High-Def Digest Takes a Trip to Paramount to see Behind the Scenes of 'The Ten Commandments'

Posted Mon Jan 24, 2011 at 02:35 PM PST by

by Michael S. Palmer

The story he loved so much…he had to make it twice.

Cecile B. DeMille and Historical Epic Cinema go together like…well, Cecile B. DeMille and Historical Epic Cinema. The prolific film director-producer-writer-actor made over seventy Hollywood films, including Paramount Pictures' first production, 'The Squaw Man', in 1914. Some forty successful years later, after he had finally won the Academy Award for 'The Greatest Show on Earth', DeMille set about remaking his 1923 silent epic, 'The Ten Commandments'…this time with sound, color, VistaVision, and modern special effects.

Hollywood obsessed with reboots and remakes? What type of crazy world did they live in back in post World War II America? It sounds SO different.

Most important to DeMille was to engage the audience in the thirty years of Moses' life not covered in the Bible. For this, DeMille employed an army of researchers to scour classical, non-biblical texts to accent the stories told in Exodus. Second to DeMille's master plan was to film the movie in the story's actual locations. The first two months of production were shot on Mount Sinai and in Egypt, where the crew built 107-foot tall gates of Cairo. Where a 73-year-old director suffered a heart attack and was told finishing the film would kill him. Where the the 8,000 extras couldn't be directed by the traditional "action", but rather by firing a pistol into the air.

Sure, modern filmmakers can imagine hordes of charging Orcs and whole new planets -- built in a computer and rendered with absolute realism -- and then we can watch them at home in 3D. But gone are the days of Cecille B. DeMille and David Lean. The days where stuntmen and extras rode horses and flew planes and clashed swords en mass across grand vistas. The days when cinematic adventure was especially intoxicating and exhilarating because it wasn't a trick.

This is why it's so exciting for cinephiles everywhere that Paramount Home Entertainment has gone back to the vaults to restore this 1956 Biblical epic for Blu-ray. As High-Def Digest has previously reported, there will be two editions released on March 29, 2011. The two-disc Blu-ray features the 220-minute film spread out over two discs, and includes the previous DVD's audio commentary by film historian Katherine Orrison, newsreel footage from the New York City premier, and theatrical trailers. The six-disc limited edition Blu-ray/DVD combo includes everything above, plus a third Blu-ray disc featuring DeMille's 1923 version of 'The Ten Commandments', a new 75-minute documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau entitled 'The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles', a 1956 photo gallery, a commemorative photo and archive book, and three DVDs which mirror the materials on the three Blu-rays.

Both editions will feature a 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound and 1080p HD video. This is a brand new restoration made from a 6K scan of the original film negatives and takes full advantage of the production's VistaVision cinematography. VistaVision was a non-anamorphic widescreen film format created by Paramount Pictures engineers in 1954 ('White Christmas' was the first release, and Hitchcock used it for 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', 'Vertigo', and 'North by Northwest'). It had a negative twice the size of traditional 35mm film.

"Every time I watch the movie now, I see something new, some new color or design, or piece of clothing or costume or jewelry. This Blu-ray produces what is really there, and what [audiences] have never seen before. And all of it really due to Mr. DeMille's design and thoughtfulness at the time."

Said by Paramount Home Entertainment's Ron Smith, who lead 'The Ten Commandments' restoration team. And much like the film itself, the restoration was an epic endeavor. Even getting the original film negative was a challenge, and not because it was missing or lost or even far away, but simply because it was so big he needed a large truck to pick up all the materials. Overall, there were 16 reels (this is a 4-hour long film) that were divided into two or three sub-reels, on which there were additional A and B sections. Translation: a truck load of film.

The first step was making an 8-perf inter-positive for archival purposes and then an answer print. Since Paramount developed VistaVision technology, Ron and his team were actually able to screen the film on the company's one remaining VistaVision projector as a reference point for color as well as "density" (light and darkness). The problem with film is that the yellow color fades over the years. And, Mr. DeMille used two separate film stocks (one in Egypt, and then a newer one on the Paramount lot a year later) during production. The newer, Hollywood-filmed footage had faded much more than the on-location material.

More challenging still were the optical special effects. As Charlton Heston and Yule Brenner were the only two lead cast members to travel to Egypt, any actor seen with Egypt in the background was filmed in Hollywood and then "composited" into the shot. These primitive "opticals" fade at a different rate than the rest of the film. Flickering, beading, and noise (not from actual grain, mind you) are the main challenges to overcome, which they did here by drawing matte boxes around each section of the visual effect, and coloring/repairing it separately. Further, there was a large amount of blue screen work in the film, which produced blue rings around anyone or anything in front of it. The restoration team wasn't able to remove the rings, but they did tone down their electric blue color.

The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is also brand new for this Blu-ray release, using the previous DVD as a guide only. This was done because the modern audio tools are much better than they were during the previous restoration (Mr. Smith said this was around 1997), but the original 35mm magnetic sound tracks were much more degraded than they were last time. The dialog was crispier and some of the sound effects had become riddled with noise. What they ended up doing was a noise reduction and then augmenting certain effects by finding sound with matching frequencies to patch in the holes. I didn't quite understand this process fully, but 1) none of the new sound elements are meant to be heard / overpower the original soundtrack and 2) I imagine this process to be like that part of 'Jurassic Park' where the scientists used frog DNA to patch in what was missing from the Dino DNA.

