‘The Godfather’ Restoration Team Tells Us How They Made Francis Ford Coppola’s Classic Film Trilogy Look So Gorgeous

On Tuesday, the long-awaited 4K release of the three The Godfather movies will finally become a reality. (Technically, with this set, you get four movies. The Godfather Coda is now the official third movie, but The Godfather Part III theatrical cut is still included as a bonus feature.) The movies look absolutely gorgeous, which is a little surprising because the last time these movies were restored, back in 2007, we were basically told the original negatives were in such bad shape that these movies would never look better. Well, now they are better. Much better.

We spoke to James Mockoski (whose official title is Film Archivist, Post Production & Restoration Supervisor at Zeotrope) and Andrea Kalas (senior vice president of archives at Paramount) who, along with Francis Ford Coppola, led the restoration efforts. Ahead, they tell us about the painstaking procedure of making these films look better than they ever have before, but not crossing any lines where we lose the cinematic look. There’s a fine line between restoring and removing so much film grain and texture that it looks like it was shot with a digital camera last week – which (a) you don’t want, (b) it does happen more than one would think and (c) that is definitely not what happened with The Godfather movies.

So how did they do it? It was a combination of technology changing since 2007 (not just for them, but for us with the proliferation of 4K televisions) and they found a plethora of footage that wasn’t available to the team in 2007. To the point where some of the found footage was so fresh they could get a better sense of what colors were supposed to look like as opposed to what they’ve become over the years. Also, they take us through one of the toughest scenes to restore, which happen to be one of the most pivotal, the scene in the restaurant when Michael shoots Sollozzo.

With the 2007 restoration the attitude seemed to be, due to a number of reasons, this was as good as it was going to get. And now it’s better.

James Mockoski: Well, the difference between 2007 and now is that technology changed. We didn’t see HDR coming along the way. We were excited about exploring that presentation level. Also, Paramount didn’t stop. Yeah, we thought that was the best that they could do, but they kept finding more things to make the negative better because the first Godfather was loved over the last 50 years, and there was a lot of wear and tear. To Andrea and her team’s credit, they didn’t stop looking to try to improve the first film.

Andrea Kalas: We kept going back to the 2007 (restoration). There was so much good work was done in terms of capturing the vision of Gordon Willis and his cinematographic eye. That was important for us to maintain.

Right, the underlying theme was the original was not in great shape so this is the best we can do.

Andrea Kalas: I mean, I think the original negative, because it’s such a popular and well-loved film, and it also lent itself to Godfather II and Godfather III, and The Epic, and The Saga. So it was sort of split up into many different boxes and locations. Although they did some work to find that stuff in 2007, we knew there was more to find, and so we knew that we could undertake this as best as we could get. We can do even better. And maybe there’s more! Maybe we didn’t even find it all. But we got pretty close. We got pretty close.

In a process like this, how do you make sure that DNR [digital noise reduction] isn’t overdone where the result makes it look like it was shot on a digital camera versus a film? Because I’ve seen some 4K discs turn out that way.

James Mockoski: I could speak for Zoetrope, it’s the collaboration that we have the filmmaker in that room and making sure that that presentation was what he wants. We make sure with all of our films and our restorations that it still looks theatrical, still has that cinematic look. That’s what Francis and that’s what I believe Gordon Willis would have wanted. And respect to Gordon Willis’s memory, that we’re not creating something new or that’s not something faithful and respectful.

Andrea Kalas: And grain issues are nothing new to us. We’ve worked on them on a number of different films we’ve worked with. You do need to ride it very carefully because you don’t want artifacting from too much grain, but you don’t want to remove that look, and also, the detail that the grain represents, which can sometimes get scrubbed out if you go too far.

James Mockoski: Yeah, I was the annoying guy in the room, sitting, looking at things like, “No, no, we could do that.” So we were all very much glued to this and because people are going to ride us on that, and it wouldn’t be correct if we offered something that wasn’t was faithful.

You mentioned film grain. When you’re using a digital technology to restore something that’s broken, you’re not going to have the inherent grain in that digital spot. So do you have to recreate the grain? I’ve seen restorations where the grain doesn’t move.

James Mockoski: It’s not recreating grain, but what we had the problem with Godfather I is there’s such a collage of material. There’s tech print. There’s a dupe negative. So you want it to cut together. Bringing it up from the original negative and at least try to blend it together. So it is feeling natural in that matter and situation. But, generally, if it was original negative, we didn’t touch it. It’s only in those situations where it was trying to patch together these multiple sources.

In the documentary about the restoration in the set you mentioned finding all these dailies that no one had seen in a long time. Did I understand this correctly? You could look at some of those, and you could see the colors in those and realize the color of something in the movie wasn’t correct?

Andrea Kalas: I think what we gave ourselves with better elements was the ability to use digital tools to get the color palette as perfect as we could, right? Because you just had more input.

An example in the doc shows an ID card on the film that’s been white for a long time but you realized it’s actually green.

Andrea Kalas: Yeah. Yeah. I mean they found a lot of footage in 2007. We found more and even some stock footage that was in our own collection of Vegas that we found the original negative of. That was really fun to see it looking so pretty.

Of the three movies, was there a sequence or a part that stands out as you’re first looking at it going, I don’t know how we’re going to fix this? Was there something that stands out as the biggest challenge?

Andrea Kalas: I mean, to me, the restaurant scene [when Michael shoots Sollozzo] is always… I mean that, originally, when it was shot, there were problems with processing, right? So there are things that we’re always going to wish we had even better elements on it than we do.

What was wrong with that scene just from the start?

Andrea Kalas: The processing made it so that it was just not the best negative coming out to begin with, right? And so they did actually put in some dupe shots from the beginning and that we couldn’t recover the originals for. We looked everywhere. We did find a couple.

James Mockoski: Yeah, in fact, more intact than it was in 2007. We found more original negatives, but we still had dupe negatives.

Andrea Kalas: But it’s such a pivotal shot. We would’ve loved to have found all the originals for that. I don’t know.

When you say dupe shot, does that mean there are shots in the restaurant scene that weren’t in what people saw in 1972? There are a couple of moments that you had to use something else because it’s gone?

Andrea Kalas: I’m not actually sure about that, James. There might have been something that we’re seeing for the very first time now because they duped it out originally, possibly? That does happen.

James Mockoski: I think that’s the question. I think that we went back to what the ’72 cut was. Yeah, over the years, people may have been slugged out a different shot.

Oh, I see.

James Mockoski: But that has been subsequently peeled away and put back what the original one was, not that there’s new material no one’s seen. That doesn’t exist.

Andrea Kalas: We didn’t change the content. It’s just the element.

That’s why I wanted to make sure and follow up because I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue that as like, “Yeah, brand new shots.”

Andrea Kalas: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just better material for the same content.

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