Of Film Restoration and Blu-ray Conversion
Earlier this morning I participated in a virtual roundtable/Q&A about film restoration and conversion between Jeff Baker who is the Executive Vice President and General Manager Warner Bros. theatrical catalog, Ned Price who is the Vice President of Mastering at Warner Bros. and Andy Parsons who is the chair of the Blu-ray Association of America. By participated, I mean I watched the livestream of their conversation and asked a question via text after it was finished. Presented after the cut are what I think are the most interesting parts of the conversation, as well as the question I asked. While I am still one of those people who buys most of my films on DVD over Blu-ray (tell me how you screencap Blu-rays you bastards and I’ll switch!) the process behind how films get chosen, etc. is pretty fascinating.
Andy Parsons: The subject today really hits the sweet spot for Blu-ray disc, because as you know in the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association), we’ve always talked about the importance of 1080p high-resolution, high def video and uncompressed multi-channel audio because for the most part all of us are film collectors and there’s no better way to enjoy a film than when you’re talking about the very best quality you can get. And Blu-ray offers that. So in terms of when you actually have films that you want to own, I think that we all have a handful of them on our shelf that we think we just can’t live without because they are something maybe we grew up with when we were younger or just have entertainment value that is timeless that we can enjoy again and again and again. Often times, studios, when they are repairing older films, especially ones that are decades old, find that the film may have been subjected to some natural deterioration. It becomes necessary to do a restoration or correction of the film to make sure it’s up to the pristine standards we all expect from Blu-ray discs.
Jeffrey Baker: My role in the company is to over-see the film library at Warner Bros. I am responsible from a P&L point of view of the monetization of that film library. When we talk about Blu-ray specifically, there are a number of steps and methodologies that we use in determining which films are ultimately released to consumers. The first step is to do a financial feasibility of the film that we are thinking of releasing in Blu-ray for the first time. Then we look at our film elements to first qualify that we have a 1080p master element, that is the first preferred choice that we go to. Once we have done that, we look at general criteria with regards to what films are coming out on Blu-ray. We look at anniversaries, we look at epic films, Oscar winners and in many cases we look at the consumer demo and the purchase buy-rates of the types of films that consumers seems to have an affinity for in Blu-ray; science fiction, action and other genres that work well. Once we’ve done that, we then look at the type of conversion and restoration that is required, based on the film element and the financial viability of the ultimate film on Blu-ray. So, we have gradations of how we approach that process, which Ned Price will speak about. After we’ve done that we look at what type of E.C. – enhanced content – we want to marry up with the film. In most cases we are, at minimum, taking all the E.C. that existed in DVD format and when it comes to our A titles that we’ve determined, we are actually creating new and interesting archival E.C. that’s available for the first time with the release on Blu-ray for the first time. Finally, we look at the marketing and pricing strategies of that film in the marketplace when it’s ready for general release. That is the general methodology that we use at Warner at looking at what titles are coming out on Blu-ray.
AP: Ned, you are responsible for a lot of the technological magic that takes a lot of these older films that may not be in ideal condition when you first get a look at them. Can you tell us a little bit about what you have to do sometimes to convert these into a form that makes them suitable for Blu-ray release?
Ned Price: What I do primarily is oversee the assets for the corporation. We complete preservation work on behalf of the corporation and the other part of my job is to prepare the features for distribution, whether it is Blu-ray or for potentially for theatrical. So, for my world the majority of our library is analog and film-based and we work with audio as well as picture. Once the preservation is done and sort of the general maintenance and upkeep of the library itself, when a title is requested for Blu-ray release what we do is we revisit those elements and see what it would take to prepare for a Blu-ray release. Since we are going back to pre-print elements, they are not in a form where they are perfectly timed and colored or perfectly clean for that matter. As you said previously, there is a certain amount of natural decay and these are chemically based images and sound and that deteriorates over time. Also, film traditionally is quite a physical process for printing, so they are literally pulled through machines when they are printed for theatrical over years and years and they are subjected to chemical splashes, they are subjected to physical handling and oil and so there is a fair amount of work that goes to preparing any title that goes on Blu-ray release. It could take a matter of, say a year and a half; it could take a matter of weeks.
AP: How many people typically work on a film, like that? Is it a huge group of people?
NP: Yes, it is. I’m fortunate enough to be the mouthpiece for a lot of those workers and we’ve worked together for quite a long time and I would say there’s typically about – and you have to remember the vault people in the archives – and there’s typically about maybe a hundred people who touch our work before it’s handed over to the Blu-ray people for manufacturing or production.
AP: I was reviewing some of the amazing boxsets that Warner has released but out in recent years, like Ben-Hur, for example, is one that I love. It’s just remarkable how fantastic that film can look on Blu-ray as far as the color and the detail. There seems to be a lot of sensitivity that you guys are applying to this to make sure you are not over-correcting or making sure it doesn’t look too filtered. I’m just amazed at how well you’re doing that, in terms of, it seems like you have great respect for the film itself and making sure that you’re restoring it back to what we all remember seeing on the big screen. It must be tempting sometimes to correct things or to remove film grain or things that some people might find disruptive to the film. How do you make the judgment, to make sure you are not going too far with your corrections?
