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Christopher Nolan Goes Analog Route to Preserve Celluloid Beauty of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

To filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the phrase “newly restored” has taken on unfortunate baggage. In the past decade or so, he believes, it has come to mean digital tinkering with classic films, or even “corrections” made on behalf of artists who worked in another time based on mere assumptions about their work.

So when Nolan saw a few reels struck from the original 70mm camera negative of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork “2001: A Space Odyssey” — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — the gears started turning. What if audiences had access to a genius’s “unrestored” vision in all its analog glory? Furthermore, what if serious efforts were to be put into an increasingly antiquated type of celluloid rehabilitation, one free of the digital realm?

“A lot of the great film-restoration work throughout history was done entirely photochemically, including the mid-1980s release of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were involved with,” Nolan says. “[Film is] the best analogy that’s ever been devised for the way the eye sees.”

Thus was born the journey to bring Kubrick’s work back to the big screen just as it might have been viewed 50 years ago, resulting in the refreshed film that premiered at Cannes last week and is set for a May 18 North American release by Warner Bros.

It’s a dream come true for Nolan to get his hands dirty on such a cinema milestone. He remembers, as many might, seeing the film with his father as a youth and being blown away.

“One of the reasons I hold Kubrick in such high esteem is I think he’s inimitable,” Nolan says. “Any time you see a filmmaker drawing too specifically [from Kubrick], it seems to not work,” he explains, referring to directors who might precisely aim to reference the helmer’s imagery. “It seems to be self-conscious. He’s calm in the way he presents information, and there’s a simplicity and a discipline to his work that I think any filmmaker would aspire to. But he’s working on a plane far above the rest of us. That’s inspiring, but it’s also daunting.”

Nolan was acutely aware of the tendency for “interpretation” when it comes to film restoration: “There’s a trend and a danger of sitting there going, ‘What would the filmmaker have done if he had 5.1 sound? Or Dolby Atmos? Or laser projection?’ That’s not a road I felt in any way comfortable going down.”

Recalling a recent trip to India with British artist Tacita Dean as part of the Film Heritage Foundation’s Reframing the Future of Film event series, Nolan also notes that he’s been applying the arguments Dean makes in art restoration to the film world.

“For instance, there’s the idea that anything you do needs to be reversible by future generations,” he says. “Because of trends with restoration, there are things people might choose to do now that in 20 years’ time would seem inappropriate or intrusive. We’re not touching the original negative. We’re working from an interpositive. Nothing is affecting the original material.”

Collaborating with a team at the FotoKem laboratory in Burbank, Nolan and Ned Price, Warner Bros.’ VP of restoration, first had to spruce up that material. According to Price, the lab spent more than six months cleaning the 50-year-old negative and checking the splices, which included removing a number of older, imperfect repairs. Then they made an answer print, color-timed it by closely adhering to the original timing notes and documentation, and finally made an interpositive and an internegative in 65mm for striking prints. (Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan’s director of photography on “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk,” had a hand in the effort.)

“Film is the best analogy that’s ever been devised for the way the eye sees.”
Christopher Nolan

The team also went back to the original six-track soundtrack and faithfully transferred it to the new prints. “The film is mixed in a very extreme way,” Nolan says with awe. “There are incredible sonic peaks that are beyond anything anyone would do today.”

For Price, it’s been a new, exciting adventure with one of the most revered assets in the Warner Bros. vault. “I’ve worked on this film a number of times, and every time I return to it, I find it’s a different film, because I bring to it a different experience,” he says. “And this is the first time I’ve been able to finish it with 70mm theatrical prints. All the previous visits have finished in digital form.”

That includes an upcoming 4K UHD home market version, with which Nolan was also involved.

But while the photochemical process bears a certain alchemy and magic, the director contends that he’s not attracted by the romance alone. “That tends to obfuscate the greater truth, which is that photochemical is a much higher-quality image format,” he says. “Showing people prints in the cinema is the way you best make that point, and if you could choose one movie to try to show that to people, it would be ‘2001.’”

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