- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
My Fair Lady, winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, is arguably the greatest movie musical of all-time. A jewel of a film and one that certainly ranks high among the greatest motion pictures ever made. The film has recently enjoyed a pioneering restoration effort led by Robert. A Harris.
Robert A. Harris, a film preservationist whose work to restore films like The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, and Vertigo have earned him well-deserved praised within the industry, has completed a brand new restoration effort on My Fair Lady, which sees its debut on Blu-ray on October 27th and a limited run in theaters as part of the BY Experience cinema event beginning on October 18.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Robert, and Home Theater Forum reviewer Kevin Koster, who had the chance to experience some of the restoration effort taking place in Los Angeles, about the complex restoration effort, the challenges the team faced, and the extraordinary results which fans of the film will get to experience in a few short weeks.
HTF: You've worked on My Fair Lady before so tell me about how you came to bring your talents again to this film, what was the state of the film when you were given it, and how has the technology changed to make your job easier or help improve the product now that you are working from 8K scans of the original camera negative and other surviving 65mm elements?
Robert A. Harris: Well, there is a two hour discussion right there. In 1994, initially we had arranged to go into the vault. I was training to LA, and [my business partner] Jim Katz was heading into the vault, as the earthquake had hit the day before. The elements had been kept at a facility outside of LA, and as Jim reported, were sitting in a single, non-air-conditioned vault, atop part of a nitrate library in blow-out vaults. This was before CBS was geographically separating elements, so all of the My Fair Lady elements were being kept in a single vault. There's a rule that you want all of your original elements, your protection elements, spread out as far and wide as they possibly can be lest there be some sort of a problem. Had something gone wrong below it would have taken all of My Fair Lady with it. This was just after the quake, and Jim Katz knew he had to do something to move elements, so he went in to the vault and started pulling out original camera negatives.
The camera negative of My Fair Lady probably weighs 700 pounds or thereabouts. So it's not easy. He had Mike Hyatt, our assistant, with him. Jim is an ex-marine so nothing really frightens him - ever. As he's in the vault, another quake hit and cans were falling off the shelves and he's figuring that the next day there'd be a mention of the times, "Archivist killed in earthquake accident." Cans of Charlie Brown films are falling off shelves in hitting him in the head, and he’s thinking, "If I'm going to die I want to be hit by the missing footage of The Magnificent Ambersons.”
"If I'm going to die I want to be hit by the missing footage of The Magnificent Ambersons.”
So he got all of this camera negative into his car. He was driving a Jaguar XJ Sedan at the time, which is not meant to haul and he gets on the freeway heading back to Hollywood. I arranged a place for the film to sit at least for a couple of days, an outdoor vault at Warner Hollywood. [Jim] got it there and I arrived in a couple of days later. We picked up the 65mm separation masters and got those to a vault at the Academy. We ended up transporting in a - I believe it was a gardener's truck covered with a tarpaulin. And there's another wonderful asset protection rule. You move these elements in air-conditioned vehicles. A gardener's truck with a tarpaulin was not exactly the way to do it but it had to be done. While all of this was going on, /Pro-Tek
What we found was the negative in less than stellar condition. It had been run somewhere between 120 and 150 times. Every 70mm print in those days were struck from the original camera negatives. This also means the original mags were run 120 times because they all needed to be mag striped. In addition to that, there were Technicolor matrices for 35mm and 16mm printings, as well as the production of heads and tails of reels that had been damaged by theaters over the years. They went back to the original camera negative for that. So I'd say the camera negative probably had by that time around 150-170 runs for the manufacture of 120 prints plus additional materials. It was also cut in an interesting format. It was edited as if it was Techniscope. It was single-strand not A&B rolls, which meant that as it was printed the original negative, the raw stock would move back and forth in an optical printer to encode fades and dissolves results on the fly.
Cut as a Techniscope film meant that there was an extra frame of image at the head and tail of every shot. So the original splices were then 30 years old, and were starting to open, [with] occasional tears, [but] we were able to get one print off the original negative and then re-cut it, re-splicing the entire original negative into A&B rolls from the Techniscope forma, losing those frames, so at least we began with fresh splices.
The audio situation was also problematic. We had found about half of the four-track magnetic full coat, and the entire six-track original less one reel, which had been duplicated. There was no ex copy, and those tracks were getting old and vinegary. The first thing we did with the original audio was to make an ex copy of the original show and then the re-recording we did was made from that ex copy. So the reality of the situation was the audio we ended up with in 1994 as our master was third generation at best and fourth generation for one reel…and what people were hearing on the 70mm prints at that point were fourth and fifth generation. So audio was affected. It sounded great but it could have been better. But all of this was done in the analogue world. Digitally, we were able to fix some shots, and where it now cost about 50, 60 cents a frame to record a large format 65mm picture, it was then costing about $50.00 a frame. And we would then be able to maneuver those frames to fixes and record them out to VistaVision. We were not able to record out the 65mm at that time. We would then do a blow up from the Vista to 65mm dupe negative and cut in the dupe negative into a working copy.
