Interview: Dolph Chiarino of Midnight Legacy – Part 1

Midnight Legacy, a start-up studio looking to focus on some obscure films, has just released their first disc, the Italian knock-off Alien 2: On Earth. Dolph Chiarino has some surprisingly large-scale ideas for the future (stuff he was not ready to announce yet), but for now, the focus is on Alien 2 and the Blu-ray spec itself.

Dolph sat down with me for an interview, one that went long enough over the phone that it needs to be split into three parts. Part 1 focuses specifically on the studio, Alien 2’s restoration process, and the work behind it. Part 2 switches gears to flaws found during the review process, and Part 3 will discuss the Blu-ray spec itself. They will go live over the course of the next three days.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am the co-owner and project manager for all Midnight Legacy releases. Every transfer, master, and check disc is supervised by me from start to finish. I select films, along with Bill Knight, for the label and ensure completeness, quality, and finished goods to the consumer. In the past, I ran a independent label’s euro-horror line, and after that, I attended business school. Bill and I have contributed to almost every independent label, whether it be to provide consultation, materials, title selection, or overall guidance on how to proceed when representing specific films.

You’re a new studio, so many people don’t even know who you are. Fill in a brief Midnight Legacy history.

Outside of my immediate family, there is nobody that I have known longer than Bill Knight. Honestly, I think it’s going on about 20 years. The funny thing is, that I turned to him when I was 12 looking for second-tier gateway titles to further expose me to euro-horror, as in my opinion, he is the absolute reference point for anything related to the topic. For some reason, he decided to take me under his wing, and mentor me in the hope of creating a well-rounded knowledge base, and ensuring that it could be passed down to future generations. I fully believe that my age and willingness to learn was what he acknowledged.

Flash forward, and here we are. We both saw an opportunity to rescue many films we both love and our motivation was simply to put them on our shelves. Money is not the motivator in any respect, and we are very lucky to be in that position. These films need to be saved, and nobody else is willing or able to do so, so again, here we are. The different model, and the altered focus has sent a ripple through the industry. Why do you think many companies have come forth and announced almost a full 2011 slate? The impact is clear, with a title just streeting.

Why Alien 2: On Earth?

I think this title was really indicative of the types of films we are going to release. It certainly is much more obscure, and in my mind, more deserving of a proper release than what many of these “indie cult labels” try to pawn off as rare. In my mind, if a certain title has seen multiple video releases, throughout the world, it starts to lose its position as sought after, even considering a first-time, Blu-ray roll-out. I certainly wouldn’t rule out Legacy releasing a few titles that were already on DVD, because we will; the difference is that we are looking to correct past mistakes and submit definitive releases that satisfy the true fans that know and love these films.

Secondly, and I certainly didn’t think about this when it happened, but the complexity of the audio problems demonstrate to the fanbase that we fully understand these films, know how to find a resolution, and in a quick time frame. Case in point: When we were in the first pass of the color correction phase, I noticed significant differences and additions with the negative compared to all other video versions. I began thinking that the audio might be a problem, and ten minutes later, Red, our audio restoration tech came and said audio was missing. Once we finished the third color correction pass, I began consulting on how to address the audio issues, and sure enough, the team and I needed to create a composite from the English mag tracks, the Italian mag tracks, and the digibeta. We made the composite that afternoon, and then began trying to find common ground in addressing pops, clicks, and hiss, while ensuring that overall fidelity was not compromised. Both audio and video need to obviously be cleaned and restored, but not “altered”. That is not what we are looking to do. Having overseen all steps in the process, from the negative, to our master, to the final disc, each are as transparent as can be done with today’s limitations.

Many of these films have languished long enough, and we are here to preserve them for the future.

You mention finding a common ground between fidelity and eliminating the flaws like popping. At what point do you see it as proper balance? How do you know you’ve got to the proper level?

Again, I’m not an audio engineer, so it’s difficult to say. It’s just a matter of sitting in the studio and playing with it along with the techs to find that point where you’re right on the cusp of losing the frequencies due to hiss and noise reduction and things are starting to get muddy. It’s all just basically the techs advice of, you know, where to go, how much further to go and then when to stop.

Are you the only one who listened to the track and said, ”Okay,” or were there other people?

There was a team of audio people at Cinecitta, led by Andrea Baracca, but in terms of the company (Midnight Legacy), it was just me.

What are you listening to the track on to determine that, yes, this is the final track?

Pro Tools HD. Once the audio is imported, this was obviously done after we made the composite, we ran a few simple passes of removing background hiss. There was an especially loud thud somewhere in the beginning of the movie so a lot of stuff was automatically reduced, but again, these are very light passes.

Why only a stereo track? Why not a 5.1? Was it originally a stereo track?

Believe it or not it was (stereo). We we’re getting ready to go and were convinced it was mono, and when it showed up, the mag tracks were stereo.

As far as 5.1, we’re never going to do remixes for any of the film. I don’t think it’s appropriate, I think it kind of compromises the original sound design, and it certainly compromises the original intention of what the filmmakers were trying to convey. I think certainly with a lot of video restoration, there are just certain lines we just don’t believe in crossing.

The colors seem especially bright at times, especially the red/orange and yellow suits in the cave. How do you know that was the intent? Do you feel that’s natural to the source?

