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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine

A New Dawn for Sunrise

The recent restoration of Sunrise undertaken by 20th Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive and the British Film Institute (BFI) was unique for a number of reasons, not least of which was the ethic that shaped the work from start to finish. Throughout the project, which included the first-ever restoration of the film's Movietone soundtrack, all three parties were determined to treat the 1927 film as the slightly flawed gem that it is. As BFI technical director Joao Oliveria puts it, "Sunrise is like an elegant old lady who should show her age but still retain her dignity."

Sunrise was a big winner at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, taking statuettes for cinematography, for lead actress (Janet Gaynor) and for "Most Unique and Artistic Production," an honor that was never awarded again. When the Academy began planning its 75th anniversary celebration, "the stars just aligned," says Schawn Belston, director of film preservation at Fox. "We had been talking with the BFI about collaborating on something; the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards was around the corner, and Sunrise plays an important role in that; and Fox Home Video had recently started the Studio Classics DVD line, which keys off of Academy Award winners. So suddenly everyone was interested in Sunrise at the same time."

There were at least two original negatives for Sunrise, one for the Movietone version (1.20:1) that was exhibited in the few North American theaters equipped with Fox's patented Movietone sound system, and one for the full-aperture (1.33:1) silent version that was exhibited everywhere else. Both negatives were lost in 1937, when a fire destroyed the New Jersey storage facility that housed Fox's film materials. When the restoration team began gathering materials last year, the most viable source for their work was determined to be a 1936 diacetate print that had the Movietone track, held by the BFI's National Film and Television Archive. (Fox had a fine-grain master positive that was in worse shape, and the Academy had a safety print from the 1960s.) At an archive in Prague, Oliveria and David Pierce, director of the BFI archive, discovered a full-aperture nitrate print that had been made in 1927, but it was missing almost a reel of footage and featured different camera angles and edits. "Restoring silent movies is always a bit of a conundrum because you're dealing with A- and B-camera negatives, and sometimes C- and D-camera negatives, that are all different," notes Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive. "The only way to generate more than one negative in those days was to have more than one camera film the action, and the A-camera footage was always intended for the film's home audience. For Sunrise, the European market was the secondary market." The restoration team eventually decided to treat the BFI's diacetate print "as the official version of the film, and fix it up as best we could," says Belston.

Oliveria began by using a wet-gate step contact printer to make a new dupe negative from the 1936 print, sections of which were already deteriorating. "That was the hardest part of the project, and Joao did a brilliant job," Belston remarks. After transferring the Movietone track to digital tape, the BFI shipped the new materials to Los Angeles.
Pogorzelski supervised the restoration of the soundtrack, which was carried out by John Polito at Audio Mechanics in Burbank. "John is very, very good at what he does, and he's very patient," says Pogorzelski. "Sunrise was one of the earliest examples of sound on film, and we all felt it was extremely important that the track be restored to what it sounded like in 1927, warts and all. In the digital realm it's extremely easy to take out anything that sounds like a defect - a pop or hiss or crackle - but depending on the studio and time period, that could actually be what the film sounded like. We wanted to very sure we weren't removing something that had always been there, so we made a transfer of the print onto video with the track area visible, and if we heard something [questionable] we could go back to the picture and determine whether it was an artifact induced by time or wear. If it was, we corrected it. It's an extremely rough track, but it's also very good - those variable-density tracks have such range of frequency response between the very lowest bass and the highest treble. We left in a lot of hiss, a lot of noise floor problems, because that's what Sunrise sounded like in 1927. You can make a 1927 track sound like Jurassic Park if you want to, but that isn't restoration; it's something else."

Maintaining this ethic led the restoration team to leave occasional out-of-sync sound effects out of sync, instead of correcting their timing. The most noticeable example is the night scene in which the Man (George O'Brien) furtively enters a barn and jumps when a horse suddenly kicks over a bucket nearby. As it plays out in the film, the horse actually enters the frame before the sound effect announces the animal's presence and the Man reacts. "That was always out of sync," Pogorzelski says with a smile. "That would be so easy to correct, but it wouldn't be true." (Indeed, in the June 1929 issue of AC, Fox film editor Louis Loeffler wrote about the difficulties of cutting Movietone films and keeping the sound in sync.)

One tricky aspect of restoring the picture involved eliminating the several black frames that preceded and followed every intertitle in the 1936 print. "We're surmising that in order to keep the picture and track in sync whenever they lost picture, they'd just slug at an intertitle to keep the picture the same length as the soundtrack," explains Belston. "We had Cinesite scan the intertitles and digitally duplicate some frames to stretch them out a bit. It was more complicated than we originally anticipated because all of the titles feature some sort of animation; often there's a faint mist floating behind the text, and many of the words themselves are animated."

The rest of the work on the picture was done at YCM Laboratories in Burbank. To aug-ment a few sequences in the new dupe, Belston had YCM copy sections of Fox's fine-grain and build them as B-rolls. He explains, "Our fine-grain is inferior to the 1936 print in terms of quality but is actually more complete. Two sequences in particular, the tracking shot in the swamp and the peasant-dance sequence in the city, play a bit longer in the fine-grain, so in an effort to make the most complete version possible we picked up those sections from our material."

Whereas most film preservationists' work ends with the creation of a new print, Belston and Pogorzelski were able to personally supervise the video transfer of Sunrise, thereby ensuring that home-video audiences would see the same film they had created in the lab. "In doing the video transfer, we were very careful to maintain the tonal range of what we'd seen on the diacetate print," says Belston. "It's so easy to make things too clean and too contrasty in telecine, and the beautiful thing about the photography in Sunrise is the beautiful middle range of tones. It's not stark black-and-white; it has a lovely, soft gray quality. With the beautiful new dupe we had, we could've cranked it up and made it look like Citizen Kane, but that's the last thing we wanted to do."

Pogorzelski, who calls the opportunity to supervise a video transfer "extremely rare" in his line of work, observes, "When the Academy gets involved in a restoration, we're adamant about not trying to turn a film into something that it never was, but one thing that's a little hard to keep control over with the studios is the video transfer and the DVD and TV versions. At almost every studio, the home-video department is an entity unto itself, and it goes to the beat of its own drum; it's therefore hard for us to keep a hand on what the film looks and sounds like in its home-video incarnation. It's painful when you have a print that you've done all this work on, and then the DVD doesn't look remotely like what you did. Thankfully, this is happening less and less; cinematographers are able to supervise the transfers of films they have shot, or restorationists are able to guide the film through the process. The high standards of the DVD audience and DVD collectors help keep a critical eye fixed on these products to ensure they are as good as they can be."

- Rachael K. Bosley
(with additional reporting
by David Samuelson)




© 2003 American Cinematographer.