Film Restoration Today: The Elusive Perfect Viewing Experience

An introduction to the ins and outs of digital film restoration and why the look of a film can change dramatically over the years.
Robert Drucker

Top: the original DVD release of Michael Mann's Thief. Below: the recent Criterion Blu-ray after Mann's restoration

When Dr. James Steffen was in high school, a friend had an encounter with a film called Invasion of the Bee Girls, a 1973 exploitation film. His friend described seeing the film—which included a number of scandalous scenes, including an explicit topless scene—broadcast on late night television. But when the film eventually made its way to home video, Steffen felt a little frustrated. Scenes his friend had described from the television broadcast were nowhere to be found. Somewhere along the way, some entity had chosen to excise certain scenes from the picture. All was not lost, however. In 2017, Shout Factory released the full, uncut film on blu-ray, and Steffen finally got to see the film as intended.

Today, Steffen is a film and media studies librarian at Emory University, as well as a scholar on the films of Sergei Parajanov. Cinephiles can likely relate to Steffen: the kind of film fan willing to travel from his home city to a larger one in order to see a rare print of a film, or the kind to import a blu-ray from another country to see it with the right colors or audio track. Just as record collectors seek out the perfect pressing of a record, cinephiles search for the home video or print of a film that looks just right, and captures the elusive perfect viewing experience. To that end, Steffen has strong praise for the current state of film restoration, where best practices often lead to reference quality work, as well as the creation of new archival materials, which account for long-term preservation needs. 

Not all restorations turn out reference quality, however. Many sport changes, including remixed audio, altered color timing, and even different edits. New restorations often supersede previously available editions, becoming the versions screened in repertory houses and the primary edition on streaming platforms and home video. Previous editions, even if they came closer to the original theatrical exhibition, often fall out of print or are taken out of circulation from cinemas.

There are ample examples of restorations that turn out wonderfully, yet the same tools that are used to produce wonderful restorations can also be misused in a way that veers more towards revisionism than restoration. By digging into how and why these changes occur we begin to see the challenges and pressures those who perform film restoration are under and to better understand why there can be such a divergent quality when it comes to current restorations.

The Process of A Restoration

When restoring a film, experts such as James White and Robert A Harris agree: the goal is to create a finished product that resembles the original theatrical experience as much as possible. Today, film restorations frequently produce results that live up to this standard. The technological advances in film restoration as well as high-end home video products have brought high-quality, 4k picture quality to a wider audience than ever before. Restorations can be appreciated and enjoyed not just in theaters in major cities, but home video and streaming services. A teenager can screen The Apu Trilogy and Daughters of the Dust from the comfort of their home, with a picture quality nearly comparable to a theatrical screening. There are a number of reasons that are worth calling out that have specifically contributed to the uptick in quality of digital restorations.

Ideally, digital restorations will be sourced from the original camera negative, the film element which will have the greatest possible amount of detail. This is far different than the sources used to create television broadcasts, VHS copies, or early DVDs. David Mackenzie, owner and CEO of Fidelity in Motion, explained that when preparing a film for broadcast or early days of home video, there would have been no reason to utilize the OCN because consumer products like televisions wouldn’t have had the ability to broadcast the level of detail present. The negative is incredibly valuable from both an artistic and intellectual property perspective, and studios and libraries that hold copies of film negatives have an incentive to ensure they are touched as rarely as possible. The Apu Trilogy provides a great example of why this is so important. Many of the films of Satyajit Ray were damaged in a fire in 1993. Though charred, the negatives were preserved and by 2017, the technology finally existed where the films could be safely scanned. Without being sourced from negatives and other early-generation film elements, the restoration of Ray’s films would not look as good as they do. 

The visual tools used to scan and restore the elements of a film have improved dramatically in recent years, producing a higher quality image than the early days of home video. In the mid-1990s, to scan a film in HD, CRT Telecines were used. A film would be scanned in real time and recorded to video tape. While telecines often produced an acceptable image quality, they introduced video noise which would interfere with the inherent film grain. Without proper maintenance as they aged, the noise introduced could appear artificial and interfere with the image quality. However, now that hard disk drives are big enough to store each frame as a digital file for later retrieval, there is no longer any need to design a process around live output, and each frame is scanned with higher image quality. Collectively, this process gives people that restore films significantly more control than ever before over each individual frame of a film. And beyond the image quality itself, color settings are also superior in the current age. The P3 color space, which is now industry standard, has a 25% larger gamut than the previous generation: REC709. And Rec2020, which is used to grade films in HDR, has an even wider color range. 

Once the film is scanned, there is a significant amount of precision that today’s tools afford those that perform restorations. They allow for missing frames to be recreated by adjacent frames in the elements. They also allow for precise color timing that can not only vary from shot to shot, but be remarkably consistent from shot to shot, often correcting for issues that may not have been controllable in analog workflows. Not only can dirt and scratches can be erased instantaneously, but parts of the image in each frame which were removed can be highlighted, allowing the restorer to ensure they are only erasing dirt and scratches, and not grain or parts of the original photography.

