Sony's Grover Crisp on the Restoration of Taxi Driver

March 10, 2011 - 1:00 pm   |   By 

Sony's Grover Crisp understands the science and art of film restoration as well as anyone working in Hollywood today. As the Senior VP for Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment, he's personally supervised scores of great film restoration efforts for the studio - both physical and digital - including such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Jason and the Argonauts.

Most recently, Crisp and his team have completed an effort to restore and preserve director Martin Scorsese's acclaimed 1976 drama Taxi Driver. The result of that work will be released on Blu-ray Disc by Sony on April 5th. We've long admired his work here at The Digital Bits, and we're very pleased to say that Crisp has been kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Taxi Driver restoration effort. We hope you enjoy it!

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Q: Has Taxi Driver actually been fully restored and remastered, or just re-transferred in high-definition?

A: This film was not just transferred in High Definition. Not that many films have gone through this particular process and this is only the third one for us, after Dr. Strangelove and The Bridge on the River Kwai, though others are already in the works. By process, I mean a full 4K workflow with no downrezing. Especially scanning at 4K, it preserves the essential resolution of the 35mm negative. The resulting HD master used for the Blu-ray authoring was derived directly from the final 4K files.

Q: You mentioned 4K - when talking about film restoration in the digital space, much attention is paid to the resolution involved. Given the need to balance budget, quality and future archival needs, how do you decide which resolution - 2K, 4K, even 6K and higher - is the optimal one in which to work for any given film? What considerations made 4K the right choice for Taxi Driver?

A: We have really looked at all the options over the last few years and our conclusion, which is not unique to us, of course, is that film, regardless of what the particular element is, needs to be scanned at 4K at a minimum. That's why Colorworks at the studio, where all of the Taxi Driver work eventually came together, was built as a full 4K digital facility. If you look at some of the tests available, especially those published by Arri the last couple of years, you realize what is being lost by scanning at a lower resolution for 35mm film. Plus, the concept of oversampling comes into play. So, we scan all our 35mm material, whether it is a big restoration or just a re-mastering project for Blu-ray, at 4K. But, depending on the material you are working with, it may be beneficial to actually scan at even higher resolutions, while larger formats, like 65mm, may require higher resolutions in order to accurately capture the information in the film frame.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of working digitally at a 4K resolution?

A: Working in 4K data can be a challenge because it is a lot of data to manipulate, but it is something that can be controlled. The most difficult part of any of this kind of work is always to fix things that could not be fixed before and to have it be seamless. A digital repair done incorrectly will draw attention to itself and the goal is always to put things back properly so that it is virtually invisible to the viewer. Sometimes, the nature of the film problems are so severe as to make this practically impossible, but at least that is always the goal.

Q: Were director Martin Scorsese or cinematographer Michael Chapman involved in the restoration? Can you talk about the extent of Scorsese's involvement?

A: Yes, they were both involved, at different times, during the work. Whenever we work on a restoration we involve the filmmakers, if it is at all possible, especially the cinematographer and director. We would not work on this without Scorsese's input, of course. We ran the original 4K samples by him and had follow-up discussions and viewings. He was very much interested in this film looking like it really is, a product of the time and place in which it was made. We were trying to be careful to present it as it would have looked in 1976, albeit with a much cleaner and fuller image than one would have experienced from third generation release prints of the time. That is one reason why the Columbia lady logo at the beginning of the film is degraded and soft looking, because that is exactly what it was in 1976, and we agreed with the director on those kinds of decisions.

Q: Given that Scorsese is such a champion of film restoration and preservation, was he surprised at how much work was required to properly restore Taxi Driver? What was his reaction upon seeing the finished work?

