Progress Not Perfection: The Work of Ariel Schudson

Presenting The Way It Was: Warner Bros. and Blu-Ray Restoration


This work was initially published as a roundtable interview piece in addition to my regular column on the site, and may be located in its original form on CRAVEONLINE.COM. I was particularly interested in participating in this article because my knowledge in regards to home entertainment technologies was minimal. While Michael Friend had discussed some of Sony’s various innovations such as Ultra-Violet, I was unaware of what the relationship between film restoration had to the visual quality. While Karen Gracy’s work had discussed various kinds of photochemical preservation and I was familiar with that text at this point, the digital application of her words was something I wished to pursue especially within a studio context. In the MIAS program, there had been enough delineation between studio archives, educational archives and specialized work that the perspective of a company whose trajectory included monetizing these restored assets attracted me both as a journalist and a moving image archivist in training.

I’ve always been pretty wary when it came to the Blu-ray experience. To a certain extent, the motto from the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner has, for better or worse, stuck with me when it came to the format: “More human than human.”

While I am in no way a Luddite, nor am I one of those people who believes that film should only be solely digital or only in 35mm, I am very aware that the moving image world and its production and preservation is a complicated space full of mottled greys and marbled blacks and whites; there are no absolutes.I will freely admit: the technological savvy of the Blu-ray product when it came to my cultural passion did put me off my game a bit. Ultimately, I became concerned that the films that I knew and loved were going to become too perfect visually and were going to lose some of the small but endearing features that had been built into them in production. Within the Blu-ray creation process, there are just so many ways to tinker around with the final product that I became nervous that we were going to be left with generations of films that had no visual imperfections, no inadequacies. When I watch a film, I don’t want it to have that “soap opera look” – so hyper-real that it no longer places me in a different universe, the universe that the originating filmmaker worked so very hard to establish.

That said, after what I heard from sitting in on the virtual roundtable with Ned Price and Jeff Baker from Warner Bros. and Andy Parsons of the Blu-ray Association of America, I got a very strong feeling that this was the antithesis of what they were trying to do with their Blu-ray restoration work. Analogous to what I have experienced from my interactions with the staff and folks involved in the Warner Archive division, the sentiment that was expressed within that discussion certainly led me to believe that they have a dedication to the medium of film that goes beyond what can be attributed to “the job” and more of an affinity for “the work.”

Ned Price, Vice President of Mastering at Warner Bros., who handles and oversees the technological areas of preservation and restoration, was quite open about the “philosophy” and methods that they have within their department. He said, “There’s the preservation aspect of things where you want to maintain a pure copy of the original in its current state. Then there’s the restoration factor, which is something that we do for Blu-ray. Our job is to represent the film in its original theatrical look… that’s what we’re responsible for. Presenting the way it was.”

He went on to describe the extensive restoration work done for the Ben-Hur Blu-ray as an example. Not only was the original 65mm negative completely faded, meaning that they needed to use the 35mm print from the Academy Archive instead, but the print was simply too shrunken to physically project, so it had to be studied over a light table in order to correctly identify the colors to be used in the creation of the Blu-ray! In a situation such as this, however, as Price stated, it isn’t just a few colors that generally need to be corrected. A faded negative is a damaged negative and that necessitates more work than just shifting a few tints here and there. “The overall balances were off,” he states, “So if you’re looking at a raw negative in a faded state, you don’t always know what color everything is supposed to be, you’re not always sure what the densities are supposed to be because as you lose color, you lose density of the negative itself and of course then the printers… would time that negative differently to the director’s intent.”

Color correction, density, differently timed negatives… prints in poor condition, piecing elements together from various sources just to get the best one together for the best looking Blu-ray. As the song goes, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around! But really, how else would you establish the real, authentic color of something in the film if the original negative and materials you were going to use had lost all color? Going back to the original elements to get the necessary information would be the only surefire way to make sure a moving image resembled the original author’s intent or even the originally projected image back in the day.  It can be likened to looking something up on Wikipedia – it can be a basic place to start, but if you want to know the actual facts, you had better do the proper research.

Price stressed that original elements were also what they would be continuing to use into the future. I asked about the fact that 35mm is slowly disappearing from exhibition, yet would need to be utilized to create these beautiful Blu-ray editions. I wanted to know if he had any thoughts on future restoration work down the line when we may not have primary sources to go by? The response I received left me hopeful in an age where many things having to do with 35mm are not. His statement was one that I felt engaged both digital and analogue formats in a fair manner: “The current preservation medium for the studio is still 35mm film. We do archive the original digital production files, but until there is a long-term, industry accepted digital archive solution, we will continue with creation of film materials.”

Jeff Baker, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the theatrical catalog at Warner Bros., was very direct about the state of the Blu-ray market and discussed Warner Bros. high level of attention towards consumer desires. He said that not only can we expect to see a wider release of lesser-known Blu-ray titles in the upcoming period (based on traits such as genre, special effects and consumer popularity/desire), but also they will be at affordable prices.

Is there a catch? Well… yes, just slightly. The restoration work that will be done on these discs will not be as thorough or extensive as, say, the North by Northwest Blu-ray (mentioned during the Q&A as one of the more challenging titles they put together for Blu-ray, mostly due, again, to poor dye retention on the original camera negative and actual physical print damage). To this point, however, Ned Price countered by saying that the discs would still be quite attractive to the collector’s market, due to the manner in which they were created and the originating source materials.

