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The (most anticipated) restoration of the Todd-AO feature "Oklahoma!"

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Paulo Roberto P. Elias, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Date: 18.07.2014
Courtesy of Thomas Hauerslev.

Come 2014 and we were finally granted the result of years of lab work trying to recover the original elements of the Todd-AO feature
"Oklahoma!", directed by the renowned Fred Zinemann, and released for theatrical exhibition in 1955.

"Oklahoma!" was the first one of the only two feature films shot in 30 frames per second, in an effort to suppress the so called “film judder”. The other one was “Around the world in 80 days”, released in the next year.

In fact, because movie theatres were being refurbished for the new wide screen presentation both films were shot twice: Oklahoma was produced in 70 mm Todd-AO @ 30 fps, 6 channel audio, and in CinemaSope 35 mm @ 24 fps (standard), 4 channels audio. Around the world was shot in the Todd-AO format, at both 30 and 24 fps cadence. The latter one would be used to print the CinemaScope version.

The Todd-AO film shot at 24 fps for “Around the World” is still usable while the 30 fps version is considered as lost forever. Actually the 24 fps version was the one used for the DVD collector’s edition released by Warner Brothers years ago. On the other hand, "Oklahoma!"’s Todd-AO 30 fps negative was in poor state, much of it was credited to the use of the Kodak 5428 Eastmancolor negative. The CinemaScope version seems to be in pristine condition, at least was what we saw in its last DVD edition.
More in 70mm reading:

A restauração do clássico Todd-AO “Oklahoma”

Restoring 70mm Movie Musical Oklahoma! for a New DCP — at 30fps

"Oklahoma!" full credits

"Oklahoma!" 70mm Seasons

Mr. Orion Jardim de Faria - A visit to a Brazilian 70mm film Pioneer

Large Format in Brazil / 70mm In Rio

70mm Rundown in Rio Revised

You are in the Show with Todd-AO

Internet link:

In the screen capture of the train sequence and ballet the sign of the station with the word Claremore in it flickers in the 4:3 DVD edition and evidences the loss of resolution in the latter anamorphic edition.

Be as it may, when the "Oklahoma!" DVDs from the Todd-AO version were released the copies were disastrous. The first DVD edition had the movie transferred from a source with visible flicker in the picture to a 4:3 letterbox video format. Even at the time it was already inconceivable to telecine a 70 mm print to a 4:3 interlaced video. That kind of transfer produces by itself a 30% loss in resolution, as compared to the same procedure using the 16:9 anamorphic method. Given that the number of pixels in the DVD format is insufficient to yield a high standard picture quality the overall video result is sub-par, especially considering the nature of the large gauge negative and the historical importance of the film. There was a previous laserdisc edition of "Oklahoma!", from a 30 fps source, but the analogue medium of that format would preclude a better result as well.

In the DVD era Warner Brothers had devised a method to transfer 70 mm film more adequately. They would dub the negative to a 35 mm print and afterwards to a digital intermediate, and only then produce the DVD. In addition to that they would increase the bitrate by lowering the MPEG2 video compression, while concurrently trying to introduce as low artefacts as possible. One can observe the results in the DVD edition of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, for example, quite reasonable for a picture of that stature.

Fox could very well do the same, but its 50th Anniversary edition of "Oklahoma!" showed one of the worst 16:9 anamorphic transfers I have ever seen. There is a considerable loss of resolution which results in rough edges around all picture elements. It destroys all low level information detail, turning the picture unbearable to watch, even in a small TV set.
The Todd-AO camera fitted with "bug-eye" lens.

After the restoration was completed a copy in DCP @ 4K, 30 fps was produced for theatrical release. A 4K archive LTO was struck, alongside a HDCAM SR (Superior Resolution) tape copy, which was used to release the Blu-Ray edition. Unfortunately, the Blu-Ray is currently included in an R&H expensive set, with several other already released Fox Blu-Rays, and others with objectionable film transfers, according to recent reviews. A separate Blu-Ray edition is therefore a must for collectors, but promised to be released later this year.

The Todd-AO format is a significant step in the evolutionary direction of the 1952 Cinerama screen. Their visionary designers realized the difficulty in the filming process experience that many movie directories had to operate the Cinerama camera, and its time consuming clumsiness for film editing. On the other hand, the CinemaScope format was a reasonable alternative but the lenses used in those days had a notorious anamorphic distortion and double focusing issues, decreasing picture quality significantly.

Thus, the Todd-AO approach is a departure from those problems. It used the 65 mm large negative combined with the accuracy of spherical lenses, resulting in a large but non anamorphic picture. More importantly, the format would issue several degrees of wide angle, “fish-eye” lenses, including the one nicknamed “Bug-eye”.

Fearless 65 mm cameras were fitted with the Bug-eye lens, in order to simulate the “rollercoaster effect” field of vision, as previously demonstrated in the Cinerama features. It is possible to see those wide angle effects in the presentation of "Oklahoma!", as soon as the picture starts.

The standard Todd-AO screen had a considerable curvature, also similar to Cinerama. The prints used to that effect were corrected from the original negative. Details of this process can be read from an interview with Walter Siegmund, made by Thomas Hauerslev for this site. Flat 70 mm prints could also be projected, thus exhibiting the full resolution of the negative.

At the time Todd-AO was released to theaters, Philips had already built the DP-70, as commissioned by Michael Todd and his associates at Magna Theater Corporation. The DP-70 could project at either 30 or 24 fps rate.

The Todd-AO sound format, with 5 channels behind the screen and one channel surround, became the “de facto” standard for 70 mm projection. It was only in later years that the Dolby Labs took advantage of this format, to introduce the 70 mm Dolby Stereo. Instead of using the redundant left-centre and right-centre channels with the normal program’s audio, they replaced them for the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel. Afterwards, those two front channels were used for the mixing of split surrounds, giving birth to the now ubiquitous 5.1 channel format. Dolby Digital uses 3 front speakers, 2 surround arrays and one (actually, “.1”) LFE channel for the theater subwoofer.

Home playback of Todd-AO movies can be realized, albeit with screen size and curvature limitations, some of which may very well be completely eliminated in the near future, due to the use of OLED curved screens in larger scale, when they become available.

As for sound, current 5.1/6.1/7.1 home systems are perfectly capable of reproducing the full fidelity of Todd-AO soundtracks. In fact, by adopting high definition audio codecs, such as DTS HD MA or Dolby TrueHD, it is possible to obtain the best, closer to the source audio quality. The movie industry made a good use of recording sound material in 35 mm magnetic film, either in 6 or 3 channels. Submitting these sources to software such as NoNoise or CEDAR the recovered tapes can achieve an impressive signal to noise ratio and dynamic range, which are fully realized in both theatre and home installations.

There is still a great deal of Todd-AO features which deserve preservation and proper presentation in DCP or Blu-Ray. FotoKem technicians praise themselves in preserving film grain, showing that archivists and preservationists are well aware that restoration is not just cleaning up the negatives via wet gate telecines. From a historical point of view, "Oklahoma!" and many other films are worth the time and money spent for recovering reference material from the studios vaults.
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Updated 21-01-24