James White | ARROW VIDEO Restoration Supervisor

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Supervisor of Film Restoration at Arrow Films, James White is the man primarily responsible for the label’s focus on presenting classics from cult and genre cinema. The first significant release of this new policy was Zombie Flesh Eaters in 2012 and this year sees Umberto Lenzi’s underrated ‘zombie’ horror Nightmare City receive the Arrow treatment. We spoke to him to find out what about the trials and tribulations of restoring old films.

STARBURST: Nightmare City is soon to be released on Blu-ray; how has the restoration process been for the film?

James White: Nightmare City is a special case really. Essentially,the film was challenging because the state of the materials was so compromised and it has to do with how they’ve been stored for years or badly treated in the lab environment or by the distributor. You never really know how the damage occurred to the element, but digital restoration can only achieve so much despite how far it has come and there is a point where you have to stop or the film becomes something completely different. Anything we restore we want to still look like photochemical film and not some rewritten history.

Is the reason to restore Nightmare City then related to the fact that the source was so damaged as it is a lesser known film?

It’s from Umberto Lenzi, who was an important director of the time, and Nightmare City is definitely one of his lesser known films. It’s the kind of film that fans of it adore, and while perhaps not a favourite of the genre, it is a lot of fun. It’s rude, crude, graphic and gory and some of the effects are easy to see, but is fun - if not for everyone. We wanted to do the best we could for the film then for the people who love it.

In general terms, how do you select the films for restoration?

I play a role and cast a vote on the films we select but the final decision is made by my colleague Francesca Simeoni, who runs the Blu-ray side of the label. We also listen to fans through our presence on social media and there are some films that are in high demand, but in many cases it depends on the availability of the rights. It’s unfortunate that many of the rights for films we would love to do are with other labels, but sometimes that can change or a film’s licence may be available in the U.K. but not in the U.S. and so on. We’re all fans ourselves though, especially of many of the Italian films, and those have never been represented very well on DVD before. A lot were done cheaply and with little care.

There is also an audience that have never seen some of these films.

Speaking from my generation, I remember the video nasty era and some of these films just weren’t available so now that they are many are in such poor condition. It’s essential to go back through and check the condition of the elements and if possible give them the presentation they really deserve. That also clears the way for many interesting and rare films that haven’t been seen enough as well as some of the keystones such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red. We’re working on a series of Italian films now, one of which is Requiescent, which is a terrific spaghetti western but is much lesser known than the Sergio Leone ones. It’s exciting digging into the archives and making new discoveries.

In the simplest of terms, what is involved in the restoration process?

With most films, we start with trying to find the element that’s in the best condition and in a lot of cases that involves going back to the original negative. Down from that you go through what was the original photochemical lab change; that’s going from original negative to IP or fine grain positive onto interneg, onto duplicate negative; whatever history the film had in order to distribute the 35mm prints. The prints are usually the last place you would go to as it’s the furthest generation down from the original and with every step you can lose something, a nuance perhaps. Sometimes the source is lost or in terrible shape, so you have to move down that list. With Nightmare City, we had the original 2-perf Techniscope negative which is like a budgetary version of Techniscope that a lot of European productions used in the 60’s and 70’s to cut costs. Essentially, you used 2-perf on Techniscope for the widescreen frame, whereas in traditional 35mm cinemascope you use 4-perf; basically you’re using half the amount of film. Once you go to produce your prints, though, you’re blowing that up to 4-perf. Simply put, that means there’s a huge drop in quality when you blow it up so whenever you want to restore a 2-perf Techniscope film you really want to use the original negative as everything else will really suffer. Nightmare City was a difficult one because that negative was in pretty rough shape. It had experienced a form of rotting from within through being poorly stored and chemically treated, which allowed a kind of gassy atmosphere to develop within the can which then causes flicker. That flicker is very heavy and distracting, and has an effect on colour and density and everything really! There’s only so much we can do with flicker, so in some sections of the film it’s still noticeable.

Is there the temptation to change things in the process then, to perhaps improve it?

We’re pretty religious about keeping the film as it was. In our minds, our job is to essentially present the film in the best possible light and how it would have looked on its original showing. So no, we avoid any type of George Lucas jiggery-pokery either with the content or with the overall look of the film. We strive to make the film look as it was intended historically. A film shot 50 years ago won’t look like a film shot 30 years ago and so on, so a film from 1980 should look like a film shot in 1980.

What about grain?

This is a sensitive issue for some people but at Arrow we don’t like images that have been tempered down. We want to present a film as intended - with the grain. To be blunt, if you have a problem with film grain then you have no love for film! That’s what it is. It’s like wanting an oil painting to be less oily; film is just grainy. Anything that falls into the de-graining category is something we violently resist.

Given that, do you think that there are films that shouldn’t be given this type of treatment?

I’d probably say the opposite to be honest. Going back to a film like Nightmare City, it’s not for everyone; but with its audience in mind, we have to temper our budgets a little. For example no matter how good the audience, it’s never going to be as popular as The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain or Star Wars or anything like that! Therefore you have to have realistic expectations for the budget you have. That doesn’t prevent the film being restored in the best possible way though. For too long people have thought that films in the so-called canon are worthy of the treatment, but we all know how good The Godfather is so let’s move on to something else. If we don’t give some of the smaller and lesser known films some attention then they could disappear. With Nightmare City, if we’d waited another 5 or 10 years then the materials might have been in such a poor state that the finished film would look less impressive. Whatever we do digitally, though, it will never make up for the elements being stored correctly so if there’s a decision to be taken on which films are worthy of restoration and which aren’t I want nothing to do with it. Such an ideology would be tainted with whatever opinion is fashionable.

Do you a wish list of films you would like to work on?

Oh absolutely, we all do, but many of them have their rights with other labels, Warner Bros, for example, which includes much of the RKO catalogue. They have a lot of the films I would love to be restored, but Warners are a closed shop so if those films are going to be restored then they will do it internally. They have so many films that it may take some time before they get to the ones I want!

NIGHTMARE CITY is released on Blu-ray in the UK on August 3rd.

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