Click here to learn more about anamorphic widescreen!
Go to the Home Page
Go to The Rumor Mill
Go to Todd Doogan's weekly column
Go to the Reviews Page
Go to the Trivia Contest Page
Go to the Upcoming DVD Artwork Page
Go to the DVD FAQ & Article Archives
Go to our DVD Links Section
Go to the Home Theater Forum for great DVD discussion
Find out how to advertise on The Digital Bits

Site created 12/15/97.

The Digital Bits logo
page created: 7/1/02

Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

A Few General Thoughts and Notes Before We Attempt an Assault on This Week's Topic...

I was planning on doing an in-depth discussion of Disney's new Vault Series, but will put that off for the time being. I do want to note, however, that the new discs of Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson have been beautifully produced on both a basis of the feature film itself as well as superb added-value materials.

Disney was a studio that came late to the DVD game, got by with many older transfers and released bare-bones product. With this new series, on top of other product released over the past year, they have done an abrupt and totally positive turnabout. At least three of these titles (I'm not certain of the heritage of the Old Yeller transfer, which is problem free) have had a great deal of work put into them starting from the foundation up. The Parent Trap was of a vintage which should not have created any major troubles with the exception of any dupe sections. However, Pollyanna and Swiss fall into the most problematic period in color film history.

Those of you who have added Pollyanna to your collections may have come across a short offering produced for the DVD which features Disney's Senior Manager of Library Restoration, Scott MacQueen. This short is, bar none, the finest explanation of Eastman color fading that I have seen with a general audience as its target.

After viewing The Vault Series, I decided to change the order of subjects for my column here at The Bits. Since there seem to be constant queries regarding aspect ratios on HTF, I was going to attempt to tackle that one, but based on what I've seen on Pollyanna, I will move Eastman color, color fading and color restoration up to this week, and push off aspect ratios until my next piece.

For those of you who have minimal concept of what aspect ratios are, and how they are affected by theatre construction, technology and the real theatre environment, I'll suggest a simple experiment in preparation of next week:

Harris' Aspect Ratio Home Kit

First you'll need a slide projector. You'll find that to be the perfect tool. If a projector isn't in your home inventory, a flashlight and a small piece of cardboard should do nicely. One journalist last year dubbed me the "Martha Stewart of film restoration," and this isn't going to help dispel that one, however...

You'll also need a focusable light source, a piece of thin cardboard, a pair of scissors or Exacto brand cutting tool and some dark tape (used to fasten the cardboard to the light source). These parts should be set out in front of you, preferably on a hard surface or decorative mat. The mat makes the entire exercise more festive, and that's a good thing.

Whatever your light source happens to be, either use an empty slide holder or, for a flashlight, simply cut a square or slightly rectangular shape into the cardboard. If you want to get fancy, you can make the shape approximately 3x4 and you'll get an approximate aspect ratio or shape for either flat/spherical film or television.

Holding the light perpendicular to a wall, attempt to bring the beam into a reasonable focus. Once you have this perfect shape, angle your source down (with the back of the source pointing upward) about 15 or 30 degrees, and note the way that the shape changes to a trapezoid.

If you really want to prepare for next week, you can attempt to cut an insert, which, while the source is at that 15 to 30 degree angle, will make the image appear to be a white rectangle. You should now have some idea of what motion picture projection in the real world is all about, how difficult it can be, and... you have absolutely no idea how much, or what shape of the motion picture image is actually being projected when you go to your favorite theatre.

Eastman Color, Dye Fade, Yellow Layer Failure... and Restoration.

Since everyone on The Bits and HTF now knows most everything about three strip Technicolor, we'll move on to the most successful technology to take its place.

The advent of Eastman Color was a major jump in technology for the film industry. But for a certain period, that jump may not have been fully forward.

Allowing the photography of a scene with less light, less heat, less film and faster turnaround, Eastman Color - on which a scene is photographed on a single strip of negative film containing all three of the previous record/layers on a single piece of film - became the new photographic tool in the early 1950s.

