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My Fairer Lady

Alongside the classic film titles arriving for this year’s NZIFF, the restored version of Geroge Cukor’s Oscar winner My Fair Lady also opens this week. SCREENZ had the chance to talk with Robert Harris, who’s restored the 1964 film not once but twice.

Harris is based in New York although most of his restoration work is done across the country in Los Angeles.

Harris completed his first restoration in 1994, the 30th anniversary of the release. It was long before digital was the standard for film distribution and exhibition, although some of the restoration work – to replace material such as the title sequence for which the original masters had been lost – was done digitally.

In 1994 it cost US$50 to make a 2K scan of a frame (or cUS$75,000 per minute) so the cost for the whole film was prohibitive for an entire feature.

The joke during the 1994 restoration was that when Harris clocked on to work on the digital recreation of the title sequence, the rest of the lights in Burbank dimmed. Now, Harris can run 4K files on his iMac.

As with all the restorations Harris has been involved with, what it’s possible to get out at the end depends to some extent on what’s available to start with. There were standards for archiving film in the 1960s but, Harris explained, there wasn’t a lot of quality control around going on around them.

What really hurt My Fair Lady was a 1970s inventory of materials for My Fair Lady, following which the audio stems for separate music, dialogue and effects, and cans containing the original optical rolls for the prologue and title sequence. One original reel had already been destroyed while making prints.

In 1994 there were surviving acetate separation masters, but there had been dirt in the machine used to produce them, resulting in scratches and bright spots or optical holes where the dirt had rubbed away at the surface. Had someone checked them in 1964, the problem could have been easily and cheaply corrected. That oversight wasn’t quite as bad as for one title Harris remembers. Restorers opened up cans marked Cyan, Magenta and Yellow to find one yellow separation along with two cyans and no magenta.

Second time around on My Fair Lady, Harris had the benefit not only of the original and his restoration of it, but of considerable advances in digital technology. It still takes around 13 seconds to scan a frame of 65mm at 8K – a resolution at which Harris believes is plenty sufficient to capture all the information from a frame. The restoration work was mostly done on 4K downres version – which then gets downres-ed even further for BluRay.

Despite the advances in technology, it took over three months to scan the film. That doesn’t mean a three month wait to start other work, though, as work on scratches and colour correction can be done alongside scanning. The whole restoration took around seven months.

CBS, which owns My Fair Lady, supported the restoration wholeheartedly. “They gave me the key and said go for it,” Harris said.

On the recent restoration, Harris was able to clean up the audio tracks from the x-copy of the original, apart from off one reel which had been damaged. Harvesting the audio produced a soundtrack that sounds even better than it would have done in 1964.

Harris noted that the NZ Film Archive (now Nga Taonga Sound & Vision) had contributed significantly to restoration of US titles. Being the last stop for many Hollywood films, a lot of material ended up being left in NZ rather than shipped back to the US. The restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which did the festival circuit rounds five years ago, included scenes missing from other prints which were found in Wellington at NTSV.

Harris made the change to using digital methods of restoration in the late 1990s, experimenting with processes during his restoration of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. By the time he moved on to restoring The Godfather in the mid-noughties, he was working completely with digital tools, although even now there’s still a piece of film as well as 8K and 4K files at the end of the process. A polyester negative of My Fair Lady has joined plenty of other titles in the vaults of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Harris believes that with the quality of the digital copies now archived, there’ll be no need to access the original elements of My Fair Lady again.

Asked what’s next, Harris is unsure. He’s looking at titles to restore and hoping that his white whale, The Alamo, comes within reach. While admitting that the film is not necessarily the greatest ever made, “It’s brilliantly photographed”. The long version of the film has already been lost, and the whole thing will be lost if it’s not restored soon. Harris would very much like to prevent that. MGM, which owns the film, seems less enthusiastic.

Umbrella releases the restored My Fair Lady, winner of eight Academy Awards, in NZ cinemas from 21 July.

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