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Ken Burns on Re-Mastering the Civil War

Ken Burns spoke to reporters about the remastering of The Civil War during this summer’s Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California.

QUESTION: Regarding The Civil War, when you talk about remastering it and making it look new, I think the audience understands when an old film like "The Wizard of Oz" or "Gone with the Wind" is remastered, how the negative has deteriorated. But your film was only twelve years old. Why will the audience notice that much of a difference, as opposed to just going to their shelf and pulling out the videotapes from twelve years ago?

BURNS: It’s a great question, and I’m not sure that you’d necessarily be able to in a blindfolded test, be able to tell the difference, if you just threw people in the cold. If you do a side-by-side comparison, it’s pretty extraordinary.
I shoot on 16mm film. It produces a negative that’s about the size of this fingernail. We then make a work print of it and when we get that work print back from the lab, we can’t of course look at the negative that the original film is because it’s a negative image. That’s about as good as I will ever see my film. Almost immediately, we start editing with it, and it gets scratched and damaged.

At the end of the editing process of The Civil War 13 years ago, we went back and conformed it to the negative, produced a print, then produced another thing called an interpositive, and transferred that -- well before digital technology had really come into play in 1989 -- straight to video. So there is what the engineers call a great deal of noise, not only on the soundtrack, but on the image. It’s just not clean. The grain is moving around significantly, the grain that’s produced by producing that interpositive, by producing a composite print from the negative, all of the generations again.

We’ve now gone back to the original negative and digitized from that original negative, so for me as a filmmaker, this is looking at the images as clean and pristine as they were when they first came out of the lab on those dailies. So it looks fantastic. The noise, the visual noise, is cleaned up.

Second, the technology has permitted us -- and we didn’t have the financial resources at the time -- to make a stereo sound effects track. And as you know from me sort of saying ad nauseum here over the years, that we haven’t just put in the one or two tracks, that we’ve tried to have almost a feature film-like complex sound effects track.

And in the case of the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s charge on the third day, we had upwards of 60 or 70 separate sound-effects tracks going at once. You will now hear those, and like the ad for the speakers that blow your hair back, we think that, if you’ve got the right equipment, this will be terrific.

Copyright 2002 WETA. All rights reserved.