Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Nightmare City and the Limits of Restoration

by James White

Jean-Luc Godard famously began his 1967 masterpiece, Weekend, with an opening title card that read: “This film was found on a rubbish heap.” These words came to mind as I was completing work on our new restoration of Nightmare City, the 1980 Italian zombie shocker from Umberto Lenzi. This is a project that’s presented us with a host of technical problems from that start, and while that film didn’t arrive on a pile of garbage, the extent of the damage that the original film elements endured over the past 35 years might have well included such a scenario.

I said we were completing the restoration, but Nightmare City is one of those projects where you could keep on restoring the film, making little improvements here and there for many more months, if you had unlimited time and, more importantly, an unlimited budget. As this is never the case, we had to draw a line in the sand one day and say, this is it – this is our restoration of Nightmare City, warts and all.

The trouble is that the warts in this film are quite difficult to ignore. It’s impossible to say exactly when it happened, but, at some point in its history, the 2-perf Techniscope negative was subjected to chemical decay, most likely the result of improper cleaning and storage over time; the gassing effect produced from the cleaning fluid working its damage over time inside the can. This has resulted in several long instances of heavy density fluctuation, demonstrated through excessive flicker. These density issues have affected the colour to shift rather noticeably from frame to frame – something it’s only been possible to improve to a certain degree. This damage, partnered with regular patterns of chemical stains, have made Nightmare City impossible to restore to a level that we’re normally satisfied with.

When we first discovered the damage on the negative, we called up the only remaining intermediary printing element, a 4-perf reversal negative. This element didn’t suffer from the same issues, but it was soft and lacking in much of the same sharpness of detail the negative held, a clear consequence of generational loss from being blown up from a 2-perf element to a 4-perf one. This was, in fact, the element used for Nightmare City’s previous HD master, a fact that initially served as the main impetus for us going ahead and restoring the film ourselves.

So we decided the best thing to do was to use the original negative, with all of its issues, and present the film looking as improved as possible. Given the challenges with the material, the results have been decidedly mixed, and our presentation of Nightmare City is nowhere near as polished as we’d normally prefer. But I hope viewers will appreciate the fact that this is as good as the film is likely to look unless other intermediary elements are someday discovered, an unlikely possibility at best.

We have also made the rare decision in this case to include Nightmare City’s pre-existing master on our Blu-ray release as well. This would give viewers the choice of watching both, and would serve to illustrate both the differences between the materials sourced and in our separate approaches to restoring the film.

The example of Nightmare City, as well as recent Arrow projects Island of Death (which contained excessive damage throughout one reel) and, to some extent, Cemetery Without Crosses (for which we had to rely on a worn Internegative element), all presented similar problems, so this brings up an interesting question: What kind of expectations can we deliver new film restorations to when the only existing source elements for that film have been so compromised?

I know at least one film label prides itself on presenting their films as “free of any digital manipulation”, but this is in itself dishonest. The moment you decide to take a film element and scan or transfer it into the digital realm, you have manipulated it in a basic capacity, translating that image made up of photochemical grain into thousands of pixels. But to always pride oneself on a ‘warts and all’ presentation just translates to me as simply being too cheap to have any digital clean-up done. We’ve come far along these days to know that digital restoration tools, if used with sensitivity and restraint, can benefit presentations of older films enormously. And of course, as with anything else, if one uses those same tools sloppily or unskillfully, the results will be predictable.

On a related note, when we license any title from a studio and review their HD master, more often than not we’ll decide to do quite a bit of additional restoration work in order to make it suitable for Blu-ray release. Many of the studio-produced HD masters from the previous decade were done with only DVD or broadcast aims in mind, and as such often haven’t been completed to the quality standard we associate with Blu-ray presentations.

Anyway, it’s been interesting to note that when another label releases the film using the same studio-supplied master but doesn’t bother to do any additional clean-up themselves, reviewers often don’t pick up on the differences. When they compare our two releases, they describe our presentations as being “essentially the same”. This can be a bit discouraging, as it doesn’t acknowledge the additional care and expense that we went to in our efforts to release the film in the highest quality presentation possible. (This approach applies to our encoding and authoring stages as well as our remastering.)

This is understandable I suppose, and it is perhaps too optimistic to hope that a reviewer compare both releases side by side, noting of the appearance of dirt and scratches on one disc versus another where such damage has been carefully removed or improved. But it does bring up the niggling question: Should we have bothered? Would people honestly notice the difference? I’d like to think enough of them would, and I’d like to hear back from Arrow customers and fans about this. Personally, I take pride in the fact that we always strive to present both those titles we licence existing masters for, and those titles we restore ourselves, in the best quality possible.

And that really is the point, I think. If one loves cinema from the past, then one has to have an appreciation for the ways in which these films were made, handled and stored, for many years. It’s a truly amazing thing that today we’re able to view something fifty to a hundred years old (or more) in a beautiful digitally restored presentation, with all the original information first captured on that piece of celluloid reproduced digitally in such exquisite depth and detail. In many cases, these films look as pristine as they day they were released. In other cases, some films show the battle scars of years of handling, printing and inadequate storage practices. One has to remind oneself that in the case of the latter, we’re lucky to have these films at all.

10 comments:

  1. Could you please post some screens from both versions?

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    1. Hi Aram, with these kind of problems you really need to watch the film in motion in order to see where the issues lie. A single screengrab won't demonstration the fluctuations and flicker.

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    2. I see. Thanks a lot for replying.

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    3. Received and watched Island of Death. The second half of the movie has that issues with fluctuations and flicker. I guess this will be on the Nightmare City disc as well.

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  2. I actually watched the Raro Blu and previously released DVD side by side and will be glad to do the same for the Arrow release. I noted a slight difference in the runtime between the DVD and Blu that did not seem to lead to any meaningful discovery. Keep up the great work. This will be a treat for the fans and thank you for including both. The restoration comparison on the Pit Stop Blu was truly eye opening. Perhaps a Nightmare City featurette of this type including each version and source material would help illustrate this issue?

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  3. Great read, and kudos to Arrow for including both transfers of the film. The extra time and attention toward restoration and digital cleanup is always worth it - even though there will always be some who don't acknowledge the difference, there are also plenty of others who do.

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  4. Lovely article. I cant thank Arrow enough for the job they have done on Donald Cammell's White of the Eye. So, yes, you have one customer (one of many) here who I can assure you appreciates and understands the tasks you people bestow on yerselves to improve the product; and ye do a sterling job. Keep up the Good Work it will be noted.

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  5. It's comforting that you guys know what you're doing, unlike Shi...I mean Shout! Factory.

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  6. I'm enormously pleased that Arrow will be including both versions. I really like this film, clumsy as it is in its construction and exploitative as it is in its approach; it's very much a product of the 'Anni di piombo', arguably much more so than the other Italian zombie films, with the attacks by the 'zombies' (if we can call them that) framed almost like terrorist activity. I'm getting quite excited about this and the Lizzani releases (Lizzani is a desperately neglected filmmaker, imo).

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  7. I am a dedicated Arrow fan/collector/enthusiast, whatever you'd like to call it, and it is precisely all the painstaking work that you guys do in presenting these films with love and respect that makes me love this label. Arrow films and video is THE reason I bought a multi region blu-ray player, and that machine along with the releases in your catalogue are some of the best "investments" I've ever made. Please know your work is appreciated and admired.

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