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Re-Color Me Barbra: Restoring Funny Girl

by Dale Dobson

Grover Crisp, in his capacity as Vice President of Asset Management and Film Restoration at Sony Pictures, recently spent some time discussing the studio's restoration of Funny Girl, currently playing in limited theatrical engagements with a DVD release on 10/23/2001.

Crisp has also overseen the restoration of such classics as Easy Rider and Shampoo. Our conversation has been edited for continuity and clarity.

dOc: Tell us about your background at Sony Pictures.

Crisp: I've been working here since the early eighties... when it was still Columbia Pictures Entertainment, and owned by Coca-Cola at that time. I have been in this current role, working in the area of restoration and preservation of the feature film library, for most of the last decade.

dOc: What made Funny Girl a candidate for restoration?

Crisp: There are any number of ways that we work on a film, any number of reasons that can instigate work like this. In a general sense, the policy here is... we have an overall program to evaluate and analyze the library, to preserve it and decide if we need to restore it. We take this on a title by title basis, and we'll slowly but surely go through the entire library.

In this particular case, what initiated it is that the studio made a print for Barbra Streisand, at her request. She looked at it and sent it back, and said, 'it's out of synch in a couple places.' That can happen at any lab, when they're threading it up separately and trying to run the picture and the track. So I went down and took a look at it, and it was out of synch by a lot, by a wide margin, which was pretty shocking. But there were also a few other problems that we were noticing with that print. So we decided to take a step back and take a look at what we had on the film. And when we pulled out the original negative to have it evaluated, we discovered that it was really in quite poor shape. And though that print had not been made from the original negative, in going back to square one and seeing what we had, that's what we discovered. And we decided at that time to do a really complete restoration of the film, and fix it up as best we could.

dOc: And this was restored on film as the archival medium?

Crisp: Yes. We do not do "video restorations" here. Any time you hear that a film has been restored by Sony Pictures it means that the film has been restored. And if they release it on video or DVD or whatever, then that's great, and if they release it in theatres, that's great. In this particular case, it's been released in theatres and on DVD.

dOc: It's great to see it in theatres.

Crisp: It hadn't been seen in its original format since it was released. Shortly after its release, they cut it down so it would play without an intermission. You lose the overture, and the intermission, and the exit music; they never intentionally cut anything else out of the film. Also, it was released in its original six-track stereo format only in a few limited-release 70mm blow-up prints. So this allowed us to re-release it in 35mm, its original anamorphic scope format, for the first time in six-track stereo. Because it had never been released that way, in 35mm six-track. So that was kind of an added bonus. And of course, that six-track was the source for the audio on the DVD, which is a fairly accurate representation of what the theatrical experience was.

dOc: It looks like you preserved some of the flecks that might have been in the negative... some of the low-level hiss in the original audio has been retained. It doesn't seem like you've tried to improve on the original, but restore the film to its original level of quality.

Crisp: I don't think restoration is about modernizing a film, or altering a film to make it more compatible with what current audience tastes may be. So yeah, to a degree I would agree with you that we didn't do that.

But the second part of that answer is that in this case we actually did do that. We did a fair amount of hiss reduction and improvement of the soundtrack. The only digital part of this restoration was the soundtrack, and we did have this great six-channel format, which we replicated pretty much for the DVD. It's a pretty good representation of what you would have gotten in a theatre. But film noise and hiss was one of the biggest problems with that track, we had six channels of non-Dolby. And in addition to that we had pops and crackles, those usual kinds of artifacts... we did do that cleanup.

dOc: I was wondering about the original audio format...

Crisp: It was left, left-center, center, right-center, right and surround. That was the original format. For the DVD we just kind of moved that into left/center/right, then mono left and right surround. We had to collapse it a little bit, but it gives it a pretty good flavor of what it was. If you get a chance to see it in a theatre with the SDDS track, we literally left it in that original six-track configuration, so you've got five channels across the front that just knock you out.

dOc: Were there any unpleasant surprises during the restoration process?

