Tessa Idlewine (TI)
Film Preservationist (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science)
Interviewers: Paul Frith (PF) & Keith Johnston (KJ)
Conduct via Skype
PF: OK Tessa so if you could tell me a little bit about your role at the Academy.
TI: Sure. I am the Short Film Preservationist so I work on preserving and restoring usually short films although lately I’ve been working a lot more on features including Masque of the Red Death. So my job is basically to curate our collection mostly focussing on short films or home movies or student films. And then from that working on preserving the films themselves, so that’s both photochemical and digital. We still do, try to do, mostly photochemical for most projects. So that’s making new pre-print elements, new prints on 16mm or 35mm and then going on to do digital preservation as well, so 2K or 4K scanning, new DCPs and ProRes or Quicktime files for access. But, yeah, lately I’ve been working a lot more on feature films just because we have four preservationists on staff and we’ve been pretty busy so I’ve been putting my toe into feature films and that’s how I got on Masque of the Red Death which is obviously a feature. Because we got a Film Foundation grant to work on that and we were just… we were too busy so I started working on that. So, I don’t know, I can talk about Masque some more or do you…
PF: Yeah so if you can talk a little bit about how the project came about and perhaps move on to the source material that you had, just to begin with.
TI: Sure. So we… the Academy’s been working with Roger Corman and a producer named Jon Davison, he’s someone who’s worked a lot with Roger throughout the years. He’s a producer. He produced Robocop, Piranha and stuff like that and he’s a film collector. Through our relationship with Jon he got us in touch with Roger and we decided we wanted to make new 35mm prints of all of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films which I think there are nine of those. So we started making new prints of those because we had a lot of the original negatives for those which Roger had deposited with us a while ago. So we started making new 35mm prints of those and when we got to Masque of the Red Death we realised that it was a lot more complicated. It wasn’t going to be something that was easy or cheap to just make a new print of, which I’ll get to in a second. But, because it was so complicated, we knew we would need probably a grant, we’d need more money to make it. So we proposed it to the Film Foundation to make new… do a whole 4K digital restoration and then finish with a film-out and make a new 35mm print of it. The reason it was so complicated is because the film was censored both the US and the UK. It was censored in two different ways too so whatever the censorship issues were in the UK, there were different censorship issues in the US and the film had been… they had cut out certain sections from the original negative so we knew we would need to find these missing shots and then recombine it together with the original negative. And so it was just something that was too expensive to just make an easy print of. So we proposed it to the Film Foundation, they accepted it and we got started. Gosh, it was probably a little over a year ago in 2018 is when it all started. I’m trying to think what else. That’s how it got started.
PF: So thinking about those elements, original elements, then what did you have? Did you have… so the negative of the film? Was this a film which went to IB printing as well? Did you have…
TI: Yes. So we… the Academy actually… this was one of things we didn’t have real elements on. We had one IB Technicolor print which was on deposit from Jon Davison the producer and that was it. So we went to MGM, because MGM had owned the rights to the film, and still do, and they had the original negative, 35mm original negative on Eastmancolor. And then a bunch of other elements which we ended up not needing at all because they were made from that original negative throughout the years. So we worked from the original 35mm negative, the original optical track negative, and then we used that IB Technicolor print which was a British print to… which had all these censorship… all these censored scenes that were censored from the US were in that IB Technicolor print so that’s what we used to fill in the missing sections. So those were our three main sources. The 35mm original negative, optical track negative and the IB Technicolor print. Now, so the film was shot in England. I think it’s the only one Roger did of the Poe cycle in England. It was American-International Pictures, who had a co-producing relationship with Anglo-Amalgamated, and so they came up with the idea to film Masque of the Red Death in England I think mainly for tax issue, like to get better tax benefits. So they filmed it all in England so my theory, because all the American prints that I know of are Eastmancolor, all of the British prints I know of are Technicolor, I don’t know what led to… you probably know more about that than I do but I don’t know why in England it’s all on Technicolor with IB prints. But it was actually lucky for us that it was because… I mean we did get lucky that the original negative wasn’t really faded which was kind of surprising. I think Roger took very good care of his negatives. So that actually wasn’t too bad as it wasn’t really faded so colour-wise we probably could have worked from that in terms of the colour reference but because we have this Technicolor IB print we knew it wasn’t faded so we kind of used that as a reference to match the colour. Another reason we did that is because we knew that Nicholas Roeg, he was the cinematographer, we figured that he probably approved the IB Technicolor prints whereas maybe the Eastmancolor prints, if we had any, we didn’t think that he would have bothered trying to approve those. So that’s why we kind of went with trying to reference the Technicolor print. So yeah, I think even… so I don’t know if you know why, if there’s… why in Britain was it more common to use the Technicolor prints?
