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Airing Classics in HD Creates Challenges

Part 1

ABC’s airing of the film classic “The Ten Commandments” earlier this year flagged a DTV issue that has received little attention.

Even though the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille remake of the 1923 epic film was shot in the VistaVision 1.66:1 widescreen format and was a beneficiary of Technicolor’s dye transfer printing system, ABC elected to run it in standard definition.

According to the network, this happened because the studio contractually supplying the film (Paramount) delivered a standard-definition version. (To ABC’s credit, it has presented quite a few feature length movies in HD since rolling “101 Dalmatians” in 720p nearly 10 years ago.)

However, as DeMille’s film was put in the can more than half a century ago, there has been speculation that an HD transfer would have picked up many more age-related artifacts than SD.

Hollywood stars have a history of complaining about the cruelty of the high-definition TV camera in terms of revealing every wrinkle and blemish. Will this be the case too whenever it’s time to pull a classic Hollywood film from the vault for televising?


Hollywood ginned out some of its finest works during television’s formative years, being literally driven to do so by the arrival of the small screen. The increasing popularity of television cast a long-term financial shadow on the profitability of films for theatrical release, and studios clamored for the best scripts and highest production values, coupled with any new technical gimmicks that could entice dwindling audiences back to the box office.

Technological experimentation and innovation reigned. A much larger percentage of motion pictures began to be shot in color. Some included stereo or multichannel audio to add to the realism attempting to be conveyed. There was even a stab at 3D.

Widescreen formats including CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO, Ultra Pana-vision and Warner-Scope—just to name a few—captivated viewers who did manage to spend an evening away from their television sets.

(click thumbnail)Charlton Heston appears as Moses in the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille production of “The Ten Commandments.”In the present era of HD and 16:9 aspect ratio, the promoters of such widescreen presentations now appear as visionaries. Their films seem ready-made for repurposing in glorious HD.

However, repurposing these works is not always as easy as opening up a 50 year-old film can and threading up its contents on a Spirit telecine.

Aside from the obvious scratches and gate weave problems associated from older footage, one of the biggest concerns in readying film for repurposing is keeping the colors true.

Paul Rutan, owner of Triage Motion Picture Services in Los Angeles, is very much engaged in film restoration work and says image color shift over time can be daunting.

“You may have a magenta cast on the left and yellow on the right,” Rutan said. “This really stands out in HD.”

How good or bad the color appears (and how easy or tough a restorer’s job turns out to be) depends a lot on how much TLC was expended when the film was shot and distributed, and how it was treated with the passage of time.


There was a point in time when all mainstream color movies were filmed with the Technicolor “three-strip” process. A special camera containing beam-splitting optics recorded red, blue and green filtered images simultaneously on three strips of black and white film stock. The lab married these three sets of images back together as a color composite using a special dye transfer technique.

Technicolor became the “gold standard” for color film making, with the resultant dye transfer (imbibation) images termed “extraordinarily stable” by those who have worked with the process.

Despite its color image stability, there was a lot not to like about Technicolor—the size and bulk of the camera, along with the cost of film stock and processing. One of the real drawbacks was the tremendous amount of illumination required for proper exposure, stemming from the relatively slow film emulsions of the period and the fact that light had to be divided three ways.

Eastman Kodak, Ansco, Agfa and others seized on these drawbacks and developed color negative film stocks that worked in any 35mm black and white camera, enabling producers to capture a scene in color with much less effort and expense.

Eventually all motion picture companies moved away from the full blown Technicolor process.

No technology is perfect and there was a long-term price to be paid for shooting on the new negative color motion picture stocks. The passage of time can, and has, caused selective fading of film color layers (particularly the cyan) in many releases. The severity depends on the particular emulsion used (these were frequently improved or otherwise changed over time), the care with which a lab developed the film and how carefully it was handled and stored.

Ed Stratmann is associate curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House—a Rochester, N.Y. museum dedicated to photography and motion pictures—and says that under proper conditions, color images can last a long time. However, he cautions that nothing really lasts forever.

“No one has ever guaranteed color permanence,” said Stratmann. “Some footage has faded badly. As with anything, proper storage is required—the correct temperature and humidity. Also it [color film] requires someone to check it when it was made. A lot of people did not take the time to do this. Today they do.”


In truth, most responsible motion picture companies were aware that problems could occur in the color film stock they were using and hedged bets by printing color separations from the edited master. Three “records” were made from each film by sequentially exposing very stable silver-bearing black and white footage through cyan, magenta and yellow filters. These separation masters correspond to the primary color-filtered images exposed on b&w stock in the Technicolor process.

Producing a high quality color image from these separation masters would seem to be an easy task. However, this is not always so.

“If you have separations that match each other there should be no problems,” Stratmann said. “But shrinkage (of the three separate films) could be a problem; the images won’t be in register.”

This is true not only with the separations, but also with the Technicolor strips.

If such dimensionally different footage is printed back into a composite color image, the result is color fringing and loss of definition.

“However, in the digital realm you do have options to correct this,” said Stratmann.

(Part two of this article examines other pitfalls sometimes encountered in repurposing classic film footage, and describes methods being used by labs and conversion houses to address those problems.)

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.