Robert A. Harris

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Tilting at Hollywood

Interview By Stu Kobak

       The passion with which Robert Harris approaches a restoration is the same flame that has sent him quixotically charging at the ever-changing towers of Hollywood. Harris’s weapon is knowledge. Here’s a man that has seen the mistakes of a generation and continues to fight ignorance that threatens to wreak havoc on a new generation of films.

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Robert Harris is one of the leading authorities and practitioners of film preservation in the world today. Harris, together with his partner Jim Katz, has taken on the mission of bringing classic films back to their original beauty. Lawrence of Arabia was the first project revitalized by Harris and Katz. That does not mean simply blowing huge amounts of air over the original elements. Often, film preservation takes on the mystique of determined detective work. Maybe Robert Harris should take on some less than perfect film noirs as a future project! Assembling diverse existing film elements are often part of the puzzle that makes up a complete film restoration. The Lawrence of Arabia of project took on huge proportions, sending Harris on cross-continental trips in search of cinematic truth. Working closely with Lawrence’s director David Lean, Harris was able to come as close as possible to making the restored Lawrence Lean’s vision.
     The most notable projects after Lawrence of Arabia are the wonderful Kirk Douglas vision of Spartacus and most recently, My Fair Lady, and long overdo overhaul of Vertigo. A restoration of Hitchcock's Rear Window was recently completed and is awaiting its new screen life. Watch for more Hitchcock films treated by the magic wand of the preeminent restoration team.
     Robert Harris grew up around photography from an early age. Harris's inquiring mind led him to experiment with film emulsions and processing. Harris involvement in film preservation began with some reconstruction of early Abel Gance films Grand amour du Beethoven and J'accuse (1937). He then worked with Kevin Brownlow on culling various film sources for Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon. From Napoleon to Lawrence of Arabia was a great leap forward prompted by Harris's love of big screen epics which he feels are the most endangered Hollywood species of all " Large format - at least the good ones - as they're the most endangered films. All large format prints were made from the camera originals," Harris pointed out.

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Harris checks out the torn negative on My Fair Lady©Fox Video.

     It's easy to get lost in sea of film strips, pulled down under by a whirlpool of imperfect images. Does one stop appreciating the beauty of the sea because of run-ins with polluted waters. At least it appears that Robert Harris's love of movies, the stories, the styles, the colossal impact of collected images, remains in tact. Harris's library of films includes 70mm, 35mm, 16mm, laserdisc and now DVD. Talk to Robert Harris about the movies and you can sense the joy he derives from watching a good movie. Maybe that's the fuel of passions. A love of the movies and wanting to see them in all their virgin beauty again. Harris recently watched Columbia's new DVD of A Man for All Season's and waxed rhapsodic about the merits of the movie. " Just picked up Man for all Seasons - one of my favorites. The purity of the dialogue is unbeatable. Bob Bolt never wastes a word. It would be nice though, if Columbia could finally get their act together. It's as if no one there knows anything about "film." Small, but annoying points, ie. the trailer on Man is a general release rather than the original trailer." We spoke briefly about the recent Universal DVD release of All Quiet on the Western Front: "The problem with Quiet was that a number of different cuts were produced over the years which included re-cutting of original negative. Also the original negative was probably used to create most prints (domestic.) What you see is about as good as its going to get. The studio worked very hard to get to this point." Not every DVD release meets with Harris tough eye. He found High Noon painfully digitized and lacking a sense of film quality.
     I asked Harris if there are dangers lurking around today's films to anything near the degree that the ravages of time have assaulted our cinema past? The answer is frightening for movie lovers. " Actually far worse than the studios would have you believe. Eastmancolor dye fading and the metamorphosis of mag stock into vinegar are a much greater threat than nitrate decomp. Although, we've all heard many times from many different venues that over 50% of all early films have bit the dust, one must keep in mind two things: why and do we ultimately care. The why is generally because the elements were actively junked by their owners as commercially dead before any concept of history came into play. This includes the studios and several archives which have historically mishandled film elements. By "do we care" I mean simply that most of the over 50% wasn't of any great value anyway, including historically. Much of the films lost from the silent era were so much cheap drivel feeding the theatrical machine."

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Working the elements on Vertigo ©Universal

     Undertaking a restoration is not a job for the faint at heart. Every opened can of film may turn up new surprises and may even mean a hunt for new elements. What aspect of film deterioration presents the greatest obstacle to restoration? " Probably picture and sound. Eastmancolor is a major problem as many films from the 50s-60s are deteriorating badly or are already gone. Yellow layer failure is probably the greatest problem followed by general fading and mishandling," Harris explains. "Many sound elements have been junked, leaving us with incomplete or monaural sources. Mag elements are jeopardized by vinegar syndrome in which the base of the mag breaks down. The problems with Eastman negative and mag are actually much worse than nitrate decomp. as nitrate when taken care of with at least reasonable care will last many decades more than safety elements."

