Robert Harris

With rapid fading and poorly maintained archives leaving many films, even acknowledged masterpieces, in danger of being lost to history, Robert A. Harris resides at the forefront of a movement to reconstruct and restore American classics for future generations. A former producer whose credits include The Grifters, Harris cut his teeth aiding Kevin Brownlow in reviving Abel Gance's 1927 silent opus Napoleon. He then undertook a massive two-year project to bring an uncut version of Lawrence Of Arabia to the screen in its original 70mm format, a labor of love that was widely hailed as a landmark in film restoration. Shortly thereafter, Harris teamed up with longtime partner James C. Katz, and together, they've consistently turned their painstaking efforts into major moviegoing events, specializing in such gorgeous large-format restorations as Spartacus, My Fair Lady, and Vertigo. Their latest reissue, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, took advantage of Technicolor's new dye-transfer process, which allows many luminous color prints to be duplicated without damaging the preserved negative. Harris recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his work.

The Onion: How did you learn your craft?

Robert Harris: When I was a kid, my father was an importer of Zeiss cameras and lenses and Astro lenses, which were German telephotos, so I grew up with cameras and photography—still and motion picture. I had my own darkroom when I was a kid, and I was processing black-and-white film and then color film, so I got to know quite a bit about emulsions. And, at the same time, I loved movies. Of course, we didn't have videotape back then, but we had a 16mm projector. One of [my father's] friends was head of a company called Seven Arts, and they had all the pre-1949 Warner Brothers films, the Monogram films and things of that sort for TV. So my parents would go to Europe for a couple of weeks, and before they went, we would have cartons and cartons and cartons of 16mm films delivered. And I would do my homework every night, then load up the projector and watch old movies. So I really gained an education and a respect for film. Also, in New York, we had something on TV called "Million Dollar Movie," which would enable you to watch stuff like King Kong or Yankee Doodle Dandy eight times a day. I grew up on Universal horror movies. So I just loved films, and I'm a bit of perfectionist, so I like to see things properly. My favorite film was always Lawrence Of Arabia and, although I had seen it in 70mm when it first came out, it had already been shorn of 20 minutes and I didn't know it. So that's how I got into [restoring] Lawrence. I went to people I knew at Columbia and told them I'd like to reconstruct and restore this film. This was after working with Kevin Brownlow on Napoleon.

O: The word "painstaking" is invariably used to describe what you do. Is that an accurate term?

RH: It is extremely accurate. I had hair before I started doing this. It's really, really difficult. You can't do it by the seat of your pants. You only get one opportunity to work with the film elements; they can be screwed up really easily, so you can't take any chances. You've got to do your research. Before you find out where you're going, you have to find out where you've been. So, number one, you have to know what the film looked like originally—or was supposed to look like originally. You've got to go through all the production records to see how the film was made. And only then can you start to try and fix it. And when you do that, you have to look at it on a shot-by-shot and frame-by-frame basis to see what the problems are and where the problems are, and then you begin to fix them. And there's no single answer how to do that. Every restoration is different, which is what makes it interesting.

O: With so many films deteriorating, how do you decide which ones to restore?

RH: [James Katz and I] restore the ones that we like, generally, unless someone wants to come up and offer us ridiculous amounts of money to do it. But it takes so much time, and it is so painstaking... There's blood on these things. There's a lot of sweat, there's a lot of blood, there's a lot of angst, and it's not worth spending your life saving something if you don't care about it. You have to be passionate about it. It's something that you can't just be paid to do, because that doesn't work.

O: Are there any other classics you can think of that are in dire need of attention?

RH: Yeah.

O: Any titles come to mind?

RH: A few. Would you like to hear them?

O: Sure.

RH: How about The Alamo? The Godfather...

O: The Godfather? Really?

RH: The Godfather is a mess. The Godfather is as bad as Rear Window.

O: Does it have to do with the film stocks of that particular period not being as durable?

RH: It's the period and the way they're handled, and The Godfather was butchered by the laboratories. It was handled horribly, like a piece of garbage.

O: They didn't do anything with this recent re-release?