Eastman would give each major emulsion type (the emulsion is the light sensitive layer(s) attached to the base of the film) a specific number and we'll use them here.

The first major Eastman emulsion was 5247, which became available in 1950. In 1952, it was upgraded for both speed and grain structure to 5248. Through various incarnations, 5248 was in use until 1960 or 61.

And these are the years we'll discuss. After the 1960-61 period, a change was made to 5250, and then quickly around 1962 to 5251. From then on, the problems we face with Eastman Color from an archival standpoint decreased rapidly.

But from that early period through 1960, we have a real mess on our hands. And it seems to play out like this: if a studio has part or all of the original negative of a film made until about 1954, they may have a viable negative, which although showing fade, will still be able to create a reasonably commercially acceptable print or dupe. For whatever reason, these earliest examples have held up better than what came after them.

In late 1954 or early 1955, there were seemingly insignificant changes made to either the emulsions or processing. But whatever these changes were, they made the resultant exposed and processed film much more prone to fade.

And things continued to get worse.

1956-58 seemed almost to be an intermediate period. Films shot during these years can have major fade problems in thinner scenes (night scenes, for example) in which there is literally less emulsion on the film after processing. Vertigo was one of these films. While dark scenes were no longer printable from the original negative, many fully exposed scenes could be reasonably well color corrected.

And then we have the worst years for color. I can't explain why this is occurring. Possibly we'll get some input from Eastman Kodak, but just for the record, it should be known that Kodak is totally supportive to the restoration arena; they're open with information and always helpful in attempting to explain, in an objective way, the breakdown of their products. Products that were never meant to last forever.

1959 and 1960

If you have a favorite film from this period, and separation masters were not produced at the time of production, or if those sep masters were not made to specifications...

...your film may well be gone.

North by Northwest is a film in this category. Spartacus and The Alamo are others. Can-Can, Porgy and Bess, Exodus, The Nun's Story and hundreds of others should be either in trouble or unprintable.

Pollyanna is another.

What's to be done?

The first layer of defense has always been separation masters; going back to the nitrate three-strip Technicolor days when masters were made from the three original negatives. Sep masters are produced by exposing the original Eastman negative three times, each exposure to a separate 35mm roll of stock specific to the purpose. Each of the three exposures is produced via filters, which separates out the spectrum of light and color recorded on the original into three extremely fine grain, low contrast black and white (silver) prints; one containing only the cyan information, one magenta and another yellow.

If these masters are produced correctly, and are recombined correctly, the resultant dupe negative should be a commercially acceptable film element.


...quality control is not something that comes readily to mind when one thinks of these early sep masters. Usually, they were never tested. They were shipped to vaults and placed in dead storage. Many of these vaults had no HVAC. Temperature and humidity was sometimes off the scale. Archivists will sometimes humorously discuss these "vaults" as having full temperature and humidity control. Whatever the temperature and humidity happened to be outside the vault was very similar, if not worse, inside.

Therefore, if the sep masters survived the 30-50 years of storage and they happened to be made well, they should provide a superb element.


...if the seps became too hot they could shrink.

If they shrank, and were re-combined, they would yield an image with differential shrinkage, which means that each record, having shrunk slightly differently, would now no longer fit together without fringing. The effect is one of a mis-registered color newspaper photograph. A black and white striped tie might have a black stripe with a semi-attractive magenta stripe above and an equally attractive cyan stripe below.

If the shrinkage wasn't too great, this might not be visible on the resultant dupe, and the element might just pass muster.


...if the negative was overused before the seps were produced, or if they were produced before the advent of wet gate printing in the mid 1950s, they might contain printed-in yellow, cyan and magenta dirt, visible scratches or damage. Sometimes this didn't occur and the element might just work.


...if the film had dupes cut into the original before the production of the seps, for either effects shots or fades and dissolves, the resultant dupe from these seps wouldn't be overly pretty during those sections. Sometimes this can be corrected.


...remember long ago when I mentioned Pollyanna? Well, Pollyanna had a "however" of a different kind.

