James White of Arrow Films on the restoration and rescue of classic and cult cinema
James White, Head of Restoration and Technical Services at Arrow Films, talks to us about the process of restoring and reviving both classic and obscure film titles, working together with the original filmmakers, how the films are chosen to get the Arrow treatment, and his favourites to date.
Arrow Films is one of the leading restorers and distributor of classic, cult and horror films. Ultimate care goes into the remastering, artwork and extras and this writer is a huge fan – I swooned at the re-release of Carrie, gasped at the crisp picture of The Thing and hid behind a pillow at the wonderful transfer of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. So, it was my pleasure to be able to speak to James White.
Hi James, thanks for taking time out to speak to us at Exit 6. First off, for those who don’t know about Arrow Films (how dare they!), can you tell us a little bit about the history of the company and what you do?
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for your kind words about the work we do at Arrow. We’re all big fans of the films ourselves, so we work hard to give them the presentations and editions we feel they deserve.
Arrow Video started out fairly small with a focus on horror cinema titles, making their mark by releasing lavish editions of films by Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, George Romero and others. Since then Arrow's catalogue and it’s focus have grown to accommodate classic, foreign, art-house, genre and cult cinema of all kinds, but with each release the same respectful treatment is given, with a commitment to quality presentation, packaging, extras, etc. And of course we’ve also expanded our reach - the Arrow Video and Academy strands have been available in the US as well as UK ones for over 3 years now. I should also mention that Arrow is also a longtime distributor of new films as well as digital/online content. Add to that that Arrow is a book publisher, vinyl record publisher, podcaster, a regular host of film festivals, etc and you can start to get an idea of how busy we are these days!
I myself began working for Arrow in 2012 when Arrow Video’s label manager Francesco Simeoni asked me to oversee a new restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. This was something new, the idea of giving the same respectful restoration treatment that one would normally associate with a classic or art-house title to a "video nasty” shocker. The reception to our Blu-ray release was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Fans of horror and cult cinema really appreciated us taking on the task of giving Zombie Flesh Eaters - a title that might not be viewed as a classic in the traditional canon sense but was nonetheless much loved by horror fans - a restoration and presentation worthy of the film itself. From that point on, we were up and running and I came aboard in an official capacity as Arrow’s Head of Restoration and Technical Services in early 2014.
You have several brands under the Arrow Films umbrella, such as Arrow Video and Arrow Academy, can you tell us the difference between them?
Arrow Video continues to be the place where we focus on what we’re probably most known for - our horror, cult and genre releases. It’s the place where you’ll find celebrated horror classics like The Thing, Carrie or our upcoming release of Last House on the Left as well as lesser-known but great cult horror gems like Madhouse or The Slayer. It’s also the place for great genre cinema from around the world - Japanese titles like our Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years sets or the Yakuza genre films, Spaghetti Westerns like our recent Ringo set or our upcoming Complete Sartana set as well as classic giallo titles from the likes of Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage), Sergio Martino (our upcoming release of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail) and many others.
Arrow Academy’s focus is centred on celebrating classic and international works of cinema from around the world. Recent releases include Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Rossellini’s Viva L’Italia, Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal as well as our Jean-Luc Godard/Jean-Pierre Gorin set, Rainer Fassbinder and Eric Rohmer sets. Both Arrow Video and Arrow Academy strands are produced by the same small team of cinephiles who work together to produce the highest quality editions possible.
Okay, now on to the bit I’ve been dying to find out more on – can you tell us about the restoration process? It’s staggering how good a film like The Thing looks, it’s like a new film.
Sure thing. For any film that we restore ourselves, the key is to locate the best existing original materials available. In many cases that means the original camera negative but it can also mean the other intermediary elements in the printing chain - the interpositive or fine grain positive, internegative, CRI elements and so on. In some cases it may be necessary to use a combination of elements, as one or more might be incomplete or affected by damage. In terms of audio, we would normally look to access the original mag reels and/or the optical sound negatives.
Once you’ve located the best existing materials then it’s a matter of converting this material to high resolution digital files. For the picture, that means scanning to 4K or 2K (depending on the project and the element) DPX files, for audio that means transferring the reels to WAV files. These source files become your raw masters that you’ll use throughout the rest of the restoration workflow, so it’s critical that your initial digital captures be carried out at the highest quality possible. For The Thing, we accessed the original 35mm camera negative and had new 4K 16 bit scans made at Universal’s post facility.