RH: It was horrible. They called it a restoration. They spent half a million dollars. This is one of the things that has come back to haunt us, because once a [restoration] is done, it should be done and you assume that it is done. But The Godfather wasn't restored. North By Northwest has not been restored. Dr. Zhivago has been restored, but more damage was done than help. You have to know what you're doing, and it can't be done by bean counters.

O: Are there not adequate apprenticeships in place for people to learn how to do it correctly?

RH: There are, but the wrong people are being asked to do it. There are some wonderful apprenticeships out there. We hire people when we do a film, generally. There's the Jeffrey Selznick School Of Film Restoration And Preservation at George Eastmanhouse in Rochester. UCLA has one. There's a film-restoration program at East Langley University. So people can learn and it can be done, but what's happening is that the wrong decisions are being made on a corporate level. So when you try to restore a film like Zhivago for $120,000 and you come out with a piece of garbage, that speaks more of Warner Brothers and their inability to run and control their library. And I think it speaks of incompetent management. Same thing with Gone With The Wind. Incompetent management.

O: So this is an industry-wide problem, with studios not being able to preserve and maintain their archives.

RH: It pretty much is. Universal is actually pretty good. MGM—the new MGM, let us get our terms straight—has a new guy in there who's trying very hard, and he's got a real mess on his hands. Disney just shut down their restoration program, so they don't even have one. The company's in financial straits, I guess, because Michael Eisner probably needs to get his salary. So they've literally shut down their restoration-and-preservation department.

O: Could you explain briefly what happened with these Paramount Hitchcock films before they were picked up by Universal?

RH: Yes. The rights for five films—Rope, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, and Vertigo—reverted to Hitchcock in 1967. Hitchcock called someone and said, "I've got hundreds and hundreds of cartons. This is going to cost money, and I can't fit it in the freezer because I'm not going to take the ice cream out. What do I do with it?" And he was misinformed. Hitchcock, whose work I love, was a superb master craftsman when it came to filmmaking and a really lousy archivist. Basically, he got some really bad advice. And that advice was, "Take your camera negatives, your black-and-white separation masters (which protect the negatives), a 16mm and a 35mm soundtrack negative (which is used for making prints), and junk everything else worldwide." What this means is that they junked all of the original audio stems (music, effects, dialogue), they junked the three-stripe mag master (which included music, effects, and dialogue on separate stripes on a single 35mm film), they junked the monaural composite mag master, they junked all the foreign elements, they junked all the advertising elements and trailers, they junked all the effects material, and they junked all the main title backgrounds and main titles, except for the composite dupes. Then they took [what they kept] and stored it in a non-air-conditioned, unheated warehouse in Los Angeles, where it stayed from 1967 to 1983, when Universal got it. Universal's vaults, by the way, are superb: 34š, 25% humidity, right on target. But by the time they got [the films], they were faded. They were gone.

O: What were some of the most daunting challenges posed by the Rear Window restoration?

RH: Picture and sound.

O: So everything.

RH: Everything. There was nothing that was good. There was no surviving original sound material whatsoever, only used 35mm tracks. We found that when they made the optical soundtrack negative in 1954—which was made for the manufacturing of all the prints—it had been run 389 times along with camera negative in '54. So they were both worn out, but the [soundtrack] negative had been made defectively. You've obviously seen a piece of film at some point?

O: I was a projectionist for many years.

RH: So you've seen a lot of film. The Rear Window track negative was a bi-polar variable-density track... you know, two soundtrack impulses. The outboard impulse was fine. The inboard impulse—the one next to the perforations—was out of focus and not properly exposed. So all we had to work with was a single impulse cutting the quality of the sound down in half, plus all the splices, all the dirt, and all the wear built into the optical track. We had to go in and digitize everything, take different pieces of track from different prints and do what we could to piece the track back together. We did find the original music, which was all mono, and that's been preserved. There was no reason to go stereo [for the reissue], because the music itself was recorded mono. That's why we didn't do what we did with Vertigo.

O: With Vertigo, you completely overhauled the foley work, correct?

