Restoration comedy: The Ladykillers

frame from film after restoration

Silver Salt Restoration recently completed work on restoration of “The Ladykillers”

Remaking a killing: The Ladykillers

Widely considered to be the last of the great Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers already holds a special place in any film-lovers' collection.

But delve a little deeper and this masterpiece soon reveals why it deserves to feature more prominently in cinema’s history books.
Many of those reasons become abundantly clear following Studiocanal’s new remastering of this deliciously dark post-war comedy.
For this is a classic film, to use the time-honoured phrase, in glorious Technicolor.

And in this case, it holds the record for being the last major British production to use the high-quality – but expensive and cumbersome – process, perhaps surprising given that regular colour film had existed for two years during its production.

Now, for the first time since its 1955 release, it has been digitally restored by Silver Salt Restoration using the original camera negative.

Original Image
Modified Image


However, as the team explains going back to the original film, has meant a number of challenges.

Ray King, Silver Salt’s film and scanning specialist, said: “Unlike most films, the Technicolor process used three rolls of film for every shot.

“Until now, all previous home video releases of The Ladykillers have used copies of the original, what we call intermediate sources.

The films were housed in a magazine on top of the camera. As the camera rolled it recorded three black and white negatives at the same time.
These images would be passed through a prism which was filtered to capture red, green or blue light and split the beam into Yellow-Cyan-Magenta (YCM).
This is why it is known as three-strip Technicolor.

When the three strips were brought together, the colours were true and vibrant than all previous colour film processes.
The results were perfect for big-budget movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind.

“Only four Technicolor cameras were ever brought into the UK, so it is quite a rare thing to handle”, explains Ray.

“Each reel is condition checked by one of our experts before going on any machinery.

“That way we can spot minor perforation damage, tears, weak joins and shrinkage.

“Then each reel is ultra-sonically cleaned to remove any dirt and dust before being scanned on an ARRI in 6K resolution with 16-bit colour depth.

"In this case we engaged the pin that goes through the perforation holding the frame steady as the camera takes a high-resolution photo of the celluloid to create a digital frame. Which we had to take great care and time to ensure that the Horizontal / Vertical position of the frames was as close as possible for each separation to give the restoration team a good starting point to align the YCM.”

Anthony Badger, head of restoration says

"When it comes to restoring the film there is literally three times the amount of data to prepare from the scanning for restoration.

 “The main issue to tackle was the registration between the YCM scans, when originally made the 3 film elements were registered using their perforations. As the film elements are now 65 years old, they have all shrunk independently from each other and no longer line up correctly, plus aged related damage. So the software could align the YCM to a certain extent, but on 90% of the shots we had to manually distort the Red and Blue channels to bring the registration back in, using the green channel as the source. Failure to do this properly leads to colour fringing or rainbow patterns on the details of objects/edges of people etc.

“Then there was also the usual problems of dirt and sparkle, stability and deflicker. Plus, various types of other damage and 1000s of blue marks in some sections to contend with too.

“We also had a 4-minute section that was tramlined (multiple scratches across the film cell) on the yellow separation of one reel.

“The digital results from fixing this were not deemed good enough so we scanned this section from a later combined element.

“In order to use as much of the original negative as possible we took just the yellow channel from the combined element and added it to the cyan and magenta from the original negative. Steve did a great job of getting the two sources to blend together.

 “We were very fortunate to have access to the original YCM negative and the budget from Studio Canal to utilise it; as it’s so much more time consuming than using a combined element.

“In any restoration once you move away from the original there is always of drop of resolution and you want to capture as much as possible for these 4K UHD releases. Using just the combined elements would not have produced the great results on display here.”

“This was certainly one of the most important and influential films to come out of Ealing,” says Anthony Badger, head of restoration.

“You just have to look at the cast and you get some idea of the quality of the production.”

Steve Bearman, senior colourist said:

“As the name suggests, what made Technicolor so special was the quality of the colour, this made it far more vivid than anything that had gone before.”

Steve, whose previous work has included Withnail& I, When Harry Met Sally, and 12 Monkeys said that working with Technicolor brought its own challenges.
He explained: “All film deteriorates. It only takes one fingerprint on the negative, too much of a chemical or temperature and humidity imbalance for the film to degrade over time.

“This can cause a lot of fluctuation in the colour and density of the negative over time. If you have one strip of film, that’s a relatively easy thing to fix.

“Here though we had three negatives and so when combined there were three times the amount of fluctuation. Sometimes the change can be over a few frames which can be very easy to spot. But there were other occasions when the colour meandered across five or 10 seconds, so you only really saw it by jumping between the first and last frames of the shot.”

Balancing the colour and density across the shots was achieved by key framing each fluctuation, which allowed Steve to make changes to the colour and density within a shot to cancel out the fluctuations, so that the shot flowed seamlessly.|

“We had a lot of scenes where the skin tone would change quite dramatically from red to green. Some of the worst were where Professor Marcus is talking to Mrs Wilberforce in the hallway after she uncovers their plot. It needed a lot of work to correct the colour chnages.

“In a normal film restoration, you might only have to spend a couple of hours key framing, on Ladykillers it took me four days”.
Matters weren’t helped by previous releases which had be transferred using second or third generation elements.
Steve added: “A lot of detail had been lost in these transfers so making sure we recreated the original look was difficult, like the pattern on the apartment’s wallpaper which was lacking colour and definition.

“The three-strip restoration shows off the detail and strong greens and reds that had been lost before now.

“Going back to the three strip means fans will immediately notice the improvements, the fact that the colours are more natural and vibrant and exposes all the detail in the film Negative.”

Because of its historical and social importance this was classed as a prestigious restoration and therefore it will go out as Ultra High Definition HDR, 4K.
Alec Guinness, plays Professor Marcus, the leader of an oddball bunch of criminals (Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers and Dany Green) planning a security van robbery at London King's Cross railway station.

They rent rooms nearby from an innocent old woman called Mrs Wilberforce (played perfectly by Katie Johnson) under the guise that they are rehearsing for a classical concert.

But, while the heist goes without a hitch, the gang’s secret is uncovered by their landlady as they are about to leave their hideout.
As the old woman weighs up what she should do, the criminals decide they must kill her. None, however, has the stomach for such a grisly act and instead turn on each other.

Mark Bonnici, head of sales at the North Acton-based Silver Salt said: “As a specialist restoration facility it’s always a privilege to work on such major titles.
“It’s a painstaking process but we are synonymous with high quality work and this is what modern audiences watching on high-definition screens expect, which is only too right.”

The film, which was directed by Alexander Mackendrick whose previous films for Ealing included Whisky Galore! And The Man in the White Suit, won two British Film Academy awards.

The Ladykillers was the last he made for the west London studios.

After it was completed, he headed to Hollywood to make Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Ironically it was filmed in black and white. The newly restored edition of The Ladykillers, is released November 9th by StudioCanal

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