What started out as helping the US military colorise some black and white movies lead Bob Sackter to a career in post production, restoring and color correcting Golden Age Hollywood films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954).
Sackter confesses when he started out ‘it was easier to move up in the world because I showed interest and they at least give me a chance. Now, you have to have a master’s degree just to come in and be in QC (Quality Control). But when they gave me my shot, I would work my shift that was 8-4 and then I worked from 4 to midnight for free, for nine months, working upstairs as a colorist assist. After I was able to prove myself, I started working as a colorist on the night shift, and then I asked every question to anybody who would listen’.
Back in those days, the new colorists were often given foreign language prints to work on. They were generally pretty beat up, and it was usually good enough that there was sound and picture on the master, as we usually had a shift or two to complete.
And so began Sackter’s love for working on classic movies; although there was a brief affair in television (that offered more security working on grading shows like Survivor (2000-2011), The Apprentice USA (2004-2011), and Jersey Shore (2009-2012)) Sackter always found his way back to the technicolor era of cinema.
‘I think what turns me off on the newer movies is they’re all CGI now, there’s very few movies that are shot straight up. I remember working on a movie from the 40s with a three minute monologue by an actor, and there wasn’t one cut, just one shot following them around and it’s amazing that people could do that’.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
At Turner, Sackter got involved with Technicolor which led him to work on restoring The Wizard of Oz. The original version was shot on a Technicolor three-strip camera system, which used a split-cube prism to expose three independent strips of film that would capture either red, green or blue, and the film is one of the first and as such most famous for using this process. So the team went back to the original separation, and laid them back together to make a new IP.
Most of the film was in good condition, but ‘some of the dissolves are really rough, the opticals could be two, three, four layers deep and they get really noisy, so the grain structure would get really bad. We couldn’t do what we do now – I wish I could have had the tech now back then’.
Nowadays, Sackter is a fan of Phoenix for restoring projects, praising its versatility and resourcefulness for bringing a project together: ‘what I like about Phoenix is there’s many ways to get there and there’s no one right way…
‘With Phoenix I can pretty much address anything. I had a situation where the client specifically asked us to remove the NQ marks (the little dots you see in the upper corner of the end of a reel). Normally they’ll punch five frames, but in this case they punched the five frames in all different places on the frame, and in one of them it was right over an actor’s face while they were turning. I was able to create an image out of nothing; normally we sample either the frame before or after to re-make it but in this case with the actor turning, it didn’t exist. So I used frame blending and just wiped up bits and pieces of it. It took me five or six hours but it worked really well… I’ve done a good job if nobody notices my work’.
Sackter explains that at the time of restoring The Wizard of Oz, the Quantel Harry had just been released and could do 30 seconds of film, so it took ‘days’ to load it up, and as such was reserved for very big projects because it was so expensive to run. The team also did a DVNR (Digital (Video) Noise Reduction) – a digital filter that’s applied to film to remove grain, noise (variations in color and brightness as a result from how video used to be transmitted), film dirt, and other undesirable artefacts.
‘The DVNR pass couldn’t really be programmed so it mostly worked to take out dirt and little stuff but it did a lot of artifacting. So what we ended up doing was clean the film as we went through and then just drop in the DVR stuff on top, just where it was needed because you couldn’t use the entire DVR pass. The color pass took about a month to create the masters and probably another two or three months in the DVNR paths to lay everything and get it to where it is. I’m sure it’s been redone two or three times since then’.
MORE RECENT RESTORATIONS
In a more recent restoration in 2020, Janet Wilson, a senior colorist at MPI, explained their process of restoring the technicolor of The Wizard of Oz: ‘so sometimes one will be a little brighter than the other. One will be a little darker than the other, which means that the Technicolor is not a consistent color. It goes a little red, and then it goes a little green, and then it goes a little blue, and then it goes a little red again.
‘So if you stop on any given frame, it’s going to look a little different than the frames around it, which is one of the tricky parts of color correcting technical art. When that’s being projected by a film projector, it’s less noticeable than when you’re looking at it on a video monitor, so it takes a lot of little individual corrections to smooth those kinds of things out.’
Wilson continues with ways in which they were able to curate the images; ‘I ended up isolating the very brightest parts of the picture. In this case, it’s mostly the sparkles on their shoes and curving those off so I could run those in, because this movie is not supposed to have modern-day animation levels of brightness. It’s supposed to be much more contained.
