The first of MGM's James Bond Blu-ray releases has finally appeared, marking the end of a four-year waiting game. Back in 2004 the Burbank-based digital film restoration company Lowry Digital won the contract to bring the famous film series up to snuff for the high definition era. Lowry had already made big news with enthusiastically received DVD restorations of movies like North by Northwest and Sunset Boulevard. Landing the multi-million dollar job
of restoring 007 put them among the top players in the industry.
John D. Lowry founded Lowry Digital Images in 1988 after decades of pioneering work on the "content interface" between film and video. He processed TV images for Apollo moon missions, helped standardize new digital tape formats and eventually started his own company to harness his numerous image enhancement patents to the specialized needs of film restoration. His proprietary digital noise reduction software goes far beyond basics, to enable the automatic removal of visual flaws without compromising the texture of the film. Lowry has described the effect as "lifting a veil" to reveal the clean image beneath.
The development of Lowry's digital toolbox was not easy at first, as each new kind of flaw -- dirt, scratches, generational contrast and grain -- required specialized programs. His process elaborates on the idea of replacing a piece of image containing a ding or a white speck with a bit of image from the frame before or after. Lowry's software developers were able to automate that process to enable the removal of literally millions of tiny flaws. Larger negative damage still requires a more customized solution, but the elimination of myriad small dirt spots and specks can make a major difference in a film's
License to Restore, an extra on the new Dr. No Blu-ray, looks at the Lowry process when the company was just beginning the Bond work. Lowry, his salesmen and young staffers show us restored images from the first 007 adventure, which is already 46 years old. For many of the films the company simply optimized existing high-def masters, but for the first three pictures in the series MGM and Danjaq asked Lowry Digital to do full film restorations. The elements for those titles were so worn that making new prints photo-chemically no longer produced acceptable results. With Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger Lowry started from scratch, scanning each frame of each original negative at a high 4k bit rate. They eventually scanned several more of the earlier films, as well as the later Moonraker, which was in particular need of help because of its many optical special effects.
A 4k scan results in terabytes of recorded data, an over-sampling depth that enables image adjustments much finer than can be accomplished when working with normal HD video. Better yet, when the digital refurbishing is finished, the result can be printed back to 35mm film, producing a new, clean preservation negative -- or three -- as sharp as the original.
Handling all the processing work on these enormous files is no simple computing task. The featurette shows hundreds of computers linked together in one of Lowry's Power Mac farms. The massed computers are what make it possible to digitally process and output an entire movie on a realistic schedule. Since beginning the Bond work, Lowry Digital has gone through two ownership changes but is still at the forefront of the restoration game.
License to Restore shows examples of images improved and flaws removed on a number of Bond titles. One particular achievement is the ability to make mismatched, dirty "optical" sections fit in better with the original elements around them. In the old photochemical world, any dissolve or superimposed title was accomplished by duplicating the film in an optical printer, resulting in more grain and the possibility of dirt being "printed in" to the image. The animated "007 gun barrel" opening scenes often looked very dirty. Transitions to dissolves often "popped" in quality, with a change of texture as well as color. Lowry is able to smooth out these transitions to virtual imperceptibility. Rear projection process shots are improved as well, as the Lowry manipulators are able to work on various areas of the image independently to better match the projected
backgrounds with the foreground actors. This is strongly visible in the scene in From Russia With Love when Bond and Tatiana Romanova meet on an Istanbul ferryboat. Older transfers look pretty feeble, while the new Blu-ray is strikingly improved.
The flexible Lowry system solved other problems as they arose. One shipboard scene in The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed under available fluorescent lighting, giving the image a visible 60-cycle pulse. One of Lowry's problem-solving programmers studied the film and generated a digital fix. That's not even restoration: it's correcting a mistake from the original shoot!
Knowledgeable filmgoers often express the concern that, in the effort to "improve" a movie, film restoration can easily become revisionism. The stated goal of restoring old films is to recover their visual and audio qualities, but the issues become more complicated when the original filmmakers are no longer around to be consulted. Lowry drew fire for its early processing job on Citizen Kane, which heightened the contrast much more sharply than had been seen in release prints. Their "flaw elimination" software was also applied too strongly, and inadvertently erased all of the raindrops from one scene: we hear them but we can't see them.
But other specific opportunities are judgment calls. In From Russia With Love a crashing helicopter has always had a telltale wire revealing its status as a miniature. For the new Blu-ray the wire has been removed. Was the fix the right thing to do? The scene certainly plays better, but future viewers might be given the wrong impression about the capabilities of special effects in 1963.
One must also take into account the input of what John Lowry's staff refers to as the "intellectual property holders," the people who own the films and control the purse strings. Danjaq wants the older Bonds to compete as best they can against more modern movies. This writer knows the series fairly well and has noticed a few scenes on Blu-ray that seem brighter than they once did, like the moody chess game in From Russia With Love. Now that the chess game room has been lightened, the matte painting of its fancy ceiling calls more attention to itself.
Other lighting alterations are more serious. On Her Majesty's Secret Service's opening scene on a Portuguese beach was originally timed for sunset. The climactic helicopter attack on the mountaintop fortress takes place at dawn and was originally bathed in amber light. In the 2006 standard-def Ultimate Edition DVD release, which used Lowry's restoration, both of these scenes were timed brighter and bluer, losing the dramatic dawn & dusk lighting. I've been told that the scenes have been retimed because Danjaq executives wanted to optimize every scene for HD.
Some complaints are nobody's fault. The printing sources available for the first three Bonds are very limited, making it impossible to restore a curious censorship trim to the end of From Russia With Love. I first wrote about this ten years ago in a "Jump Cut" article. In a gondola in a Venice canal, Bond remembers the 8mm sex film taken in an Istanbul hotel, and pulls it from his pocket. When he holds the film up to the light, the movie undergoes a ragged jump cut, skipping a half-bar of Matt Monro's vocal on the soundtrack. Just before the cut Bond says, "He was right you know." In the missing bit of film, Bond finishes his line: "What a performance!" An uncensored ending has yet to turn up in any United Artists or MGM vault, and I know restorers who have been searching for
it over ten years. It probably disappeared in 1989, when an MGM-Pathé executive authorized the junking of an entire vault of UA film elements deemed "inessential" -- split-track audio masters, music masters, trims, alternate scenes, foreign version scenes, etc. That "economy" decision is one of the darker episodes in modern film preservation.
Back in 2000, the release of extras-loaded Special Editions of the James Bond films energized the DVD craze and helped cement DVD as one of the most successful new-product introductions in marketing history. Perhaps these beautifully restored Bond Blu-ray discs will do the same for this new format. When used judiciously, Lowry Digital's restoration tools can do wonders. Seeing Dr. No on a large HD monitor is the closest thing yet to the original movie experience.
Glenn Erickson reviews online at DVD