Some forty years ago when the sep masters for Pollyanna were produced, three records were made from each negative roll and the newly minted assets safely vaulted away.

Quick cut to 2000 or so and Disney Home Video, coming to terms with new DVD market, decides to make the investment necessary to create top quality software for the new audience and the orders go out to inspect the original negatives, and do whatever is necessary to not only properly preserve their assets, but concurrently to create a film element which will serve as a source for the new video master.

Remember what I mentioned about 1959 to 1960? How many of you are paying attention? Guess what year Pollyanna was photographed? Everyone run for your copy of Leonard Maltin at the same time. Leonard would tell you that Pollyanna is a worst-case scenario.


If you'd like to see what the original negative looks like today, printed as best possible, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy and view Mr. MacQueen's restoration piece. This is something that I've wanted to do for years, but Jim and I are constantly told that it's too boring and no one cares. I'm glad that someone finally did it and my hat is off to the folks at Disney.

What you'll see on the disc are scenes with no blacks, blue shadows, skies, that if an attempt at correction is made, turn green, and lovely crustacean facial highlights.

And one would hope that all that Mr. MacQueen would have to do was to put together the three records and voila! - a new dupe negative.

Nope. When a print off the resultant negative for a certain reel was screened, things weren't quite what were expected - or even worse.

You really need to get your hands on this disc now.

Seems that when the separation masters were produced those forty years ago, someone, well... some forgot to change a filter in the printer. For in the cans that Mr. MacQueen opened were three sep masters. The problem was that what was supposed to be a yellow record, a magenta record and a cyan record... turned out to be a yellow record, a cyan record and another cyan record.

What's an archivist to do?

Fortunately for Disney, Mr. MacQueen and his staff met the challenge, and with YCM Labs, came up with the answer. You see - when a negative fades, all three records do not usually fade evenly. Normally the first layer to go, and go the fastest, is the blue information, carried in the yellow layer. While the cyan information and the magenta will have some fade, they normally are nowhere nearly as bad as the yellow.

So the original negative of Pollyanna was pulled back into service once again. YCM Labs was able to create an entirely new magenta record from information still extant in the forty-year old original. Now, this new separation element could be combined with the two extant seps, and a proper new dupe could be produced.

But what other technology is available if an original is faded and there are no sep masters?

Dependent upon how badly faded the original element is and the purpose of the new restoration element, there are a number of potential candidates in the archival toolbox.

I'll mention a few briefly, but one should keep in mind that any and all of these "tools" are not necessarily meant to be used for an entire film; they may be used for a shot; a scene; an effect. Whatever is needed and works best for each individual problem and situation.

The latest "tool" added to our palette comes from experiments carried out for the last six to eight years by Peter Kuran and more recently jointly by Kuran and Sean Coughlin of Cinetech of Valencia, Ca.

Working with a newly color corrected (as much as possible) interpositive and a specially exposed black and white stock, the missing layer is literally re-built photo-chemically and photo-optically. Both new prints and pre-print can be produced via this method, which last year was honored with a technical Academy Award.

Digital technology: Like the process above, digital is not nirvana. It isn't perfect. It isn't for every purpose. And it is very expensive.

With digital, one can fix scratches, tears, re-establish, re-define and re-work faded or damaged color, or take original separation masters, which have shrunken or need a re-defined grain structure and recombine them.

Once all of the digital work is completed, one might consider recording out new digital separation masters, which can then be tested by re-combining them.

Photo-optical/photo-chemical: Via experimentation one can fix some fading and contrast problems, raising contrast or gamma. One can borrow a single color record from a negative or a sep master, or virtually any other element for that matter and attempt to re-combine it in ways never before considered.

As an example, Pacific Title/Mirage did work for us on Rear Window - a problematic film with very early dry gate sep masters, over 1000 feet of missing original, and a single reel which had been mistreated by a lab, which somehow stripped away a good portion of the yellow layer.