Then there were the 65mm separation masters, the prime elements to protecting the film. We found that they had been made defectively in 1964. There were optical holes in them, which meant that there were large spots of approximately half density. So we had bright spots, some of them rather large, running throughout the entire film. Those were some of the things that we had to fix. One of the other problems was that someone had inadvertently junked the main title sequence of the film as well as the prologue. Fortunately, Imagica, USA, was able, through digital and analogue means, to recreate the original main title sequence, but because of the resolution, it was the not as sharp as it might have been. Nor were any of the shots replaced in the film. So with all of those exigencies in hand, that's where we left the film in 1994.
So in 1994 when we left the project, we had a re-cut original camera negative and a 65mm inter-positive as a protection element, as well as protection of all the audio. But we could only take it so far. The original separation masters would not recombine, as they were too shrunken, and there are a lot of fixes that we were unable to do on the picture without full 4k or 8k data capabilities. So that's 1994.
HTF: I buy a lot of remastered soundtracks from the wonderful small labels like La-La Land Records, and sometimes you'll have a release and it's not perfect but the best you can do with the technology you have and the elements that you find. Then in a few years someone opens up the boot of a car, for example, and finds some missing piece and they're able to expand and release again. That can happen. It’s not by design but just the nature of life. So I'm curious how things are different since you began working on this project again.
Robert A. Harris: [Back then] we had digital technology in its infancy and we were actually one of the first teams to work in live action restoration in digital. The Disney organization had completed work on Snow White. All of our 65mm blow ups were basically in 2k which is equivalent to HD. So, not good, but at least we were able to create something that was far better than what was being put out on home video and being seen in theaters at the time in 35mm. Nothing really changed in the interim as to what elements existed. In 1994 we had taken all of the audio elements and done preservation via a two-inch tape, but in 2014 we ran into problems. It seems there was a bad run of tape and they would not run without being baked - which is the way that you get old tapes to run. And basically, in league with CBS, which was extremely keen about asset protection, we decided to go back to all of the original audio materials which we were doing anyway for the six track, but to take all of the quarter inch, anything that was saved back in 1994, rehearsal audio, Audrey Hepburn’s vocals, Marni Nixon's tests - all of that were now saved again as data digitally.
"…we decided to go back to all of the original audio materials which we were doing anyway for the six track, but to take all of the quarter inch, anything that was saved back in 1994, rehearsal audio, Audrey Hepburn’s vocals, Marni Nixon's tests - all of that were now saved again as data digitally.”
One of the things that had changed was that Mags had started to go slightly more vinegar, so we had to try to get an audio image harvested from those. For that we went to a company called Audio Mechanics, and they did a wonderful job. Nick Bergh (of Endpoint Audio Labs) did the actual transfers from the originals, on special equipment he’d created for shrunken, vinegary mag. We were able to take those original six tracks from 1964 less the one that was probably made around 1970 and harvest the audio information from those in 96k, and did a re-recording in 96k. Being that it's all digital there's zero loss. So what people are going to hear on the new CBS Paramount Blu-ray is a representation of the original track from the original 1964 full coat mags. They will be heard for the first time in 50 years, including one anomaly that we call the “ghost on the stairway,” which is a slight echo and lasts only a second or two, in the sequence before the intermission. In the past, it was hidden by the number of generations the audio had gone through, but now you can hear it and we felt it was there, we're going to leave it.
As far as the image, the original camera negative had faded more than it had in 1994. We had normal overall fade plus differential fade at the heads and tails of some shots, which meant that when we got into color - and color on this took almost five months - we were actually doing dissolves in and out of the heads and tails of shots to equalize the color and density. Our colorist, was Mark Griffith (aka Griff). We started scanning at Fotokem in the fall of 2013, and at 8k, it took several days to do each reel. Frame sizes were huge. I began working in January at Fotokem doing color, checking cleanup, registration, etc.
HTF: One of the things I love when Criterion releases cleaned up additions of great films is to read in the notes where thousands of instances of debris and detritus have been removed, so I'm curious as a comparison how much dust and debris would you say was removed during your work?
Robert A. Harris: 12,000,000
HTF: Wow. Does that surprise you?
Robert A. Harris: Nothing surprises me. The original negative was extremely scratched. It was very dirty. We had tears going at the picture in a lot of shots. You had all the minus density - pieces of dirt adheres to the original negative, scratches, tears, burrs, nicks, 12,000,000 of them approximately.
HTF: So what was the biggest hurdle you faced? What was the one thing during this restoration process that you thought “I'm not sure that we're going to be able to overcome this particular challenge,” but were able to overcome? Was there any mountain that you faced that you thought “well good gosh this could derail this whole thing?”
Robert A. Harris: No, we never had anything that derailed us. There's one shot in the film that I'm still unhappy with. Over 20 minutes of the film is from black and white elements and as we were putting those elements together, we’d go back and forth from one room to another. We did our color in 2k and our registration and quality control in 4k in an alternate room. Both the screens there are about 25 feet wide, and where we were doing the final conform of registration of the masters working in 4k, we would be working within portions of a pixel, aligning everything to make things perfect. So there is one shot in the film that had been lost. It's a shot in Rex Harrison's study with Stanley Holloway standing next to Rex. Rex is in a hound tooth suit and for whatever reason, even in registration, the hound's tooth pattern on that single shot just looked a little bit harsh. We tried bringing down the gamma, we tried softening the image, but then I decided to leave it. So there is one shot in the film where Rex Harrison’s suit just looks ever so slightly different than every other shot. So were we able to attain perfection in climbing the mountain? No. But as David Lean used to say about restoration, it's akin to a Navajo blanket, you almost want to leave one minor thing in there. Because you don't want it to be absolutely perfect.
