Rediscovering Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Sept. 30 2008 11:11 AM

Your DVD Player Sleeps With the Fishes

The restored Godfather trilogy: the best reason yet to go Blu-ray.

Coppola Restoration of the Godfather trilogy.

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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about films and DVDs for several publications. He can be reached at

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.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.