PF: Well it could be to do with the deal that they had in that country I’m guessing and how much they wanted to spend on the release prints. Doing some of the interviews we’ve been doing that has been the case. So it’s contractual but also cost saving as well depending on how many prints are being made. So yeah it’s probably something we could look into more, you know, for our case study but… So in terms of the reference then to the IB print, is there ever a case where you’re trying to achieve a particular look? So obviously, you know, the colours of the IB print would be different to, say, the US prints if it was done on Eastmancolor. Yeah so, you know, what are you trying to achieve in those instances? What is your, kind of, goal?
TI: Well, I guess we’re just trying to match to what we thought was how it was originally intended I guess which is why we went with trying to match to that. We were lucky too because Roger is still alive, I mean he’s 92 but he’s still very sharp, and he came in and screened it with us and approved the colour too. So we’re lucky with that but… I think yeah, especially because we actually didn’t have any Eastmancolor prints we could have looked at but I think even if we had, I would have… they probably are faded, most of them. So I don’t even know if we would have been able to use that as the reference at all. So other than that it’s kind of just, from the original negative, just kinda letting the colour grader, the colourist, go where the film is taking him in that sense, but… So he didn’t really have to do all that much to make it match the IB Tech print but it was more like, it was just getting it as close as we wanted it.
PF: And so you mentioned Roger. Did he have any involvement with the colourist or was he just there to kind of approve the final print of the film?
TI: He just came in at the end and then he really didn’t have any notes which is good. That means we did a good job I think. A lot… I mean that’s Roger and I think Roger’s also… he’s 92 but he’s still very busy so I think he kind of just wanted to come in at the end but… Sometimes with restorations we do work with the filmmakers, the directors, or even the cinematographers, and they will come in and sit with the colourist and, like, have a lot of notes for that but Roger just came in at the end.
PF: So in those instances, let’s think about some of the other cinematographers and directors who’ve come in, has there ever been any occasion where they’re trying to take it in another direction perhaps? You know, thinking back, we’re talking about films that are 50-odd years old. Are they trying to take it in a brand new direction occasionally?
TI: Yeah, they… yes that does happen. It’s kind of a… you have to make, do a kind of a careful balance to make sure that they are still happy and, you know, feel that their input is being taken seriously. But at the same time you don’t want it to get so far off from what it was originally because a lot of times they want to make different choices now than they did at the time. So it’s kind of a balance that you have to make to try to make sure that you’re still maintaining the integrity of how the film was and how it was made and how it was seen at the time and the choices they made at the time. And maybe how it is now, especially with digital restoration, like, you can make a lot… there’s so many more options now, like, you can do a lot more with the colour digitally than you can photochemically so I think that’s also something to think about too but we just kinda have to try to balance it out.
PF: OK, so for the film the negative was in pretty good condition, you had a decent IB print of the film – so what kind of work is actually being done for the final print that’s going to be produced at the end? What considerations are there in the digital, sort of, realm?
