by Michael S. Palmer
The Film Foundation
Just when I succumbed to the depressing notion of no Uncle Marty at last week's Blu-Con 2010, the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) fired up a special announcement from filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood.
As many of you well know, Scorsese established The Film Foundation in 1990 to protect and preserve motion picture history by saving and restoring projects slowing dying in film vaults around the world. They have saved over 500 motion pictures of all genres over the last twenty years, but there's still so much work to be done. To put it in perspective, half of all films made before 1950 have been lost forever. And currently, 100 million feet of film are in dire need of repair and restoration.
In a touching trailer which will soon be on millions of Blu-rays and DVDs, Scorsese and Eastwood show some marvelous restorations including their acclaimed work on 'The Red Shoes' and explain that films aren't meant to be locked away. They have to be presented and shown on a big screen.
Film Classics on Blu-ray
With the Please Give portion of Blu-Con out of the way, we settled into another panel featuring Jeff Baker from Warner Home Video, Rita Belda from Sony, Bob Buschi from Paramount, and Dave Shaw from Fox Home Entertainment. Moderated by the Digital Bits' Bill hunt, this panel was entiteld "Film Classics: New Opportunities for Blu-ray Catalogue." We watched clips from 'African Queen', 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', 'Sound of Music', and 'The Exorcist'. Sadly, they didn't look very good, but it wasn't Blu-ray's or their respective studios' faults. Some genius left blue theatrical lights on and pointed at the screens, which washed everything out and messed up the colors. Still, the Blu-rays could have passed for 35mm.
We've already mentioned in our Blu-Con coverage that there are so many great titles still not out on Blu-ray. For example, Warner Home Video has 6,700 titles in its library, but only ever put 2,300 on DVD. Now that Blu-ray is near Mainstream, the catalogue titles are seeing more profitable releases (Warners in particular has done a great job on titles like 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'North by Northwest').
But as opposed to past DVD catalogue releases, they can't just release the same old double dip. Especially in these economic times, studios must add value and content to the experience. In the case of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', Sony had to figure out how to re-master source materials for a film that is widely known to have had camera problems during production. With 'The Exorcist', Warners found 37-year-old silent behind the scenes footage that had been film by the cinematographer. It was used to create brand new featurettes. Paramount re-mastered 'The Godfather' with Francis Ford Coppola and then not only marketed the film to cinephiles, but to new fans (apparently, Jon Montegne made a commercial calling it "the Italian Star Wars.") as well.
But what goes into choosing which titles are released when?
Warners said they evaluate titles on commercial viability, and then look at the film elements. Upwards of a year and half and a couple million dollars goes into restoring films, and that extended timeline allows them to plan a marketing strategy. For example, 'Blade Runner' didn't have huge box office numbers, but in the beginning of the Blu-ray format, sci-fi titles were selling well and 'Blade Runner' just so happens to be one of the most revered cult sci-fi classics of all time. Warners then started a 2 year process of restoration, working directly with director Ridley Scott. Fox said selecting a film is commercial, of course, but sometimes it's about artistic and cultural legacy. All titles won't break even on day one.
Why are they doing new High-Def master when some of them were just done a few years ago?
High-def transfers from even a few years ago aren't good enough for Blu-ray. Sony's been mastering in HD for 15 years, but all HD doesn't necessarily reflect today's standards. To do a really great, modern restoration, all the studios try to track down the original elements (in the case of 'Kwai', the original negative) and then scan them at the best resolution and quality available (most of this means a 4K scan, but of course we've seen 8K as well). Doing a high resolution scan avoids challenges with grain, which impacted the way masters looked ten to fifteen years ago (can anyone say so long noise reduction and edge enhancement?). Grain is minimized -- authentically, no funny stuff here -- the closer the digital scan's native resolution is to the film resolution, which varies by stock.
The 'African Queen' restoration proved to be a logistical challenge. The original source materials (a three strip Technicolor film) were in producer John Woolf's possession in London. But Woolf was so nervous of the film becoming damaged that he would only lend out one real at a time. So Paramount borrowed all 13 reels one at a time, scanned them at Kodak in London, and sent the scans back to Los Angeles.
But if the goal is to restore and preserve filmmaker intent, how then do they restore a film after everyone involved with the look of a film has passed away?
If the filmmakers are no longer around, studios search for available answer prints which would have been color timed, or they look for historical documentations. The restoration technicians really have to know film (eras, color qualities, etc). In terms of 'African Queen', ten years ago, Paramount screened the film for the cinematographer and recorded a commentary of his reactions (how it looked vs. how it should have looked). When Paramount was prepping this Blu-ray / restoration, the cinematographer and everyone else involved with the film had passed away, but the studio still had the commentary.
The good news for film fans is that the studios are no longer seeing Blu-ray as simply a format for modern action, horror, and sci-fi films. And because they're smelling a profit, we should be seeing a lot more classic titles that will look exceptional in 1080p -- not only the most filmic they've ever been in the home, but in some cases, they will look even better than in their original releases.
Up next, for better or worse, the studios are hoping to get a lot more films out on 3D, but it wasn't clear if this means a lot of conversions (it's an expensive process at $4-6Million per film) or simply releasing more recent 3D films on 3D Blu-ray.
What do you think, dear readers? What classics and catalogue titles do you most want to see on Blu-ray? What movies should be converted to 3D, and which ones shouldn't? Hit up the forums and share your opinions.
To check out the Film Classics panel for yourself, the folks over at Home Theater Forum taped the whole thing and posted it online: