The past thirty years have been a golden age of film restoration, starting with the 1989 restoration of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Robert Harris led that work, and he has had a hand in restoring many films since then, including Vertigo (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). It’s a shame that great movies need restoration at all, a state of affairs principally due to neglect by the very studios that made them, often at a cost of millions of dollars. Hollywood studios were far less concerned about art or historical preservation than they were about business, and movies retained little value for the studios after their initial theatrical release.
Publicity still of Gregory Peck from the 1956 film Moby Dick. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Indeed that was the situation for movies until home video opened a new and lucrative avenue for the studios in the 1970s and 1980s. Until then, to the extent the movie studios kept original film elements at all, they kept them in slipshod conditions which allowed the films to deteriorate to one degree or another. By the time demand returned for some of the better movies, restoration was necessary to have a salable product. VHS (Video Home System) tapes could skate by with no restoration because of the low resolution of the format, but laser disc was several steps above VHS in quality and created the first push to restore old films.
Laser disc never caught on the way VHS did, however, and its appeal was limited to cinema buffs. The biggest nudge toward film restoration came in the 1990s with the popularity of DVD (Digital Video Disc), an improvement in quality over VHS at about the same price for content and playback equipment. With that change in the market, movie studios saw the value in packaging their backlog of films in the new format, creating a greater need to restore at least some of those in highest demand. Since the turn of the century, high definition televisions and further improvements in home video resolution have brought the home theater experience into the mainstream, and the demand for quality restorations of old films is at a peak and will probably stay on a plateau hereafter.
There is a limit to how much detail the human eye can discern in the limited space of the typical home theater. DVD was a huge improvement over VHS, and Blu-ray was almost as big an improvement over DVD. 4K resolution is not quite as great an improvement over Blu-ray as numbers alone would suggest, simply because the law of diminishing returns starts to take effect. In the confines of a home theater, even using the best equipment, viewers are less able to discern the finer detail there on the screen. 8K resolution is overkill for all but the most dedicated home video enthusiasts with deep pockets.
Another reason for home video improvements driving film restorations less in the future is the switch by consumers from owning content on physical media, such as a Blu-ray disc, and streaming content in a rental agreement over the internet. Already the rollout of 4K discs has slowed to the point that many good old movies may never be remastered for the format. The potential sales aren’t high enough to interest the major movie studios. As to streaming 4K content, that is subject to the vagaries of the consumer’s internet connection. Some of the 4K content may not be as advertised because of the huge bandwidth requirements, and streaming true 8K content would probably require a 5G internet connection and an actual unlimited data plan from a viewer’s Internet Service Provider (ISP).
In any event, these are good times for fans of old movies. Some classic films, like director John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby Dick, which have long deserved restoration but were nonetheless neglected for whatever reason by the major studios, have been restored by smaller distributors of home video content who have determined it would be worth their time and effort. The movie studio Paramount last year restored It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and remastered it in 4K, though in a sign of the times they have released the new version only for streaming and have not pressed discs of it. Another classic film, Life with Father (1947), awaits true restoration, and viewers should meanwhile beware the versions for sale which trumpet digital remastering or restoration.
Screenshot from Life with Father (1947), with Irene Dunne and William Powell. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Like It’s a Wonderful Life,Life with Father had also fallen into the public domain; unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, Life with Father has not attracted anew the attention of the major studios. While Paramount has lavished care on restoring It’s a WonderfulLife, slapdash outfits have been appropriating Life with Father for the sales catalog, offering horrendously bad versions of it and relying on the phrases “digitally remastered” and “restored” to dupe the ignorant. They hope naive consumers will infer that “digitally remastered” means “improved”. It means no such thing; it means only that the film has been scanned to a digital format, a necessary step in making analog movie film available for home viewing on a DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K player. “Restored” is a relative term and can mean the absolute minimum amount of work was put into it, as is usually the case with the shadier outfits.
Check reviews online, preferably not on Amazon because the reviewers there rarely get to the nitty gritty about the quality of the transfer, and instead prefer to bloviate about the movie itself, seeing it as their chance to be an authoritative movie reviewer like Roger Ebert. Better are the reviews on news sites or websites specializing in film industry or home theater matters because they generally do mention the quality of the transfer, though consumers still have to take some of those reviews with a grain of salt when they include affiliate links to sites selling copies of the movie. Be wary during research and you’ll have less chance to regret a purchase and better enjoyment of a great old movie given the attention it deserves.
People who prize the best television picture quality available were dismayed when manufacturers discontinued plasma television sets in 2014, leaving them only the option of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) television sets with comparable, or even better, picture quality, but at ten times the price. Prices on OLED sets have come down since 2014, though not to the level of plasma sets, which sold for under $1,000 as they were going out of production. The lowest price on an OLED set is still over $2,000.
Prior to the 1990s, consumers had essentially one option for television set technology, the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). There were projection television setups available which never amounted to more than a small niche segment of the market. The CRT was capable of excellent picture quality in the areas of color fidelity, contrast, and deep black levels, but it was hampered by poor resolution and practical limitations on picture size because of its bulky form. The poor resolution was primarily an artifact of the television signal available from mid-century through the 1980s at least, and when high definition television signals became widely available after the turn of the century, it was theoretically possible for CRT sets to remain in production with the capability of resolving the high definition signal, however there was still the problem of increasing screen size without the set becoming impractically deep as well.
A 3 inch TV set receiver. Photo from The Library of Virginia.
Of the television set technologies competing to replace CRT after the turn of the century – Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), rear projection and front projection, and plasma – LCD emerged as the sets capable of widest distribution because of their lower prices and variety of screen sizes, while both types of projection sets remained niche products, and plasma became the choice of videophiles who didn’t care for the fuss and expense of projection sets. All was well then for plasma set buyers until manufacturers looked ahead to the production of ultra high definition, or 4K, sets after 2010, and the manufacturers of plasma sets, primarily Panasonic, Samsung, and LG, found that it would be difficult to create a plasma set capable of 4K resolution, while the other technologies, including the newcomer OLED, were more amenable. One by one the manufacturers dropped out of producing plasma sets.
In this scene from the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact, with Jodie Foster, an alien race bounces back to Earth the first television signal it intercepted from our planet. Warning: foul language.
The more than acceptable replacement for plasma when it came to picture quality was OLED, and when users of plasma sets needed to replace them eventually they could turn to that option rather than to LCD ultra high definition sets, which had improved over the years but still had their shortcomings reproducing a cinema quality picture. The problem with OLED was the high price, a problem caused partially by LG for some time being the only major producer of the sets. Sony and Samsung have started producing sets, and their competition may induce more significant price drops in the next year than have taken place since plasma sets went out of production in 2104. When it comes to buying technology products, and particularly the television sets of the past twenty years, it takes a keen eye for the markets to know – or rather to guess well – when to take the leap and buy without feeling suckered because the very next fiscal quarter the bottom dropped out of the price, and that $3,000 television in the living room is now selling for less than $1,000 at the big box stores. In any case, the picture quality of an OLED 4K television set would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago, and each person accounts its value differently.