BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Two of Hollywood’s most-revered films, Citizen Kane and Ben-Hur, debut this month on Blu-ray in high definition.
No small feat considering Kane’s original negative burned years ago in a studio vault fire, and someone once smeared a foggy synthetic coating on Ben-Hur’s widescreen negative “to protect it from scratching,” according to Ned Price, vice president of mastering for Warner Bros. Technical Operations.
Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 RKO Pictures masterpiece, has twice ranked No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies. Welles’ title character was based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and is known for its atmospheric black-and-white photography by cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Since the film’s negative no longer exists, Price and his staff had to rely on three original nitrate fine-grain “protection” prints to create a new high-def video master for Blu-ray. The three fine-grain sources – probably used at the time for international release – were found after a worldwide search, said Price, who in 2009 restored The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind for Blu-ray release.
Citizen Kane last released appeared on DVD 10 years ago. Price also oversaw that release, which at the time was considered state-of-the-art. Price now acknowledges that “the image processing tools we used 10 years ago were quite limited” and designed for standard definition playback.
Any visible picture damage in the protection prints has been electronically “painted out,” Price said. The Blu-ray, released Sept. 13, reveals film grain and screen detail (such as heavy rain through a window in one scene) not visible in Kane’s previous video incarnation.
“For this particular feature, it’s an entirely different experience in the way you can see into the image,” Price said. “The photography has a lot of layers and nuances. Those were sometimes lost in the older transfer. It was rather antiseptic and you were losing all that information.”
Price experienced a whole different set of obstacles in restoring Ben-Hur, MGM’s most honored film with a then-record 11 Academy Awards in 1960.
Ben-Hur – starring Charlton Heston and featuring the movies’ most famous chariot race – was filmed in 65mm, a process with a negative twice the size of standard 35mm and a projection width nearly three times its height.
When Price mastered the 212-minute Technicolor film in 1987 for the old Laserdisc format, the video company at the time spent $81,000 to restore 55 reels of negative.
Not much could be done, however, after Price discovered that a foggy synthetic coating applied earlier to the negative “had bonded to the emulsion” and could not be physically removed.
Nearly 25 years later, computer technology allowed Price to do what he couldn’t in the 1980s. “We used a digital process to remove the fogging and reveal the image beneath it,” he said.
Each frame of Ben-Hur was scanned for the Blu-ray transfer: 322,000 frames, each saved as a 117-megabyte computer file. Price said the resulting image contains “16 times the resolution of the average new theatrical release, including Harry Potter.”
Restoration cost: $1 million, according to Warner Home Video spokeswoman Ronnee Sass.
“This was obviously the largest project we ever attempted,” Price said. “Damn near killed us.”
So much time went into restoring Ben-Hur, the 1959 film’s 50th anniversary edition will have been delayed two years when it is finally released Sept. 27.
“The joke is how many times can you be 50?” Price said. “As many times as you want.”
Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition; $65 Blu-ray; $50 DVD. Three discs including supplemental documentary and feature, book, lobby cards.
Ben-Hur 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collectors Edition; $65 Blu-ray; $50 DVD. Three discs (Blu-ray), five discs (DVD) plus supplemental documentaries, books and original 1925 silent version. The film alone is also available on two DVDs, $21.