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Film History (2000) - Getting it Right: Robert Harris on Colour Restoration




In an interview, Robert Harris discusses restoration projects of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "Rear Window" among others he worked on. Harris specializes in the restoration of large format color films.


The following interview with Robert Harris was conducted by John Belton at Mr. Harris's offices in Bedford Hills, New York on 14 June 2000. Together with his partner, James C. Katz, Harris has worked on the restorations of Lawrence of Arabia in 1989, Spartacus in 1991, My Fair Lady in 1994,Vertigo in 1996,and Rear Window in 2000.

JB: Could you tell me a little about your background in film?

RH: When I was about 14, I started working summers as a messenger for a company called Seven-- Arts where my father had a good friend. I was moved around and got a taste of many different departments and functions. Then [in 1966] Seven-Arts bought Warner Bros. and I saw that company dis-evolve; there were two or three people for every job.

I worked in marketing; I worked in projection. I remember one of the fun things I did when I was in projection -- the gentleman who was our projectionist at Seven-Arts said 'Okay, you're running 35mm now ... we're going to send you over to the Warner Theater. I walk in there and there's this big curved screen and they were running It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) in 70mm (Ultra Panavision 70). And the projectionist - very nicely - said 'okay, lift this reel" - I weighed about 100 pounds at the time and the reels had been doubled up so they weighed about the same. I couldn't budge it. Then I learned that they were using a hydraulic lift to get the reels mounted. So they had me threading the machines and I did an entire show of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 70mm. I did changeovers - running the whole thing. Which was a great experience for a kid in his teens.

JB: Did they still have the strip screen?

RH: I believe they did. You know, once you take out the strip screen like they just did at the Uptown in Washington DC, it destroys the spectacle because all you have is cross illumination -you lose your focus, you lose your contrast ... it's not good. They did a beautiful job on the Uptown. It's still a curved screen. We ran Lawrence and Spartacus on the strip screen and it looked great. But when you all of a sudden take that screen out, it doesn't look as good anymore.

Anyway, as a teenager I worked at Warner Bros.-Seven-Arts, going to college at NYU after that ... I was still working there some afternoons after my classes, I'd go up to the Pan Am building where their offices were.

When I was a kid, my parents would go to Europe and my grandparents would move in. Afew days before they would take off, twenty or thirty big cartons would arrive from Seven-Arts filled with dozens of 16mm prints. I would come home from school, finish my homework, have a few friends over, and we'd sit there and watch all these movies on a 16mm projector. We set up a screen in the living room. I remember seeing things like FourSided Triangle and East of Eden - all these great films. Boris Karloff in The Ape (1940). That's basically how I got my film education. I was brought up on the Universal horror films, watching them on TV on Zacherly - you remember Zacherly? I thought he was great - he made a 90 minute or two hour show out of these 60-something minute films like The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). Between that and 'The Million Dollar Movie' watching Mighty Joe Young or King Kong or Citizen Kane or Yankee Doodle Dandy 143 times in a week till you know which piece of grain goes where on the frame.

JB: There's a generation of NY film culture that depended on and was educated by 'The Million Dollar Movie'. It was the repeated viewings that brought out a certain sensitivity to what was going on visually in the movie ... . Throughout the 1970s, there was great attention to the preservation of black and white film, primarily nitrate film, and very, very little thought about preserving colour film ...

RH: ... because it was all new.

Faded colour prints

JB: When you thought of becoming involved in preserving films and restoring films, why did you think ... since no one was doing colour, why did you think of colour?

RH: I was collecting prints. 16mm prints in the 1 960s, during and after college, because that was the only way you could see certain films. There was no home video. I could borrow prints from Seven-Arts, take them home, and return them. But then to see other things, you'd have to go out and find them - trade for them, buy them. Occasionally, I'd get these colour prints that were faded. My home movies hadn't faded because they were Kodachrome. But sometimes you'd get these prints of feature films that were just several years old that were magenta. At that time, I didn't realise the severity of the problem, but as I started researching it, I was finding that the original negatives were going for a number of reasons: number one - just the general aging and breakdown of the dyes; number two - I won't even call it poor - but actually horrific storage conditions by the studios where they would just have original negatives out in the back lot in sheds.

JB: I recall that most retrospective theatres when they tried to put together retrospectives during the 1 960s and 1970s, would end up showing turning, faded, red prints theatrically - and that's how many people became aware that there was some sort of problem. But the perception was that the problem was only in the release prints and that colour will be unstable, especially if you use dye coupler processes, but the original negatives are fine.

RH: The interesting thing is that a lot of the studios are still telling the public that the negatives are fine, which is probably the worst thing that has happened to date in the field of film restoration and preservation. They are basically lying to the public.

This whole thing with AMC - it's a great situation - they are good people - they're helpful; they're working with the Film Foundation - Marty [Scorsese's] group. But sometimes the wrong message is being sent out. Part of that message is...

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