Art and Compromise: Who Crafts the Look of Remastered Films?

At the dawn of motion pictures, films were considered disposable entertainment.

When films reached the end of the distribution line, they were often destroyed—or buried, as in the case of the Dawson City Film Find, a trove of silent nitrate films discovered in 1978 in the Yukon.

But over time, studios began to see the potential of keeping their more successful product in vaults for potential exploitation later—early examples include evergreen titles like Disney’s Snow White. By the 1990s, the proliferation of content channels, new viewing formats, and home theater systems contributed to the growth of the restoration business. 

But these developments came with some ethical quandaries.

Should flaws in older media be retained in order to faithfully match the experience of theater audiences of decades ago? What if that experience could be improved? Should mistakes be corrected? And who’s to say what’s a mistake and what is part of the authentic cinematic experience?

Remastering pros often turn to the original filmmakers when possible to answer these questions—even though these filmmakers are not usually the owners per se. And in cases where the filmmakers were no longer around to consult, conscientious studios and restoration pros would turn to former crew members or respected colleagues to help make these choices.

Today, the systems used to restore and remaster for various distribution opportunities are worlds better, but moral quandaries and compromises still exist.

Top filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai have regraded their films after theatrical releases, sometimes to adapt to different display systems, but sometimes for artistic reasons or to adapt to changing tastes.

The view from the colorist’s chair

To get a better understanding of the situation, we reached out to Marc Wielage.

Marc began in post production in the 1970s and has seen this evolution from the colorist’s chair where the interests of the studio and the filmmakers overlap. Over the course of thousands of narrative and other projects—surely including some of your personal favorites—he’s seen the tools grow from inherently compromised to practically limitless.

As a former camera operator and lighting technician, he always approaches color correction from the standpoint of lighting and camera.

“At first, we had analog video—like stone knives and bearskins,” he says with a laugh.

“By 1990, it was standard-def digital and by 2000, digital high definition. By 2010, it was resolution-independent. Now we’re doing 2K, 4K, HDR, and so on. We used to have about six knobs to color time and match shots. Now we have 600 and the key is knowing which ones to use and when. Each new generation of technology builds on what came before.”

The mechanisms used for color have changed over the years, but the philosophy has not. “I use the same basic mindset for color today that I did 40 years ago, with a few important changes,” he points out.

Last known good

For remastering projects in the last two decades, Marc first examines a previously remastered version supervised (or at least approved) by the filmmakers if possible.

He then A/B compares the most recent approved version with color-corrected HD or 4K images from new negative scans. For high-profile releases, he might project a studio print to get an idea how the title looked decades ago.

The intent is never to make an old film look like a modern film.

“Our goal is to reproduce essentially the same color, brightness and contrast while providing more shadow detail in the low lights and more highlight detail in the brightest parts of the picture,” he says.

But as Marc explains, it’s impossible to avoid becoming part of the creative mix. “If the color is really ugly or shots don’t match in the old version, we have to make a call as to when to veer away and fix it,” he says. “Sometimes, if the print is too faded, the studio executive will turn to me and say, ‘Just use your judgment.’”

He’s also quick to point out that the goal is still to respect the original.

“The intent is never to make an old film look like a modern film,” he continues. “The intent is to pull out all the original color in the original camera negative, polish it a little bit to eliminate any dirt or scratches, and to reflect the work of the original cinematographer and their crew.”

First, do no harm

It’s whenever the word “intent” is used that things become, unavoidably, open to interpretation.

Some decisions are clear-cut, like fixing film damage like scratches and dust (though some would argue that these are also part of the film’s heritage).

But where does the line get drawn? Should colorists fix a bright reflection in the background, or the lead actor stepping into a shadow momentarily? What about a glimpse of the dolly reflected in a window, a continuity error, or an anachronism? What about flaws that the original director might have avoided with newer tools?

“We learn gut instincts over time, and we try not to go too far,” says Marc. “As the physicians’ creed says, ‘First do no harm.’ We never try to step on the film or impose our look on top of it. The hope is that we’re preserving the film so that it bears a close resemblance to the way that it’s always looked. And when in doubt we try to do less so we’re not pushing anything beyond what the filmmakers intended.”

Unintended consequences

But even when you have direct access to the filmmaker in question, you might find out that “intent” has changed over time.

Which is something that Marc experienced first-hand when working with Technicolor Hollywood colorist Tom Nottingham on The Sound of Music in 1990.

