Restoring Orson Welles' Classic Lady From Shanghai
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Restoring Orson Welles' Classic Lady From Shanghai
The Lady From Shanghai may be the most notorious Orson Welles film you've never seen. Shot in 1947, partially on location in Mexico (including Errol Flynn's yacht in Acapulco) and San Francisco, the movie is a deliberately disorienting, complex murder mystery. Welles screened German 1920s silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari for his cast, to show what he was going for. The climactic scene, in a hall of mirrors, is an iconic cinematic image.
The making of the movie has a history almost as twisted as its plot. It completely confused Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn who had greenlit the movie and hired Welles to direct, produce and star in the movie. What followed was an old Hollywood story: Cohn ordered re-shoots and a heavy re-edit, which cut an hour from the original film (the missing footage has never been found and is believed to have been destroyed). Upon opening in 1948, the movie was deemed a disaster and it quickly disappeared from the mainstream.
Crisp also describes his search for the film's missing footage. "This restoration does not include any new footage or any other version than people are used to seeing," he says. "Believe me, I have looked for years to see if there is anything else around that might have been overlooked, but there is nothing."
"Although we do have the original camera negative for the film," he continues. "It has just about everything wrong with it: multiple torn sections in almost every reel, frames missing, scratches that run throughout the film. We had a number of second and third generation film elements from which to create replacement sections from for the 1990s work, but there is always a trade-off in image quality in a typical photochemical restoration. Working in an all-digital environment allowed us to retain all the imagery from the original negative."
The negative also brought with it an unusual challenge: at some point in its history, it had been lacquered. "This is a process by which a lacquer solution is applied to the film to fill-in scratches and prolong the printability life of the negative," explains Crisp. "Unfortunately, it was not applied very well and there was visible print-through for every print we could make. Also, it was too dangerous to try to remove the lacquer."
Fast forward 15 years from the original 1990s attempt to restore the film. "We were now in a position to digitally repair many of these problems," says Crisp. First, the original nitrate negative was scanned at 4K resolution, with the goal of keeping the entire restoration process in 4K. Sony Colorworks colorist David Bernstein reports that the project started by examining a test scan from Cineric's 4K wet-gate scanner. In particular, the restoration team was interested in seeing how much the wet-gate scanner could improve the appearance of artifacts created by the lacquering.
Before, the lacquering left light, thin vertical streaks.
"The lacquering left light thin vertical streaks that acted like scratches but weren't really scratches – they are embedded into the surface of the film through the lacquering process," says Bernstein. "A long persistent scratch is one of the hardest artifacts to remove. After looking at the various scans, it was determined that the wet-gate was the best option, because it hid all the other fine, light scratches that were there in addition to the lacquering effect."
Despite the challenge of lacquering artifacts, Bernstein notes how lucky they were to have an original nitrate negative to work with. "The nitrate, of course, has this sort of intangible property to it from an aesthetic point of view," he says. "It's hard to describe but it's a rich, luxurious look to it."
Nitrate has an intangible property to it – a rich, luxurious look.
With the scans done, Bernstein began grading the unrestored negative, which was restored by MTI Film. "I typically work on the unrestored negative," says Bernstein, who uses a FilmLight Baselight 8 to grade, with a Sony 4K projector. "Because of the short turnaround time until the London Film Festival, that was even more critical." In fact, the scanning wasn't completed until less than 10 weeks before the screening date; Bernstein reports that he got the last restored files about a week before the screening.
Working in advance of the restoration doesn't mean that he grades the entire project. "I tend to leave the damaged areas alone until I get the fixes back and see what issues they were able to fix," he said. For The Lady From Shanghai, the need to wait especially applied to the numerous tears, in which the film was torn into two separate pieces and then taped back together. "All the elements of the picture are there, but there may be gaps," says Bernstein. "When that goes through the gate, the picture bounces around, and the luminance changes. It doesn't help to work on them until they come back from MTI."
