ASK THE DIRECTOR. Board members answer questions about film preservation.
MS: This subject came up the night I was at LACMA, in a public conversation with Michael Govan – this was a couple of months ago.
I brought up the example of The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the first 3-strip Technicolor movies, made in 1938 at Warner Brothers and shot by Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito. It’s a beautiful picture, incredibly vivid color, and they recently released it on Blu-Ray, which means that they restored it and made a Hi-Def master.
I was struck by the Blu-Ray, the sheer beauty of it. At this point, with digital restoration techniques, it really is possible to recreate the old Technicolor look, the color values in particular, or at least to come so close that you have to have an extremely well-trained eye to see the difference. For a while, in the 90s, you were seeing restorations that looked very handsome but maybe a little too modern. Now, I think we’ve taken a step forward.
But there was something else I noticed, which was the absence, or minimizing, of grain. Now, as I said at LACMA, I happen to like grain, the play of it in the image, the flux. That’s because I grew up with it, I’m used to it. Many of us feel that way, those of us who were born before, say, 1970.
But then, I ask myself: if Gaudio and Polito had had access to the kind of technology we have today, would they have eliminated some of the grain from the image? In all probability, I have to admit that yes, they probably would. So, the question seems to be: which way do you do? Do you conform to the realities of film stock and do your best to recreate them, or do you look at it creatively and think, “What would this movie look like on an ideal level, if the people who made it had access to machinery that would have given them more control over the image?”
Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But I think it’s important to realize that choices have to be made, at every level and all the time, and no matter what the final result is, it will never be definitive. Look at what William Friedkin just did with The French Connection. In that case, the image looks almost grainier, and the look reminds some people of Super 8. In a way, it’s a different movie. Now in that case, the director was the one making the choices.
There is no definitive answer. But whenever a picture is restored, from whatever era, choices have to be made. They need to be made responsibly, with a great deal of sensitivity, and they have to be made with what the technicians and supervisors perceive as the spirit of the picture itself.