HTF: Kevin, you've seen some of the work that's gone into the restoration, tell me about your first thoughts seeing some of the outcome of the work to restore My Fair Lady?
Kevin Koster: First of all hello Neil, it’s a pleasure to get to talk to you. I was invited to see some of the work in progress. Mostly I was seeing what was around the work of "I'm getting married in the morning." What I saw that was remarkable [to me] was that with the current technology, as Robert was saying, you can get a lot closer to first generation. You can tell that you’re not four generations removed from the image or sound. With the audio, you're going to have a far greater level of clarity. Particularly if you're an audiophile, you’ll really notice this. That you're getting really close to practically being - I wouldn't put it this far but the equivalent is being on the set at the mixing board, because you're no longer having all the loss from many generations removed. The same thing applies with picture.
Working on the image in 4K, you see a lot more. A lot more will be visible on the film than you've seen before, or you would normally even expect to see, because even in the original showings of this movie you were still a couple of generations out. Now you're as close to the original negative as you're going to get. One of the things that I really noticed was a marked contrast between the shots of Stanley Holloway and the men on one side of a scene and Audrey Hepburn on the other, in a single sequence.
"… Now you're as close to the original negative as you're going to get.”
Robert A. Harris: That's correct. The shots of Mr. Holloway were ‘contrasty,’ harsh, it was lit for night and the shots of Miss Hepburn were soft and lush and beautiful, and they didn't cut together. They looked wrong. The first question was “do we do something to help it,” but there's an ethic in film preservation of restoration which is “do no harm.” You don't change things to look far different or to look different than they did when the film originally came out. And you hit problems. In The Wizard of Oz they had to remove the wires moving Bert Lahr's tail. In The Godfather we had to remove squib lines that, coming from a 4k scan from the original camera negative, you would see but not in prints. In projection you never saw it because you lost that in the intervening generation of the image. In 1964 this would have been a tiny bit more homogenized, let's say 2-3% going from the original negative to the prints, but I needed guidance on how this was handled, and fortunately Gordon Willis (Cinematographer on The Godfather) was still with us. He had worked on a number of films with Harry Stradling, who was the director of photography on My Fair Lady, and his explanation was that Mr. Stradling had found in Paris, I believe, something he described as a black silk and he would put that silk in the matte box and make a filter out of it. With that he would soften certain shots and, in his words, he wanted the women to be beautiful, he wanted the men to have balls.
In 1964 especially, an audience wouldn't really be that attentive to the difference. Audiences today are far more aware of the difference. But in 1964 they didn't care if it looked different. If it didn't cut together perfectly it didn't matter. So Mr. Willis' edict, and he was basically representing Harry Stradling as a DP, was you leave it, you don't touch it, it is what it is and that's what we did.
HTF: That actually gets to one of my other questions which is film restoration requires as much the inclination of an investigator as it does an attention to detail, and the “do no harm” edict demands a faithfulness to the original vision. So when you're trying to maintain or be faithful to how the film would have looked right out of the gate, how do you make decisions in the absence of certainty - no color timing notes for a scene, you don't have the cinematographer or the director around to ask, there's no six degrees of separation to run through to get an answer, how do you go about making a decision on what to do?
“…we would run our data on about three quarters of the screen, and we would run a dye transfer print at the same time on the right side of the screen. So we were literally matching original dye transfer prints from 1964. That's where the color and density comes from.”
Robert A. Harris: In 1994 Jim [Katz] reached out to Gene Allen, the production designer on My Fair Lady. He helped us get the perfect tonalities for example, in the interior of Gladys Cooper's home. If you look at a print from the era they're all slightly different. It turned out that the walls in the ball sequence at the beginning of the second part of the film, they're not white, they’re slightly green. But we did have dye transfer prints. And we pulled those in from a number of archives and I don't know if Kevin was in the room when we were doing it, but we would run our data on about three quarters of the screen, and we would run a dye transfer print at the same time on the right side of the screen. So we were literally matching original dye transfer prints from 1964. That's where the color and density comes from.
Kevin Koster: I was there when the dye transfers were being projected, when you guys were doing the left-to-right comparison. I remember that for the ball, the blackness of the tuxedos and the coats were just a headache and a half to make sure those didn't go blue.
Robert A. Harris: Correct
Kevin Koster: I remember there was a very long discussion of exactly how this really looked, and it was a matter of having to go back to dye transfer prints and literally having to do a lot of homework on it to make sure these didn't look, as I recall, too bright or too dark.
Robert A. Harris: You want it to be perfect and in the analogue world you can get it close and especially with what's called daily drift, where color is slightly different from every day's printing. In the digital world you can hit it dead on, and it stays that way.
