Damn Sand

Sandstorm-strength grain is a technological blight that classic-era filmmakers had no choice but to work with as best they could. Bring the great directors back to life — Wilder, Lubitsch, Fleming, Capra, Hawks, Ford, Griffith, Keaton, Hitchcock — and they would all say, “Yes, naturally, obviously, of course…ask Lowry Digital‘s John Lowry to do what he can to tastefully take down the grain levels in our films! Because we want our films to be seen, and we never liked that damn grain gravel to begin with.”

Take no notice of the present-day monks who say that grain is beautiful, vital, essential. It is a visual hindrance to be fought tooth and nail down to the last dying breath. Because if they have their way the grain monks, who care only about the perpetration of their own dweeby world in the Abbey of St. Martin in rural France, will strongly discourage today’s younger generations of film lovers (as well as generations to come) from even thinking about watching the great classics.

I suspect that younger film lovers are as averse to Arabian grainstorm images as I’ve been all my life to silent films. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m always putting off watching this or that great silent classic on DVD because of a lifelong impatience with lack of dialogue (among other tinny ’20s elements that tend to get in the way for a TV generation guy like myself, such as the exaggerated acting styles and too-often static cinematography). I watch these films but grudgingly. I’m not proud of this, mind, but it’s a fact. And I’m probably more receptive to movie lore than your average non-pro film buff.

The younger folks of today (i.e., 25 and under) regard movies made before the ’90s as old, and films from the big-studio era as Paleozoic. Silent films are almost totally out the window for my two sons (who are 20 and 19), but to foster at least some degree of reverence and affection for the 1930-to-1970 era, the old films have to be semi-watchable in a cleaned-up way, and by this I mean aesthetically free of any rickety aroma.

That doesn’t mean they should be degraded down to a plastic visual realm akin to digital video games, as some irrational monks on this site have suggested. It means de-graining them with respect, taste and affection. But it also means removing the damn sand already, or as much as possible without violating the core intentions of the filmmakers.

These guys didn’t love grain. Their films were covered with the stuff — hello? – because they had no choice.

Grain reduction can be done correctly, reverently. Look at the Blu-ray Pinocchio (which Some Came Running’s Glenn Kenny has just written about), or the Blu-ray Casablanca. (I’ve never seen the Blu-ray of Michael Curtiz‘s Robin Hood — how is it?)

And that means one thing — elevating John Lowry and his grain-reduction technology to a position equal to that of Jonas Salk and his 1950s polio vaccine. But before this happens there can be no more tolerance of the monk aesthetic. These people are equivalent to the ultra-right-wing Hebrew rabbinicals who’ve been the most persistent opponents of accord with the Palestinians. Due respect, but people on my side of the issue need to get all Torquemada on their ass. The more the monks get to call the shots about transferring old films to high-def formats, the worse things will be as far as the future of film culture will be. Because they are standing in the way of the church taking in new members and making new converts.

The very survival of the culture of classic film lovers over the next ten to twenty years and beyond is at stake. These well-meaning purists are doing everything in their power to preserve the celluloid grain reality of the past (okay, for the “right” reasons, granted) but are, I suspect, dimming enthusiasm among GenY and GenD viewers for pre-1970 Hollywood classics in the bargain.

This issue has only come to the fore with Blu-ray technology because now you can see the grain much more clearly. I popped in an eight-year-old Dr. Strangelove DVD the other day and was shocked at how much grainier it looks on my 42-inch Panasonic plasma than on my six year-old 36″ Sony analog flat-screen.

High-def, in short, is exposing the granular reality of how these films look more than ever before. In the same way that the most recent digital mastering of George Pal‘s War of the Worlds (’53) exposed the wires holding up the Martian space ships. Only an oddball like DVD Talk‘s Glenn Erickson would say that seeing the wires is an okay thing. (“There was no CG wire removal in 1953,” Erickson wrote in ’05, “and it would be detrimental revisionism to change the picture now [so] learn to live with it.”) The wires obviously weren’t intended to be seen, and the obvious remedy is to go into the current transfer and digitally remove them — simple. That’s all I’m talking about in general. Remove the stuff from older films that distracts the viewer from the dream state that movies are supposed to lull you into. Because grain is the worst waker-upper of all.

In a figurative way the monks already have already been excommunicated or I wouldn’t be referring to them as monks, but they clearly hold sway among the current generation of film preservationists and restoration experts (Robert Harris, Grover Crisp, Scott McQueen , etc.) and at the Criterion Co., which is pretty much mad monk central these days, to go by their work on the Blu-ray of The Third Man.

  • Krazy Eyes

    I think a proper amount of grain is essential to what I consider a good transfer of a classic movie. It’s all subjective though.

