New incarnation of Lean's epic shows digital assets, liabilities

For the Sony Pictures Entertainment pros behind the new 4k digital restoration of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which will be shown in 630 theaters for one day only on Thursday before being released on Blu-ray Nov. 13, the unveiling will be the result of more than a year of painstaking, frame-by-frame attention to detail.

Long considered the gold standard of wide-screen epics, if not best picture Oscar winners, David Lean’s 1962, 70mm masterpiece follows in the footsteps of other SPE restoration efforts such as Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai,” Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” which is in its completion stages.

The current 50th anniversary incarnation of “Lawrence,” based on the reconstructed, restored 222-minute version from 1988 that was overseen by Robert A. Harris, with an assist from Lean and editor Anne Coates, is the basis of the new restoration. Coates, who is the only surviving member of “Lawrence’s” core production crew, worked with Sony’s experts at Colorworks, the on-lot facility that handles digital restoration, for two months to make sure the color and the densities and the contrasts were as close to the original as possible.

“The plan was to fix the damage to the film that couldn’t be fixed in 1988 simply because the technology to do so didn’t exist at the time,” says Grover Crisp, exec VP of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering at SPE who oversaw the project. The original 65mm negative (70mm with the soundtrack) was scanned at 8k, which Crisp says is the equivalent resolution of 65mm, then reduced to a 4k file image, which revealed frames that were faded, warped, scratched and even chemically stained.

“We work with Baselight 8 color correction systems,” explained Crisp. “And, it’s very much like going through a DI (digital intermediate) process where you’re applying color to the raw scans of the original negative. So the process is actually similar, except that in film restoration you have to deal with all the problems that are wrong with the film, which a new production doesn’t have.”

The 70mm format, shown in a 2.2-to-1 aspect ratio, is now rarely used, except in one-offs like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” Only a handful of films in the last 20 years have been shot in 70mm.

Among those Sony showed the film to in the last few weeks were cinematographers Stephen Burum (“The Untouchables,” “Rumblefish”) and John Toll (“The Thin Red Line,” “Legends of the Fall”), who praised the effort — with reservations.

“They left in the grain,” said Burum, “so it had the texture of film. What I thought was really interesting is that after all these years of people going on and on about digital, they finally have gotten to level that’s almost as good as 70mm. That means when they go to the next stage they’re finally going to have a system that’s going to be much better.”

Toll said he had “mixed feelings” but that “the idea of (‘Lawrence’) having another life is fantastic.” The two-time Oscar winner said he’s seen the film projected about 15 times and felt some aspects of the restoration, especially the desert vistas, benefitted in ways that were dramatic.

“You can see a scene with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in the foreground and two or three hundred guys on camels in the background and you can actually see them all and you can actually see expressions on their faces,” explained Toll.

But the d.p. felt the more intimate moments didn’t fare as well. “Where you’re not looking at a frame loaded with detail, you don’t care about detail,” he explained. “So it does sort of sanitize it in a way that I think is not an advantage. If it’s not so highly resolved it makes it more sympathetic somehow.”

The abbreviated theatrical rollout to be projected digitally, presented by NCM Fathom Events and SPE, will be accompanied by a filmed intro by Scorsese and Sharif.

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