Kevin Koster: There's one other piece that I wanted to point out, Neil, which is something that people who watch the Blu-ray are going to start seeing. They're probably going to see it more and more often, particularly with older films. As you get close to the original, you're going to see things that will look like a mistake. They are not mistakes, they are intentional. They did happen on set and they were chosen for a reason. What I'm referring to is in the middle of “Get Me to the Church On Time.” There's a huge song and dance number in a pub and there are shots that are flat-out out of focus. Those are the shots that were selected by Harry Stradling and by the director because they're the ones that had the energy to keep the sequence moving. They're not long shots, but there are sections where the focus is not where you would think it was going to go. And it's something that if you were looking at it in standard definition, it would have been softened just enough that you wouldn't pick it up. In high definition, there's no hiding from this. You will see it completely.
Robert A. Harris: The other point is the larger the format of the taking format, the photographic format, the flatter the depth of focus. So you can set your depth of field for a certain perspective but you may only have a few feet in focus. Probably the most interesting focus problem that I've ever seen was in Vertigo as Jimmy Stewart is pushing Kim up the stairs and it's night inside the tower and he's having his long dialogue scene, and he is just hot. And the two of them were totally out of focus and the image is focused on the background but the acting in that scene was so incredible that's the one that was selected and you live with it.
HTF: Film preservation has always been at the mercy of time, money, the right talent able to do it, and of course the decision by the purse string holders to be able to forth and do it. With the advent of 4k the amount of time and money needed to do restoration in 4k has been greatly increased. And I imagine that makes the decision harder on a studio for what to work on and when because things take more money and things take more time. So with deference here to CBS for making the commitment to My Fair Lady, arguably the finest musical with some wiggle room there for Sound of Music and another or two, tell me about the process of deciding what can be worked on and when that you see the studios struggle with, or recommendations you might make for what needs to be touched now because to wait much longer we won't have much to work with.
“The attitude at CBS was, "We need asset protection. We need to give the public the finest possible quality that they can have." And we never left that position.”
Robert A. Harris: Well, as far as My Fair Lady is concerned it is literally the jewel in CBS feature film crown. I was working under a gentleman named Ken Ross who heads up home video, and his attitude was, you tell me what need, and we’ll do it. It's kind of like you go to a doctor and the doctor tells you, this is what's going on, you can go for a second opinion but if you trust the person, you do what the doctor tells you to do. If the doctor tells you that you have differential fade and your fingers are going to fall off you better do something about it. So the way that Mr. Ross reacted to the various problems once we did some tests were, "Here are the keys, go do it." And he gave me the budget that I needed and never once came in and said, "Can you save a couple thousand dollars." The attitude at CBS was, "We need asset protection. We need to give the public the finest possible quality that they can have." And we never left that position.
HTF: One of the things that's vitally important in this formula, besides studios making the decision to work on a film to restore it to the extent they have in this example, is for the film fan community to support that work so that more of the same can be done for other great features. I've been a fan of My Fair Lady since I saw on VHS back in the UK gosh, it has to have been the late 80s, perhaps early 90s when I was really getting into film. So it's going to be imperative that people support this release, for the film fan community – and there is a vibrant one on Home Theater Forum, to go out and pick this up on Blu-ray. And there's also going to be screenings, a BYE event, tell me a little about that.
Robert A. Harris: This is going to be very interesting because it's something that I don't believe has been done before. I'm just learning about this the last couple of weeks. One of the problems that the public, especially those people who are vocal on some of the websites have had, is when you go to some of these events you're basically seeing HD streaming. With the theatrical screenings of My Fair Lady, there's a new process called DCDC (Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition). We generally supply digital films as data on what are called DCPs, Digital Cinema Packages, and the DCP for My Fair Lady is 4k. It can be run in 2k but if you've got a 4k projector it's going to run in 4k. The way that DCDC works is that the file goes to servers and is then loaded to 600 theaters or however many it is, in 4k, with zero compression, zero difference between the DCP and the file that's hitting the theater - so the people that can find 4k theaters for the BYE event are basically going to be seeing the 4k DCP. And what's really interesting about this, is that it is being done in 4k. Full quality will be there. One way the people can support not only film restoration, but their own knowledge of film history, is to go see this on the big screen, to take their kids and expose them to the BYE event and then grab the Blu-ray when it comes out a couple weeks later.
HTF: There's often a good deal of secrecy, or if not secrecy then at least a lack of public announcement when you're working on projects like this. Does that make it harder when the cat's out of the bag, so to speak, when you're working in private and people don't know the project that you're working on? Or do you get feedback and consideration from places like Home Theater Forum in the threads that you can take into your restoration work.
Robert A. Harris: If something is being done sub-rosa, it is sub-rosa, and it's announced when it's announced. There are projects that I'm talking about putting together now that I can't discuss. There are projects that all the studios are working on that they're not discussing and I think this one actually leaked early because it's something where a test was run at an event in Hollywood for a technical symposium. There is a certain point where I'm permitted to speak about things and other times when I'm not able to speak. I can certainly speak about My Fair Lady at this point. I can speak about Spartacus, which is coming up slightly before My Fair Lady, but I can’t review it. Things like that. But basically no, I'm not working in a vacuum because I'm working with probably 50 people on the team at Fotokem, at Audio Mechanics, at different labs, wherever we happen to be and that team is working in a very insular nature on a daily basis. Warner Brothers was involved in this because we needed to go back in and we had the ability, if we needed to do so, to check costumes, to check color, so there are people outside of the process and you know within the industry you know what you can talk about and you know what you can't talk about publicly.
