A ‘New’ Schindler’s List: A Q&A with Film-Restoration Expert Michael Daruty

Universal Pictures restoration chief Michael Daruty talks about the incredible tools and technology that can bring new life to an old film

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In stores today, 20 years after the movie that won Steven Spielberg his first best director Oscar opened in theaters, the Blu-ray version Schindler’s List. The special-edition release features a newly-restored print, the results of which you should be able to see in an exclusive clip, above. TIME recently spoke with Michael Daruty, the head of Universal’s Technical Operations division, to discuss the technology (and long hours) that go into restoring a film.

TIME: You are Senior Vice-President of Technical Operations, Universal Studios Group. That’s quite an impressive title. What is it, exactly, that you do?

Michael Daruty: I’m in charge of content creation for all of our distribution needs. I also manage our worldwide archives, both digital and physical; and oversee the post-production facilities where we do our all of our in-house work

How many titles are in the Universal archives?

We have in excess of 5,500 features and more than 50,000 television episodes.

What were the circumstances that led to Schindler’s List getting a full-blown restoration?

It was part of an effort that we undertook last year as part of our 100th anniversary. We identified 100 films that we felt best represented Universal studios and its rich legacy. Schindler’s List was one of those titles, and one of 13 that we chose to restore on a film level. We’ve already restored and released the majority of those titles, including To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Jaws, some of our classic horror films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein. Schindler’s was also part of that restoration effort, but its release was held until this year, for the film’s 20th anniversary

(MORETIME’s original review of Schindler’s List)

What, typically, are the first steps in a restoration project?

We began working on Schindler’s List last May. Our first step is researching all the elements —looking at, and evaluating, available prints and finding the one that one that will yield the highest resolution. For Schindler’s we actually used the original negative.

That’s as clean a source as you can get. What next?

We did scanning tests. We scanned the movie at 6K, and down-sampled it to 4K [ED: the numbers reflect horizontal resolution, 4K has four times as much information as today’s best high-definition TVs]. We worked in 4K for the entire restoration process.

So, now that you’ve digitized the whole movie…

Once we have the scanned files, it goes through what we call a color-correction process, where we can fix colors and make sure they match better throughout the movie. And even though Schindler’s List is mostly a black-and-white film, we are still dealing with black levels and white levels and managing a broad range of highlights and contrasts. Our goal always is to preserve the cinematographer’s vision, while at the same time minimizing undesirable artifacts.

Minimizing artifacts? You mean “cleaning” the picture? Can you explain how that works?

We have technicians sitting at monitors examining the film, frame by frame, looking for anomalies: dirt, film scratches, stains, anything that shouldn’t be on the image. When they spot something, they move a cursor over the anomaly and “paintbox” them out.

That sounds like both a labor- and time-intensive process.

It is. We had anywhere from 20 to 30 people working on it. The whole process took 5 months.

I suppose working in 4K must have brought out details — and imperfections — that were invisible in the DVD version?

There’s so much finer detail in the clothing and the hair and the skin textures. So we’re trying to bring that out and, at the same time, finding and managing an acceptable level of film “grain.” Every film has grain — take out too much and it stops looking like film.

Were there any specific scenes from the movie that proved especially challenging?

Well, the project let us apply our new techniques and technologies to the famous “girl in the red coat” scene. They were originally 35mm “optical” sequences [ED: meaning these were non CG-effects], bound by the limitations of the process. In the original release, when the little girl is walking, everything between her and the camera — people, trees, buildings — sometimes wouldn’t look quite right. The coat would even lose its color. With our new tools we could go back to the original black-and-white negative and digitally re-create the red coat.

(MORE90 Years of TIME Cover Stars: Steven Spielberg)

Was Steven Spielberg involved in the restoration?

He was intimately involved throughout the entire process. It turns out had not seen the movie in some time. And he made decisions in consultation with [Schindler’s List cinematographer] Janusz Kaminski. Mr. Spielberg came in four or five times throughout the process — looked at tests and determined contrasts levels and gave his opinion on every visual aspect of the movie — and signed off on the final product.

We’ve been given a clip from your restoration — the scene in which Liam Neeson enters a club filled with Nazi officers and party officials. Do you remember any new work being done to that scene?

Nothing specific, I’m afraid. But the level of detail in the scene of him at the bar, smoking a cigarette is amazing — we’d often compare our scene to the one in the 2004 DVD version. These, of course, are the benefits when your source is the original negative, and you’re working in a much higher resolution and have better display devices.

How have your tools improved over the past 20 years?

These days, we’re using high-quality pin-registered scanners that capture at 6K resolution. For the DVD release, we probably used a high-definition telecine device — which was great technology at that time, but nothing like what we’re using now. We’re also using the latest advances in scanning and grain management and digital clean-up tools and image stabilization. And software that helps us control shading and flickering and other variables inherent in film elements.

And in addition to this new Blu-ray edition, you also created a new negative?

Yes, in addition to the Blu-ray, we created a new 35mm negative, new 35mm prints, a DCP for digital-movie projection. And when those 4K files are stored, they’re also geographically separated to reduce the chances of loss.

Any upcoming projects you want to talk about?

We have a commitment to restore 3 to 5 new prints a year. Right now, we’re working on A Touch of Evil, High Plains Drifter, Double Indemnity — and we’ll probably add another title or two at the end of the year.