Universal Pictures’ 100th anniversary is officially on April 30, but when one turns 100, one really ought to get a birthday year, right? In that spirit, as part of celebration lasting throughout 2012, the studio invited EW into its archives for a tour of its film storage and restoration programs.
For a special series of re-mastered Blu-ray editions of the studio’s most iconic films — All Quiet on the Western Front, The Birds, Buck Privates, Dracula (1931), Dracula Spanish (1931), Frankenstein, Jaws, Schindler’s List, Out of Africa, Pillow Talk, Bride of Frankenstein, The Sting, and To Kill a Mockingbird — the studio has been culling through its vast archives to find the best possible original negatives and prints to be digitally scanned and restored. Color cut negatives are kept in a cold-storage facility at 34 degrees and 25 percent relative humidity, ideal conditions for maintaining celluloid film, but horrible conditions for thin-blooded Angelenos.
Kept at a far more tolerable 45-50 degrees is the 35,000 square foot storage facility that sits just off the Universal backlot. The giant, non-descript block building houses 45 miles of shelving containing over 2 million separate “records” — which, for many films, means stacks of film canisters containing every take of every scene. With a library that vast, it’s no surprise that studio archivists can accidentally happen upon films they had no idea were still around, like the original two-color negative for the 1925 silent film version of Phantom of the Opera.
Once all that material is found, the studio’s digital artists begin using it to restore all the scratches, tears, discolorations, and other assorted damage that can befall physical film, either in collaboration with the original filmmaker or, for the older films, with close study of the filmmaker’s original intent. It is the most complicated, “Photoshop” job imaginable.
Check out my interview with some of the Universal restoration experts below, along with an exclusive look at Al Pacino’s iconic costume for one of the studio’s best loved films: Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime epic Scarface.