One of MTI Film's specialties is restoration, but even their existing advanced toolset needed some tweaking to handle the problems brought on by the lacquering. At MTI Film, CEO Larry Chernoff reports that the patterns from the lacquering "manifested themselves as long columns that were darker than the rest of the area," and added, "These patterns had a fairly hard edge to them. The disintegration wasn't subtle – it was either on or off – and they moved around arbitrarily." MTI CTO Dr. Kevin Manbeck wrote a new algorithm that was able to fix 70 to 80 percent of the defects. "The rest had to be done by hand," says Chernoff. "That was actually one of the more challenging parts of the film."
Although much of the nitrate was in reasonably good condition, with only typical dirt and scratches, the lacquering issue was only one challenge. Chernoff noted that the film's "heavy opticals" also posed a problem. The film's iconic scene in a house of mirrors is made up of multiple layers. "It's layers and layers, all in film," he says. "So the amount and subtlety of dirt and scratches is extraordinary. That took lots and lots of hands and some degree of automation, but most of it had to be done manually. Automation couldn't handle shattering glass, changing light and so on." Most of that work was sent to MTI Film's team in China, where over 30 artists painstakingly restored these scenes.
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in a frame from the film's iconic "house of mirrors scene."
The film also had almost a dozen catastrophic tears where the frame needed to be reconstructed. Handling tears is a case of trial and error, says Chernoff. "When a piece of film tears over many frames, reconstruction is dependent on how much information you can borrow from other frames and then recreate," he says. "One of the difficulties is that the film can warp severely. The tape changes the density and it might be slightly askew so pieces of the frame don't align. Making it into a geometrically logical frame is always the challenge." For these instances of severe tearing, MTI Film used its CorrectDRS toolset.
Bernstein reports that, especially in working on the tears, the process was iterative, as versions flew back and forth between MTI Film and Sony Colorworks. "It's a constant learning process," he says. For the few tears that were restored in-house at Colorworks, Bernstein started the process in the color-grading suite. "One particular scratch was a vertical tear seven frames in duration," he explains. "I isolated those areas using shapes and some of the compositing techniques of the Baselight to put the pieces back together in a more refined way so that it was a kind of pre-fix. I was able to remove movement artifacts without repairing the damage, the gaps that the tear leaves. That became a better bed, a better starting place for fixing those problems."
The film had almost a dozen catastrophic tears where the frame needed to be reconstructed.
Chernoff noted the value of working in tandem with Colorworks. "The colorist David Bernstein really supported us in terms of using his eye," he said. "Having his immediate feedback was very useful. Restoration Project Manager Kristen Andrews coordinated all the elements and did an outstanding job keeping us apprised of what was needed next. And Restoration Artist Tim Schmidt also deserves a lot of credit. He has a tremendous eye and did some of the work on three of the catastrophic tears that we didn't have time or ability to do and he did an amazing job. I was extraordinarily impressed by the work he did."
"It was definitely one of those group efforts," Chernoff concluded. "We were very proud to have been involved."
The Lady From Shanghai is a B&W film, but that doesn't mean it didn't have its challenges in the grading suite. "Even though it's a black and white film, you're dealing with density and contrast issues and it's a challenge to blend it all together," Bernstein says. "A lot of the day exteriors were shot in the tropics and were overly bright and they're all wearing white clothes. We wanted this to have a nice rich look, and we put a lot of work fine-tuning all of it."
Hayworth and Welles. Processed close-up shots were a challenge to blend with the background plates shot on location.
"A lot of the footage was shot on location but then there were a number of close-ups shot later," he adds. "These close-up shots used rear-screen projection techniques with background plates shot on location, a typical process for that era. But these processed shots aren't lit the same and they really jump out and take you out of the film. It was a challenge in trying to blend that material together."
The Lady From Shanghai was also "a bit ahead of its time with editing techniques," Bernstein noted. "There are places where there are quick cuts, close-ups," he added. "It was more cutty than a lot of films of its era."
The newly restored 4K Lady From Shanghai was recorded out to a 4K DCP as well as a new negative for preservation purposes and a few prints, says Crisp. The Blu-Ray of the 4K restoration is scheduled for release this year.
How fortunate that, for those of us who didn't see the debut at The London Film Festival, there will be the chance to see this recovered gem in all its glory.