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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

A Robert A. Harris Interview:
Warner's Ned Price on The Searchers


There are currently discussions swirling around the web about the look of the new DVDs of The Searchers, and I know only a few absolute facts. We know that the original VistaVision negative is fully faded and unusable; that the original dye transfer (matricy) prints were further modified via that process from what was contained in the Oneg, and that the process itself changed between the time that film originally ran theatrically and the period in which further dye transfer prints were produced. Lastly, without a viable negative, everything must now be derived from black & white separation masters, which were never tested, and probably never examined until the early 1990s.

I thought it best to go direct to the source for answers. Ned Price, Vice President of Mastering, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, was kind enough to take the time to discuss the film's problems.

Allow me to make one personal note before we begin. I've known Ned Price for quite a number of years. We occasionally share ideas and have a good working relationship and mutual respect. We also occasionally agree to disagree, also with positive collegial regard. In all the years that I've known Ned, he has never provided misinformation or disinformation. He stands by his decisions, acknowledges errors, and strives for perfection in representing the studio and the library in his care. What this means is that when he gives me specific information regarding a film element, it is not in corporate speak. It is always forthright and in plain English. The studio, and cinephiles everywhere, are fortunate to have him in place.

Robert Harris (The Digital Bits): Do you know whether the separation masters were produced on 5216 or 5235.

Ned Price: I did not get a chance to check the stock code when the seps were scanned, but I do know they were not produced in 1955 or 56, but about two years after the theatrical, and for some reason were manufactured optically rather than by contact. The seps consisted of 48 of A/B rolls.

RAH: That would create a bit more contrast and grain. For whatever reason, some productions were done optically. My Fair Lady was one. The 65mm seps were created optically and had continuous optical holes in them.

[Note: It was the norm, probably up until the early to mid-1990s that separation masters were produced, delivered and never removed from the cans. There was no testing, and today one never knows what is going to be found when those cans are opened.]

RAH: What year was the original transfer done?

NP: 1991.

RAH: That was for the laser disc, basically?

NP: That's correct. Yes.

RAH: Revisiting the earlier DVD I noticed that skies that are a normal blue in the new transfer are a rich, Technicolored blue in the 1991 version. Did you create the blue? Did you add it at that time?

NP: The element that we used for transfer at that period in time was a 4 perf dupe negative derived from the 8 perf YCM separation masters.

RAH: So it was optically produced, so you full grain, you all of the scratches, all of the YCM dirt, all of the positive dirt...

NP: Precisely. And it was also a reduction from 8-perf to 4 perf.

RAH: So it was the worst of all worlds.

NP: Correct. And it also had cross-contamination of the color because of the stock. The seps were reasonably good, but we were making a combined dupe at that time, and an optical as well. So we weren't dealing with pure component color.

RAH: And you produced the old transfer.

NP: Yes. I supervised the 1991 transfer.

RAH: Why at that time did you feel that it needed the Technicolor blue skies, and now it appears that you're changing your mind, and saying "Let's make it look natural."

NP: The new master was created directly from the separation masters. It provided us with component color information, that provided better color imagery and more control in the color correction process. I've learned a lot about color timing since 1991, and frankly none of the 1991 masters would look the same if I were to supervise them today.

In 1991 we were working in 525 resolution, and it was very typical to crank enhancement as far as you could go, just to make the picture seem sharp in low resolution. We also exaggerated color far too much in that transfer; we do have blue skies, but also ended up with blue highlights and blue lowlights, and some blue creeping into the mid-range.

RAH: It's even creeping into the facial tonalities.

NP: Exactly.

RAH: The other thing that I noticed in that transfer is that the registration is all over the place.

NP: Yes. We were able to correct the registration errors through the Ultra-Rez process.

RAH: Now I believe that you and I will agree that the dye matricy process, even in the mid-'50s, hyped color incredibly and those blue skies were not that blue in the original negative in 1955-56.

NP: People have to remember that Searchers is not a Technicolor three-strip film. This is 1956 single strip EK film, which had very poor color reproduction capability. Technicolor dye transfer release printing process salvaged quite a few of these early single-strip films by printing three-strip units from the EK and re-coloring them, so to speak.

For instance, in East of Eden, you have Julie Harris' dress, which is a very washed out yellow, and in the Technicolor print it's more of a yellow/organdy which is quite nice looking. And she has color in her cheeks, and in the monopack film, she's just sort of a pale gray.

