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Hitchcock, seen here in 1969, is one director whose classic movies are
being digitized and given high-definition re-releases — a process some
argue can alter the original in significant ways.
Warner Studios in Burbank, Calif., is a piece of American film history — remnants of sets from classics dot the lot: Casablanca, The Music Man, Tea for Two. Then there's the vault where film history lives.
preservation purposes, the room is kept at a cool 38 degrees. Movable
shelves stacked with thousands of steel film cases line the walls of the
archive with movies and TV shows that go back as far as 1916. Many are
major pieces of American film history — for example, the original camera
negative of Rebel Without a Cause.
contents of Warner's vault are increasingly becoming relics; the days
of celluloid film are numbered. From the shooting process to the cinema
projectors, the future is in digital. For movie studios, though, new
technologies are often an excuse to go through their film libraries and
re-release classics in the latest technology. But taking a film and
moving it to digital, especially high definition, can change it. And
some filmmakers aren't happy when studios do that.
Price oversees the digital archives at Warner, a job that includes
turning these films into high-definition digital copies for re-release.
The digital transformation begins down the hall at the imaging lab. A
laser scanner moves slowly across each frame of a film.
"we can't literally copy a piece of film and have it look like it did
in the theater," Price says. "So there's a bit of manipulation that has
to go on."
"A bit of manipulation" is an understatement. It
can take months to make a digital copy look like the original film.
Upstairs, there's a quiet editing room where Price is working on a
high-definition 3-D version of Dial M for Murder. (Little-known fact: Alfred Hitchcock himself shot the 1954 film in 3-D originally).
The movie's famous murder scene happens in Grace Kelly's living room — all murky and shadowy at night.
colorist working on the digital version at Warner, Janet Wilson, points
out that in the initial digital copy, the room is dark — but the
shadows aren't registering boldly.
"You can see that they're kind of blue and milky and washed out," she adds.
The colors have faded on the original film print, it turns out. But using digital coloring, Wilson is able to fix that.
"I isolate that element in the image, and I make it darker," Wilson says, "to make it actually look like a shadowy room."
The enhanced shadows make the room look much scarier. Hitchcock's ghost would approve — or at least Ned Price hopes so.
do check our backs once in a while," Price says. "There are a few
filmmakers that you kind of wonder if they aren't ready to strike if you
do the wrong thing."
Hitchcock's vision, they examine notes made by costume and lighting
designers, and research the colors of film stock of the era. Price says
directors are like painters: They make conscious choices about the color
of furniture, wallpaper, costumes.
But Price also admits high definition can change a film in a way the original director never dreamed of. In a classic like The Wizard of Oz, HD might get you a much brighter yellow brick road, but you might also see the strings attached to the flying monkeys.
creating a hybrid," Price says. "You want to represent what the film's
intent was, and what the look was, and what the feeling was of the film,
but you want to take advantage of the fact that you can see a lot
But some moviemakers believe that
movies made in film should be restored in film. Mary Sweeney, who worked
for years with director David Lynch as an editor on features such as Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet, asks us to imagine if they did this to a Rembrandt or Picasso.
fact that it converts from film to numbers shouldn't give people the
right to toy with the work as it exists in history, as created by the
people who made it."
Take Blue Velvet.
Lynch's film, which explores the dark underbelly of a small town, opens
with Bobby Vinton's sweet song "Blue Velvet" and bright shots of blue
sky, manicured lawns and picket fences. Then its colors darken and
actually get murky as the hero discovers the town's seedy underbelly.
they brightened up the scenes and the colors seemed sort of cheerier,"
Sweeney argues, the changes would affect the whole film.
are ways in which spectators just aren't conscious of how they are
influenced by sound or color. But a filmmaker of David's caliber is very
aware of that, very intentional in the way he uses it." Blue Velvet
has been re-released in high definition, but Lynch and members of the
film crew were involved in the process. What worries Sweeney is that
after Lynch is gone, and the technology keeps changing, the studio is
likely to look for new ways to re-release his films using the latest
"Someone sitting in an office in a
studio thinking, 'How can I exploit our library' — those people are
interested in the financial well-being of the studio," Sweeney says.
They won't necessarily be interested in David Lynch's artistic vision.
Richard Donner, the director of Superman — the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve — doesn't think the issue is quite so fraught.
not exactly like repainting a Rembrandt," he says. "It's not like a
singular painting hanging in a museum. A lot of people would like to
think that, and I have a lot of arguments with some of my fellow
directors about it, but my feeling is we've turned it over to the public
— hopefully they will handle it with respect."
Warner studios owns the rights to Donner's Superman. Donner was supposed to make the sequel, but had a fight with the studio. So when they released Superman in high definition — without his input — he was worried. Then he saw the results.
man, it looked beautiful," he says. "The blacks were stronger, and I
saw some depth of focus that I didn't have before, and I was totally,
Digital film colorist
Janet Wilson knows that it's a daunting task to re-create a director's
work. But every year, she says, the technology is getting better. And
about every five years, the studio revisits their most popular titles.
going to be somebody else who will come behind me, who will maybe get
this better," Wilson says, "who will get it more right than I was able
to, who will have better tools."
Or maybe, Wilson says, she'll get another chance herself.