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The Civil War. A Film by Ken Burns
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Why We Decided to Re-Master the Civil War


By Paul Barnes, Editor & Post-Production Supervisor, Florentine Films

Ken Burns and I decided to remaster The Civil War for several reasons. First of all when we completed the film in 1989, we were operating under a very tight schedule and budget. Film ComparisonsAs the main editor on the film, I always wanted to go back and improve the overall quality of the film.

The other reason for remastering the film at this time is that the technology to color correct, print and transfer a film to video for broadcast has vastly improved, especially in the realm of digital computer technology. Viewers of our recent productions such as JAZZ and Mark Twain have written to us remarking on the visual beauty of those films, which is due to new technology we now use. Also, since Baseball we have been mixing our sound in stereo for PBS broadcasts.

When PBS decided to broadcast The Civil War on its 12th anniversary as well as re-release it for home video purchase in new VHS and DVD versions, Ken and I thought this would be the perfect time to make the film look the way we had always intended and to remix the soundtrack in both a two-track stereo version for broadcast and VHS and a 5.1 Surround Sound version for the DVD release.

To accomplish this, we contacted our original sound mixer, Lee Dichter, at Sound One in New York, and one of our original sound editors, Ira Speigel, of 701 Sound (also in New York) to oversee the digital stereo remixes. Ken and I wanted to utilize the talents of the people who originally worked on the film since they would be familiar with both its content and technical requirements. We also enlisted the expertise of our colorist, John Dowdell at Tape House in New York. John has been color correcting all of Ken’s films with me since Empire of the Air in 1991, and is completely familiar with how we want our films to look.

We transferred the film from our Master Interpositives passing through a Spirit Datacine film chain onto a digital video master. We re-color corrected every single shot as it went through. The Spirit also holds the film steadier as it is transferred, eliminating the worst of the old film "weave" movement. It also holds the focus far better than the original film-to-tape machine used for The Civil War. The Spirit is also capable of a greater range of color possibilities, allowing us to reproduce the original color cinematography more accurately and to create a larger palette of sepia tones for the still photographs.



In addition, the film was also passed through another device called a "Scream" that eliminated or reduced almost all of the "video noise" – a noticeable pulsing movement of the film grain (especially in white areas of the images like the sky) – as well as greatly reducing an odd color fluctuation that was present in our Interpositive Masters that was apparent in the red areas of the images and on some of the paintings used in the film.

We also were able to eliminate a great deal of the dust and dirt that often get embedded into 16mm film when it is printed. In the old days the film would be cleaned as best as possible before printing, but some of this dirt was impossible to get out. Filmmakers working in 16mm had to learn to live with some of it being present in their final prints. But not any longer. Now utilizing another digital device called a "Henry," we are able to duplicate a clean part of a frame and "paint over" all these annoying bits of debris.

Visually, The Civil War is now steadier, sharper in focus, cleaner and with a greatly enhanced visual beauty. The color is now the way it was intended to be when the film was originally shot. The still photographs all have been assigned a variety of sepia tones that correspond to the intended emotional effect of the sequences.

With the soundtrack, Ken was concerned to not alter the integrity of the original sound mix. So we were careful to reproduce the old mix as it was and only reassign music and sound-effect tracks to the left and right for the two-track stereo mix and into the surrounds for the 5.1 DVD mix. The remix did allow us to re-transfer all of the music from the original 1/4" studio recordings onto a digital medium and then relay them digitally into the new mix. This vastly improves the overall quality of the music throughout the film. The old 16mm analog transfers were often missing certain subtle musical tones and the 16mm-transport system had a tendency to create digital "wow and flutter" as the tracks were passed over the re-record heads in the mixing studio. Occasionally, stereo sound effects like cannon explosions or wind or lightning were mixed in with the old effects to enrich the stereo "feel" of the mix.

The overall end result of the remix is that the sound feels richer and more enveloping, especially the music and sound effects, while actually imparting a greater definition to the dialogue coming out of the center.

The content of The Civil War has not been altered at all. But we believe the digital remastering process has created a film that will feel like a brand new, richly textured, and more enveloping viewing experience – one that we hope will only deepen the viewers’ emotional response to this crucial turning point in our nation’s history.




Copyright 2002 WETA. All rights reserved.