"We do the same thing on our films today," Schoonmaker said. "When we made Hugo's DCP, of course everybody is in there tweaking the color: the cinematographer, the editor, the director. But what happens with films that weren't made just recently? Who's going to supervise these DCP's if the filmmaker's dead, and there's nobody else like the cinematographer or the editor or somebody who knows what the damn thing looks like and can go in there and work with the color timer after he's done his first pass?"
"Timing" used to be a crucial step in preparing a print for release. Film is a photochemical process based on many variables. The stock itself could change from batch to batch. Chemicals used for processing, the temperatures at which they were used, even water used for rinsing were different from lab to lab.
Once a film had been edited, and its negative was ready to be printed, the lab's timer would work with the cinematographer, and in some cases the director and other filmmakers, to "time" or expose each shot and scene. As in still photography, the timer could brighten or darken a shot or scene, and manipulate to an extent its colors. Detailed notes were made for each scene; they would be referred to if the lab needed prints in the future.
Switching from one lab to another, or from one stock to another, would necessitate a completely new timing and a new set of notes, one of the reasons the process is so expensive.
Instead of timers, digital post-production has colorists who perform many of the same functions, including adjusting exposure and color levels. When films were first digitized for broadcast and home video markets, colorists aimed for standards of brightness and color saturation that were often at odds with filmmakers' choices. They opted for less contrast because TVs had trouble reproducing highlights and shadows, for example. Films that looked good enough seen on a VCR in a consumer's living room suddenly displayed errors in other formats. In some cases those early transfers are all today's colorists have to go by when digitizing repertory films.
Even films protected by copyright are in trouble. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has made a public appeal for money to preserve films starring Laurel and Hardy, one of cinema's most famous comedy teams. RHI, which currently owns the rights to the films, reportedly refuses to fund their preservation.
For film distributors, it's hard to justify the $5,000 to $10,000 it now costs to print a 35mm black-and-white feature*. When Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming for New York's Film Forum, complained about the astronomical costs of B&W film prints, his friend Hade Guest of the Harvard Film Archive replied, "You're no longer in the film business—you're in the Fabergé egg business."
Digital formats change so rapidly that restorations can quickly become obsolete. 2K scans used to be the industry standard; 4K, which offers more visual information, has become more prevalent. But at the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas this past spring, vendors were showcasing laser projectors, a format that will be available commercially in a few years. "Think about the theater owners who have just spent $2 billion converting to digital," Schoonmaker said, "and now they're being told they'll have to convert to laser in five years?"