Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Godfather is Restored to Its Glory

The Godfather is remembered as a dark picture. But over the years it has become less dark than intended.

The opening scene of the best-picture Oscar winner is the ultimate example. Emerging from shadow is the face of Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), the father who asks Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) for a favor on the day of the Don's daughter's wedding. But when director Francis Ford Coppola saw the 1972 film on a screen for its 25th anniversary, he thought, "Gee, the picture doesn't look like I remember it looking. This very, very beautiful photography of (cinematographer) Gordon Willis over the years had faded."

The movie is back to its inky finest — thanks to an assist from Steven Spielberg — on The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration, available today on a new five-disc DVD collection with all three Godfather films and two discs of bonus features, as well as a four-disc Blu-ray set ($73 and $120, respectively; each film on individual DVDs, $20).

The Godfather was a victim of its own success. It earned $135 million in the USA, which in modern terms would make the film the No. 21 box-office earner of all time, according to boxofficemojo.com.

To meet demand, Paramount quickly made large numbers of copies to ship to theaters. As a result, "the negative was ultimately destroyed through the practice of printing it so much," Coppola says from Buenos Aires while editing the film Tetro.

A decade ago, Paramount stored all its Godfather film elements in a cold vault to help preserve them until a full digital makeover was possible. "No matter how seriously the studio wished to solve the problems at that time, it would not be possible until digital technology provided the tools," says Robert Harris of The Film Preserve, which eventually handled the restoration of both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974).

Fast-forward to 2005: Coppola, looking to renew the preservation effort, wrote to Spielberg when DreamWorks was acquired by Paramount. Could Spielberg, who had been involved in restoring Lawrence of Arabia, spur on the project? It was an offer Spielberg could not refuse. He took the request to studio chairman Brad Grey, who set into motion the two-year process, overseen by Paramount post-production executive Marty Cohen and done at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, Calif.

No single usable Godfather negative remained that was suitable as a source. In the end, Harris and the preservation team gathered a bunch of backup film elements and an Italian-subtitled print used as a color reference.

Over months, the restoration technicians carefully scanned the material and then began cleaning up the footage in its digital form, 4K files (meaning the video is made up of 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution, more than four times the quality of HDTV).

In addition to digitally removing scratches and repairing damage — more than 1,000 man-hours of dirt removal was performed on The Godfather— the technicians were able to fix errors that were more than three decades old. The restaurant scene in which Michael (Al Pacino) shoots Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) had been filmed over two nights. But one night's footage had been incorrectly processed, resulting in less detail and a washed-out look — an error that has been corrected digitally.

"Without those innovations, we would not have been able to move forward with the same results," Cohen says. "This is about rebuilding to some degree and putting new paint on the house."

Coppola and Willis consulted on every step of the restoration, which is detailed in a documentary on the new collections. Thanks to the restoration, Willis has regained his title "Prince of Darkness," Coppola says.

"So much of his art was to have the blackness of the black be so vividly black that everything else stood out from it," he says. "The restoration achieved that again."

Thanks to Mike Snider

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