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Surround Professional

An unedited version of an article published in the premier October 1998 Surround Professional.

If Ever A Wiz

This article discusses the restoration and 1998 rerelease of the wonderful motion picture, The Wizard Of Oz.

Technology has, of late, “come to the rescue” of stimulus starved couch potatoes everywhere. Unsightly monochrome films are given colorful new looks. Tired monaural CDs are remixed for surround. And, new and improved DTV will, in many instances, actually degrade the look of your favorite prime time shows. At least, until the networks work out all the details of the production process.

Well, not all is lost. There are folks who take their content seriously and have worked out all the kinks. Warner Brothers has been in the business for many a year and Ned Price has the weight of that legacy on his shoulders. As Vice President in charge of Mastering/Technical Operations, he has overseen the restoration of more than 350 films in the past 4 years. For the theatrical rerelease of the 1939 MGM version of The Wizard Of Oz, Price tapped the technical expertise of his Tech. Op.s staff and their comrades at Chace Productions. Having completed over a dozen restorations and subsequent conversion to 5.1 format, Chace Productions has a thing or two to contribute to this complex and often difficult process.

The first part of the process was working with Warner to locate the best existing copy. Since Chace had provided a restored mono version for Laserdisc release in 1993, more was known about the elements for this show than usual. Though several factors contributed to convincing Warner to rerelease The Wizard in surround, a key event was the discovery of an English language Technicolor print, in quite good condition, at the Library of Congress. The process started with gathering all of the coincident material; the mono optical release composite, a mono Music & Effects (M & E) track and two music “angles.” The angles were protection tracks, optically recorded to allow for later versatility in mixing. Though the original nitrate elements were lost, the angles had been transferred wild to 15 ips 1/4" for archiving sometime in the 60’s. These sources, along with the entire Library of Congress track, were used for the restoration.

A small army of specialists in transfer, restoration, editorial and remastering were called on to contribute to the show’s progress. When asked about the restoration process, Jim Young, Technical Supervisor at Chace, bristles a bit. "I’m a restoration engineer and…(our team) considers restoration to be a very solemn and religious act, where you have to be really true to your original…Our goal is to remove all of the anomalies of time and to not really alter the track. To make it appear as if it were brand new and special in it’s original form.” This involves employing (Sonic Studio’s) NoNOISE to painstakingly remove clicks, pops, hum and broadband noise from the 16 bit, 48 kHz audio. The result was laid back to 2" analog SR.

Once all the elements were clean, they started on remastering for 5.1, a totally different process. Again, Jim Young; “We want to stay true to the intent of the picture but let’s make it presentable for a modern format like 6 channel without detracting from the story telling…I don’t call it remixing at all because very talented and hard working individuals already mixed these films.”

"We sampled in the wild transfer of music and edited it to match the comp as close as we could. We never really strayed more then a quarter of a video frame out of sync. And, we basically used the Chace Stereo Processor and our source element and remastered in 5.1…there was no magic, it was just sitting down and deciding the kind of aesthetic decisions; where and when do we want to create subwoofer and to what effect. The whole point is not to have people walk away going, ‘Gee whiz, that was cool sound!’ but to walk away having been totally sucked into the movie. We just limit the stereo conversion to those things which make sense. We try and make the music have some ambient space and directionality where possible, and make it sound big and wonderful and lush.”

“Besides that, there were some great opportunities to add subwoofer in the cyclone scene. I’ve never been in a tornado but I’ve heard they sound like a herd of elephants and a Mack truck comin’ at ya…(along with) some subtle augmentation in different musical pieces. When the Witch is flying over the Emerald City, there are a couple of perspectives where stereo surround ‘witch whooshes’ actually make sense.” To me it seems like fodder for a whole new generation of children’s nightmares!

This film, unlike most MGM shows of the time, lacked separate orchestral angles for the musical numbers. So, those memorable songs are still in the original mono. Price says, ”The fun thing was that…sometimes it seems that somebody’s actually done things on purpose (in the past), that are going to help you out. There’s little things that you stumble upon. Some of the (vocal) choruses run (as) isolated units.” This isolation of the “heavenly” choral parts allowed for rear channel placement and a widened perspective when, for example, Dorothy returns to Kansas. The mono M & E also afforded some enhanced separation where appropriate.

Jim Young elaborates…“Understand that all of this is coming from the source, we did not add sweeteners. We did not go to a library and say, "Here’s a good witch whoosh, let’s put that in the back. It’s all manipulations of the original material in the places it was originally edited. Price adds that “…the front is the original track, untampered with, and the surrounds are the original mono orchestra angles which we used to augment the sides and rear speakers.”

Actually, there were three places where Young changed original editorial “…for the aesthetic greater good.” With the blessing and final approval of Ned Price, of course. The first was in the barnyard scene in reel one where there's a big hole in the chicken effects in between one of Dorothy’s lines. The chickens disappear for about 10 or 12 frames, though the noise floor and ambience are constant. So, Young cut in some chicken walla to smooth what seemed like a mistake.

The second departure from the accepted rendition was during a reel change when Toto is being taken from Dorothy. As she whimpers Toto’s name, there’s a stutter edit where an off camera Garland repeats the first few words of a line, “Oh, To, oh Toto.” The production team went back to the script and found no correspondence. So, the apparent mistake was excised, in the very real sense of the word!

The final change to the original comes in another reel hookup where the protagonists, hiding behind a rock, are watching the “Marching Winkies.” Here, the music meter jumps due to an unfortunately common occurrence. The original score was for an over 2 hour version and test screening convinced the studio to shorten the picture’s running time. So, out went a bunch of footage but without rescoring. Jim says, “I have this image of some suit going to the guy and saying, ‘We gotta loose 20 seconds right here…’ and he says, ‘But that edit will stink!‘ ‘I don't care, we’re loosing that 20 seconds!’ So, I recreated the music for the hookup so that the jump in meter comes underneath some dialog instead of in the clear.”

The final mix was reviewed at the Rick Chace Theatre, Chace's THX re-recording stage, and Warner’s Holman designed, Snell equipped mastering suite to see if a different nearfield version was required for VHS release. As it turned out, the track held up well in all playback environments, even in Ned’s home system.

“I want to stress very strongly that this track is not a replacement for the original by any means. It’s just an alternate version for theatrical release.” What started as a request from the theatrical department for a stereo version ended up being a perfect way for Warner “to restore and preserve the original track,” as Price looks at it. “I hope people like it. You feel very responsible when you’re dealing with stuff close to people’s heart…Finally it’s back to the way the director did it.” This marriage of L. Frank Baum’s inspiration as well as Warner’s and Chace’s perspiration will continue to enchant audiences for years to come.