by Luke Hickman
With the 50th Anniversary Edition of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' now available on Blu-ray, Paramount's Vice President of Preservation & Restoration Ron Smith talked to High-Def Digest about the his job and the studio's process of bringing older films to high-def. Smith explains what goes into the process, how faulty transfers may arise, how integral the filmmakers are in the process, and the status of 'Indiana Jones.' Enjoy!
HDD – Luke Hickman: Hi, Ron! Thanks for taking time out of your busy day for High-Def Digest. How are you today?
Ron Smith: I'm well. … It's my pleasure.
HDD: If you don't mind, we'll just jump right into this. What is the process Paramount goes through in choosing which titles get transferred?
Ron Smith: I'm actually celebrating my 19th anniversary here, so I've worked on most of these [titles] before, so I know which ones need the most help and are in the most dire shape. There's that, plus you've got to figure popularity has something to do with it. You have to - especially in restoration – try to recoup some of the cost that we spend. I know that eventually all of these things pay off because there's nothing better than protecting your assets, but this is show business and we are in the business of making money. You try to take your most popular [films] and make sure that everything is as good as can be on it. We didn't make a high definition master of 'The Godfather' until we did the restoration. It just wasn't worth spending the money. As much as people tried to fight with me about it, I just didn't believe in it. I suppose they could have made me do it, but I suggested we didn't do it – let's put it that way. And I was the same way with 'The Ten Commandments.' I said, “Until we can do this correctly and really make the film as good as it can be using the latest tools, then it's not worth doing.”
HDD: Good! And we thank you for that. (laughs)
Ron Smith: (laughs) Hey, somebody's got to do it. I may not be the most popular person, but I do have to sleep at night and look at myself in the mirror every morning.
HDD: Can you talk about how much money goes into the restoration process from A to Z?
Ron Smith: Not really. The costs have actually come down because the more you do the more you can promise people, which is a lot better than a one-off project. [The cost] comes down because we get better at it. … As part of the process, you get more efficient at what you're doing. There's not as much guess work. Once you do a couple, especially in the same place or with the same people, you develop a certain shorthand and they know what you want to see. It's not a struggle anymore. I've been very fortunate to work with really really talented people on both picture and sound that just know what I want and how to get there. It's that initial sort of struggle having the same vision that takes a lot of time. But once you've established that, you can really provide some efficiencies, which translates to it costs less.
HDD: Some of the early Paramount titles to make it to Blu-ray feature standard audio. Is there any plan to go back and redo it with loseless? Would it even be worth it?
Ron Smith: I don't think it makes that much of a difference. I haven't thought of that. … I've been in the DVD business from pretty much the start until Blu-ray. After that I went into the catalog remastering – I've always been into that since I started here – particularly into the restoration. I didn't really think of that, so when somebody mentioned the lossless [for 'African Queen'], I thought, 'Oh, yeah. I guess they could have done that.' I suppose I could have pushed for that, but I didn't even think to ask the Blu-ray people about that. Honestly, it's mono. I mean, really? You wouldn't believe what we start with – a 60-year-old picture. It's a miracle that you can get it to sound smooth and not distracted. I was actually talking with the guy who did 'African Queen' … and he was like, “Yeah, you just don't want it to get in the way. You just want to enjoy the film and not be distracted by nasty audio – but to get it to that point using an optical 60-year-old track negative is a real effort.” I'm a little more a fan of the loseless with all the 5.1s we spend so much time on.
Ron Smith: That would be a Paramount Home Entertainment question. That's a marketing issue. 'Braveheart' I know a little bit about because we spent a little time on that. We actually scanned the negative and brought the original director of photography, John Toll, to supervise that. We went back to the original tracks to do an original 5.1. That was really a work of – uh – let's say it took a lot of time (laughs). John was actually in Hawaii shooting 'Tropic Thunder,' so when he came back he said, “Let me take a look at it.” We went through it pretty well and spent a few days making it look as good as we possibly can. He's just wonderful to work with. I've been really fortunate to work with some great filmmakers and some great artists who do the color correction and sound mixing. These are the best people in the world.
HDD: From beginning to end, how long does the whole process take?