When we’re doing the color correction, and a lot of people don’t know this, but at Cinecitta we’re using reference monitors to actually see the color scale and I think what we did was find a common ground between the suits, like the look of the suits outside and then the color of the suits underground and it’s just a matter of keeping everything uniform. It’s not something necessarily that a lot of independent studios will do. So, all of the base colors are exactly the same throughout the movie which kind of leads this more into a major restoration than a general color correction pass.

As I mentioned before (ed note: in pre-interview) we did more than three full color correction passes. Even going back to what you said in the review with the black levels, I mean the whites and the blacks are reference levels whites and blacks.

When you look at this, can you just take a certain element and increase the color saturation of it?

Yeah, you can. That’s the biggest benefit of creating a digital intermediate. Nobody creates a digital intermediate, or at least no independent does. It’s probably a silly analogy, but if you look at something like Lord of the Rings, you know, every new big budget film there is a DI created. You have total control over anything. It’s not necessarily that you have to adjust the frame, you can adjust just a certain portion of the frame. I think with the color restorationist we worked with, Rocio Valladares, had such a wonderful understanding of film in general . I’m not doing the work, she was. I was merely supervising the work, making sure that it was close to the original or what we believe to be the original intention. So, yeah, to answer your question directly, yes, you have complete control over everything.

Obviously, the movie opens with quite a bit of stock footage that is part of the film print itself. I’m assuming it was 16mm or 8mm…

It was actually 8mm.

Okay, so can anything be done to kind of bring that up to a certain level because obviously there’s a huge clarity difference and not just in terms of the film stock, but like the color depth looked really flat, and it was obviously older, especially the stuff in what looked like, I guess, a NASA control room. Can anything be done since it was part of the 35mm print?

Not really. That’s like a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. It would be the same as if we went from if we went from a 35mm print of Alien 2 that came from an interpostive of Alien 2 that came from the negative. The more generations you move away, the less leeway you have. In my experience of looking at these negatives, this thing was in really good shape overall like in terms of damage and debris or things like that. We have no idea how many generations we are with that stock footage. It could be 20 generations away. We made a conscious effort to clean it up and to some degree color correct it, I mean, it is color corrected. It just looks like it looks.

The big problem with these films that we are either doing or are going to do is that they are much, much more obscure. It’s a simple thing in that it represents four minutes of the total movie. I’m just glad people don’t think that’s how the entire movie looks, because once you get into the actual movie, it’s a drastic, drastic jump.

You mentioned in the blog post about the original camera negative. Where do you find that?

You find who owns the license and in this case, it was Minerva. I contacted them like I contacted all of the companies that we deal with and it’s just a simple process of figuring out cost, elements… I mean, it’s basically in reverse order. Elements to me are primary. It’s always the first question. What are the audio masters, what are the video masters? Before anything is done, we have an outside party, like a lab tech that would go there and either physically inspect them or send them to the labs that we use and they will inspect it so that we have some idea of what the transfer costs are to obviously factor into the complete price.

So, if you look at that and see that the element is say destroyed… I’ve seen some footage of the original Star Wars where it’s nothing but blue basically. Do you just say never mind and look for another one?

Well, it depends. If it’s the negative yeah. There’s a lot of leeway here with doing film restoration and because a lot of these Euro Cult or these smaller movies are a lot rarer I would have no problem splicing in a minute or two over the course of the movie if that footage was missing from the negative and we had access to a good 35mm print, but I would never put a transfer out on our label that came from a 35mm print. It’s no good. The negatives are key here and I think that because it’s so vital that quality is the key here.

It’s not a matter of figuring out what we can pay for the transfer, but factoring in what needs to be done correctly in order to do the best work that can be done. The restoration we did at Cinecitta believe it or not was the same exact process they used just a week before to restore a Felleni movie. There is no cost cutting here, and I think a lot of these other labels are doing that and that’s why I think there is kind of this growing divide in terms of people who want the best you can get versus something that’s okay.

That’s interesting from my own perspective because of course Back to the Future just came out on Blu-ray and there’s kind of this divide in the community between those people who look at it and go, “Oh, they are fine, they’re older movies,” and people like me who go, “They’re DNR’ed and edge enhanced. How can you even look at this?” So when this comes out, this goofy obscure knock-off and it looks like this, I don’t know how Universal can say that it’s all okay.

Well, I think it’s catering to a very different market. As an aside, I buy a ton, I mean a ton of movies like an average of 50 a month, so I watch all these things. I was disappointed with Back to the Future. I love those movies. The problem is though with a major studio they’re catering to, I’ll say, three million people, and I’m catering to a base of 45,000. And that 45,000 actually know what film looks like, so I think there’s a different expectation. I mean, going back, I certainly don’t think Back to the Future was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in terms of DNR, but again, it was something I was disappointed with.

It’s tough, because I think there are certain studios that rarely overuse DNR, I mean everyone uses it in some level. You can’t use an encoder without one small, single pass of DNR. It’s impossible to do. It’s built into every encoder. I mean, you have control over it, but there’s basically no zero setting. So yeah, there is a difference in the master we created versus the disc, but it is as minor as it can be done.

Do you think that there should be a zero setting??

Absolutely. I like the look of the master more than I like the disc. But, honestly, I have to watch them side by side now. It’s just a tad more fine grain. There’s no texture loss, it just kind of ropes everything in a little bit. When we started the encode, I had them run three tests with three different encoders and I settled on the Sony Blueprint encoder which I believe is the best encoder on the market, or certainly the most transparent. It’s also the one that probably gives you the most control over what you’re doing.

Continue to Part 2