TI: Yeah so we did 4K scanning of both the original and the Technicolor print and then we conformed the missing bits together with the original negative with those scans and then colour grading and then digital restorations, though there were few, sometimes there were tears or breaks or deep scratches and stuff so, we’re doing digital restoration on fixing those things. And then we also did the audio restorations of capturing… we did a capture… we had two different optical track negatives, only ended up needing one, and then we had to use the track from the IB Tech print too to fill in some of the missing audio track censored sections. So capturing the audio and doing digital audio restoration there and then marrying that with the new picture and then we create… like our own deliverables are like DPX files of both the raw scans of both film elements and then the graded restored scan and then we create a DCP and usually with a Quicktime ProRes file. And then from that we’re also going to make a film-out so we’re taking all of those graded DPX files and we’re creating a digital internegative and from that internegative we’ll make new prints, so new 35mm prints.
PF: So when you’re creating the new DCP and the new print are there any considerations in terms of colour for how they’re going to be presented. Is there any alteration that need to be made between those two?
TI: Not really. We try to really match the new film-out to what we did in the digital restoration. So we try to just make those two match, that literally…yeah.
PF: You were mentioning earlier about the scenes that were missing that were in the British Technicolor print – did that create any problems with matching from what you had from the negative to the IB or was it kind of just best guess between what you had.
TI: Yeah we actually… they did match pretty well actually to what was in the negative especially after doing… like, it wasn’t too difficult to do the colour grading to make the match but even just looking at them raw they weren’t too far off actually so that was lucky. But yeah…
PF [to KJ]: Was there anything… I thought you were going to say something.
KJ: Sorry, I came in late. I don’t think so because I missed where we started.
PF: Well… so kind of more generally then, let’s think about, you know, you’re not in a position where you’ve got high quality material like that. If you have, say, a faded negative… let’s think of worst case scenario – there’s not any reference material – how would you approach that?
TI: Yeah, again… well if it’s faded we just try to neutralise it as much as we can which, again, now digitally it is much easier than doing it photochemically so you can… you can do a lot more but if it’s extremely faded, it’s always going to look like it’s been faded. But really, yeah, we just try to neutralise like the balance, the whites and the blacks, as much as we can and that is kind of just best guess. If there’s no other reference, it is just kind of your own best guess which is kind of a lot of pressure when you think about it, like, years from now if it’s the only restoration that could be what everyone thinks it was always like and you don’t actually know maybe. But that is why it is nice when the filmmaker is still around and is willing to help with that. That makes a huge difference too. Although, again, it is just best guess but…
PF: Yeah because I was talking to Kieron Webb at the BFI the other week and he was saying, well they were presented with that very scenario and they were having to reference things in the image which they knew would be a certain colour and… does that kind of thing happen, you know, you spot something which you have some knowledge of so you’re trying to recreate that colour as a, you know, a reference?
TI: Yeah yeah, that… I mean and that’s part of, yeah, what I was saying to you about the whites and the black, like, OK you have, like, a white, like, building or something that you maybe know is a white, is white or a black, like, you can try and pinpoint on getting the blacks really black so they’re not really milky and that kind of tells you what to do with all of the rest of the colour too. But, I mean, yeah that’s a good… just pinpoint that something that you do know can help guide the rest of it.
PF: Something which we’re also trying to get to bottom of is this, kind of, aesthetic of Technicolor and Eastmancolor and I talked to Simon Lund at Cineric and he was talking me through the decades, you know, how the looks changed of Eastmancolor and I guess Technicolor pretty much stayed pretty similar throughout, pretty constant, because there weren’t a lot of great changes like there were with Eastmancolor. Have you got any notion of, kind of, how you define the look of an Eastmancolor print or if you go through an IB process? Given that there are filmed on the same stock where do they diverge and what does…
TI: I mean, just like visually looking at something that’s Eastmancolor versus Technicolor, like IB print, it’s more like the contrast I feel like usually is how I can tell the difference, for Masque maybe the contrast between the reds it’s just like so much more noticeable. I mean, that’s mainly my understanding of it. It’s just a lot more like, I feel, contrasty, it’s a lot more contrasty and more like the reds are deeper than, you know, than in Eastmancolor. But…
PF: I think, yeah, that’s… contrasty is usually the term that I hear, so yeah, that kind of works. So let’s think about the fact that, you know, in Britain they would have seen the Technicolor print and then in the States, unfortunately we don’t have a version of that. When is that decision made then? So, like “Are we gonna go contrasty or not? Do we have the Technicolor look or the Eastmancolor look?” Is that a, kind of, a key consideration during these restorations?
