Sony Pictures Entertainment
Senior Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering
At the Director's Guild of America Theater in New York, Taxi Driver
debuted 35 years after its February 8, 1976 premiere. Except this Taxi Driver
has been painstakingly digitally restored and re-mastered to 4K, for a limited 4K theatrical release and for Blu-ray. Director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman, A.S.C. played an active role in overseeing the Sony Pictures Entertainment
restoration, which was spearheaded by Grover Crisp, SPE senior vice president of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering, who had also overseen the 4K restoration of Bridge Over the River Kwai
The idea for a 4K restoration arose when the studio began to prepare for a Blu-ray release. "We already knew the older HD transfer would not hold up," says Crisp. "This is an important film in the Columbia Pictures library, so we felt it deserved the highest level of work."
The workflow was simplified by the fact that Colorworks, a DI facility on the Sony lot in Culver City, was built from the ground-up with a complete 4K infrastructure including color grading systems Baselight 8 and 4 from FilmLight
. The facility and its 4K capabilities have been integral to Sony's re-mastering and restoration work.
"For some time, we have been scanning everything that we work on at 4K, regardless of whether it is a big restoration project or if we just need to re-master the film for Blu-ray," says Crisp. "The 4K is essentially the resolution of 35mm film negative, but even when scanning second or third generation elements, we still start with a 4K scan."
Prior to the restoration, the original negative had been stored in a state-of-the-art vaulting facility, cold and humidity-controlled to IPI specs
. "For a film of this vintage, the negative was in average condition," says Crisp. "It had some torn sections, which fortunately had not been replaced at any time, and numerous scratches, plus the usual amount of dirt embedded in the emulsion. It was slightly faded but not so much that we couldn't bring the color back in digitally." Colorworks DI artist Scott Ostrowsky agrees with the assessment. "Besides the dirt, tears and scratches, there was a little bit of color fading and a little bit of color breathing," he notes.
The ONEG (original negative) was scanned at Cineric
, a restoration and preservation facility in New York using a specially designed wetgate 4K scanner. The resulting DPX files exist on the SAN, but they were moved across the country to Colorworks on LTO data tape. "4K is a lot of data to move around and to hold on servers," explains Crisp. "But we have not encountered any problems in moving data in and out."
One of the 4K DI suites at Colorworks, located on the Sony lot in Culver City, California.
COLOR GRADING THE RESTORED "TAXI DRIVER"
For those worried that the digitally re-mastered Taxi Driver
will deviate from the look of the original, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for fans familiar with Taxi Driver
from videocassette or DVD versions, the new version is likely to be a revelation… and a return to the film's original look. "There are a number of places in the film that will look quite different from other video releases," says Crisp.
From left, Billie Perkins, Jodie Foster and DeNiro.
"We discovered in looking at answer prints and working with Chapman that the last time the film was transferred was about ten years ago, unsupervised and with no talent involvement," he adds. "The old transfer, used for the DVDs over the years, really missed the boat in a number of ways. It was too bright in places and some scenes were just wrong. There was a preponderance of cyan throughout a number of scenes. Also, the framing was unfortunately not accurate, with some key shots zoomed in to avoid issues related to splices and we properly framed those scenes."
Colorworks DI artist Scott Ostrowsky, who had worked on an earlier HD master of the title, says that working with the original negative was both "a blessing and a curse." "It gives you the best possible palette to work with," he says. "But there's no timing with the ONEG -- you're creating that." The basis for his color correction was an approved answer print, which he saw prior to starting color correction. "I took notes and matched to it as closely as possible," he says.
Robert DeNiro, new attitude intact, in a scene from 'Taxi Driver'.
Ostrowsky's color correction unearthed other problems that had arisen, including timing issues and optical dissolves. "In a photochemical print, you don't have as much leeway if, for example, they used a B stock at some point," he says. "The entire end scene, coming out of the killings, is all dissolves. It's almost like a montage where it goes from Travis Bickle to the streets, to the police, to the apartment. Going from the ONEG helps you balance that out better."
He notes that the entire last scene in the apartment was an optical. "When they showed the film to the ratings board originally, it got an X rating because of all the blood in that scene," says Ostrowsky. "They went to a lab that did a Chemtone process that gave it a desaturated look." Although today's films don't shy away from showing blood, the 4K version of Taxi Driver
features that same desaturation. "We kept it the same," says Ostrowsky. "Michael [Chapman] did not want to change it and we kept true to what the print looked like."
Leonard Harris as Charles Palantine in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver".
Colorworks uses FilmLight's Baselight 8 and Baselight 4 for its color grading; Ostrowsky used the Baselight 8 for Taxi Driver
. "It gives the colorist a wide array of choices and we can even do some cleanup on the fly," says Crisp. The Baselight 8 contains 98 terabytes of internal storage, making it the ideal tool for color correcting in 4K.
"The processing powers of the Baselight 8 and Baselight 4 are essentially the same, but because of the greater storage, the 8 is a little faster," says Ostrowsky. "With the Baselight 8, I can do numerous keys and windows on images with many layers and it doesn't slow down at all." Ostrowsky also notes that the Baselight 8 offers a robust toolset. "It has printer lights, its own set of secondaries and a hue-angle layer," he says. "It has keyers and windows…everything you could possibly want."