    One would hope that with the huge amounts of storage available with new medium such as blu-ray that we could get two versions of classic films: one which tries to preserve the original image as closely as possible (for me the preferred version) and another that attempts to “clean-up” the image as necessary.

    For the record, I thought the Third Man blu-ray looked fantastic.

  • Jeremy Fassler

    Jeff, you gotta remedy the silent film thing. I know, at times the acting is pretty bad. But have you still not seen Sunrise? That’s a pretty big hole in film education right there.

  • Sabina E

    really, Wells? You don’t care for silent films? That surprises me. I LOVE watching old silent films with no dialogue. Maybe because i’m Deaf.

  • topbroker

    I really don’t care what the majority of under-25s think about classic film (or anything, frankly). They will never go for them in any substantial numbers, and those few that do will be the most innately receptive. Culture is *always” kept alive by monks! That will never change, and pretending otherwise is a waste of time. Fifty years from now, The Dark Knight will be a quaint oldie relic, preserved and enjoyed by the same type of people who preserve and enjoy King Kong now.

    I want to see films as close to what they looked like when they were made as possible.

  • Chase Kahn

    I’m 20 years old and I absolutely love watching stuff from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and so on — but as much as I hate to admit it, like Jeff, I can’t really get into the silent era.

    I haven’t seen “Sunrise”, though — maybe I’ll change my tune…

  • Jeffrey Wells

    I’ve seen Sunrise, Greed, Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, Que Viva Mexico, Way Down East, most of the Keaton and Chaplin and Fairbanks classics, Nosferatu, The Shiek, Son of the Shiek, The Iron Horse, The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, DeMille’s King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, the 1926 Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Teh Big Parade, The Crowd, Orphans of the Storm, Ten Days That Shook the World and lots of others. But I’m not the student of silent cinema that I could or should be.

  • Kyle_D

    It would be great if the Lowry process could be applied to all classic releases. It’s the only process out there that can tame the grain without smudging the fine details, making the picture look digital. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read, it’s prohibitively expensive for all but major classic releases that can be expected to sell in numbers comparable to a new release.

    I’m 22. Believe me, the under-25s don’t care about classic film. Period. It’s not the grain that turns them off. It’s not even the black-and-white issue, though that can play into it. They just don’t like anything old. They feel they can’t relate to it.

    The ones who do care about classic films, for the most part, ARE the monks. They’re the ones who care about the preservation of the films and who will continue to financially support their release by purchasing the discs. They realize that grain is part of the image and learn to put up with it because it beats the alternatives: no release at all due to the expense of the Lowry process, or low cost filtering, edge enhancement and DNR which does make the film look like an arid, digital mess. See: Patton, The Longest Day, Zulu, and the recent release of Amadeus.

  • Movie fan09

    I suspect that younger film lovers are as averse to Arabian grainstorm images as I’ve been all my life to silent films. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m always putting off watching this or that great silent classic on DVD because of a lifelong impatience with lack of dialogue (among other tinny ’20s elements that tend to get in the way for a TV generation guy like myself, such as the exaggerated acting styles and too-often static cinematography). I watch these films but grudgingly. I’m not proud of this, mind, but it’s a fact. And I’m probably more receptive to movie lore than your average non-pro film buff.

    you NEED to do some sort of visual version of this for you tube.

    that is the exact sentiment of most modern film lovers’ today.

  • drturing

    The day I take the opinion of Jeffrey Wells over Robert Harris is the day I poor battery acid onto my corneas. That’s like asking Joe the Plumber for advice on the economy over Paul Krugman. Knee jerk reaction aside, you don’t know what you’re talking about and coming completely from a place of ignorance because of what you read about a restored piece of animation. The thing about that is Cels exist which give us an idea of how it’s supposed to look. Grain on film sourced with actors present in the moment has no such reference and is truly chemically and molecularly embedded in the image.

    While we’re at it, why don’t take all the classic silents and CGI moving mouths onto people and add dialogue.

    And you know what would really punch up The Third Man for your sons? Colorization. That black and white sure was limiting.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to drturing: There’s no talking to a person like yourself. It could easily be concluded that your form of ignorance (which is your inability to read what’s been written and listen to what people are actually saying) is as profound as the ignorance you believe I’m guilty of. The brightest and most sophisticated response so far has come from Kyle_D, who is way, way above your level.

  • http://somecamerunning.typepad.com Glenn Kenny

    Jeff, while I suppose we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about the Blu-ray of “The Third Man,” I don’t think it’s fair for you to tar Criterion with your “mad monk” brush on account of that title alone. Look at the Blu-rays of “Chungking Express,” “Bottle Rocket,” “Man Who Fell To Earth,” “Last Emperor.” The films have never looked better on home video. The company’s Blu-ray of “Ran” will likely blow everybody away.

