THUNDERBEAN THURSDAY
November 29, 2018 posted by Steve Stanchfield

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What makes the ‘authentic’ version of a classic animated film (or any film for that matter)?

So, what is the ‘true’ version of a classic animation short? Maybe the question should be ‘is there?!?! Here’s a few thoughts on materials and approach, and my thoughts on best direction to take. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, but let’s not just get stuck on a few films, but rather an overall idea of best approach.

We’re in a time of both preservation and revision of film history; this really has been the case for *many* years, but in more recent times, the ability to digitally improve and alter materials for reissue is both wonderful as well as sometimes a problem. We’re all able to see things now that were otherwise really impossible to see, especially as revival houses and college campus showing because less frequent (and as there were less and less ‘cartoon parties’ where a good ol’ 16mm projector was pulled out).

When I was first collecting films in Super 8, there were Disney films available as well as a bunch of small companies that released public domain material. I was in junior high and would save lunch money to buy films. I’d often buy them used from The Big Reel, Movie Collector’s World or from a small company that sold used super 8 films (this company eventually evolved into ‘Pepperland Records’ — Was that L/C films?). The prints of these films varied a *lot*, from good to fair color, contrasty versus not enough contrast or being blown out on whites, blurry, etc. I would never have considered these inauthentic versions of a film — rather, just not the greatest print. These variances were, honestly, rarely intentional, just a result of the rarity of finding excellent material to copy.

And, so it was, as collectors, prints you’d collect varied, and of course still do. One particular lab was famous for making new prints of cartoons, some copyrighted, some not, and often had the best possible print of some of them, even better than anything you could find that was ‘official’.

These experiences were for sure the impetus for Snappy Video; I really liked the idea of being able to share some of the rarest films and, honestly, liked the idea of being able to see things I hadn’t seen even more. Collecting prints teaches you a lot about what is available and in what quality, but borrowing prints from various collectors teaches you a lot more quickly since you can compare versions. The rarest materials of course give you no choice — you use that one rare copy or not. Where the print was from, where it was struck, how it was made are all of course big factors (from 35mm or 16, a print down or contact print, etc). Of course, these are all magnified when you don’t have original sources to work from.

Now that I’ve been lucky enough to work with more original materials, there’s the additional aspect of figuring out what the best materials are to work from, even when the ‘original’ materials are available. Each piece of material has a whole series of possible issues. The original ‘timing’ of the original release prints of the film is often determined by either what the ‘dupe’ negative or master positive’s timing is. As I’ve been working on the Iwerks material, I see that the timers on those films were really excellent in making sure the films were as consistent as possible. Of course, Iwerks was also quite good as a studio in fairly even timing through most of the productions in filming— but a quick comparison between the scans of the OCN (original camera neg) and the FGMP (Fine Grain Master Positive) reveals the labs folks were *very* aware of making these look as good as possible. I’ve been using the master positives where I can to determine contrast per shot; I see this as part of the original record of the film, and if I can get it close to that, I get closer to what was seen in theaters back then.

That brings us back to the point I wanted to make. We could argue all day about what’s wrong with the newer versions of the Disney animated features. I do have a giant regret in selling my almost perfect 16mm Blue track Technicolor Cinderella print a handful of years back. As far as I was concerned, that print (with it’s beautiful bright *and* subtle tones) was the authentic version of that film, closer to what was seen in 1950 than the later, brighter and more contrasty versions.

Someone put a piece up of their Blue Track Ib print here; a comical scene with my favorite sequence of Lucifer the Cat (wonderfully animated by Ward Kimball). more colorful than this capture shows on this print:

U.M.& M. and NTA clearly did very little if any timing to fix issues on the Betty Boop shorts reissued in the 50s for TV; those prints are all over the place in basic timing. They did do better on the color Noveltoons and Color Classics (although it’s hard to tell since many of those prints are now very, very red- but the surviving Ektachrome negs and Kodachrome prints are generally well-timed throughout).

Instead of pulling the films from the negs, they struck a color 35mm print of each, copied the sound, then spliced in the new titles on that print and make a print down neg to make the release prints. APP did something similar with the color Popeyes, except they didn’t care about the sound when splicing in their new titles, so there’s a sound jump on all those prints (and now you know why).

There’s a whole *additional* aspect of companies already having the best materials and, for one reason or another, not using the best version though just not knowing or sloppiness, but that’s a conversation for an additional time.

So, what’s makes it the ‘correct’ version? I’d suggest that getting the closest to what the film looked like in original release brings the film at least close to what the intentions of the filmmakers were. They dealt with the technologies of the time, and created with that in mind.

