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Sony's Grover Crisp on the Restoration of Taxi Driver

March 10, 2011 - 3:00 pm   |   by

Sony's Grover Crisp understands the science and art of film restoration as well as anyone working in Hollywood today. As the Senior VP for Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment, he's personally supervised scores of great film restoration efforts for the studio - both physical and digital - including such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Jason and the Argonauts.

Most recently, Crisp and his team have completed an effort to restore and preserve director Martin Scorsese's acclaimed 1976 drama Taxi Driver. The result of that work will be released on Blu-ray Disc by Sony on April 5th. We've long admired his work here at The Digital Bits, and we're very pleased to say that Crisp has been kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Taxi Driver restoration effort. We hope you enjoy it!


Q: Has Taxi Driver actually been fully restored and remastered, or just re-transferred in high-definition?

A: This film was not just transferred in High Definition. Not that many films have gone through this particular process and this is only the third one for us, after Dr. Strangelove and The Bridge on the River Kwai, though others are already in the works. By process, I mean a full 4K workflow with no downrezing. Especially scanning at 4K, it preserves the essential resolution of the 35mm negative. The resulting HD master used for the Blu-ray authoring was derived directly from the final 4K files.

Q: You mentioned 4K - when talking about film restoration in the digital space, much attention is paid to the resolution involved. Given the need to balance budget, quality and future archival needs, how do you decide which resolution - 2K, 4K, even 6K and higher - is the optimal one in which to work for any given film? What considerations made 4K the right choice for Taxi Driver?

A: We have really looked at all the options over the last few years and our conclusion, which is not unique to us, of course, is that film, regardless of what the particular element is, needs to be scanned at 4K at a minimum. That's why Colorworks at the studio, where all of the Taxi Driver work eventually came together, was built as a full 4K digital facility. If you look at some of the tests available, especially those published by Arri the last couple of years, you realize what is being lost by scanning at a lower resolution for 35mm film. Plus, the concept of oversampling comes into play. So, we scan all our 35mm material, whether it is a big restoration or just a re-mastering project for Blu-ray, at 4K. But, depending on the material you are working with, it may be beneficial to actually scan at even higher resolutions, while larger formats, like 65mm, may require higher resolutions in order to accurately capture the information in the film frame.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of working digitally at a 4K resolution?

A: Working in 4K data can be a challenge because it is a lot of data to manipulate, but it is something that can be controlled. The most difficult part of any of this kind of work is always to fix things that could not be fixed before and to have it be seamless. A digital repair done incorrectly will draw attention to itself and the goal is always to put things back properly so that it is virtually invisible to the viewer. Sometimes, the nature of the film problems are so severe as to make this practically impossible, but at least that is always the goal.

Q: Were director Martin Scorsese or cinematographer Michael Chapman involved in the restoration? Can you talk about the extent of Scorsese's involvement?

A: Yes, they were both involved, at different times, during the work. Whenever we work on a restoration we involve the filmmakers, if it is at all possible, especially the cinematographer and director. We would not work on this without Scorsese's input, of course. We ran the original 4K samples by him and had follow-up discussions and viewings. He was very much interested in this film looking like it really is, a product of the time and place in which it was made. We were trying to be careful to present it as it would have looked in 1976, albeit with a much cleaner and fuller image than one would have experienced from third generation release prints of the time. That is one reason why the Columbia lady logo at the beginning of the film is degraded and soft looking, because that is exactly what it was in 1976, and we agreed with the director on those kinds of decisions.

Q: Given that Scorsese is such a champion of film restoration and preservation, was he surprised at how much work was required to properly restore Taxi Driver? What was his reaction upon seeing the finished work?

A: Well, he is not just a champion of the work, he actually gets seriously involved in many of the projects that The Film Foundation works on. So, he has a really great background at this point in terms of the issues involved, solutions available and so forth. He's pretty savvy when it comes to understanding how films from different periods, and at different studios, may have been treated and what to expect. With Taxi Driver, of course, it was not a project of The Film Foundation and was completely funded by Sony Pictures and overseen by me. With that in mind, he was pretty much treated like we would any artist in that we wanted his involvement and input so that we (hopefully) get it right. His comments back to us were quite insightful and valuable, and he seemed to like the ultimate results, though I certainly can't answer on his behalf.

Q: What was the biggest technical challenge you faced in restoring this film and preparing it for release on Blu-ray?

