Lawrence of Arabia: Sony's Beautiful 4K Restoration
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Lawrence of Arabia: Sony's Beautiful 4K Restoration
When Lawrence of Arabia opened in 1962, Columbia Pictures' epic included a career establishing starring turn by Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, the young Omar Sharif, and a stunning score by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates. Sony Pictures Entertainment, under the guidance of Grover Crisp, Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering, has brought this film back to life in a stunning 4K restoration that began in 2009 and worked steadily towards the film's 50th anniversary release. In doing so, Sony's restoration team collaborated with its digital intermediate facility Colorworks as well as MTI Film, MTI Film, Prasad Film and Chace Audio.
"I knew it would easily take a year if not two to do all the work that needed to be done," said Crisp, describing why the restoration began in 2009. "I was aware of some of the problems we would encounter and, as we got into it, those problems were far worse than I thought."
Lawrence of Arabia had actually had an extensive reconstruction and restoration in 1988, initiated and overseen by Robert A. Harris and co-produced by Jim Painten. During this reconstruction, Lean and Coates went through every scene to fine tune the movie into the Director's Cut. This version of the film, as it exists in the restored 65mm original negative, was the basis of the new restoration.
But many major problems still existed. One of the issues was that all the 70mm prints over the last two decades had been struck from the duplicate 65mm negative that was made from the 1988 wetgate-manufactured 65mm Interpositive, a process that serves to camouflage many of the scratches and dirt. "We did not have the advantage of scanning this large format film with a wetgate, so all the film's flaws were very evident directly from the original negative," said Crisp.
The negative was also warped, dried out and exhibited chemical stains. The film was shot in several desert locations and the heat there distorted the film stock in the cameras, in places cracking the emulsion. Click image for larger view.
After restoration. Click image for larger view.
Other problems included slight color fading and typical wear and tear. The negative was also warped, dried out and exhibited chemical stains. The film was shot in several desert locations and the heat there distorted the film stock in the cameras, in places cracking the emulsion. According to Crisp, "it was unlike anything we had seen before and quite challenging to fix."
The process began with a thorough inspection of the negative a frame at a time, a splice at a time and making a protection element out of it. "We then made a new IP at FotoKem, and that exercise proved to be quite useful," he said. "Prior to making that, we had made a dry print and that showed us the kind of issues we were going to face."
The 65mm original negative was scanned on two large format 65mm Imagica XE scanners at FotoKem at 8K to capture the resolution of the 65mm negative, resulting in a file size of 8192x3584 pixels. "I reserved half of 2010 to do this work," said Crisp. "If you do the math, it's over 325,000 frames at 13 seconds per frame, which equals about 1,200 hours of scanning alone." The files were then reduced to 4K and moved to Sony Pictures Studios' digital image restoration/digital intermediate facility Colorworks for color grading and restoration. But the restoration work would require more than one facility to accomplish.
"We sent some sample test to a number of restoration companies to see how well certain things would be done," he added. Two external groups were selected: Prasad Corporation in India, which handled general image cleanup, and MTI Film in Los Angeles, which handled the more challenging and specialized restoration work. Meanwhile, Chace Audio used the 6-channel stereo masters, which were created in the 1988 restoration, as the basis for restoration and re-mastering.
"I needed to QC all the reels to make sure every frame was there and in its correct place," Ostrowsky said. "I also needed to make sure there were no duplicate frames and that the conform matched every print exactly." In the second QC pass, Crisp and Ostrowsky catalogued the dirt, scratches and other issues and determined what would go to Prasad for general cleanup or MTI Film for the more complicated issues. "Most of it was highly infected with negative dirt, called minus density that becomes white when it's printed," he said. "There were scratches, bad splices, film bumps and what looked like tiny scratches, which we determined was due to the emulsion cracking."
"The negative was pretty beat up," he added. "It definitely looked its age."
His first step was to put a basic timing on it. "Then we'd watch the 70mm print and compare what I did to that element, to make sure we were consistent with what was done," he said. "Once that was done, we went reel by reel, constantly referencing the previous work." Regarding color, Ostrowsky said there were fading and many shading errors. "When I re-master a feature like Lawrence, you're just trying to make sure that you're getting as close as possible to what David Lean and Freddy Young [the cinematographer] wanted for that project.
One highlight of the project for Ostrowsky was that he worked with Coates. "Anne came in several times," he said. "She certainly knows the film and had a few comments that were very astute. There were about ten areas she wanted touched out of the whole film and I went in and fixed those. She came in again and was impressed with the overall look. The last time she came in to watch the final marriage of picture and sound, a wrapped 4K DCP and she told us it looked gorgeous." Also involved in the project was restorer Harris, who also sent notes to the restoration team after watching a Blu-ray.
Ostrowsky talked about how using the Baselight 8 at Colorworks helped. "Because it's treated as a file system color correction tool and was created to work in log as well as linear space, it gave me a ton of flexibility," he said. "I could create layers on every individual shot that might need a little more help and was able to use the Baselight to work with printer lights like a film timer. I'd also use custom curves, secondary color corrections, if I needed to take out some red or change the hue of a color."
"The only windowing I did was to fix film problems, not to create lighting," he added. "It really helped in lessening the egregious nature of the sealed-over emulsion cracks. Because they looked like white streaks, we could change the color density of that to match better. It was a wonderful tool in helping us make Lawrence the best it could be and representative of what the filmmakers wanted."
There were scratches, bad splices, film bumps and what looked like tiny scratches, which we determined was due to the emulsion cracking. Click image for larger view.
Scene after restoration. Click image for larger view.
Simultaneously, the reels were sent to Prasad Image and MTI Film for restoration. "I started timing fro the uncorrected, un-restored files," said Ostrowsky. "With more than 325,000 frames, we might not have enough time if I'd waited for clean files." He noted that Prasad handled basic dirt and scratches. "If it was something where they needed to create an algorithm for things like the sealed-in scratches, MTI came on and fixed that," he said. "They created tools specific to repair these issues."
"The movie is almost four hours long, so it's like working on two films," noted Crisp. "As we did all the color work, all the image restoration was being done at the other venues. As partial reels were done and returned one big file at a time, we'd look and adjust things and have things redone, over and over again until I felt it was right. We hadn't encountered a lot of this kind of work before, so vendors like MTI Film did a lot of research and development to handle it."
Ostrowsky echoed what many who worked on Lawrence of Arabia felt. "I felt honored and humbled by this and I'm very proud of having worked on it," he said. "I hope audiences around the world find pleasure in it. I hope it attracts a new audience and that those who saw it in 1962 are happy with the results."
I did see the film in 1962 as a child and was lucky enough to see the newly restored version in 4K at the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot. The restoration is marvelous and the film has held up well after 50 years: I found it gripping, immersive and beautiful. Having seen Sony's restoration of Taxi Driver last year, I can say that the company -- with Crisp at the helm -- is treating its priceless cultural artifacts with the respect and care they deserve. Next up, said Crisp, is On the Waterfront, The Last Detail and, next year, Funny Girl. I can hardly wait.
Title image: Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif as Auda Abu Tayi, T. E. Lawrence and Sherif Ali. Columbia Pictures.