Phoenix Helps The Criterion Collection Raise Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy from the Ashes

Acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s landmark work, the Apu Trilogy, has been fully restored by the Criterion Collection as a gift to lovers of world cinema. Comprised of “Pather Panchali,” “Aparajito” and “Apur Sansar,” the films trace a remarkable boy named Apu through adolescence and young adulthood. Originally released between 1955 and 1959, the films reaped dozens of international awards upon their release, including the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Tragically, a year after Ray’s death in 1992, the Apu Trilogy’s original negatives, which were already sorely in need of restoration, were damaged in a massive film-vault fire in London. Restoring the films would take the vigilance of the Academy Film Archive, worldwide searches for surviving prints, a 20 year wait for the necessary restoration technology from Digital Vision, and two-plus years of meticulous digital restoration by the Criterion Collection.

“It was burnt, it was flaking, and it was yellow. It just looked like something no one should touch.” – Lee Kline

From there the original negatives were sent to a restoration facility in Bologna, Italy. “They basically gave them life again,” Kline noted. “They rehydrated them, and also did physical repairs on the negative. They cut out sprockets that were damaged, fixed perforations, and removed and replaced splices that had tape burned onto the negative. They spent more than 1,000 hours on the physical repairs to get to a place where we could run the film through a scanner and not damage it. We wanted to do pin registered scans for stability reasons, so all of the sprockets and perforations that had been damaged had to be replaced.”

At that point, Kline and his team began scanning the material into 4K files and determining what was useable and what would have to be sourced from other material scattered over three continents. “The mixing and matching was a logistical nightmare,” Kline said. “We used every Digital Vision tool we had because we literally had to fix everything but the kitchen sink. Phoenix is our workhorse. It works quickly and efficiently for us. We find it really is the best at doing the work to our style and to our speed.

 

Criterion Collection

Criterion Collection

“The first thing we had to do was stabilize the image electronically because even though there were new splices and perfs added, the film really jumped around quite a bit. And it had literally shrunk in places because of the fire. So we needed to fix it in a way that it would remain still, and DVO Steady and Steady II were invaluable for that.”

“With the level of destabilization from the fire damage, and the recreation of the sprockets, there was no way we could have done anything with that film without having automated tools,” commented Phoebe Harmon, Head of Restoration for The Criterion Collection. “Digital Vision’s Steady tools were absolutely essential.  Without them we would not have been able to put out the films.”

The team at Criterion was dealing with issues not just related to the original negative. When necessary, other film elements, including dupes and in a few instances prints, were used to fill in gaps. “What we really tried to do was clean it up, but also to make it look the same,” noted Kline.  “We didn’t want it to be a noticeable change when it went back and forth.  It was important to us that it be a seamless experience for the viewer. So that’s where things like grain reduction would come in. We used DVO Clarity and other Digital Vision tools to get those film footages to look the same.”

Pinaki Sengupta as Apu and Karuna Banerjee as Apu's mother, Sarbajaya, in Satyajit Ray's "Aparajito," part of the Apu Trilogy. (Janus Films)

Pinaki Sengupta as Apu and Karuna Banerjee as Apu's mother, Sarbajaya, in Satyajit Ray's "Aparajito," part of the Apu Trilogy. (Janus Films)

From that point, a fairly standard workflow was undertaken, including deflickering and basic dirt and scratch removal, all using DVO tools. At the end of the process, the restored films were put through a color correction pass using Digital Vision’s Nucoda. “Because we had images that came from different film that had different grain structures and quality, we used the Nucoda to even out all those pieces of film, but we also needed to make the black and white match as well,” said Kline. “Grayscale was very important here because when you had the negative, you had a big grayscale that really represented what the camera captured, but with the dupes it was a very different story. They were often very quickly and crudely made. So the Nucoda became another important part of the process to seamless integration.”

In the end, some of the film that had been rehydrated, scanned and stabilized couldn’t be used, but that too could change in the future. “It was a shame that certain pieces couldn’t be restored, but that was just the reality. Maybe someday, but we’ve already come a long way,” concluded Kline. “Four or five years ago, this project simply would not have been possible.  The tools were just not there. They weren’t fast enough, they couldn’t do what we put these Digital Vision tools to the test to do, and frankly, we were pretty surprised by what we were able to accomplish. And the team at Digital Vision has been great through this whole process.  We really do get the most feedback from their team, and they partnered with us every step of the way to try and find ways to get this project done.”

The Criterion Collection, headquartered in New York, is a highly regarded company revered for its film library, as well as its management and repurposing of content. The company has an in-house unit that completes post production on the titles it distributes. The Phoenix suite of products is an integral part of an end-to-end restoration pipeline at Criterion and was put in place to increase efficiency and improve quality in their mastering and restoration efforts.