"Dracula," staring Bela Lugosi. (Universal Pictures, Universal…)
Film can be an unstable environment — and not just in the executive suites.
Take for example the 1973 Oscar-winning best film "The Sting,"which had chemical stains over several frames in the original negative. Steven Spielberg's landmark 1975 shark thriller "Jaws" showed the ravages of time with nasty tears in the original negative, notably the scene in which Quint (Robert Shaw) arrives at the town meeting on Amity Island.
These are some of the challenges facing technicians performing digital restorations of 13 classic movies as part of Universal Studios' 100th birthday celebration. Each of the films had to be painstakingly corrected because of color fading, scratches, dirt, tears and splicing problems even on relatively recent movies such as "The Sting" and "Jaws."
"The studio is really putting an emphasis on the fact that we have a legacy," said Peter Schade, Universal's vice president of content management and technical services, whose team is responsible for the maintenance of the studio's physical and digital assets and is doing the digital restoration. Founded by Carl Laemmle 100 years ago, Universal Studios is the second-oldest movie studio in the world and the oldest continuously operating film producer and distributor in the U.S.
The original negatives for Universal films are stored at either the Library of Congress or UCLA Film & Television Archive's vaults in Valencia. "Every attempt was made to digitally restore these films from the original negatives. But for any given title there may be elements that are incomplete and aged to the point they may not be the best to use," Schade said.
That's the case with Tod Browning's 1931 film "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi. Schade and his crew are not using the original nitrate negative but a first-generation print that was made off it. "We don't have a complete original negative," Schade said.
Other titles include 1930's "All Quiet on the Western Front,"the Spanish-language version of "Dracula," 1931's "Frankenstein," 1935's"Bride of Frankenstein," 1941's "Buck Privates," 1959's "Pillow Talk," 1962's"To Kill a Mockingbird," 1963's "The Birds," 1985's "Out of Africa" and 1993's "Schindler's List."
"The 13 films were chosen by a team of a film historians, executives and archivists," Schade said. "They tried to pick titles that span every decade."
All the restored films are being released on Blu-rayand DVD, and several of them will also be screening at UCLA Film & Television Archive's celebration of Universal that begins Friday at the Billy Wilder Theater with 1995's "Apollo 13" and ends with "Jaws" on June 24.
These films are being restored digitally because the technicians have much more control over the image than the more traditional photochemical method, Schade said. So technicians can correct scratches and splices by taking digital data from frames either before or after the damaged section to fill in the problem area.
Spielberg is the only director alive among the filmmakers of the 13 titles, and he's been involved in the restoration process for his films. With the other films, Schade said, "we try to reference things … refer to [the directors'] notes. We try and get as much input whether they are with us or not."
Still, there have been difficulties.
In the case of "Pillow Talk," the original negative was shot in Eastman Color. "The hard part is the negative has faded and the prints have faded, so what is your point of reference?" said Bob O'Neil, vice president of image assets and preservation at Universal. "All you can do is take it and make it presentable as you can."
In a theater on the lot at Universal, Schade and O'Neil demonstrate before-and-after scenes from several of the titles. In "All Quiet on the Western Front," the unrestored version features a scene in a classroom that shook during a pivotal camera move, while the background images were faded and flat. In the restored version, the stabilization issue was corrected and the images were sharpened.
A scene from the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa" pops up on screen featuring Meryl Streep walking next to Robert Redford. "You can see where Meryl Streep is moving horizontal left to right a little bit," said Schade. "It was a dolly move. But we ended up stabilizing that."
In a scene from "Jaws," Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) is on the beach watching the crowd while looking out for the shark. The sky is overcast in Scheider's close-up while sunny and blue throughout the rest of the scene,
"We are supposed to believe that this is Scheider on the beach on the same day," Schade said. "I don't know if it was shot on a different day or a different stock or exposed differently. That is where color correction is involved. You take all of these different pieces that the negative is comprised of and smooth them out."