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How Disney decides where to draw the line when it comes to restoring its classic films

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How Disney decides where to draw the line when it comes to restoring its classic films

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How does a well-intentioned restoration wind up being thought of as a desecration of a once-popular motion picture?

That's what Steven Spielberg seemed to be wondering earlier this week at the 30th anniversary screening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." During the Q & A session following this Los Angeles Times-sponsored screening, the topic of "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial" 's 2002 release on DVD came up. And Spielberg publicly admitted that he now regrets some of the changes that were made to that version of this much-beloved movie (i.e. editing out "You're not dressing as a terrorist" line, digitally altering the guns that the Feds were carrying in the film so that they now appeared to be walkie-talkies).

In hindsight, Steven now feels that he shouldn't have listened to all those parents groups who complained about the original 1982 version of this Amblin Entertainment production. And that - by making the changes that he did - Spielberg somehow managed to " ... rob the people who love E.T. of their memory of the film." Which is a mistake that this Academy Award-winning director seems eager not to ever make again.

Copyright 2002 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

I bring this issue up because ... Late last month, I got to take part in a WebEx Online event where I then got the chance to chat with the folks who rode herd on the restoration of the 70th anniversary edition of "Dumbo" (which hits store shelves next Tuesday). And as part of that presentation, this dedicated team actually talked about having to deal with the very same issues that Spielberg struggled with with his revised version of "E.T." That - when you work in the preservation & restoration business - you don't want to make so many fixes & futzes to a film that the audience then no longer recognizes this movie as the one that they once saw in theaters.

Take - for example - this group's 2004 restoration of the first theatrically-released Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1928's "Steamboat Willie."

"We actually did a pristine restoration on that black-and-white cartoon. We took the flicker out, we took the weave of the film out and we cleaned it up," Dave Bossert, the artistic supervisor of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Restoration and Preservation Team explained. "And when we were done, 'Steamboat Willie' was absolutely perfect looking. So then we screened the restored version of this cartoon. And afterwards, we all just sat there and said 'This doesn't really look right.' At least from an artistic point of view."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So they then showed this restored version of "Steamboat Willie" to Roy Disney. And while Roy applauded the work that Bossert and his team had done, he pointed out that - by cleaning up this iconic cartoon & then restoring the print to the point that it actually looked better than most contemporarily-produced animated shorts - they'd accidentally drained some of the hand-drawn charm & historical significance out of "Steamboat Willie."

"And Roy absolutely agreed with us that you cannot make it look that perfect, because that wasn't the way that 'Steamboat Willie' was created, with the technology of that day, and it just didn't feel right," Bossert continued.  "So it was our group - if you will - groupthink that you had to leave a little bit of grain, weave, light flicker, for it to feel of the period."

Mind you, as they're working on a film, Disney's Preservation and Restoration Team also try to take consideration the filmmakers' original intentions. Take - for example - the wire-removal work that they just did while restoring the Studios' 1954 live-action release, "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea."

This is a photo of the first version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" 's giant squid battle.
Which Walt Disney disliked so much that he spent $250,000 on an 8-day-long reshoot.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"When they were originally shooting the giant squid fight in '20,000 Leagues,' Walt went to huge effort to hide those wires. But when he saw the footage of what was originally supposed to be a daylight fight, Walt went 'Oh, this is not working.' And the Studio then went back at great expense and re-shot this sequence at night to kind of help the squid look more real and to hide some of its mechanics," explained Sarah Duran-Singer, the Senior Vice President of Post-Production with Walt Disney Studios. "So by going in now and digitally removing some of the more obvious wires ... Well, I feel like we're actually honoring the filmmakers' original intentions. Which was to hide - as much as possible - how the giant squid figure in this fight sequence from '20,000 Leagues' was really being manipulated."

Conversely, while they're scanning these movies for restoration (which - in "Dumbo" 's case, anyway - involved going frame-by-frame through 3.2 miles of film. 275,352 frames, to be exact), Disney's Restoration and Preservation Team also tries to fix those glitches that - if the original filmmakers back in the day had had the time or the technology - they would have undoubtedly fixed as well.

"As we're cleaning up and inspecting each individual frame, we've done things like removing reflections of the cameramen or of the light spilling into the room when someone accidentally opened the door to that camera room just as this frame was being shot," Bossert said. "When we look at these movies as closely as we do while we're doing our restoration work, you'll notice all sorts of oddities that really weren't meant to be in the finished version of these films."