A: There were enormous scratches running through some scenes that were difficult to remove. It almost never fails that when a film is scratched, it is right down the middle of a character's face - never way over to the side of the frame as you would hope. So, those kinds of things are difficult to achieve without altering the underlying structure of the emulsion. This film had several things like that wrong with it. Thousands of instances of minus density dirt specs were embedded in the emulsion of the negative, some of which can be removed easily and most not. We also found that the film had lost frames in several places over the years and discovered that there were long ago efforts to take care of torn frames by just cutting them out. We located the torn frames, reinserted them and digitally repaired the frames. A common approach years ago to issues like that was to just remove the damaged frames and pull up the audio to match it and, basically, unless you knew the film really well, you would not necessarily notice this. But, it was surprising with this film how much of that was done.

Q: Is there a particular instance in Taxi Driver that benefited the most from this recent restoration?

A: The scratches and tears to the original negative - damage that could not be fixed through a traditional film laboratory approach. Working in an all digital workflow, it allows us to get to very minute particles of dirt or abrasions, as well as long stretches of film that can be difficult to repair. A lot of work on a film like this is done one frame at a time by individuals sitting looking at images on their digital restoration workstations.

Q: Some older films that have been re-mastered for Blu-ray have generated controversy because of changes to the way they were released previously, especially where color is concerned. Were similar changes made on Taxi Driver?

A: I can't speak about the other films. For Taxi Driver, what I can say is that I think this upcoming release is the most authentic to the way the film looked when it was originally released. Previous releases on DVD were from an older transfer, about ten years ago, that was not subject to the supervision that we insist on and did not involve the filmmakers as we do now. We researched and based decisions on prints from the original negative and release, plus had the cinematographer and director involved in each phase of work. So, the film looks the way they see it, especially from the director's perspective.

Q: Much has been made of the decision to alter the color of the shooting scene at the end of the film to get an R rating in 1976. Why didn't you restore it to the originally-shot, more colorful scene?

A: There are a couple of answers to this. One, which we discussed, was the goal of presenting the film as it was released, which is the version everyone basically knows. This comes up every now and then, but the director feels it best to leave the film as it is. That decision is fine with me. However, there is an impression from some who think we could easily "pump" the color back into that scene and that is not as easy as it sounds. The film was not just printed darker, or with muted colors, as some think. There are two sections of the original negative that were removed from the cut and assembled camera negative. One is the long shot where the cab pulls up, Bickle walks over to Sport, they argue, he shoots him, then he walks back and sits on a stoop. That is all one shot that was removed. The second section removed begins with the shot of the interior of the apartment building where he shoots the hood in the hand and all the shots following this down to the final one of the overhead crowd shot outside - that entire sequence was removed as assembled. These two sections of original camera negative were then sent to TVC, a small lab in New York, where it went through a Chemtone process, a chemical treatment that somewhat opens shadows allowing for greater density and lower contrast, for the most part. The exact process was a bit clouded by TVC as a proprietary service, but it usually involved original processing and, at this point, the negative was already finished. Whatever the actual processes, what I can say is that they delivered back duplicate negatives of these two sections, with the long sequence, in effect, now an optical dupe and with the desired color and density built into it. So, literally, when printing this film at a lab then (or now), there was no way to grade it and print it the way it was shot. Those muted colors are built into the dupe negative and it doesn't work to try to print it otherwise. We also searched many times over the years for the original negative that was removed, but to no avail. Likely, it was junked at TVC at the time.

Q: What about for the Blu-ray - couldn't you just re-do the color with today's technology?

A: No, the same situation exists in that environment. You can't really successfully pump a color into a film that isn't there. There were attempts, to some degree, to put more red into that scene on older transfers of the film (the most recent almost ten years ago, and without talent involvement) and you can see those results in DVDs that were released. There is more red than should be there, but the red is everywhere, in the walls, clothing, skin, hair, etc., and that is what happens when you try to force a color into an image that really isn't present. This Blu-ray release is actually closer to what it looked like in 1976 than any previous home video release, and not just for the color. The well-know "you talkin' to me" scene, for example, was seriously cropped on older editions. All those shots are actually from the camera looking at his reflection in the mirror, not straight on of him while he talks, and they cropped out the side of the mirror and zoomed in to the point where he had slightly more headroom, but you could barely see the gun he's holding. We don't agree with that kind of framing manipulation, so we framed it properly for 1.85 SMPTE standards for projection and now you will see the image as you would in a theater, which is the way it should be.

Q: Was the Blu-ray release part of the reason why Taxi Driver has been restored at this time?

A: It was a factor, of course, but at Sony Pictures we have had a long-term plan of restoring our library so that it can be made available and also preserved for the future. These films are coming out on Blu-ray and many more are planned. This film, for example, is getting a major re-release (major by older title standards, that is) at AMC theaters around the country that are equipped to project 4K DCPs, and I don't recall a such a wide release like that before, relatively speaking.

Q: In general, how much has the advent of Blu-ray affected the film restoration process?

