What makes the ‘authentic’ version of a classic animated film (or any film for that matter)?
So, what is the ‘true’ version of a classic animation short? Maybe the question should be ‘is there?!?! Here’s a few thoughts on materials and approach, and my thoughts on best direction to take. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, but let’s not just get stuck on a few films, but rather an overall idea of best approach.
We’re in a time of both preservation and revision of film history; this really has been the case for *many* years, but in more recent times, the ability to digitally improve and alter materials for reissue is both wonderful as well as sometimes a problem. We’re all able to see things now that were otherwise really impossible to see, especially as revival houses and college campus showing because less frequent (and as there were less and less ‘cartoon parties’ where a good ol’ 16mm projector was pulled out).
When I was first collecting films in Super 8, there were Disney films available as well as a bunch of small companies that released public domain material. I was in junior high and would save lunch money to buy films. I’d often buy them used from The Big Reel, Movie Collector’s World or from a small company that sold used super 8 films (this company eventually evolved into ‘Pepperland Records’ — Was that L/C films?). The prints of these films varied a *lot*, from good to fair color, contrasty versus not enough contrast or being blown out on whites, blurry, etc. I would never have considered these inauthentic versions of a film — rather, just not the greatest print. These variances were, honestly, rarely intentional, just a result of the rarity of finding excellent material to copy.
And, so it was, as collectors, prints you’d collect varied, and of course still do. One particular lab was famous for making new prints of cartoons, some copyrighted, some not, and often had the best possible print of some of them, even better than anything you could find that was ‘official’.
These experiences were for sure the impetus for Snappy Video; I really liked the idea of being able to share some of the rarest films and, honestly, liked the idea of being able to see things I hadn’t seen even more. Collecting prints teaches you a lot about what is available and in what quality, but borrowing prints from various collectors teaches you a lot more quickly since you can compare versions. The rarest materials of course give you no choice — you use that one rare copy or not. Where the print was from, where it was struck, how it was made are all of course big factors (from 35mm or 16, a print down or contact print, etc). Of course, these are all magnified when you don’t have original sources to work from.
Now that I’ve been lucky enough to work with more original materials, there’s the additional aspect of figuring out what the best materials are to work from, even when the ‘original’ materials are available. Each piece of material has a whole series of possible issues. The original ‘timing’ of the original release prints of the film is often determined by either what the ‘dupe’ negative or master positive’s timing is. As I’ve been working on the Iwerks material, I see that the timers on those films were really excellent in making sure the films were as consistent as possible. Of course, Iwerks was also quite good as a studio in fairly even timing through most of the productions in filming— but a quick comparison between the scans of the OCN (original camera neg) and the FGMP (Fine Grain Master Positive) reveals the labs folks were *very* aware of making these look as good as possible. I’ve been using the master positives where I can to determine contrast per shot; I see this as part of the original record of the film, and if I can get it close to that, I get closer to what was seen in theaters back then.
That brings us back to the point I wanted to make. We could argue all day about what’s wrong with the newer versions of the Disney animated features. I do have a giant regret in selling my almost perfect 16mm Blue track Technicolor Cinderella print a handful of years back. As far as I was concerned, that print (with it’s beautiful bright *and* subtle tones) was the authentic version of that film, closer to what was seen in 1950 than the later, brighter and more contrasty versions.
Someone put a piece up of their Blue Track Ib print here; a comical scene with my favorite sequence of Lucifer the Cat (wonderfully animated by Ward Kimball). more colorful than this capture shows on this print:
U.M.& M. and NTA clearly did very little if any timing to fix issues on the Betty Boop shorts reissued in the 50s for TV; those prints are all over the place in basic timing. They did do better on the color Noveltoons and Color Classics (although it’s hard to tell since many of those prints are now very, very red- but the surviving Ektachrome negs and Kodachrome prints are generally well-timed throughout).
Instead of pulling the films from the negs, they struck a color 35mm print of each, copied the sound, then spliced in the new titles on that print and make a print down neg to make the release prints. APP did something similar with the color Popeyes, except they didn’t care about the sound when splicing in their new titles, so there’s a sound jump on all those prints (and now you know why).
There’s a whole *additional* aspect of companies already having the best materials and, for one reason or another, not using the best version though just not knowing or sloppiness, but that’s a conversation for an additional time.
So, what’s makes it the ‘correct’ version? I’d suggest that getting the closest to what the film looked like in original release brings the film at least close to what the intentions of the filmmakers were. They dealt with the technologies of the time, and created with that in mind.
Today we can make some things look better since there isn’t as much a requirement to lose quality in making several generations of a piece of material (master positive, dupe neg) before the release print. I’d argue that the filmmakers would be fine with that improvement. In terms of Technicolor or Cinecolor (or Eastman for that matter), I think trying to make the color look as good as possible *with* the attempt to make it look, if possible, how it looked in original release is the most authentic way to handle a restoration or clean up for release. I also think film grain is nice as well since it was part of the original production. Pulling from the OCN does mean a lot less grain, but I’d rather have some variance in grain rather than trying to remove all the grain from everything.
The big goal we’ve been trying to reach is to make these look like you are viewing a really, really good print of each of the films, keeping the organic nature of the films intact, even though we’ve cleaned up a lot of neg and print dust and dirt that would be present otherwise. This is another place I think the filmmakers would be ok with, and I think, as a rule of thumb, this should be the goal of *any* release of older materials.
There will always be an idea of making a film better or more commercially viable by changing some aspect of it in restoration or release. We’ll have to put up with those things, and, hopefully, have more people thinking about the art of the films first versus those often strong incentives to ‘modernize’ productions.
Have a good week everyone!