35mm and 65mm and is one of the few facilities in the world capable ofprocessing 65mm negatives and manufacturing prints. The company also ownsCelco film recorders and offers digital scratch removal and other types ofrepair work. Technicolor/CFI collaborated on the recent 2001: A SpaceOdyssey restoration and is currently working on Battle of the Bulge, amongother projects.Contact: Robert Dennis at (323) 960-7510.

Cinema Arts, Northeast PennsylvaniaCinema Arts is the lab division of the John E. Allen stock-footage company.The lab started in the 1950s servicing Allen’s stock-footage library, butnow it offers restoration services to a wide range of clients. The labspecializes in photo-chemical work and blow-ups from 16mm to 35mm. CinemaArts regularly services museum projects and has restored several D.W.Griffith movies from the director’s original prints. The company alsoperforms preservation work on modern films.Contact : John E. Allen at (570) 676-4145.

Cineric Inc., New YorkCineric is an optical and digital post house that offers digitalrestoration and photo-chemical services. Among the digital services is aproprietary, PC-based, digital film-analysis service called the Single PassSystem, which uses a computer to sample and analyze film frames and createcolor-corrected answer prints of those frames. Cineric is heavily investingin digital techniques, and company engineers are currently working todevelop an automated, digital restoration process, as well as makingcertain restoration services available remotely via the Internet. Thecompany also collaborates on traditional optical jobs with all the majorlabs around the New York area. In recent years, Cineric has restoredseveral Ray Harryhausen effects’ films, including Seven Voyages of Sinbad,for which the company performed digital color-restoration work using aproprietary process that involved matte creation to replace faded colors.Contact : Balazs Nyari or Tom Heitman at (212) 586-4822.

Cinesite Inc., Los AngelesCinesite’s film-restoration division focuses exclusively on digital repairwork for projects that are damaged beyond photo-chemical help. In recentyears, the company has worked with photo-chemical restoration facilities onprojects including Rear Window, Vertigo, and four reels of the originalFantasia. Cinesite also performed the first digital restoration of anentire feature film in the early 1990s, for the rerelease of Snow White andthe Seven Dwarfs. On that project, Cinesite used proprietary software andits Kodak Lightning scanner to repair and color-correct the images. Thecompany’s digital restoration department is now built around KodakLightning Laser film recorder and scanning technology for film-to-digitaland digital-to-film conversions.Contact: Rick Utley at (323) 468-4457.

Cinetech Inc., Valencia, CaliforniaCinetech is one of the country’s few film labs dedicated solely to filmrestoration and preservation. The company, which recently moved into a new40,000 square-foot facility in Valencia after 10 years in Burbank, focusesmainly on photo-chemical work, although it does work in partnership withother facilities on projects that require a combination of photo-chemicaland digital repair. In addition to partnering with Pacific Title onDisney’s Nothing Sacred restoration, Cinetech recently restored Easy Riderand is currently working on Blade Runner.Contact: David Cipes at (661) 222-9073.

Film Technology Company, Inc., HollywoodFilm Technology, a 30-year-old restoration and preservation lab,specializes in photo-chemical and photo-mechanical restoration work on 35mmand 16mm projects. The company builds its own customized film printers tohandle rare films and recently instituted a program to perform 8mmconversions to 16mm and 35mm. Film Technology was involved in the recentCitizen Kane restoration and has worked on hundreds of other feature films.But the company has also developed a niche focusing on historicalnewsreels, private films, and independent projects.Contact: Allen Stark at (323) 464-3456.

FotoKem Film and Video, BurbankFotoKem is a full-service film laboratory that has served Hollywood forover 35 years. The company’s film-restoration division offersphoto-chemical cleanup and repair for both black-and-white and color filmsand digital scratch removal and restoration using Celco film recordertechnology. The company is currently working on Steven Spielberg’s Duel,among other projects.Contact: David Whitten at (818) 846-3101, extension 525.

Pacific Title & Art Studio, HollywoodOver 75 years old, Pacific Title is the oldest operating optical house inHollywood. The company’s film-restoration division offers photo-chemicalservices, in conjunction with major industry labs, and digital restorationservices. The company specializes in recombining optical elements to makeduplicate negatives, interpositives, or black-and-white fine grains, amongother services. On the digital side, Pacific Title has full scanning andrecording facilities and frequently works on 4K resolution projects. Thecompany works with both four-perf and Vistavision 35mm film, as well as65mm projects. Most recently, Pacific Title has been involved with thelarge-format restoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the creation ofmastering elements for Around the World in 80 Days.Contact : Phil Feiner at (323) 464-0121.Triage Motion Picture Services, HollywoodTriage is one of the newer facilities in the film-restoration game,featuring several staff members who came over from 4MC’s now-closedfilm-restoration department. The company specializes in photo-chemical workin both 16mm and 35mm, on everything from early nitrates to formatconversions to modern film preservation work. Triage recently restored HowGreen is My Valley, Power and the Glory, and All the King’s Men.Contact: Paul Rutan Jr. or Tony Munroe at (323) 962-7420

Western Cine Film & Video, Englewood, ColoradoWestern Cine specializes in photo-chemical film restorations on oldblack-and-white films, repairing negatives, moving old nitrates to newerfilm stocks, and creating new negatives, interpositives, fine grains, andprints. The company recently worked on Disney’s Spiral Staircaserestoration.Contact: Rick Wade at (303) 783-1020.

WRS Motion Picture & Video Laboratory, PittsburghWRS is one of the oldest labs on the East Coast and now performs bothphoto-chemical restoration and digital recombination and cleanup work onproblem frames. WRS works on color and black-and-white jobs, and, over thelast year, has restored Night of the Living Dead and Stepford Wives, amongother projects.Contact: David Simpson at (412) 937-7700.

YCM, BurbankYCM owns a lab in Henderson, Nevada, which does all its black-and-whiteprocessing work, while the company’s headquarters in Burbank concentrateson photo-chemical restoration work. The company specializes in restoringold nitrates and early color projects, strictly in the 35mm format. YCMalso works with major studios to preserve recent films. YCM performed thephoto-chemical restorations of Touch of Evil and the original Star Warstrilogy, and is currently working on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.Contact: Richard Dayton at (818) 843-5300.