NFSA Restores ‘Black Robe’

Bruce Beresford’s epic Black Robe (1991), filmed by cinematographer Peter James ACS ASC, has been digitally restored by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

By Vanessa Abbott.

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A scene from the digitally restored ‘Black Robe’ – DOP Peter James ACS ASC

Black Robe stands as a highlight in the careers of the internationally acclaimed team of director Bruce Beresford, cinematographer Peter James ACS ASC and producer Sue Milliken. It was the first feature film to be produced under the Australia/Canada Co-Production Treaty, signed in 1990, and has a strong place in our global filmmaking history.

The film’s creative team of director Beresford, Milliken and James is of the highest calibre,” says National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) Senior Curator Gayle Lake. “The film is unique in many ways in its portrayal of different cultures – something Beresford has reflected on in many of his films – and its authentic historical representation including of the First Nations people of Canada. The film is in English and three Indigenous languages.

The Oscar-nominated cinematographer was first contacted by producer Milliken about five years ago in regard to the digital restoration of Black Robe, a film he shot in Quebec, Canada, thirty years prior. “The film was post-produced in Sydney thanks to the terms of the co-production,” explains James. “The master materials were then returned to Canada on completion of post-production with just a safety inter-negative and sound master being held in Australia.

Subsequently, the Canadian production company Alliance Entertainment sold its library, including the film Black Robe. It took Milliken years to track down the new Canadian owners of the film who proved to be Entertainment One (eOne). The NFSA began negotiations with eOne to make the restoration and requested access to the master materials. So in 2014, the search for the original negative began.

Every three months James would receive an update from Milliken and, eventually, the inter-positive was located at a storage facility in Toronto. The original negatives, however, were never found, and the reel four was missing.

This was a disaster and was jeopardising the project,” says James. NFSA team member, Heather Gill, was visiting North America and was flown to Toronto to assist in the search. Gill visited the storage vault and eventually discovered the missing reel. “Bravo Heather,” proclaimed James.

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A scene from the digitally restored ‘Black Robe’ – DOP Peter James ACS ASC

Once the film was located it had to be inspected by a laboratory to make sure it was okay to travel. The film had been sitting in a vault for twenty-five years. “The inter-positive, which was checked by our Conservation department and found to be in very good condition,” says Lake. The film was then flown on to the NFSA who scanned it on a Scanity, 4K,16bit, 35mm scanner.

The scan was then sent to Vandal, an NFSA restoration partner and service provider. Vandal digitally cleaned the scan frame by frame using Revival software, and then, alongside the NFSA and key creative team, restored the theatrical colour using Baselight grading software.

Martin Thorne is head of long form films at Vandal. Thorne checked the film for any defects and found a few small problems. “The scan was digitally cleaned with any flaws in the image repaired, so by the time I got to see it, it was looking pretty good,” says James.

One of the key aims of the ‘NFSA Restores’ program is to work with creatives on the restoration process to achieve as close an outcome to the original film as possible. “We were fortunate with this project to have the support and input of Beresford, Milliken and of course James,” says Lake. “James was very generous with his time and able to work alongside Daniel Pardy, colourist at Vandal, for several days in order to bring the film back to its original look.

In James’ first meeting with Pardy the cinematographer went through the film and explained ‘the look’ as well as any problem scenes that might need extra attention. “When a film is scanned it goes from a ‘film palette’ to a ‘digital palette’. These are two completely different colour systems,” explains James.

What may look good as a film print doesn’t necessarily look good when it is scanned,” says James. “Colours shift and contrast can be altered. We were coming off inter-positive which has a different film base to the original negative and that had to be taken into consideration. Even though the inter-positive was corrected by legendary colour-grader Arthur Cambridge, it was perfect for film reproduction. When it was scanned, we basically had to start again.

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A scene from the digitally restored ‘Black Robe’ – DOP Peter James ACS ASC

The water and snow scenes, while obviously being huge challenges during the shoot, also presented us with issues in the suite,” says Lake.

Inter-positive has a lot more detail than a film print and all this extra detail was faithfully scanned into the 4K digital master. This gave James almost as much detail as the original negative would have. Both James and Pardy were able to dig into the shadow detail and also make sure that the highlights held. They also had complete control over the colour, some of which had shifted quite dramatically in the transfer process.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the inter-positive had scanned,” says James. “I’ve only ever worked from the original negative. Doing such a major restoration using an inter-positive was a totally unknown factor for me. The inter-positive is a very flat film copy of the original negative. I was very worried about this, thinking that I would never ever be able to achieve the beautiful quality that I remember the film having when it screened in cinema.

After working on the first reel, James knew his worries were unfounded. “In fact,” he says, “I think the quality is now better than the original film print because we were able to extract so much information out of the inter-positive.

The subtitles were extracted and timed from the post-production script provided by Milliken. Fonts were matched to the original subtitles and built from scratch using Flame. Audio 5.1 remix and remastering was completed by Edge Digital, and the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year to great acclaim.

Producer Sue Millikin and cinematographer Peter James ACS ASC at the premier screening of NFSA Restores 'Black Robe' at the Melbourne International Film Festival - PHOTO Phoebe Powell
Producer Sue Millikin and cinematographer Peter James ACS ASC at the premier screening of NFSA Restores ‘Black Robe’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival – PHOTO Phoebe Powell

The outcome is always worth it,” says Lake. “A high-quality, digitally preserved film which will be available far into the future for generations of Australians – and Canadians in this instance – to see.

James goes on to say he thinks Black Robe is his best work. “It is so pleasing to see it now restored and looking better than ever. I want to thank Sue Milliken along with the team at NFSA; Gayle Lake, Sally Jackson, Heather Gill and Elena Guest to name a few, for their perseverance in making this restoration happen and inviting me to be a part of it,” says James.

There is no substitute for a cinematographer being involved in the grading of their work,” he concludes by saying. “The cinematographer is the only one who really knows what the film is meant to look like and they have the technical ability to make that happen. It is so good to see this film on the big screen as it was originally meant to look like.

NFSA has a portfolio of projects that they’re busily working on. In early 2020 they will be releasing the digital restoration of the silent classic The Sentimental Bloke (1919, cinematography by Arthur Embry Higgins ACS). “We’ve got a few surprises in store for that one,” says Lake, “so stay tuned!

Vanessa Abbott is a writer based in Melbourne.

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