The Baselight 8 nonlinear color grading system from Filmlight. Dedicated hardware, including 96TB of internal storage, allows realtime playback and grading of multiple streams of 4K.
When the color correction got to a certain point, cinematographer Michael Chapman came in. "I worked with Scott to get it to a point where we could have Michael come in and be close enough that he could weigh-in more efficiently for his time," says Crisp. "We were pretty close, but he made a few changes here and there, mostly density and a bit of color and that was it."
Scorsese saw the 4K files after the initial pass for digital restoration while he was in London shooting Hugo Cabret
. "He came into the Sony Pictures screening room which is one of the few places in London where you can see 4K," says Crisp. "He had some comments on framing and color, all good points, which we addressed back at Colorworks."
The "Taxi Driver" 4K restoration was done by the same team responsible for the Sony Pictures Entertainment Bluray release of "Bridge on the River Kwai," also released from the restored 4K masters. Above: Alec Guinness.
TECHNICAL RESTORATION AT MTI
At the same time that Ostrowsky was color correcting the 4K files, MTI Film
in Los Angeles was handling the massive job of technical restoration. "MTI Film has a nice set-up for doing both 2K and 4K and they do great work," says Crisp. "We worked closely with them as well as the restoration team at Colorworks. Every frame was looked at for anomalies and dirt. There were sections with torn frames -- some running up to eight sequential frames -- that needed careful attention. In the past, those frames were simply cut out and the audio pulled up to match."
MTI Film CEO Larry Chernoff
MTI Film CEO Larry Chernoff notes that, "There were some catastrophic issues, such as a torn negative that we were able to work out." There were also some odd scratches that they determined happened photochemically. "It was a defect we were able to fix ultimately," says Chernoff. "But not without a surgical type of process for exploring what happened and how to fix it."
But the major issue in the technical restoration was dirt, especially with the optical sequences including the opening title sequence and the shooting scene towards the end of the movie. "It was all a photochemical optical so there was a huge amount of dirt and scratches, and that was one of the areas where we had the most work," says Chernoff. The stakes were high. "Grover being the exacting restoration producer that he is, and with a film like this of such cultural significance, he put an emphasis on restoring it to as pristine a condition as possible."
The timing was perfect. MTI Film had just developed proprietary technology, AutoClean, designed to find very small dirt that can be overlooked by the human eye…and Taxi Driver
was the first film the company was able to use it on. AutoClean is able to detect one or two pixels of dirt, something the human eye could never consistently see. "We developed this algorithm that looks in particular for very small dirt," says Chernoff. "The human eye tires and can't see things that are one or two pixels when you're moving through hundreds of frames."
Dirt-busting in 4K is four times as hard. Because there is no display that can show a pixel-to-pixel relationship for the entire frame, 4K images are cleaned up in quadrants, turning each frame into four separate images. "MTI Film cleaned up thousands and thousands of pieces of dirt," says Ostrowsky. "It's amazing how much clean-up work was done, just in the opening optical shot." Once Ostrowsky got back the cleaned-up files, he merged MTI Film's files with his own work.
Harvey Keitel (left) in a scene with Robert DeNiro.
The cleaned-up 4K files, with Scorsese's changes integrated, were sent again to the director to get a final approval. The soundtrack also got a restoration. Crisp found the original 4-channel stereo music recordings and used that, in combination with the split dialogue and effects tracks, to create the stereo. Chace Audio
did the preparation, restoring the original and additional material, and the 5.1 was created at the Sony Pictures sound department. Scorsese also approved the new soundtrack.
SEEING THE DIFFERENCE
With the restoration completed in January 2011, Colorworks next prepared the 4K Digital Cinema Package as well as a new color negative; new archival 35mm prints were made at Deluxe laboratory
. "We record out to film for protection and archival purposes," says Crisp. "Just as with all new titles, we create new black and white separation masters for long-term protection. We follow a dual path for preservation with the film, while also capturing and preserving the data. Today, you have to do both."
One of the posters for the original theatrical release of "Taxi Driver."
Crisp believes that 4K restoration will soon become the norm. "Scanning at 4K is the minimum needed to really capture the data in the film," he says. "When compared with 2K, in various workflows, you can really see the difference. More places are gearing up for 4K."
Although cinematographers, post professionals and other experts in the industry have debated how many lines of resolution is enough to approximate the look of film, a look at the newly restored "Taxi Driver" is a visual testament to Crisp's assertion that you can see the difference. Now the only question remains: which films from the world's treasure chest of classics will be the next to undergo a 4K digital restoration.
In addition to its release on Blu-ray, Taxi Driver had a worldwide theatrical release including projection in 4K at AMC Theatres in the U.S. on March 19 and 20, 2011, and on new 35mm prints beginning March 18 at Film Forum in New York.
Debra Kaufman, Creative COW Magazine Associate Editor
Debra Kaufman, newly minted Associate Editor of Creative COW, has spent the last 25 years working in and writing about the film/TV industry. As a freelance writer for over 20 years, she wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, Wired, the LA Times and The NY Times and nearly every other trade publication in the industry. She now makes Creative COW her full-time home.