Interview: Bret Wood Discusses Keaton’s The General on Blu-ray

The General is considered one of the greatest films ever made, ranking in at number 18 on the most recent AFI list. We agree. However, bringing a silent film starring Buster Keaton from 1927 to high definition and Blu-ray posed some challenges, and producer Bret Wood let us in on the process, while offering thoughts on digital noise reduction (DNR), the musical score, and clarifies which film negative was used in the process.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Bret Wood and I produce most of Kino’s silent/classic projects, which entails helping curate the content for DVDs and Blu-rays, supervising film transfers, working with production manager Brian Shirey to obtain musical scores and assemble the finished product. I’m also an independent filmmaker. My third feature as director, The Little Death, will be released in 2010.

What specific challenges did this movie present when transferring it to Blu-ray?

Preparing silent films for Blu-ray is proving to be a daunting challenge. Even when we are able to locate the best surviving film elements of a particular title, these elements have considerably more grain and printed-in wear than one finds in a studio-preserved negative that is, say, twenty years old.

When a film is mastered in HD, the image is sharper than it has previously been, but as a consequence the film grain becomes more pronounced. When we first transferred The General, a minimal amount of digital grain reduction was applied and it is this version that was released on DVD. Upon close inspection of the Blu-ray test discs, we found that even that small amount of digital noise reduction had created visual artifacting, a slight blurring and ghosting of the image.  We brought the film element back to the lab (Crawford Communications) and re-transferred it specifically for Blu-ray, without DRS or any artificial grain reduction. So the film was remastered specifically for the Blu-ray release.

general1It is Kino’s new policy that films should be released on Blu-ray without digital noise reduction, so that what the viewer gets is an accurate representation of what the 35mm film looks like, grain and all. Hopefully a system will be developed that clarifies the image without reducing the sharpness or creating visual artifacts, but so far we haven’t seen it.

The DVNR technology of the DVD era is not subtle enough for the 1080 requirements of the Blu-ray age. In fact, when I look back at some silent films that were released on DVD, heavily treated with digital noise reduction, I cringe.  I now recognize the degree to which the film’s natural grain and sharpness have been glossed over for the sake of a smooth image. I worry that this has spoiled the consumer, who will now expect every film to look this way when the actual film never looked that way to begin with!

So the big question that is yet to be answered is whether or not Blu-ray users will be satisfied with an HD copy of a film that is not pristine, but looks like an 80-year-old film actually looks.

Alternatively, a film can be retouched frame-by-frame without the same kind of motion artifacts that come from applying a filtering device. This method was used for the elaborate restorations of Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis, both of which will be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in 2010.

Why was Carl Davis’s score chosen to be the one that was uncompressed over the others? What was needed to update the music since it was recorded in 1987?

Carl Davis is held in higher regard than any other composer for silent film.  His score for The General had never been released on DVD, so when we prepared the DVD/Blu-ray releases of the film, we wanted to give it special attention. In terms of updating the music, we did re-balance the two-channel stereo track for 5.1. We hope to release additional films with Davis’ legendary scores in 2010.

general2The DVD trailer states this transfer was pulled from the original camera negative. Why is this sepia/blue tinted?

To be exact, the transfer was of a 35mm fine grain master (FGM) that was struck from the original camera negative, but that doesn’t sound as good in promotion. I always phrased it as “derived from the original camera negative,” since no responsible post house would permit a (highly flammable) nitrate camera neg (with 80-year-old splices) to be put on their Spirit film transfer system.  And it would be irresponsible to the original camera neg to run it back and forth through the system and possibly damage it. We tried to use language that made it clear (without being confusing to the consumer with unnecessary detail) that this is the closest that a person could get to working from the camera neg.

Regarding tints, we did that digitally, since the camera neg (and the FGM derived from the camera neg) were monochrome. The question of tinting is something we continually wrestle with. For example, we recently mastered Keaton’s Our Hospitality. Historical records are unclear about whether the film was originally tinted. The 35mm film element we worked from had tinting instructions etched on the leader, but there is reason to believe these are not original, but were added at a later date. Preferring to err on the side of caution, we will most likely release Our Hospitality in black-and-white (unless more reliable information turns up).

Can you clarify whether The General was intended to be tinted?

No, in the case of The General, there was no note to state that the film should have been tinted. That was a decision we made at Kino, based largely on the popularity of the previous Kino edition as the “accepted version” of the film. There were no indications on that particular film element that the film should be tinted.

Note: Tim Lanza of Douris Corp. added this about the negative used: In general (no pun), the fine grain came from the nitrate camera neg that had been held at Janice Allen’s Cinema Arts, but is now at the Library of Congress.

How much restoration work was done for this master? Compared to some of the public domain versions, this is a clear step-up. What do you believe to the estimated cost to further clean-up the remaining damage, if it’s possible?

We were fortunate to obtain a 35mm FGM of The General that was in excellent condition. But, being that the film is more than 80 years old, it wasn’t flawless. The most significant work done was the digital removal of a lot of nitrate damage to the edges of the frame (in the scene in which Johnny goes to Annabelle’s house to woo her). To me, that was all that was required to bring the film to a pleasurable viewing experience in which the film element’s natural signs of age are not a distraction from the story. That is the fine line I try to tread.

general3How difficult is it to work with such early film? I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) this is the currently the oldest film available on the format. What differences exist between the film elements of that era compared to now (besides the obvious age deterioration)?

Age deterioration is the biggest difference, and film grain, as previously discussed. Other than that, the issue is the scarcity of film elements to work from.  There were a lot of films that existed in fair condition but looked fine on DVD, but do not fare so well in HD. As a result, the pool from which we draw releases is much more shallow.  Kino only wants to release a film on Blu-ray if we are convinced that we have the best existing film element.

This is true not only of silent films but of more recent titles as well. We have been working for more than a year on preparing a suitable Blu-ray of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. The 35mm archival elements have flaws that make it unsuitable for Blu-ray release, and we are working with the Swedish Film Institute (which controls the film) to find a solution. Blu-ray poses a lot of challenges and frustrations to a producer such as myself, but when those obstacles are overcome, the payoff is pretty extraordinary.

Sometimes I’m surprised by the quality of a film element. I just supervised the transfer of Man’s Genesis (a D.W. Griffith silent short from 1912) and it looks absolutely stunning. Sharp as a tack with minimal grain. You never know what you’ve got until you put it up on the Spirit and have a look.

I (and viewers on AVS Forum) noted some form of haloing or edge enhancement at work. I first noted it as Keaton begins knocking on Annabelle Lee’s home. It didn’t appear digital as I watched the disc, but the stills made me question it. Is this part of the source deterioration? You can see it in this screen grab around Keaton’s head/body specifically.

generalYou nailed it (see above, regarding restoration work). That’s the problem with digital finishing. No matter how well you do it, it isn’t going to be perfect. Whether a film is “cleaned” by digital noise reduction or frame-by-frame retouching, it is slightly deviating from the actual content of the existing film. It’s difficult to know how much is too much.

This same master was used for the DVD over a year ago. What was the technical process of bringing this to hi-def after DVD?

See above (regarding grain reduction) … it is not the same master. We did use the “courting” scene from the year-old master, since we had spent so much time and money painting out the nitrate damage. Otherwise, the Blu-ray comes from a new master, virtually identical to the DVD master, but without digital grain reduction.

Thanks for your time Bret, and good luck on the future releases!

(Note: There are still two questions about the audio/video codecs Bret could not answer. These have been sent to the Blu-ray authors. We will update when the answers come in.)

Related links:

Interview: Producer Cliff Stephenson on Crank 2

Interview: John Berger of Widescreen.org