As part of the Studio's 1951 featurette, "Operation Wonderland," Walt demonstrates
how the camera animation set-up works. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

One of the other challenges that Disney's Preservation & Restoration Team had to deal with while working on this particular animated feature had to do with the extreme economic conditions that "Dumbo" was produced under. To explain: As the 1940s were getting underway, the Studio was just coming off the release of "Pinocchio" & "Fantasia." And since these two animated features had been prohibitively expensive to produce and hadn't nearly done as well financially as Walt would have hoped, a decision was made at the Studio level to take a far different approach with "Dumbo."In that this particular animated feature was to be made for as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

"And because 'Dumbo' was a lower-cost production and the Studio was trying to save as much money as they could, they would reuse cells," Duran-Singer said.

The way that this process worked was: After the animation had been completed and it had been hand-inked & painted on an acetate cell, it was then photographed. And once this footage was developed & screened, and Walt and his team had then looked at it and said "That's okay" ... Well, then these ink-and-paint covered pieces of acetate were sent to the cell washer. Where all of the ink & paint were scrubbed off of that piece of acetate so that this cell could then be used again in the production of another piece of animation.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And here's a fun piece of trivia for all you animation history buffs out there," Dave Bossert chimed in at this particular point in the WebEx Online conference. "Chuck Jones actually got his start in the business by working as a cell washer for a little while here at Disney. Chuck got his start here."

Anyway ... The problem with reusing pieces of acetate that had been through the cell washing process was that it often scratched the cell material. Not to mention introducing some warpage, expansion and shrinkage to the acetate. Which eventually became obvious when this repainted cell was once again placed on the camera stand and then photographed.

"So now - some 70 years after the fact - we're now able to scan movies like 'Dumbo' and then fix many production mistakes like this. Make these films look as good if not better than they did when they were originally released to theaters. But before we do anything like that, we always ask ourselves 'Should we?' ," Duran-Singer states. "Since we don't want to repeat that 'Steamboat Willie' situation ... Well, we've had some very lively debates. We constantly ask ourselves: if they had the time, the money, or the technical expertise, would the Disney animators & artists who originally worked on this move have fixed that? We always try to have Walt and the original filmmakers help guide our choices here. We never want to change the original intention of any of the films that we restore."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, what helps in a case like this is when you can bring in animators who actually worked on these films back in the day and then hear their opinions on how the restoration of a particular animated feature has turned out. Case in point: That time back in 2002 when they showed the recently-cleaned-up version of "Bambi" to Disney Legends Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.

"I've been at Disney for 24 years now. And that particular screening of 'Bambi' was probably the most nerve-wracking moment of my career," Duran-Singer remembered. "When the lights went up, I was just petrified as we all turned around and waited for Frank & Ollie's reaction.  And to see them smile and say, 'It's beautiful.  It's how we intended it,' was just so satisfying for the whole team."

Sadly, as the years go by, it becomes harder & harder for Dave & Sarah to bring in folks like Frank & Ollie to come consult on these film restorations. Which is why Bossert & Duran-Singer find themselves increasingly turning to Disney's Animation Research Library and the 70 million pieces of art that Lella Smith & her staff have on file there.  So that they can then make color comparisons between the actual backgrounds that were painted for these animated features and the way that these backgrounds now look in the scanned nitrate negatives and then make the necessary color adjustments.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which kind of brings things full circle here ... Since - just as film fans have complained about Spielberg's retooled "E.T. : The Extra-Terrestrial" with its guns-that-were-turned-into-walkie-talkies - some animation fans have grumbled about how bright the colors are in these recently restored Disney classics.

"We've gotten a lot of push-back on that issue," Duran-Singer admitted. "Which I understand. Given that so many of us saw these movies in theaters during our childhoods. 'Pinocchio,' for example. My childhood memory of that Disney animated feature was that it was dark. It was loaded with dark reds, heavy browns and a lot of wood.  But when we scanned that nitrate negative, what did we see?  All of these beautiful pastel colors. These pinks, these lavenders. And Pinocchio's eyes were so blue. That's when we began to realize that the prints of 'Pinocchio' that had been out in theaters for decades now were not color-timed off of the original. Which is why our memory of this movie is totally different than the one that people who saw 'Pinocchio' during its original theatrical release back in 1940 have."

