Click here to read Elbert Ventura’s essay on the new DVD of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.
In September 2008, I wrote a Slate column urging all film-lovers to go buy a Blu-ray player so they could watch the new digital restorations of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II in a format that looked—in clarity, color, and detail—remarkably close to the original 35 mm prints.
If you didn’t take my suggestion then, it’s time to reconsider. This week, the American film classic, Citizen Kane, comes out on Blu-ray, and the difference between this disc and any other version you’ve seen—on TCM, at a repertory movie theater, or on the DVD released nine years ago—is stunning.
That 2002 DVD was a revelation at the time, so much brighter and clearer than the murky 16 mm prints that most of us had seen on TV or at college film societies. But as DVD technology improved, as digital artisans refined their skills, and as the studios released discs of other classic films that bore the fruits of this progress (e.g., the gorgeous DVDs of Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, and even old silents by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin), the digital Citizen Kane didn’t hold up. It was too bright, too clean; the dirt and grime had been cleared away, but so had a good deal of the texture, the depth, and the sense of film grain. (John Lowry, the brilliant pioneer in digital restoration who worked on that version of Kane, admitted to me a couple years later that he’d gone too far; the field was still very young, he said, and it took him a while to learn all its lessons.)
The new Blu-ray is just as spotless (more so, actually), but it also retains the texture, the grain, and all the rest. In those startling shots where director Orson Welles and his cinematographer, Greg Toland, light the set so everything from close-up foreground to distant background is in focus, we finally do see everything clearly. In that last shot of all of Kane’s discarded junk in the warehouse, we see what all the junk is. Facial expressions, bric-a-brac on shelves, the full jolt of the jump-cuts from a dark scene to a bright scene and all the shades-of-gray scenes in between—everything is clear and looking very much like film.
The Blu-ray also brings out the mood of the film—or, rather, its subtly contrasting moods—with an intensity that I’d never noticed in all the times I’ve watched this movie.
Citizen Kane, of course, is the story of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles at the amazingly young age of 25), a newspaper tycoon and aspiring politician-savior loosely based on William Randolph Hearst. But the story is told in flashbacks, after Kane has died, from the vantage point of multiple narrators—various people in Kane’s life, who have very different feelings toward him. This device had always struck me as a bit of a gimmick, but the Blu-ray reveals the slight differences in lighting that impart a visual mood to the different narratives: some starker, some warmer, some more intimate, some more hollow. These contrasts were muffled, flattened out, in earlier versions. This is a more richly emotional Kane.
The stories also flow more smoothly. To an amazing degree for a film made in 1941, Citizen Kane is loaded with special effects, most of them the product of optical printing—multiple exposures, live footage superimposed on top of still photos on top of animated drawings, as well as swift dissolves from one scene to another. In the early days of film, these “opticals” often produced jarring side-effects: jitter, flickering, or images in the different layers moving at uneven speeds. Over time, dirt, dust, and grime tended to worsen these problems, especially before film preservation took off as a cause.
Thanks to new digital technology (much of which wasn’t available even a decade ago), these anomalies have been cleaned up and smoothed out. The fabrications look less fake, or there’s less jumpiness drawing our attention to the fakery; in any case, there are far fewer times when Welles’ technical tricks take us out of Welles’ (and co-scenarist Herman Mankiewicz’s) story.
But the main improvement (without which most of the other improvements would not have been possible) is that, for this new edition, the film was digitally scanned at a much higher resolution.
A little background: Digital video is mastered by putting a film through a machine that digitally scans each frame, storing the information as a stream of pixels. Later another machine translates these data back into an image. The higher number of pixels, the more detailed and truer is the image.
The digital master for the 2002 DVD of Citizen Kane was made from a “high-definition” scan—i.e., with a machine that scanned each frame as 1,080 lines horizontally and 1,920 vertically, or 2 million pixels in all.
