By SARA FISHER
When Vivien Leigh graced the big screen last Friday in the re-release of “Gone with the Wind,” she looked fantastic. And so did the rest of the 59-year-old movie.
Both the actress and the film owe a lot to EDS Digital Studios for their improved look. The Los Angeles-based restoration company spent more than 12 months digitally repairing what had been considered permanent damage to the classic film’s negatives.
EDS graphic artists worked frame by frame to clean dirt-engrained scenes and remove the grainy scratches, flying spots and flares of light typical in old films. EDS can even digitally repair a torn negative, which was previously an unfixable problem.
“David O. Selznick never intended for red spots to fly over Scarlett’s face during her big speech that she will never be hungry again,” said Richard P. May, vice president of film preservation at Warner Bros., which owns “Gone With the Wind.” “But until recently, we never thought that these problems could be fixed. Digital work is the only way to clean up that kind of damage on the negative.”
Both May and EDS President Greg Granello are quick to point out that the original negative is not altered in digital restoration. Instead, a digitized copy is made from the negative, and that digitized copy effectively becomes the new negative.
“We are not altering the original film and nothing is lost, since we create a new digitized master,” Granello said. “If a purist wants to see the original, scratches and all, be my guest.”
EDS’s 30 visual-effects artists restored 18,000 frames in “Gone with the Wind,” which translates into a mere 12 minutes, 30 seconds of film.
The artists themselves decide how best to repair the damage in each individual frame, then execute the fixes by hand on a compositing system. The cost of digitally restoring the damaged frames is incredibly steep so much so that only key scenes in the movie were restored.
“I won’t tell how much the digital work on the film cost, but I can say that it cost more than the entire preservation work in 1989,” said May, who nine years ago supervised a color restoration process on “Gone with the Wind” in honor of its 50th anniversary. “We restored the parts of the film strictly on an as-needed basis, focusing on the most dramatic scenes. Hopefully, the cost of digital repair will drop as the technology becomes more widespread.”
Granello doesn’t think price will deter other studios from investing in digitally restoring their classic assets. He points to the studios’ recent trend and lucrative practice of re-releasing film favorites. Over the last few years, movies ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to the “Star Wars” trilogy have reappeared in theaters.
“Moviegoers are much more discriminating today when it comes to the quality of a film image,” Granello said. “Large-scale commercial feasibility can hang on an audience wanting to see a clean image.”
Although EDS has restored all or part of 11 movies in its 18-month existence, Granello considers the company’s work on “Gone with the Wind” to be its real debut. That’s because on the other films, non-disclosure agreements with studios prevented EDS from touting its work. There was no such agreement with Warner Bros. on “Gone With the Wind,” and Granello is hoping that the publicity surrounding the movie will generate greater interest in digital restoration.
EDS’s next project is restoration work on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.’s Academy Award-winning “In the Heat of the Night.”
Although most of the company’s previous work hasn’t been publicly acknowledged, EDS has received praise within the industry. In April, the Anthology Film Archives in New York honored EDS in its annual award ceremony celebrating leaders of film and video preservation.
“EDS has done restoration work exceptionally well, to the point that people don’t notice that they are a leader and technical pioneer in the field,” said Robert Haller, director of collections and special projects at Anthology Film Archives, one of the largest non-profit film and video archives in the U.S. “EDS has done very innovative work in using video and computer technology to salvage films.”
In addition to highly specialized digital restoration work, EDS Digital Studios has expanded its core business by developing proprietary software that represents cutting-edge post-production services. One program, called “Post*Paint,” repairs feature-film cel animation. Another, “Flutter Blaster,” removes irregular light problems from old films.
According to Granello, EDS has considered licensing out its software to post-production houses.