Magic Carpet Ride

Of all the great places I get to go for transfer work, London is probably my favorite. First off, everyone speaks English, and there’s an abundance of great Indian food. But there’s also the excitement that when the workday ends, you end up at the pub. I truly believe that this is how most of the English get through the workday. Another nice thing is that it’s pretty easy to get to London from New York—just a little longer than a flight to L.A. And speaking of the flight, I get to fly on Virgin Atlantic, which has the best film selection, so the flight whizzes by. I finally got to see Control and Waitress, two movies I never got around to seeing in the theater.

The main reason I most recently went to London was for The Thief of Bagdad. This has been a really involved title for a lot of us. The film has been out on DVD before, so Karen, Maria, Heather, and myself spent a long time comparing existing versions to see what we could improve. Thief is in glorious Technicolor and was one of the first films to use multiple special effects, such as blue screen. It’s beloved by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, just to name a few. As a matter of fact, Karen is working on some great extras for the DVD, including a commentary with Scorsese and Coppola, and a piece on the special effects with Craig Baron (Matte World Digital), Dennis Muren (Industrial Light & Magic), and legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen.

We enlisted Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Michael Powell, to help with this one, since Powell was one of the directors of the film and she has a lot of knowledge about his involvement in Thief and is invested in preserving his archive. Scorsese holds an original 35 mm nitrate print of the film in his vaults, and we set off to try and screen it together. This was no easy task. There aren’t too many places around willing to project nitrate, since it’s superflammable (think of that scene in Cinema Paradiso.) Then there’s the simple matter of finding someone willing to even ship it. But we managed to set it up in New York, and all got together to watch the print, along with most of Criterion’s QC and audio department. It was a pretty exciting opportunity to view an original print from that era—kind of like opening an old bottle of wine and hoping it has aged well.

After the “shrinkage expert” determined that it was safe to screen, we concluded that the film looked pretty good. After the nitrate, we also watched a bit of the BFI’s restored print of Thief, and we were able to compare the colors of more recent celluloid to the nitrate version. Along with Thelma, we talked about Technicolor and what it made sense to try and achieve in the new transfer. Scorsese would have some ideas as well. I then went off to London and looked at two original elements for potential transfer: a mid-nineties version and another, late-seventies version. I settled on the latter, as it had better color, betting timings, and better resolution. I was quite surprised by this, as I had expected the newer one to be better. But the newer one looked as though one of the three strips had shrunk a bit, causing a registration problem. This is often an issue in Technicolor restorations, which is why we see the “bleeding” of colors onto other colors.

After scanning the seventies negative in 2k resolution, I sent the data off to L.A., where Maria will finish the color correction, then show it to Thelma and Dennis Muren for one last check. Dennis has a really good idea about how the special effects should look, so his input is going to be really helpful. The images will come back to New York for restoration work, and we’ll author and replicate the DVDs. New York to London to Los Angeles to New York to your home—just another typical work flow for a Criterion title.

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