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A digital offer 'The Godfather' can't refuse

A restoration project at Warner Bros. is adding new luster to old masterpieces. First order of business: Making an undertaker's head look like it's floating in purgatory.

How's this for pressure? In the care of Daphne Dentz and her colleagues was a masterpiece of American filmmaking: The Godfather.

A year ago, Dentz was sitting in an editing bay with other members of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI). Also in the room was none other than the movie's director, Francis Ford Coppola. He was there to observe as they set about digitally restoring his 35-year-old classic.

On a bank of computer monitors, The Godfather's opening scene began to play; the melancholy trumpet; the now famous line: "I believe in America...," and slowly forming out of the blackness is the face of a man seeking vengeance.

Stop everything. Coppola, a famous perfectionist, told the technicians: "I want his head to look like it's floating in purgatory."

An instruction like that from Coppola might have intimidated Dentz, MPI's vice president of digital services, if she didn't know MPI had the tools to give him what he wanted. Six years ago, Warner Bros. developed digital technologies designed to make copies of damaged or decaying film negatives and return the movies to their original viewing quality. The studio wouldn't discuss how much they spent. (You can be sure it wasn't cheap).

A scene from Gone With The Wind before restoration. Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging
The same scene but after restoration. Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging

For decades, film reels languished on studio lots without any attempt made to preserve them. But technology has rushed to the rescue once again. The digital age has handed Hollywood the tools to correct faded colors, blurred images, and garbled sound.

Warner Bros. wants to rescue some of America's greatest film treasures, while at the same time cash in on a valuable film library. Execs from all the studios have learned that they can release restored versions of classic films on disc and extend their economic lifespan. This is what Paramount intends to do when it re-releases the The Godfather in September, according to a story in American Cinematographer.

Another reason to give the pictures a facelift is that many of them can't stand up to the magnified scrutiny of the digital age. Imperfections are more exposed than ever on high-definition TVs, according to Ned Price, vice president of mastering for Warner Bros. technical operations.

"Consumer expectations are rising," Price said. "You now have Blu-ray and the quality level that the consumer has access to is higher than it was before. What was acceptable 10 years ago is no longer acceptable today."

There was a lot of back-patting at MPI after Coppola saw the results. According to members of the group, the auteur told them that he hadn't seen the film look that good since 1972, the year it was first screened.

To do the restoring, Warner Bros. built proprietary software, custom-designed monitors and editing tools. On the studio's lot is a storage system that can handle 600 terabytes of data. This is a lot of information.

Two terabytes can hold an academic library. The U.S. Library of Congress said a year ago that it stores less than 100 terabytes of information.

MPI always works in the same resolution as the original negative, typically 4096 x 3112 pixels or, in industry lingo, "4K." By digital camera standards, that's not much: only 8 megapixels. But by video standards, that's a whopping amount: A single frame on 4k can be 50 megabytes, said Bill Baggelaar, MPI's vice president of engineering. At a rate of 24-frames per second, the numbers add up fast.

For example, The Godfather trilogy required 160 terabytes of storage, Baggelaar said.

Of course, the real challenge isn't storing the data. The trick is moving it around. "Minimally, a 4k movie is 12 terabytes," Baggelaar said. Even at "fibre-channel speed, it still takes a while to move 12 terabytes."

MPI's system is fast, primarily because of Hewlett-Packard, Baggelaar said. HP powers the Warner Bros. storage area network, a "massive" fibre channel. Most of the SAN runs on Linux.

"One of the reasons the HP storage works so well for us is we have to be up 100 percent of the time," Baggelaar said. "We don't have downtime. We don't have the ability to lose data while we're in the middle of production and their storage is extremely reliable.

"If you're taking one version of the movie and you have 12 terabytes of data and every day you're changing some component, during a one-month project you're going to generate a couple hundred terabytes of data," he said. "That amount is just not cost effective to back up."

A restoration starts with the creation of a digital copy made from a film's negative. This is not easy. Some negatives may be physically damaged; torn and spliced together with tape and can easily come apart during the scanning if they aren't cared for properly.

Once the copy is made, the negative is sent to be preserved in specially built vaults while the digital copy is sent to MPI, which then "starts picking it apart," Price said.

One group of technicians goes to work on color correction and another on removing dirt and scratches. A third group--called data conform--makes sure the negative has all the right pieces. If it doesn't, they find them. Sometimes MPI must work with duplications of the negative and it's not uncommon to find that someone years earlier edited scenes into them. MPI removes them.

The goal is not to improve the filmmaker's work but to re-create it.

In the case of The Godfather, the negative was in rough shape. The images looked mottled. There were no details in the film's black tones. It was dirty, scratched, and torn in places.

To illustrate how the film looked when MPI started, Kathleen Largay, a colorist, showed me a clip of the restaurant scene, where Michael Corleone guns down Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo and the police captain. The color is washed out. A scratch runs along the bottom of the picture. There are few shadows visible.

Then she showed me what it looked like after the team used its computers to remove scratches, hairs, dust, and stains. Suddenly, rich earth tones are present. The gold color of the olive oil sitting on the table twinkles in the light. There's more contrast between white and black, enough for me to see all the tension in Al Pacino's face just before he opens fire.

The MPI team worked closely with Paramount executives, who knew exactly how the picture should look.

One area where the team came up short was in reproducing the same kind of blacks. The sad truth is that digital technology doesn't block out light as well as film, so it doesn't produce the blackest black. This was important for The Godfather, as the movie was one of the darkest ever made.

"With film you have light shining through a piece of acetate or some base that has some property blocking light," Baggelaar said. "The light is actually being blocked to create black. But in a digital projection scenario, there is always light being thrown out by a projector. Just like an LCD monitor, unless you turn it off it's not really black. One of the technical challenges was giving them the blackness that they wanted with the limitations of the equipment. I think we did a nice job by the end. "

It took seven months to finish the entire trilogy. How long would it have taken without digital tools? Well, it would have never been attempted, Price said.

"You would have to go through frame by frame to correct this," Price said.

There was a lot of back-patting at MPI after Coppola saw the results. According to members of the group, the auteur told them that he hadn't seen the film look that good since 1972, the year it was first screened.