In situations like this, where people are going to compare how the newly restored Blu-ray version of a Disney classic looks on a high-def screen versus the way that they remember this same film looking when it was projected theatrically ... Well, obviously there are going to be differences. Especially when you consider that the film print that you were viewing then was probably several generations away from the original negative.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But based on their research, not to mention conversations with the Disney Legends who actually worked on these films as well as the reference material that they regularly pull from the Animation Research Library, Dave & Sarah are very confident that the restored versions of the movies that their unit at the Studio produces are great representations of what these Disney classics actually looked like when they were originally released to theaters.

"You've gotta remember that - when we were working on restoring 'Bambi' - we had Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Tyrus Wong coming in to look at our work. And these were the artists who originally worked on that film," Bossert said. "So to have those three approve of our restoration effort ... Well, I'd much rather make Frank, Ollie & Tyrus Wong happy than some 'Bambi' fan who vaguely remembers what that movie looked like when they saw it at their local cinema 25 years ago. I can sleep comfortably at night knowing that I made those three guys happy."

Which isn't to say that the efforts of Disney's Preservation & Restoration Team can't ever be improved. Take - for example - this unit's recent decision to revisit the work that they did on "Bambi."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We restored 'Bambi' back in 2003. And that was the first restoration job that we did by scanning the original successive exposure negative," Duran-Singer stated. "But because the tools that we use have improved and our artists' knowledge have grown so much over the past seven, eight years ... When it came time to produce a Blu-ray version of 'Bambi,' we immediately decided to take another run at restoring this animated feature. Because we know, given everything that we've learned since 2003, that we can do a far better job this time around."

I have to admit that this was the part that I liked most of this "Dumbo" WebEx Online event. The fact that Disney's Preservation & Restoration Team was comfortable with the idea that they could revisit films that they'd already worked on. That Bossert & Duran-Singer acknowledged that, given the improvements in technology and film preservation techniques that will undoubtedly arise in the years ahead, that it then just kind of made sense to acknowledge that the restoration & preservation of Disney's classic movies would be an on-going process. But - at the same time - Dave & Sarah knew where & when to draw the line, so to speak, when it came to the sorts of changes & "improvements" that they could / should be making to these Disney films.

Which kind of makes me wish that Bossert & Duran-Singer had had a conversation with Spielberg before he "improved" "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." But given that Steven - during the Q & A portion of this week's 30th anniversary "Raiders of the Lost Ark" screening - did float the idea that, when "E.T." comes out on Blu-ray, the version that will be available for purchase will the 1982 original rather than the 2002 version of this Amblin Entertainment production ... Well, maybe Spielberg is learning, all on his own, where the line is. At least when it comes to tinkering with much-beloved motion pictures.

Copyright 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved

Now if someone could only show George Lucas where this line is.

Your thoughts?

The article was updated / corrected on September 15, 2011 to fold in additional information

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  • It's good to read a story about someone realizing that it can be a bad idea to try to "improve" past movies... and to also hear of it being a success, too.  While reading the article, the only mainstream example I could think of was Star Wars, and how George Lucas keeps revisiting them... which I don't know if I'd call a success.  Getting back more onto the Disney subject... I think merchandising and how the company has presented the characters since the movies have come out can affect people's memories of the movies as well.  Case in point, the Seven Dwarfs... one Disney employee once pointed out to me that their clothes are often presented in bright colors, when in fact, they were forest dwellers, and their clothes  were muted forest colors.  If somone's seen the merchandise more recently than the movie, I would think one's "memory" of the movie would be skewed to the memory.

    It sounds like in Dumbo's case it was mostly a matter of cleaning up the look of the film.  I take it from the tone of the article that the group is wise enough to know not to edit it storywise, because someone didn't think certain sections weren't PC.

    This was a fascinating article Jim.

  • It's funny that Disney's history of editing un-PC things out of their films (the black centaur in Fantasia for example) and adding new sequences to already great films (Beauty and The Beast, The Lion King) is completely overlooked for this article.

  • In one article you make the case for changing the Disney films to suit the original artists and then raise that old whine about George Lucas (the original artist) changing his films to suit himself.  Being a fan of Star Wars doesn't make one George Lucas any more than having an annual passport makes one Walt Disney.

    Them's my thoughts.

  • @Sterfish. Yeah but the difference is they still kept the original theatrical editions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (and Pocahontas for that matter) available alongside the enhanced versions rather than outright replacing them. Although the article itself looks like it was more about the unit that dealt with the pre-CAPS system animated features which would exclude the titles mentioned.

    What would be interesting though is re-tooling or restoring older CG films using current technologies that were unavailable at the time.