TI: Yeah, I mean, I think… I think it would be… it’s complicated for Masque of the Red Death because it was censored and so there are two different versions of the film essentially and we decided going in that we’re gonna make one that’s like the Roger Corman approved directors cut essentially which was literally everything he wanted. And, because we were going with that, we were like “Well, we’ll match then what… to the Technicolor because that’s where he made it. That’s where Nicolas Roeg came in and decided those decisions.” So that’s kind how we went with that. It was something that was maybe less complicated and we did have two versions… it’s hard for me because personally, subjectively, I like the Technicolor look better. But if it was more like “OK. Where was this film made and in what, like, setting? What was the director or cinematographer going for at the time? Did they make these choices?” And is that Technicolor print, like you were saying, was that only made for, like, financial reasons? So then it’s not really… it doesn’t really match to what why the director did things that way. So I’d probably lean towards going towards the Eastmancolor version colour even though maybe I wouldn’t like it as much.
PF: But I find it fascinating that there can be these different versions and I know as technology is changing we think about these things more, but the fact that certain versions of these films are out there, and that might be the definitive version but it might not be what was intended…
PF: So, yeah, I guess… are there any other, kind of… like I said, this is an interesting case study, but is there anything where you’ve had to kind of deal with that, when there’s been an issue about the final look of the film?
TI: No I can’t… I can’t think of anything I’ve done where I’ve even had to actually make that decision. I think everything I’ve done up to this point has been less complicated than Masque in the sense that, like, this is what we had, we didn’t have… I didn’t really have to make the choice between those two things. No… sorry.
PF: No that’s alright. I’m just trying to think if there is anything else.
KJ: I don’t know. It sounds like we’ve got a lot of good stuff there.
PF: Well is there anything Tessa yourself? Is there any, kind of, and interesting… because when I was interviewing Simon Lund I said that at the end and he, kind of, something twigged and is there anything you’ve, kind of, come across? Any anecdotes of issues where, you know…
TI: One thing I can think of, I won’t say who the filmmaker was but speaking more about having to make those choices when you come back to a restoration and maybe they want to make certain changes that they didn’t choose at the time. Once I was working on one short from the ‘80s and the colour, we matched the colour to 35mm print which was a festival print so it was something that had gone out. And so I thought “OK we’ve matched this really perfectly” and then the filmmaker came in and saw it and was like “No no no. This doesn’t match my, like the DVD I made, you know, 15 years ago, so I want you to match it to that.” And it was like “Well but this is how it was it seen, this is for sure the colour that you chose at the time.” Because it was a lot more contrasty that colour and what he had, probably from his Digibeta or something he had made, in like the early-2000s, was a lot more like pastel kind of colours. I don’t know when that decision, like, when that happened but he was adamant, “No it’s always looked like this. It’s always looked like my DVD.” And it was like “Well I have the… I have multiple prints that you… was what you chose to send out for the festival, for like various festivals, and what was seen. And I have the original negative that seems to match pretty well to this, these prints. So I don’t think it ever did look… I don’t know when you chose, when it changed, but that’s not how it originally looked.” He… I don’t think I ever got him to believe that so we ended up making two versions. We made… we have the, what I call, the original colour and we have the filmmaker colour and we just made sure to notate everything in our database like very clearly like “This is… this matches the original prints and this matches the filmmaker’s new version.” So it’s… I mean that’s the thing, it’s all like memory. Your memory too can change especially as he had gotten used to maybe this new colour and didn’t ever really remember that it was maybe anything different because how you remember things too is so personal and can be different and can maybe not be trusted as much as you think it does.
