A perspective few understood regarding the colorization of black and white classic feature films. The critics of colorization never realized they were contributing to the deterioration and inevitable loss of much of our black and white American film heritage. Barry Sandrew, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist/digital colorization pioneer/animation innovator/3D conversion trailblazer/producer/entrepreneur/philanthropist/public speaker Dr. Barry Sandrew knows when to speak and when to let color - particularly the on-screen variety - speak for itself. In that same spirit, the LA Animation Examiner proudly presents the vibrant Barry Sandrew, in his own words. The following is the first of a two-part, exclusive interview.
The LA Animation Examiner: Could you describe your segue from biological science to the art and science of motion picture production?
Dr. Barry Sandrew: I earned my doctorate in neuroscience from State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1977 and immediately won a three-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons. After completing that fellowship, I joined Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) as staff neuroscientist. Among my many interests at MGH was medical imaging: an industry that was in its formative years during the early 1980s. In 1986, several entrepreneurs who had learned of my work in 3D brain imaging approached me with an interesting problem. They asked me to invent a process for colorizing black and while feature films.
The businessmen recognized that, if they were able to colorize movies that had fallen into public domain, then they would own brand new, 75-year copyrights on the colorized versions of those films as derivative creative works. Today, that new copyright is good for 95 years. I would not have taken the gentlemen seriously had they not secured some very impressive people on their board of directors, including two-time Oscar winning composer, Al Kasha; Emmy winner Peter Engel, one of Hollywood's biggest and most successful TV producers (creator of Saved By The Bell); and studio executive Bernie Weitzman, best known as one of the key execs at Desilu Studios in its heyday under Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. So, I had confidence that these people were legitimate players in Hollywood.
Three years prior to my meeting the aforementioned industry group, an analog colorization method emerged and created significant controversy, largely due to the poor results of the process. The business men understood that, if a superior quality digital procedure could be developed, they could own the colorization field. At the time we crossed paths, I was unaware of movie colorization as an enterprise. However, the technical issue that they presented to me was intriguing, and frankly, the solution - while not obvious - came to me almost immediately . . . like the proverbial light bulb. It took me one night to write an extensive white paper describing a unique system for digitally colorizing black and white movies, along with a detailed account of the corresponding pipeline.
Having gone through several failed research and development (R & D) attempts and a great deal of investor money, the entrepreneurs were desperate to find a solution, and after reviewing my white paper, they felt that they finally had found their guy. They asked me to conceive the system, plus start a new company that would have the capacity to colorize all public domain films in Hollywood. While entrepreneurship was attractive to me, I explained that I had a significant career in neuroscience, and that it is almost impossible to leave a lab, the grant application process, and the peer-reviewed publishing world, and then expect to return without consequence. They responded to me with a financial and equity offer that I could not refuse. After careful consideration with my wife Lori, I decided that I could not ignore the opportunity. I saw the risk as minimal, so I took a leave of absence from my staff position, left my family back in Boston, and opened a colorization R&D lab, American Film Technologies (AFT) in San Diego. I chose San Diego because the new mode was very labor intensive. I recognized that a colorization production facility must be close to a low cost labor market. Therefore, locating 30 miles north of Tijuana, Mexico was a key factor.
Once in San Diego, it took five months to build a colorization workstation capable of digitally capturing an entire feature film of sequential black and white movie frames from the existing broadcast recording standard of the time, one-inch tape. That had never been done. Since there were no acceptable PC server and network solutions, I captured the black and white frames onto Bernoulli Disks . . . thousands of disks, each bar coded with SMPTE time code of the 48 frame sequence that could be stored on one of them.
