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Chat Transcript:
Fox's Schawn Belston on HTF

The following is a complete transcript of the on-line chat with Fox restorationist Schawn Belston on the new Blu-ray release of The Robe, held on Monday, March 16th on The Home Theater Forum. Thanks to Ron Epstein, Parker Clack, Robert Crawford and everyone at HTF for all their hard work, and for providing the transcript for all to read. Enjoy!

Home Theater Forum

Subject: Live Chat with Schawn Belston
Date: Monday, March 16, 2009

RonEpstein: It is our pleasure to Welcome Schawn Belston to our chat this evening. Schawn is VP Of Library and Technical Services Fox Home Entertainment. I am certain everyone here is familiar with his work over the years. He has restored such classics as All That Jazz, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles and many more. Schawn, Welcome!

Schawn: Thanks, Ron. Thanks for having me!

RonEpstein: Back in October of last year about 60 members of Home Theater Forum were invited out to Fox studios to meet with many of the experts who work in the Home Entertainment division. You were one of the individuals who took time out to talk with us. We were shown footage from the original film elements of THE ROBE, and I must say it looked pretty awful. It was washed out and full of visible damage. You then showed us a few minutes of that footage restored, and everyone in the audience was just amazed by what they saw. What you have done with this film is nothing short of dramatic. Now, I know you worked with Lowry Digital in restoring this film. I remember something you told all of us at Fox last October which was that this kind of restoration could not have been done just a few years back. Could you explain that a little more to everyone please?

Schawn: Sure!

Schawn: I've been responsible for our library for a little over 10 years, and in that time we've worked on "The Robe" twice before. The first attempt was strictly photochemical, using traditional techniques and preservation elements. The result was so-so at best. The second attempt was a hybrid, mainly photochemical, with some digital testing---at that time (2002-2003) we decided that the digital techniques weren't advanced enough to fix our problems with The Robe. So, when this title came up as a possibie Blu-Ray title, we decided to visit it again...and remarkably, digital restoration technology has advanced so much over the last few years, we were all shocked at the results of Lowry's initial tests.

RonEpstein: It looks remarkable. I think people are going to be blown away by what they see tomorrow.

Schawn: Thanks, Ron!

RonEpstein: I am going to open up the floor to questions

SimonHowson: Thank you to Fox and HTF for organising this. Thanks to Fox for all the wonderful CInemaScope films already released on DVD. I note that the webpage mentions that both the CinemaScope and flat (non-CinemaScope) versions of The Robe were going to be released. Is the flat version going to be released at a latter date? or would that also require extensive restoration work?

Schawn: The flat version of "The Robe" is the PiP functionality on the is occasionally interrupted by narrators and explanation, but is mostly complete. As part of the restoration of the movie, we also preserved the original camera neg of the flat version, as well as the track, and made a new master. I don't know about any plans to release the flat version alone or on DVD, but I can't say definitively, as I am not the guy making those decisions...

JamesGarner: Is the Robe blu-ray faithful to the original directional L/C/R audio? this is a feature i'd like to see on future fox classic blu-rays.

Schawn: Hi James, thanks for the question...Yes, the BD has a really great restored LCRS stereo track (4.0), as well as a 5.1 version for those who want it that way. The audio restoration is quite a story. Shall I tell it?

RonEpstein: Please

Schawn: Like the picture elements, we've long known about a severe issue with all of our existing sound printmasters---they are all copies (and copies of copies), and somewhere along the way, "wow" (an annoying variation in pitch caused during sound transfer) was introduced. This was something that was not really completely fixable in the analog world. Using custom-built digital technique, and a huge amount of processing time, Audio Mechanics in Burbank was able to remove the wow. It was amazing---most notably because I feel like Newman's incredible score really shines now. There was a lot of conversation about the wow and whether or not it existed in the original soundtracks. Some very prominent academics and preservationists with long memories recalled that it was always present, from the original recording. But a mag striped print from the early 50s, badly faded and fairly low-fidelty, does not have the wow. Mystery (maybe) solved.

RonEpstein: Schawn, do you feel that the audio dynamics have been brought up to the same level as the film presentation? Are you as proud of the audio presentation as the video?

Schawn: Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt. As I think James was alluding to, these early 'scope films have a very distinct and (to my ear) wonderful quality. We've worked hard to be as faithful to that as possible...

Schawn: Can I give a quick thanks to the rest of the team that worked on the restoration?

RonEpstein: Absolutely!

Schawn: This restoration was a collaboration between Fox, the Film Foundation, and The Academy Film Archive. My good friend Mike Pogorzelski supervised the restoration with me, and I'd feel bad if I didn't give him proper credit. Also, the Film Foundation is terrific to work for, and do a lot for film preservation...but maybe we can get more into that later if time permits.

