Moving Pictures
Oct 17, 2008, 06:25AM

INTERVIEW: Robert A. Harris

The noted film preservationist just completed the “Coppola Restoration” of the Godfather trilogy, available now on DVD and Blu-Ray. He talks here about those films, as well as his previous restoration work on Vertigo, My Fair Lady, Spartacus, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Large godfather2.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Stills from "The Coppola Restoration" courtesy of DVD Beaver.

As the owner and director of The Film Preserve, Robert A. Harris has done some of the most renowned film restoration work of the last two decades. He’s given new life to iconic epics like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and he’s restored two Hitchcock classics, Vertigo and Rear Window, to their original Technicolor glory. In 2006, his friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola asked him to lend his expertise to the Godfather trilogy, parts I and II of which were nearly in disrepair. Eighteen months later, the restored 1970s films prompted raves as they began screening in select theaters throughout the country. The entire trilogy, which includes a never-before-seen director’s cut of Part III, was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in September. Harris also maintains an occasional blog, Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings, hosted by The Digital Bits.

As overused as the phrase may be, seeing Harris’ restorations on the big screen are indeed like seeing Coppola’s films for the first time, and not least in a literal sense—the colors have been corrected to look better than they have since the initial screenings in 1972 and 1974. But The Godfather parts I and II are uniquely deserving of the high-definition retouching that Harris and his team provided; although they are epic in scale and replete with iconic, operatic violence, the crux of these movies is in the small moments. Facial expressions carry tremendous weight in Coppola’s films, and now we can see them with brilliant clarity. And the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis (Manhattan, All the President’s Men, Klute, The Landlord) shot the movies with an unbelievable attention to grain and color, both of which have faded significantly through decades of overuse and repeated screening. In a very real way, Harris has not only bettered these movies from a technical standpoint; he’s broadened their considerable emotional and artistic power.

SPLICE TODAY: By way of an introduction, could you explain what exactly your restoration achieved? That is to say, what kind of film were you given at the project's outset, and how does it differ from the image that audiences have seen in theaters and in the new DVD/Blu-Ray versions?

ROBERT A. HARRIS: Why don't we go back 10 or so years to 1997, the 25th anniversary of The Godfather. The studio decided to resurrect the film, do a reissue, and have an opening at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Coppola and Willis were there, as were most of the cast and crew, and the print did not look good. At all. And I got a call within 24 hours or so from [Coppola’s production company] Zoetrope, asking if I could take a look at it. They said, “Tell us what we're not seeing and why we're not seeing it.” I went over to see the print, and I found about 1100 feet of dupe [duplicate negative, which compromises the original’s color and clarity]; there was lots of damage to the original negatives. The problem was that in 1997, that was the best you could do with it; we didn't have the technology [to fully restore the images].

Fast-forward to about 2006. Steven Spielberg goes into business with Paramount when they take over Dreamworks. So Mr. Coppola contacts Mr. Spielberg and says, “You're at Paramount, and The Godfather and Godfather Part II are having problems; do you think you can do anything?” Steven took the information and went to Brad Grey, the head of Paramount, and they checked with Marty Cohen, the head of post-production, who agreed there were serious problems with the film. So Grey pulled the trigger and greenlit the project, which he knew was going to go into seven figures. And in late September of 2006, the elements were shipped piece by piece to a facility in Burbank called Pro-Tek and we got started.

There are certain edicts that should never be broken in film restoration, and geographic separation is the biggest one—you never store your original negative and your protection elements together, for obvious reasons. So we had the original negative moved to Pro-Tek and found that there was over 2000 feet of dupe negative, which comes to about 21 minutes of footage that's missing in its original form. In the meantime, my assistant Joanne and I were busy creating a working continuity of the films based on the 1997 prints and the original dye-transfer 1972 print. We were basically conferring with the original negative and cutting for continuity: figuring out where fades and dissolves come in and on which frame they began, creating an architectural skeleton for the restoration.

