Just as Bruce Springsteen's Live: 1975-85 box set drove lots of rock fans to buy a compact-disc player back in the mid-'80s, so I suspect the "Coppola Restoration" of the Godfather trilogy will compel lots of film lovers to buy a Blu-ray disc player today.
It should. Francis Coppola's masterpieces, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (really, who cares about Part III?), haven't looked so good since they first came out three decades ago. Simply put, the new four-disc set amounts to one of the most spectacular achievements in the brief history of home theater.
The original DVD box set, released by Paramount in 2001, was a huge disappointment. Dark scenes were murky, bright scenes were washed out, and several shots were marred by the video equivalent of pops, ticks, and static. For instance, in Part II's opening close-up of Al Pacino standing in his darkened office, it looked as though mosquitoes were swarming down his face.
Paramount's executives were loath to admit it at the time, but the problem was that the original negatives for both films were in terrible condition, the result of studio neglect and technical mishaps in an era before film preservation became a concern, then a cause.
In 1972, when The Godfather came out, big box-office hits were shown first in the big cities, then in the smaller towns, then in the second-run theaters. By the time the run was over, the prints were frazzled. When The Godfather Part II came out in 1974, the original film was revived as well, as it was all through the 1980s. The prints were worn out, so Paramount churned out new ones—and they churned them straight off the negative. Film is delicate, and the printmaking machinery can be harsh, with its sprockets, rough-edged reels, and (back then) less-than-sanitary conditions. With each churning, the negative became more and more damaged—dirtier, scratched, and torn. (These days, prints are usually made from a duplicate negative derived from a master print, called an "inter-positive.")
Over the years, the Godfather negative was also shuttled to several different film labs, some of which were careless beyond belief. Whole sections of the film were ripped apart and crudely spliced back together with Mylar tape. One reel was lost; the lab substituted a dupe—a duplicate negative—in its place. Robert Harris of the Film Preserve, who oversaw the new restoration, found the missing reel just last year in the Paramount vaults, inside a can mislabeled "Reel 1B, Dupe 2."
The negative for The Godfather Part II wasn't in such bad shape; anticipating a hit, the studio executives made more prints from the outset so they didn't have to go back to the negative for more. Still, it too was filthy, scratched, and full of rips and tears.
When the first DVD was mastered seven years ago, Paramount's archivists tracked down the best IP they could find—it was a copy of a copy of a copy—and cranked it through a telecine, a machine that transfers film images into digital video. There was no restoration beyond that. Meanwhile, the negative—the original work of art, so to speak—continued to deteriorate.
In 2006, Paramount bought Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios. Coppola called Spielberg, an old friend, and asked whether he could use his influence to rescue The Godfather. Spielberg lobbied the higher-ups, who agreed to finance a restoration. Robert Harris—who has conducted some of the most meticulous restorations of the past couple decades (Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Rear Window, and My Fair Lady, among others)—got involved in discussions that September. He and a large team began work in November. It took them a year and a half to finish.
First, they repaired the original negative to the point where it could be put through a digital scanner without breaking. Then the machine digitally scanned the negative at a "4K" sampling rate—that is, at a rate of 4,096 pixels per line, much more than even a high-def image.
The significance of this is that 4K scanning (which is still rarely employed in restoration work, in part because it's so expensive) is a high enough sampling rate to capture everything that's on a frame of 35 mm film. In other words, Harris and his team started with a digital replica of the film—not some compressed approximation, as is the case with most digital transfers.
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