Ron Smith: The hard part is really mapping out what you're going to do and how you're going to do it, making sure that once you put up a negative you've got all your protections in place – photochemical and otherwise. The inspection and clean, all that kind of stuff, it takes we figure about six to eight months on a project like this. Something like 'Ten Commandments' or Godfather' is twice as long [running time-wise], so you've got to figure it's going to take twice as long – not that they give us twice as long to work on it, but again that's neither here nor there. I'll take whatever time they give me to make it work and I'm happy to get it. That doesn't mean I give it to them when they're ready – they pretty much get it when I'm ready to give it to them. “You didn't give me any time, so now I'm cutting into yours!”
HDD: (laughs) It's great to have that power, isn't it?
Ron Smith: (laughs) Well, yeah!
HDD: Do you usually include a lot of the filmmakers in the process?
Ron Smith: Whenever we can, yeah. People make the time for this. I can't tell you how great it is to work with the original talent. We did 'Three Days of the Condor' a couple of years ago – we actually went over to screen 'The Godfather' and they invited people in the AFC. The guy who shot 'Three Days of the Condor' was there and I said, “Hey, I redoing this movie, do you want to stop in?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure! I'd love to. Give me a call.” They really do make themselves available. I have to tell you, they have such fascinating stories about the film and they have a perspective and knowledge that I could never have, the colorist could never have. This is where commentaries came from. We would sit in rooms with these people. Once they started talking, their stories were fascinating. It's like, “Damn. I wish I had recorded that.” Well, there you go! That's how it started.
HDD: Personally, how do you feel about the backlash that buyers have? Let's use 'Gladiator' as the example. There were a lot of complaints about the transfer of 'Gladiator.'
Ron Smith: You never like that. We certainly don't like backlash. It's funny because Blu-ray started like HD DVD started and we always want to remaster everything, to start new and start fresh. But studios have their own agenda – they're trying to get as many titles out for a launch of a format. To remaster the best films in your library and say you're going to launch with 25 titles - which is what I think we did – that takes a long time. You're talking about making new film, re-scanning it and re-color correcting it, bringing in talent. We have relationships with the people who made these films and we want to bring them in, but you cannot make a schedule around the people who made the top 25 movies in our library. … It's all about their availability and once you pick up the phone, [you can't] just blow it off. You do the best you can. A lot of people went back and tried quick fixes to their masters, thinking that was the thing to do at the time, and – it's not like they're wrong – but being a new format, one of the problems was the compression at the time. It was sort of primitive. It developed as it went along. It was the same problem with standard def DVD. The first couple years, compression was a really big problem. They encouraged you to limit your grain and if you didn't do it, they would - I hate to say that. The same tools that are in a telecine room, a mastering room, are also in a compression and authoring facility, so if they got something that was a little, what they considered, too grainy, they would just run it through their grain management system. So it's not what everybody thinks it is. There's are so many different layers and different approaches and reason for why things were done a certain way.
HDD: I asked the High-Def Digest staff, “Are there any questions you want me to ask Ron Smith?” The most common one was “When is 'Indiana Jones' going Blu?
Ron Smith: (laughs)
HDD: I'm sure you get that question more often than any other.
Ron Smith: Well, we've actually been working on 'Raiders,' but we're working more on the negative to make theatrical prints for a digital cinema presentation. We are still working on the audio and any discussion of Blu-ray or not Blu-ray includes the other two films – all three films, I guess. Just because we're working on the picture 'Raiders,' it doesn't really mean anything – but we are working on it and we're thrilled about how it's turning out. The Blu-ray will happen whenever the Blu-ray happens, and that's up to Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas and all the people at Paramount that know when the best time is, how to package it and all that stuff. Thankfully, I don't have to deal with that part of it.
HDD: You talk about working on these theatrical prints. Is there a re-release in the works for theaters?
Ron Smith: No. We're trying to make it available for repertoire and preservation. You know, it is its 30 year anniversary, so we had a screening at the Academy a couple months ago. It's very cool. It's a great movie that totally deserves our attention.
HDD: Are there any other titles that you're working on that you can talk about now?
Ron Smith: I'm told no, although I'm not sure why. 'Wings' – our entire department is working on that right now. … There's a lot of things that relate to that. When the times comes to discuss that, you'll get a lot of information, but it's a fascinating story of how this all came together and I think you will all be blow away by the presentation. It's astounding.
HDD: Our time is up and I thank you for taking time to speak with us today.
Ron Smith: It's my pleasure. Thanks for your interest and keep up the good work.