Click here to read Elbert Ventura's essay on the new DVD of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons.
At the moment, no commercial TV monitor can display a 4K image, nor any commercially available disc-player read it. But when digital-mastering technicians work with a 4K scan on their equipment, they can manipulate the data—correct the color, adjust contrast, clean dirt, fill in missing information—in ultra-microscopic detail.
In the end, the studio has to "down-rez" the 4K master to the resolution of a commercial disc. Nonetheless, the more detailed the original, the better any down-rez-ed copy will look. (By analogy, a photograph of a real person will look better than a photograph of a photograph, even if it's taken with a plastic disposable camera.)
Finally, the new Kane looks better because of the Blu-ray format. The resolution of images on a conventional DVD is 480p—that is, 480 lines across by 768 lines up and down, or a total of roughly 400,000 pixels per frame. The resolution of a Blu-ray image is true high-definition, 1,080p—that is, 1,080 by 1,920 lines, or about 2 million pixels per frame. That's five times the resolution: hence more detail, more color saturation, less jitter and flutter in scenes where an object or the camera moves—a greater sense of realism, a greater resemblance to the original film. (For information on what you need to watch a Blu-ray disc, click
The new restoration of Kane can also be bought as a standard DVD, and it too looks substantially better than the 2002 version, in part because of the higher-tech clean-up, in part because (like the Blu-ray) it was struck from the 4K master, and in part because (again, like the Blu-ray) it comes from a different, better source.
Ideally, a studio would make a digital master from a film's original camera-negative. Alas, the negative for Citizen Kane was destroyed long ago in a warehouse fire. So, Warner Home Video, which released both the 2002 and 2011 discs of Citizen Kane, has had to work from surviving copies of the negative.
For the 2002 DVD, they scanned a 35 mm print of Citizen Kane borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art. It's a very high-quality print, but it is a print—which is to say, a copy of a 35 mm "fine-grain master," which is in turn a copy of the camera-negative. In other words, it's a third-generation artifact. And the digital scan was a copy of that.
For the new Blu-ray, Ned Price and his team at Warner Brothers Motion Picture Imagery scanned three different copies (or "film elements"): the MoMA print; a 35 mm fine-grain master that was found several years ago at a film lab in Brussels; and another 35 mm fine-grain master, discovered much more recently at a European film archive. (For a purely technical caveat, click
"The three film elements had different strengths and weaknesses," Price explained. "For instance, one of them had less flicker in one reel but coarser grain in another reel. So we put together the best bits and pieces of all three." (Even so, Price and his team had to clean up, frame by frame, a lot of dirt and misalignments, especially in all those opticals and dissolves. The restoration project took over a year to complete.)
The story of this newly discovered element from the mysterious European archive is intriguing in itself. According to Price, this archive (along with, presumably, several others) has lots of films belonging to Warner Bros., but it has kept a low profile because the issue of legal ownership is, to put it delicately, ambiguous. This archive has begun to provide catalogue listings and, more recently, film elements to Warner on condition that its name be kept a secret. (Citizen Kane, for instance, has four distributors worldwide; even if Warner agrees not to sue for ownership, one of the others might.)
With once-unknown prints, fine-grain masters, maybe even some negatives coming literally out of the closet, who knows what treasures are out there? For many years, it was believed that the original camera negative for Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion had been destroyed by Nazis—until, in the early 1990s, it was found hidden in a barn in the south of France. In 2003, the Criterion Collection delayed its long-planned release of a DVD for Renoir's Rules of the Game because its tech people suddenly found a fine-grain master that was much better than the element they'd been using.
Was the negative of Citizen Kane really burned in that warehouse fire? Or did someone happen to check it out at the last minute? "I've never seen any documented proof that it was destroyed," says Ned Price. "We can always hope."