Restoration Software: Universal Studios Classics Restored for Blu-ray

Going back a few years, the arrival of high definition in general and Blu-ray specifically signaled a new era of entertainment. While home theater has long promised a movie-watching experience that we could enjoy in our pajamas—without getting arrested—the reign of the 1080p optical disc promised us DVD convenience combined with superior cinematic quality. Delivering on that promise wasn’t always so easy, however. Owing to a variety of variables, such as poor film storage, tight budgets, and the simple fact that some studios are more dedicated to the preservation of their libraries than others, many of the most anticipated Blu-ray debuts have been lackluster, frequently mere ports of existing standard-def masters.

At the very least, high definition demands the 2K remastering of older titles so they look their best, but in some cases much more effort is required. The folks at Universal Studios understand the value of their catalog and the importance of preserving and presenting their movies with state-of-the-art technology. They’ve aggressively remastered many fan favorites for HD over the past couple of years, but for the occasion of their 100th anniversary in 2012, they’ve gone a big step further. Universal announced a slate of some of its most popular movies of all time, which would receive extensive digital/analog restoration from the best available film elements. Keep in mind that such popularity is a double-edged sword, leading to extensive handling and mishandling over decades, and so a great many wrongs needed to be corrected. Dirt, scratches, and other degradation, sometimes quite severe, needed to be fixed if these were to be the true gems in an aggressive year-long release schedule.

Fortunately, the technology exists to handle just about any flaw, assuming that sufficient time, money, and skill are invested. Universal spared none to make these classics look their best, in some cases better than they did at their theatrical premieres. The goal was primarily to remove the majority of the visible and audible imperfections, while remaining true to the integrity of the original work. Often the changes are only noticeable if we’re intimately familiar with previous editions and their foibles. To that end, Universal has produced a series of informative mini-documentaries that illuminate the extensive toil and care that went into this collection, spread across the appropriate discs in the series along with historical segments that look at the studio’s box-office dynasty in different eras.

With more than half of this esteemed roster currently available at press time, we decided to take another look at and give another listen to these truly special editions. We’ll lead with the most recent of these titles to land on our desk, the recipient of one of the most elaborate tune-ups of the bunch. It also happens to be quite simply one of the best movies ever produced. Understanding the steps taken to reclaim this tarnished crown jewel will provide perspective on the entire endeavor.

Jaws
(August 14, 2012)
Audiences today take for granted the notion of the summer blockbuster, but it was Steven Spielberg who invented it with his second film, Jaws. As the great white fish chewed up and spat out previous box-office records, the media spoke breathlessly and endlessly about the movie and its makers, and the world embraced shark fever. If you didn’t live through the summer of 1975, you can’t fully appreciate the cultural impact here. And the acclaim was all richly deserved, since at its heart it was a terrifying, thrilling, funny, and brilliantly executed motion picture.

The restoration of Jaws required that the physical elements all the way back to the film negative that ran through the cameras in 1974 (the optimal source for any subsequent version) be located and evaluated. The film was then scanned at 4K for superior resolution, but a large quantity of nasty scratches needed to be healed. With the wetgate process, a special fluid is applied directly to the negative during the video transfer as it moves through the telecine equipment, successfully and temporarily filling in the scratches and drastically reducing their appearance for posterity. This wetgate technique can also remove dust and dirt on the surface of the film.

Now in the digital realm, the Jaws files were tweaked via computer to balance the color and address the remaining dirt, scratches, and any other damage, often on a frame-by-frame basis. Yes, sometimes hours were spent to restore an image that lingers on the screen for only a 24th of a second.

The audio was then upmixed to 7.1 channels, the Blu-ray standard. The new mix builds on the 5.1channel remix created in 2000, the year Jaws first arrived on DVD. The vintage, Oscar-winning mono mix is preserved on the new disc as secondary audio, in a DTS 2.0 configuration. Spielberg personally monitored the progress of the entire project and approved the ultimate audio and video remasters.

The finished product was then output as videotape masters, digital file masters, Digital Cinema Package (DCP), new audio masters, a new film negative, a check print, and 35mm prints for theatrical exhibition. I suspect that this restoration yielded the same version I saw last year on Encore HD on Dish Network, a jaw-dropping (no pun intended) refresh of a personal favorite that had me ringing up friends and acquaintances, telling them to be on the lookout for it. That’s what we home theater geeks do.

Overall, the cleanup and repair allow us to appreciate what a beautifully photographed movie this has always been, full of extraordinary color, texture, and nuance. The digital video shows minimal noise and edge enhancement, while a pleasing, welcome level of film grain is still evident. The consistency of color from shot to shot has been drastically improved, making the movie play as more of a seamless whole, while the bright red of the chum really pops. One challenge unique to Jaws was the uneven light levels coming through the windows of the Orca during a crucial nighttime scene. Subtle changes to the image have now removed this potentially distracting gaffe.

The multichannel reincarnation of the soundtrack brings a host of understated atmospheric touches, with minor effects that are more pronounced but never hokey or obnoxious. The dialogue is extremely clear, particularly incidental lines that were added in post-production. Surround channels are used with restraint, often merely for fill, and the old mono effects have been panned around the soundstage to bring an appropriate directionality that suits the action and imparts a modern feel. John Williams’ unparalleled musical score, a star in its own right, works better now than ever.

The long-in-gestation feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working is a Blu-ray exclusive and the only fresh addition to the generous complement of ported DVD extras. The DigiBook edition, packaged within a high-quality hardcover book to match other Centennial releases, is only available through Best Buy, surprisingly.

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I called Netflix and asked them to get Jaws on bluray, but they said "maybe" and then never got it.

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