Sid Luft, Judy Garland's ex-husband and manager, became a fan of the gestating procedure. He provided a great deal of black and white footage from Judy's concerts and TV shows to colorize as demos. In April, 1987, after colorizing several minutes of his footage, I held a press conference at Universal City (in Los Angeles) to display the work. Once the reporters saw Judy’s natural skin/makeup color and Frank Sinatra’s blue eyes on the TV screen, they were sold. That summer, we won our first movie project, Bells of Saint Mary's, from Republic Pictures. Within a month, I had forty of my proprietary workstations built, hired and trained a bunch of people, and we completed the colorization of that Bing Crosby classic in six months for a Thanksgiving release. The colorized version of Bells of St Mary’s became the highest rated holiday film of that season, and Republic Pictures gave us several more films to revamp. Meanwhile, Ted Turner’s people expressed interest in improving the quality of the films that he was colorizing. Ted wanted to move away from the inferior analog process that he originally supported. When he visited my San Diego studio in January of 1988, he was extremely impressed with both the approach to and the quality of our product. He subsequently awarded 36 films per year for five years to AFT.
The rest is history. AFT became the premiere colorization studio in the world. The company colorized the vast majority of Ted Turner’s MGM films, as well as black and white titles for Disney, Warner Brothers, Republic Pictures, Fox, Sony, Universal, and Paramount. I also colorized content for broadcast and cable networks, including CBS, ABC, HBO and TF1. In 1989, I took AFT public and, in 1991, I expanded my colorization technology and pipeline by devising the first digital paperless animation system. It was implemented in several animated shorts, such as Gahan Wilson’s now iconic theatrical classic Diner, the ABC/McDonald’s TV special, The Magic Flute, and the TV series Attack of the Killer Tomatoes for Fox Children's Network. In 1992, I developed the first ink and paint and compositing method competitive with Disney’s revolutionary CAPS system. Ours was the practice of choice for several minutes of An American Tail: Fievel Goes West for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Later, it was used to apply all color, compositing, and visual effects for Spielberg’s first digital animated theatrical feature film We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story.
LAAE: Did your groundbreaking movie colorization process cause any controversy amongst film fans? If so, how did you manage the related public relations efforts?
DBS: There was always controversy. The congressional hearings with Woody Allen, James Stewart, and John Huston drew a great deal of attention. But the drama really heated up after I colorized Casablanca for Ted Turner. I think that was our sixth film with him, but in my opinion, it should have been about the 106th film. We needed more experience. Nevertheless, the resulting debate only popularized the process, attracted much more work from around the world, and it emboldened my biggest client, Ted Turner, to colorize his MGM library. Frankly, if consumers did not want colorized content, I would have been out of business. The fact is, AFT (and later, my visual effects and digital media company Legend Films) were very successful. People not only bought the colorized films, but they became collectors and fans of our particular colorization.
What the critics did not understand was that, when a film goes into public domain (PD), it belongs to everyone. That's a good thing, because after a studio has enjoyed a monopoly on selling the film at a premium price for close to a century, the film then falls into public domain where it is available to anyone for exploitation. This makes the movie attainable to the world at a cheaper price. The same is true in the pharmaceutical business in which a company patents and sells a certain drug without competition for as long as the patent survives. After the patent expires, anyone approved by the FDA can produce a generic version of the drug at a lower price. This is beneficial for the consumer. The bad aspect about movies is that, unlike the pharmaceutical business (which has the FDA as watchdog), virtually anyone can obtain a print of a public domain black and white film, regardless of the quality. They then can slap it on DVD's to be sold at major retailers. Because anyone can package and sell a PD film, there typically are several versions of any specific PD film in the marketplace: all unrestored and in poor condition. The retailers do not care about the caliber of the product. You see, with so many easily accessible, inferior versions, there is absolutely no monetary incentive for anyone to restore the black and white PD treasures, our American film heritage.
However, colorization actually subsidized the restoration of PD black and white films. The higher retail price (and ultimately, profit margin) allowed me to spend the necessary money to restore the black and whites too. Since we always included the fully restored black and whites along with the colorized films, consumers had a choice of iterations in one package. Without colorization to justify that premium sale, the black and white movies never would have been refurbished to an acceptable condition.
LAAE: Dr. Sandrew, you are the Superman of American movie preservation! Thanks for using your considerable, multi-faceted, potent array of powers for good. Undoubtedly, the readers look forward to Part II of your story . . . coming soon . . . in glorious color.