Restoration of The Godfather

Published on website: February 18, 2010
Categories: Archiving , Richard Utley , The StoryBoard Blog

Defining Restoration

How many times have you purchased a new DVD that announced on its cover that it was a 'newly restored' version? What does 'newly restored' mean exactly? And, why is it better than the original DVD you purchased last year? 

In today's electronic world, people sometimes use the term 'newly restored' in reference to a transfer from film to HD for DVD rendering.  However, when transferring in this fashion - from an existing film element with specialized software - the 'repairs' only exist in the electronic record.  This is really 'repurposing' vs. 'restoring.' 

Technically, restoration means the restoring of the original camera negative (OCN) - or the closest generation film element that still exists - and preparing it for the next generation of consumer markets.  (Film is truly the cornerstone preservation element that exists regardless of how the imagery was captured.)

The restoration process starts with an inspection of the OCN and doing an in-depth physical analysis in order to better understand its overall condition: e.g. How many negatives have been made over time to replace damaged areas of the original? How much fading has occurred to the color dyes?  Has the total running time been altered?

In some cases, major feature titles have needed significant restoration work in order to repair years of damage and neglect. 

The Godfather

Godfather I is at the top of Paramount's 'A' list of titles.  It ranked number three on the Library of Congress' Top 100 Feature Titles.  The film, released in 1972, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was nominated for eight Oscars® that year and won three - including Best Picture.  The film's cinematographer Gordon Willis was known as the 'Prince of Darkness' for his creative light and dark shifts within a movie (e.g. the opening wedding scene where the bright highlights are all blown out, shifting to Vito Corleone's office where is very dark and intimate). 

The Godfather negative was found to be in poor physical condition, as the original was recut in the 1980s so that it could be used to make a number of prints to satisfy various markets over the years.  Subjected to such a physically punishing process, it is not surprising that the negative had severely degraded.

The restoration of The Godfather was supervised by Robert Harris, a well-known restorationist located in New York City.  Bob asked Kodak's subsidiary PRO-TEK to do all of the film's element inspection.  He also asked PRO-TEK to help Paramount identify the various duplicate (preservation) film elements listed in the studio's vaults.  The restoration of this classic film would start with identification of the physical condition of the OCN and identification of areas within the OCN that would need replacement from other film elements such as the separation masters, intermediate positive and color reversal intermediate. 

After PRO-TEK's work was finished, the OCN would be taken to Warner Bros. MPI Group for scanning on the Spirit II 4K scanner. Once scanned, the data would be manipulated and color timed to match an earlier dye transfer (IB) print made at Technicolor in 1972.  Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola were interviewed and were a part of the color timing decisions to insure that the original look was not compromised. 

Matching to Preservation Film Elements

Once physical inspection is complete, some OCNs will be discovered to contain areas of concern where the negative is damaged beyond what can be repaired digitally.  In those cases, the preservation elements are brought in and inspected to ensure they can render a quality replacement piece for the OCN.     

In the case of The Godfather, the famous restaurant scene where Michael Corleone shoots the crooked police captain and the rival mafia don was the most problematic.  When originally shot, it was under-exposed by two stops, and the lab was supposed to develop the negative 'up' in order to compensate.  They remembered to do this one night, but forgot on the second night of shooting!  We were able to find the original camera negative on these scenes and digitally correct the error, dropping the corrected scenes into data. 

For other areas of concern, the team was able to reference YCM separation masters that had been made early on and were the same version as the OCN.  However, the separations had been damaged years ago when they had been used to make replacement sections for the OCN.  Some of these replacement scenes were unfortunately the ones needed to be remade for the digital restoration. An Intermediate Positive (IP) existed, but had been altered to make a TV version, and it could not render the scenes required.  This made it necessary in some instances to go back to a Color Reversal Intermediate (CRI) that was made in the early 1980s. 

Scanning - Manipulation - Record-out

Because of the poor physical condition of the negative, the decision was made to use a Spirit II 4K scanner.  This scanner is edge-guided as opposed to a Northlight which is pin-registered and more critical to the condition of the negative. 

Many hours were spent on work stations removing the damage, replacing scenes and color timing while the feature was in data form.  The color timing was matched to the IB print, and according to both Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola's instructions.

A 4K digital screening at Warner Bros. MPI theater with Bob Harris Coppola and the colorist Ian Yarborough for final sign-off took place before the new digitally restored negative was recorded out along with new separation masters and sub-masters for the new DVD release.

Godfather Restored

The restoration was a huge success, and the cinematography of Gordon Willis never looked better!  His lighting may be controversial, but there is a reason he is considered the master of light and dark. 

If you have a copy of The Godfather Blue Ray DVD, look at the end credits and you will see PRO-TEK, a Kodak Company, proudly presented with the names of all those PRO-TEK technicians involved in bringing you this beautifully 'newly restored' masterpiece. 


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