Meanwhile, Pro-Tek was going through the original negative frame-by-frame and they determined that basically every shot was being held together with tape because it had been so overused. There were tears in the perforations, and areas where tears went into the image... it was a total mess. Not the fault of Paramount; it was just an incredibly popular film for its time and was worn-out. So we had to re-cut the film, go through it frame by frame and put it in post-production again.


The Godfather, as seen in a raw scan from the original cut negative (L), and after Harris' restoration.

ST: It's my understanding that at some point during the restoration, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found they had a full, pristine print of Part I. So why not just make a copy of that one?

RAH: Well, we needed good reference, and the studio print wasn't good for that. It was a dye-transfer print made in London in 1972, with Italian subtitles all the way through, so it was nothing you could use for color timing or density timing. I think anyone who knows what they're doing goes to the Academy to try and find reference because they have an incredible Technicolor collection of final, approved prints that have remained in good condition because studios have removed certain bits and pieces so they're never actually fit for commercial use; they've been purposefully rendered commercially unusable, but not for our purposes. That copy served as our guide for color density, black levels, the entire canvas of what the film should look like. We got other reference prints from the UCLA Film & TV Archives and the Harvard Film Archives.

ST: So is the final version we now have just a patchwork of these sources?

RAH: Well, for scanning, we would basically test all the different versions to see which was most viable for restoration. Sometimes we would have four or five takes of the same shot, and we'd put it through the digital scanning process at MPI, Motion Picture Imaging, the Warner Brothers digital facility. And we used all these references to figure out which version of each shot was closest to the original look of the film.

On top of that, I had asked [cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator] Allen Daviau to lend his eyes to the project and guide us with colors, as well.

ST: When you throw around terms like “the way the film was supposed to look,” who is the ultimate arbiter?

RAH: Francis Coppola. With Gordon Willis. So I had Allen there to help us define what is "black" [in the context of the films], which is difficult for any movie, specifically one photographed by the Prince of Darkness [as Willis was known for his distinct film palettes]. He would shoot so that certain areas of the negative were absolutely clear, so you'd get a slight gradation in other areas. And he did this so that no one could change the look of the film later on; you had to print it the way he wanted or you get a fogged image. He's very smart man, and he shot the movies in a very particular way, with a lot of grain structure and specific moments of under-exposure where he shot with the lens wide open and filters in the camera so no light got in at all. He used every trick in the book to give it the precise look that he wanted.

Take the beginning of Part II, right after the funeral sequence when they go to visit the old Don—you can see his shirt glowing white, which is a look you see in movies from the teens and 20s called halation. And that's the look that Willis was going for. Same thing in the wedding sequence at the beginning of Part I, which was made to look very Kodachrome-y, with blown-out whites like a 16mm home movie of a wedding. So the exposures, grain, and color are all intentional, and that's what we needed to replicate. As Gordon says, the film has already been made; it's our job to make the restoration look as much like the original that Francis and Gordon wanted in 1972.


ST: Willis was apparently living on the east coast during the restoration, not overseeing the project in L.A. So what level of involvement did he and Coppola really have? Were you sending them the restoration equivalent of dailies or what?

RAH: Francis and I were working back and forth by email. If there was a problem or an issue, I'd explain it to him. And he's extremely technical; he's brilliant. He knew in every single case exactly what I was talking about; he doesn't need to see it. We began in fall of 2006, and January in 2007 the operation moved to Warner Brothers and we tested there for a few months. We had some tests to show him at that point so he came to the studio and eventually gave his blessing. And then Allen and Bob Raring, who had done the color-correction on Godfather Part III, took our reference print of Part I to Cape Cod and screened it for Gordon to go through the movie with him.

ST: How did the various restorations for each film vary? I assume Part II was preserved better than I, and that Part III barely needed much help at all.

