Paul Lynch and Grover Crisp on Taxi Driver

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26 April 2011

Sony's head of restoration interviewed by the Sunday Times on a true American classic

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35th anniversary Taxi Driver poster35th anniversary Taxi Driver poster

Emerging from the seamier side of 1970s Manhattan in a stunning new digital version, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver remains one of the most important films to come from the decade that redefined American cinema.

Ahead of Taxi Driver's release in the UK and Ireland on 13 May, and Australia soon after, The Sunday Times' Paul Lynch spoke to Grover Crisp, Senior Vice President, Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment regarding the process undertaken to return films to their former glory.

This interview appears with permission of The Sunday Times.

Paul Lynch: Film restoration has been around a long time. So what’s new about digital restoration and 4K in particular?

Grover Crisp: Scanning the film at a 4K resolution allows us to work on the film digitally at basically the resolution of the original film itself. In a traditional photo-chemical workflow, we would be making duplicates from the negatives and there is always a generational loss of resolution in the image. Also, digital allows us to repair things – like torn film frames and scratches – that we could not repair photo-chemically.

How painstaking is the process? Is it costly? How long does it take?

Well, it can be painstaking if the material is in such bad shape! Basically, though, the length of time and difficulty in any project like this depends on the condition of the source material you have to work with. We spent most of 2010 working on Taxi Driver.

What kind of problems did you have with Taxi Driver?

The film elements had some of the usual issues that you would expect from a film of this age.   There were scratches, torn frames, a lot of dirt that was embedded in the emulsion of the negative. There was slight color fading, but not so much that it could not be compensated for in the digital workflow.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) prepares for a personal warTravis Bickle (Robert De Niro) prepares for a personal war

Is it easier to restore films today than before?

There are more options and more digital tools today that allow you to correct problems that you could not in the past with just a purely photo-chemical process. So, in that regard, it is definitely easier.

There seems to have been an explosion of digitally restored films. Is this a phenomenon we can expect to increase?

I think you will see it increase. The higher platforms for display and the demands of Blu-ray, for example, require us to go back to work on original materials to provide the best possible image. The digital workflows we have now, especially in 4K, bring film restoration right into the process from inspection of the film all the way through to providing the Blu-ray master for encoding, or recording the film out to a new restored negative. There also seems to be a great deal of interest in showing these films theatrically, too, and especially in a digital cinema format.

How large is the Sony back-catalogue and is there an intention to restore as many films as possible or just tent-pole classics?

There are thousands of titles in the Sony Pictures library. While not all of them actually require restoration, we do have an overall preservation program for all titles and that sometimes leads to a restoration project. The tent-pole classics are certainly in demand, but there are quite a few titles in the library that are what I would call genre classics that people are eager to see restored, too.

Are there lost films that can never be recovered?

Every studio that started in the silent period has films that are no longer around. That is not a unique situation worldwide, for that matter. Everyone in this business, though, is constantly on the lookout for titles that can be recovered. The recent find of films in New Zealand that are being repatriated to the US is a good example. There are a number of films in that collection that didn’t exist anywhere else.

How do you decide when a film needs to be restored?

Once you have gone through and evaluated all the film that you can find for a title, a game plan can be developed. That might entail simple preservation or a much bigger restoration project.  It is difficult to prioritize in any one category, but we do consider those titles that are most in need first. Theatrical release, Blu-ray and DVD, television broadcast all come into play, though, when lining up projects.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

What kind of market is there for newly restored films?

Blu-ray, streaming, digital delivery and the theatrical exhibition of restored films all contribute to driving the work. We find there is a great deal of interest in seeing films on the big screen as well as the one in your living room.

Are you finding new audiences for older classic films? Are older audiences coming back to see these films?

As I look around at audiences when we screen a classic film that we have restored, it seems that there is a good cross-section of film fans.

Is the cinema screening of these films an important strategy or do you see Blu-ray as more important?

Blu-ray is a great format in which to experience a  film, I think. It is the closest so far to the theatrical experience that you can have at home. We find, however, that for every title we work on there is considerable interest from theaters, film festivals, film archival programs, and we are constantly shipping prints or digital cinema versions all over the world.

What classic films are currently being restored by Sony Pictures?

We are working on The Guns of Navarone and The Caine Mutiny right now for Blu-ray releases later this year. We just finished preparing Das Boot, as well.

And finally, what classic films can we expect to see over the next year or two?

We hope that people will be interested in all the projects we are working on, from musicals like Bye Bye Birdie and the long musical version of Lost Horizon, to the films of Jean Arthur and more Film Noir coming out on DVD this year.

Thanks to Paul Lynch, Grover Crisp and The Sunday Times

Taxi Driver will be back in cinemas worldwide, including UK and Ireland from 13 May, and Australia from 7 July. Audiences in Brasil will also get the chance to watch the restored cult classic this year, when it screens at Sao Paulo International Film Festival in October.

To stay updated on international release dates and screenings for this title, please visit www.backincinemas.com.

We'd also welcome any of your memories on Taxi Driver on our Facebook page.