  • drturing

    How’s this for ignorance: talking to several members of the ASC, a few of them oscar nominees, after a presentation of Kodak’s new 5219 stock, and us wondering what we’re going to do when we want grain. Because sometimes it is a choice. For all we know the set you watched Criterion’s Third Man was improperly calibrated. While I appreciate your candor and honesty about your feelings about silent films, all it shows is that personal preference is what matters to you. Do I believe you understand this on a technical level greater than Robert Harris? Not one bit.

  • MindlessObamaton

    I’m ashamed to admit that I’m always putting off watching this or that great silent classic on DVD because of a lifelong impatience with lack of dialogue (among other tinny ’20s elements that tend to get in the way for a TV generation guy like myself, such as the exaggerated acting styles and too-often static cinematography). I watch these films but grudgingly. I’m not proud of this, mind, but it’s a fact.

    Might just be the most honest thing you’ve written here. Frankly, Wells, you need to remeber this passage when you’re bashing the public over the head for dissing this film or that or letting this film or that one fail.

  • NotImpressed1Yet

    I would bet $1,000,0000 that Wells hasn’t touched his TV set’s picture settings, and it’s still set on default with contrast set and sharpness near maximum levels.

    Which pretty much renders his opinion on this subject meaningless.

  • coxcable

    Yeah, sorry but a film reflects the times it was made in. Story, acting, production values, all of it. That’s why we go back to them. Clean them up for clarity if you gotta but stay away from their overall look and sound. HD-a-fying something that isn’t HD-able is yes, just as bad as colorizing something b&w.

    Besides, technology and taste change every few years… look at the embarrassment Spielberg’s 2002 touchup of “E.T.” is regarded just 7 years later. Nobody wants to watch that one. HBO refuses to air it.

    And poor George Lucas… he’ll be making-over his Star Wars every few years to accommodate technology not audiences… stretching it and stretching it beyond recognition just because he can… like Katherine Helmond’s face in Brazil.

    The kids these days need to learn historical perspective. They need to look at old films as an archeologist would. Films need to be studied as much as enjoyed. The problem with movies these day is that it’s all about enjoyment… there’s almost nothing to study in X-Men 3 beyond marketing. The kids need to retrain their brains to do a little heavy lifting once in a while. To think about the basic, primitive aspects of the process.

  • MindlessObamaton

    Check out the flick “Wooden Crosses” to get into a grainy, dark WWI flick. Good stuff and love the atmosphere all the grain and such causes on it.

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to NotImpressedYet: You would be wrong about that, pal. I know what I’m doing, what my eye wants, what buttons to push, etc.

  • Chase Kahn

    I’m willing to give Jeff the benefit of the doubt on his TV’s picture settings. If his sharpness is anywhere over 60% you’re going to get significantly more grain. Surely he knows that.

    I’m extremely excited for the ‘Ran’ blu-ray disc. It’s criterion’s first Blu release that I’m going to buy day one. (Would have done it with ‘Third Man’ if I didn’t already own the re-issue standard DVD).

  • http://www.robertcashill.blogspot.com btwnproductions

    It was only on DVD that the WOTW spaceship wires really bothered me. They weren’t a nuisance on VHS or LD. Is it the superior resolution that brought them out, or a careless transfer (or both)? It really needs to bevredone.

    Did Lowry remove the plane wires from the climax of GOLDFINGER, or just conceal them from view more sensitively?

  • algarciashead

    Where’s the money to digitally degrain a zillion old movies gonna come from? It’s insanely expensive. Young people will generally not watch old stuff in any way, ever (“Dude! Magnificent Ambersons has NO grain now! Kickass!”) so forget that.

  • NotImpressed1Yet

    I stand corrected then.

    In any event, Wells, I highly recommend that you check out this disc

    http://www.amazon.com/Digital-Video-Essentials-Basics-Blu-ray/dp/B000V6LST0

    Merely setting the TV to “what your eyes want” can be a very, very bad idea. That is because the vast majority of eyes have been conditioned by years and years of incorrect picture settings to expect something that is very much at odds with what the ISF’s idea of a good picture is. If you calibrate your set to the test patterns on the disc linked to above, you will likely be unsettled at first – it is almost certainly different from what you have now.

  • NotImpressed1Yet
  • Chase Kahn

    Hopefully Warner’s $1 million dollar restoration of ‘North By Northwest’ is going well…

  • Jeffrey Wells

    Wells to Chase Kahn: Where did you read about the North by Northwest restoration? I missed that. Can you provide links? Or did you just hear about it? Lowry did the work on the DVD, I know that. The film wasn’t photochemically restored as it had suffered a lot of ruination. The yellow layer was missing or it was all yellow layer or something. So they digitally corrected it.