For the new Blu-ray, the digital master was made from a “4K” scan—4,096 lines horizontally and 3,112 vertically, or more than 12 million pixels in all, per frame. That is to say, 4K scanning produces a raw image having six times the resolution of a high-def scan.
At the moment, no commercial TV monitor can display a 4K image, nor any commercially available disc-player read it. But when digital-mastering technicians work with a 4K scan on their equipment, they can manipulate the data—correct the color, adjust contrast, clean dirt, fill in missing information—in ultra-microscopic detail.
In the end, the studio has to “down-rez” the 4K master to the resolution of a commercial disc. Nonetheless, the more detailed the original, the better any down-rez-ed copy will look. (By analogy, a photograph of a real person will look better than a photograph of a photograph, even if it’s taken with a plastic disposable camera.)
Finally, the new Kane looks better because of the Blu-ray format. The resolution of images on a conventional DVD is 480p—that is, 480 lines across by 768 lines up and down, or a total of roughly 400,000 pixels per frame. The resolution of a Blu-ray image is true high-definition, 1,080p—that is, 1,080 by 1,920 lines, or about 2 million pixels per frame. That’s five times the resolution: hence more detail, more color saturation, less jitter and flutter in scenes where an object or the camera moves—a greater sense of realism, a greater resemblance to the original film. (For information on what you need to watch a Blu-ray disc, click here.)
The new restoration of Kane can also be bought as a standard DVD, and it too looks substantially better than the 2002 version, in part because of the higher-tech clean-up, in part because (like the Blu-ray) it was struck from the 4K master, and in part because (again, like the Blu-ray) it comes from a different, better source.
Ideally, a studio would make a digital master from a film’s original camera-negative. Alas, the negative for Citizen Kane was destroyed long ago in a warehouse fire. So, Warner Home Video, which released both the 2002 and 2011 discs of Citizen Kane, has had to work from surviving copies of the negative.
For the 2002 DVD, they scanned a 35 mm print of Citizen Kane borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a very high-quality print, but it is a print—which is to say, a copy of a 35 mm “fine-grain master,” which is in turn a copy of the camera-negative. In other words, it’s a third-generation artifact. And the digital scan was a copy of that.
For the new Blu-ray, Ned Price and his team at Warner Brothers Motion Picture Imagery scanned three different copies (or “film elements”): the MoMA print; a 35 mm fine-grain master that was found several years ago at a film lab in Brussels; and another 35 mm fine-grain master, discovered much more recently at a European film archive. (For a purely technical caveat, click here.)
“The three film elements had different strengths and weaknesses,” Price explained. “For instance, one of them had less flicker in one reel but coarser grain in another reel. So we put together the best bits and pieces of all three.” (Even so, Price and his team had to clean up, frame by frame, a lot of dirt and misalignments, especially in all those opticals and dissolves. The restoration project took over a year to complete.)
The story of this newly discovered element from the mysterious European archive is intriguing in itself. According to Price, this archive (along with, presumably, several others) has lots of films belonging to Warner Bros., but it has kept a low profile because the issue of legal ownership is, to put it delicately, ambiguous. This archive has begun to provide catalogue listings and, more recently, film elements to Warner on condition that its name be kept a secret. (Citizen Kane, for instance, has four distributors worldwide; even if Warner agrees not to sue for ownership, one of the others might.)
With once-unknown prints, fine-grain masters, maybe even some negatives coming literally out of the closet, who knows what treasures are out there? For many years, it was believed that the original camera negative for Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion had been destroyed by Nazis—until, in the early 1990s, it was found hidden in a barn in the south of France. In 2003, the Criterion Collection delayed its long-planned release of a DVD for Renoir’s Rules of the Game because its tech people suddenly found a fine-grain master that was much better than the element they’d been using.
Was the negative of Citizen Kane really burned in that warehouse fire? Or did someone happen to check it out at the last minute? “I’ve never seen any documented proof that it was destroyed,” says Ned Price. “We can always hope.”