RAH: Part I was definitely in need of the most cleanup. Part III had been shot using a process called Super 35, so there wasn't much to do; the issue there was creating the director's cut, which had never been shown before. We just had to make a digital intermediate. But I and II went through exactly the same process, and the biggest issue was dirt cleanup. It took well over 1000 hours just to clean the films. There were four or five people working on dirt cleanup continuously for probably six months.

ST: How did this project differ from the other projects you've done, like Vertigo and Lawrence?

RAH: Vertigo was totally faded. We were able to get the image to a reasonable point, color- and density-wise, although we can't fix it to look perfect. Lawrence of Arabia, the negative was falling apart and we were missing about 35 minutes of it. There was a search through about 2800 pounds of materials for that footage. And it was missing about 15 minutes of audio, all of which had to be recreated. For The Godfather, the audio was cleaned and maneuvered slightly just to make it sound better and to replicate what it sounded like in 1972.

ST: You're fairly critical of digital media for storage reasons, yet most people who see this restoration will do so using a DVD or Blu-Ray—

RAH: Hopefully Blu-Ray.

ST: Okay. So is this technology going to adequately capture all the technical specifics you've been mentioning?

RAH: Well, hopefully this will be one of those films that will spur people to buy Blu-Ray players. But there's a piece of misinformation out there: people think they need an HD television to watch Blu-Ray, and they don't. And you can send this out to your readers: You can take a Blu-Ray player and plug it into any TV in your house, even one from the late 1940s, and you're going to get a better image than the one you'd get from a standard definition DVD. So if anyone in this wonderful economy doesn't have the funds to get both a Blu-Ray and an HDTV, just buy the player anyway and replace the TV later.

ST: So if you had some kind of hierarchy, the best-case scenario to see the new Godfather restorations, what would it be?

RAH: A good theater, with good projection, would be number one. Then the Blu-Ray, then the DVD. And of course in the theater, you can watch either a digital or a 35mm projection. The digital one is our final data files; it'll be a steadier image, a cleaner image... The blacks aren't quite there, but Kodak doesn't yet make a film that's perfect for these films' specific levels.

ST: Having presumably seen all these movies many times before this project even began, was there ever a time when you just got sick of looking at these images? Did you ever just think, "I never want to see another frame of The Godfather again?" or did your appreciation for them just expand?

RAH: It expanded exponentially, seeing them frame by frame. We're not really watching it, like you watch it regularly. We're fixing individual frames, individual sequences, and we don't actually see it as a film until we're done. There's no audio. We're busy cleaning hairs, fixing tears and bumps, looking at the trims. And here's an example of how we couldn't have done this in 1997—we had to have 4K [4000 pixel-per-inch scanning technology]. That technology has been around a few years, but it was too much data.


ST: What other movies have been restored using that technology?

RAH: The only one that I'm aware of that has been completed and released is Dr. Strangelove. That was done by Grover Crisp at Columbia, and he did a beautiful job.

We had, at any given time, about 60 terabytes [60,000 gigabytes] of information on the servers at Warner Brothers. When we got to work in the morning and pulled up the shots we were using, we fully expected the lights in Burbank to dim. So what the digital technology permitted us to do was take the whole process through in 4K—scanning, restoration, everything. Usually, a studio has to scan in 4K and then down-res it down to 2K for restoration to preserve space, the up-res it back to 4K at the end; the digital world is fraught with smoke and mirrors.

ST: So getting back to this appreciation question, most people who don't understand all the technical eggheady stuff still love these movies for the characters, the dialogue, the story. The iconic moments, in other words. Give me an example of how your appreciation grew from viewing the technical elements with such intimacy.

RAH: Gordon Willis did extraordinary work. For example, there's a sequence in Part II where the rug is being stolen. Bruno Kirby and Bob De Niro are in this brownstone mansion, the police officer knocks on the door, and Gordon cuts to a shot where Bruno is standing at the door frame with the gun. It's totally two-dimensional, it's totally flat, and it's right out of a [D.W.] Griffith Biograph. Those old films were shot by [Billy] Bitzer, and that shot is Willis doing Bitzer. It's the era, and it's perfect.