Elmer Bernstein's stereo score elements (when available) were used to create the wider 5.1 soundscape, and there is a minor amount of added panning and reverberation (for example, when Moses is hearing voices calling to him in the desert). I have been assured nothing is over-done or modernized. For purists, there is a Mono Dolby Digital track as well.

While I haven't had a chance to see the entire restoration personally, our friends over at Paramount were kind enough to invite HDD to a screening of 'The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles' which features restored footage. From what I saw, projected on large screen, the film looks fantastic. Sharp, detailed, and beautiful. Also in attendance were the documentary's producer, Laurent Bouzereau, original cast member Lisa Mitchell, and Charlton Heston's son, Fraser. Fraser, interestingly enough, may be the youngest person in the world ever cast in a feature film. Before he was ever born, DeMille told Heston that if his pregnant wife gave birth to a son, he would play Young Moses. Then, the day Fraser was born, as told by Chartlon via a 2002 interview, within moments of picking up his son for the first time, a telegram from DeMille arrived saying Fraser had gotten the part.

Anecdotes and interviews and archival footage make up the majority of 'Making Miracles', a brisk documentary following the film from conception to release (in its first release, the $13Million dollar production made $64Million, which is more than $500Million in today's money). I'd like to take you through a few of the things I learned by watching the documentary now, but for those who'd enjoy watching without advance knowledge of these fun film factoids, please skip ahead to the forums now. Let me know which edition you'll be picking up this March, or other epic catalog titles you'd love to see on Blu-ray. Ron Smith told me Paramount does take requests and listen to consumers for which catalog titles they'll restore and release next. So speak up, friends. (Editor's Note: Curtis Hanson's 'Wonder Boys' please!!)

From here on, SPOILERS -- if making-of documentaries about 57-year-old films can have such things -- be a'plenty:

-DeMille is famous for saying that he made movies at his desk. Prep, or pre-production, is the cheapest time of movie making, so he exhausted all efforts to fine tune his stories and get his movies ready before cameras rolled. That being said, 'The Ten Commandments' never had an official budget; Paramount just let DeMille make it until it was done. As I said above, this ended up costing $13 Million and was the most expensive movie ever made at that time.

-DeMille was an actor first (he's fantastic playing himself in 'Sunset Boulevard', which is my request for what Paramount desperately needs to put out on Blu-ray) and loved working with them. Since DeMille was based on the Paramount lot, he would meet with all the actors working on the lot, and have his secretary write down his thoughts on each.

-Charlton Heston blames his nose for getting him the part of Moses, because he resembled Michelangelo's famous Moses sculpture. Also, Heston was inspired during his trip to the real Mount Sinai to be the burning bush's voice of God, an idea he and DeMille talked over with monks who lived in the area. The monks approved. Also, when Heston walks down the mountain from the burning bush, audiences will note that his shoes are still off. This is because Heston realized Moses would have been so awestruck, he wouldn't have thought to put his shoes back on.

-Some of the film's costumes took five months to make.

-After DeMille's on-set heart attack (which he had while climbing up to the top of those giant gates), he didn't tell the crew, cast, or studio, fearing a shutdown of the production. Instead, he said he had dysentery. His doctors warned finishing the movie could kill him, but he refused to stop. DeMille's wife went on to direct some of the film's scenes so her husband could stay still.

-Edward G. Robinson was blacklisted during the Joseph McCarthy communist scare of the 1950s (tangent: sixty years later, some people in America still believe McCarthy was right. Sigh.), and he said DeMille saved his career by hiring him for 'The Ten Commandments'. Apparently, DeMille respected Robinson so much as an actor, that he (DeMille) was too nervous to give Robinson notes about his odd performance. DeMille became increasingly worried that Robinson wasn't playing the role right, until it came time to edit the picture, where DeMille realized the performance was exactly what he wanted and needed.

-Another suspected communist of the time (thanks to the Hollywood Reporter) was the film's composer, Elmer Bernstein. His career was dying fast when DeMille hired him, first for in-scene music, and eventually to score the whole film. Can you film score fans imagine a world without Elmer Berstein? Me neither. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.

-Though it's mainly used as a parking lot today...

...Paramount's famous outdoor water tank was constructed for 'The Ten Commandments' to create the parting of the Red Sea, which garnered the film its only Academy Award (for visual effects). The sparking granite tablets in the film were created using gun power. Here it is in the movie:

This shot, NOT from the restoration FYI, is actually (at least) five separate elements. The water on both sides as well has the crashing wave approaching from the back were all filmed separately in the tank. The sea bed is two back-to-back sound stages at Paramount and RKO. And the sky is separate as well.

-Oddly enough, DeMille was the James Cameron or Steven Spielberg or Michael Bay of his time. Meaning, he was a director who had un-paralleled commercial success for many years while making huge movies, but no warm critical reception (yes, Spielberg and Cameron have won tons of awards, but more recently Cameron was snubbed at the Oscars, and there were periods where they were both ignored because of their genre work. Time will tell if Michael Bay is going to win any critical praise). 'The Ten Commandments' was DeMille's first well-reviewed picture in nearly twenty years.

Well, that's all for today. To learn more, you'll have to pick up the six-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo edition of 'The Ten Commandments', available from Paramount Home Entertainment on March 29.

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Tags: Film Restoration, Paramount, The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston, Michael S. Palmer, Cecile B. DeMille (all tags)