Today we can make some things look better since there isn’t as much a requirement to lose quality in making several generations of a piece of material (master positive, dupe neg) before the release print. I’d argue that the filmmakers would be fine with that improvement. In terms of Technicolor or Cinecolor (or Eastman for that matter), I think trying to make the color look as good as possible *with* the attempt to make it look, if possible, how it looked in original release is the most authentic way to handle a restoration or clean up for release. I also think film grain is nice as well since it was part of the original production. Pulling from the OCN does mean a lot less grain, but I’d rather have some variance in grain rather than trying to remove all the grain from everything.

The big goal we’ve been trying to reach is to make these look like you are viewing a really, really good print of each of the films, keeping the organic nature of the films intact, even though we’ve cleaned up a lot of neg and print dust and dirt that would be present otherwise. This is another place I think the filmmakers would be ok with, and I think, as a rule of thumb, this should be the goal of *any* release of older materials.

There will always be an idea of making a film better or more commercially viable by changing some aspect of it in restoration or release. We’ll have to put up with those things, and, hopefully, have more people thinking about the art of the films first versus those often strong incentives to ‘modernize’ productions.

Have a good week everyone!

14 Comments

  • This is actually an incredibly interesting topic to me, as I’ve said before, because, while I like clear and crisp sound on a newly “restored” film, I also like the film to sound as if it did come from its original decade and look the part.

    When you restore a decades-old Technicolor film, you have to remember just how the skin tones looked in the original film. Collectors know the problem I’m referring to, but getting back to the audio aspect, I’d like to know why some 35 mm. prints sound so dull. I’ve heard restorations that I’ve been informed had come from 35 mm. prints or even negatives, and they have that problem where the sound reminds me of a radio with low battery power; does anyone know what I mean, here? This is not a complaint as much as I’d like to know how you reprocess sound from a film into a digital format like a video disk or just a computer file. We all know about DVNR (digital video noise reduction), but does that oft-over-used program also apply to the sound on a given film?

    There are times when I’ve heard the obsessive results of cleansing on an old film, and at times, the background soundtrack sounds as if I’m hearing it underwater. I know there is very little that can be done in cases like this because we’re talking about film here that is decades old and, perhaps, not from the original elements. Some of these films, over time, have changed hands so many times that I am sure that some of the finest elements are lost or so far from immediate retrieval that studio heads start sweating, thinking that it is going to cost so much more to just locate those elements.

    When I listen to a digital restoration, I like it to sound so crisp so that we can so neatly identify all the instrumentation in the orchestra, depending on how good this quality stands out in the absolute original film. I don’t expect every generation of sound to be heard as cleanly as you hear sound today. I love the occasional surface noise coming from a 1930’s film or from the sound disk that still might exist, and I wonder, regarding animation, how many of those sound disks still exist. Steve, you’ll have to extend this topic to the sound restoration in a future article.

    Regarding picture, and some folks might not think I have the right to talk, here, but I do remember how film looked on the big screen and on early color TV’s of the 1960’s–I don’t mind computer techniques in colorizing as a novel reimagining, but when it comes to black and white, keep it black and white (or sepiatone, if that is what was used). I can only imagine how clean some of my favorite cartoons look after full and complete digital restoration has been done, and I hope that they know what various colors looked like on an original Technicolor print. For those who spend their days doing this, I’m sure that my words here must bother them, but for me, if I could take part in this process, it would all be a labor of love.

    Heck, I liked creating cartoon compilations with nothing more than a stand-alone DVD/VHS recorder and my laserdisk player (and God help me should my laserdisk player break down and I can no longer enjoy some of the items I have exclusive to that format still!), and I thoroughly enjoyed the results, wishing that the big studios took as much time and pride in creating such product! To me, it’s as much fun to compile as to acquire and enjoy again and again. I hope we can locate more original title sequences because, when the studios upgraded some of their cartoons, they added louder, more modern titles to otherwise older cartoons, and those are jarring contrasts, as you point out, Steve. The 1930’s often had a completely different pacing and mode of recording soundtracks and, so, orchestras were even physically arranged so that certain instrumentation would register in the final product. Sometimes this worked; sometimes it didn’t, but there it is for historians to discover and discuss.

    Just listen to a mid-1930’s LOONEY TUNES or MERRIE MELODIES title and then fast forward to the 1940’s, and you’ll see how much more detail you hear in such scoring. Sorry if I sound like a broken record, here, but I am always continuously (and reduntantly) hoping I hear some of those classic cartoons so cleanly that I can pick out lyrics to the little ditties that appear specifically in those shorts. Here’s to full and near complete restoration, and here’s to finding the proper information and background on all these shorts. All those records must get lost when films are passed from studio to studio, from company to company (sigh)!