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Supervising the digital paintbox correction on My Fair Lady.©Fox Video

     Harris and Katz pride themselves on overcoming the biggest hurdles on every project they undertake. Each of their restorations posed unique challenges. "On Spartacus reconstruction was close to 197 minutes cut without use of
original negative which had yellow layer fading. Separation masters were shrunken and had to be hand matched on a shot by shot basis for registration," Harris pointed out. Lawrence of Arabia had its own set of obstacles. "Reconstruction and simply finding picture elements. Failure of negative splices had original negative falling to pieces and tearing during restoration," Harris continued. A number of characters had to be revoiced as well on Lawrence of Arabia. "My Fair Lady had a damaged negative, many dupe shots and no main titles. Vertigo had a faded original negative, no magnetic elements with exception of music which was stereo but had full vinegar syndrome. Some music elements lost on attempt at first preservation. Fading led to experimentation in use of different processing for higher gamma (contrast) to try to bring color back. Vertigo was the first use of Super VistaVision 70 through a dupe restoration negative," said Harris.
     There are so many films that need help, but there's only so much Harris and company can undertake. " On a major restoration we spend several months in research and pulling together surviving elements. Physical restoration can take well over a year. For example, Lawrence of Arabia took 26 months from beginning to end, Spartacus 10 months, My Fair Lady over a year, Vertigo almost 18 months. Rear Window was begun late summer of 97 and just recently completed," explains the restorer. "My partner in crime is Jim Katz who runs the LA side. Research is done on both coasts. All elements are examined on west coast. Once restoration negatives are produced color dailies are cut together over months on both coasts with all final color timing and sound re-recording done in LA. A number of people have served as LA assistants, most recently Michael Hyatt, followed by Marlene Noble. The east coast has been run by Joanne Lawson since day one."

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Robert Harris and partner Jim Katz work on Vertigo .©Universal

     Harris uses a pair of Norelco AAIIs 35/70mm with projection in 24 or 30 frames per second for screening dailies. "Interestingly enough, one can run 70mm film on a screen normally set for 35mm and not be terribly impressed. 70mm really needs extremely large screens to show off its abilities as its picture doesn't break up," says Harris. " With video its the other way around. Lots of transfers can look nice on 27 -35 inch set. One example is 2001 on DVD. This looks fine on a 35, but when projected on a 110" diagonal screen it looks horrible. The majority of new transfers to DVD look amazingly good when projected large," Harris enthuses.

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Remixing the original Vertigo tracks©Universal

 Not surprisingly, Robert Harris's home theater passion is propelled by his love of movies. His main home theater set-up lenses through a Runco front projector which he thinks almost looks like film on the Stewart Videotek 1.33 gain screen. Surround sound is decoded and processed through a Lexicon DC-1 and powered by Sunfire Amp with a Sunfire subwoofer giving everything a lift. Harris uses a Pioneer DVD/Laser Model 91 combi-player and a Sony VHS machine. His secondary system includes a Mitsubishi 35 inch tube, a Sony Model 7000 DVD player, which Harris calls superb, a Pioneer laserdisc player all running through a Yamaha 3090 Receiver.
     Despite his love of home theater, Harris is still a lover of the big screen. How would he compare the state of projection in movie theaters today with the heyday of roadshow movies: "Twenty-five years ago we still had many huge screens, with 5 channels of sound behind them and all drivers working perfectly well. There are some multiplexes which do quite a nice job of projection. THX has helped quite a lot, but if you go beyond venues like the Crown, most of the Sony theatres and places like the Uptown in DC, what were the old Plitts in Century City, the Castro in SF, etc, and the quality of projection can easily become a joke. " Harris explains that we need good lamphouses, well-tuned projectors. He points out that there used to be many more projectionists who could tear down a machine and keep it running at its potential. "It's come down to a point where in many multiplexes the same person makes change for popcorn and then checks focus -- in 14 houses," laments the film perfectionist.

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Harris oversees a transfer .©Fox 

     While men like Robert Harris toil in the trenches battling to save film's history, we can also help support classic cinema by seeking out vintage films and calling for the best video presentations available. You can learn lots more about the fine work of film restorers Robert Harris and Jim Katz by listening to the second audio commentaries on the special edition DVD of My Fair Lady, in the documentary that is part of the My Fair Lady Widescreen Collector's Edition, the second audio commentary on the laserdisc or DVD special edition of Vertigo or on the second audio of the Criterion Collection edition of Spartacus.


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