Restoration, Remastering and Preservation at Universal.
Peter Schade, vice president of content management, NBCUniversal, sat down with Community Line to speak about the ongoing restoration efforts at Universal Studios.While restoration and preservation are of core importance to Universal Studios, it really does take a small village of artists to make sure Universal films are around for generations to come.
Thank you for speaking with Community Line. Peter, tell me, how did you get into the restoration business in the first place?
Well, I graduated with a broadcasting degree and I always wanted to get into the creative aspect of filmmaking. Editing was always one of my passions and as a kid I used to make 8mm movies with my brother.
So, after college in 1989, I started with Turner Entertainment when Ted Turner had just bought the MGM collection, and my job was to get those films ready to air on TBS, TNT, and at the time a very young and burgeoning Turner Classic Movies.So, I left the editing and creative side and started focusing on managing content. That experience then led me to a job with Worldvision, distributing Spelling TV shows internationally, and I ultimately ended up with Universal in 1999.
You must have overseen a great number of restorations and remasterings for Universal?
Can you help us understand the difference between the two?
Well, with remastering, you have the basic film element, and it’s in pretty good shape, so ultimately what you’re doing is updating it. It’s really about bringing it up to the technical standards of today to ensure that the film will live on, now and into the future.
Whereas, with restoration, think of it like restoring a car.You may have to patch holes in the fenders, or repaint it, or you might have to find parts from other cars, because the parts you need are missing.That’s what restoring a film is like: we’re trying to bring it back to the way it originally screened, and it’s an exciting process but it’s a lot more work.We often find ourselves utilizing multiple film elements, and reassembling things that are missing as well as using digital tools to fix things like dirt and scratches and chemical stains.
Is it true Universal restored two versions of Dracula?
Yes, as part of the 2012 Centennial celebration, we made a commitment to restore a film a month, but we actually ended up doing 13 because the 1931 Dracula was shot twice.
Yes, there were two different versions shot at the exact same time for the 1931 release, one in English and one in Spanish. So, during the day, they shot in English, and then at night they shot the same script but in Spanish and with a different director and an entirely different cast. As part of the Centennial celebration, we thought it was important to restore both.
I heard that to finish the Spanish version of Dracula you had to search out of the country, is that common?
Yes.See, in the 1920’s and even into the 40’s there really wasn’t an ancillary use for films after their initial theatrical run. The longevity of film wasn’t considered as important as it is today where we can repurpose the film for home entertainment, TV, streaming, and stuff like that, so there wasn’t an emphasis put on preservation like there is today.
So, what we find with old films, the original film elements are either missing, significantly damaged, or they’ve been recut.In other words, the film was originally aired in a large market with a certain run time, but then was put in a smaller market and they wanted to run it as a double feature, so it was cut for time and elements were completely removed from the original negative, which is unthinkable today.So often we find more complete versions of our films in international archives especially with very old movies.
In fact, part of our process when restoring movies is to do worldwide searches with well-known archives and collections, including the Library of Congress as well as the national film archives in Belgium, France, and Holland etc…But we look in those places because we want to find the best and most complete material for our restorations.
So, for Dracula that took you where?
To Cuba, actually.While we used the original camera negative for the restoration, when it came to reel three, we achieved better results by using a print obtained from Cinemateca de Cuba in 1991.
Have you found other films in unexpected places?
Oh, we have definitely found interesting things.One of the Marx Brothers films we restored, Animal Crackers, was affected by the Hays Code.
Before the Hays Code, some films contained some pretty racy stuff, for the time period at least, but after the code, it was decided some elements didn’t meet the standard of decency for public consumption, so required that those ‘offending parts’ be edited out.
In our search for Animal Crackers film elements, we discovered one in Europe that was 1:16 seconds longer than the versions we had previously seen. In it, we found a handful of scenes that were part of the uncut version.There were new Harpo physical comedy bits, including a moment where he smacks a lady on her back-side with a newspaper, which however tame today, was not considered appropriate at the time.
It’s always so fun to find stuff like this and be able to put it back into the movie and show something to people that they likely have never seen at all.
That’s so unexpected.Out of curiosity, how many films have you restored since the Centennial commitment?
We are so appreciative that Universal continues to invest in restoration and provide budget for us to restore these films.By my count since our Centennial, we have restored 76 ‘talkies’ and 19 silent films.
How do you decide which films to restore? Is it because some of them are deteriorated to a point that time is pressing, or do you pick films that are important to the studio and the community?
Part of our mandate is to preserve the entire library of films, so we have policies in place that have us going through the library all the time, searching for things that are in decay or wearing out. There is a general preservation budget to deal with things like Vinegar Syndrome.
Film consists of a plastic backing and a photochemical emulsion that reacts to the light to create the picture.Well, the plastic backing, it’s made of acetate, and over time it tends to break down, so if it is not stored properly, it will literally turn to dust. This specific film stock was used in the 1950’s and into the early 80’s, so that’s a condition the film community is well aware of and over time, we migrate film to digital.That’s preservation. We also make multiple copies and we store those copies in geographically separated locations all over the country. So, in case there is a local disaster, there are copies far removed, to preserve the library.
But back to your question about restoration, we obviously can’t restore every film, so we have a committee of technical folks, marketing folks and film historians who together take into consideration several factors, among them are: Is a given film of great historical significance? Is the film approaching a major anniversary? Is there some overall theme that we’re trying to convey?Are there significant filmmakers or actors we’re trying to highlight?So, we consider all those factors.
So, once a film is picked, how many people does it take to restore it?
The exact number varies given what we have to do. My team provides a supervisor who picks the film elements, coordinators, researchers, and inspectors so there are six or seven people involved on every project. And then for almost all these restorations we do the work at our on the lot post facility, NBCUniversal StudioPost, and these are the artists who do the restorative work.They’ll have their own team, a manager and a colorist, editors that have to rebuild the movie, technical artists that do digital scratch removal and dust busting, so honestly every film takes between 15-20 artists.And, we tend to work on three or four titles at once.
Wow, what a commitment.Thank you so much for your time and sharing a little bit with Community Line about film restoration at Universal.