PF: We know of… we interviewed Peter Suschitzy the cinematographer and he had an issue with going through IB printing. He never liked the look of the final version of the film so you can imagine him… that this film is touring the country and he doesn’t like the final film, you know. He sat in going through the processing with the labs and, with his approval, but when it went to print that version, you know, just wasn’t suitable for him. So, you know, these things do happen don’t they where, you know, perhaps a film… this is an extreme example you’re giving but, yeah, there’s this idea of what you want a film to look like, what it ends up looking like. And I guess, yeah, if you do have cinematographers sitting in that’s an issue itself they might want to change the look of the film. But yeah, that’s really interesting.
KJ: We’ve seen that a bit with the work we’ve done on Don’t Look Now in the last couple of weeks. The Liz Watkins piece where she writes about the original release print looks very different to the DVD release from like 2005, 2006, in terms of what they’ve done to, kind of, again bring the colour out. And, you know, we’re intrigued because we know they’re rescanning it at the moment, as to what they’re gonna use. You know, are they gonna go back to, you know, a release print or a kind of sample from the 1970s or are they gonna go with the version they obviously did some work to in the mid-2000s. And, you know, we think Tony Richmond’s been involved in both so that’s a case where we’re going, well is that a case of that’s what it looked like or is that a case of that him going “Oh, it looks better now if we do that.” And it’s hard to tell which that is unless we get to ask him.
PF: But yeah, I guess, I mean would you say, because there’s this knowledge of the periods in which the films are made, does that apply as well? You know, thinking about what Keith was saying about kind of going through these stages of like, kind of, rereleases, anniversary releases. I guess would you always try and get back to that original version of the film?
TI: Yeah I think so. I think that’s the goal, is again just to make… you’re trying to recreate how it was originally, you know, so if it’s something from the ‘50s maybe you have sense of like, “OK well I think that films in the 1950s have this certain look or these certain choices that were common so maybe we’ll try to go towards that as appose to, yeah, like something, like, something redone like, I don’t know, Lawrence of Arabia’s been made a million times, like, restored a million times but… So yeah, I feel like you try to go back to how it was originally seen by audiences and go from there. This isn’t about Technicolor but another project I’m working on is a film called Peggy, it’s from 1916, obviously it was nitrate and it was black and white but it was tinted and we don’t have any elements left that represent the tinting. So we’re trying to decide… we knew it had been tinted but didn’t know how or what colour… what kind of tinting colour choices they made. We [undecipherable] there’s an archivist at, he was at UCLA so now he’s at… he’s with PHI, Packard Humanities Institute, and he had watched a nitrate print in like 1988 and like made notes on the tinting from it. Like, OK, all the interiors are amber and all the fantasy are cyan or something. And so we ended up bringing him in to watch our new restoration of it and saying “OK, let’s try to figure out what tinting you saw, you know, thirty years ago, and go from that” and that’s what we ended up doing. Luckily he was a very astute man that he… his records are, his notes are pretty impressive that he even decided to do it at the time, and he has like “OK, this is, I think it’s this colour.” We have… there’s these like little books that… I can’t think how to pronounce it, it’s like [Roloux?] books, they’re these… they kinda look like paint chips but they’re like transparent and they’re numbered and that’s what’s used for a lot of tinting so, he had written down “Oh I think this is like the number 3382 tint.” So we ended up using… but at the same time it’s kind of like that was just this one person’s subjective thought of what you’re seeing on the screen from thirty-something years ago but we don’t have anything else to go on so we just went with it. So that’s what we ended up doing for those tints but, again, that’s something too, like, “Well in 1916 this was kind of like what most tinting they would go with for these” so if you’re able to use those two things and make it feel like a little more accurate just based off what we know from how tinting was done at the time plus what he saw, but it’s hard, yeah.