When you’re working on a hallowed title with an iconic look and format (65mm Todd-AO) that won the Oscar for Best Picture and one of four Best Director Oscars for director Robert Wise, the pressure’s on to get it right.

Fortunately, Wise was on hand to supervise the project. But as it turned out, he wanted a vastly different look to the one the world knew so well.

I don’t argue with anyone who has more Oscars than I do!

“We assumed Robert Wise would want a bright, rich, colorful, upbeat image, which is how this musical had looked for nearly 40 years,” says Wielage. “Much to our surprise, he came in, sat down and said, ‘No, I want this film cold, desaturated, and grim—I want it to reflect how Austria looked historically in 1938.’ We were shocked, but I don’t argue with anyone who has more Oscars than I do!”

“When the fans saw the results on home video, they hit the roof,” says Marc. “This was a case where the director’s intent had never been seen before either in theaters or on home video. About then years later, Wise passed away and Fox quietly redid the film back to the original 1965 look that the audience wanted.”

All of which clearly highlights the biggest issue: you can’t own the impression that a movie makes on the audience. Their memories are their own—sometimes as flawed and faded as the original master—so every creative choice needs to find the balance between these often indefinable points; the filmmaker’s intent, and the audience’s nostalgia.

It’s a tricky situation, but one that colorists find themselves in all the time.

As Marc puts it “There’s always a tug of war there, and unfortunately, the colorist is caught in the middle. All we can do is try to find a happy medium.”

Not the same river

It’s not just the colorist who feels this tension, either.

Hong Kong auteur (and renowned perfectionist) Wong Kar-wai wrote in the Director’s Note that accompanies the Criterion Collection remasters of seven of his acclaimed pieces, “We were caught in a dilemma between restoring them to the form in which the audience remembered them and to how I had originally envisioned them.”

To include such a defense alongside the re-release of his own work, remastered under his own guidance—and remember he wrote, produced, and directed these movies—shows that he already knew that not everyone would accept these newer versions.

And it’s true, some have pointed out that the more muted tones in the remastered In the Mood for Love have dulled Mrs. Chan’s (played by Maggie Cheong) famous qipao dresses, and the change of color and aspect ratio in Fallen Angels have also received mixed reviews.

For these critics, Wong offers up a quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which seems immensely appropriate. “No man steps into the same river twice. For it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.”

What Mr. Lucas wants…

Once again, Marc Wielage is very familiar with these shifting sands.

In 2004, he remastered the original Star Wars and The Return of the Jedi at ILM in San Rafael. Lucas had added new visual effects shots and changed the film in other ways in order to get 100 percent of his vision onto the screen. 

The only versions of his films that exist at the moment are the ones in his head.

“Being a fan of the original films, I asked his staff if it might also be possible to restore the original theatrical versions with the 1970s effects,” he explains, “but I was told that as far as George was concerned, the only versions of his films that exist at the moment are the ones in his head. So it didn’t happen.”

A lot has been said about the rights and wrongs of this particular edition. But, as Marc points out, when you’re dealing with a director as technical as George Lucas, the colorist’s role is simply to make it happen.

“He knows lighting and cinematography and editing backwards, forwards, and sideways, so he had very specific instructions on how he wanted these films to look. What you saw with those films was exactly what the director/producer wanted—no more, no less.”

Marc’s statement is borne out by Lucas himself, who said in a 2005 interview in Cinefex, “I went back and fixed what I didn’t like—that was the whole point of the Special Editions—so now I’m happy with those films, too.”

It isn’t easy being green

The Matrix is another notoriously controversial topic when it comes to the cinematic release versus the home video version.

But Marc offers up a different view, and it’s one that echoes Wong Kar-wai’s “different river” philosophy.

“In the case of The Matrix, the Wachowskis rethought their approach from where they were 20 years ago,” he says. “I know the person who did the original Matrix, Pat Miller over at Warner Bros. He did a wonderful job and worked for months on making the Wachowskis very happy with the home video version of that title.”

“But I can see where maybe now, in HD and Dolby Vision HDR and 4K and so on, they might want to rethink what they liked back in 1999. In 2021, maybe we should go in a slightly different direction. They’ve grown as people. They changed. They’re not exactly who they were 20 years ago. So, for them, it’s not a question of reproducing exactly what audiences saw in the theater back then. It’s what the filmmaker wants to see today.”

And if the trailer for The Matrix: Resurrections is anything to go by, with its richer, more balanced palette, it would certainly seem as though Lana Wachowski’s visual aesthetic has moved on.

