Interview: Film Historian Robert A. Harris on Restoring My Fair Lady

In the five decades since its release, director George Cukor's seminal musical My Fair Lady has lost none of its enduring allure and appeal. The 1964 film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, is due to be re-released to select theaters starting this weekend to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and has been given a painstaking, multi-year restoration process to ensure that it looks and sounds better than it ever has.

On the occasion of this reissue, I had a chance to speak with renowned film historian and preservationist Robert A. Harris, who supervised My Fair Lady's restoration, as well as those of Lawrence of Arabia, the Godfather trilogy, and many others. Our conversation covered not only what the process was like on My Fair Lady, but also his views on what the digital future means for classic films, and much more. Read on for some highlights:

Can you give some background on how you got involved with restoring My Fair Lady?

1994 or 2014? I've done it twice.

I guess we can start with '94 and work our way back up to this recent one.

Okay, 1994, CBS owns the film and they had a relationship with CBS/FOX for laserdisc distribution. They supplied a master for laserdisc in 1993 and it won unanimously "Worst Laserdisc of the Year, 1993". That's something you don't put on your desk and gloat over. It was a faded CRI or low con 35 element that they put out in the wrong aspect ratio with horrible color and distorted, going from scope to spherical. They realized they had a problem. They brought me into it.

When we started, and I guess this was kind of a harbinger of things to come, my partner, Jim Katz was in the vaults. The film was stored in nitrate blowout vaults above the Monogram nitrate library, with the camera negative, the masters, and all the tracks in the same vault, so if there was a problem with the nitrate explosion you lose My Fair Lady. You don't just lose a print, you lose the film. So we loaded the 65 mm masters into a gardener's truck, put a tarp over them, and drove them to the Academy where they went to the vault.

And we're looking at like 3,000 pounds of film. And basically we broke every rule of the archival "How to Restore Film for Dummies." You move camera negative in an air conditioned truck. You move separations in an air conditioned truck, not a gardener's truck with a tarp pulled over the flatbed. But it turned out the separation masters had been made defectively in 1964. They had what are called optical holes in them.

The camera negative was torn. It had sprocket holes missing. It had been run over 150 times and all we had was the fledgling digital industry where at $50 a frame we had the ability to sort of fix things at low resolution. We knew going in that we could preserve what was there but we couldn't really make it a whole lot better. So we knew going in that we were climbing the veritable greased flagpole. But we saved everything for a time when we knew that we would be enabled to do it properly. That time came last year.

And how did that end up falling into place?

There was a kind of abortive Blu-ray that was released that a lot of people didn't like and Ken Ross, (Executive VP and General Manager, CBS Home Entertainment), knew that it's the jewel in their crown and knew that it had to be saved properly and basically handed me the keys to the car and said go do it.

How has that intervening 20 years aiding you in the work of bringing these movies back to their intended form?

Well, it's not really 20 years, because we only got there in 2007 when I did the Godfather films for Paramount at Warner Bros. I was doing those at Burbank. They were the first 4K full film resolution restoration done in Hollywood and Grover Crisp (EVP Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering), was doing Dr. Strangelove in New York in 4K. And people would joke that I would get to Warners in the morning, we'd walk into the color room, fire everything up, and the lights all over Burbank would dim because the throughput...impossible.

In terms of the restoration that's involved, do you have the ability when possible to consult with the filmmaker and tweak it according to their wishes?

If they're alive I'm working with them. I worked very close with David Lean, who directed Lawrence, and Freddie Young who shot Lawrence, and Anne V. Coates who edited Lawrence. I worked with the actors because we had to do a lot of voice recording. On Spartacus I worked with Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas.

On My Fair Lady virtually everyone was gone but fortunately we had Gene Allen, who's still with us. He's in his '90s. He was the production designer, so he was able to translate. You know, if you look at an original set piece it's this color, but this is how it photographed, and this is the way that it reproduced. So we need that guidance. We need that knowledge. We need the filmmakers desperately.

In the process of doing this, are you ever concerned about things like digital rot? Do we know how long...

We do. We do. I don't concern myself with digital rot. I believe that data files need to be constantly cloned every three to five years and my personal concept of digital is that it is good for eternity or seven years, whichever is shorter. Which is why CBS elected to spend a lot of money to allow me to record our 4K data files on My Fair Lady back to 65mm negative. So there is not an acetate but a polyester. Polyester doesn't degrade. This negative will be good for a thousand years.

You've been doing this for awhile, and you're pretty much synonymous with the notion of preserving and restoring films. What are some of your holy grails that you'd love to work on?

There are a handful. I would love to do 2001, but that's at Warner Bros. and they don't really need anyone to come in and do it. But there's a list and some you can only do to a certain point. You know, we just finished Spartacus at Universal, which came out Tuesday and they went to the mattresses. They did everything that was necessary to make that perfect. And my hat is off to them. I guided them, but they were great.

And there are...The economy is in a horrible state and with film moving away from film, and not only to data but to data that people are watching on iPads and through streaming, there's less of a necessity for the quality that we always had. So where you can take 300 hours to colortime an original negative and that could cost you, I don't know, half a million dollars, you can take an IP and put 20 hours into it and it will cost you $20,000.

And for an iPad or for a home video, it's fine. It doesn't give you an asset, but the studios unfortunately... and it's not that they want to, it's the economy or the economies, and they're all economies of measure, they can't afford to go back to 4K and camera negatives on everything.

I think all of us film buffs, when we hear about these restorations we kind of breathe a sigh of relief because we know here's one more that's been saved.

And these are saved forever. No one will ever have to open the original cans of My Fair Lady again. The audio in My Fair Lady, it's the first time on theatrical performances and Blu-ray that people are going to hear the original tracks in 50 years. We were able to capture all of the audio on those original tracks and they won the Academy Award for audio in 1964. They've been cleaned. They have been processed at 96K which is full resolution. CBS wanted it to be seen and heard in the best possible light.


Many thanks to Mr. Harris for his time. Look for My Fair Lady in select theaters starting this weekend, and look for the Blu-ray on October 27.

For some more movie talk, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: