From all of us here at The Bits today: A Happy Friday to YOU, sir! (And/or madam.)
Q: What about for the Blu-ray - couldn't you just re-do the color with today's technology?
A: No, the same situation exists in that environment. You can't really successfully pump a color into a film that isn't there. There were attempts, to some degree, to put more red into that scene on older transfers of the film (the most recent almost ten years ago, and without talent involvement) and you can see those results in DVDs that were released. There is more red than should be there, but the red is everywhere, in the walls, clothing, skin, hair, etc., and that is what happens when you try to force a color into an image that really isn't present. This Blu-ray release is actually closer to what it looked like in 1976 than any previous home video release, and not just for the color. The well-know "you talkin' to me" scene, for example, was seriously cropped on older editions. All those shots are actually from the camera looking at his reflection in the mirror, not straight on of him while he talks, and they cropped out the side of the mirror and zoomed in to the point where he had slightly more headroom, but you could barely see the gun he's holding. We don't agree with that kind of framing manipulation, so we framed it properly for 1.85 SMPTE standards for projection and now you will see the image as you would in a theater, which is the way it should be.
Q: Was the Blu-ray release part of the reason why Taxi Driver has been restored at this time?
A: It was a factor, of course, but at Sony Pictures we have had a long-term plan of restoring our library so that it can be made available and also preserved for the future. These films are coming out on Blu-ray and many more are planned. This film, for example, is getting a major re-release (major by older title standards, that is) at AMC theaters around the country that are equipped to project 4K DCPs, and I don't recall a such a wide release like that before, relatively speaking.
Q: In general, how much has the advent of Blu-ray affected the film restoration process?
A: Blu-ray is a wonderful format that allows the viewer to experience a film much closer to what the theatrical experience is like. The higher resolution in both picture and sound also means that we need to provide the best quality materials in order for the format to work at its maximum. What this means for restoration is that we can now work to provide better materials than would have been necessary in the past. Blu-ray and restoration really go hand-in-hand in that regard.
Q: So much is made these days of the use of grain or "noise" reduction in Blu-ray masters. It's a complicated topic, frankly, that I think is not well understood by most Blu-ray consumers and film enthusiasts. Sometimes the process is used to achieve a "cleaner" look in a catalog film presentation, and often it's used simply to aid in compression. What's your perspective on the issue, and how does it apply to your work on Taxi Driver and other Sony titles?
A: I think our scanning rates and workflow processes have somewhat ameliorated the issue of graininess. Having said that, though, we don't take the position that grain is an automatic "problem", and we usually just leave it alone. We are aware of all the tools for this and are open to testing them, but the use of such tools should be limited and spare. Ultimately, unless there is a really compelling reason to alter the grain (and I don't think just to aid compression is a compelling reason), we don't, and I can't really see that that decision has hurt us when it comes to reviews of our Blu-ray releases. Just the opposite, it seems. I think there are ways of mastering a film that enables you to make the best of what you have to work with and we follow that path. I really do not like the super clean, waxy look that is often the result of over-processing. It not only buries detail, but it gives the film an odd feel to it, an artificial feel, that I think detracts from the achievement of the filmmakers and is distracting to discerning viewers, all of which ultimately just cheats the audience. Most filmmakers know what they are doing with the resources at hand and our job, after all, is to replicate the vision of the filmmaker, not to impose our own aesthetic outlook on a film. People are entitled to their opinion on this subject, and lots of people have opinions on this, but we try to take a fairly authentic and neutral approach to every title - and they all differ in certain ways - so that each title looks, feels, sounds, like a product of its time and place, while trying to make them look their absolute best on Blu-ray. And, that's kind of what it's about, you know? I don't think Taxi Driver is a particularly grainy film, so there was really nothing to do in that regard.
Q: What is the downside to digital restoration, if any?
A: There can be a downside to just about any process when it comes to anything digital. Anyone one who has ever had a hard drive crash will understand that. But I think the main thing to be careful about with digital restoration - which we have been involved with at Sony Pictures for the last 20 years - is just that: to be careful. Digital tools are quite powerful and we need to be careful that we are controlling these processes and not let them control us.
Q: Can you talk about the audio restoration process for Taxi Driver? Were there any unique challenges involved on the audio side of the effort?
A: The audio restoration was completed at Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, which is a restoration facility that has worked on many titles for all the studios over the years. Like with all other aspects of a restoration project, we treat the audio much as we do picture in that we plow through everything we have to come up with the best material to work from. That could be one element or more, or a mix and match of various components of different elements. For this, the best was the original mono magnetic master with split dialogue, effects and music. However, I had found years earlier the original 4-track stereo recordings of the score, on audio tape, not magnetic film, so that was incorporated into the process, all of the material going through a standard digital cleanup to remove pops, clicks, distortion when possible, things like that. In this particular case, Scorsese had his own audio experts create the 5.1 track from the restored elements that will be on the Blu-ray, created here at the Sony Studios Sound department.
Q: You mentioned earlier that Taxi Driver is also being released in select theaters in 4K. Do you think the 4K presentation will change the Taxi Driver experience for the audience in any way?
A: Digital presentations of any film are always different in experience from a film print. The image is steady, there is no variation in color from projector to projector, no scratches or changeover cues in the upper corner of the frame, no jumping in the gate. To me, lessening the anomalies inherent in the film projection experience allows one get more involved in the drama of the story. And this is from someone who loves so see film on film! This is why we take great pains to try and have our digital versions of films truly look like film.
Q: Can you talk about other classic film restorations from Sony that you're working on? What else is coming for theatrical revival and Blu-ray release? We're thinking of titles like Lawrence of Arabia, On the Waterfront and From Here to Eternity. We'd heard that the Lawrence restoration has already been completed...
A: Actually, Lawrence is not completed, yet, though we have begun work on it. It is a complicated project and will certainly take a year to complete. The 8K scans of the negative are done, so we are at least headed down that road. The Caine Mutiny is in the works, as is Guns of Navarone. We recently released a major restoration of The Bridge on the River Kwai, both theatrically and on Blu-ray, and it has been very well received. The other classic titles will find their way out to Blu-ray and I think it is just a matter of finding the right time to schedule those.
Special thanks to Grover Crisp for his time, and everyone at Sony Pictures Entertainment who was involved in the Taxi Driver restoration effort. Don't forget, the film will be released for the first time on Blu-ray Disc on April 4th (you can see the cover art below). Cheers!
- Bill Hunt