PF: Well, I guess that’s quite an extreme example isn’t it but, you know, there’s not many people around to object to… as long as you’re getting it as close to, you know, what you thought it was. I guess there’s never really a comparative example with Eastmancolor because with digital I guess you can always try and get something from the image.
[00:30:06 – 00:30:23 KJ leaves interview]
PF: Yeah because… I think there was a reference to, going back to analogue restoration, I think it might have been the restoration of Vertigo which they did in the late-80s I think, there was mention of the fact that they were kind of looking at the paint colour of the car and finding the original car and, you know, as a reference. But I guess that’s probably, as I say, that’s probably too extreme for, sort of, Eastmancolor, it’s not… it’s not something you’d need to do as much.
TI: Yeah, no. That’s interesting though because you can match to, yeah, maybe what the car in real life looked like but film, like there are choices made that maybe don’t… aren’t 100 per cent representative of what was actually being shot. Like the cinematographer and the directors they make choices for the colour, right, at the time and maybe they manipulated it a little maybe so that maybe that car isn’t… doesn’t match the same colour of the real car. I don’t know. There’s… it’s hard
PF: Well that’s it, there are so many considerations, you know, we’ve said that already and speaking to other lab workers, it’s… it is a lot of best guess, you know. There’s only so much knowledge that can be passed on from people working in the industry at that time and it’s kind of just accumulation of that knowledge I guess. That’s probably the best you can do really.
TI: Yeah definitely. And, yeah just like… I try to just remember that all, like this whole field, film restoration, it’s all like individual choices made by different people and so it’s hard to know for sure if something is the be-all end-all of “This is how it was” because it’s… especially when it’s something from like 1916, or something you know, like these are choices being made then and now a whole different set of choices being made now. And so in the future you just have to realise like, these are all things that were… yeah, they’re just choices that we made and you do your best and you hope that what you’re choosing to do, you know, is faithful to the film in what was meant. But in the end it’s all just the best you can do.
PF: OK, before we finish there was one thing I wanted to ask about digital releases, home movies … is that ever factored in? Is there kind of a look for, kind of, a home television sets or anything like that? You know I’m not as familiar with that but is there anything that has to be done in the mastering of like, say, a Blu-ray release which maintains that look? Is there something that has to be done to… I don’t know if that’s something you would know much about, or…
TI: Yeah, unfortunately I don’t know a lot about it because we don’t distribute like DVDs or Blu-rays or anything for profit. We don’t …that’s like completely not… I don’t know anything about it really. I know like when we do the audio restoration we make sure that we have different files depending on how it’s going to be used so we have, like, we’ll have one audio restoration like the files that are going to be used for Blu-ray or, like, streaming. And then we’ll have some for, like, theatrical, like, releases or, like, to make new track negatives, like, so I feel that’s as far as maybe we’ll go in that sense. Not really sure what the workflow is for when they… when someone… when they do create like a Blu-ray or something for television, yeah.
PF: Yeah it’s just interesting because a lot of the… a lot of the films we’re watching for the project are from television and they were obviously tape versions from like the 1980s or ‘90s, so they’re 4:3, if they’re CinemaScope films, they’re 4:3 pan-and-scan and it’s obviously the legacy that is left from whichever print they had to create that copy and now it’s been broadcast digitally from a video. So it’s, you know, we’re trying to make sense of this, kind of, this whole history and, you know, as Keith was saying with Don’t Look Now, you know with the VHS releases, the film releases, and the DVD, and now the Blu-ray, you kind of have this very patchy history. But I guess that, with time, you know, archives try to do their best to, you know, recreate the original, and that’s just a… that’s a legacy of archival work in the past or, you know, just simple kind of video transfers. It’s just what they did at the time and, you know, a lot of that can be cost or, you know, how easy it was to do the transfers at that point. Right, OK I think I’ll end it there. Thank you Tessa.