First, a new wet gate interpositive of the reel was created by YCM Labs. Pac Title then took that interpositive and made two successive exposures to a new dupe negative with specific filters to bring out as much of the original color as possible from the slightly faded original. The initial exposures made in this way were of the cyan and magenta information. The dupe negative with a latent image of the first two clean exposures was then placed on a motion control camera and a third exposure was made; this time in registration from the extant 50-year old yellow sep master.

After 1961, although many negatives still show signs of color fading, nothing comes close to the problems before that date. The only other major problem that might be brought to your attention is that of CRI.

CRI, or color reversal internegative, was a process designed by Kodak in the late 1960s with a very specific purpose in mind. It was used for television commercials, trailers and other dupes which might look better by working around the interpositive/internegative stock of the period, which was still dupey looking. Good color duping stocks didn't really become available until the late 1970s and early 80s.

CRI enabled the producer or lab to literally skip a step and go directly from a negative to a dupe. It yielded a finer grained, less contrasty image. It worked fine.


...since it worked so well for commercials, optical houses began to push its use for effects work in feature films. And it became, especially in the mid to late 1970s, the duping material of choice.

The problem was that after it was cut into the original negatives of films like Star Wars, Close Encounters and Superman

...and then faded.

It was found that the stock had an archival life of not more than 5 to 7 years.

There are many other concepts, processes and decisions that go into coming up with a "pretty" film element from optics and film stability to processing, choice of emulsions and just plain old focus. I'm certain that I've offered enough to make many a head spin.

And you should now all be ready for a good nap.

Some final thoughts about current DVD releases:

Having missed Vanilla Sky in theatres, and being a major fan of the work of cinematographer John Toll, I had the opportunity to finally view it. It's a strange film, much weightier than I had been led to believe and definitely worth a try. I now have to view Open Your Eyes. The more you view DVDs, the more you'll become acquainted with the work of our modern masters. Take a look at John Toll's work in Vanilla Sky and you'll begin to understand that the cinematographer's art is more than pointing the camera where the action is.

To acquaint yourself with his work and see what a major talent can do with a camera, also screen films like Almost Famous, The Thin Red Line, The Rainmaker, Braveheart and Legends of the Fall - all worth owning on DVD.

Another of the DPs (director of photography) whose work becomes an integral part of the story, combining images with the director's control of his or her actors is Allen Daviau, also very well represented on DVD. But we'll hold that discussion until the release of E.T.

I watched a bit of Victor/Victoria and can report an excellent transfer.

I found it interesting that Paramount issued three westerns concurrently, each photographed by a different superb cinematographer.

Jack Nicholson's Goin' South, shot by the late Nestor Almendros, who was also responsible for the brilliant Days of Heaven, Will Penny, starring Charlton Heston and shot by Lucien Ballard, (whose career went back to the 1930s with many classic films. You'll find more of his work in films like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch and strangely, in The Parent Trap) and Bad Company shot by Gordon Willis. Of the three, Bad Company has probably aged a bit more than the others. Goin' South is a wonderfully sly hors d'oeuvre served up by Nicholson. Will Penny, with its difficult white landscapes, is brilliant. If I could own only one of the three, I'd probably go for Will Penny.

Universal's beautiful new edition of Legend should be part of anyone's collection.

Last mention this week is a title coming from Warner in the near future - a beautiful new transfer of George Cukor's classic The Women with the Technicolor sequence finally properly intact. Original scoring sessions are included, leading me to believe that the hand of George Feltenstein may be in there somewhere - good news. He was responsible for some of the finest musical laserdiscs to come out of the old MGM label.

One final point: I'd love to see Disney add the release date of a film to their packaging. This is something that never appeared on laser discs either. You also won't find copyright notices with dates. Whether this is a function of their legal department or some other corporate decision making entity, I would suggest that the public has a desire to know when a film was produced - even if simply a date somewhere near the running time.

That's all for this session. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next time, where we'll put your home kits to work.

Robert Harris


Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

E-mail the Bits!

Don't #!@$ with the Monkey! Site designed for 800 x 600 resolution, using 16M colors and .gif 89a animation.
© 1997-2015 The Digital Bits, Inc., All Rights Reserved.