Lee Kline, the Technical Director at The Criterion Collection, was in Italy. He had tracked down and original print of Il Posto, the classic 1961 Ermanno Olmi film, and he needed a digital master of it. The problem? It was far too valuable and delicate to ship to the States, so he had find a local studio to handle the transfer for him.
Sitting down in the lab, the local technician started the process of loading the film up, running it through the incredibly expensive machine to create a 2K super-high-def digital copy for Lee to take back to the States with him. The technician was deftly handling the irreplaceable film and the machine with both hands. All the while, a cigarette dangled from his lips. Lee, neither the owner of the print nor an employee of the lab, could only sit back and bite his tongue, hoping no wayward chunk of smoldering ash would find its way onto the decades-old piece of film. You could call it one tense moment in a film nerd's life.
When you go to the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, you sort of expect it to be a gigantic library. You know, one with lots of dark wood, a fireplace and a globe, complete with a dapper man in a smoking jacket sitting in an overstuffed chair. Instead of books, though, the walls would be lined with some of the greatest films ever made, DVDs that set the bar in terms of image quality and extras and packaging and liner notes. Criterion is the undisputed champ in all these things, yet the Criterion offices are simple, its walls adorned only with a collection of movie posters and framed letters from directors. There is a lovely screening room with a gigantic screen and projector setup, and there are edit suites, but it doesn't feel like you are entering into a world belonging to film historians. Until you talk to the historians.
Essentially, the people at Criterion are a combination of film geeks and A/V nerds, equally excited at the prospect of getting a great print of a classic Fellini film as they are about creating a killer 5.1 surround sound audio track.
These people act as a curator and a publisher, hand-selecting a wide variety of films, mostly foreign, classics and indies. They painstakingly create the definitive digital version of that film, completely restoring both the audio and video, gathering up the most complete supplementary features available and releasing it all in beautiful packaging. It's a film buff's dream.
The Criterion staff gathers their own supplementary features themselves, travelling to find talent and record original interviews and audio commentary tracks, finding scholars to write essays and gathering up any additional footage or video that they can find.
It's an incredible company, responsible not only for introducing hundreds of films to audiences who would otherwise have no other way to access them, but also pioneers who helped introduce many DVD features we take for granted now, such as commentary tracks, elaborate special editions and even letter boxing. And now they're preparing to deliver innovation to a new format: Blu-ray. And man, are they excited about it.
David Phillips, who works on DVD Development for Criterion, told me that "We're offering people the ability to see what is essentially 95% of the visual quality of our high-definition tape masters, something that we've dreamed of for a long time." After all, these guys have been working with digital masters that clock in at about 2K resolution for some time, which is far higher than HD. "As good as standard-def DVD looks, we've been looking at these HD images for so long and feeling like it's a shame that we can't share this." HD is the way most of these films are meant to be seen, and the people at Criterion get visibly excited when talking about the possibilities.
But with that huge uptick in resolution for the consumer, Criterion is faced with a lot of problems that they didn't have when their masters were converted to standard definition for DVD. After all, they're often dealing with old films, created before there was fancy low-grain filmstock and digital processing. And with the technology they have today, how much restoration and processing is too much?
Really, the mission of Criterion is "trying to replicate the original experience of seeing that movie when it was first released," according to Phillips. While they certainly have the ability to process old films until they look like they were shot on a DV cam, that's not the goal.
"Grain reduction has become such an industry standard that people, when they see grain, they think it's a problem rather than what film looks like. Film is a physical medium that has this grain structure to it," says Phillips. That being said, they realise that consumers buying restored HD films on Blu-ray are expecting near-pristine quality prints. It's a tough balance to strike. Essentially, "it's trying to stay on the side of not overprocessing but not leaving so much film artifact that it's distracting from getting engaged in the film."
So how do they go about getting a film prepped for Blu-ray? Well, they start with the best version available, be that a camera negative, a positive or a print, depending on the qualities available. Most of the time, they need to travel to the negative rather than having it shipped to them, especially if it's an original print. So if it's a Kurosawa film, they go to Japan; if it's a Truffaut film they go to France; and if it's an Olmi film, well, they go to Italy.
Once they get their hands on the film, they use Thomson's Spirit DataCine to digitise the print at a local facility. If available, they'll try to get the director to consult on the colour of the print, making sure it's accurate to the original as they digitise it to tape in 2K—sometimes even 4K—resolution. Once done, they have their tape master, which they then can bring back to their headquarters to begin the restoration.
Once they have their master back at their offices, it goes through what they call the restoration workflow, which involves painstakingly restoring both the audio and video frame by frame. For video, this involves using a system called MTI Film, which allows a technician to go through the film and not only remove dirt and edit marks, but also fix warped frames and things of that nature. This isn't some automated procedure, either. It involves a technician sitting at an edit station with a stylus going frame by frame, ensuring that each one looks as good as possible. With two shifts a day working on a film, it still takes weeks to get through this part of the process.
For audio, they work in ProTools HD to both create surround-sound audio tracks as well as to clean up the original audio. They often get prints with extremely hissy or distorted mono tracks, so much like with the picture, they need to go through with a fine tooth comb and clean it all up. Their goal, according to Kline, is to "create a track with the original acoustics, bringing it back to clean and straightforward mono that sounds crisp and clear." I stood in while an audio technician was working on the opening of Lars Von Trier's Europa (due on DVD in December), and the difference between the original print's audio and the restored audio made the narration and the sound effects resonate much more without feeling like the original had been sterilised.
What about films they've already restored for DVD? Can they just be released on Blu-ray without much extra effort? Unfortunately, not usually. The good news is that once they've done their tape master, they have a high-def copy of it on hand and don't need to re-transfer the original print. The bad news is that once they got those masters, half of the process needs to be done again because the original restorations were just done in standard definition. Making a quick rerelease of all of Criterion's films to Blu-ray something that just isn't going to happen.
Once they've finished their process, though, it's like viewing a film for the first time. I got a chance to sit in on a quality-control screening of their restoration of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. A scene in a crowded marketplace seemed to jump off the screen, and the surround sound perfectly placed the bustling sounds of the market behind me while keeping the dialogue front-and-centre. I felt like I was in a theatre in Hong Kong, watching the first, perfect print of the movie when it was first released. It was breathtaking.
These are the releases that film buffs have been upgrading their home theatre setups for. After all, the best way to take advantage of thousands of dollars of AV gear is to give it material pulled carefully from the source.
Criterion is releasing its first Blu-ray films in November, starting with The Third Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Last Emperor, Bottle Rocket and Chungking Express. They plan to release two films a month in Blu-ray next year, with HD releases ramping up as sales shift from DVD to Blu-ray. [Criterion Collection]