Restoring Merrily We Go to Hell, One Warp at a Time
As part of Criterion’s team of digital-restoration artists, it’s my job to make dusty old films look polished and new again, like the first time they were ever screened for the public. This process is akin to photo retouching, but with a whole lot of photos: twenty-four of them flashing by every second, to be precise.
A restoration begins with finding a film element, and the better its condition, the better the restoration will be. In the case of Merrily We Go to Hell—Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 chronicle of a marriage on the rocks, starring Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney—we tracked down a nitrate print stored at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, only to find it had succumbed to mold, making it unusable. Luckily, Universal Pictures had a 35 mm composite duplicate negative, which proved to be the best element available (though it lacked the image clarity and wonderfully dense blacks that a nitrate element would have retained). We sent the reels to Roundabout Entertainment in Burbank, California, where they were scanned in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner. After the data was sent to our headquarters in New York City, we began preparing for the restoration, at which point one problem became immediately apparent: the stability of the image.
What would become the biggest challenge in Merrily’s restoration was posed by the intermittent warping in the film. Warping is a stretching or shrinking of the celluloid, usually as a result of bad splices and tears, but in this case—a rather extreme one—it occurred throughout entire shots. More stable elements are usually used for a restoration, but this was the best available material. The warping did not exhibit a slow-and-steady, flowing rhythm, which it often does, and which can be tolerable to the viewer. Instead, the picture twitched fast and at random, for split seconds at a time. It was distracting and needed to be fixed.
The warping occurred throughout the film but was mostly an issue during its first ten minutes. As it happens, we generally try to pay extra-close attention to the first ten to twenty minutes of a feature in our restoration work, so the beginning is free from distractions and the viewer can ease into the story. But before we could begin the manual dewarping process on Merrily’s Paramount logo, opening credits, and especially the rooftop scenes that follow, there was other work to be done.
The first step in any restoration we do is running the entire feature through a set of automatic tools with software called Phoenix, made by Digital Vision. These tools each help address separate problems that can arise in the film image, and the order they are used in is important, in order to avoid having to redo things down the road. Usually that order is the one we used in the case of Merrily (though not all restorations require the use of all of the tools). First was stabilization, to get the position of the frame from moving about; this removes film jitter and sets up the next tools for better accuracy. Next was deflicker, to even out any flickering in the image—a common condition for older films to display, in which the image’s brightness varies slightly from frame to frame, resulting in a strobing or flashing effect. Deflickering in turn helps the final two tools, dust-and-fix and scratch, to seamlessly repair any small pieces of dirt or scrapes in the film. Any sections with warping had the deflicker processing skipped as the sudden jerks in motion would confuse the software and leave visible artifacting, usually in the form of dark splotches. These auto tools were run and the results then reviewed, shot by shot, to make sure the software wasn’t removing (or leaving behind) anything it shouldn’t.
Then the processed scans were sent my way for the second phase of restoration: the manual work. For this stage, I use software called DRS Nova, made by MTI Film, to do everything from painting out dirt and scratches to repairing entire frames destroyed by tears in the physical celluloid. It’s like Photoshop for motion pictures.
The dewarping process involves setting tracking points onto stationary objects within a shot. These trackers read any abrupt movements that happen. The software then can correct those movements by digitally nudging those areas back into place. It’s not an exact science, though. If a camera is panning or tracking, it’s difficult to set these points. With the perspective constantly changing, it’s easy for the software to get confused. There are plenty of shots like this at the beginning of Merrily, so instead of processing a whole shot from start to finish, these had to be worked on in tiny clusters of three to five frames at a time, just processing the ones on and near the warps.