Taking one of Hollywood's most beloved Golden Age classics like "The Wizard of Oz" and converting it to both 3D and IMAX is a heady undertaking, and one that even "Oz" experts weren't sure would work. However, on September 20, the restored "Oz" will open at IMAX theaters around the world, including the newly renamed and restored TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd, where it debuted on August 15, 1939. The release is timed to the film's 75th anniversary.
At a presentation September 9 at the Chinese Theater, officials from IMAX and Warner Bros., who now own the MGM musical, spoke about the painstaking, 16-month process by which a movie made with 1939 technology was updated for today.
"I was frightened we were taking a national treasure and I wondered, can you do it poetic justice?" said George Feltenstein, who oversees programming, presentation and marketing for the Warner Archive Collection. "I went from being skeptical to being a praiser." Feltenstein now regards the converted "Oz" as a "brand new way to see a classic."
Ned Price, an "Oz" expert and Chief Preservation Officer of Warner Bros. Technical Operations, has overseen the film's many previous restorations. He pointed out that the film hasn't been restored in the past, as much as remastered for new media, including video and DVD. For this conversion, the studio went back to the original Technicolor prints and found additional audiotapes that had never been used, giving the updated "Oz" a richer image and sound than its original print.
The fact that the film was shot in the early days of Technicolor -- meaning that it had to use very slow film, which utilized an enormous amount of light -- assisted in the conversion.
"What we thought were challenges end up being benefits," Price said."It was really designed for the big screen. Most people have only ever seen it on TV." The conversion process also brought out details in the film that even Price, who knows the film front to back, had never seen before. "You finally see that Dorothy has freckles, and you can see, especially in the close-ups of the Scarecrow, that his face is clearly burlap. You can even see a hair sticking out of the Wicked Witch of the West's mole."
As for the 3D conversion, each layer of film had to be measured and estimated, which helped bring some of the more classic "Oz" scenes to three-dimensional life. Now, a whole new generation of children will be terrified by the green-skinned Witch and her flying monkeys. Lorne Orleans, Senior Vice President of film production at IMAX, said that while cleaning up the original image was part of the process, they didn't want to sharpen the updated print so much as to make it synthetic-looking. "We're very respectful of the lineage and source material," she said.
So what does "Oz" expert Price think original filmmakers have to say about this newly restored version?
"I can't speak for them, but I was first very skeptical and as I started working with it, it became quite fun and quite successful. I think they would be pleased -- all five directors."