Movies - In High-Def Shift, Are Studios Blurring The Picture? Hollywood's archivists are re-releasing digital, high-definition versions of classic movies. But the process of converting a movie from film to digital can change an image in significant ways — and some say that can unfairly alter the artists' original intent.

In High-Def Shift, Are Studios Blurring The Picture?

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The days of celluloid film are numbered. From the shooting process to the cinema projectors, the future is in digital. For movie studios, new technologies are often an excuse to go through their film libraries and rerelease classics in the latest technology. Still, taking a film and moving it to digital, especially high definition, can change it. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell with a report on what that means.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Warner Studios in Burbank is a piece of American film history - remnants of sets from classics dot the lot: "Casablanca," "The Music Man," "Tea for Two." Then there's the vault where film history lives. Woo, it's cold in here.

NED PRICE: Yeah, on purpose.

SYDELL: It's 38 degrees. Movable shelves stacked with thousands of steel film cases line the walls of the archive with movies and TV shows that go back as far as 1916. Many are major pieces of American film history. Oh, "Rebel Without a Cause." Ooh, that's good.

PRICE: Original camera negative.

SYDELL: This is the original camera negative of "Rebel Without a Cause?"

PRICE: Um-hum.

SYDELL: Wow. Ned Price oversees the digital archives at Warner, and that includes the process of turning these films into high-definition digital copies for rerelease. The digital transformation begins down the hall at the imaging lab. A laser scanner moves slowly across each frame of a film.

PRICE: We can't literally copy a piece of film and have it look like it did in the theater. So, there's a bit of manipulation that has to go on.

SYDELL: A bit of manipulation is an understatement. It can take months to make a digital copy look like the original film. Upstairs, there's a quiet editing room where Price is working on a high-definition 3-D version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder." Little-known fact: Alfred Hitchcock originally made it in 3-D.


ANTHONY DAWSON: (as C.A. Swann) I should simply tell them that you're trying to blackmail me into...

RAY MILLAND: (as Tony Wendice) Into...

DAWSON: (as C.A. Swann) ...murdering your wife?

SYDELL: The murder scene happens in Grace Kelly's living room - all murky and shadowy at night.


GRACE KELLY: (as Margot) Hello? Hello?

SYDELL: The colorist working on the digital version at Warner, Janet Wilson, points out that in the initial digital copy, the room is dark but you can't see the shadows.

JANET WILSON: You can see that they're kind of blue and milky and washed out.

SYDELL: The colors have faded on the original film print, but using digital coloring, Wilson is able to fix that.

WILSON: I isolate that element in the image, and I make it darker - like that - to make it actually look like a shadowy room.


SYDELL: The enhanced shadows make the room look much scarier. Alfred Hitchcock's ghost would approve, or at least Ned Price hopes.

PRICE: We do check our backs once in a while. There are a few filmmakers that you kind of wonder if they aren't ready to strike if you do the wrong thing.

SYDELL: To re-create Hitchcock's vision, they examine notes made by costume and lighting designers, research the colors of film stock of the era. Price says directors are like painters: They make conscious choices about the color of furniture, wallpaper, costumes. But Price also admits high definition can change a film in a way the original director never dreamed about. Take a classic like The Wizard of Oz. You might get a much brighter yellow brick road with HD, but you might also see the strings attached to the flying monkeys.

PRICE: You're creating a hybrid. You want to represent what the film's intent was, and what the look was, and what the feeling was of the film, but you want to take advantage of the fact that you can see a lot more.

SYDELL: But some moviemakers believe that movies made in film should be restored in film. Mary Sweeney, who worked for years with director David Lynch as an editor on features such as "Mulholland Drive" and "Blue Velvet," asks us to imagine if they did this to a Rembrandt or Picasso.

MARY SWEENEY: And deciding you want to paint over a color with paint on top of their paint. Just the fact that it converts from film to numbers shouldn't give people the right to toy with the work as it exists in history, as created by the people who made it.

SYDELL: Take Lynch's film "Blue Velvet."


BOBBY VINTON: (Singing) She wore blue velvet...

SYDELL: The film, which explores the dark underbelly of a small town, opens with this sweet song and bright shots of blue sky, manicured lawns and picket fences. Then, its colors darken and actually get murky as the hero, Jeffrey, discovers the town's seedy underbelly.

SWEENEY: If they brightened up the scenes and the colors seemed sort of cheerier, it would - these are ways in which spectators just aren't conscious of how they're influenced by sound and color. But a filmmaker of David's caliber is very aware of that and very intentional in the way he uses it.

SYDELL: "Blue Velvet" has been re-released in high definition, but David Lynch and members of the film crew were involved in the process. What worries Sweeney is that after Lynch is gone and the technology keeps changing, the studio is likely to look for new ways to re-release Lynch's films using the latest technology.

SWEENEY: Someone sitting in an office in a studio thinking how can I exploit our library - those people are interested in the financial well-being of the studio.

SYDELL: Sweeney worried that they won't be interested in every detail of David Lynch's artistic vision.

RICHARD DONNER: Well, it's not exactly like repainting a Rembrandt.

SYDELL: This is Richard Donner, the director of "Superman," the one with Christopher Reeve.

DONNER: It's not like a singular painting hanging in a museum. A lot of people would like to think that - and I have a lot of arguments with some of my fellow directors about it - but my feeling is we've turned it over to the public. Hopefully, they will handle it with respect.

SYDELL: Warner Studios owns the rights to Donner's film "Superman." He was supposed to make the sequel, but had a fight with the studio. So, when they released "Superman" in high definition without his input, he admits he was worried.

DONNER: Oh man, it looked beautiful. I saw some areas of the - the blacks were stronger, and I saw some depth of focus that I didn't have before, and I was totally, totally impressed.

SYDELL: Digital film colorist Janet Wilson knows that it is a daunting task to recreate a director's work. But every year, she says, the technology is getting better. About every five years, the studio revisits their most popular titles.

WILSON: There's going to be somebody else who will come behind me, who will maybe get this better, who will get it more right than I was able to, who will have a better tool.

SYDELL: Or maybe, says Wilson, she'll get another chance herself. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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