Interview: Film Restoration Master Robert A. Harris
The name Robert A. Harris may not be familiar to you, but if you’ve ever seen films such as Vertigo, Rear Window, Lawrence of Arabia, or The Godfather on blu-ray or 70mm, you have Harris to thank. For decades, Harris has dedicated his life to preserving and restoring beloved films, making sure that they look their best. His most recent project is the Audrey Hepburn classic My Fair Lady, which Harris previously restored in 1994. This new restoration will be shown in theatres across the United States is now available to own on blu-ray. We spoke to Harris over the phone to discuss his career and why he no longer goes to the movies.
Scene Creek: I’ve been really fortunate to see your restorations of Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia in their 70mm projection formats. Would you agree that it is difficult to imagine anyone watching those films in any other way?
RH: I feel exactly the same way. I have friends that actually joke and say, “Oh, I watched Lawrence of Arabia on my new iPhone earlier. It looked great!” I kind of just blink at that. It’s not good, and young people especially don’t get it. They have no idea of what films can look like, what films do look like, what a roadshow is. It’s a mess.
SC: When you’re restoring these films, you intend them to be seen on the big screen, is that correct?
SC: So when you know that something like My Fair Lady is getting a blu-ray/dvd release in additon to the theatrical run, what is that like? Do you worry about a loss in quality?
RH: Well, the quality really isn’t lost. Here’s where things have changed since the 1994 restoration. When we first restored Lawrence we had to fight to get it on wide screen on home video. Many people today have home theatres. A thirty-five inch, three hundred pound, Mitsubishi TV is no longer the high end. People have HD projectors, people have 4K projectors, and people are watching on fifty, sixty, seventy, eight, ninety inch flat panels and also in projection, sometimes up to eighteen or twenty feet. Especially if you are up-resing on a 4K machine, the new blu-ray of My Fair Lady does a very very good job of mimicking what you would see in the theatre. If you’re sitting back about seven feet, its actually hard to tell the difference between HD up-res to 4K and true 4K, same thing in a movie theatre. Its really all there. Once you get up to a certain point the human eye can’t take too much more. At blu-ray resolution, you’re really at that point unless you stick your nose up on the screen and look for pixels, which is called “pixel peeping”.
SC: We often see the word “restoration” attached to films, but in many cases they do not look very good. I think specifically of the original restoration of The Godfather that was done before yours. Why is this?
RH: Well “restoration” is a term that I tend to use very sparingly. If you got the blu-ray for the Godfather films you’ll see that I took a restoration credit on parts I and II, but not III. This is because although I needed to recreate the director’s cut, which had only been done on standard definition video from all of the original elements, and it was a lot of work, I didn’t consider it a restoration. I abhor when people use it as a marketing term, and I’ll normally contact them and ask that they stop.
SC: I imagine for someone like yourself, with such a keen eye for detail, going to the movies can be rather upsetting…
RH: I don’t go to the movies. When I’m in Los Angeles I go to The Academy, either The Goldwyn or The Dunn. I will go to screenings at the studios. I will go to the Director’s Guild. I’m actually involved in a 503-seater locally, which has taken over a theatre that had been twinned. We’re putting it back to what it was in the ’40s, although updated. It will one of the few theatres that you can go to in my area where you can see a film and hear a film perfectly. Cell phones and pagers will not be permitted. Like the Alamo Drafthouse, if you open your phone to check a text you’re going to be thrown out. We have actually hired two of the biggest sumo wrestlers you have ever seen to stand at the door. They’ll grab people and toss them. I don’t go to theatres because most theatres don’t know how to run films anymore. Half the time I do go to the theatre I end up in the projection booth. Most projectionists are a seventeen-year-old girl named Tammi, who dots the “i” with a heart. They know how to push a button to start the show and that’s it.
SC: What should we look for on the newly restored blu-ray?
RH: Take a look at the wallpapers and the detail of the oriental carpets. Look at the costumes; you should be able to see the threads and the patterns. Before the intermission, look at the sequence with Rex Harrison and Wilfred Hyde White and you’ll see the differentiation between the black tuxedos and something just a hair above black, the satin lapels. Look at the whites in Audrey’s ball gown and you’ll see what it all about.