HTF: So this question is for both of you, but especially Kevin as I am a bag fan of you as a fellow reviewer here on Home Theater Forum. We collaborated on the review for the La-La Land Records Star Trek Original series soundtrack. What was your favorite moment or shot in My Fair Lady either that you saw restored or has just always been something that you have loved - so Kevin, from your experience behind the cameras as a first AD, and Robert, yours as a film enthusiast and preservationist and all round lion of the industry in protecting film?
“After we made the first inter-positive and before we were even fully color-corrected, one of the iconic shots in the film hit a bad perf and ripped up at 150 feet a minute...”
Robert A. Harris: This is an easy one, and it's also a difficult one. If there is a danger of a negative cracking up, I always get some very basic color timing into it. This is in the analogue world. And we were able to get one print off of My Fair Lady with many of the splices held together with tape so that it wouldn't tear and then we re-cut the negative. But there was a lot of preparations and old damage. After we made the first inter-positive and before we were even fully color-corrected, one of the iconic shots in the film hit a bad perf and ripped up at 150 feet a minute which is a threatening speed. And do you want to guess which shot that is? It's the iconic shot of Audrey Hepburn coming down the stairs in long shot in the ball gown.
HTF: It's a beautiful shot
Robert A. Harris: It ripped down the middle. And the separation masters would not fit together. So we had to go back to the inter-positive we had used. So it was a problem in that shot and 1994 was lightly soft and the initial print the open was slightly off color that was later corrected. But now we were able to go back to the black and white separation masters and get them into absolute registration. We were able to digitally sharpen the shot by just a few percent to bring it back to where it would have been had it been the original camera negative which also brought the grain back into proper perspective, but that's the shot from My Fair Lady. In Lawrence of Arabia one of the iconic shots is Peter O'Toole blowing out the match and guess which shot tore up the middle as we were doing a protection element on that one, the one just preceding it. So in every film you have your hero shots. That's the one in My Fair Lady, at least to me. Kevin may have a different perspective. He’s grown up with the director's eye toward film. So, Kevin what's your take?
Kevin Koster: There is a lot of stuff that I found really interesting, and there's a lot that was memorable - mostly due to knowing how much work had to go into them. I would go back, for example, to the work done on the flowers in the opening credits which is a piece of work all by itself. You have to take it step by step, to my mind. The floral prologue and then you dissolve into the main title sequence. Neither of which survived as camera original. I mean from a production perspective, the ghost on the stairwell is the most expressive to me because that's the one that shows you that you're on the set.
What really may have happened is the guy that was holding the boom microphone must have been slightly off on that take. So what you're hearing is another one of the pieces in the Navajo blanket. It is an imperfection, but it's a very interesting one. It's similar to me to the 1978 classic comedy Capricorn One (chuckles). There is a moment where Hal Holbrook is priming the main characters of the show standing on a fake Mars landing set. And his voice goes to a complete buzz. From everything I could tell, it's from what happened during the recording on the set because it's never been any better than that. And that's just the vestige of what originally happened on the sound stage. So I see things like that as sort of a badge of honor, what was going on where you really can see pieces of the reality of shooting. There’s the reality you can see in high definition copies of old Star Trek episodes. They'd done one episode where they threw some purple liquid at a wall, and they could never fully repaint the wall so you kept seeing it in future episodes. You wouldn't see that in standard definition as clearly, but now, in high definition, you do.
HTF: The late great Roger Ebert said of My Fair Lady that it is “the best and most unlikely of musicals during which I cannot decide if I am happier when the characters are talking or when they are singing,” and I think that's probably a true fan's perspective on the film. What is it that you're most excited for people to feel and experience when they spin up the Blu-ray for the first time?
“…overall it's just the ability of a cinephile to hear with absolute quality what was on the original tracks. And these are tracks that won the academy award in 1964, along with Best Picture.”
Robert A. Harris: Well you mentioned talking and singing or talk-singing which was Mr. Harrison. For those viewers watching the film for the first time or at least in this resolution, and you can see it in 70mm but not in 35. Whenever Mr. Harrison was about to do a musical number he was generally wearing a knit tie or something of that sort and if you look closely you can see that there's a long microphone inside that tie. He was the only one that was being recorded live via wireless microphone. It was, I believe, the first that was done. They were having lots of production problems because they were picking up occasional things like Burbank Police Department. It's one of those things where you'll be able to see that on a large monitor or projection from this Blu-ray but overall it's just the ability of a cinphile to hear with absolute quality what was on the original tracks. And these are tracks that won the academy award in 1964, along with Best Picture - there were lots of Academy awards and other awards. But to be able to see this film for the first time that it was – and I can't say meant to be seen because in 1964 it was not meant to be seen on Blu-ray, it was meant to be seen in 70mm in huge theaters, but it's the overall quality that I think for people who really love film, to get the hair on the back of their necks rising a bit.
HTF: You've worked on a number of films, where would you place the final product of My Fair Lady as far as the difference between the starting point, the condition of what you were able to finally produce and see in high definition, where would you place this on the scale of what you've worked on and put out?
