Friday 25 April 2014

Camera Obscura - James White on the Restoration of Goto, Isle of Love

My work on the Walerian Borowczyk’s films began just as we were wrapping up our work on the restoration of Time Bandits last year.  Terry Gilliam, who supervised that project with us, had repeatedly described Borowczyk’s influence on his own work, and while he adored many of his films, he reserved particular excitement at the idea of us restoring his first live-action feature Goto, Isle of Love (Goto, I’île d’amour, 1968).

This quickly became a running theme. My colleagues Daniel Bird, Michael Brooke and David Thompson all tended to speak of Goto in near-hushed tones. To them Goto was the one – the one Borowczyk feature most in need of restoration, and the one that would stand to gain the most from critical re-evaluation. 

So I’ll begin with a confession. Before working on this project I’d had only the slightest awareness of Goto. I’d only managed to see the film once years before, on a rather dodgy VHS copy made from a particularly muddy print. I remember finding the picture interesting but it didn’t make much of an impression.  The poor presentation simply got in the way of me fully absorbing and appreciating what the film had to offer.  So it was with great curiosity that I approached the prospect of restoring Goto

When Arrow launched a Kickstarter campaign fronted by Gilliam (thank you again, Terry) to raise funds for Goto’s restoration late last year, I wondered what the public reaction would be. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The reaction was immediate, and rather overwhelming.  Against all our expectations, the project was fully funded within a number of weeks, with enough left over to fund the remastering of several shorts we could now afford to include. Clearly there was an appetite out there for Goto – and for Borowczyk in general. 

The restoration work began soon after the New Year. The first stage was to locate and access the best materials available for the film, which were located in a number of archives in France. Thanks to our relationship with Borowczyk’s long-term producer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and to Florence Dauman and Isabelle Raindre at Argos Films, we were able to access the best elements for Goto still in existence. Sadly the original negative had been lost, but we were able to access a first-generation finegrain positive element (struck directly from the camera negative), an additional finegrain element made a number of years later, and a duplicate negative. All three elements ended up playing a role in the restoration. 

We began by scanning all three elements in 2K resolution on a pin-registered ArriScan and comparing their values – grain, sharpness, density, stability, etc. – from scene to scene. At times one could see great differences between the elements, particularly in regards to grain and picture stability between the positive and negative materials – but at times the advantages of one over another were quite slim.

That said, it became clear that for the vast majority of the film, the original finegrain positive was by far the sharpest, most detailed and highest quality element to use. There was, however, one real problem with this material, in the form of a rather large vertical scratch that ran continuously on the right-hand side of frame throughout every reel of the film. Such a scratch on just one reel might take weeks or even months to improve, and the results might not even prove satisfactory, so the prospect of having to repair a major scratch running through the entire length of the film was a daunting one to say the least. 

So it came as a great relief to have Dominique confirm without the slightest hesitation that Goto’s aspect ratio should be 1.66:1 – and should only be presented in 1.66:1. This isn’t a ratio that’s used very much anymore, but in the 1960s and 70s it was favoured by many European filmmakers as a boxier alternative to 1.85.1. In fact many films were shot open-matte at the time, with the knowledge that 1.66:1 projection plates would be used in Europe, and 1.85:1 plates would be used in other areas like the US. In this case, however, Dominique was firm about Goto’s aspect ratio and, as luck would have it, the slight cropping on the left and right of frame necessary to accommodate this ratio ended up granting us exactly the amount needed to excise the accursed scratch from the image. The gods were truly smiling down on us that day.

Once we’d selected the sections of each element to use for each scene in Goto (we ended up using the original finegrain for roughly 90% of the film) we spent a couple weeks carefully grading, using original prints and earlier video masters as reference points. It was at this stage that the pictorial beauty of Goto really began to emerge. Having only seen the film screened from inferior sources, it was exciting to see the original textures of the film finally given room to breathe, for the compositions to gain true illumination from the subtleties of the lighting, and for the images to show real depth from the correct application of greyscale, highlights and contrast. 

