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How Universal breathed the life back into Jaws

Kevin Hackett looks at how old films are remastered digitally, including the classic movie Jaws.

Whatever we watch or listen to, there will be a master somewhere in storage – the original thing, committed to celluloid or tape. But no matter how fastidiously these old reels are kept, degradation can and does occur, and with the advent of Blu-ray and high-definition viewing, many of these old masters are being restored for permanent digital posterity, often to standards that far surpass the quality seen when these films were first screened.

An excellent example of this is Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 thriller Jaws, which was digitally restored as part of Universal Studios’ recent 100th-anniversary programme, where 100 of its titles were re-released. “The restoration of Jaws was a tremendous responsibility,” says Peter Schade, vice president of content management at Universal. “This is history; culture. And it began by us going through our inventory, our records, to see what was at our disposal.”

At Universal’s US vault, there are more than a million pieces of material, and there are another two million elsewhere around the world. Jaws consisted of 2,700 different pieces, but the original negative was still available, so that was used as the primary source for restoration. Even so, according to Spielberg, it was “pretty crumby; really bad.”

The first step in the process was to go through the entire stock and make sure there were no tears. “Many sections had significant scratches, going through large portions of the film,” recalls Schade. “And we thought the best result would be to do a ‘wet gate’ scan. Basically, as the film goes through the scanner, it passes through a liquid bath, which removes those scratches and ensures they aren’t visible when light is projected through the film.”

The scanning process allows technicians to check for colour consistency. “Once we had the scans, we dealt with issues such as film movement and dirt. We have very high-end graphics and editing systems, and these tools allow us to take the data that results from the scans and manipulate those pixels in many different ways,” Schade continues.

Digital artists then went through each frame, correcting damage and sometimes compositing various frames to achieve the desired results; some frames required up to four hours of work. “When you’re working with an original negative,” says Schade, “you see tremendous variances in colour, shade, brightness and contrast. And our colourists do a great job of matching all those shots.”

The soundtrack, too, including the music, dialogue and sound effects, was digitalised in Universal’s labs from the original 35mm tapes, processed and turned from mono to a full stereo, 7.1 surround sound mix. Anyone who has seen Jaws knows how important John Williams’s music is to the film, and this process allows the soundtrack to offer a real audio punch that more than matches the pristine visuals.

“The outputs of this process,” says Schade, “are both film and digital. We’re restoring high-resolution digital files, as well as recording a new negative. We do both because, for archival means, we still want a piece of film to put away. Film is a known commodity and we can store it in the right conditions so that it will last for a hundred years plus.”

“The new Jaws is still the ‘Jaws Jaws,’” says Spielberg, “but the image on a high-definition TV screen is better now than when it was first projected almost four decades ago.”

khackett@thenational.ae

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