A: Well, he is not just a champion of the work, he actually gets seriously involved in many of the projects that The Film Foundation works on. So, he has a really great background at this point in terms of the issues involved, solutions available and so forth. He's pretty savvy when it comes to understanding how films from different periods, and at different studios, may have been treated and what to expect. With Taxi Driver, of course, it was not a project of The Film Foundation and was completely funded by Sony Pictures and overseen by me. With that in mind, he was pretty much treated like we would any artist in that we wanted his involvement and input so that we (hopefully) get it right. His comments back to us were quite insightful and valuable, and he seemed to like the ultimate results, though I certainly can't answer on his behalf.

Q: What was the biggest technical challenge you faced in restoring this film and preparing it for release on Blu-ray?

A: There were enormous scratches running through some scenes that were difficult to remove. It almost never fails that when a film is scratched, it is right down the middle of a character's face - never way over to the side of the frame as you would hope. So, those kinds of things are difficult to achieve without altering the underlying structure of the emulsion. This film had several things like that wrong with it. Thousands of instances of minus density dirt specs were embedded in the emulsion of the negative, some of which can be removed easily and most not. We also found that the film had lost frames in several places over the years and discovered that there were long ago efforts to take care of torn frames by just cutting them out. We located the torn frames, reinserted them and digitally repaired the frames. A common approach years ago to issues like that was to just remove the damaged frames and pull up the audio to match it and, basically, unless you knew the film really well, you would not necessarily notice this. But, it was surprising with this film how much of that was done.

Q: Is there a particular instance in Taxi Driver that benefited the most from this recent restoration?

A: The scratches and tears to the original negative - damage that could not be fixed through a traditional film laboratory approach. Working in an all digital workflow, it allows us to get to very minute particles of dirt or abrasions, as well as long stretches of film that can be difficult to repair. A lot of work on a film like this is done one frame at a time by individuals sitting looking at images on their digital restoration workstations.

Q: Some older films that have been re-mastered for Blu-ray have generated controversy because of changes to the way they were released previously, especially where color is concerned. Were similar changes made on Taxi Driver?

A: I can't speak about the other films. For Taxi Driver, what I can say is that I think this upcoming release is the most authentic to the way the film looked when it was originally released. Previous releases on DVD were from an older transfer, about ten years ago, that was not subject to the supervision that we insist on and did not involve the filmmakers as we do now. We researched and based decisions on prints from the original negative and release, plus had the cinematographer and director involved in each phase of work. So, the film looks the way they see it, especially from the director's perspective.

Q: Much has been made of the decision to alter the color of the shooting scene at the end of the film to get an R rating in 1976. Why didn't you restore it to the originally-shot, more colorful scene?

A: There are a couple of answers to this. One, which we discussed, was the goal of presenting the film as it was released, which is the version everyone basically knows. This comes up every now and then, but the director feels it best to leave the film as it is. That decision is fine with me. However, there is an impression from some who think we could easily "pump" the color back into that scene and that is not as easy as it sounds. The film was not just printed darker, or with muted colors, as some think. There are two sections of the original negative that were removed from the cut and assembled camera negative. One is the long shot where the cab pulls up, Bickle walks over to Sport, they argue, he shoots him, then he walks back and sits on a stoop. That is all one shot that was removed. The second section removed begins with the shot of the interior of the apartment building where he shoots the hood in the hand and all the shots following this down to the final one of the overhead crowd shot outside - that entire sequence was removed as assembled. These two sections of original camera negative were then sent to TVC, a small lab in New York, where it went through a Chemtone process, a chemical treatment that somewhat opens shadows allowing for greater density and lower contrast, for the most part. The exact process was a bit clouded by TVC as a proprietary service, but it usually involved original processing and, at this point, the negative was already finished. Whatever the actual processes, what I can say is that they delivered back duplicate negatives of these two sections, with the long sequence, in effect, now an optical dupe and with the desired color and density built into it. So, literally, when printing this film at a lab then (or now), there was no way to grade it and print it the way it was shot. Those muted colors are built into the dupe negative and it doesn't work to try to print it otherwise. We also searched many times over the years for the original negative that was removed, but to no avail. Likely, it was junked at TVC at the time.


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