RH: We had to, yeah. All the foley and the effects were totally redone. We had the same problem with the Vertigo track [as we did with the Rear Window track]. All that survived were used 35mm prints. We had no mag material, except for the music, which we found in the Paramount vaults. These weren't even the cut music takes; these were the original floor recordings that we found in three-track stereo. So, once we found those and they sounded so extraordinary, we discussed it with a number of critics we respect and Herbert Coleman, who was Hitchcock's producer, and Pat Hitchcock [the director's daughter], and a few other people. We said, "What do we do? Do we try and make the mono track, which is dirty and has holes in it, sound as good as we can make it sound? Or do we take the original music, which is stereo and which many people feel is [composer] Bernard Herrman's finest work, and redo the tracks?" And everyone, to an individual, said, "We want to hear it in stereo." The caveat, of course, was that we would have to re-foley and re-effect the entire picture.

O: That must have been a fearful thing to do.

RH: Not really, because we preserved what existed. Actually, on the DVD, we wanted the studio to put what was left of the original mono track optical on one track and run the stereo on the other. But they didn't want to do that, because it wasn't on the laserdisc. Anyway, the music sounded so extraordinary and the recordings were so well done, but there were problems. Put yourself back in 1958. You're putting film on a projector. How old do you think that projector was in 1958? Where do you think it came from? It's probably out of the mid-'30s, with a tube sound system and speakers out of the '30s. So all of the warts that are in that soundtrack would not come through on the speakers, which smooth everything out—lop off the high end, lop off the low end. But if you take that track and you run it on a new system today, you hear everything, including lots of holes where they would just cut in dead film—no room tone, nothing. So when we would add a foghorn, a couple of birds at the bridge, some wind rustling through the tower at the end of the film... Those were to cover holes. We had no room tone. We had to create everything.

O: On Rear Window, what sort of detective work did you have to do in order to put it together properly?

RH: Well, we didn't have a surviving print with the right color. Most of the information that we got relative to color came from Herbie Coleman, who produced the film. He was there with Hitchcock starting with Rear Window and going all the way through for lots of films. We would go through things if we could find them. We found Georgine Darcy's shorts; she played Miss Torso [the ballet dancer]. She brought them into the office one day and they were faded, but if you fold down the cuffs, you have the color. And that's what you go for. Flesh tones you can maneuver a little bit, but what is right? So you try to make it as right as possible. Even when we had footage from the original negative, it was very faded, and we had to bring it back as well as we possibly could and work with the [Technicolor] dye-transfer process.

O: This is one of the first restorations to use that process, right?

RH: We feel this is the first restoration to use it successfully and properly. It was used on Gone With The Wind, but you couldn't focus it, which was a minor problem. [Laughs.]

O: What did you think of the Gone With The Wind restoration?

RH: Let's change the subject.

O: Oh, that good?

RH: I watched two reels and left because I had a headache.

O: Colors were too pronounced?

RH: Colors were wrong, and they couldn't focus, and it was out of registration, and it was contrast-y. Beyond that, it was beautiful. It's a lovely film.

O: What sort of discoveries do you make about a film when you look at it that closely?

RH: Well, how badly it cuts together when they change the lighting and change the camera angles—how things don't match. Remember, this is very early Eastmancolor, and it might have looked better in 1953 and '54, but now it's all faded. Part of the trick is making it all look like it cuts together and making a new cohesive film.

O: What are your thoughts on the prospect of digital projection?

RH: I don't think it's viable at the moment.

O: But is it a system that you approve or disapprove of?

RH: I don't think it's up to me to approve or disapprove. I think the tests people have been seeing don't tell the truth. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors. Because when you look at a picture like the new Star Wars or Toy Story, these are films in which the effects were done at 2K, which is half-resolution, and the audience doesn't know it, so you're looking at effects that are low-resolution. They then take all the production photography for the film, the cut camera negative, and they input that and output it digitally, at a lower resolution. That's how they make a dupe negative. So you're looking at a lower-resolution-than-normal 35mm print versus a lower-resolution-than-normal digital file.

O: Now, a digital image can't approximate the resolution that film can achieve, correct?

RH: It can get close. It depends what you're trying to do, and it's certainly going to get better as time goes on. If you want to see great projection, look into a system called Maxivision48. [MaxiVision48 places a large image on regular 35mm film, then runs it twice as fast, creating a clearer and sharper image. —ed.]

