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
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?
RAH: That was for the laser
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
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
RAH: And you produced the old
NP: Yes. I supervised the 1991
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
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
RAH: It's even creeping into
the facial tonalities.
RAH: The other thing that I
noticed in that transfer is that the registration is all over the
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
RAH: The separations on main
titles should be fourth generation.
NP: The rest of the show is
RAH: I assume you have a
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
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
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.
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
NP: My pleasure.
I've had to remove some information that Ned and I discussed
regarding some upcoming projects, hence the rather seemingly abrupt
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.
HERE to discuss this interview with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum.