Interview With Film Restorer Robert A. Harris
It is a sad fact of cinema that movies age both on screen and off it. Some films are dated relics of a forgotten age, whilst others maintain their charm decades after their original release. With studios neglecting their vast back-catalogue archives and film's suffering from extreme fading, original versions of some classic movies seem forever condemned to becoming a distant memory; denying future generations the chance to experience them as their ancestors had done. Film Restorer Robert A. Harris has given his utmost effort to combat this general apathy amongst studios. Having flirted with producing (such as Stephen Frears' excellent The Grifters), Harris has contributed painstaking restoration work on such outstanding classics as Spartacus, My Fair Lady and Vertigo. In the late eighties, Harris embarked upon a two year project to fully restore Sir David Lean's uncut version of the monumental Lawrence Of Arabia.
Above: Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)
Below is an interview with Robert A. Harris conducted by Raphael Pour-Hashemi on behalf of DVD TIMES:
DVD TIMES: What's the most rewarding experience gained when restoring a film?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: There are two. Most importantly, when the creators of the film are still with us, the reward is returning their work to them with our thanks. The other reward is viewing the completed project with an audience in a large theatre.
DVD TIMES: Out of the films you have worked on, what was the toughest job and why?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: They were all extremely difficult and for different reasons on every project. When reconstructing a film, the initial challenge is trying to find out what precisely the original version of the film was, followed by a search for the picture and audio elements. After that is completed one must attempt to figure out how to work with the elements at hand to create a final work. Some of the problems encountered are:
1. Faded or missing original negative in part or in whole.
2. Decomposing negative, prints or preprint elements.
3. Decomposing track elements.
4. Lack of separation masters or incomplete sep masters.
5. Damaged or shrunken sep masters.
6. Faded or damaged print material is that is all that survives.
7. Damaged or missing audio material.
DVD TIMES: As a format, do you find that DVD is technically suitable enough for the average consumer to never need to repurchase their favourite titles after VHS and Laserdisc?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: What is the average consumer? I would think that they would be quite pleased with VHS and pan and scan. For those who seek a higher quality, I believe that it's a never-ending chase for more superb image and audio reproduction. Hopefully, as hardware advances along with newer laser technology, players will be backward compatible, enabling consumers to replace the films which they feel are meritorious with upgraded software and hold those which are acceptable as they are.
DVD TIMES: Are there any DVD releases of films you have restored that have left you dissatisfied, and why?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: Only one. Lawrence of Arabia. The studio set out to prove that they could deal with the problems of the film with no outside support. While they did a superb campaign, elegant packaging and were successful as far as sales are concerned, they botched the job badly. As a representation of David Lean and Freddie Young's work, it was a failure. Hopefully it will be given a second chance and the public will see the film as it supposed to look and sound. To the specifics: Colour and densities are off in many sections of the film, sometimes horribly so. Much of the film is slightly out of sync. Audio (music) cues have been "helpfully" re-edited by an outside vendor to solve "problems" and never noticed by anyone at the studio, making one scene totally idiotic and another simply badly done. There are errors and inconsistencies in documentary programming, this beside the fact that somehow the film was miraculously reconstructed and restored with no one in charge, much like Moulin Rouge being created without a director. Home video still doesn't know that they hold the original trailer, even though I began giving them this information ten years ago. I'm pleased with the work done on every other restoration with which I've been involved. Universal constantly does superb work. The new transfer of My Fair Lady from WB is superb in every respect.
Above: Cukor's My Fair Lady (1964)
DVD TIMES: Are there any films that have sadly been neglected that you feel are badly in need of restoration treatment?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, North by Northwest, The Big Country, Dr. Zhivago.
DVD TIMES: Also, if you were given a free hand to restore any title that needed it, what would be the first film you would think of?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: Gone with the Wind, followed by The Red Shoes and The Leopard.
DVD TIMES: Are you in favour of studios fully supporting anamorphic enhancement for DVDs?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: Certainly.
DVD TIMES: How do you see the future in terms of film restoration? Are studios more enthusiastic or more reluctant to pay in order to maintain their back catalogue?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: The studios seem to be willing to go only so far as to create elements which will enable them to get the titles onto home video. Many original negatives and other elements are being left to fade.
DVD TIMES: What film first made you fall in love with movies?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: Lawrence of Arabia.
Above: Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
DVD TIMES: What DVD release has most impressed you so far?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: I find many of them impressive. For added value, mostly anything from Criterion. For overall quality the output of Pixar.
DVD TIMES: And finally, what's your next project?
ROBERT A. HARRIS: We have been doing research and due diligence on a number of projects and should be announcing something in the near future.
Thanks to Robert A. Harris, and to Stu Kobak @ Films On Disc for his assistance.