Robert A. Harris: You know they're all my children, although my son may not look at them as siblings (chuckles). He comes first but they're all my children and each of them have very different problems. The Godfather was missing over 20 minutes of original negative also. Separation masters were incomplete so when we're running original negative, if it tears we have no black and white back up. Wonderful things like that. But each and every one, the team and I make it look as good as it possibly can, and we've gotten to a point now where I've gotten a second crack through Grover Crisp at Lawrence of Arabia, which looks better than it did especially because of digital clean up, than we were able to do in 1988, mostly with the analogue, and with My Fair Lady now going through a second shot at digital restoration, there is a huge difference. If I were to go back and do some of the earlier ones that I did in Rear Window or Vertigo again, make it look appreciably better than they do. Things like that. But to get a second crack at some of these. The Godfather films for example, along with Grover Crisp's work on Doctor Strangelove, were the first 4k restorations. We were learning as we were going along. People would joke that we'd start up in the morning at Warner Brothers, and lights would dip all over Burbank. Because 4k is just huge. But it's all very different and each film is different and each film comes with its own inherent problems from the use of the original negative and other elements.
“Every film has its own differences and problems and there's really no way to say this one is better than that one. There are certain things that you can generalize, the more popular the film the worse condition the film elements are going to be in…”
For example, and I mentioned this earlier, 65mm negatives were extremely worn. Every single one of them, because all of those prints were made from the camera originals. VistaVision negatives are generally not worn because the only thing that would have been made are 35mm printing matrices, and some protection elements. Technirama films in general, if 70mm prints were not struck, tend to be in superb condition. Spartacus had a ton of prints made from the original camera negative. Same problems with The Alamo. The original negative was overused, there was chemical damage. Every film has its own differences and problems and there's really no way to say this one is better than that one. There are certain things that you can generalize, the more popular the film the worse condition the film elements are going to be in. If you have a film-maker that re-cut a film for example, you're going to be having problems. In Lawrence of Arabia we still have missing frames.—
On top of negative damage, in Lawrence we had all the heat damage from the cans sitting in the desert where the emulsion cracked. But it's all different and you generally know what you're getting into when before open the cans. Sometimes you don't, sometimes it's a surprise. Sometimes that surprise is beneficial. Like the fact that My Fair Lady was cut as Techniscope. Sometimes it's not beneficial when you find that your black and white masters are incomplete and were produced before the film was locked. Back in that period of separation masters, the secondary use of them was for asset protection. Primary was for production insurance. So most of the separation masters, like those of My Fair Lady, were never even looked at. They were processed, delivered, and vaulted. Many of them are still in black paper. When Universal a number of years back needed to go in and grab a shot for the original 65mm negative on Airport, they found that for that reel at least, rather than a yellow, a cyan and magenta, there was a yellow, a cyan and cyan. Where do you go then?
Kevin Koster: With what you've done now, there's a full preservation of My Fair Lady at this point.
Robert A. Harris: Including a new 65mm negative that was recorded out at Fotokem that went to the Academy. So there is a digital a datasat track for My Fair Lady that will probably only be used to make that one print for the Academy. For My Fair Lady, it’s one of the few situations in which we kept all the original 8k data files, plus all the 4k files, and those files have been duplicated and are in geographic separated areas
Kevin Koster: The one point that I wanted to make here is the work that has just been done, this is state of the art work that's been done. To my mind, and correct me if I'm wrong, it really does, as much as is reasonably possible, future proof it.
Robert A. Harris: It is future proofed. There is no reason at this point to ever go back to those original materials again because with an 8k scan of the picture elements we've captured everything that's on that original negative.
Kevin Koster: But I would also say that the work that was done in 1994 back when the original restoration work was done, that was as correct as what was possible at that time, as the way you could see it at the time.
Robert A. Harris: Correct. But we knew at that time when we were dealing with a maximum resolution of 2k in the digital world, and that things were going to get to a point where we would be able to do things at full resolution and that took from 1994 till 2007 to occur. It wasn't until 2007 that we were able to work in 4k full film resolution.
Kevin Koster: It was predicted way back around 1980 that we were going to move to HD, and we were going to get to something that was going to be a lot better than what you could get on your regular TV, and nobody really knew what was going to happen. It wound up taking 27 years+ to get there and now here we are.
Robert A. Harris: Well, now we have 4k.
Kevin Koster: Now you have 4k, and you have the ability to do it. The only other issue I would raise is once you get to a 2k HDTV, a regular 1080p set, you will still be able to appreciate it. It's not the same as watching a 4k screen in a movie theater with a 30 foot screen, but for home theater viewing, I'd say unless you're going to make a gigantic wall size screen of some kind, you're getting a heck of an experience.
“…one of the heroes here has got to be CBS for understanding the importance of film preservation and protecting their assets. There is a lot of money that went into this …”
Robert A. Harris: The public is - and I recently installed 4k in my home theater, and up-rezzing to 4k via an Oppo it's starting to look sort of a bit almost like UHD. You are gaining quite a bit. So those people that have an up-rezzing Blu-ray player or have a 4K TV with good up-rezz circuitry are certainly going to see something rather astonishing from My Fair Lady. And I think just as a final note, one of the heroes here has got to be CBS for understanding the importance of film preservation and protecting their assets. There is a lot of money that went into this and I'm not at liberty to say how much, but a lot of money. And they stepped up to the plate and did everything right 100% so they need to be acknowledged.