  • Ron --

    Okay. I'll admit that maybe my-poke-at-George-Lucas at the very end of today's article is kind of a cheap shot. But given that the "Star Wars" Blu-rays come out tomorrow and there's already some controversy out there about the additional changes that Lucas made to those films this time around ... Well, I just couldn't resist folding a mention of George into today's article.

    That said, I do agree that -- since George Lucas is the original filmmaker / creator of the "Star Wars" movies -- that we're talking about a different situation with the way that he keeps revisiting these films. Going back in and adding additional connective tissues between the prequels and the sequels. Not to mention using today's technology to address nagging problems of the past (EX: Adding eye blinks to the Ewoks with the hope that this will then finally make these small furry characters seem alive and endearing, rather than cloying and annoying).

    Speaking of connective tissue ... That's supposedly why Lucas decided to have Darth Vader shout " No! No!" before heaving Emperor Palpatine down that reactor shaft. So that Vader's reaction in Episode VI will now echo / bookend the one other time in this film series where we saw this character totally freak out. Which was in "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith," when Palpatine tells Anakin that Padme died as a direct result of Vader's anger. And Darth -- in his grief and anger -- then lays waste to that medical unit on Coruscant.

    Me personally, I'm not entirely sure that this smallish story change will actually work in the way that Lucas intends it to. But then again, I haven't seen this new Darth-Vader-yells-"Nooo!" footage in context yet. Over the Labor Day Weekend, I got to see a lot of the "Star Wars" films again for the first time in years because Spike TV was running a three-day-long marathon where all six movies were -- in one configuration or another -- run back-to-back-to-back. And I have to admit that I found the prequels to be better than I remembered while "Return of the Jedi" is still kind of a flabby mess.

    Beyond that ... I think that the real issue that "Star Wars" fans are having with the changes that Lucas has been making to these movies is that -- to borrow a phrase from Steven Spielberg's "E.T." comments at this week's 30th anniversary screening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- that George has, bit by bit, been robbing them of the memory of the movies that they once loved by doing things like having Greedo shoot first.

    I myself, I don't know if I entirely buy into that school of thought. I do know, though, that -- thanks to the "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" animated series -- that Lucas considers the Star Wars mythology to be a still living, fluid thing. Rather than something that's now written in stone and can't ever be changed.

    Which is why -- with the upcoming theatrical releases of the 3D versions of the "Star Wars" films (and I can't be the only one who's been hearing the whispers coming out of Skywalker Ranch that George is now finally giving some semi-serious thought to proceeding with production of Episodes VII - IX) -- I'd imagine that we are going to see even more changes being made to these movies in the years to come. Which Lucas -- as the creator / guardian of the entire "Stars Wars" mythos -- feels perfectly justified in doing.

    Anywho ... Long story short, Ron. You were right. Taking a quick swipe at George Lucas as I was closing out today's JHM article was kind of a cheap shot. And I'm sorry about that.

  • I love the discussion about how Disney tries to preserve its history as much as possible. Yet the dig at George Lucas doesn't seem to fit in with the rosy scenario except for one point where at least Disney tries to present an experience as close as possible to the original theater experience while George Lucas appears to not have the same goal. I remember watching Star Wars when it first came out and I later went to watch Star Wars 10 years later as a re-release. The difference was huge. The film sucked. The quality was bad. The film was grainy. I really don't think George wants this in the long term. Yet, it is true that once you start messing with it to bring it up to standards, the standards change. That's why when I saw the prequels, I was sorely disappointed. I was also disappointed with Star Wars 6. What the heck was I thinking? The high point of the series was Star Wars 4 and 5 (the original 1 and 2). Everything else was a mistake.

  • You're the 2nd website (AICN was the other) that incorrectly listed the "penis breath" line as one of Spielberg's special-edition edits. In fact, "penis breath" survived. It was the line where Mom tells older brother "you are not dressing as a terrorist!" that got edited to "you are not dressing as a hippy!"

  • Bill S --

    And that's the beauty of the Web. When you make a mistake, you can actually go back into an article and then amend the offending information. Which I've just done (as well as placing a notation at the bottom of today's story stating this piece " ... was updated / corrected on September 15, 2001 to fold in additional information").

    Sorry about getting that "Penis Breath" info wrong. But a friend who actually attended this "Raiders of the Lost Ark" screening on Monday night said that Spielberg -- as part of that night's Q & A session -- specifically mentioned this somewhat adult joke as something that had been addressed as part of "E.T. : The Extra-Terrestrial" 's 2002 DVD redo. So I guess that even Steven thinks that this particular gag has been cut and/or reworked at this point.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing out my error. And I apologize for initially getting that part of today's JHM article wrong.

