Off To See The Wizards: HDD Gets An In Depth Look at the Restoration of 'The Wizard of Oz' (UPDATED - Before and After Pics!)

Posted Fri Sep 11, 2009 at 11:45 AM PDT by Mike Attebery

by Michael S. Palmer

High-Def Digest gets an inside peek at the restoration of a truly classic film: 'The Wizard of Oz'

If you join us at High-Def Digest with any frequency, it's likely your passion for all things HD is surgically linked with a love for the cinema. In my case, that meant a childhood of watching the same films over and over (and over). Along with 'E.T.' and 'Back to the Future,' 'The Wizard of Oz' became not only entertainment, but part of a comforting routine. There was singing and dancing, it changed from black & white into color , and it somehow managed to be both laugh out loud funny, and absolutely terrifying. It’s the perfect nutrition pyramid for the imagination.

Now, (skipping past a few boring years) color me thrilled to have moved to Culver City, California, and found work on the Sony Studios lot, which for anyone not in the know, used to be the backlot for a little company called MGM. There, answering phones in an office that was a converted soundstage, I learned that in the fall of 1938, this very space had been used to film portions of 'The Wizard of Oz' itself. It was fascinating to work in such a historic building; at the very top of the stairwell, there were crew signatures and dates from the 1930s scribbled onto steal beams. Add to this, just down the street, a skinny brick structure called the Culver Hotel, where all 124 of the Oz Munchkins lived during production.

So with all that history, it didn’t take me even a second to RSVP for a Restoration Tour the kind folks over at Warner Home Video (Warner Home Video holds the home entertainment rights thanks to Ted Turner’s acquisition of the MGM film library in 1986) were hosting for the 70th Anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, slated to hit Blu-ray and DVD on September 29. This release being the climax to a year long Oz celebration lead by the Wizard’s balloon traveling across the world, 5 of the original Munchkins performing in New York’s Central Park, and an auction of the Ruby Slipper Collection to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Here is the simple, honest truth of what I saw, which was a collection of HD clips not projected, but displayed on a large LCD television anyone of us could buy: if you have a Blu-ray player, this will be a reference disc. And if you already love 'The Wizard of Oz' RUN to the store when this Blu-ray comes out.

I know what some of you may be thinking (Studio plant!). This is just another Anniversary Edition of a movie that’s been on home video again and again and again. Friends, of course the end goal is to monetize a product, but this 'Wizard of Oz' reissue is so much more than that. In 2005, for the last DVD release of the movie, WHV commissioned a restoration, from which a 1080p HD master was made. A master that was technically ‘good enough’ for Blu-ray. They could have been done, saved a great deal of time and money, and made a quick buck, but to this passionate crew of artisans, technicians, and businessmen, ‘good enough’ simply would not do.

Because they’re not only releasing and selling a movie, they’re protecting an American national treasure, perhaps the most widely seen film in history. Preserving a classic for this, and future generations to enjoy. Flat out, you have never seen Oz in such stunning clarity before: Makeup on the actors’ faces. Delineation in Toto’s hair. Individual bricks on the yellow brick road. 3D-like flowers in Munchkinland, a quality high def is known for mostly on recent titles like 'The Dark Knight'. And even tiny surprises in production design, such as the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball being held up by tiny, carved, winged-monkeys.

So, how did the Wizards of Ours (as WHV liked to call their in-house team) manage to pull this off?

Well take a seat and bear with me for a little geektastic math. The restoration and re-mastering began by scanning the three original 1939 Technicolor negatives at an unbelievable “8K” resolution (keep in mind, many modern films such as Warners’ own Ocean’s 13 are finished in “2K”). To put that in perspective, when I take a photograph with my digital camera (at a 10.1 megapixel resolution), the file size is usually 3 to 4 megabytes. One still image at 8K is 40 megabytes, and for each frame of this film, WHV end up with 4 40-megabyte files (one for each of the three negative scans because of the “three strip” Technicolor process, and one final composite of all three negatives which was matched to the pixel). So for every frame, WHV has 160 megabytes, times 24 frames per second, times 60 seconds per minute, times a 101 minute running time. Meaning, to store the Oz materials, they needed over 22 terabytes, or 22,000 gigabytes. How much room do you have on your computer?

Okay, math lesson’s over, and some of you may be utterly befuddled by all the K’s and bytes. Don’t fret. What WHV is attempting to do, in scanning their catalogue film in the highest available digital resolution is attempting to equal the image quality of film, which has millions of grains. And the crazy part is that they aren’t done. This film still has more information to glean from it.

But what can all this resolution mean for the home viewer? Don’t Blu-rays max out at a much lower resolution? Of course they do, but what you’re getting is unparalleled video quality. For all the complaints our High-Def Digest reviewers have had about edge enhancement and digital noise reduction, in 'The Wizard of Oz' you will find none. Because as the resolution of the digital scan increases, the film grain is actually sharper, so there was no need to enhance the image, or reduce noise, which also diminishes ‘artifacting’ in the compression process (the act of reducing a digital file size to fit a space, in our case, a Blu-ray disc).

In fact, here’s what they did to bring out the best in Oz: They repaired three tears in a near-pristine 70-year-old film negative, removed three production wires, and did a color correction. That’s it.

The color correction, by Janet Wilson who has done the last three restorations of 'The Wizard of Oz,' is based on a 1939 answer print WHV borrowed from The Academy (of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences) to achieve the most authentic color palette. What Ms. Wilson found is that the newer DI technology allowed her to improve upon the work she did in 2005 (she spoke of the challenge of isolating color around the primitive visual effect of the Good Witch of the North, Glinda, in her bubble). And since the original Kansas sections of the film were projected in sepia, not black & white, they found a piece of film from the era to match for color, as they did not have an Oz sepia print.

As for the wires, purists may argue it sacrilege (think of what Lucas and Spielberg have done to their classics), but the goal at WHV was to preserve filmmaker-intent. After endless discussions and research, the team decided that these specific wires (others have been left in) disrupted the narrative, and were invisible (as intended) in all other releases (including film). Only at this increased definition was there a visible flaw.

For the audiophiles among us, what you’ll be enjoying on this Blu-ray is the full dynamic range of lossless 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. Keep in mind that this is actually the same mix used for the 2005 DVD, but that was compressed in AC-3. Again, for the purists who prefer mono tracks of classics, be aware that the only reason Oz was ever mixed into a stereo was because they had ‘angles’ from the Orchestration recordings. This isn’t about cheap panning effects.

Personally, it was a great tour, the clips I witnessed were fantastically vibrant, and I can’t wait to see the whole film again (and again). For those who can’t wait for the 29th, check your local listings on September 23rd for special one-night-only digital screenings of 'The Wizard of Oz.' And this has only whet my appetite for future masterly restored catalogue titles, an area of Blu-ray that has been underserved. WHV hopes Oz will help jumpstart a trend. As for the catalogue future of WHV, here’s looking forward to Oz, as well as the impending fall releases of 'Gone With the Wind' (11/7) and my one of my favorites, 'North by Northwest' (11/3).

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Tags: MGM, Warner Home Video, Film Restoration, Michael S. Palmer (all tags)