Orange and teal

Of course, The Matrix movies aren’t the only ones that have a unique aesthetic that’s proven increasingly unpopular over time.

Orange and teal has generated its own amount of criticism, much of it directed at Michael Bay movies. But it’s easy to see why it was so popular for so long—the colors stretch the tonal contrast in the image and produce a powerful ‘poppy’ look to the human eye. 

“I know of films that were kind of normal-looking back in the 1980s and ‘90s, and then there’s a current reissue, and they’ll go in the orange and teal direction,” says Marc.

“The real question is, ‘Is that appropriate for this film?’ If I’m doing a brand-new feature, commercial, short, or TV show, I won’t hesitate to go in an orange-and-teal direction sometimes. But I think it gets weird when you have this intense, powerful look for 90 minutes, two hours, two and half hours. It gets exhausting”

“But to impose that kind of modern look on an old film? That’s not something I would do.”

Range finding

But while the orange and teal trend has died down (it’s certainly not gone, and can often be seen in modern shows aiming for a cinematic look), audiences have a new bone to pick with filmmakers—that they’re not using the entire extended dynamic range available in HDR.

Just because it goes to 11 doesn’t mean you have to be at 11. Sometimes going with a little subtlety is best.

“When it comes to HDR, dynamic range is a creative choice,” offers Marc.

“Just because you can go to 4000 nits doesn’t mean you have to use all of that range. It’s like volume in an audio mix. Just because it goes to 11 doesn’t mean you have to be at 11. Sometimes going with a little subtlety is best. You have a very sophisticated audience believing they can outguess the director, the cinematographer and the colorist on a project. And I understand that.”

“But I think sometimes the critics have to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe the filmmakers know more than I do.’ Someone may have spent 100 hours on the film you’re looking at. They’re sweating over this. It may have involved agonizing amounts of work and experimentation, trying different things and going back and doing it again. These decisions are not made lightly.”

The Human Aspects

In spite of continual advancements in technology, the human aspects of the job are still paramount.

Marc’s decades of experience contribute mightily to his results. And often he’s getting conflicting messages from various stakeholders.

“I know about modern digital color science, but I have to say, the biggest thing I use is just gut instinct,” he says “We bend over backwards to try to preserve the original intent of the cinematographer. I will fight very hard for the DP even when the director is trying to push the work in another direction.”

The problem nowadays is that we can bend the image sideways and make it look almost like anything—and I do that sometimes on modern productions. Communication is crucial, and is a huge part of our workflow. We use it just about every day to facilitate communication and to come to an agreement about these decisions. It’s a fantastic tool for showing clients previews and trying different things.”

“But maintaining the spirit of a film is something that comes from inside the person, not from the tools.”

No rights, no wrongs?

So who gets to make the call?

What takes precedence? Is it the filmmaker’s vision, which evidently changes over time? Or the audience’s nostalgia, which doesn’t? As Marc points out, you simply can’t please everyone.

“Morally, this gets back to who owns the film,” offers Marc. “Does the audience own the film because they bought a ticket 20 years ago? Does the studio own the film since they literally own the copyright? Or does the filmmaker own the film because it’s their creation?”

Maybe it’s better to just ignore them all and make it as good as you possibly can.

“Maybe this is just a difference of opinion and there really is no right or wrong. It’s just another way of looking at things. Or maybe they just have terrible taste. I think of the old adage—if you start believing the good reviews, then maybe you have to look at the bad reviews, too. So maybe it’s better to just ignore them all and make it as good as you possibly can.”

Out with the old

The one thing that’s obvious in all of this is that there’s no clear path to follow when it comes to movie recoloring.

Some of the audience won’t notice the difference, some will see it and appreciate the change, and some will rail against the heavens that it doesn’t match the original (or at least the picture in their head that they’re using for comparison).

So perhaps the best way to close this article would be to offer the last word to Wong Kar-wai, and allow this exacting filmmaker to explain why his “river” philosophy is the best mindset for both filmmaker and audience alike.

“Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat these restorations as an opportunity to present new works, from a different vantage point in my career.

Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true.

I invite the audience to join me in starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.”

Featured image from In the Mood for Love © Block 2 Pictures

David Heuring

With 25 years of experience in the field, David has unparalleled relationships in the cinematography industry, bringing insight and a strategic approach to his writing, which began in 1987 with American Cinematographer Magazine. He is well-connected in the support community—including publication editors, event programmers, and organizations like the ASC and ICG—and has written well over a thousand articles on the world of cinematography and the people who live in it.