Rediscovering Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray.

Rediscovering Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray.

Rediscovering Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Sept. 30 2008 11:11 AM

Your DVD Player Sleeps With the Fishes

The restored Godfather trilogy: the best reason yet to go Blu-ray.

Coppola Restoration of the Godfather trilogy.

Just as Bruce Springsteen's Live: 1975-85 box set drove lots of rock fans to buy a compact-disc player back in the mid-'80s, so I suspect the "Coppola Restoration" of the Godfather trilogy will compel lots of film lovers to buy a Blu-ray disc player today.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about films and DVDs for several publications. He can be reached at  war_stories@hotmail.com.

It should. Francis Coppola's masterpieces, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (really, who cares about Part III?), haven't looked so good since they first came out three decades ago. Simply put, the new four-disc set amounts to one of the most spectacular achievements in the brief history of home theater.

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The original DVD box set, released by Paramount in 2001, was a huge disappointment. Dark scenes were murky, bright scenes were washed out, and several shots were marred by the video equivalent of pops, ticks, and static. For instance, in Part II's opening close-up of Al Pacino standing in his darkened office, it looked as though mosquitoes were swarming down his face.

Paramount's executives were loath to admit it at the time, but the problem was that the original negatives for both films were in terrible condition, the result of studio neglect and technical mishaps in an era before film preservation became a concern, then a cause.

In 1972, when The Godfather came out, big box-office hits were shown first in the big cities, then in the smaller towns, then in the second-run theaters. By the time the run was over, the prints were frazzled. When The Godfather Part II came out in 1974, the original film was revived as well, as it was all through the 1980s. The prints were worn out, so Paramount churned out new ones—and they churned them straight off the negative. Film is delicate, and the printmaking machinery can be harsh, with its sprockets, rough-edged reels, and (back then) less-than-sanitary conditions. With each churning, the negative became more and more damaged—dirtier, scratched, and torn. (These days, prints are usually made from a duplicate negative derived from a master print, called an "inter-positive.")

Over the years, the Godfather negative was also shuttled to several different film labs, some of which were careless beyond belief. Whole sections of the film were ripped apart and crudely spliced back together with Mylar tape. One reel was lost; the lab substituted a dupe—a duplicate negative—in its place. Robert Harris of the Film Preserve, who oversaw the new restoration, found the missing reel just last year in the Paramount vaults, inside a can mislabeled "Reel 1B, Dupe 2."

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The negative for The Godfather Part II wasn't in such bad shape; anticipating a hit, the studio executives made more prints from the outset so they didn't have to go back to the negative for more. Still, it too was filthy, scratched, and full of rips and tears.

When the first DVD was mastered seven years ago, Paramount's archivists tracked down the best IP they could find—it was a copy of a copy of a copy—and cranked it through a telecine, a machine that transfers film images into digital video. There was no restoration beyond that. Meanwhile, the negative—the original work of art, so to speak—continued to deteriorate.

In 2006, Paramount bought Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios. Coppola called Spielberg, an old friend, and asked whether he could use his influence to rescue The Godfather. Spielberg lobbied the higher-ups, who agreed to finance a restoration. Robert Harris—who has conducted some of the most meticulous restorations of the past couple decades (Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Rear Window, and My Fair Lady, among others)—got involved in discussions that September. He and a large team began work in November. It took them a year and a half to finish.

First, they repaired the original negative to the point where it could be put through a digital scanner without breaking. Then the machine digitally scanned the negative at a "4K" sampling rate—that is, at a rate of 4,096 pixels per line, much more than even a high-def image.

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The significance of this is that 4K scanning (which is still rarely employed in restoration work, in part because it's so expensive) is a high enough sampling rate to capture everything that's on a frame of 35 mm film. In other words, Harris and his team started with a digital replica of the film—not some compressed approximation, as is the case with most digital transfers.

They then set about restoring the image to what it looked like more than 30 years ago. Frame by frame, they erased every scratch, speck, pop, and bit of dust. Often, the damage was beyond fixing, so they had to search for other film elements—dupes, IPs, prints, whatever—to find an image in good enough condition to work with.

Then they had to do the color correction. This was a harder job than usual. The colors on the negative hadn't faded much, but in this case, that wasn't the issue. The colors on the negative bore little resemblance to those on the theatrical print. Gordon Willis, the cinematographer, had manipulated the colors in the film lab, aiming for a lush effect—a "brassy yellow," as he called it—reminiscent of old photographs. Willis created this effect through photochemical "color timing." Harris and his team had to replicate digitally what he had done.

Luckily, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a print of The Godfather that was in perfect condition. (This was the approved master print that Technicolor stored with the academy when the film was complete. It had never been shown in a theater.) So, when Harris & Co. did the digital color correction, they could use this print as a reference. They also worked side by side with Allen Daviau, a brilliant cinematographer who, in turn, consulted by phone with Willis himself. (Harris is a stickler for this sort of thing. When he restored Hitchcock's Vertigo, he asked Jaguar to send him a color chip from the 1957 model of one of its cars—the same car that Kim Novak drove in the film—so that he could match the shade of green exactly.)

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This sort of fastidiousness—and the seven-figure budget that Paramount allotted to the project—paid off. These discs are gorgeous. Take that opening scene of The Godfather Part II, the close-up of Pacino. The mosquitoes are gone; Pacino's flesh tones are burnished. His facial expressions are complex, ambivalent; on the old DVD, his face looked stiff, expressionless. And now you can see dark wooden shelves behind him; in the old DVD, there was just an amorphous blackness.

Or take the scene in the original film in which Pacino shoots the Mafia rival and the crooked cop in the restaurant in the Bronx. The restoration lets you see the anguish that Pacino is going through just before he pulls the trigger; you couldn't see this in the old DVD. (Harris spent four months finding the film elements that make this scene look right.) I could make similar comparisons throughout both films.

The restoration is available on Blu-ray and regular DVD discs. Do you need the Blu-ray? The restored DVD is extremely good, too, and if you don't have a high-def TV with the highest resolution, there's no point in owning a Blu-ray player at all. (For specifics on this and other technical points, click here.) But if you have the right TV and have been thinking about investing in a Blu-ray player, you now have the perfect excuse. Think of digital images as a dot-to-dot drawing, with pixels as dots. The more dots there are—the closer the dots are to one another—the more detailed the picture will be. Blu-ray has five times as many pixels—five times as many dots—as DVD.

As a result, facial expressions have that much more detail; fast-moving objects are smoother, less jagged; colors are more saturated. In short, assuming the digital mastering is done well (and it's done superbly here), a movie on Blu-ray looks more the way a 35 mm film looks when it's projected in a really good theater. That's what home theater is about—to make you feel, as much as possible, like you're in a theater while you're sitting at home.

If upgrading your TV isn't in the cards just now, there is another option. After Robert Harris and his team finished the restoration, they produced several new 35 mm negatives and masters from the 4K digital files. Then Paramount made a small number of prints from these new negatives. Theoretically, they should look very similar to the prints shown back in the 1970s. Over the next few weeks, the new prints of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are showing at theaters in New York, Hollywood, Cambridge, Palm Desert, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Seattle, Baltimore, and Toronto. Go see them.