HTF: And people will be able to experience it on the big screen with50th anniversary screenings beginning on October 18th. , and the Blu-ray scheduled to be released on October 27th.
“I'm a purist and I would rather see My Fair Lady in 4k than 70mm at this point because you save a generation. What's going on in the technological world is unbelievable.”
Robert A. Harris: That’s right, the Blu-ray is out on October 27th. People can find screenings for the BYE event at myfairlady50.com. One of the really nice things about our ability, especially in putting it out to 4k theaters, and I would tell people go even if your theater is 2k, because it's still going to look amazing. The difference between 2k and 4k if you're sitting half a theater length back is almost negligible unless you really know what kind of image you're looking at. So to the general audience it's going to make a minimal difference to the center of the house. But the interesting thing here is that we've gotten to a point in technology where we can now successfully download to a theater's server in full 4k. That load I'm told takes about 17 hours, so it's a huge amount of data. But we are absolutely able to reproduce the look of a 70mm print or even slightly better than a 70mm print. A 70mm print would, in 1994, run about $30,000. So you just can't put a ton of 70mm print out there. But with this technology it enables us to put 70mm quality basically in every theater on the planet and it can be reproduced in that quality. It's quite amazing. And one of the things that I found very painful was that you put a 70mm print into a theater and we always had Theater Alignment Program which was part of Lucasfilm go in and check out the theater's equipment. They would run the print to make sure the print was properly produced, and that everything was set up perfectly. We had certain situations a couple of times in a theater for Vertigo, where over a week they destroyed two 70mm prints and those prints were $15,000 each. I was going to say we no longer have the infrastructure to support 70mm, but now Boston Light & Sound is prepping the world for Hateful 8, rebuilding 70mm projectors and outfitting the theaters properly so that's going to be something interesting, but will 70mm be back after that? I haven't got any idea but it's really expensive.
I'm a purist and I would rather see My Fair Lady in 4k than 70mm at this point because you save a generation. What's going on in the technological world is unbelievable.
Kevin Koster: And if you're looking at the 4k screen, you're as close as possible to first generation for both picture and sound. I would say that it also comes down to a certain responsibility, which is something that Mr. Harris has done his entire career. He has spent a lot of time to go with the intention of the film makers, so that you're really getting the experience that was intended. The closer you get to the original negative, the more you get into the scenario we were talking about of starting to see things you really were not supposed to see. And you actually have to look at it saying, "Yes, this is like looking into a window on the set, but were we meant to do that? Were we meant to see those wires holding up the lion's tail? Are we meant to see the hard edges of the matte, that the film makers understood would be softened on screen?”
Robert A. Harris: Even down to film stock today, if you look at 2001, a picture that desperately needs to be restored and I'm sure that at some point Warner will get around to it. But there have been prints made off of both the original camera negative and I believe a dupe which is off of modern stock. In 1968, when that film came out, the background in the early scenes where you have the leopards and whatever, it looked like you were at an exterior when the backgrounds of all of those shots were a combination of square 3M material. On new 70mm prints you can see the squares. If a restoration were done from the original 65mm and one did not affect those shots you'd be seeing the problems. Older and newer stocks are very different, the grain structure, the ability to reproduce things. You get a situation in which today if you look at a modern print of 2001, we used to think that there was pen floating in the air on one of the aircraft. Today you can see that it's a circular piece of glass. And those are the problems that you get into. You have to understand what things would look like in an original print, then what they'd look like in an original print printed on stock now. You have to consider what color looks like then, the carbon arc projection versus xenon and if you're running a dye transfer print to try and calculate color from a xenon lamp, you basically have to have all of these little bits and pieces rattling at the background of your head. So there's a lot going on.
HTF: Always a lot more than the general public would ever come to realize, but even the enthusiasts that discuss this in great detail on places like Home Theater Forum aren't always aware of the considerations that go into creating something, or restoring something, and they're releasing that to the public for their scrutiny - but it's fascinating either way.
Robert A. Harris: You can talk about anomalies in films and one thing that comes up again and again are discussions of - and Kevin you'll know where I'm going here - early cinemascope films and the original cinemascope lenses that have something called cinemascope mumps that were built into the original optics. There are two ways to look at this. If you have the ability to create software as we did for the reconstruction of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to get the rectified image straightened out, which you didn't see in 1963, do you do the same thing with an early cinemascope film where you saw these defects in the film in 1953. Kevin, you're in a reasonable position to philosophize on this do you have any thoughts?
Kevin Koster: You mean in terms of The Robe?
Robert A. Harris: Yes
Kevin Koster: What I appreciated when The Robe (Directed by Kevin’s grandfather, Henry Koster) was restored and presented to us a few years back was the fact that they actually gave you the option to see both versions. Or at least chunks of the other version. But that was the case where in the making of the movie they had shot in Cinemascope and they shot flat. And you can tell watching it, it's the same set up, just doing it again with a different camera. That's interesting to me but I would say the real key to this is going back to the idea of the wires in the film for the cowardly lion, or removing squib lines or filament lines that you were not supposed to see, because it takes you out of the movie. If it's taking you out of the movie it's one thing. If it's just an error of some kind but it's inconsequential, like Blade Runner where the color of Edwards James Olmos' eyes from one shot to another changes (something most people would never notice), it doesn't really do anything. It's another thing where you have something that's blatantly obvious and if you were to see it you're immediately jarred out of the experience of watching it. And the best example that I know of this, and this is the filmmaker approved one, is the end of the Blu-ray of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you get the pull back in the warehouse and you can tell you're looking at a painting now. I don't think that's what was originally intended. I think what was intended was a slight softening so it can look like you're in a giant warehouse.
