‘North by Northwest’ Returns to the Big Screen — This Time in 70mm

Jim Hemphill 06/11/2024

Representatives from Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation and Warner Bros. talk about their collaboration on the new restoration set to screen at Tribeca.

On June 12, the Tribeca Film Festival will present the East Coast premiere of a new restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” screening in glorious 70mm thanks to Warner Bros. and Martin Scorsese‘s Film Foundation. It’s just the latest in an ongoing series of collaborations between the studio and the foundation, whose 70mm upgrade of John Ford’s “The Searchers” also premiered this year. Both films now look better than they have since their initial theatrical releases thanks to the studio going back to the original VistaVision negatives and taking full advantage of that format’s increased resolution to create the most detailed, vivid masters of Hitchcock and Ford’s classics possible.

When VistaVision was introduced in 1954 alongside other new formats like CinemaScope and Cinerama (all of which were intended to bring back the movie audience that had migrated to television), what made it special was that it had double the negative size of a typical 35mm frame. “With CinemaScope, you have a four-perf negative,” the Film Foundation‘s Margaret Bodde told IndieWire. “VistaVision is eight-perf, so you’re doubling the size of the image. It just has a superior image quality.” That added quality is what justified creating a 70mm exhibition print from the studio’s perspective. “The goal was to get all the resolution that you possibly could onto that frame,” Warner Bros. executive Daphne Dentz told IndieWire.

The unusual nature of VistaVision’s eight-perf, horizontal negative created challenges for the restoration team, the first of which was simply scanning the image at the highest resolution possible. Warner Bros. scanned the negative at 13K, with each half of the VistaVision frame scanned at 6.5K and stitched together digitally. According to colorist Sheri Eisenberg, that led to some unique issues. “With VistaVision, two frames make up the one image, and you get what I call Vista flicker,” Eisenberg told IndieWire. “You have each frame aging in its own way, so you can get a little bit of flicker across the two frames. Then you add the fact that this is really a special effects movie — there are layers of opticals and practicals and artwork mixed in with live action. All of these different elements had faded differently in different ways.”

For Eisenberg, the biggest challenge was that the color in the original negative had faded considerably. “The negative had extreme fading in the blue-yellow channel,” she said. “That makes it very difficult to render natural images.” In order to get a reference for the way the film’s color would have looked on its initial release, Eisenberg screened a copy borrowed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that had physical wear and tear but intact color because it was printed in IB Technicolor, which doesn’t fade. That gave her a starting point for a new HDR color pass that brought cinematographer Robert Burks’ gorgeous images back to vivid life.

Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill
‘North by Northwest’Warner Bros.

The fact that “North by Northwest” is so beloved made restoring it an obvious choice and a necessity. “Because Hitchcock was such a popular filmmaker, you run the risk of the original negative being used to make more prints and getting a little more beat up than a film that wasn’t so commercially successful,” Bodde said. Dentz added that in addition to the color dye instability issues there were other problems typical for an original camera negative of this age. “The OCN also suffered from film shrinkage,” she said, “and the abnormal amount made it hard to keep a stable image.”

In addition to stabilizing the image and restoring the color, the studio and Film Foundation supervised a new soundtrack in which mixer Doug Mountain took the original mono stems and created a new 5.1 audio mix. That mix was then encoded in DTS for the 70mm print that will be screening at Tribeca and then traveling around the world to other venues, such as the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. “It’s going to multiple festivals,” Eisenberg said. “I know it’s going to open in Bologna. I feel like whenever we do these films, there’s an opportunity for a whole new generation to get to see the film theatrically. Audiences have a bit of a love affair with seeing film on film, and that’s really what we’re trying to do here: preserve it for future generations and present something special for everybody right now.”

The 70mm “North by Northwest” will have its East Coast Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12.


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