Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives at Paramount Pictures sat down with HomeTheaterForum late last week to discuss her work restoring the just-released Wings on Blu-Ray.
Andrea talks about the extensive research to prepare for the restoration work of the important and Academy Award winning silent feature from Paramount as well as her time at the British Film Institute.
Wings is available on Blu-ray now.
Andrea, Thank you for talking with HomeTheaterForum today, I really appreciate it. We have an enthusiastic film appreciation membership and readership at the forum and Wings has always been a holy ground to many of our readers. How did Wings come about as a project for you to work on?
I think there are two things that really made it a reality. One was the fact that we're (Paramount) celebrating our 100th year this year the restoration of a really important Paramount film was one of those obvious things we looked at. But the other thing was that when Wings was talked about, I knew that we actually had the restoration technology to tackle this project because the original material we had was a duplicate negative made from a nitrate print in the 1950s. And that was after a worldwide search to make sure there were no closets with an original negative in them, which there unfortunately are not in a lot of cases as you know. So that element had significant primitive nitrate deterioration that meant some of the sides of the images were almost completely gone and then just the basic problems of the print, with hairline scratches, even some printed in projector dirt, and then the generational challenge of having something duplicated from a print. And we have tools, which are both powerful but nuanced to make sure that we restored the image without removing any element.
And that's a fine line.
It is, absolutely, and when you have a compromised element like this it's very important. But we were also lucky enough to have found some original documentation that told us where the original tints were, what color they were so that when we added those back digitally, we knew we were being accurate, and also to know where the ‘by-hand’ special effects color for the planes, for the machine guns and plane crashes were. So we had some good tools to work with, both from a research and a new restoration technology perspective so that we could reconstruct this image and hopefully honor it as best we could.
What would you say was the most difficult aspect of working on Wings? Was there anything that was internally controversial about how you would approach restoring or fixing the scratches of a certain scene or anything that presented a challenge to overcome?
We worked very closely with the experts at the academy art side and wanted as many brains and eyes and big mouths in the room as possible and we wanted to have those debates. We encouraged that and wanted to work on how much grain have we left in, is that a good amount. We wanted to talk about one scene over another or how we'd actually fix some nitrate footage and that was a fantastic experience to be able to have that open dialog with archivists we really respected and admired and had this ‘double-check’.
So now that Wings is over, what are you working on now that you can talk about?
I would just say look forward to more fun things coming down the road in 2012. It's going to be hard to find another restoration that is as exciting as Wings too, because between the intense picture work and rerecording of the sound with Ben Burtt doing the sound effects, it's a really exciting project for us.
So given your success in working on Wings, does that give you confidence that as long as you could find some reasonable element, there is nothing you can't do to restore and preserve great works of film art?
Each film presented has its own little gifts of condition issues – and each time we come across a new project we learn something new. We try to make sure that we are researching as much as possible. So there may very well be problems that we will run cross and may decide that we’ll wait on that because it’s just too complicated right now, but I do think that in the last five years, technology has really come forward in terms of scanning, and restoration tools, and so I think it's good news for restorations everywhere that the technology is there to make sure as we digitally restore these things that we're doing a really fantastic job in both making these films as beautiful as we can for audiences and also honoring their own history.
And Wings is coming out blu-ray high definition and when I was speaking with Ron Smith last year about The 10 Commandments restoration, which was at the time the high bar in my eyes, he was talking about screening some of these restored films and that in some case, the release to the home media market is almost secondary. Is there a potential to see that shown theatrically?
Well we're excited that the Film Fair in New York City is doing a big Wellman's retrospective and Wings is a big part of that. And there have been other interests from festivals and other repertory cinemas. The exciting thing about showing Wings theatrically is that it's a silent film, so it has a full cinema aperture, and when you wanted to include sound with the silent film in the area of 35 millimeter print, you had to lock off some of the picture in order to make room for the sound track. With a digital cinema print, you can actually see the entire full frame that we restored, which makes me happy. And then we also have our newly recorded score with the sound effects that Ben Burtt did that can be seen in a theater and, the farther we get to an approximation of what people experienced the year a movie came out, the better we feel.
So how long did the process take when you were officially handed the reins to oversee this?
Our research portion took about six months. We did a lot of research to make sure we found the best elements and also we did a lot of research into periodicals of the day to understand how it had been exhibited because we knew that it had been a big road show as they called them with a full orchestra and sound effects in some of the bigger theaters in the bigger cities. So we did a lot of work and by the time we actually got around to doing the lab work and rerecording the score, we felt really prepared and so that took less time than the research, about four months.
And Wings is a fascinating film and there is some genuinely incredible camera work for a film that is so old. And I get the same feeling when I watch some of the restored Buster Keaton films that I'm seeing them for the first time having in many cases only experienced some films on shoddy VHS tapes. Being able to rediscover the level of detail, the level of craftsmanship in some of these older films is just a real treat – it almost feels like a heyday for older film with high definition and some superb restoration work going on. It feels almost like a renaissance. Does it feel that way to you?
Well, from your lips to Gods ear, that would be fantastic. As you were speaking, I got this image in my mind of a fantastic shot in Wings where the cameras were mounted in front of the actors and the actors flew the planes. That never happened before or since! And that immediacy and that thrill is literally the only time you're going to see that. And that's an incredible gift that Wellman left us with. And I think that's the wonderful thing about appreciating the history of cinema is there is tons of gifts like that! There's tons of films that have little treasures in them that are like no other film and that happens in any era of film history.
I read that you had spent time with an archivist at the British Film Institute. Can you tell me a little bit about your time there and what you worked on while you were there; I find that fascinating that you spent time in that role?
From the sound of your voice it's an institution you're more familiar with than most (laughs)?
Very much so!
I was privileged enough to be head of preservation at the British Film Institute for six years and we worked on some of Mitchell and Kenyon project - films that were found in milk crates underneath a store that were actually really beautiful Georgian era silent films – actualities. I worked on the British David Lean films, and the restoration of Hammer's Dracula. It was an absolutely incredible experience to get to know the films and the culture of another country first-hand and its enormous archives, and to be able to work with an archive of that size was an absolute thrill.
Thank you very much for speaking with the HomeTheaterForum today and congratulations on the Wings restoration and we look forward to what you've got in store for us in 2012.
Thank you very much for your interest.