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5 classic films we want to see in ULTRA HD

By John Steward | 127 days ago

It’s easier than you might think to get a jaw-dropping 4K picture from a classic piece of film. Here are five movies we’d love to see get the restoration treatment…
Hold on… old films can be in ULTRA HD?
You wouldn’t think you could get a decades-old film to look better than a modern Blu-ray blockbuster, would you? Well you can. Why? Because films are meant to be shown on massive screens – some up to 30ft high. And that means the film stock has to be able to contain far more detail than your average 1080p Blu-ray disc.
Full HD 1080p footage has 1920 horizontal pixels, and 4K Ultra HD has 3840. In theory, although analogue celluloid doesn’t have a resolution, when scanned with appropriately punchy kit a 35mm print could yield up to 6000 horizontal pixels.
But film gets scratched through use as it runs at high speed through projectors, and can degrade if it isn’t stored properly. Older movies, obviously, are far more prone to that than new prints. Theoretically, if you were to see a pristine print of a movie, the first time it had ever been shown, through a perfectly set-up projector you’d be looking at the kind of picture even today’s top tellies can’t match.
So how do you get that kind of quality on to a disc?
Or a hard drive, in the case of ULTRA HD? You turn to a specialist digital restoration company – like Lowry Digital, who restored the Bond films for Blu-ray – and deploy some really hefty computer hardware.
Essentially, the whole film gets Photoshopped, frame by frame. The restorers remove dust and scratches, erase grain (if that’s the desired effect) and can even delete flaws such as visible crew members and equipment. It requires a decent print of the film to start with, of course, but even with ropier versions results can be astonishing.
And if they can do it for Blu-ray discs, they can do it in ULTRA HD. It’s the same tech. So, then, here are five celluloid classics we’d like to see get the 4K restoration treatment…
Metropolis (1927)
It’s a telling that, although Fritz Lang’s masterpiece is 86 years old, it’s still just as fascinating to watch now as it must’ve been on its release. It has undergone several restorations in the past 30 years, and versions have been released containing scenes long believed lost.
There’s a Blu-ray version, released in 2010, which had a frame-by-frame digital clean-up – and looks pretty amazing. But the prospect of seeing all those tiny cars and people making their way through the massive, hulking dystopian city in ULTRA HD has us salivating. Sure, it’ll never be as visually stunning as, say Avatar, but for the great-granddaddy of sci-fi cinema we’ll overlook a bit of blurriness.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
If Metropolis is the great-grandfather of sci-fi on celluloid, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is the daddy. The film has been applauded for its scientific accuracy – it doesn’t use sound in space, for instance – and its special effects were groundbreaking at the time.
Watch it on TV and it’s impressive. Watch a DVD and it’s better. But the 2007 Blu-ray is getting towards eye-popping territory. The colours and the space scenes are the star here. Bright primaries, silky-smooth motion and the kind of detail to models that make you swear they’re real ships. And if it looks that good in 1080p Full HD, we can only imagine what a full-on 4K restoration would look like.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
OK, this is the last sci-fi film on this list. We promise. Ed Wood’s bizarre alien/zombie crossover flick has been called The Worst Film Ever Made – but we’re not so sure about that. It was, at least, made with the best intentions; the cast and crew never let incompetence get in the way of their art. And that makes it a damn sight better than the wink-wink, nudge-nudge B-movie-esque Sharknado-type rubbish being released at the moment.
The sets shake. The camera work is, at best, shoddy. The acting is laughable. The effects… well, let’s just leave out the word “special”. And we want to see it all in ULTRA HD because it’s just so warm-hearted. Every wobbling door-frame. Every uncomfortable glance at the camera. The Worst Film Ever Made deserves a bit of love.

Citizen Kane (1941)
From the opening slow-pan across the decaying fortifications of Kane’s Xanadu palace to the extreme close-up of the film’s first line, “Rosebud”; from the cameras passing through solid buildings and sets, to the frantic newsroom scenes, every shot in this film counts. Every single one.
There’s already been a 4K restoration, which was used to produce the 2011 Blu-ray. It’s been done, even though it wasn’t even from the original negative (which has sadly been lost). The Blu-ray looks fantastic, with oh-so-subtle tonal variations between black and white, and some truly stunning camera-work from cinematographer Gregg Toland. It’s a dark movie in every sense of the word (some scenes are intentionally almost black), but we’re betting that the 4K version pulls detail out of even the inkiest shots.
Let’s not draw attention to the catastrophic plot-hole the film’s first line opens, though, eh?

Ben Hur (1959)
How can you not want to see an ULTRA HD version of a movie that uses 50,000 extras and won 11 Oscars? As with Citizen Kane, we know it’s possible – 2011 saw a Blu-ray transfer from a full-fat 8K scan of the 65mm film stock. It looked every bit as jaw-dropping as you might expect, too, with the famous chariot race and sea battle really popping out of the screen.
The restoration included digitally removing a foggy synthetic coating from the negative to reveal the pristine image beneath, and it’s a stunning job. Imagine Photoshopping some 302,000 frames of footage and you’ll get some idea of the task that faced the restorers.
So the 8K version exists. That won’t be coming to our living rooms any time soon, but surely a half-resolution version could be next…?

John Steward is assistant production editor for What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine
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