  • Kyle_D

    Here’s a great interview with the VP in charge of classic releases over at Warner Home Video. They either use Lowry or a process similar to Lowry for most of their major classic releases. It mentions the $1 million restoration on North By Northwest.

    http://www.highdefdigest.com/news/show/David_Krauss/Warner_Brothers/Industry_Trends/Blu_About_The_Slow_Release_of_Classic_Titles_On_Blu-ray_Take_Heart!_(UPDATED)/2502

  • Chase Kahn

    Kyle D has the link on the NxN Blu — that’s where I first heard about…

  • Cadavra

    The WOTW wires issue wasn’t an issue when it first came out. Back in those days, projectors used carbon arc illumination, and cinematographers would take that fact into account. Quartz bulbs came in around the ’60s, and suddenly it was a whole new ball game: the color of the light they emit is different than that of a carbon arc, and so things that were “invisible” before (such as wires) were now rather obvious. Each time technology improves, another layer of “deceit” is stripped away, and thus people think old films always looked that way.

  • DeafBrownTrashPunk

    really, Wells? You don’t care for silent films? That surprises me. I LOVE watching old silent films with no dialogue. Maybe because i’m Deaf.

  • Morpho!

    To add to what La – er, ‘Cadavra‘ says:

    There are two other major factors as to why the WOTW wires are suddenly so apparent (they were always there to be seen if you made it a point to look for them, however – from original screenings to 8mm home movie cut-downs to VHS and on).

    The first has to do with how the original release prints were printed, using Technicolor’s I.B. process. This resulted in a more contrasty image, with more inky blacks. That helped.

    The other reason, and the one that really hurts the most recent release, is – wait for it – not enough grain! Lowry’s process (now that they’ve perfected it, at least), does indeed remove grain patterns without also removing apparent detail, but in this case the filmmakers had depended on there being a typical amount of grain to the image, relying on it to obscure a certain, unwanted detail. Lowry did too good a job.

    Oh, and B- er, ‘btwnproductions‘, Lowry did indeed remove the wires from the Bonds in the most recent restorations.

  • Moises Chiullan

    I think this entire argument would be made irrelevant by the two-pass method suggested by many in regard to the fRench Connection Blu-ray. Give people the restored-with-grain and the clean-up version, whether the director is alive or not. This isn’t a one-or-the-other issue for the disc-buying public like Pan and Scan versus Anamorphic Widescreen.

    This is a preference issue, and it’s been in multiple hands previously- the director, the producer, the restoration house, the studio. Not to sound like a Republican fundamentalist, but let the market decide. All hail the Free Market of HD Preference.

  • Moises Chiullan

    I think this entire argument would be made irrelevant by the two-pass method suggested by many in regard to the French Connection Blu-ray. Give people the restored-with-grain and the clean-up version, whether the director is alive or not. This isn’t a one-or-the-other issue for the disc-buying public like Pan and Scan versus Anamorphic Widescreen.

    This is a preference issue, and it’s been in multiple hands previously- the director, the producer, the restoration house, the studio. Not to sound like a Republican fundamentalist, but let the market decide. All hail the Free Market of HD Preference.

  • Chris Willman

    In regard to silents, I think you have to expose children to them at a very young age, or you’ve lost them till well into their adult years, even if they consider themselves film buffs. I take my daughter to silent comedies at the Old Town Music Hall, Silent Movie Theatre (on the rare instances they still show them) and Last Remaining Seats, and she doesn’t think anything of title cards. She begs to take her friends along, who, if they accept, sit there dumbfounded. But then, I was showing her Harold Lloyd on DVD before she could read. Actually, it’s one of the things that I think most encouraged her to learn to read–so she could understand the title cards on her own! (That and DVD menus.)

  • Nate West

    //I’m 22. Believe me, the under-25s don’t care about classic film. Period. It’s not the grain that turns them off. It’s not even the black-and-white issue, though that can play into it. They just don’t like anything old. They feel they can’t relate to it.//

    Kid, nobody cares about anything. It’s a world of Philistines. Serious movies are about to follow newspapers, which are following novels, which followed poetry, into the pit. There, a few monks will save what they can, for some curious youngster to discover (and rave to his friends about) in 2109. The rest will be ash. Dust. Relate to that.

  • Ephemerinko
  • Edward

    I hate being late to the discussion, but I have to chime in. I work in video and love the digital revolution. We aren’t shooting in HD yet, but I can’t wait for my first HD shoot. But this is video and not film. DP’s and Directors now decide if they want to shoot film or digitally. They have a choice. Old films have grain, it’s part of the technology of the day and the DPs and directors were aware of this. Removing the grain is abhorent. I see nothing wrong with cleaning up old films, but they should be made to look as good as they were when they were first projected and that means the grain should remain. If the original materials are severly damaged and it looks like a “sand storm” maybe clean it up, remove some of the grain, but not all of the grain.

    As to the classic animated films; perhaps grain is their enemy. I’ll let animators and other people more knowledgable decide.

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