Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 23, 2014
Last January while attending the Arthouse Convergence in Midway, Utah, I was privy to a digital 4K restoration of The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). It was introduced by Leonard Maltin, and the screening preceded the official Blu-ray release by a couple weeks. It comes to mind now because I see it coming up on TCM and also because next month anyone lucky enough to be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival can watch another one by Welles with the “world premiere restoration reconstructed from the original camera negative” of Touch of Evil (1958). Restorations are a tricky business; hard work and, if all goes well, all that work should be invisible to the viewer.
Working with an original nitrate negative and “the lacquering effect.”
In the case of The Lady from Shanghai, the good news is that Grover Crisp (Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment) and his crew had access to an original nitrate negative that Sony Colorworks colorist David Bernstein acknowledges as having a “intangible property” and a “rich, luxurious look to it.” The bad news was that, on top of the usual problems (tears, missing frames, scratches) the negative, at some point, had been lacquered. “This is a process by which a lacquer solution is applied to the film to fill-in scratches and prolong the printability life of the negative,” explains Crisp. The lacquering, however, was poorly applied, dangerous to remove, and left behind a slew of artifacts, including thin vertical streaks.
Photochemical restoration vs 4K restoration.
The original effort to restore The Lady from Shanghai began back in the 1990′s, but there were too many difficulties with the typical photochemical restoration. Two decades later the ability to scan the negative using a 4K wet-gate scanner meant the restoration process could be done digitally – but that’s not to say all the cleanup was done using computers and algorithms. The famous house of mirrors scene, for example, provided so many unique challenges that 30 artists manually had to restore areas plagued by dirt and scratches amidst the shattering glass and changing lights.
A note on 2K vs 4K projection.
At this point, I’d like to give the floor to Steve Seid, Video Curator at BAM/PFA, who posted the following comments last December by way of introducing the public to 4K restorations from Sony Pictures:
Steve’s comments are interesting to me because, after watching the 4K presentation of The Lady from Shanghai, I do remember one colleague mentioning afterwards how unsettled he was by the level of detail and stability up on the screen. I had a similar feeling when I first saw Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) on a 4K projector: I was able to see individual dust motes floating in the air that I don’t remember seeing during the film’s original theatrical release. It wasn’t quite as jarring as seeing The Hobbit (Peter Jackson, 2012) at 48 frames per second (instead of cinema’s longstanding 24 fps), but it did look… different.
If I had a time-machine, after doing all those things you’re supposed to do (stop Hitler, etc.), I’d most certainly like to go back to 1958 to watch an original 35mm film print of The Lady of Shanghai upon its theatrical release, rather than a digital copy that had been cleaned up a half century later. (The time machine might also prove handy in saving the almost hour-long footage that was supposedly destroyed by the studio, which didn’t care for The Lady of Shanghai – but that would be a separate adventure.) What can I say? I am a fan of those intangible and luxurious properties that film has over digital. But until that time machine gets built, I’m surely very grateful to the hardworking people behind the restorations that are keeping the past alive, preserving it for us in a clear and beautiful form. In a way, a restored movie is already the closest thing we have to a time machine. Not one that allows us to go into the past, but rather one that brings the past to us. It also helps replicate that feeling of what it might have been like to see the film for the first time, minus the decades of degradation that only serve to remind us of the injustices of time.
The following links were consulted for both pictures and quotes, and provide more details on the restoration process:
Recommended reading for more on The Lady from Shangai:
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