O: I was going to ask you about that. You've seen a demonstration? What's it like?

RH: Superb. Absolutely superb. And projectors can be retrofitted to accommodate the system. The system works beautifully, and it yields an image that's much sharper than what we're seeing today. Basically, put your digital output next to Maxivision and there's a big difference.

O: But it seems to be one of those situations where you've got the industry and a lot of money behind digital projection, but no one to stand behind a perhaps superior system.

RH: Well, look at the cost of digital projection. What are we looking at, $150,000 for a projector? I don't think the mom-and-pop theaters will ever have digital projection, because if they do have it, why do people need to go to the theaters? You can actually have a much more satisfying experience today watching most movies at home. At a theater, you have somebody on your left getting a cell-phone call, you've got somebody behind you translating dialogue to friends in another language... I mean, my movie-going experiences have not been terribly positive in the last couple of years.

O: But it seems like the cost of digital projection would go down, wouldn't it?

RH: I don't know. It depends on the cost of the projectors.

O: Is there a force behind Maxivision that might drive it ahead?

RH: Not yet. Just people who love films and have seen the system and think it's great.

O: What's been so surprising to me about digital projection is that there hasn't been much of an outcry about it. People seem resigned to the idea that this is the future of film projection.

RH: But who are the people? Are these the people who are sitting at home watching Titanic on a pan-and-scan VHS tape? They'd be thrilled to see something on a bigger screen. So it depends on who the people are. Who is the public? Is it an uneducated, unwashed public that's out there watching their pan-and-scans? Or is it the cognoscenti who are watching their DVDs? We're up to, what, four million DVD players now? I think the great unwashed are suddenly realizing that they can have quality for $250. I wasn't around when fire and the wheel came in, but DVD is bang right out of the chute.

O: So with something like digital projection, people would shrug and say, "I'm not seeing anything better here than I could see at home."

RH: I don't think they care. They have to care. I mean, do people know that film is dye-transfer Technicolor rather than Eastmancolor? Do they see that facial highlights are green? When I go to a theater, I'm up in the [projection] booth half the time. If something is out of focus, I'm in the booth. If it's not in frame, I'm in the booth. My wife doesn't want to go to movies with me anymore. I was once at a film and the frameline just sat there and sat there. I went to the usher and said, "Would you please tell the projectionist to frame it?" He said, "What do you mean?" And I said, "See on the screen, you can see the top of the frame after the bottom of the frame that we're looking at." Ten minutes later, the guy came back. I said, "Did you talk to him?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, [the frameline] is still there." He said, "The projectionist told me that you have to understand that a movie is strip of frames, the frameline separates those frames, and you have to have it." I said, "I know it's there, but you're not supposed to see it." [Laughs.] When I was about 17, I was with a couple of friends at a theater in White Plains, New York. We went to see Hombre, the Paul Newman film. And the guy was running one reel sort of out of focus and the other reel way out of focus and out of frame. I spoke to the usher a couple of times, and I finally said, "Look, can I talk to the projectionist?" So I went up [to the booth] and there was this ancient projectionist, probably 130, 140 years old. There he was, reading Playboy, and the usher said, "This young fellow would like to talk to you." He said, "Oh, what the hell do you want?" I said, "Well, you're running Projector One out of focus and you're running Projector Two out of focus and out of frame." He said, "What the fuck do you know? Here, you fix it if you're such a hotshot." So he took the projector—this is with an audience, mind you—and he throws it way out of focus, he throws it way out of frame so the film is clanking up and down, and then releases the tension, so the film is wobbling all over the place. He says, "Go ahead, hotshot, see what you can do." And he's cursing and there's no portal glass, so you've got 300 to 400 people turning around wondering what the hell is going on. So I get the tension reasonably in, then I focus the thing, get the frame in, reset the tension to perfection, and put it in critical sharpness. Then I hear my friends start applauding, "Yo, way to go, Harris!" And they hear the guy screaming, "Get out of my fucking booth or I'll have you arrested!" Later, of course, he changed over to the other projector and it was out of focus.