Raging Grain Debates: Andrea Kalas on the Sunset Blvd. Restoration

The VP of Paramount Archives describes the unique challenges of restoring Billy Wilder's classic, on Blu-ray November 6, 2012.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

“Ready for our Blu-ray, Mr. DeMille!”

And so we are. Finally, on November 6, 2012, we will see the debut of the Blu-ray of Billy Wilder’s remarkable and iconic film, Sunset Blvd. (1950). Just before release, I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with the highly talented VP of the Paramount Archives, Andrea Kalas. Besides the fact that she previously maintained the archives of such well-known establishments as the British Film Institute and DreamWorks, Kalas has numerable restorations and countless hours of high-level archival work under her belt. Of particular consequence, this year’s extraordinary restoration, also released as part of the Centennial Celebration project, Wings (William Wellman, 1927).

As we talked about what it takes to put together a Blu-ray of a classic film, it became clear that in order to make something like this work from the consumer standpoint, the collector standpoint and the archival standpoint, it takes significant effort and dedication. Kalas’ discussion on the creation of the Sunset Blvd. disc is of some significance as it underscores the ways in which film studios and archives are currently working together in order to create product for us, the consumer. In this, the spirit of cooperation, film restoration is becoming part of our public sphere. We are getting a kind of access to pieces of media that we have never had access to before, pieces that were previously only living in the Library of Congress or behind archival walls are now becoming restored and translated into a high-definition format that may be stored within our own personal libraries: Blu-ray.
 

CraveOnline: Good morning, Andrea. So glad to get a chance to talk with you about this lovely Blu-ray disc. Now there was a previous Collector’s Edition DVD from 2002. I’m wondering what was different specifically about doing this restoration than the process of doing that restoration?

Andrea Kalas: Well, the 2002 restoration was really a pioneer restoration because it was really the first time that a full film had been scanned and done digital restoration on, so it was sort of early days in that technology. And in just a short 10 years, the technology has sort of exploded and we have better scanners, we have better nuanced restoration tools, so the ability to go back in our 100th year to restore a movie that is so so a part of Paramount’s history just made sense. So we went back and we scanned at 4K, we used tools to make sure we got the look of the film exactly right, we had a print that the Library of Congress lent us which we then used as a reference which really was incredibly helpful because we really wanted to get that very distinctive shadow, darkness, murky interior of Gloria Swanson’s interior really right, so yes, it was an opportunity to do the film real justice.
 

Were there any aspects of this restoration that you found more challenging than other parts of the restoration?

Well, yes. The fact that the original negative is lost was absolutely a challenge, we always like to start with the most original material and when we don’t have it, that’s always something we need to work with, so we scanned it at the highest possible resolution and then tried to make sure that we were doing the cleanup and bringing that original mono-chromatic look to full beauty and detail of all of the dark lines, you know, that was a challenge, because we didn’t have that source material, but we did have the tools to bring it back to life.
 

Now, I did notice that in the Special Features there are some bonus materials on this release that are not in the previous 2002 DVD, such as the deleted “Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues” scene.  Could you talk to me a little bit about how that became involved in the process of this Blu-ray?

Yeah, isn’t that terrific? That actually came from another archive, the Academy archive, they had that in their archive, and working with them, we were able to include it in this release, and I just think it’s so much fun! We’re lucky enough that we work really closely with all the other archives and so the archivist there let us know when they heard that we were working on Sunset Blvd. that this was something that they had in their archives, and they were very very generous to let us scan it and include it in the extras.
 

Since we’re on the topic of extra scenes, a good chunk of the extras focus on the original opening for Sunset Blvd., the scene that is now all-but-lost, the famous opening morgue sequence. There is some footage included on this disc, but is there any hope of ever finding the sound? So many people talked about the preview that bombed and that whole situation.

Well, Laura Thornberg who really spearheaded a lot of this restoration, she’s been working with the archive and Sunset Blvd. for a long time and if they [the sound elements] were out there to be found, let me tell you, Laura would’ve found ‘em by now [laughs]. You know, we have looked high and low. But we never give up hope for these kinds of things.
 

So Sunset Boulevard, like a few other Blu-ray discs you have put out this year, is part of this fantastic Centennial Celebration. What about this particular Blu-ray represents the things that Paramount can do now with restoration and preservation in film that you couldn’t do, say, 10 years ago?

Well, I’m really pleased to say that Paramount is really fully behind all of these preservation and restoration efforts so I hope that this Blu-ray really represents that, because I know that the entire studio has really made an effort to pay attention to its heritage and […] the fact that this film is shot on this lot, shows this lot, show the gates, shows the backlot […] is a wonderful way to celebrate the last major studio that still exists in Hollywood. You know, we can see the Hollywood sign from our lot. For so many reasons, you know, it’s such a perfect way to talk about not only the history of Paramount but Paramount’s dedication to its history.
 

What were the issues that you had to look at when you were trying to decide about the amount of grain that you wanted to keep in or out within the restoration?

Grain is always an issue for us, and it was particularly in this case because we had a second-generation element to scan, so you just have more grain. The more generations you have, the more grain you have. But we really really really wanted to keep the sharpness of the image alive and if you’ve dialed down the grain, you can lose some of the sharpness, and we really didn’t want to do that, we really wanted to keep the sharpness. And to me, the grain is there, I like the grain, but some people disagree; there’s great raging “grain debates.” But to me, there is so much detail in every shot of this film: Gloria Swanson’s costumes done by Edith Head are just a perfect sense of her character, the interior set decoration is incredible, everything about this, John Seitz’s cinematography is amazing. We didn’t want to lose any of that, you know? And I think we did that and I think that the grain is as much a part of that in the end, because we kept the detail by doing that but it was also what was captured on that film element that we scanned.
 

In a film like this, where the visual sensibility can range from dark and smoky to detailed and intricate, what is the main thing that you do to make sure that you are keeping true to the original elements, and that the original classic and/or noir feel doesn’t get disturbed by newer sensibilities or technological gloss?

I think the one thing that we do that we really think is important is our homework. It sounds really stupid and cliché, but it’s really true. By looking at the original print, by reading up about how the original cinematographer approached it, by talking to people- in this case we talked to the son of the cinematographer- that really helps us make sure that we don’t lose sight of the important parts of the film. By really knowing the film well when you go in to do the technical work you can make smart choices.