Restoration: <I>A Matter of Life and Death</I>
Issue: November 1, 2017

Restoration: A Matter of Life and Death

CULVER CITY, CA — Sony Pictures Entertainment recently completed a 4K digital restoration of A Matter of Life and Death, the 1946 wartime drama from writers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Originally released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, the film stars David Niven as a fighter pilot who escapes death but must argue for his life before a celestial court. In contrast to The Wizard of Oz, scenes set in heaven appear in black & white while “Earth” is rendered in vibrant Technicolor. 

The new restoration was prepared under the supervision of Grover Crisp, SPE’s executive vice president for asset management, film restoration and digital mastering. The original three-strip Technicolor negatives served as the basis for the new master and were put through wet-gate, 4K scanning at Cineric, New York. The 4K files were then delivered to Deluxe, Culver City, (formerly Sony Colorworks) for digital conforming and color grading, performed by senior colorist Sheri Eisenberg on a FilmLight Baselight 8 system. The files were simultaneously shared with L’Immagine Ritrovato, a digital restoration facility in Bologna, Italy, for dirt and scratch removal, and repairing torn frames. Additional restoration was done at MTI Film, Hollywood. Audio restoration was completed at Deluxe Audio Services, Hollywood.

Crisp had been involved in an earlier photo-chemical restoration of the film in the 1990s done in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive and the British Film Institute. “While that restoration also utilized the original three-strip camera negatives to make a new inter-positive, we couldn’t completely fix certain things back then,” says Crisp. “We had enormous problems in trying to get the three negatives to register properly. As a result, the restored prints had a lot of fringing in the color sequences and a general softness to the image.”

Part of the problem was that the three separate negatives had been subject to shrinkage with each of the three elements affected to a different degree. “When you layer one on top of the other, you wind up with color fringing, usually red on one side and green on the other,” explains Crisp. “It’s especially prominent on objects with sharp edges or close-ups to faces.” 

This time around, Crisp was better able to address registration issues through digital recombination tools for re-registering the digitized negatives. Color breathing, a typical by-product of the Technicolor three-strip process, also proved challenging to repair. New digital restoration tools for modulating color breathing eliminated a good part of the problem. Eisenberg dealt with the rest in Baselight. 

“Sand, skies and flat background walls are particularly unforgiving when it comes to these sorts of challenges, especially if the camera is static,” notes Eisenberg. “Going back to the original elements helped, and there are good software tools to address this, but we had to go through a lot of shots frame by frame to manually improve the image. You have to fix it by eye.”
The film’s black & white sequences posed a different challenge. They were originally shot as a single-strip black & white negative, edited and then processed as a fine-grain master positive. From that positive, three separate black & white, splice-less duplicate negatives were manufactured and cut into the three-strip color negative. 

Director Michael Powell (seated, smiling) and cinematographer Jack Cardiff (standing behind Powell, arms folded) with the crew of A Matter of Life and Death.

“Each of those sections suffered from image degradation through the cascading printing process,” notes Crisp. “Each also had unique problems, including shrinkage, scratches and dirt. We decided not to recombine the black & white negatives, but to utilize just one, the magenta record, as it had the best qualities for contrast and density. It also yielded a sharper and cleaner image.”

Throughout the re-mastering process, Crisp and Eisenberg strove to maintain a consistent and authentic approach to color. As reference, they had the previous photo-chemical restoration, which had been prepared in consultation with Jack Cardiff, the film’s cinematographer. They also consulted with Academy Award-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who had been married to Powell, and remains actively involved in the preservation and restoration of her late husband’s work. 

“Because the new restoration is from the original camera negative, there’s tremendous detail that we’ve never seen before,” notes Schoonmaker. “The very beautiful color, which was always strong, has gotten even richer. The color breathing and other problems have all been fixed. It’s a great gift.” 

“We weren’t trying to match exactly the earlier restoration, since this time we had the benefit of working in P3 color space with the original negative, as opposed to the inter-positive we primarily used before,” explains Crisp. “Baselight is a leap of ahead of the color tools we had in earlier days. Plus, we’re working at a higher resolution, 4K as opposed to a quarter of that. We can get so much more out of the negative. This film really benefitted from all those upgrades in technology.”

The newly restored A Matter of Life and Death had its world premiere at the 2017 London Film Festival. It also was included in Art House Theater Day screenings in New York and elsewhere around the United States. 

“When [film programmer and historian] Bruce Goldstein announced the name of the film before the screening at the Film Forum in New York, the audience burst into applause, and there was extended applause at the end,” says Schoonmaker. “It was fantastic.

A Matter of Life and Death was my husband’s favorite film,” Schoonmaker adds. “It allowed him to be a magician, creating heaven and earth, and stopping time. He let his imagination run riot. But it’s also about his view of love, that love is sacrifice, and sacrifice is love. This film sums up his attitude about life.” 

A limited theatrical release of A Matter of Live and Death will include screenings in New York and London beginning in December.