One of cinema's most revered masterpieces is looking better than ever.
In celebration of the 80th anniversary of Casablanca, Warner Bros. has released the film on 4K UHD.
Since the introduction of 4K UHD Blu-Ray in 2016, studios have been giving their most celebrated titles renewed life by rescanning a film with enhanced 4K resolution, new High Dynamic Range (HDR) color grades, and even remastered audio. The 4K UHD format, which reveals previously unseen textures and captures richer color in costumes and set design, has quickly become the premium home-viewing experience for film lovers and collectors alike.
Still, it's important to note that when a restoration is completed in 4K, the goal is not to make it look like the film was shot with a modern digital camera; rather, the objective is to offer viewers the best possible representation of the film as it was intended upon its original release.
For Sheri Eisenberg, Senior Colorist at Warner Bros. Digital Imaging, her latest restoration is not only a personal favorite, but one that is widely considered to be one the greatest films ever made: Casablanca, which received eight Oscar nominations and won three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay). Though Michael Curtiz's romantic drama was released in 1942, Casablanca's career-defining performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and oft-quoted lines ("Here’s looking at you, kid.") remain as timeless as ever.
"Casablanca is my favorite film. I was terrified," Eisenberg tells A.frame. "It was immediately humbling."
Eisenberg is no stranger to the responsibility of restoring the "fine china," as she lovingly refers to it, having previously worked on Oscar-winning films such as Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968), Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), as well as modern classics like Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1995). But the condition of a film's original elements can vary, providing added challenges to the restoration process.
Unfortunately in the case of Casablanca, despite an extensive worldwide search, the original camera negative no longer exists. "In this particular case, we scanned a nitrate print. That was the best existing element of Casablanca," explains Eisenberg. "Sometimes you may end up with 80 percent of the original film elements of the movie and the remaining 20 percent is pieced together with other existing elements."
Once the best possible version of the film was assembled, Eisenberg and her team went to work on balancing the color shot by shot. On a black-and-white film like Casablanca, the wider color spectrum offered with HDR ensured that every velvety black, vivid white, and the subtlest shade of grey was masterfully refined, enhancing the film's beautifully lit interiors, moody nighttime sequences or intense close-ups.
"You never have to try hard to make Ingrid Bergman beautiful," Eisenberg laughs. "That's easy!"
With the wider color gamut, previously unseen aspects of the film are now revealed. For a restoration like this, that can be both a blessing and a curse, revealing dated visual effects due to the technical limitations of the period — limitations that audiences would not have necessarily noticed at the time.
"There's all sorts of very interesting judgement calls we have to make," Eisenberg says, though she insists that maintaining the original look of the film is extremely important. "The philosophy at Warner Bros. is to maintain the film grain, maintain that authentic feel. There's a need to be sensitive and faithful to the original storytelling. All of the film's resolution lives in the grain. I really wanted to bring that feeling of that 'sparkly nitrate, early cinema' feel to the home screen and not feel 'digital.' I want it to feel like a print."
For cinephiles on the fence when it comes to investing in the 4K UHD Blu-Ray player required to view a 4K restoration in all its glory, Eisenberg says, "If you upgrade your environment, you're going to have a resolution and a clarity you're not used to seeing, whether it's this title or any other title — the difference is nothing short of miraculous."
The result of Casablanca's restoration is nothing short of dazzling. For the colorist, working on a restoration is not only about preserving a film's legacy, it also provides a unique opportunity for younger generations to experience these classic films for the first time. "My hope is that somebody younger is going to watch a movie for the first time and it still touches them, and it is still relevant," she says. "They don't want to watch it if it's unrestored."
After completing the Casablanca restoration, Eisenberg watched the film with her 18-year-old son and her own parents. "We watched the movie. We get to the end, and I'm crying, my mom's crying, and I turn to my son and ask, 'Well?' And my son said, 'That was a really great film.'" For Eisenberg, that's the hope of any restoration. "That it still speaks to somebody," she says. "That's how it continues to live on."
By Adam J. Yeend
Casablanca is now available digitally and on 4K UHD Blu-Ray.