By Barry Goch
The classic Victor Fleming-directed film The Wizard of Oz, which was released by MGM in 1939 and won two of its six Academy Award nominations, has been beautifully restored by Burbank’s Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI).
To share its workflow on the film, MPI invited a group of journalists to learn about the 4K UHD HDR restoration of this classic film. The tour guide for our high-tech restoration journey was MPI’s VP of operations and sales Bob Bailey, who walked us through the entire restoration process — from the original camera negative to final color.
The Wizard of Oz, which starred Judy Garland, was shot on a Technicolor three-strip camera system. According to Bailey, it ran three black and white negatives simultaneously. “That is why it is known as three-strip Technicolor. The magazine on top of the camera was triple the width of a normal black and white camera because it contained each roll of negative to capture your red, green and blue records,” explained Bailey.
“When shooting in Technicolor, you weren’t just getting the camera. You would rent a package that included the camera, a camera crew with three assistants, the film, the processing and a Technicolor color consultant.”
George Feltenstein, SVP of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, spoke about why the film was chosen for restoration. “The Wizard of Oz is among the crown jewels that we hold,” he said. “We wanted to embrace the new 4K HDR technology, but nobody’s ever released a film that old using this technology. HDR, or high dynamic range, has a color range that is wider than anything that’s come before it. There are colors [in The Wizard of Oz] that were never reproducible before, so what better a film to represent that color?”
Feltenstein went on to explain that this is the oldest film to get released in the 4K format. He hopes that this is just the beginning and that many of the films in Warner Bros.’ classic library will also be released on 4K HDR and worked on at MPI under Bailey’s direction.
MPI scanned each of the three-strip Technicolor nitrate film negatives at 8K 16-bit, composited them together and then applied a new color grain. The film was rescanned with the Lasergraphics Director 10K scanner. “We have just under 15 petabytes of storage here,” said Bailey. “That’s working storage, because we’re working on 8K movies since [some places in the world] are now broadcasting 8K.”
Our first stop was to look at the Lasergraphics Director. We then moved on to MPI’s climate-controlled vault, where we were introduced to Steven Anastasi, VP of technical operations at Warner Bros. Anastasi explained that the original negative vault has climate-controlled conditions with 25% humidity at 35 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the combination required for keeping these precious assets safe for future generations. He said there are 2 million assets in the building, including picture and sound.
It was amazing to see film reels for 2001: A Space Odyssey sitting on a shelf right in front of me. In addition to the feature reels, MPI also stores millions of negatives captured throughout the years by Warner productions. “We also have a very large library,” reported Anastasi. “So the original negatives from the set, a lot of unit photography, head shots in some cases and so forth. There are 10 million of these.”
Finally, we were led into the color bay to view the film. Janet Wilson, senior digital colorist at MPI, has overseen every remaster of The Wizard of Oz for the past 20 years. Wilson used a FilmLight Baselight X system for the color grade. The grading suite housed multiple screens: a Dolby Pulsar for the Dolby Vision pass, a Sony X300 and a Panasonic EZ1000 OLED 4K HDR.
“We have every 4K monitor manufactured, and we run the film through all of them,” said Bailey. “We painstakingly go through the process from a post perspective to make sure that our consumers get the best quality product that’s available out in the marketplace.”
“We want the consumer experience on all monitors to be something that’s taken into account,” added Feltenstein. “So we’ve changed our workflow by having a consumer or prosumer monitor in these color correction suites so the colorist has an idea of what people are going to see at home, and that’s helped us make a better product.”
Our first view of the feature was a side-by-side comparison of the black and white scanned negative and the sepia color corrected footage. The first part of the film, which takes place in Kansas, was shot in black and white, and then a sepia look was applied to it. The reveal scene, when Dorothy passes through the door going into Oz, was originally shot in color. For this new release, the team generated a matte so Wilson could add this sepia area to the inside of the house as Dorothy transitioned into Oz.
“So this is an example of some of the stuff that we could do in this version of the restoration,” explained Wilson. “With this version, you can see that the part of the image where she’s supposed to be in the monochrome house is not actually black and white. It was really a color image. So the trick was always to get the interior of the house to look sepia and the exterior to look like all of the colors that it’s supposed to. Our visual effects team here at MPI — Mike Moser and Richie Hiltzik — was able to draw a matte for me so that I could color inside of the house independently of the exterior and make them look right, which was always a really tricky thing to do.”
Wilson referred back to the Technicolor three-strip, explaining that because you’ve got three different pieces of film — the different records — they’re receiving the light in different ways. “So sometimes one will be a little brighter than the other. One will be a little darker than the other, which means that the Technicolor is not a consistent color. It goes a little red, and then it goes a little green, and then it goes a little blue, and then it goes a little red again. So if you stop on any given frame, it’s going to look a little different than the frames around it, which is one of the tricky parts of color correcting technical art. When that’s being projected by a film projector, it’s less noticeable than when you’re looking at it on a video monitor, so it takes a lot of little individual corrections to smooth those kinds of things out.”
Wilson reported seeing new things with the 8K scan and 4K display. “The amount of detail that went into this film really shows up.” She said that one of the most remarkable things about the restoration was the amazing detail visible on the characters. For the first time in many generations, maybe ever, you can actually see the detail of the freckles on Dorothy’s face.
In terms of leveraging the expanded dynamic range of HDR, I asked Wilson if she tried to map the HDR, like in kind of a sweet spot, so that it’s both spectacular yet not overpowering at the same time.
“I ended up isolating the very brightest parts of the picture,” she replied. “In this case, it’s mostly the sparkles on their shoes and curving those off so I could run those in, because this movie is not supposed to have modern-day animation levels of brightness. It’s supposed to be much more contained. I wanted to take advantage of brightness and the ability to show the contrast we get from this format, because you can really see the darker parts of the picture. You can really see detail within the Wicked Witch’s dress. I don’t want it to look like it’s not the same film. I want it to replicate that experience of the way this film should look if it was projected on a good print on a good projector.”
Dorothy’s ruby slippers also presented a challenge to Wilson. “They are so red and so bright. They’re so light-reflective, but there were times when they were just a little too distracting. So I had to isolate this level at the same track with slippers and bring them down a little bit so that it wasn’t the first and only thing you saw in the image.”
If you are wondering if audio was part of this most recent restoration, the answer is no, but it had been remastered for a previous version. “As early at 1929, MGM began recording its film music using multiple microphones. Those microphonic angles allowed the mixer to get the most balanced monophonic mix, and they were preserved,” explained Feltenstein. “Twenty years ago, we created a 5.1 surround mix that was organically made from the original elements that were created in 1939. It is full-frequency, lossless audio, and a beautiful restoration job was made to create that track so you can improve upon what I consider to be close to perfection without anything that would be disingenuous to the production.”
In all, it was an amazing experience to go behind the scenes and see how the wizards of MPI created a new version of this masterpiece for today and preserved it for future generations.
This restored version of The Wizard of Oz is a must-see visual extravaganza, and there is no better way to see it than in UHD, HDR, Dolby Vision or HDR10+. What I saw in person took my breath away, and I hope every movie fan out there can have the opportunity to see this classic film in its never-before-seen glory.
The 4K version of The Wizard of Oz is currently available via an Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital.
Barry Goch is a finishing artist at LA’s The Foundation as well as a UCLA Extension Instructor, Post Production. You can follow him on Twitter at @Gochya