RafaelPires: First of all I wanna thank you for the wonderful job you and your team are doing with classic releases. I have all Fox dvd classic releases in the last 6 years and I have not a single thing to complain about. In the contrary just have to praise you for the qualitiy of the transfers and all the wonderful supplements. You are the best! Now for the question: From all the restorations you’ve worked on, do you consider the Robe to be the most difficult?

Schawn: Gee, thanks Rafael...I'm really glad that you like the work we've been doing, and have supported that work by buying the classics DVDs! There is a whole team here at Fox, as well as many great vendors and producers, that all really care about the library and our place in cinema culture...anyway, to your question: I'd say that this is definitely one of the most challenging titles I've worked on, particularly because we've revisited it so many times...I have to say, though, the restoration's hardest part was preparation---the years of testing and so on. Once we had tests we liked and pulled the trigger, things went pretty smoothly. There was still a lot of heavy lifting to do, but with a plan we had lots of help and talented artists to make it happen. I'm a real film lover, a bit of a luddite that I didn't expect to be here telling you that digital restoration is the way to go. But it is pretty incredible.

Christian: What about foreign language audio tracks? Have these been restored or preserved as well? Are they kept in the Fox archives in the USA? I'm from Germany, so I'm very interested in some infos about a possible Blu-ray release of "The Robe" over here.

Schawn: Hi Christian, good question. We do preserve foreign audio tracks whenever we have them, most often they are kept here in the USA, but when we're researching a title, we also look at vaults and Fox home offices around the world. I don't know if there is a plan for a German release of "The Robe", but that doesn't mean there isn't a plan---I just don't know because it is not my responsibility here. As a curious coincidence, maybe, I know that there is a surviving original German track (can't remember at the moment if it is stereo) on "The Robe", because we copied it from a dye transfer print that we had access to for color reference.

SimonHowson: I am wondering if you can explain in detail why The Robe was previously in such poor condition, especially compared to other early CinemaScope films like How to Marry A Millionaire (oh, and I am hoping King of the Khyber Rifles and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef are released by Fox soon!)

Schawn: "The Robe" was a very successful film, as you all probably already know. Like many films, it was in some way physically a victim of its own success. That is to say, it was printed many, many times and handled frequently. Fox used to own Deluxe Laboratories, and until at least the late 80's, they routinely handled and printed original negatives on a regular basis. Older negatives, more fragile, often ran into problems. If the lab cracked up (damaged) a reel, the policy was to replace the offending damaged section with a duplicate negative and throw the damaged bits away. Consequently, "The Robe" original camera negative is an archeology of eastmancolor negative stock types and vintages. We counted, and came up with something like 13 or 14 different generations of elements cut into the neg as replacement sections. You can imagine that some are better than others...a couple of shots still look pretty rough even now, as if they were duped from a bad print almost. Additionally, the bits of the original camera negative that still exists between the many generations of dupe negs are faded significantly. The image structure is great, though---it was really useful to have it there as reference to what the quality of the image originally looked like.

SteveO: Thanks for giving us your time and the wonderful work that you & your team have done with the many classic Fox titles I own. Did you have to search for outside elements for any part of the Robe? If so, how did the search process work? Please keep up the great work. Thanks.

Schawn: Thanks Steve, our pleasure! We did make a search, but because we had the original camera neg as well as various audio printmasters (and original multi-track scoring masters), we were pretty well set to start. Mike Pogo, our collaborator over at the Academy, did an archive search, I believe...Still the only element that we used that wasnt already here at Fox was that German dye transfer print, which belongs to Martin Scorsese. (And he generously loaned it to us for this project!) On other titles, particularly pre-1950 films, we rely more heavily on our archival and collector friends to provide elements.

blimey: Hi Mr Belston, thanks for your time! I am more interested in the process of restoration itself, so the question is: When you mentioned 'preparation'---the years of testing and so on, what kind(s) of test did you actually mean? Can you explain in more detail? Thanks!

Schawn: Hi Blimey, perhaps it is best to start at the beginning. Before testing, we carefully inspect all the elements we've gathered, to ascertain their general quality as well as their physical condition and ability to be used/copied. In this case, The Academy carefully inspected the original negative, making notes of the different stocks used, fixing splices and broken perfs, and generally prepping the element to be scanned or printed. Then, the tests involved all sorts of things over the years. Back in the photochemical days, we'd make lots of tests on various stocks, with various lights and densities to find the optimal way of printing the movie. Now, we make a 4K scan---which means the film only moves through a machine once---and then make all the resulting tests in the digital domain. These tests are pretty extensive---grain level, sharpening (I'm not a fan of any), color correction, color breathing fixes, etc. Then, after we've got tests that look OK on a monitor, we record them out to film to see how they'll look on a big screen projected they way they were originally intended, in 35mm. Based on that, we go back and forth until we're all happy with a general direction, in terms of image quality and color. Interestingly on this project, some of the math that makes it possible to match 3rd or 4th generation elements more closely to original generation elements also introduces some bizarre new we had to be very careful not to push it too far for both aesthetic and purely technical reasons.