While this may seem like the company line and one of those “Well, of course they would say that, they want to sell the product!” things, Price’s point did hold water. While the release of these “deep library” titles may not be getting done in 8K scans, they’ll still be 2K. And, as Ned Price states, “I know that [each film will] be from a good element because if the good element is not there we will turn around and tell Jeff, that’s not going to fly because you want the film to be presented in a very good light… [We] don’t want make the film look less than it is, so even though Jeff is talking about economic transfers, we’re always going to put our best foot forward.” At the end of the day, with this particular group of titles, all three men agreed on one major point: at least these films will be seeing the light of day and getting distribution, no longer sitting around somewhere becoming fodder for forum discussions about “When is this going to be out on Blu-ray?”

The final points of concern for me were discussed during the Q&A session when Ned answered my questions regarding grain reduction and the sharpness of the image. As a classic film gal, I’ve always loved the fact that they used to put Vaseline or a sheer stocking on the camera lens to make the image softer. Somehow that always seemed so sexy to me. Images of Rita Hayworth’s full lips and skin and Greta Garbo’s facial glow and iridescent hair come to mind when I consider the sensuality of that kind of camera “soft touch.” So I inquired as to whether there was any such thing as “too sharp” in the world of restoration and Blu-ray, from their perspective.

Price’s answer made sense. He said that there really was “no such thing as ‘too sharp’ unless you are artificially enhancing the image. We never ‘dumb down’ an image in order to make it look more like a theatrical release print as our goal is to mine all [information] in the image inherent in the original photography. I’ve never encountered a film that did not hold up to [the] scrutiny of high-resolution, the craftspeople always exceeded the limitation of the capture medium, we do encounter the occasional wig line, but we find that the ‘fix’ (hand painting) is typically worse than the problem.”

To me, Price’s answer gave further credence to my feelings of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” especially when it comes to cinema and transitioning it to home viewing. The concept that trying too hard to make things too perfect (see above Tyrell Corporation credo) will lead one down a deep dark road that should not be traversed is no joke. The goal is to enhance, not to destroy or even replace. Price’s point was well taken.

So what of grain-reduction? I know that this is a major point of contention amongst many amateur and educated media-scholars alike. Should there be more? Less? Does the removal lessen the authenticity? Should they be touching the grain at all? Price’s policy, he says, is quite conservative. From where I sat, his motivations seemed to be returning, once again, to the concept of having a certain responsibility for the image and making sure that it is represented in its original visual state or the closest thing to it. In order to do this, keeping the elements intact is more helpful than hurtful. Price reasons, “Grain reduction tools start to add artifact before they effectively reduce grain. Secondly, I feel that grain carries image information and texture… Also, I’m a great fan of the color information carried by the grain.”

Finally, Jeff Baker brought up the concept of “E.C.” or “Enhanced Content” on Blu-ray discs. While it’s very economically difficult for many consumers and collectors to deal with what may seem like a constant barrage of “double-dipping” and release/re-releasing of films by many of the studios, Baker discussed the complex relationship between restoration Blu-rays, enhanced content, and various releasing schedules. Not only was this an informative area for the discussion, but it is essential when looking at our own collecting and ideas of personal archiving as well. While the first run of a DVD may have certain features on it, the restoration has a great deal more economic backing behind it.

It is important to note that these finances will generally guarantee a great deal more effort towards authentic and original EC. While it may seem like studios are “hiding documentaries” or extra fun footage, the likelihood that they simply did not have the knowledge and/or resources to search for it or include it at the time of the last DVD release is a genuine fact of the film world. I’m not going to say that studios don’t want your cash and there aren’t tons of needless rereleases out there just to drain your wallet, but having a critical eye towards these things is always good.

While a regular DVD may have a commentary track and a few documentaries, the restoration is a historical object and identifies itself as such by collecting features to help enrich the main feature. Baker used the story of Charlton Heston’s diary and a Heston home movie, discovered to be in existence when constructing the Ben-Hur Blu-ray as an example (mind you, Baker stressed that they were not trying to promote or get us to buy the Ben-Hur set, it was just a good recent model). While they had originally decided that they did not have any additional materials to add, the restoration team went back to do the restorative work and came up with more elements to add to this set. These additions, completely unexpected, only resulted from the fact that they went back to do this work in the first place.

As Baker states, this set is “a fascinating consumer package as a result of not only enhanced film in high-definition, but this material that otherwise we never would’ve looked for, we never would’ve found.” While they are, in essence, concentrating on restoring the elements for a consumer product, the practicality of migrating important historical/media documents from one source to another serves another, very important purpose: archival distribution. While the original materials will be staying with the professionals at Warner Bros., by the care and energies that they are putting into the creation of all of these items, people like Ned Price and Jeff Baker are, in effect, making a concerted effort towards ensuring the survival of these media items.

Whether Blu-ray is the ending format or whether we move forward to streaming or some other kind of viewing contraption, it is only through the consistent use and retrieval of media items that we will keep things alive. The attitude that people like Jeff Baker and Ned Price have taken at Warner Bros. in regards to the concept of restoration and the Blu-ray seems essentially balanced. It represents respect for consumer needs right alongside respect for the actual materials being worked with. While Baker effectively presented the economics of the situation and strategic process, his approach, in tandem with Price’s ability and devotion to moving image restoration itself has put a fascinating spin on how to proceed with film restoration in the digital age for consumers.

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