HOLLYWOOD — Take an old film, tweak it with tech to seem like a new one, then release it on a hot distribution platform. That fueled the colorization fight a decade ago, when Ted Turner tried to tint black-and-white classics for cable.
Colorization failed but, ironically, jumpstarted film restoration’s current vogue. However, the DVD revenue financing much of that work is starting another fight — this time over sound.
Well into the 1980s, most films had monaural soundtracks. It took a concerted push led by George Lucas and Ray Dolby to get stereo into theaters.
Now gearheads debate whether theaters should have 12 channels of sound. But to purists, preserving an older film means a soundtrack with just one channel.
“From our perspective, we’re always interested in preserving the original achievement of the filmmakers,” says the top archivist at Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, Michael Pogorzelski.
But DVD buyers luxuriate in front of fancy home-theater systems with the popular 5.1-channel surround-sound format. They want top-notch sound backing the gorgeously restored visuals on their latest DVDs. And what auds want, Hollywood provides, with routine 5.1 remixes of many DVD releases.
“Obviously, as an archive, we would never do (a 5.1 remix),” says Edward Stratman, the George Eastman House associate curator of preservation. “We try to intrude and change a film as little as possible. But they (homevid producers) do it for one reason only: to make money.”
“The homevideo divisions are looking for a marketing angle,” says Chace Prods. prexy Bob Heiber, who handles many particularly difficult audio recovery projects. “So much has been available on DVD, what do you do to make a film stand out? As a service facility, we do what our customers ask us to do.”
Pop Sound mixer Ted Hall says he understands preservationists’ concerns, but “ultimately people who buy DVDs want something better than what was there before.”
The odds that a film will get the 5.1 remix depend on a few factors: how notable the film is, DVD marketing opportunities, whether the director is alive, and what audio material remains.
“A lot of directors kind of like (doing a 5.1 remix),” Hall says, “because they can do things to the movie that they couldn’t do before. Directors often want to really tweak the sound.”
“West Side Story” and “The Last Waltz” are among films recently reworked.
“My view is that to run the picture with a 1934 soundtrack kind of throws the experience,” says Turner Entertainment prexy Roger Mayer. “If you can restore the film to the best it can be seen, why not restore it to the best it can be heard?”
Mayer, a leading preservationist voice who presides over a library of 1,860 features, says Turner’s recent restoration of Vincente Minnelli pics didn’t spawn controversy.
“Nobody came to me and said, ‘Where’s my old, lousy soundtrack?’ ” Mayer says.
Pogorzelski can point to remix work that makes him cringe.
In “MASH.,” helmer Robert Altman created what Pogorzelski calls “one of the most important soundtracks in the history of film,” because he layered sound in the mono mix to focus audience eyes on, say, one surgical bay of three onscreen simultaneously. A LaserDisc “M.A.S.H.” came with a stereo remix that muddied that groundbreaking work, he says.
And Pogorzelski acknowledges a director’s original intent can lead to headaches. When the Academy helped restore “All That Jazz,” it kept director Bob Fosse’s unusual stereo mix despite subsequent reviewer complaints.
“I’m not going to second-guess Bob Fosse,” Pogorzelski says. “In our opinion, restoration is done best when the restorationist’s hands are invisible. From my perspective as a film historian, there’s no shame in going out in mono.”