SimonHowson: I am wondering what was the master resolution for the restoration (e.g. 2K, 4K?) Has Fox scanned the restored master back to film so that film festivals could rent and show the restored version from film? Or would they have to project it digitally?

Schawn: It was scanned at 4K, then downrezzed to 2K for the restoration. Yes, we recorded a 35mm film negative, back up to 4K, because it actually did make a noticeable difference in testing. The new negative is also slightly letterboxed, so the original 2:55 aspect ratio fits entirely in the modern 2:35 ratio. There is no digital cinema version of "The Robe" as of now, but one could probably project the HD-CAM SR master and get a pretty nice result. The restored film print played at the Rome film festival, and locally here at UCLA.

RolandL: Thank you for restoring this landmark (first film released in CinemaScope) title. Is there a comparison of the audio and video - before and after restoration - on the Blu-ray?

Schawn: Hi Roland, nope, no restoration comparison on this disc. Too bad, in a way, because this is a pretty dramatic difference.

blimey: Mr Belston, According to my knowledge the early CinemaScope films had quite a lot of distortion and out-of-focus (through today's pickier eyes). Did the restoration involved correcting them rather than preserving what we had back in '50? Thanks.

Schawn: Aha, good question! We had a lot of discussion about this issue (also about the matte work in the movie, which is good by 1953 standards, but maybe not as good in 2009). Ultimately, we decided to leave most of these things alone. The Chretien anamorphic attachment was pretty crude, and there is significant distortion on the far left and right edges of the image. The folks at Lowry offered to make test to correct this---and I have little doubt that they couldn't have fixed the problem, they're magicians---but Mike and I decided to leave things the way they were originally. It is important to us, all of us in my opinion, to honor the original artistic achievements of the movie. For the same reason, we left the matte lines...but we did remove the wire rigging on a closeup of Marcellus' sword launching into a tree. It was too jarring, and maybe would have been less visible on vintage prints and projection gear.

SteveO: Mr. Belston, without asking you to reveal any proprietary information, what kind of financial investment did FHE have to make to restore The Robe to its current state? In the midst of these challenging times Fox deserves kudos for funding these restorations (hopefully consumers will respond) Thanks.

Schawn: Haha. Thanks Steve. I probably shouldn't say what this restoration cost. It was among our more expensive projects last year, but I have to say considering the amount of work that goes into projects like these, I think we got a heck of a deal...and having looked around the forum, I can tell you that the number probably isn't as high as you might expect. How's that for evasive?

Schawn: Vote Quimby

Christian: Did I get it right that you only worked with the negative (with the integrated dupes) and used the German dye transfer print for color correction? Aren't there any separation masters available or were they not necessary for the restauration?

Schawn: There are a set of YCM sep masters that were made in 1953. We scanned them at 4K as well, and then digitally recombined them. They were used as the secondary source for picture restoration. The IB print was only screened and then referred to for color reference---particularly the crucifixion and climactic chase at the end.

blimey: Mr Belston, you said the restoration is done in downsized 2K from the 4K scans. What difference would this make (comparing to restoring in 4K) technically? Does this mean if in the future we are moving foward to some Higher-Definition home video medium, the restoration work will have to go all over again (just like what Criterion/Warner's early work is now suffering from)? Thanks.

Schawn: We decided to work in 2K from the 4K scans after testing both a 4K-2K-4K and a 4K-4K-4K path. The 2K step didn't impact image quality to any of our eyes, so we went that way. But in the interest of making the possibility of needing an all-4K version of the movie down the road, we'll archive the 4K scans (unrestored), so at least we'll have them as a starting point if we ever do need to go back again...and, as technology improves, I wouldn't rule that out---not because we need it to be 4K necessarily, but because the image processing tools will hopefully continue to advance and make even greater improvements in the movie. If we have to make another restoration, hopefullly it will be because there are better tools, not only because our 2K is too low-res.

SimonHowson: I have read that in the 1980s The Robe was reissued in Europe in 70mm. Would've this blow-up be made from the original camera negative as well, further wearing it out? Was there anything concerning the production of this film that isn't well known that you learned during the restoration?

