Sony Pictures’ Rita Belda on Film Grain, 4K, and Restoring a Screwball Classic
1934's It Happened One Night Is Available in High-Res for UHDTV Viewing
Leading up to the launch of Sony's Video Unlimited 4K movie downloading service, the Frank Capra classic — and by most accounts the first "screwball" comedy — It Happened One Night (1934) got a new 4K master. Dating to an era when camera negatives were routinely used to strike release prints, the original negative for It Happened One Night had been damaged from overuse. Still, that's where this restoration process began. A new wet-gate fine-grain master was made from the camera negative, and then scanned at 4K. The scan was then cleaned up by Prasad Corporation, which removed dirt, tears, scratches, and other imperfections from the image. The final results were graded at 4K resolution on a Baselight system at Colorworks, the DI facility owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE), which paid special attention to matching the look of the fine-grain print scans to lower-quality dupe frames that had been used to replace footage that was in especially bad shape.
It Happened One Night wasn't always a prestige picture, and much has been made through film history about the reluctance with which stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert approached their roles. (As soon as filming wrapped, Colbert is said to have told friends she had finished making "the worst picture in the world.") But it was a hit, and went on to score no fewer than five Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing, Adaptation. "This film is incredibly important to the studio," said Rita Belda, SPE executive director of asset management, digital mastering and film restoration, in a prepared statement. "It put Columbia on the map in terms of audience awareness and box office. It has been beloved and critically acclaimed from the moment it was released."
Belda agreed to take some questions from StudioDaily on some of the considerations involved in scanning and restoring a high-value film asset without altering the fundamental look of a classic Hollywood film.
StudioDaily: Would you gain any additional fidelity by scanning at 8K rather than 4K? What if you were scanning film negative rather than a fine-grain?
Rita Belda: The workflow for every title is based on what is best for the elements, and what we expect to be the best quality given the characteristics of the specific film. In the case of It Happened One Night, the fine-grain master was manufactured as a part of our preservation of this title, and the decision was based on the condition of the negative and the exceptional quality of the newly made film element. For other titles, our decision might have been between different, but our concern is always about the quality and the preservation of the film. In terms of scanning, 4k has widely been thought to capture the detail inherent in a 35mm negative, and the results here, I think, are particularly striking in terms of detail.
How does the resolution of a scan interact with film grain? How would scanning at 2K or 8K, versus 4K, affect the texture of the filmed image for a film like It Happened One Night?
The decision on how to scan, and what to scan, is always based on the elements we have and the workflow that is right for the film. In general, grain is what creates the detail in the image, so the sharper and more resolution in the scans the more overall detail will be captured.
How do you remove dust and scratches without negatively affecting film grain? Are contemporary algorithms able to distinguish intelligently between grain and unwanted artifacts, or is a lot of manual, frame-by-frame work still involved?
Digital restoration tools are always evolving, and some tools are better in some circumstances than others. One tool may work well for scratches and another will work well on small dirt. Depending on the dirt or damage in the original material, you may be required to use a variety of tools. One of the primary challenges of restoration is to identify what tools will address specific issues without being detrimental to any aspect of the image. Sometimes, you try different methods to see what works best. An objective eye is required to identify which fix is best, what are the characteristics of damage, and which are artifacts, as it’s not always clear without reviewing the original unaltered material against the restored material. Maintaining the texture of the original material is always the end goal, but that may mean differing textures across material in the same film that was created differently. For example, transitions in film in 1934 were often made by inserting short dissolves on duplicating stock, which had more noticeable grain and contrast, and often was less sharp than the original footage. These sections may be of lesser quality that much of the original negative photography, but they are the original material — created as a part of the production process in 1934, and as such can only be improved to a certain extent.
Still speaking of grain, do you do any softening or de-graining at all? Would the approach vary on a film-by-film basis, or do you have a standing grain-preservation policy?
Grain is the building block of the image. It creates the resolution – or sharpness of detail — in the image of the original element. Understanding how grain captures and reproduces the photographic image on film is an essential process of evaluating the original image characteristics. Preserving the original image, and its inherent quality is a primary goal in our restoration process. We do not do grain-reduction. There are tools that can sometimes change sharpness or grain, and we may use those in limited ways, in select shots. But since grain is essential in creating sharpness, and is inherent in the creation of the film image, we don't look to remove grain for any reason other than as a part of removing serious damage. If we can do that without removing grain we do — but again, some tools work only by removing [or] softening grain.
In addition to the 4K version for Sony's Video Unlimited service, what other elements were generated for It Happened One Night?
We’ve created a DCP of the new restoration as well as a new 35mm negative, from which we’ll be able to make new prints.
Got a UHDTV? The 4K version of It Happened One Night is available for viewing through Sony's Video Unlimited service.