With the negatives being accessed and films restored to the glory only seen in original release prints, living filmmakers and members of the original production staff are then brought in whenever possible to sign off on the work and ensure it is “director approved.” This can produce findings not known since the film’s original release, as it did in the most recent 4k restoration of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. When viewing the new restoration in a theater, the filmmaker remarked that a critical audio effect was missing. The restoration team’s research showed the effect missing on the previous home video editions. Roeg’s insistence, however, led the restoration team to source an original release print from Paramount, which confirmed Roeg’s observation. The last thing anyone doing film restoration wants to do is make a judgment call that turns out to be wrong. The director’s input can not only reveal necessary elements of the original presentation, but act as a safeguard for those performing the work.

All of the different DVD releases of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, from

Where Mistakes Do Happen

So if film restoration experts are in agreement that a film should reflect its original theatrical exhibition, and members of the original production are brought in, where do things go wrong? Why are there films that don’t resemble their original theatrical exhibition? A film’s look can change for a variety of reasons, intentionally and unintentionally. 

When given the chance, directors have been known to purposely alter the look of their films to either reflect their original intentions or to take advantage of the precision of new digital technology. Some of the more recent examples include Michael Mann bathing the 4k restoration of Thief in a blue hue and Wong Kar Wai’s revisions to his films featured in The World of Wong Kar-Wai box set. This impulse is not new, of course: Spielberg replaced guns with walkie-talkies in E.T., and even Jacques Tati added a new scene to M. Hulot’s Holiday in 1978. As Steve Bearman, colorist at Silver Salt indicated, “Nobody is going to disagree with a director when they are in the room.” Directors are the authority on a film’s presentation, and while they can bring critical insight and details needed for a film’s presentation, they can also suggest or insist upon alterations that few are going to be in a position to resist.

Aside from the intentional changes directors can make to their films, other films may look different than their original theatrical presentation due to a lack of accurate information at the disposal of those performing the restoration. This can stem from the simple reality that film restoration is a task performed by humans that can produce human errors. Restorationists are under commercial and financial pressure, no different than in any other industry, and the quality of the work can reflect that (less commercial films often garner less financial resources, and therefore, time). Additionally, colorists often reference previous home video editions of films while performing work. Of course, those editions can already be plagued by inaccurate color timing, giving colorists inaccurate information as a reference point. Another example several people interviewed for this article referenced were colorists being unaware of “day for night” scenes. This occurs when a scene is shot in daylight, but the color is adjusted later on to make the scene look as if it is taking place at night. Unless the colorist is aware of the context of the scene, they could miss this and apply the wrong color timing. And even if the colorist knows exactly what they are doing, the particular intricacies of a film or scene can vary. How blue should an indoor night scene be? Just how orange and yellow should the scene shot in the middle of the hot day be? The colorist is often a single person in the restoration chain entrusted to make these decisions.

But perhaps the most controversial decisions that occur in color timing are purposeful decisions by studios and laboratories that seem to alter the look of films in a uniform way, producing a uniform look regardless of the film restored. Home video fans have observed that Fox, for example, has produced several restorations with a strong blue bias that is reflective of contemporary color timing. The Seven-Ups (D’Antoni, 1973) is just one example of a police film from the 1970s whose most recent restoration looks different and more contemporary than its HD counterpart (as evidenced by the difference between its UK and US blu-ray release). Home video fans have also observed that films restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata and Éclair seem to have biases in a similar direction across many of their films (the former with a dull yellow, and the latter with a steely blue). Amateur fan Remy Pignatiello has observed several films restored by these laboratories having uniformized maximum black and white levels. He notes that, even if in theory, black and white RGBs levels can go as low as 0 (pure black) and as high as 255 (pure white), there can be a tendency to see uniformly raised black levels, which can then look greyish, and which can give a quite dull aspect to the picture. In some cases, some discs are simply improperly encoded, locking blacks at 16 and whites at 235. The net effect of this is that two films with production histories as different as A Touch Of Zen (Hu, 1971) and The Producers (Brooks, 1967) can sport suspiciously similar color timings.

Top: Criterion Blu-ray of A Touch Of Zen (Hu, 1971) Bottom: Blu-ray of The Producers (Brooks, 1967)

These observed outcomes reflected the pressures I’ve already outlined: film restoration is equal part art as it is science. The variety of inputs that go into a film restoration, such as materials used for the restoration, budget, timeline, and the influence of members of the original production or laboratories doing the work, are all going to affect the finished work. Unfortunately, that means that some films end up with a restoration that more accurately reflects the original release than others do.

Restoration Is Never A Finished Product

James White, Head of Technical and Restoration services at Arrow Films, says that “Nothing is really final when it comes to restoration, as new tools and technology will continue to create new reasons to restore a film again.” White’s influence goes deeper than many film fans may realize. Steve Bearman credits him with leading the charge against the overly aggressive application of grain reduction, which plagued home video releases during the early days of Blu-ray. Today, inaccurate color seems to be more of an issue in restorations than grain management. Fans encountering In The Mood for Love (2000), Heat (1995), and many others in their latest incarnation will be doing so in a way that differs from the fans who have discovered the films before the latest restoration. Today more than ever before, dupey, beaten up prints and washed out home video images are being traded for pristine, crisp, 4k restorations with new colors and new audio cues. In many cases, films look better than ever. But in others, the search for the right viewing experience continues.

Above: Two different transfers of In the Mood For Love (2000)

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Michael MannNicolas RoegRestorationsBlu-rayArrow Films
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.