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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Inside the Vault at Universal

As you're no doubt aware, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of two venerable Hollywood studios: Paramount and Universal. Paramount kicked off their celebration a few weeks ago with a gala screening of the restored 1927 silent classic Wings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bill and I were fortunate enough to attend that event and were duly impressed by both the film and the remarkable collection of rare posters, photos, and sketches on display in the lobby. As much as I might like to make fun of the studios (and believe me, I do), it was impossible not to be a little bit humbled by the legendary history in front of us.

Last week, when I was invited to tour Universal for a rare glimpse into their vault and archive, I didn't have to be asked twice. Our first stop was the Vault itself to meet Bob O'Neil, Vice President of Image Assets and Preservation. I had hoped the door to the Vault would be a gigantic metal Scrooge McDuck-like portal but no, it's simply a nondescript warehouse tucked into the lot. Granted, it's an immense warehouse, three stories and approximately 30,000 square feet. The movable shelves conceal 45 miles of shelving holding elements for over 5,000 feature films and 50,000 episodes of television.

The first thing you notice upon entering the vault is the cold. The temperature is kept at around a balmy 50 degrees to preserve the elements. We were told we wouldn't be visiting the "cold" vault, home to cut color negatives, where the temperature dips down to 34. The studio also keeps backup copies of its material in other locations, including the underground Iron Mountain storage facility in Pennsylvania. Nitrate materials are also kept off-site, a wise decision considering the 2008 fire that consumed a portion of the lot.

From the Vault, we headed over to Digital Services for a closer look at the restoration process, particularly on the titles selected for the Centennial treatment. A Centennial committee had put together a preliminary list of 100 significant titles from the studio's history. Elements were then inspected and the final list was chosen based on which titles were most in need of restoration. Those titles, which will be released on Blu-ray over the coming months, include All Quiet On The Western Front, The Birds, Bride Of Frankenstein, Buck Privates, Dracula (both the English and Spanish language versions from 1931), Frankenstein, Jaws, Out Of Africa, Pillow Talk, Schindler's List, The Sting and To Kill A Mockingbird.

Michael Daruty, Senior Vice President of Technical Operations, and Peter Schade, Vice President of Technical Services, provided a step-by-step look at some of the remarkable tools used in the restoration process. Once the best available elements have been secured, digital technology is used to correct color, film drift, and other imperfections. In an amazing demonstration of how far technology has advanced, we saw how a particularly ugly film tear in Jaws is eliminated by selecting pieces from surrounding, undamaged frames and pasting them over the rip. It's a painstaking, time-consuming process but the results are astounding.

Also touched upon was the ever-controversial process of grain reduction. For this, we were shown an optical zoom from a scene in To Kill A Mockingbird. Since this was an optical effect and not a true camera move, the actor's face turned into a storm of visible grain. Universal has chosen to reduce it so that the level of grain remains consistent from the beginning of the effect to the end. The grain is still there. It just doesn't become the focal point of the shot. Not everyone will be entirely pleased with this choice but I can certainly understand why it's been made, especially after seeing the footage on a large screen.

Throughout, Peter reiterated that preserving the artistic integrity of the film was their top priority and that, whenever possible, the filmmakers themselves are given the final approval over their efforts. So when Jaws appears on Blu-ray later this year, you can rest assured that the image you're seeing is the image Steven Spielberg wants you to see.

I asked Peter what they used as a guide when the filmmakers were no longer available for consultation. Fortunately, Universal was home to such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, who left behind voluminous storyboards and notes, kept safe and secure in Universal's Archives Department overseen by Jeff Pirtle. Of course, the question becomes trickier when dealing with older films like All Quiet On The Western Front. Whose artistic vision is it meant to represent? One could make a case for either director Lewis Milestone, producer Carl Laemmle Jr., or his father, studio head Carl Laemmle. But, as Peter pointed out, "Often the negative will tell you where it wants to go."

As impressive as all of these behind-the-scenes efforts are, the real question for fans is how the work translates to the disc you'll be playing at home. Based on the first two centennial releases, the answer appears to be extremely well. All Quiet On The Western Front looks stunning and all the more remarkable when you remember that it was made in 1930. The image is incredibly stable and vivid, while the restored audio, now free of the hiss and crackle that marred previous releases, is a revelation.

Admittedly, I had no other disc to compare All Quiet against. However, I did have a copy of the previous Legacy Edition release of To Kill A Mockingbird on DVD to pit against the new Blu-ray. The new version is noticeably superior, a beautifully cleaned-up print with sharp detail and a deep, rich black-and-white image. Again, purists may bemoan the homogenized grain but for most, it'll provide a smoother, less distracting viewing experience.

Both sets arrive in attractively designed packaging with thick, fascinating books including clippings, photos, posters, storyboards, and other materials culled from Universal's Archives and Collections Department. To Kill A Mockingbird brings over all the extras from the terrific Legacy Edition release and introduces a U-Control picture-in-picture Scene Companion feature including comments by Cecilia and Anthony Peck, among others. All Quiet On The Western Front includes the alternate silent version of the film courtesy of the Library of Congress, an introduction from TCM host Robert Osborne, and a pair of brief 100 Years of Universal featurettes (one of which, Restoring The Classics, also appears on Mockingbird). Both sets also include a DVD copy as well as a Digital Copy code.

Studios are notorious for latching on to any anniversary that's divisible by five as an excuse to repackage and repromote. But even the most jaded fan has to admit that 100 years is a milestone worth celebrating. Congratulations to Universal on its 100th Anniversary. The best part is that it looks like we'll be getting all the presents.

[Editor's Note: Universal's Restoring The Classics featurette can now be viewed online here on YouTube.]

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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