The Godfather, more beautiful than ever

Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy has been fully restored and released in a good-looking box set, The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration, which includes the three films as well as an extra DVD filled with fascinating documentaries about the history of the first film (how it nearly “wasn’t”) and the restoration process itself.

Kim Aubry, who supervised the restoration, spoke to Shaun de Waal.

Exactly what do you do for the Coppola organisation?
At American Zoetrope I was Francis Coppola’s exec in charge of film post-production and technology from around 1987 through the end of 2004. During that time, I was in charge of figuring out the best way to apply new kinds of techniques and technologies to the process of film post-production (the editing, the sound ...
everything that happens after shooting is completed) during the great transition from old-fashioned mechanical film-finishing to the all-electronic and now digital schemes we use today.

After that I started up an independent associated company called ZAP—Zoetrope Aubry Productions—specialising in DVD pre-mastering and creative content production. This grew directly out of the American Zoetrope DVD Lab, which I founded within Zoetrope in 1998. Part of that work, especially with older “catalogue” titles, involves some level of restoration, or at least methodical searching for the very best elements to use in a new release at a higher-quality level.

What were the challenges of restoring the Godfather trilogy for the new DVD release?
The actual restoration team was hired by Paramount (who owns the Godfather films) and the team was led by noted film archivist Robert Harris, who worked together with a team of craftspeople and technologists at Pro-Tek and Warner Brothers Motion Picture Imaging. They did a worldwide search for the best potential source elements to use. The entire film was scanned into computer memory—each frame of film was scanned at a very high resolution of 4 096 pixels by 3 112 pixels. Working at this level of precision, in terms of preserving all of this original film detail while remedying the various problems (scratches, tears, stains and flaws), was just not possible until fairly recently.

The first two films (The Godfather and The Godfather Part II) had seriously deteriorated since they were first released in 1972 and 1974 respectively. It is normal for 35mm “release prints” that get circulated to cinemas and physically abused in transit and exhibition to become scratched and faded. But the master elements that were used to make these prints also suffered from over-use and inadequate attention when the films first came out, largely because of the films’ huge commercial success and concomitant demand for ever more prints to be struck.

The first two films were made in the era of “dye-transfer printing”, which is the old Technicolor process in which release prints are manufactured from intermediate elements in a kind of offset printing system.

That obsolete printing process (used from the 1930s to the mid-1970s) had a distinct look, rich blacks, vibrant colours. And the filmmaking team, the director of photography and the lab people, would create intermediate elements with that end goal of making perfect dye-transfer prints. And that was the only end goal—remember this was an era before home video, before DVD and cable TV and HD and endless re-releases on ever-improving formats. So those in the theatre audience who would have seen an original print of The Godfather in the cinema of 1972 would have a distinct memory of what it is supposed to look like.

Some of the problems were made especially more complex and difficult to resolve because many scenes in these films were intentionally photographed in a very dark, obscure way. Getting that specific look into subsequent generations of elements and prints is difficult.

Ten years ago, the studio tried doing a small-scale “restoration” on the first Godfather film, but the underlying problems, such as sections of original negative with physical damage, had never been addressed.

Were the challenges different for the first Godfather, the second, the third?
Yes, the second film had similar problems, but they were an order of magnitude fewer than the first. Again the first film was an unexpected blockbuster and many, many sets of printing elements were made from the poor, tired original negative in the first five years of its life. The second film, though critically a great success, was commercially a bit less popular, and a smaller number of prints were made. Hence it was in better shape and needed less work.

Do you feel this restoration provides a lot that previous versions on DVD did not?
Maybe best to let Francis Coppola himself address this. These are from his own words when interviewed for the documentary Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather [included in the box set]:

“... [W]hen I saw it [screened] at the 25th anniversary [1997], I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s not as good as it was,’ but I don’t remember what it looked like and there are not many people alive who have seen it in a theatre or who remember how beautiful the photography and the prints were, and myself included. Sort of like looking at your child growing up, I hadn’t noticed how it was different from the original Godfather.

“... And recently now, in the last four, five years, the electronic image is starting to improve to the point where you really, at home, can enjoy a film with the quality and the latitude and the photographic excellence that the original films may have had.

“... I was astonished with how beautiful it was, how rich the photography was. I just thought, ‘My God, it’s much more beautiful-looking than I had ever remembered.’ And I was very, very pleased with the efforts they made and realized how important it was that they did this restoration.”

What is the general state of restoration for DVD release in the United States, if you can comment on that broadly? Do you have the sense that audiences appreciate restoration as much as filmmakers do?
Great question. Unfortunately, a little broad to answer here. In the most general sense, the great blessing of the home video/DVD revolution that began around eight years ago is that new money surfaced, as the film studios were able to sell their catalogue of old films to new audiences on DVD. This opened up some cheque books, and monies were spent to upgrade or update the quality of the masters from the vault.

To a lesser extent, we think this will happen again as the new generation of home video rolls out, the Blu-ray disc. In theory, it will again open the door to some re-restorations—further improvements to video masters for the more scrutinised high-definition transfers. (The HD-DVD vs Blu-ray format war did not help us here—and the downturn in consumer economics will not help either).

Audience appreciation is harder to measure. There are certainly some very motivated, excited people out there—some are borderline obsessive-compulsive! You can find them on the many fan sites and forums. But we know there are delighted fans who have been faithfully waiting for someone to make a film they are fond of as good as they remember it was when they saw it on the big screen decades ago. Sometimes, we make it better!

ALSO RELEASED ON DVD

Death Proof and Planet Terror
These loving homages to 1970s exploitation movies, by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez respectively, were originally part of a “Grindhouse” double bill, but failed at the US box office in that format. So they were re-edited (to a full 90 minutes each) and re-released separately, and that’s how they come to us on DVD. Tarantino’s effort (about a rapist-murderer and his “death-proof” car) is quite awful, filled with meaningless jive talk and the most unpleasant misogyny. Rodriguez’s movie (about chemical weapons that turn people into flesh-eating zombies) is more fun, more ironically in tune with its trash origins, and filled with hilariously over-the-top gore and other special effects. It’s still trash, though, with a notably hokey plot, and the references to 9/11 just make one cringe.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Johnny Depp looks old, even corpse-like, in this creepy film of Stephen Sondheim’s famous musical about a murderous barber. Director Tim Burton gives us an extraordinary setting—a cartoon-Gothic 19th-century London that is perhaps the film’s strongest suit, though Depp is never less than charismatic. Several of the songs make striking set-pieces, though the tunes are hardly memorable. This double-disc release contains excellent making-of background material. All round, something of a bargain.

Juno
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Scoop
I liked this Woody Allen caper, but I have to admit few others did. Scarlett Johanssen stars as a cub reporter given a scoop from beyond the grave, and Allen himself is the stage magician who unwillingly channels the information to her.

Things We Lost in the Fire
With the help of a hapless heroin addict, a woman discovers there is life after the tragic loss of her husband. A highly emotional melodrama. Stars Benicio del Toro and Halle Berry.

Starter for 10
James McAvoy now being a big star, this little British flick is released on DVD. It’s about a 1980s quiz show, and should make a good rental on a lazy weekend.

Semi-Pro
Will Ferrell stars in this silly and not very amusing comedy about basketball and music in the 1970s.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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