Magazine article American Cinematographer

Ascent Polishes: The Sand Pebbles

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Ascent Polishes: The Sand Pebbles

Article excerpt

When the great stage star Sarah Bernhardt agreed to appear in a film version of Queen Elizabeth in 1912, she is said to have remarked, "This is my one chance of immortality." From its beginnings, film has been promoted as a sort of cultural amber that can capture life and preserve it for the ages. In truth, nothing lasts forever, and though film and video can arrest moments in time, those moments may prove to be only slightly less fleeting than the eye-blink in which they first occurred. Dirt, scratches, film breaks, sprocket tears, mold and fungus, color fading and chemical decomposition all conspire to limit the permanence of the motionpicture image.

20th Century Fox's The Sand Pebbles marks its 40th anniversary this year, and as it moved into middle age, Schawn Belston, vice president of film preservation at Fox, discovered the picture was in need of some TLC. Released as a road-show attraction in 1966, the film features cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, ASC, who photographed the picture in 35mm anamorphic for blowup to 70mm for its prime engagements. Through the years, the negative had suffered the usual indignities that time, handling and printing can inflict; there were tape-repaired tears, faded dupe sections for opticals and to replace a damaged sequence, and a bit of color fading and some dirt that defied surface cleaning.

Directed by Robert Wise and based on a 1962 novel by Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles was something of a box-office disappointment during its initial release, but has come to be regarded as an enduring Hollywood classic. The project provided Steve McQueen with one of his finest roles as U.S. Navy ship's engineer Jake Holman, who, along with the other crewmembers of the U.S.S. San Pablo, embarks upon a "show-the-flag" mission in China in 1926. Holman's cynical outlook on life begins to change when his ship is sent on a mission to rescue some American missionaries. (A bastardization of San PaWo, the "sand pebbles" of the title refer to the ship's crewmembers.)

The Sand Pebbles was in no danger of becoming a "lost film." In addition to the original camera negative, there were backup elements - an Eastmancolor interpositive and black-and-white color separation masters had been made in the 1960s - but as is often the case, these elements did not retain the full visual quality inherent in the original camera negative.

Fox decided to give The Sand Pebbles a digital facelift at Ascent Media's new Digital Media Data Center in Burbank. Designed by Kevin Sanders, Ascent's chief technology officer, and located on Hollywood Way, the facility is a 100,000-square-foot "super" post house. Much of it looks familiar - edit bays, machine rooms, telecine and scanning facilities - but everything is on a grand scale. The heart of the center is Prod-Net, Ascent's proprietary digital-production network, which offers a fully integrated, secure file-based workflow through all phases of post, from image capture to output in any video or film format, from HD to DVD to digital intermediates. The facility also offers digital-cinema capabilities for clients who contract with Ascent to provide that service.

Ascent scanned the original negative for The Sand Pebbles at 4K (4096x3112 pixels per frame) using a Northlight 1 pin-registered film scanner to 10-bit Cineon files. The scanning process takes about seven seconds per frame, and it took 20-30 hours to create the 4K digital files for each reel. The 13 reels of The Sand Pebbles required close to 14 terabytes of disk storage space.

Using the Quantel iQ4 system with Pablo, colorist David Bernstein made a first pass for rough color correction and restoration of the heavier image damage, and removed the reelend "change-over" cues that were physically punched into the original negative. …

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