Vertigo Views of VistaVision

Having been blown away by the new 4K of VERTIGO, I called up Nick Varley of Park Circus, who are releasing it in the UK, for an interview — after all, he’s only over there in Glasgow, that other, darker city. But I learned the hard way that the audio recorder on my phone doesn’t record phone calls, apparently, so I can’t give you any direct quotes. But I learned lots of things of interest…

The first thing I learned is that the restoration is by Universal, not Park Circus. Universal went back to the original Vistavision negative and scanned it at 4K, so what we’re seeing is 100% new. And, since prints formerly would be several stages removed from the negative, via interpositive etc, we’re able to see more than even audiences of the original release could see. Fortunately, in this case, I can attest that this doesn’t show up anything that wasn’t visible before that the filmmakers didn’t mean for us to see. Nick cited the wires suspending the Wicked Witch’s winged monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ as a major example of a not-entirely-welcome discovery. The line where Martin Balsam’s makeup ends on his neck in PSYCHO is a less glaring one from Hitchcock’s work.

I asked about the sound — it feels much more authentic than the 1996 job, which threw out the foley tracks and replaced them with modern stereo recordings, so that the gunshots at the opening had a jarringly contemporary quality — the metallic sound of the hammer coming down that you get in DIE HARD, the gratuitous ricochets on bullets being fired into the air. They now just go BLAM! as they should. Nick spoke of the tendency to sometimes want old films to sound and look like new films, a misguided approach I hope is finally going out of fashion.

I asked what Park Circus are up to next, in terms of restorations they’re doing personally. THE APARTMENT just got a 4K restoration, fixing one damaged reel and some problems with the main title. The results played in Cannes, and are different from the Blu-Ray Arrow just released (with a video essay by me). They’re now at work on SOME LIKE IT HOT, which could be very exciting, and next up will be John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, for Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.

I mentioned meeting the film’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, in Bologna, and it turns out she’s a good friend of Nick’s. We paused briefly to marvel at the life and career she’s had.

The standard problem with MOULIN ROUGE as a 3-strip Technicolor film is that often the film shrinks, and as there are three negatives (red, blue and green), if they shrink at different rates, when you combine them you get the colours out of register, like in a cheaply printed old comic book, with characters and objects acquiring luridly coloured halos around their forms. In the digital age, this problem can be 100% solved, so that’ll be one result of the restoration.

The more unique problem comes from the film’s unique look. Huston loved experimenting with colour (MOBY DICK, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE) and Oswald Morris was doing things with diffusion and the palette to emulate the look of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. And there seem to be no original 35mm prints extant to show what the results were supposed to look like. All we have as an authentic guide is the negative, and a 16mm dye-transfer print in Scorsese’s collection, which will be referred to.

It’s going to be exciting! I think in this case, possible the false noses will look falser, but they already look pretty false. The main result will be that a gorgeous looking film that exists only in tatty dupes, will suddenly look many times more gorgeous. Ossie Morris is the man.


5 Responses to “Vertigo Views of VistaVision”

  1. Well Scorsese saw the original Moulin Rouge and he probably remembers it. And he has a photographic memory for that kind of things.

    I am glad that the 4K Restoration fixed the sound for Vertigo. Although I don’t know, in the wake of the recent 70mm restoration of 2001, maybe they should do something like that and bring back the old VistaVision VERTIGO in all its glory.

    VistaVision definitely is neglected somewhat I feel, even if it is the greatest widescreen format of them all. I mean films like The Searchers and Vertigo deservedly get attention but what about say, Tashlin’s Artists and Models, or Vidor’s War and Peace.

  2. CHarles W. Callahan Says:

    Could you expound on the Martin Balsam’s makeup reference?

  3. Is 4k superior to a gorgeous film print — can we SEE more?

  4. James W Cobb Says:

    I had an awful experience at AFI in Silver Spring with a showing of one of the new 70mm prints of 2001 just two weeks ago. The print itself had problems with color grading and several hard to ignore scratches. But worse since AFI now shows most of its films digitally, they no longer have projectionists who know how to show film. As such the projectors had bulbs which had gone dim meaning that the image was often dark (the early shot of the zebra and the leopard showed neither stripes nor spots) and the sound was not as enveloping as I have experienced on previous screenings in 70mm. So sadly… it may well be seeing these these restorations digitally is the way to go in most venues.

    VistaVision was a unique process with the film running horizontally through the camera to create a double sized negative which was then used for high quality reduction prints in standard vertically projected 35mm. There were a handful of theaters worldwide that had projectors to show prints with direct contact prints from the horizontal original negatives, but this never caught on with the avalanche of new processes introduced in the 50’s.

    I highly recommend the American Widescreen Museum site which is a fascinating look at all the varied processes and how they were promoted.

  5. The makeup reference… well, I hate to drive traffic to Hollywood Elsewhere, but some years back there was a posting about this. Checking my source, I see that it refers to makeup on his cheeks, not a line on his neck. The shot is his first big closeup.

    4K allows you to see more, for sure. Whether this makes it superior is another question, since in some cases you may get to see things you weren’t meant to see. But it’s sharper and more detailed.

    VistaVision is great but I don’t know if I regard it as better than ‘Scope, though it does have a bigger image area. Like any other technical consideration, it depends whose hands its in.

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