The next steps for restoration involve the careful review and conforming of the scans to match with the reference materials, making sure every frame of the film is present and accounted for, followed by a combination of picture restoration steps to improve typical issues like dirt, light scratches, picture instability, and density fluctuation/flicker. Further manual frame-by-frame restoration is often needed for more serious issues like heaver scratches, chemical damage, torn frames, film warps and the like.
Colour grading is performed in a grading theatre with each shot and scene carefully graded to achieve the most correct presentation possible, using reference prints and masters as a guide. When we can, we also call upon the Director and/or the Director of Photography to attend the grading stages to ensure that we arrive at a version closest to their original vision. In the case of The Thing, we were extremely fortunate to have both John Carpenter and Dean Cundey supervise the grade, making our restored version of the most definitive presentation available.
Audio wise, the most important thing for us is to preserve the original versions of the soundtrack as intended, so while we might create new 5.1 mixes for some of our titles, we’ll always present the original mono or stereo soundtracks as default. As with our picture restoration, our audio remastering involves a careful review of the soundtrack, making improvements for any surface noise issues - pops, clicks, fuzz, crackle, hum, etc - while retaining the original ambience of the film. The tools used in restoration are very powerful, so they need to be used with great care and restraint to make sure that what you’re preserving is the look, feel, texture and sound of the original film, and that you’re not creating anything new and unintended from the digital process.
I guess it depends on the age and condition of the original print, but are some films harder to restore than others, and have any been a real challenge to fully restore?
Absolutely! Although I should stress that we almost never use an actual film print as a source for our restorations, and would only do so if that were the only element available. The important thing to remember is that each film has its own history in terms of its distribution and its storage of materials, so there’s no one magic process to deal with all the challenges any particular film might present. Ideally once a film has been produced and released, the original elements should be catalogued and stored in a temperature and humidity controlled vault environment. That’s often the case with many studio films, but with many of the lesser-known independent or foreign productions we often restore, the films haven’t been so lucky!
The films of H.G. Lewis, which we restored a couple years ago, were a real education for me. Basically the original negatives for most of the films had been lost, so we were forced to contend with using 35mm prints that had been shown theatrically over many years. In some cases we were able to work small miracles (Scum of the Earth), but in others we could only improve things so far (Moonshine Mountain). Essentially you’re limited to what you can do by the state of the available materials, and while you try to do your best, there are times when you can often only improve things so far.
Following on from that, how do you go about sourcing the films that you restore? And how do you choose which to restore?
When we license any title we review whether a suitable master is already available. If not, then we start to look for what original materials are available, which often involves a bit of detective work, as film properties may have moved from one licensor to another over the years, or the film lab responsible for its initial printing is no longer in business, etc. So our decision to restore a film is based on what original materials are available, and our belief that we can produce a superior master version to what’s been available before.
On many of the releases, you actively work with the film’s directors to come up with a final product they are happy with – is it something that you seek to do, or is it that the directors want to get involved?
I’ll always try to involve the original talent, ideally the Director as well as the Director of Photography, when possible. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, as so many great talents are no longer with us, or they may be unavailable to participate for whatever reason. But in those cases where we’ve been fortunate to have the original talent working with us - Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, William Friedkin on To Live and Die in LA, DOPs Phil Meheux on The Long Good Friday, Peter Hannan on Withnail and I and Robert Fraisse on Ronin, as well as the aforementioned John Carpenter and Dean Cundey on The Thing, just to name a few - the collaborations have been very fruitful and the final results have been fantastic.
Well, it should be obvious that we’re all huge fans of both those filmmakers. I myself would love for us to restore and release more films by both De Palma and Argento, so who knows? Watch this space!
What are your favourite films that Arrow has restored?
Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters still holds a special place in my heart from being the first film I oversaw the restoration on for Arrow. But there are so many great ones. Restoring both The Thing and The Apartment last year were both dreams come true. As was Robert Altman’s Images and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, To Live and Die in LA, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and the films of Walerian Borowczyk. I’m actually working on a number of favourites right now but I’m not supposed to talk about any of those yet!
Finally, are there any films you would love to see go through the restoration process?
Of course, and it changes all the time. Just off the top of my head I’d love to restore Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, Borowczyk’s La Marge, Claude Chabrol’s La Bonne Femmes, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil, Robert Altman’s California Split, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, Don Siegel’s Madigan, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, and the films of Ida Lupino. With film restoration, you never run out of titles you’d love to work on.
You can keep up to date with Arrow releases at their website.
You can follow Arrow Films on Twitter: @ArrowFilmsVideo