There were many interesting moments we discovered while grading. In one scene, when Goto’s wife Glossia (Ligia Branice) meets her lover Gono (Jean-Pierre Andréani) in the floor above the stables, the window behind them is brightly lit to the point of being burnt- out. This is often something we can take measures to improve in restoration, but in this case we went back to check all the film elements and on every one the window is burnt-out to the point that there was simply nothing there on the film. Borowczyk and his cinematographer Guy Durban were happy enough to leave this as it was, so we were too.

One item of particular interest was Borowczyk’s decision to insert six quick shots in full colour into different places in the film. These shots were mostly fleeting close-ups of objects – a quick glimpse of slippered feet gliding across the floor, of a bowl containing blood from an execution. Seeing these shots in colour since Goto’s initial release has always been a problem, as the majority of prints had been produced on black and white stock, thereby not allowing for these colour inserts to be viewed as anything other than muddy grey approximations of their original states. To restore these shots to their intended presentation we had to access the only existing element that held these colours intact – a very short reel of duplicate negative containing only these six brief shots separated by film leader. This element was in pretty rough shape and the colours were quite faded, but with Dominique’s help, we were able to grade these sections back to as near to their original hues as possible.

Once grading was complete, we began the lengthy process of picture restoration, which involved stabilising the picture from shot to shot, removing instances of dirt, debris, light scratches, and damaged frames. We also worked to improve density fluctuation issues (flicker), as well as focus issues at splice points that had originally been printed-in softly.

Restoring Goto was challenging in many ways, but I’ll single out one of the things that proved particularly so, which came as a direct result in the manner in which Goto was filmed. The majority of scenes take place within a stable, a public hall, a brothel or a number of similar interiors. In many of these scenes, there’s a noticeably high amount of dust present in the air, as well as quite a few flies buzzing around. This made the task of dirt and dust removal difficult, as one always had to be careful to only remove the dirt and dust that had acquired through storage and handling – not the dust that was always present in the film! This meant that any automated dirt removal processes had to be kept to a minimum, and the vast majority of picture restoration was done very slowly, carefully, and through completely manual means, one frame at a time. 

In the case of Goto’s soundtrack, Argos was able to locate the original magnetic reels, and much to our surprise, they proved to be in very good shape. In many cases original mag materials from this era have been spoiled by vinegar damage, inevitably reaching a point where they become impossible to use. Once this happens you’re stuck with using optical audio transferred from sound negs (never ideal considering you’re capturing all the sibilance and other surface noise from the material along with the soundtrack) or simply transferring the audio from a 35mm print, which you can only hope will be in good shape, and not missing any frames.

So we were very lucky that the original mags were in such good shape and, once transferred, required only basic restoration to minimise occasional pops, clicks, buzz and other common audio issues. We were also able to improve the audio’s synchronisation with picture in many places. As was quite common at the time in European productions, the whole of Goto’s soundtrack had been recorded in post-production, and had a loose, sometimes shaggy, approach to synch. And while we’ll never be able to conceal this was how Goto’s soundtrack was created (not that we’d consider trying) we were able to improve things to the point where the lapses in synch don’t prove such a distraction to the viewer.

Having only just completed and delivered this new restoration of Goto last week, the ink is still drying in a sense. Spending the last few months with Goto, I’m still digesting the film, and I expect to continue doing so for some time. I understand now why it is held in such high regard by so many, but one of the things I’ve come to treasure about the film are the mysteries it continues to hold, even after multiple viewings. 

This restoration has been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve had the pleasure and honour to work on. This is in no small part due to the dedication and enthusiasm of my colleagues and the technicians at Deluxe who devoted so much time and effort to this project.  It’s also extremely satisfying to produce a restoration funded and desired by so many people. But finally it’s one of those wonderful instances in which the restoration work we performed will result directly in a great many people discovering and appreciating this unique and amazing work of cinema by a true master for the first time – just as I have. 

James White
Head of Technical and Restoration
Arrow Films

Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection will be released on June 30th and be purchased via the Arrow Store here.


  1. A very good read I just found via HTF. The link to Arrow for this set comes up with No Product. Looks like I can't see if I can afford ir whatever price it is ir as.

  2. Hi Moviepas,

    The Borowczyk boxed-set was a limited edition release that has now completely sold out. However, each of the individual discs can be purchased separately.

    Arrow Video