Worth the SACRIFICE
When people ask me what I do for a living, I explain that I am a DVD producer. "What does that mean?" they ask. I go into a brief explanation of how films are prepared for DVD, from mastering the film to curating special features to designing the menus and packaging. Their eyes glaze over, and then they inevitably ask, "Yeah, but what do you do?"
At Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, on Tuesday 1/20/09, there will be a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986), and it provides a good opportunity for me to elaborate a little on what it is I actually do. For those of you who don't really know me, or care about my day job, it might still interest you, because it raises certain issues of artistic ethics and how video technology can alter the way film is preserved.
In late 2008, Kino International put me in charge of producing a high-definition version of The Sacrifice. The Svensk Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), which originally produced the film, provided us with an archival 35mm low-contrast print. Low-con prints are used when the negative is too precious or fragile to ship. It is low-contrast so that a superior image can be obtained during film transfer (you can master from a 35mm projection print, but generally the "blacks are crushed" -- that is, so dark that detail is lost).
So, Kino gets the print and I supervise the telecine transfer, in HD, with colorist D.C. Cardinalli of Crawford Communications. The print looks good but I realize that, when we compare the low-con 35mm print to the existing video master, there are significant differences between the two. The color in the print are subdued. A considerable part of the film is almost colorless, with a sepia overtone (just the slightest hints of color peek through). On the existing video master (from which were derived not only Kino's DVD but the DVD of a number of companies around the world), an effort appears to have been made to restore as much color as possible to these scenes (and lessen the sepia tint). Some scenes have no sepia tint, but are pure black-and-white. Even in the more naturalistic scenes, the sky is blue and the grass is green, while on the low-con print there is a more subtle range of colors.
It was possible for us to make the HD video master match the existing video master, in all its colorful glory. But should it?
After some correspondence with the Svensk Filminstitutet, I find an essay by d.p. Sven Nykvist, where he writes, "I remember, among other things, how well we worked together when we after the shooting was completed performed the, to the movie so significant, color reduction in the laboratory."
In a telecine suite, it is easy to radically alter the look of a film, and it is the job of the producer to work with the colorist to find the chromatic balance that suits the film and is accurate to the filmmakers' intentions. But -- in the case of The Sacrifice, where the director died in 1986 and the director of photography died in 2006 -- how do we know what their intentions were?
Fortunately, Kino has an original 35mm exhibition print from 1986. This means it was printed according to Tarkovsky's and Nykvist's lab specifications. Note: these printing instructions are kept with the negative for future lab printings; however, the settings do not translate to telecine coloration, so these printing instructions are useless to the video colorist, who has to start from scratch. So the projection print provides the key to the proper look of the film. And part of seeing the proper look is seeing it projected on the screen.
Enter Jonny Rej and the Plaza Theatre. No really, enter it. Tuesday. Because that's when we'll be screening The Sacrifice and seeing how it was intended to be seen (assuming the labwork in 1986 was pretty good and the colors haven't started "turning"). Afterwards, I will return to Crawford and make final adjustments to the picture before the film takes its next step toward BluRay authoring and preparation for digital download.
One reason I felt it worth explaining all this is that the new version I create is going to be much different than the Sacrifice people have come to recognize as Tarkovsky's film. I suspect there will be some who accuse me of tampering with Tarkovsky's film. Most likely, these will be people who never saw it in a theatre -- only on video. I just want the record to show that, on the contrary, I am restoring the film to its original look by removing a lot of the conventionlized color that it has always had on video -- and show that every effort has been made to verify the proper appearance of each scene of the film.
Not every DVD I produce entails this much research, or warrants this much explanation, but it isn't often that I have a chance to change the way we see a film made by one of cinema's great visual stylists. If I'm going to leave my mark on a film like that -- I want to make darn sure it's the right kind of mark.