  • Interesting article Jim. Especially since I did a bit of unauthorized film restoration on some old Disney prints. (Hey, maybe they used the prints I cleaned up for the restoration LOL) My first job out of high school in 1981 was as a movie theater projectionist. My trainer showed me some basic methods to clean up old nitrate film prints. Basically we would just wipe them with some Kodak cleaner. It was amazing to see how the prints looked when they were projected after first watching them prior to being throughly wiped. They were always brighter and the prints didn't break.

    Thus, I'm all in favor of restoration. As for "improvements" I think that depends. Things like reflections of the camera operator go by so fast that the eye can't see it. I suppose one could make an argument about leaving it unchanged gives it personality for someone who really wants to take the time to use their DVD player to find that one imperfection. Or take it out. You can't see it anyway.

    As for E.T. and the guns to radios thing, I had forgot all about that. I must be getting old. I remember the petitions being circulated at the bible college I attended. I must have signed one of them as I did agree with the idea of a film where cops point guns at an unarmed child is disturbing. However, as i've got older I've come to think that  shock can be good...even for Christians. As for Star Wars, I've never seen the changed versions and I think the C.G. version of Yoda will be interesting. Personally, I'll probably prefer the original version with the puppet but what the heck. Having had the privledge of meeting Frank Oz when I was a security guard at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, I feel a fondness for that cuddly little puppet. But, it is George Lucas' world and he has the right to do whatever he wants.

  • I have to agree with the comment regarding the egregious PC nature of some "restorations" of Disney's. I am mindful, in particular, of Melody Time marked as a "newly restored!" in its cover art, etc. when Pecos Bill had been bowdlerized to the extent it was. Ditto Make Mine Music and Fantasia. I'm just happy those old Japanese LDs are still holding up.

  • It's great to see that they take so much care in restoring these films.  I guess that's why Disney's films have been amongst the best restored movies on DVD and Blu Ray.  

    Jim - is any portion of the restoration of Steamboat Willie mentioned in the article available to view anywhere?  It sounds like it would be interesting to compare with the restored version they've released on various DVD's.

  • The one thing I always thought that kept ET from being a true family classic was the gratuitous cuss language.  It simply didn't need it, and it seemed like it was put in solely to make the film appear hip and contemporary.

    As for George Lucas, I think he went wrong the moment he decided to change Darth Vader into Luke's father.  This was during the writing of ESB, and in order to explain the discrepancy in logic, it makes Obi Wan in ROTJ look like an old fool.  It's because of that change that George has to go back and clean up these messes.

    One thing that could be improved in Ep 4 was the garbage compactor room, it's so very lo-tech compared to the predicaments found in the prequels.

  • Part of the problem in referring to the original artwork is that it was painted to achieve a particular look/color when put through the Technicolor process.   A subtle tan painted color becomes a bright yellow when processed on film--and this was intentional.  The limitations of the film stock and Technicolor process gained no better usage than through the artistry of the folks at Disney. The BluRay of "Gone With The Wind" had the advantage of a very good 3 Strip Technicolor print approved in 1949 by the film's producer, David O. Selznick.  I'd be more interested if they've also referred to approved Technicolor wedges (tests)from the production --if they're available--rather than the artwork, as that would be more appropriate for restoration.

  • Trying to target the public's memory of a film when they first saw it in their childhood is very tricky. What do you aim for? How has the memory changed over the years? Mistakes that appeared in the original theatrical release may have gone largely unnoticed, especially by children. With newer films we seem to have no problem opting for a "director's cut" or augmented "with never before seen footage". DVDs often contain both the original theatrical release as well as an "unrated" version, new to the DVD. Why can't we have that option with classic films? Put both on the DVD/Blu-ray and let the viewer choose.

  • One thing that I have to say about Steven Spielberg is that his movies don't hold up after the test of time. I am unable to appreciate E.T. after all these years. The movie doesn't have the same power. His movies relies too much on audience manipulation. He is a master of this sort of film making. Once you know his tricks, the movie falls apart. Why do you think E.T. doesn't work as a ride attraction? E.T. is one ugly dude. No one cares about this alien creature. His latter movies are bombs. How would you like to be manipulated to like terrorists in Munich? It was a major downfall since Schindler's List. Now, I can no longer enjoy any Spielberg movie. He turned into a hack director. Just look at what he did with Indiana Jones. Even the star, Shia LaBeouf, ragged on it.

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