Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The blessing of digital restoration of pre-1989 Disney features

As I have stated earlier, the Platinum Edition of "101 Dalmatians" reminded me of some basic concerns about digital restoration in general and Disney feature restoration in particular. Apart from questions about different cuts or sound formats, I always ask myself:

Is this how the colors in the premiere print looked?
Or is this merely how they should have looked (on who’s authority?)?
Or even worse, have they just been adjusted to contemporary mainstream taste?
If so, do commercial considerations justify the removal of historical authenticity (grain, colors, cel reflections, everything that makes it a product of 1961 in the case of 101 Dalmatians) from a movie?

Color reproduction

Let's start on a detour: When I see an original painting in a gallery I’m usually quite astonished by how much it differs from the reproduction in the exhibition catalog – not to speak of other prints or digital formats. Reproductions are not only lacking nuances but sometimes certain hues (or all of them) are so different that the general impression of a picture comes across as totally different.

Femmes aux puits, 1892, Paul Signac

The three reproductions above are lifted off the internet “as is”. Of course the middle picture boosts contrast and saturation (something not likely associated with Neo-impressionism but with internet pictures). Compare picture 3 to picture 1 and notice how the overall warmer colors affect the sky and the grass. The orange woman is now surrounded by warm yellow, a neighboring color. The blue water contrasts much stronger with a salmon sky than in picture 1.

As colors are fundamental in conveying mood and emotion, even subtle differences affect the overall impression a picture makes on a spectator. Yet, accuracy in color reproduction is probably next to impossible. Analyzing a painting, you’d also have to take into account the present lighting conditions.

When it comes to restoring animated movies, the original artwork's color (which might also have faded) may differ greatly from the color timed premiere print that should serve as a frame of reference. As Bordwell points out (referring to "Funny Girl" (Wyler, 1968)), even with Technicolor dye-transfer movies sometimes there are not just one original print but several different ones. So if there is no clear frame of reference, particular characteristics of film stock, colored lighting under the camera, the amount of glass and cels overlaid, production notes etc. have to be taken into account.

Unfortunately I still couldn’t find any information about restoring "101 Dalmatians". There is an article on "Bambi" though, that illuminates some of the painstaking practice at Disney. (Apparently no cel painting errors have been corrected in the new "Dalmatians" DVD as was the case in "Bambi" for example.)

Removing the grain of history

From a historical perspective I’d prefer a restoration as close as possible to the version the audience saw upon original release. Of course, with some of the film makers still around to talk about their original intentions, it is tempting to update movies into something that may not have been possible at the time and that nobody ever saw before (Bordwell calls it “over-restored”). Apart from undermining historical limitations (like George Lucas using CGI to enhance his vintage movies), the memory of how something should have looked can as well be inaccurate.

As I have indicated, adjusting pictures to contemporary tastes is robbing them of their place and time in history. It would have been wrong for example to tone down the vibrant Technicolor hues in the recent restoration of "Rear Window" (1954) simply because this would have looked more natural to today’s audiences.

Of course, changes in taste accompanied the history of cinema since its beginnings. Initially most of the film prints were tinted, toned or hand-painted. But in later years the originals either faded or were considered bad taste and thus most of those films were only preserved or shown in black and white. When motion pictures were still considered a vaudeville gimmick, this practice was probably understandable. Even later though, there are examples such as the reframing of "Gone with the Wind" for its 70mm re-release or additional music for the American release of Miyazaki’s "Castle in the Sky".

It is a mystery to me, why Disney seems to omit the years of production of their movies on DVD covers in order to make them look contemporary (this, of course, excludes the Treasures series). Wouldn't it be easier to handle PC issues if the period of origin was stated clearly?

What bothers me most is the technique of separating the characters from the backgrounds in order to remove grain and lighting inconsistencies (see 2nd disc of "Sleeping Beauty"). This results in a CG-compositing look that draws attention to the absolute rigor of the backgrounds. As the ever changing grain rightfully may be seen as a flaw inherent to the medium, it nevertheless helped to keep the image alive. Without the grain, the characters' color areas are even flatter looking and the movie seems to freeze whenever a cel is held for several frames (quite often in "Dalmatians"). This ultimately draws our attention to the artificiality of the animation instead of letting us engage with the story.

As much as I admire the painstaking work of Disney's restoration team to make the new DVD look so gorgeous: if I watch "101 Dalmatians" I want to see a movie made in 1961 restored to its original splendor. If I wanted to see a state-of-the-art film of 2008, I'd go to see "Wall-E" or "Sita Sings the Blues".

Note: David Bordwell provides an interesting article about the restoration of Sony’s back catalog.
For further reading: Hans Perk on color reproduction;
Where’s the grit, Dirty Harry?

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