A: Blu-ray is a wonderful format that allows the viewer to experience a film much closer to what the theatrical experience is like. The higher resolution in both picture and sound also means that we need to provide the best quality materials in order for the format to work at its maximum. What this means for restoration is that we can now work to provide better materials than would have been necessary in the past. Blu-ray and restoration really go hand-in-hand in that regard.

Q: So much is made these days of the use of grain or "noise" reduction in Blu-ray masters. It's a complicated topic, frankly, that I think is not well understood by most Blu-ray consumers and film enthusiasts. Sometimes the process is used to achieve a "cleaner" look in a catalog film presentation, and often it's used simply to aid in compression. What's your perspective on the issue, and how does it apply to your work on Taxi Driver and other Sony titles?

A: I think our scanning rates and workflow processes have somewhat ameliorated the issue of graininess. Having said that, though, we don't take the position that grain is an automatic "problem", and we usually just leave it alone. We are aware of all the tools for this and are open to testing them, but the use of such tools should be limited and spare. Ultimately, unless there is a really compelling reason to alter the grain (and I don't think just to aid compression is a compelling reason), we don't, and I can't really see that that decision has hurt us when it comes to reviews of our Blu-ray releases. Just the opposite, it seems. I think there are ways of mastering a film that enables you to make the best of what you have to work with and we follow that path. I really do not like the super clean, waxy look that is often the result of over-processing. It not only buries detail, but it gives the film an odd feel to it, an artificial feel, that I think detracts from the achievement of the filmmakers and is distracting to discerning viewers, all of which ultimately just cheats the audience. Most filmmakers know what they are doing with the resources at hand and our job, after all, is to replicate the vision of the filmmaker, not to impose our own aesthetic outlook on a film. People are entitled to their opinion on this subject, and lots of people have opinions on this, but we try to take a fairly authentic and neutral approach to every title - and they all differ in certain ways - so that each title looks, feels, sounds, like a product of its time and place, while trying to make them look their absolute best on Blu-ray. And, that's kind of what it's about, you know? I don't think Taxi Driver is a particularly grainy film, so there was really nothing to do in that regard.

Q: What is the downside to digital restoration, if any?

A: There can be a downside to just about any process when it comes to anything digital. Anyone one who has ever had a hard drive crash will understand that. But I think the main thing to be careful about with digital restoration - which we have been involved with at Sony Pictures for the last 20 years - is just that: to be careful. Digital tools are quite powerful and we need to be careful that we are controlling these processes and not let them control us.

Q: Can you talk about the audio restoration process for Taxi Driver? Were there any unique challenges involved on the audio side of the effort?

A: The audio restoration was completed at Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, which is a restoration facility that has worked on many titles for all the studios over the years. Like with all other aspects of a restoration project, we treat the audio much as we do picture in that we plow through everything we have to come up with the best material to work from. That could be one element or more, or a mix and match of various components of different elements. For this, the best was the original mono magnetic master with split dialogue, effects and music. However, I had found years earlier the original 4-track stereo recordings of the score, on audio tape, not magnetic film, so that was incorporated into the process, all of the material going through a standard digital cleanup to remove pops, clicks, distortion when possible, things like that. In this particular case, Scorsese had his own audio experts create the 5.1 track from the restored elements that will be on the Blu-ray, created here at the Sony Studios Sound department.

Q: You mentioned earlier that Taxi Driver is also being released in select theaters in 4K. Do you think the 4K presentation will change the Taxi Driver experience for the audience in any way?

A: Digital presentations of any film are always different in experience from a film print. The image is steady, there is no variation in color from projector to projector, no scratches or changeover cues in the upper corner of the frame, no jumping in the gate. To me, lessening the anomalies inherent in the film projection experience allows one get more involved in the drama of the story. And this is from someone who loves so see film on film! This is why we take great pains to try and have our digital versions of films truly look like film.

Q: Can you talk about other classic film restorations from Sony that you're working on? What else is coming for theatrical revival and Blu-ray release? We're thinking of titles like Lawrence of Arabia, On the Waterfront and From Here to Eternity. We'd heard that the Lawrence restoration has already been completed...

A: Actually, Lawrence is not completed, yet, though we have begun work on it. It is a complicated project and will certainly take a year to complete. The 8K scans of the negative are done, so we are at least headed down that road. The Caine Mutiny is in the works, as is Guns of Navarone. We recently released a major restoration of The Bridge on the River Kwai, both theatrically and on Blu-ray, and it has been very well received. The other classic titles will find their way out to Blu-ray and I think it is just a matter of finding the right time to schedule those.


Special thanks to Grover Crisp for his time, and everyone at Sony Pictures Entertainment who was involved in the Taxi Driver restoration effort. Don't forget, the film will be released for the first time on Blu-ray Disc on April 4th (you can see the cover art below). Cheers!

- Bill Hunt