Schawn: I've read that too, although interestingly we don't have anything in our files about a 70mm blow up, nor do was have any 70mm elements in the archive here...however, if it is true, it almost certainly would've been made from the original camera negative. Nice, huh? As for production details...let me see...I was most tickled to finally see the 1:33 version, I suppose. Not that it is not widely known to exist, but we didn't realize that we still had the original camera negative of the alternate version. It was mistakenly labeled as a foreign dupe negative. (Well, this label actually makes backwards sense, as when we began inspecting it, we were surprised to see that the original neg was marked for lineup with a spanish optical track neg, presumably for TV.) Also, apparently the blood that Richard Burton gets on his hand at the crucifixion is real blood---not human, of course. It was delivered from a slaughterhouse. Knowing this makes his reaction all the more real.

RolandL: I noticed comparing the original negative frame (from the Lowery web page) to the DVD that a good amount of the negative from both sides is not on the DVD. Is this true for all scope films or just The Robe?

Schawn: Sorry, Roland, not sure I follow. Are you referring to the existing DVD or the new one? And do you mean that the image is cut off on the right and left sides?

Roland: Yes. The new one.

Schawn: Hmm. Well, I know that the HD master is 2.55 LB, which should be exactly the same as the images on the Lowry website... I haven't seen the DVD yet, but I've seen the BD, and it looks correct to me. (Admittedly, I haven't tried to compare it to the framing of the film, but to my eye it looks ok.)

Christian: CinemaScope was first planned with an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 with 4-track audio coming from a seperate 35 mm magnetic print (like Cinerama). I read at, that "The Robe" was shown in 2.66:1 at a preview at 20th Century Fox. Has this print survived? And thanks for presenting your wonderful restored 70mm prints at this years Berlinale. That was marvelous.

Schawn: Nope, this specific dual-system print does not survive. But when we ran the film at the Academy in 2003 (pre-restoration), we ran it full aperture 2.55 with the LCRS audio coming from a separate hard drive---as close to the experience you describe as I've ever seen, but it was still 2.55. It should also be pointed out that the film was meant to be seen on a deeply curved screen, which would have certainly changed the way it looked.

SimonHowson: What was the most time consuming part of restoring The Robe? Was this also the most expensive part? How long did the restoration take from inspecting the film to the Blu-ray and DVD release?

Schawn: The entire process was about 18 months. The most time consuming part of the process was probably the audio processing to remove the wow. The fellow who did the work was only able to process a few seconds of sound at a time, so the whole 134 minutes was a painstaking process. It was the single most expensive component, if you break out each of the image related costs---grain, stability, color, cleanup, etc---into their own category. If you consider all the image processing as one task, it was by far the most expensive part of the process.

Guest57: What is your favorite CinemaScope title in the library and why (if it's THE ROBE)?

Schawn: First generation 'Scope, or just regular 'Scope? That is, 1953-57 or just Cinemascope in general...

Guest57: I think First generation 'scope.

Schawn: Bigger Than Life. Because it is a great use of CinemaScope, but moreover it is a really awesome and sadly underappreciated film.

SimonHowson: I know this chat is about The Robe, but I am wondering if Fox is considering restoring Demetrius & THe Gladiators, considering it is a sequel to The Robe? I want to give you a special congratulations for White Feather (1955) which looks amazing on DVD.

Schawn: Not sure what Home Entertainment's plan for "Demetrius" is, but I'm with you---it would make a great companion to "The Robe", and is a lot of fun. (Also, it's been restored!) Glad you like White Feather...another great movie.

SteveO: You mentioned restoration took 18 months. With rapidly changing technologies, do you ever have to "go back" and redo something b/c of better processes that had developed?

Schawn: Yes, we've definitely revisited some of our earliest digital work...I'm grateful to say that so far it hasn't evolved so quickly we've had to revisit it before it was finished. But some of yesterday's state of the art CG restoration looks pretty lame today. (Meet me back here in 5 years and we'll revisit this work on "The Robe"---I hope it stands up to the test of time.)

RonEpstein: Schawn, we will get back to you in just a moment...

RonEpstein: As you are all aware THE ROBE comes out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. However, Fox has been generous enough to supply us with a few copies of THE ROBE on BD and sDVD. And I can tell you that all of you in this chat room right now will receive a copy on either format. We wish to thank Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment for supplying these DVDs and Blu-Rays to our attendees.

RonEpstein: At this time Parker and I would like to thank our guest this evening, Schawn Belston. You have been a familiar name and huge supporter of our forum for years and we thank you.

Schawn: Thank you guys! I appreciate your support!

ParkerClack: Schawn. Thanks for coming by and for all the great work you do.

RonEpstein: Schawn, you are welcome back to chat to promote all future projects. Hopefully we can convince Fox to do a general studio chat in the near future.

Schawn: I look forward to talking again. Thanks guys, really good questions.

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