When the great stage star Sarah Bernhardt agreed to appear in a film version of Queen Elizabeth in 1912, she is said to have remarked, “This is my one chance of immortality.” From its beginnings, film has been promoted as a sort of cultural amber that can capture life and preserve it for the ages. In truth, nothing lasts forever, and though film and video can arrest moments in time, those moments may prove to be only slightly less fleeting than the eye-blink in which they first occurred. Dirt, scratches, film breaks, sprocket tears, mold and fungus, color fading and chemical decomposition all conspire to limit the permanence of the motion-picture image.
20th Century Fox’s The Sand Pebbles marks its 40th anniversary this year, and as it moved into middle age, Schawn Belston, vice president of film preservation at Fox, discovered the picture was in need of some TLC. Released as a road-show attraction in 1966, the film features cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, ASC, who photographed the picture in 35mm anamorphic for blowup to 70mm for its prime engagements. Through the years, the negative had suffered the usual indignities that time, handling and printing can inflict; there were tape-repaired tears, faded dupe sections for opticals and to replace a damaged sequence, and a bit of color fading and some dirt that defied surface cleaning.
Directed by Robert Wise and based on a 1962 novel by Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles was something of a box-office disappointment during its initial release, but has come to be regarded as an enduring Hollywood classic. The project provided Steve McQueen with one of his finest roles as U.S. Navy ship’s engineer Jake Holman, who, along with the other crewmembers of the U.S.S. San Pablo, embarks upon a “show-the-flag” mission in China in 1926. Holman’s cynical outlook on life begins to change when his ship is sent on a mission to rescue some American missionaries. (A bastardization of San Pablo, the “sand pebbles” of the title refer to the ship’s crewmembers.)
The Sand Pebbles was in no danger of becoming a “lost film.” In addition to the original camera negative, there were backup elements — an Eastmancolor interpositive and black-and-white color separation masters had been made in the 1960s — but as is often the case, these elements did not retain the full visual quality inherent in the original camera negative.
Fox decided to give The Sand Pebbles a digital facelift at Ascent Media’s new Digital Media Data Center in Burbank. Designed by Kevin Sanders, Ascent’s chief technology officer, and located on Hollywood Way, the facility is a 100,000-square-foot “super” post house. Much of it looks familiar — edit bays, machine rooms, telecine and scanning facilities — but everything is on a grand scale. The heart of the center is Prod-Net, Ascent’s proprietary digital-production network, which offers a fully integrated, secure file-based workflow through all phases of post, from image capture to output in any video or film format, from HD to DVD to digital intermediates. The facility also offers digital-cinema capabilities for clients who contract with Ascent to provide that service.
Ascent scanned the original negative for The Sand Pebbles at 4K (4096x3112 pixels per frame) using a Northlight 1 pin-registered film scanner to 10-bit Cineon files. The scanning process takes about seven seconds per frame, and it took 20-30 hours to create the 4K digital files for each reel. The 13 reels of The Sand Pebbles required close to 14 terabytes of disk storage space.
Using the Quantel iQ4 system with Pablo, colorist David Bernstein made a first pass for rough color correction and restoration of the heavier image damage, and removed the reel-end “change-over” cues that were physically punched into the original negative. “The iQ box is a combination of everything Quantel has made over the last 30 years, so there’s a bit of Harry, Henry Paintbox, Editbox and all that stuff,” says Bernstein. “It’s all resolution-independent, so I can bring any resolution from standard definition to 4K into the system, mix and match any of those on the timeline, and output them at any resolution.”
After Bernstein’s initial color-correction and image-restoration steps, the digital files were sent to a contract facility in India for dustbusting. This process removed more than just embedded dirt; the visible, thin-line CinemaScope splice marks were also removed.
“The scans come out kind of flat,” says Bernstein. “Some of the stuff coming out of the scanner looks fairly normal in terms of color balance, [but it’s] very flat. Some of it is [also] heavily biased toward red or green, resulting from different film stocks that the scanner might not have been calibrated for, so I added contrast and balanced the shot-to-shot color variations. I did that so the people doing the dust cleanup could more easily see the white specks, but this sort of broad color correction could also be applied using a lookup table at the cleanup workstation. I think we’ll set it up that way in the future.
“What I did in the initial pass was create a consistent look and eliminate the biases. If there’s a shot where we all of a sudden cut from one scene to a dupe of that scene for an optical, like a dissolve, and the color shifts dramatically between those two elements, I built in a balance there for the first pass. It made my work a little easier when I went back to do the final color pass, giving an overall consistent look to the reel, even though there wasn’t a true shot-by-shot color timing until the end.”
When the dustbusting is complete, Bernstein will make a final pass for color correction and quality control before doing the final transfer to 35mm. For the final color correction, he will compare his timing of the 4K files to a 35mm print of The Sand Pebbles that was made as a color reference from the original negative at Ascent’s Cinetech film laboratory. Fox’s goal is to create a new 35mm negative and separation masters that will retain the image quality inherent in the original camera negative and provide for archival preservation.
Although Bernstein is correcting obvious flaws in the surviving material, he is avoiding any sort of heavy image processing or grain reduction. “It’s not my intention to do any of that,” he says. “To begin with, there’s not a lot of grain structure to The Sand Pebbles, and it looks pretty good. There are a number of grain-reducing tools I could throw at it that would involve additional rendering, but film has a grain structure, and I like to keep as much of that as necessary to maintain the look of film. That’s something Fox is concerned about as well.
“Ultimately,” he continues, “Ascent will deliver a new 35mm negative, an answer print, the HD deliverables — three hi-def masters in different aspect ratios of 2.35:1, 1.78:1 and 4-by-3 — and the 4K data files that were used to create the negative, probably stored on LTO-3 tape, or whatever format Fox wants.” With this new restoration, The Sand Pebbles will be set for a return to active duty and live to fight for another 40 years or more.