RAH: So literally what they were doing was backing it into the matrices.

NP: Exactly.

RAH: That's actually what we did on the prints of Rear Window to get Jimmy Stewart's pajamas tracking in anywhere near the same color shot to shot. Eastman was just horrible for continuity in 1953.

Let's discuss the skies a bit further.

NP: Well, there are definitely gray skies, and there are brown skies, which were inherent in the negative, and subsequently the seps, and also shot to shot and cut to cut we're going from hard blue skies to, brown sky, and then back to a hard blue sky... this is due to weather conditions and is inherent in the original photography.

RAH: It's not going to cut. There's no way that you can make it cut.

NP: No. And there's no way that you can force that, if this information is not in the original negative.

Our color reference was the studio dye matricy print of the year of release; this was the studio's color reference print, not just a general release print off the shelf.

RAH: So it was literally the Studio Print.

NP: Studio reference, yes. And actually it was a gorgeous print. As we know with Tech prints, just because it's a dye matricy print doesn't mean that the color is right on, and you wouldn't want to follow it blindly. But this print was quite good in terms of color correction; we referenced the day-for-nights shots as well as color. The print provided a few surprises as a lot of the shots that we thought might have been fixed or hyped in the Tech print process were not. Technically, I understand why the shots were not enhanced as they didn't have the material in the negative to start.

So, for instance, when there's no cloud detail and the sky is gray or brown, there's nothing to grab on to, to reproduce that color or to force it.

RAH: Obviously, you have to have something to begin with.

NP: Correct. It wasn't the case of the camera negative just fading to a point at which it had disappeared, it just wasn't there to begin with.

RAH: The only real negative point for me about the SD DVD, and I haven't seen the HD yet, is the scene at the end we're we cut between the rescue column and Scar's camp, where the day for night and the densities just don't seem to track from shot to shot.

NP: Correct. The day for night shots don't and frankly can't track due to limitations in the current electronic process. Day for night was typically shot early morning as that lighting provided the most effective "fake" when the heavy blue tints were applied in the dye transfer print process. Unfortunately the early morning shoots would extend later and later into the afternoon, and the sun would create hard shadows and flat surrounding areas and when you've got a flat image that's brightly lit it's really difficult to make it look like night. Even though you crush the image and impose black levels, it has a different feeling to it and appears more artificial. There is not a true gradation of white to black in the image.

RAH: Probably the only one that really bothered me was cutting back to the column with Ward Bond after we leave Scar's camp. It's a minute later and suddenly we're in full bright daylight. Why could that one just have been pulled down and darkened?

NP: Well you can crush it, but it's not going to appear any darker. At some point in time, you reach a point where you simply don't have enough luminance in your signal to carry chroma, and you have to reach a trade off. I'm not opposed to just slamming something into the blacks, and reaching what, as you know are "illegal" video levels, if the intention of what the image is supposed to carry comes across, but if we slam it and don't get anything that's any better, we go back to what we refer to as "legal" levels.

RAH: Now you've obviously seen the HD and I haven't.

NP: Many times.

RAH: Probably ad nuaseum at this point.

NP: Yes...

RAH: Do you feel that the image is carried better in that version?

NP: Actually, they're a good match. There really shouldn't be any difference between the high def and the standard def in the color imagery. It will definitely make a difference on the monitoring display whether you're viewing it on a 525 CRT, or high definition rear projection or plasma.

RAH: As a point of reference, on the original negative, was it only the yellow layer that was down or were the cyan and magenta down also?

NP: It was just the yellow layer, but it wasn't just down, it had completely collapsed, which is unfortunate. Usually, with a negative of this era and stock, you can work from the camera negative, and electronically work to pull back the collapsed dye layer, but not on the Searchers negative. I've pulled this camera negative out on at least six different occasions... every time there's a new technology, or color correction becomes stronger we try to pull color from the remaining information in the camera negative, and we've been unsuccessful to date.

RAH: Have you been reading any of the comments on line, and if so, do you take them seriously.

NP: We absolutely take them seriously. From what I've been able to deduce, people have been using the 1991 transfer as a reference, and it is in no way a reference. Believe me, I was there. We had very limited color correction capabilities.

RAH: How about the dye transfer print. How blue were the skies in that?

NP: Realize that there are brilliant blue skies in the original Technicolor print. Very brilliant skies of blue. But unfortunately we cut to the sequence where there's nothing to be had in the sky. I was surprised by how much the Technicolor dye matricy mimicked the original negative. Again, I think we're talking about the inability to pull stuff out of a negative if it's not in the negative itself.

RAH: I had a print that was made, I'd say, 1961, 1962, somewhere in that era. It was a 16, and that had brilliant blue skies, but that was after they changed the chemistry. But in scenes where there weren't blue skies...

NP: For time of day it seems as if they might have shot at night or in the day when there might be some kind of cover. I don't know, I can't say. I wasn't there. And again, we're talking about cut-backs that just don't match because they go from brilliant blue to nothing.

RAH: Even Mr. Ford worked on a budget.

NP: Even Mr. Ford couldn't control the weather, unfortunately. The reason I think people are using references... I think someone took a still image of the main title because...

RAH: The bricks.

NP: They weren't purple, unlike the 1991 transfer. They were a rusty orange, clay color, and the lighting changes color thematically from dawn to dusk becoming warmer then darker.

RAH: Really?

NP: Yes. You'll notice it starts seeping orange in a corner and then it subsides again. Sort of day happening through the credits.

RAH: I never noticed that.

NP: See? You've got something to look forward to then.

RAH: My assumption in looking at the credits is what you would go for is a pure, rich black and a pure, rich red, and then the background would just fall into place.

NP: Correct. And that's your starting point. But you know the raw camera negative was never timed to what it would appear on screen.

RAH: It's also a dupe.

NP: Yeah, but it's a starting point. From there you start building the colors used in the theatrical release.

RAH: The separations on main titles should be fourth generation.

NP: The rest of the show is second.

RAH: I assume you have a textless.

NP: No.

RAH: So that didn't survive.

NP: No it did not.

RAH: The comp would have been third generation. The separations would have been fourth generation... It was cleaned up beautifully. Occasionally you'll see a red splotch or something go through, but the horizontal lines which are in the 1991 version are gone. There are virtually no registration problems for, what, two and a half hours. I think it's beautiful, but hey, what do I know?

NP: I hope in not too many years from now we'll have technology available to us and can achieve even better color control. There are things I would like to change in the transfer, of course, that we had limited capability to do now.

RAH: Such as?

NP: Correct the poor color characteristics of the 1956 camera negative. I would like to reach in and isolate color better. For instance, somebody grabbed a still shot on the Internet of the older woman, she's outside, and she's got a very hard highlight on her face.

RAH: I saw that. All of the facial tones are off.

NP: Correct. Now, her face is literally gray in the camera negative, and you can color it and you can tweak it as they did in the color print, but since there is still a little color information due to the 1956 stock, you can't quite grab onto the grey in her face and isolate it from the grey in the remaining image.

RAH: Are you saying the camera negative as it is now, or the camera negative as it was in 1955?

NP: As it was in 1955. As it was shot.

RAH: So in the seps her face is coming out grey.

NP: Correct. And that replicates what the camera negative was. Now if induce I force it, then she's going to come out magenta.

RAH: And so is everything else. What did she look like in the dye transfer?

NP: She was blown-out as well and is pink -- she was close to how we colored it, as we're using the dye transfer as a reference.

RAH: Okay.

NP: I wish every shot was as lovely as the shots of the Indian "Sky", for some reason all his shots are perfectly balanced.

I'm really glad that there's healthy controversy and discussion about our new master. I think it's great people feel so strongly about these films and the way that they should look because it keeps us in check, and I welcome that.

The forums makes for great discussion and debate, and it gets people thinking about the films. I welcome the feedback, I really do. It does help the cause of making these films look absolutely right.

RAH: Ned, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of the questions that have been floating around. I know precisely how difficult it is to do what you're doing.

NP: My pleasure.

---END---

I've had to remove some information that Ned and I discussed regarding some upcoming projects, hence the rather seemingly abrupt end.

I have learned something tangentially while putting this piece together, that I find extremely exciting. When The Adventures of Robin Hood arrives not too far in the future in HD, it will have, among other extras, the Looney Tunes that were part of the 2003 SD release, now fully restored from the original SE negatives and, like the feature, will be in high definition. The release should be the first classic film in 1.37 to arrive in HD, and the premiere of Looney Tunes in HD. An Event coming sooner than some may think.

Robert Harris

CLICK HERE to discuss this interview with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum.


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