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
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.