Some ruminations after "The Reel Thing XXV"
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Written by: Rick Mitchell, Hollywood, USA||Date: 31.08.2010|
|From Danish 70mm cinema "Malling Bio"'s projection room in 1986. Per Hauberg had it all figured out even then. Image by Thomas Hauerslev|
Most of you who receive this are interested in, and concerned about, the future of our 115+ year film heritage, its preservation, and our continued access to it. Many of us are particularly concerned about our continued ability to see films of the past the way they were intended to be seen, from a film print projected onto a large screen. This is due to decisions about our ability to do so being increasingly in the hands of entities easily dazzled by the latest electronic advances and their supposedly lower costs, ignoring the fact that a 115 year old negative in reasonably good shape can be printed on modern printers and a similar vintage and condition print conforming to what has been the 35mm standard for 102 years can be run on contemporary 35mm projectors while digital is likely subject to both hardware and software changes every five years or so and other archival dubiousness. This has particular significance with regard to films shot and originally presented in formats yielding images of much higher resolution than that of standard 35mm film, much less that of state-of-the-art video.
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Who is Rick Mitchell?
"Digital & 65mm" - New book from International 70mm Publishers
|That is one of the points of Johan Wolthius' recently published Digital & 65mm: Today's Technology For Tomorrow's Cinema and the much anticipated highlight of this year's Association of Moving Image Archivist's (AMIA) most recent "Reel Thing" Conference held Aug. 12-14 at the Academy's Dunn Theater in Hollywood: a presentation by Andrew Oran of Fotokem on that lab's work in restoring and preserving films shot in 65mm climaxed by a split screen demonstration comparing a new 70mm print off the original negative of Reel 2A of "THE SOUND OF MUSIC" with their DCP version from an 8K scan of the negative projected using the latest Sony 4K digital projector. Allowing for difficulties in lining up and sizing the images from the two projectors involved and matching the color timing, I have to admit that the results struck me as being equal. That is, with this setup using the ultimate in state-of-the-art equipment. Nothing else about this presentation struck me positively or negatively and surprisingly there were no audience comments afterwards, not even from John Bailey, ASC, who had some harsh comments about restoration demonstrations he'd seen both this year and last; I hope he'll ultimately have something to say about this on his ASC blog. Given the difficulties of getting everything equal, perhaps a better test might be to run alternate reels from film and digital, which the SMPTE did about nine years ago in the early days of digital projection with a screening of "SPACE COWBOYS" at the Hollywood Pacific. While the change to the other format can be something of a shock after looking at one for so long, it does allow you to really examine each more casually. |
|However, the success of this demonstration is somewhat foreboding in terms of our being able to see 70mm prints of classic 65mm films in the future, a horrendous thought for those of us who consider 65/70mm the ultimate theatrical film experience. 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Sony have been striking new prints of their 65mm films and making them available, to a limited degree, to venues that take care in showing them, like the Academy and American Cinematheque's theaters here in L.A., Pictureville in Bradford, England, Schauburg, Karlsruhe, Germany, and a couple of other venues on the European continent, but there are not enough 70mm equipped venues to justify the printing and shipping costs for more than one or two prints. And more than one is really necessary because most of the few other places with 70mm projection have only one projector and have to platter the print, which damages it. Additionally, the downside to the money saved by using the DTS system for sound is that the image area of the prints are not protected from casual projection damage in the way the older ones with magnetic stripes were. And printing replacement footage from the original negatives, or whole new prints at a minimum of $25,000 risks further damage to that negative. |
So, if a high quality digital presentation can equal that of a 70mm print, why make 70mm prints? Indeed, there is likely to be a push, particularly by Warners, naturally, to only make these films available digitally. But, remember, the "Reel Thing" demo involved the ultimate in contemporary state-of-the-art digital equipment. As we know our industry, the likelihood of even premiere theaters installing equipment of this quality, and library owners paying for 8K scans of every large negative film in their libraries is "not bloody likely." Would Disney really do this on "THE BIG FISHERMAN"? Or Warners on "ICE STATION ZEBRA"? Or Sony on "MacKENNA'S GOLD"?
