Bob O’Neil was the head of film preservation and restoration at Universal in 1988. His job was to evaluate to all the materials Universal held in its film library and oversee the repair and restoration of elements for new prints and home video releases, everything from Hitchcock classics to Abbot and Costello movies to film noir classics to B-movie rediscoveries. He was the point man on finding, repairing and restoring the surviving elements of Touch of Evil for the unprecedented revision undertaken by project producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch. This interview gets into the technical and physical details of true film preservation and restoration, working with original film materials on a celluloid and photo-chemical level rather than the digital work of to create the best possible master elements for theatrical prints and home video, as well as digital repair and restoration in the early days of the technology.
Mr. O’Neil spoke by phone for over an hour back in August of 1998, answering questions about Touch of Evil in particular and film preservation and restoration in general and the discussion ranged all over the Universal catalogue and various projects was involved in, both present and past. This interview has been edited to focus specifically on Touch of Evil and related topics. Again, the interview was conducted before I had a chance to see the new cut, which had yet to have its public World Premiere at Telluride in the first week of September, 1998.
One final note: Note the way he refers to the film as “the show” – that’s old school, baby.
There were effectively two different versions of Touch of Evil on film and then a third composite version prepared for home video.
What’s the history of the film versions? The 92-minute version is the one that was theatrically released. Did you still have the original negative for that?
Yes. To go back to the beginning, what happened was that, after the studio got through cutting the show, they had that preview version, the long version. When they previewed it, there was a print struck for that screening. I don’t know if there was one or two of them, all I know is that in the long run, for us today, we are fortunate in that one long version print survived and that long version print is basically what you have probably seen if you’ve gone to, for instance, the Library of Congress with their film registry tour, they were showing the long version there. There’s been various festivals, over the years, where they have shown the long version. All of those prints that you’re looking at came from dupe negatives that were struck from that long version print, so that long version print was the only element in existence that we could use for material that was going to come from that version. Now the other source material that we had was from the short version, which was the original negative, we had the original dub masters, on the dubbing stage when they did their final mix, we have all that material, and we also had extra fine grains and dupe negatives that we could have used if we needed to. So what happened, technically, was that we were fortunate that we started out with the original negative for the body of the show. We took that original negative, went back and repaired it as well as we could, because there were still spots on there where, from printing on it over the years, the negative had been damaged here and there. So we were able to go back and take original negative, answer print the original negative, then make a brand new composite fine grain from it, and then our dupe negative that we were going to use for the show. Now that, the trick them came into, that’s on the short version. Now all the long version material that was going to be used could only come from that one single source black and white print. Now a black and white print looks totally different than what the material looks like coming from the original negative. There’s issues as far as quality goes and as far as contrast goes. What ends up happening is that we’re going to end up intercutting between the two versions, pieces of the dupe negative from the long version and pieces from the short version. So the pieces from the long version had to be tested and found proper printing methods to create as seamless an internegative as we could that would cut in with the dupe negative from the original. And then after it was all cut together, the next step was to step back and say, ‘Okay, now that we’ve done this, what do we need to do digitally to fix the damaged elements that ended up in the show, in the final cut?’ That was the final piece of it that we just finished up, actually we just finished up this week [August 14, 2008] on it.