I Love Lucy Goes HD
By Diana Weynand
Fifty years ago, I Love Lucy was introduced to television viewers across America. The show was revolutionary from the beginning. It set standards of practice, including the three-camera shooting technique, for many sitcoms to follow. Just as the show advanced the use of video during the ’50s, it is moving along the cutting edge of technology again today. The series, which was originally shot on 35mm film in front of a live audience, is being transferred to HD in preparation for a new Columbia House DVD release of the original I Love Lucy episodes.
Over the years, bits and pieces of the original show got cut here and there. Many changes were made to the original negatives. Columbia House wanted to bring together as many of the original elements as possible with all the animation and “original bits” intact. So these original bits had to be gathered from different sources, including 35mm, 16mm “bicycle” prints that were used as air backups, and the 1-inch videotape that was eventually used for archival purposes.
Getting everything back to its original form brought Gregg Oppenheimer, son of the late Jess Oppenheimer, I Love Lucy’s creator, producer, and head writer, into the process.
“My father held on to the original 16mm bicycle prints which were needed to recreate the original episodes,” says Oppenheimer, who began working in the industry in videotape before moving into law. “Sponsors, interstitials, timing, length of commercial, and music cues would all change. Those changes were made to the original negatives to fit a syndication schedule. For example, the first original episode ends with Ricky telling the girls (Lucy and Ethel) that he and Fred are taking them out for their anniversary. Underneath you hear the wedding march music. In syndication, they got rid of the music and ended with a laugh track, which didn’t make much sense. For the DVD, we are replacing the soundtrack from the original episode.”
Oppenheimer continues: “The first step of the process was taking original picture negatives and striking new fine grain positive prints at Film Technology. The fine grain was sent to DVCC at MCA and they did the transfer to Panasonic’s D5 HD format (1080i) from the negative. The HD copy was then sent to CBS Digital for video clean up and to Audio Mechanics for the sound clean up.” But the other elements, 16mm and 1-inch videotape, are transferred to HD as well.
Audio Mechanics owner, John Polito, talks about the sound cleaning process. “We make new 35mm sound track prints from the original 35mm syndication optical sound track negatives. These are then transferred to Sonic Solutions digital audio workstations where pops, clicks, crackle, rumble, hum, hiss, and distortion are reduced using various tools. The track is conformed to video and equalized for optimal clarity. Alternate sources are evaluated and used when needed to fill missing or poor quality sections.”
According to Betty Rothenberg, Project Coordinator of the video cleanup at CBS Digital, “Some of the original materials are pretty beat up with tears and scratches.”
Depending on the extent of the video damage, an episode may go through multiple stages of restoration utilizing three specialized software applications, MTI’s (Mathematical Technologies, Inc.) Digital Restoration Services, or DRS, which has been used to restore Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast among other classic films; Teranex’s StarFilm; and Discreet’s inferno.
Rothenberg outlines the digital process: “There were 180 pieces of tape on this project. To complete one show, it takes one or two people anywhere from a day or two to a couple of weeks to complete. Each episode goes through the StarFilm software to smooth the grain and take some of the dirt out. Then the episode is divided into sections, some going to MTI’s DSR and some to the inferno, depending on the particular problems we find. Sometimes a section has to go back and forth. It will go to the inferno to be cleaned up, and possibly have some matte painting done if there was a tear in the film. We don’t want to change anything, we just want to return the episodes to as close to the original quality as possible.”
As always, everything comes together in post, where CBS editors Marcus Weise and Bob Bernstein marry the cleaned audio elements to the cleaned video and recreate the original episodes on D5 HD. According to online editor Weise, “The quality is crystal clear and all the edges are just beautiful. It’s a fascinating window into television over the past 50 years.”
Bob Haxby, head librarian at CBS, who has been managing the flow of elements for the project says “I think of the D5 HD copy as the mother master. When it’s complete, we clone it. Then we do a downconversion to Digibeta, which becomes the 4×3 master for the DVD product. I Love Lucy is one of the most precious assets CBS owns. Now that we have this blueprint in place, we can restore other products.”