|Of course there really is no argument where a large negative film has had to be totally restored digitally. And if tests yielded results of equal quality, it would be worth doing a film-out to a 65mm negative and striking new 70mm prints, especially of key films like "OKLAHOMA!", "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS", and "BEN-HUR", whose original negatives have faded to the point of being unprintable otherwise. (Actually, 65mm separations from the digital restoration would really be necessary for proper preservation of all these films.) |
That was another interesting thing that came out of "Reel Thing" Conference, an apparent change in attitude in film restoration from initially trying to see what can be done photochemically to automatically considering doing it totally digitally. Apparently the cost has come down enough for the studios, at least, to not only take this attitude, but to do the work at higher resolutions than in the past. As of two years ago, most of the digital work: scanning, clean-up, and film out, were all done at 2K resolution. Last year much of the scanning was being done at 4K while the later work was still at 2K, while Warners' work on "THE WIZARD OF OZ" and "GONE WITH THE WIND" were done with 6K scans of either the original nitrate negatives or separations, where necessary, with the work done at 4K, and "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" was done with 8K scans of the VistaVision negative and the blue 8 perf separation to correct for dye loss in that layer of the original negative. Obviously the higher scan rate results in a better starting point, but the lower resolution rate for the end result is still a matter of debate, especially if the final output is back to film. I vaguely recall seeing a comparison of film-outs at 1K and 2K years ago at an SMPTE meeting when this kind of work was just beginning, and, as I recall, the 2K did look better, but I don't believe they included a straight photochemical example for a totally fair evaluation. It would be nice if Warners would do a test film-out of a scene from "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" at 4, 6, and maybe even 8K, just for us film oriented techies.
|This would be a better example than the three-strip films, whose original image quality has long been a subject of debate, though those who attended last year's "Reel Thing" got an idea of the possibilities with that format from Bob Gitt's presentation on the restoration of "THE RED SHOES" he supervised, which, for a variety of reasons, they ended up doing digitally, but at 4K for all steps. We got to see, from film, comparisons from a 1955 IB print, photochemical and digital tests, and the final result, which, to my eyes, did look better than the IB print. But, again, this was supervised by Bob Gitt, and as with Bob Harris, both of whom are concentrating on just a particular project at a time unencumbered by executive hassles (but often with financial ones), you're going to get the best results that are humanly possible with the technology of the time.*|
There was one interesting primarily film oriented restoration session at this year's "Reel Thing", presented by Ross Lipman of UCLA Archives on their restoration of Barbara Loden's "WANDA" (1971). This film had been shot in 16mm on Ektachrome EFB, a reversal stock that, as I recall, had been developed for independent tv stations doing their own local news work. The original A and B rolls and master track were set to be junked by Hollywood Film and Video when they closed their Hollywood facility in 2008 and disappeared into the Valley (and history apparently) and before doing so offered the Academy and UCLA Archives the opportunity to pick up anything that had been left unclaimed that interested them. The film had been blown up to a 35mm internegative for its original release but no one knew where that was, so the decision was made to do a new photochemical blowup rather than do it digitally, but it was decided to fix some problematic shots that way. Interestingly, they decided to do tests on both the stock Kodak had designed to make INs from color reversal originals and from contemporary camera negative and liked the results from the latter better. EFB was a projection contrast stock like Kodachrome, not designed for being copied, and it had a great deal of contrast, so the results of the new blowup looked quite good to someone familiar with the stocks involved but I wouldn't be surprised if some video-oriented audience members felt they could have done it better digitally. Like Bob Gitt, Lipman chose to present the examples of his work on the film on film.
|We also got to see a film print of Frank Capra's second terrific film for Columbia, "SO THIS IS LOVE" (1928) with excellent accompaniment by Alan Stark of Film Technology as he had done with last year's screening of Capra's "THE WAY OF THE STRONG" (same year). It was a restored from a nitrate print deposited with the Library of Congress via a 4K scan, 2K workflow and film out, with titles and some inserts recreated and looked like it was off the original negative.|
This year's "Reel Thing" ended with a screening of a new print of "THE FLY" (1958), whose negative had similar problems (and on which I'd seen previous new but unsatisfying attempts at photochemical restoration). It was scanned at 4K though I didn't hear the resolution of the film-out and the color looked right though the print wasn't as sharp as I'd expected (the Fox logo was).