Crisp: Not all of the negative was there. There were actually two reels that weren't there, that had been replaced in 1968. They made a lot of prints off of this thing and it got damaged then, and they made bad replacements, all of which we were able to actually replace now with better material. In fact, the only things that do not look good in the film now are the result of production choices at the time. Any of the shots that you see in the film now... and it may be less so on the DVD because they can smooth it out a little bit more on video than we can on film... any of the really grainy shots, or shots where the color shifts dramatically, those are all optical artifacts that were there when they made the film. They're just a little more obvious now, because we've made the rest of the film look better.

dOc: There's a frame jump, I think, in the Baltimore train station in the second shot of Omar Sharif...

Crisp: There are actually a couple of those in this film. That's one of them. That is a jump cut in the negative, which we can't explain, but there is no splice there. Just two frames that are back to back and there's a little bit of a jump. I actually think that that may have been a duplicate negative of the same shot prior to that. I think about this every time I see the print, and I've seen it about 75 times now... it does seem odd, but that jump has always been there.

dOc: Was the color significantly faded on this film? I'm thinking of the opening credits sequence in particular...

Crisp: It's quite a colorful and quite a complicated optical process they went through making that main title sequence. The backgrounds are changing at the same time the letters are changing at the same time the colors are changing; all this stuff is happening, and it's kind of incredible.

[The film's color overall] was not too bad... a little bit faded, not as badly as it could have been, considering how old it is. For what we supplied for the high-definition transfer, they were able to tweak it, color-correct it a little bit better than we could on film, which is always the case when you get into video. What really completed the restoration for me was the fact that we could use Technicolor dye transfer prints.

dOc: That technology had been shut down by Technicolor...

Crisp: They're trying to resuscitate it. This film has a color palette that's just perfect for the dye transfer process. We could not achieve the depth in the blacks and some of the other colors (especially the reds) in traditional positive printing, that we could with dye transfer printing. So I'm pretty happy with the way these prints look.

If you've seen the DVD, that shot when she knocks on the door and it cuts to him standing in this red velvet dining room... in theatres, that shot gets a gasp every single time. Followed by a little bit of laughter, a feeling that someone went overboard a bit in the art direction. But it's quite stunning. There's a fair amount of red in this, a lot of purples, and things like that. I haven't actually seen the DVD yet, by the way, so hopefully it all kind of comes through on it.

dOc: Is the Intermission in this version shorter than it was originally?

Crisp: Well, of course, an actual intermission is however long you want it to be, but this should be the original Intermission card. The overture, the entr'acte, the exit music, it's all original, the original length. The actual intermission music runs just about two minutes.

And it comes up immediately after the Don't Rain On My Parade number, and that incredible shot of the tugboat. Every time I see that, I'm just amazed at how they pulled that off. I think just the logistics of that shot - obviously, it's a helicopter shot, but they actually come down close to her... it actually goes down lower than she is. At a certain point the camera is actually looking back up at her. Those guys got really close to the water! It's just one of the great ending numbers going to an intermission - you can't wait until it starts again.

dOc: Has DVD been a big driver for restoration?

Crisp: It has. It absolutely has. I have heard from some quarters that DVD is kind of the death knell for film restoration, but it's really just the opposite. At my studio, and I know at a couple of other studios, it is a driving force. Because the quality level is so high on DVD that everyone has needed to go back to their best-quality materials, and most of the time that means something has to be made. So for all of our library titles that go out on DVD, we go back to square one on everything.

We take a look at the film. We improve the film as best we can. We do an all-new high-definition transfer, and that gets used as the source material for the DVD. That's one reason that the Columbia TriStar DVD's have a pretty good reputation for quality... we start at the very beginning.

I don't think any film should be restored to anything other than what was intended by the original filmmaker. By that, I mean... I approach these films as works of art, but they're not my works of art. They're the filmmakers' works. So I see my role as trying to preserve, or restore if possible, that film so that when an audience sees it on a screen in 2001, and the film was made in 1954... I want them to feel the way the audience did in 1954 when they saw it as a brand new film.