Feature

Head inside the Warner Bros. Archive and meet the guardians of 'Oz'

Do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz? For many, the 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel is intrinsically linked to childhood, often inseparable from one’s earliest memories. There are few films out there quite as immortal, belonging as much to a kind of shared dreaming as to reality itself. Now, as movie lovers celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the most enduring stories that cinema has ever known, Moviebill is taking a firsthand look at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s painstaking restoration of the film and peeking inside the process through which they’re ensuring movies like The Wizard of Oz stay around for generations and generations to come.

Although the film was originally produced by MGM and filmed on the Culver City studio lot that would one day become Sony Pictures, Ted Turner ended up purchasing the MGM catalogue in the 1980s, ultimately selling it to Warner Bros. Pictures the following decade. WB and their talented Motion Picture Imaging team have become the guardians of Oz ever since.

Famous for its transition from black and white to color, production on The Wizard of Oz was close to cutting edge in 1939. Walt Disney Pictures was the first studio to embrace a three-strip Technicolor process, debuting a full color “Silly Symphonies” cartoon, “Flowers and Trees” in 1932. The short went on to win an Academy Award the following year and the process then began to be used for shorts and sequences throughout Hollywood, leading to the first Technicolor feature in 1935 with director Rouben Mamoulian’s drama Becky Sharp. By the latter part of the decade, Technicolor was becoming much more prevalent with Oz director Victor Fleming having embraced the process for the similarly iconic MGM production Gone with Wind.

Tri-strip technicolor is how you get a horse of a different color!

While ordinary 35mm film was recorded on a single strip of celluloid, Technicolor made use of a special camera that could record on three strips simultaneously. A special prism within the camera could capture green on one strip, red on another and blue on the third. When combined, it’s true movie magic.

MPI colorist Janet Wilson is responsible for the dazzling 4K Ultra HD version that is now available to own and she is no stranger to the land of Oz. For the last 20 years, she has overseen every remaster and is confident that this latest version is far and away the best The Wizard of Oz has ever looked. Working from an 8K 16bit scan of the original negative, she goes through the movie shot by shot, tweaking the look of every frame. In front of her work station are two regular television monitors with, on either side, a pair of additional displays that are designed to offer incredibly precise color.

Naturally, one of the trickiest shots to get right is the moment when Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale steps out her front door and sees the full color of Oz for the first time. The scene employs an in-camera trick, filming in color even before the door opens but with the inside of the house muted and darkened to appear black and white. Here, Wilson employs a special digital mask that allows her to balance the inside and outside separately.

The Wizard of Oz is far from the only project MPI is involved with. A few doors down, another colorist is working on 1952’s “Upswept Hare”, one of twelve Looney Tunes shorts currently undergoing restoration. MPI makes use of a 10K film scanner and work is underway to record and store 8K versions of the full studio archive. To date, they’re storing 15 petabytes of data. A single petabyte is equal to one million gigabytes!

Also on site is WB’s physical archive, or at least part of it. Six rooms on the Burbank lot house about ten percent of the international archive, all stored with extreme protection protocols. Each of the six rooms maintains its own climate designed to keep them one hundred percent dry and at a 35 degree temperature. In theory, it shouldn’t even be possible to light a match within the archive but, in the unlikely event that a fire did somehow break out, the room are protected by Halon 1301 tanks. A chemical formula also known as Bromotrifluoromethane can be pumped in to protect everything in the archive without the risk of damage.

Because the archive is so vast and constantly expanding, films and television masters are not stored in alphabetical order, but rather arranged by barcode so that any title can be looked up and located with a moment’s notice. Housed with the films themselves are boxes dubbed “lunch pails” that store additional photographs, marketing materials and other important documents and artifacts from a century of productions.

“But it wasn’t a dream,” says Dorothy at the end of her story. “It was a place.”

Sometimes, though, places can be where dreams are kept safe. Where they can be protected and cherished and, when the time is right, shared with dreamers all the world over. It’s doing exactly that lets them live forever.

The Wizard of Oz is now available on 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital.

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Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.