  • With both the UM&M and the AAP Paramount prints, it was interesting that the lab that handled the Cinecolor and Polarcolor prints of the late 1940s showed more fidelity to the original negatives. On the Popeyes, the Cinecolor and Polacolor shorts retained their original audio tracks at the start and finish (were the dubbed-in sound at the end of the Technicolor Popeyes was, ironically, from the end of one of the Cinecolor shorts, 1948’s “Olive Oyl for President”). With the UM&M color efforts, they kept the original opening and closing audio, but completely redid the titles on the Technicolor shorts — on the Polacolor and Cincecolor efforts, the prints only redid the titles where it was needed to eliminate the Paramount logo, references and copyright — the original Famous Studios and animation credits remained intact.

  • I think there were multiple versions made for the color Famous Popeye cartoons. I’ve seen ancient 16mm, black-and-white prints of those that use the black-and-white version of the “aap” title cards that you see in the Fleischer and B & W Famous cartoons, without the skip in the music. There are also a few color aap prints that were made that don’t have the skip; if they had the late-40s/early 50s “shortened” version of the music, they’e intact; if they have the longer, early-’40s intro, the music cuts in where the spinning Paramount star would normally be. My guess is that when these cartoons were first syndicated for TV, they distributed the black-and-white versions with the title cards. Later, when they made color prints for TV, they hastily made the sloppy prints with the music skip (and the end music from “Olive Oyl For President” at the end of the cartoon.)

  • For those of us who grew up with cheap prints delivered via fuzzy TV reception, there’s a certain nostalgia in low quality. I jumped on the restored Sherlock Holmes features when they were released and still relish them. Once I checked out the before / after restoration clips. Watching the before clip I abruptly became a ten-year-old in front of a portable B&W set.

    Whatever they did to original materials, I suspect I’m not the only one who learned to revere the old NTA logo for promising a Good Fleischer Color Classic, or even a Betty Boop (who was even rarer on the airwaves by that time).

  • I remember the 1988 VHS version of Cinderelly that had the “what’s it say” scene repeated after Lucifer finished dust-hopping.

  • Did your print of Cinderella have the RKO logo intact: before you sold it?

    • Also in the current restored version

  • Don’t forget when trying to nail color accuracy: 3-color Technicolor key layer! Consider that for every film made since it’s inception, up to 1944.

    A compromise on contrast and color, the burlap backgrounds for R.K.O. Radio Pictures’ assortment of Disney cartoons I presume relied on this, and after the removal of the key layer, the spotlight and the rest of the background blended too well for the most part. I think later titles, including reissues tried to compensate for the lack of key layer.

    I’m not sure how dye transfer Technicolor elements post 1944 made from materials struck from key layer positives would look, but I think I’ve seen a few.

    • Oh, yes, also, Natalie Kalamus supervision! During the 30’s, she made sure that colors on anything printed in Technicolor labs were more neutral and less over saturated and punched to put an ease to the eyes….

  • I remember seeing on eBay a 35mm print of “Cinderella” what seemed to be from the 1981 reissue. The Buena Vista logo was that blocky version from the early-80s and, for some reason, the film was presented cropped into an anamorphic “scope” presentation.

  • I’m sorry that I’m belatedly throwing in my 2 cents but there’s something I got to say about the true color in cartoons.

    Fundamental problems with studio camera systems could go on for years, if not decades, when labs compensated for incorrect exposure or incorrect RGB filters

    Color slates and/or the Technicolor Lilly White card were supposed to be shot. But they were all too often incorrectly used to time prints. The workprints/dailies should have always been printed at a straight across light (most often 25-25-25 for single pack color emulsions and at some labs 21-21-21).

    Uncorrected workprints/dailies allow everyone to see the problems with the camera/lighting systems.

    Further, those slates should have been added to the ocn before the academy leader so that the studio could tell if the release print was close to the original color. I’ve only seen this a few times.

    When single pack color arrived the situation got worse with incorrect color temperature on top of incorrect exposure. Some studios were miles off. The problems were often incorrect voltage and sometimes f stop diaphragms which had failed over the years.

    One day you’ll have to write about the exciting topics of registration and weave. ?? Each generation of contact printing added its own weave (which I called compounded weave) or take a good look at any photo-chemical release of “Sleeping Beauty” to see the focus problems at Disney.

    Crazy exciting stuff!

    • My Technicolor pals have reminded me that I shouldn’t call it “Single Pack”. It’s known as “Mono Pack”. And some technicians spell it “Mono Pak” which I refuse to do.

      I blame all the time I spent optically printing bi-packs and tri-packs!

  • Sadly, most “kids these days” don’t care. They want the colours to make their eyes water, and contract all the way up. Cause that’s BETTER, right??

  • God bless you for all that you do. Keep fighting the good fight.

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