"Before and after" frame reconstruction of typical damage.

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.”

"Before and after" repair work on lacquer 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.

Computers are no match for broken glass, the damage here can only be fixed by hands.

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:

But first the facts: what we see in digitally equipped movie theaters is high-definition digital cinema. It’s termed 2K, meaning a picture standard that produces an image that is 1920 x 1080 pixels or just over two million bits of information. However, there is a standard beyond 2K that is used for scanning older films called 4K, which contains about eight million bits of screen info. This same 4K standard is used for film restoration because it allows for the manipulation of picture elements at a level far superior to its general exhibition format. Occasionally, as in this series, 4K is used as an exhibition format for special screenings.

Contemporary films originate on a digital platform, making digital cinema the native exhibition standard. A prickly issue arises when an older film, born photochemical, is transferred to digital for projection. Suddenly, the “film” finds itself occupying the screen in absolute stability, the subliminal flicker gone, the light values subtly altered, the contrast and depth redefined. Does this misrepresent the experience of film history? Perhaps. Or does it resurrect a history that might otherwise be lost to us? Again, perhaps.

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 hall of mirrors provides an appropriate image on reflections, replications, and revisiting the past.

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:


7 Responses Shanghaid
Posted By kingrat : March 23, 2014 7:24 pm

Thank you for this article. I’m looking forward to seeing THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI the last night of the festival. A great way to end a great festival.

Posted By LD : March 23, 2014 9:32 pm

After reading your post of LADY FROM SHANGHAI, I decided to watch what Bogdanovich had to say on the DVD. I am not usually upset by imperfections on DVD’S and I can honestly say I won’t be replacing what I already own. Double dipping I think it is called. Bottom line, this is a wonderful film as a vehicle for Welles and Hayworth. Also it is nice to have film of Flynn’s boat, which I assume is the Zaca and his dachshund as part of the back story. With that being said, Glenn Anders as George Grisby creeps me out, as I would think it would any normal person.

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : March 24, 2014 5:49 am

I’ll probably buy THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI Blu-ray because “TCM Vault Collection titles are produced in small quantities for a limited time,” and for me it’s a must-have. As to TOUCH OF EVIL, all I can say is that if you’re in L.A. during that 4K restoration screening next month – don’t miss it!

Posted By ListsMania : March 24, 2014 1:14 pm

OLD is GOLD :)

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 24, 2014 4:45 pm

I can remember watching a 16mm print (I assume) of DOUBLE INDEMNITY on a college campus and being impressed by the dust motes floating in the beams of sunlight coming through the blinds (just like the narrator promised!). That it took digital restoration to bring them out in BLADE RUNNER surprises me, but HD brings out all manner of things you didn’t notice before. It played hell with the budgets of TV producers who had to upgrade their cheap sets.

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : March 24, 2014 4:57 pm

Hi, Richard -

What you said reminds me of a better example; STAR TREK. When I first saw it as a kid it was on a small and crappy TV. Now, as I project the Blu-ray on a big screen in true HD it reveals a lot more information. Okay, a lot of the rocks that get tossed around ALWAYS looked like Styrofoam. But with HD I can now see the makeup around Spock’s ears with alarming clarity. (Still love the show, of course.)

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2014 5:38 pm

To add to the general weirdness of HD, there’s also the digital erasing of special effects wires and matte lines that you’re used to seeing, making things even more hyper-real. I guess it’s not necessarily a downside, but if you’re used to seeing them in the past, it can be a bit jarring.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!

 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.