The African Queen - Digital Restoration

The African Queen (1951), directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart (who won the Academy Award for Best Actor – his only Oscar) and Katherine Hepburn, filmed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, was finally restored by Paramount and released in 2009. The work was eventually undertaken in 4K and was certainly a labour of love. I was involved many years ago pitching for the work and along the way I restored a small sequence (2K) which was very interesting. It has been said the final restoration was held up because they had trouble locating the original negative. I can completely believe that after so many years certain negatives or sequences would be missing from the archives, it is very understandable. A standard film would have an enormous amount of material to source, let alone having to locate and scan three negatives per scene. The logistics and disc storage are huge.

Obviously without the processing labs from Technicolor we cannot reproduce the matrices for final combination and registering of the print. So a 3 strip film has to be restored slightly different differently today. The individual negatives are scanned, into their individual colour channels - red, green and blue, representing the cyan, magenta and yellow matrices. Each channel can be treated individually for contrast levels, shrinkage or warped sequences and then combined.


The three individual black and white negatives representing the red, green and blue channels - each scanned at 2K


African Queen Negatives Combined & Cleaned

After each negative is scanned representing the individual red, green and blue channels, they are combined digitally to produce the resultant RGB image. Each individual sequence is then treated to remove any dirt or scratches, adjust any registration issues between the three scans. Also at this point any warping, stretching or shrinkage can be fettled on each individual channel, treating each as an individual layer in its own right.

The final result can be looked at as a composite where the image has had many different effects applied to each individual layer (negative). Including a starting base contrast shift in the black and white levels where the negatives contrast may need adjusting in context.

You could be forgiven for assuming each negative would degrade at the same level, but it is never that easy. If only a single standard level of degradation on each negative was the norm, it is not though. The degradation is a combination of many things such as neglect, storage conditions, the way the negative was processed or even the film stock itself. All of these conditions will dictate how it will react over time and dictate the final state of disrepair they will be in.

Every shot or sequence will need the same attention to detail and care taken to fix every anomaly across an individual frame and intimately entire sequence that is ready to be reinserted into the final timeline and ultimately graded scene to scene over the entire reel or timeline.

It is a laborious task to work on such a restoration and is extremely rewarding as the film starts to return back to its former glory. It is little wonder that a full restoration takes so long.



Example Sequence Comparisons

Below you will find a few select sequences taken from African Queen I worked on. Restoration is an interesting experience because when you are looking at old material, you are looking at it with fresh eyes and more importantly fresh, new and improved tools which can dramatically change the dynamic of a shot.

Having spoken to Jack Cardiff about the rapids sequence, he was interested in the green spill (for want of a better word) that can be seen through all of the back projection shots with Bogart and Hepburn. The sequence was shot on a soundstage, the background back projected, with the actors having copious amounts of water blown on them. The concern, at the time, was that the water would not be seen on screen, so they decided to light it with a green gel. Rightly or wrongly it reflected the light and you can see the green throughout the entire sequence.

You have to watch the sequences carefully if you blink you will miss them (the e in each clip represents the edit number in each sequence). The point is though, is it right to remove the green in this material considering it was throughout the original material? Jack Cardiff was all for removing it, so I did. He said if they could have removed it at the time they would have. What do you think?



The African Queen - Restored Final Sequence

Obviously there is a lot of work involved to compile the material from initial scanning, re-registering the channels, dustbusting and scratch removal. Only when all of these individual restoration processes are completed which may include several members of your team, or if you are particularly unlucky, just me, can you then colour correct or grade the sequences like a normal film within the Digital Intermediate.

As sequences gradually are scanned and restored, I rebuilt the edit as each sequence was updated through the restoration process. The final restored material had a very high contrast level which I chose to reduce slightly because I felt it would be better to have all of the detail for the purposes of this test. Again this was a subjective decision which I add without prior reference material. This was so the negative would have the greatest dynamic range possible going back to film.

Personally I was particularly impressed that Hepburn’s blouse, which was a very light lilac, maintained all of the detail and sharpness, while retaining the colour. I was also very happy with the green spill removal throughout the sequence. I am positive aficionados would prefer to see the material in its original state. However I personally think with the advent of Blu-Ray material we can offer both sequences within the edit - that is the beauty of restoration in a digital age. What do you think?