|Clips of work in digital progress were run on the 4K digital projector: "THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI", scanned at 6K and being restored to the 2.55:1 aspect ratio at which it was composed but never shown because prints with optical tracks only were made on it** and which will get a film-out "letterboxed" to fit that image into today's 2.40 frame; "BUS STOP", I believed scanned at 4K and probably to be filmed out as that has been Fox's policy so far***; and Disney's work on its live action films "TRON", "SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON", "TREASURE ISLAND", and "20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA", scanned at 6 and 4K and worked on at 4K with only the last getting a film-out "letterboxed" at 2.55 with some correction of the anamorphic mumps in its closeups. |
In its last three Hollywood conferences, the "Reel Thing" has shown most digital restorations of features in the evening digitally, usually by state-of-the-art Sony projectors. The "corrected" "HOW THE WEST WAS WON" was shown that way in 2008 on a 2K projector. Warners' 8 to 4K digital "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" restoration was shown last year by 4K digital projection and I was not as impressed as more video oriented people seemed to be. For one thing, it was too bright, possibly a problem with the setup of that projector, on which everything had seemed too bright (I'd had cataract surgery on one eye the week before), but I've heard from other sources that this has been a continuing problem with Warners' digital restorations. The digital presentation was sharper than 35 (both IB and color positive), 16, and Super 8 prints I'd seen, but for me, the "gentleman of grain not peasant of pixels" remember, it still wasn't quite there. I had even worse problems with the digitally "restored" "SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS" shown the night before.
|This year's digital restoration presentations were "DOCTOR ZHIVAGO" and the roadshow version of "FANTASIA" on the newest Sony 4K projector. This projector has better contrast than any digital projector I've seen to date and I believe the version of "ZHIVAGO" shown was to the Digital Cinema standards. (I believe the original negative was scanned at 6 or 8K.) While the credits looked like sterile freeze frames, the film itself looked okay except the reds were too vivid (no pun intended), much more so than I think Lean or production designer John Box would have wanted. I don't know if this is due to the video system or a choice made by the colorist.|
"FANTASIA" was presented as a work-in-progress from Digibeta. It had been totally degrained, which gave a CG look to the animation, but a really annoying video look to the orchestra scenes. It also seemed too bright.
As I've frequently noted, I still have problems with video (a lobby display of vintage tv sets reminded me that I never really liked it even as a kid; it was rather strange seeing contemporary tv shows on such sets, especially in black-and-white!) and am admittedly still something of a Luddite in film vs. digital issues (recently bought my 50th anniversary roll of Kodak film, 16mm) and feel I need to see more before being convinced. Like comparison film outs of these higher resolution scans with prints from either original negative or photochemically restored elements. Perhaps next year.
|*I have also seen film-outs of 2K restorations of "DOWN ARGENTINE WAY" (1940) and "LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN" (1945), necessitated by Seventies moronic Fox executive Sid Samuels' decision to have all the company's nitrate three strip Technicolor negatives duplicated to CRI stock and the originals then destroyed! The dyes in CRI proved unstable and many of them can now not be printed, but digital technology allows not only for the extraction of the separate color records, but their re-registration. The new prints were timed to match surviving 35mm and 16mm IB prints and though I haven't seen an A/B match, seemed to be acceptable, though I have seen sharper 16, as well as 35mm prints, made from intermediates struck photochemically off the original negatives not only of other companies' films, but of some Fox films done before their originals were lost.|
**Actually it's possible the original AR was seen in 16mm anamorphic prints if Technicolor made some in 1957-58 and was still making what they called Style A matrices for such prints from the full rather than Academy aperture (Style B) which was their practice for 16mm anamorphic prints from 1953 to at least the summer of 1957 when they lost the contract to make 16mm prints for Fox; I haven't seen any 16mm anamorphic IB prints of films shot in 35mm anamorphic from then until 1961 so I don't know when they ended that practice.
***A question came up about whether or not "BUS STOP" would be done at 2.55 but this would be a mistake since the film was never shown to the public at that ratio except maybe during previews; it was the first Fox film to be released with mag/optical prints.
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