Robert A. Harris: Well, going from your original negatives to an IP to a printing negative, to a print, you have that slight softening built in. But do you think your grandfather would - if he were around today - would he remove the Cinemascope bumps from the Robe?
Kevin Koster: So my thinking is if it breaks you out of the fourth wall, if it breaks the fourth wall, that's where the line is drawn in my opinion, as someone who works on it.
Robert A. Harris: I agree with you.
“One of the things that was amazing to watch with My Fair Lady was the fact that there was a lot of care being taken to look at the best way to preserve the story originally being told by the director, by the producer, by Harry Stradling. How is this really meant to be seen, and to preserve that…”
Kevin Koster: There are places where you can go too far, where maybe that's just the way we've all got used to seeing it, but that's just what it is. You know, I would say it's a matter of being very traditionalist, to take us full circle. One of the things that was amazing to watch with My Fair Lady was the fact that there was a lot of care being taken to look at the best way to preserve the story originally being told by the director, by the producer, by Harry Stradling. How is this really meant to be seen, and to preserve that? So that somebody who's watching it in 2015 can have really the closest experience of a movie that was a huge hit back in 1964 and justifiably won great awards at the time. I mean you're talking about a movie that won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and more.
Robert A. Harris: That was Jack Warner pulling out all the stops. For the Ascot sequence they had a double stage -- they broke between two stages and the horses would pick up speed and run through one stage and into the other one. There were so many things that were done for that film. The multi-height of Rex Harrison's study. And some of the things in that are just incredible especially coming off of a 65mm negative. One of the things that we didn't touch on by the way are some of the extras that are going to be on this Blu-ray and Warner Brothers, bless their hearts, had gone through everything and shipped over to CBS Radford in 1970 or thereabouts, 200 cartons of material and they scoured the vaults. Since then they had gone through, scoured again and what they came up with were some 70mm camera tests. Some talent tests, one of which we have with audio, and I think we'll leave those to be a surprise on the Blu-ray. For me seeing one of these casting tests was just phenomenal. To see, for example what would have happened had someone played Pickering other than Wilfred Hyde-White. To me that would be unimaginable because Wilfred Hyde-White was the perfect Pickering. But when you see someone else in the role it gets very interesting and that's really one of the treats on this new Blu-ray, some of the extras.
Kevin Koster: By the way, if you look for example at the company My Fair Lady was in at the Academy Awards in 1964. It was between My Fair Lady, which Julie Andrews had done on stage first, and Mary Poppins. So you basically had Walt Disney versus Jack Warner which is, I don't know about you guys, I wouldn't want to get in the middle of that. You could be vaporized standing there. And by the way, competing with the two of them was Doctor Strangelove and Becket. That's an “if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” year. These are all movies that have been brought to Blu-ray over the past few. And I know Disney put out a pretty good Blu-ray of Mary Poppins.
Robert A. Harris: The Blu-ray of Mary Poppins is gorgeous. They went back to camera original on that. Speaking of the Academy Awards, you had Rex Harrison up against Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn, and Peter Sellers for Strangelove, so look at that quintet of actors. It's wild.
HTF: That's a high quotient of British Actors I must say. Any final thoughts?
“I think that one of the important things here is that film restoration really is a team sport and for those people going to the theatrical BYE event or getting the Blu-ray, look at the end credits and see the number of people that are involved in this in major roles…”
Robert A. Harris: I think that one of the important things here is that film restoration really is a team sport and for those people going to the theatrical BYE event or getting the Blu-ray, look at the end credits and see the number of people that are involved in this in major roles. And every one of those people have to be synchronized with the other people, the people doing registration from the black and white masters have to be in sync with the people doing color clean up. You have to know that something is aligned in a production design on the back of a step rather than a scratch and they have to be constantly communicative with one another or else you fail. So I get a very nice credit on these things, but it's a lot of people putting in a lot of time and taking the work home with them. You don't leave the facility at 5 or 6 or 7:00 at night. You're going through notes during dinner. You just keep going. You're working at it, and this goes on to people working on both the image and the audio. It's a huge job. My Fair Lady took from the fall of 2013, well into July of 2014. These things take a long time and to do it correctly.
HTF: Well speaking as a film fan, thank you Robert for leading as you do, and thank you to the team and all the fine people that you worked with, and thank you to CBS for putting forth the money and approval to do this. It's been my great pleasure to speak with you today, and you too Kevin. I cannot wait for this thing to drop on October 27th and to start reading about how people are being blown away by what they're seeing and hearing. For those seeking to attend the theatrical screenings, you can find your local theaters on myfairlady50.com. Thank you again.
Robert A. Harris: Thank you, Neil!
Kevin Koster: Thank you!