We also found the daily roll for the restaurant scene in Part I, and you can see someone standing off camera with a spray can as Salazzo gets shot in the head. That's how they got that little blood-mist effect. Those kinds of secrets are very interesting. And we had access to the editor's line script—which says how long each scene went, which shots were used and not used—and we had the daily camera reports. Paramount saved all these things, bless them.

ST: Will this 4k technology now become the standard by which all films are restored, or is it still too expensive except for the commercially-proven movies?

RAH: It depends on what you're doing with the scan. I know Warner Brothers is working on A Star is Born from 1954, and they're scanning it in 6K. But once you convert it to a film, you automatically bring the image back down to 2K. So a digital projection can therefore be a better image than a film, but you still have to store everything on film. Once a restoration's completed, you make as many copies of the film as you can and then geographically separate them, and you save your 4K digital files. But you make the assumption that in 25 years you won't be able to do anything with those files. In the past, people backed up images with negatives; they put them in a drawer and they somehow survived for 75, 80 years. Unless you take digital photos and put them on hard drives, on DVDs, in multiple copies, it's probable that you won't have your pictures anywhere in a generation.

There is no such thing as "digital archives." It's kind of an oxymoron. And hardly anyone is shooting film anymore, but if you want to keep the baby pictures you have to back it up in archival quality DVDs and hard drives, and then clone those hard drives every five years or so. It's a huge problem.


ST: What's the next project for your company, the Film Preserve?

RAH: We don't know, because the economy has just turned the corporate world upside down and it's a question of who has funding. Which is a problem, because an assumption can be made that virtually every Eastmancolor negative made between 1955 and 1960 is faded. Some are totally unprintable, and many of those have no backup.

ST: The movies you've restored have been expensive, but the studios were pretty much guaranteed they'd make their money back since they're popular films. Are there any less commercially viable projects you want to do but the funding just isn't there?

RAH: The films that I want to do, you can't really give up. You just keep pushing and trying to find the money. One of those is [John Wayne's 1960 epic] The Alamo, which can no longer be printed. I've tried to work something out with MGM, who are absolutely committed and with it, but they own 4500 films and don't have the funds to save 4500 films. It's an immense amount of money. So they're being totally cooperative, they support film restoration, but I'm probably going to have to go out and raise public funds. It'll be somewhere around $2.5 million. The negative is no longer printable.

We want to do It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We'd like to save Tom Jones, which needs work. We'd like to do The Ten Commandments, which is totally faded. But it's a lot of money. The more popular the film, the more use, and the more damage it's going to have. Specifically large format films.

ST: How does someone get started in this field? I understand you went to NYU film school, but how does someone get from graduation to restoring My Fair Lady and Lawrence of Arabia?

RAH: Yogi Berra said, "When you get to the fork in the road, take it." I grew up studying photography and film, and if I weren't doing this I'd probably be an archaeologist. I like the detective work and I love cinema, and it was something that just evolved and that I love doing. I tried producing, produced a few things, and I actually prefer doing this.

  • Really interesting interview -- I'd of course heard of film preservation, but never really knew any of the details. Movie geekery comes in all different stripes.

    Responses to this comment
  • Stay out of the family business...

    Responses to this comment
  • Great interview. The Godfather Part II is in my Top 5 and I've never seen it in a theater. Until reading this interview--which shows I'm just a movie fan, no cinephile--I'd always though film restoration was like "colorizing" films. Can't wait to see both parts again.

    Responses to this comment
  • awesome interesting interview John! keep up the great work

    Responses to this comment
  • He's done a great thing, and I wish more films could be restored with this degree of tender love and care. His quip about digital mediums not being archival is ridiculous, though. We haven't gone far enough out from its inception to know how it will age, and there are already solid state storage solutions that could be buried in a bog for 50 years and do just fine. When's he going to get around to restoring Tron and Star Trek IV?

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment