The night before last I attended a special screening of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s All About Eve on the 20th Century Fox lot. I’d been invited by Fox’s restoration guru and archive protector Schawn Belston and Fox Home Video’s in-house publicist James Finn, and it was delightful watching this 1950 Best Picture winner in such a clean, rich and spotless state. The source was a DCP but we were basically watching the version contained in the Bluray that came out two years ago.
But in his opening remarks, Belston said that the DCP Eve is a visually different entity than what was seen by audiences 62 years ago when nitrate (or “silver nitrate“) prints were the industry standard for monochrome. Famous (or infamous) for having been phased out in 1953 because they’re highly combustible, nitrate prints delivered a glistening, gleaming quality. Somebody once wrote that they seemed to be “etched in liquid silver.” And even the best digital mastering can’t recreate this. The Eve I saw Wednesday is very nice but it doesn’t shimmer. It looked sumptuous but a bit flat.
Is this an arcane observation? Yes. Will most people who buy the All About Eve Bluray share this view? No. But I nonetheless began to wonder why a gifted digital engineer couldn’t somehow devise a form of software that would simulate that gone-but-not-forgotten silver nitrate look. Seriously, why not?
In 2001 MGM Home Video released a Moby Dick DVD managed to simulate the look of a special faded-color blend that dp Oswald Morris and John Huston came up with when they made their release prints by blending color with a monochrome or “gray” negative. I saw a reel of that film once at the Academy, and the simulation that MGM Home Video came up with wasn’t quite the same thing — it lacked a blunt scontrasty quality that delivered a steely, grayish color — but at least they made an effort, and it wasn’t half bad.
Something tells me that at least an effort could be made to simulate that silver nitrate sparkle through some kind of tweaking software. I think it could be a marketing tool to boost sales of old black-and-white classics on Bluray. Faced with a choice between purchasing the currently available Bluray of All About Eve and a Special Liquid Silver Edition, I wouldn’t think twice about it — I’d buy the latter.
Has anyone ever heard of anyone at least theorizing that a process along these lines could perhaps be created?
This morning I asked a knowledgable expert about this possibility and he said it wasn’t in the cards. “The main thing about nitrate,” he said, “is that unlike safety stock, it looks crystal clear [and] you can’t simulate this look because you would first need an original camera negative, and then you need a white-white screen, preferably one smelling of cigarette smoke…but there’s no replicating the look of that absolutely crystal clear base. You can’t do it.”
Okay, a true replication can’t happen but shouldn’t technicians at least try to create a software makeoever process that would make restored black-and-white classics look a little more sparkly and a little less flat?