NP: I’ve always aired on the side of being very conservative in that matter. My personal logic is to just mine as much information that is on those negative and present in a way that resembles its original theatrical release. In the early days of even Blu-Ray, the compression codecs that we were using could not deal with the grain content that were in the originals, especially multiple generation sources. The other part to this is that we could not necessarily see the resolution that we were mastering that we can now. We have better displays, so we are actually induces artifacts that we didn’t know of at the time, which then popped up later on in the Blu-ray life and we’ve been very conscientious to review existing masters before they are used for Blu-ray. Sometimes there is extensive work that needs to go into them, or I may turn around to Jeff and say it has too much artifact and we have to start from scratch. But typically, those masters are somewhere about eight years old or so.
JB: The other beauty of being on Blu-ray, and first time on Blu-Ray, particularly for epic films such as Ben-Hur, which we consider to be an A title in our library, is that is has given us a reason to go back and rediscover material that otherwise we would never be looking for or presenting to the consumer. I’ll give you an example; Ben-Hur was a film that was in the MGM library, it was originally developed and produced and distributed theatrically by MGM and when we were fortunate enough to buy TBS, Ted Turner’s company, we inherited the pre-1986 MGM library, of which Ben-Hur was one of the films. With that inheritance, we received the film element – the 65mm film element – but there were no other extras that we were able to locate. So it was determined that, as we were about to bring this to Blu-ray, that after fifty years, there was no additional material. No screen tests, no other behind-the-scenes footage that you would normally see with many contemporary films today. Through the discovery process, we were able to find footage from the set of Ben-Hur embedded in a home movie that was done by Chuck’s wife Lydia. We were then able to hire a terrific documentary filmmaker, Laurent Bouzereau, to create a documentary film incorporating this on-set footage that for all intents and purposes didn’t exist as far as we were concerned and it’s probably the only footage un existence from the set of Ben-Hur in the world. We created this documentary and that is presented as part of the package with the new Blu-ray restoration and conversation. The second piece, which is absolutely fascinating – and I’m not trying to sell the Ben-Hur Blu-ray boxset to you – however, I want to tell you about one other piece that is really unique. Chuck Heston at that time in his life and career kept a diary. I was not aware of this and his son Fraser told us about it and I asked him if we could reprint the diary as part of the Blu-ray package. The diary was basically a daily journal that Chuck filled in to talk about his thoughts of the day, what he was going to be doing on set. There are comments about the actors and the director, William Wyler. It’s really a fascinating look at the mind of a great actor, who was really talking about his experience making the fill while he was doing it. We convinced Fraser to let us have access to the diary; originally he had said he would allow us to transpose the words that Chuck had used in the diary and to create a new binder or folder fresh with his words. We, in a nice way, pushed back on Fraser and said, look we really want the original. He said that’s not possible because the original is in a safety deposit box in a bank in Beverly Hills and I said that’s okay, you go to the bank, bring it to our printer, you stay there the entire time and we’ll reprint front he original diary. His point at that time was that we were going to get faded pages and mistakes and therefore it won’t look that good. I said I wanted it from the authenticity point of view to be able to present to the consumer in this package, with this Blu-ray product the original diary, reprinted. We did that and it is a fascinating consumer package of a result of not only enhanced film in high-definition, but also this material.
AP: This is a very interesting subject, because you are talking about being able to bring assets and films that may not have been seen for literally decades before. How do you make a determination between what films are going to get the full treatment versus ones that may not necessarily justify that in terms of the size of the market for it? Is there a decision-making process you go through?
JB: There is. It’s affected in part by the consumer, because the consumer has reacted very positively over the last twelve months to budget pricing at retail for Blu-ray. We’ve seen significant increase in buy rates as a result of that. Just an example, in the under-$10 retail segment of consumer purchases of Blu-ray, in 2011, 15% of purchases was in the under-$10 rage. We’re estimating that this year 35% of the business will be in the under-$10 segment, So consumers are saying that if we can get the price down low enough, they do want to replace their DVD library with Blu-ray films.
AP: Do you have any kind of wrap-up comment before we go to the Q&A?
JB: Without making a formal announcement, I will tell you this, next year is the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros., we have not yet formally announced what our plans are, but we’re going to be doing that at our lot in early October. We’re going to be converting a lot of films to Blu-ray next year as part of our anniversary, including five Best Picture winners that have never been on Blu-ray. I can’t tell you what they are, but they will be coming out. There are some other boxsets that are absolutely extraordinary and I think it’s going to be the year of Blu-ray next year and consumers are going to go wild over what Warners is bringing to the party.
Cinema Fanatic: Are there any plans to start releasing Warner Archive titles on Blu-ray? And is there ever a time when you released a film on Blu-ray that may not have had the monetary stats to back up its release because Warners felt it was important? Is financial feasibility more important to a release than the film’s impact on film history?
Jeffrey Baker: We are not yet ready to convert archive titles to BD, we are hopeful that more economically viable tools in the near future will make this possible. Yes, I have green-lit numerous conversions to BD that did not meet short-term financial thresholds, and we will continue to. We believe that the long-term growth in BD will provide adequate ROI in the future.
Posted on July 26, 2012, in DVDs and tagged Andy Parsons, Ben-Hur, Blu-ray, Charlton Heston, DVD, Jeff Baker, Laurent Bouzereau, Ned Price, Warner Bros., William Wyler. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.