‘I wanted to take advantage of brightness and the ability to show the contrast we get from this format, because you can really see the darker parts of the picture. You can really see detail within the Wicked Witch’s dress. I don’t want it to look like it’s not the same film. I want it to replicate that experience of the way this film should look if it was projected on a good print on a good projector.’
HOW TO STAY FAITHFUL TO THE ORIGINAL
The onus of a restoration artist is to strike a balance between bringing a fresh stroke of modernity whilst not deviating too far from the way the film was supposed to look. In The Wizard of Oz, Wilson explains why they might have removed accidental inclusions of wires in shots but not smoothed out makeup details: ‘part of the sort of handmade quality of this film is seeing some of those edges on the makeup, and some of those details you don’t want to obscure. You can see things like the burlap on the face of the Scarecrow and the rivets on the head of the Tinman. If you start smoothing out too many things you start to lose some of the details that are there that you want to preserve.’
This is a sentiment shared by Sackter who strongly feels that a restoration artist should stay as faithful to the original as possible – ‘nowadays, if you’re doing restoration work where you scan the negatives into 4K or higher, where everything shows up, sometimes when people aren’t familiar with the older work they take all the grain out of the movie so it looks like it was shot today – I don’t think that’s the right way to do it’.
‘Film has its own character and some of these fine grains are really good, but my job really is to have the image in the foreground and to feel the grain. Not necessarily to see it or remove it, but you need to feel it, you need to feel that flicker, that 24 frame flicker, you need to know it’s there’.
As well as iconic blockbusters, Sackter’s also worked with other recognisable projects on family favourite cartoons. The Boomerang channel, which was a sister broadcast channel to Cartoon Network, was showing episodes of Tom and Jerry (1940) cartoons from the Tex Avery Library, of which 40% of everything aired, Sackter was involved in restoring. From this, he worked with Hanna Barbara on Scooby Doo (1971), The Jetsons (1962) and The Flintstones (1960). This led to more opportunities where Sackter got to work on Madeline (1993), Kung Fu Panda (2008), Penguins of Madagascar (2014), and Monster vs. Aliens (2009).
I’M JUST SINGING IN THE RAIN
Singing in the Rain (1952) was a similar situation to The Wizard of Oz, in that Sackter’s team also went back to the original master separations to realign them to make a new IP in 2002 for the movie’s 50th anniversary (although it was in the 2002 audio commentary that we learnt the original negative was destroyed in a fire).
The iconic musical rom-com stars Gene Kelly (who also co-directed and choreographed with Stanley Donan), Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds portraying performers caught up in the transition from silent films to ‘talkies’, and this time capsule of the changing of cinema is perhaps just as much a metaphor for our contemporary progression in cinema from celluloid film to digital as the film’s own analogy.
Singing in the Rain has a legacy as one of cinema’s greatest films ever made and was even one of the first 25 films selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’, although at the time it was only a modest hit when it was released.
The 4K resolution restoration with HDR and a wider color spectrum offers brighter and deeper colors so that it looks its absolute best, and the restored version was shown at the Cannes Classic that year. The saturation in colors as well as the crisp, clean texture with smooth movements and an opening up of sets on the screen.
HOW THE INDUSTRY FEELS ABOUT COLOR NOW
Whilst restored films are focused on bringing forward the vividness of color, Emily St. James made an observation that the color in all current films are both looking the same as well as becoming increasingly desaturated, this dull homogeneity being a recent consequence of digital camera and editing. Sackter differs: ‘movies seem to go through periods. I remember in the 80s it had that tobacco look, and then you had the green and yellow look, then you had the blue look, and everybody copied it for a while. Then they had the stark look and then the desaturated look, and then when digital started it was a pastel look – it goes through cycles’.
Sackter observes that when looking to the future, the way the industry is funded, those who invest want a return so ‘what’s going to sell at box office isn’t necessarily about the quality of the movie…even in the movie itself it’s so rapid – chop! Chop! Chop! – you have a couple of seconds and nothing’s left to the imagination anymore. I don’t think shots last for more than four or five seconds, it doesn’t let the movie breathe anymore.
‘Take Psycho (1960); in the knife killing scene in the shower you don’t see anything other than the blood flowing down the tub and a shadow of the knife, but nowadays you’ll have a POV of the knife, seeing the person and blood splattering everywhere. It takes creativity out of it because people are only concerned about whether this shot will sell – people don’t make a movie just for the sake of making a movie anymore. It’s a shame because we are losing that spirit of innovation which is so central to film’.