Exclusive: Paramount’s VP of Preservation and Restoration Talks Breakfast at Tiffany’s Blu-ray

For over 20 years, Ron Smith, Paramount Pictures Vice President of Preservation and Restoration, has been ensuring that some of the world’s most beloved and cherished films and TV series receive the clarity and care that they deserve. His latest efforts were focused on the transfer for the Audrey Hepburn classic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and its new 50th anniversary Blu-ray release, out September 20, 2011. I was able to ask Ron a few questions in regards to the film, as well as what Paramount may have on the horizon.

When releasing films to correlate with anniversary’s, much like Breakfast at Tiffany’s 50th this year, how far in advance does the restoration process begin?

That’s a good question. We started talking about this film about two or three years ago but by the time we got the budget approved and everybody on the same page, it was so close to being the 50 year anniversary, that it just fell right in there. It knew where it was going before we did!

Haha, excellent! In regards to the transfer and restoration process, I’ve seen some other reviews giving the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Blu a bit of a hard wrap for a lack of grain and too much DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) throughout. Personally, I thought the film looked excellent save for some close-ups that were very soft, although I attributed that to the materials you had to work with.

We actually got that comment from the original QC (Quality Control) thinking that it was some DNR or artifacts, but it’s not actually. It is a soft focus. If you think about it, and I’m not sure how old Audrey was when the movie was shot, but they did tend to employ a soft focus on many shots. The first shot of her, the closest of close-ups, I think that first scene when she’s sitting on her couch, which is actually a bathtub, and she’s sitting and drinking a glass of milk out of a champagne glass and they go in close and that’s all soft focus, and it’s just like one of the old silent movies.

Movies of that period, the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s; it was just the thing to do. They employed it a couple more times, some with George Peppard in these sort of “sensitive, romantic, here comes the big kiss” scenes and in the big scene in the stairwell, but all of it was intentional and actually is not anything that was induced.

That’s what I figured. Being familiar with film tricks of that age, soft focus seemed to be to blame.

I mean, we have people that are really crack, they see everything and most of them are fairly young so they are not completely familiar with the sort of tricks that were employed in old films.

I read in an interview earlier this year while you were promoting the excellent release of The Ten Commandments that you were working on a new transfer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s theatrically, but at the time you weren’t sure if it was going to be the same transfer used for the Blu-ray. Many of the reviews I’ve seen downing the Blu have been applauding that theatrical print. Was it a different print used or did they use the print you had already been working on?

No, this is it!

Well, that puts that one to rest! I was curious about special features. I definitely applaud you guys for providing at least some of the features on the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Blu in High Definition. Being a reviewer and just a movie fan in general, it’s always a letdown to see special features not be upgraded along with the film. Are special features often looked at as throwaways, or is there a conscious effort to try and get as much of the supplements in HD as possible?

Anything that we’re doing new is always shot in high definition, but people tend to want everything like the stuff that was on their old disc along with new stuff and I don’t blame ‘em!

Along with Breakfast at Tiffany’s having its 50th anniversary this year, Paramount Pictures is looking at its 100th year in 2012. The only big reveal along with that has been a 3D re-release of Titanic. Anything else interesting in the pipeline, theatrically or Blu-ray wise, as far as this big celebratory year goes?

I’m not sure about the Blu-ray dates, but in a theatrical sense I’m working on Wings, which has been sort of a massive effort from my department and the Academy and, oh gosh, there’s just been a whole cast of people involved in that.

Knowing that you’ve had over 20 years of restoration experience, I was curious if there’s been any film or TV series that you were most proud?

It’s funny. You know I’m never really satisfied. We have a lot of people that staunchly defend the things they did, you know, five years ago and don’t ever want to revisit them. I’ve actually mastered Breakfast at Tiffany’s an embarrassing amount of times. Let’s see; two, three, four. This will be the fourth time, which I think sets the record. But, you know, I just don’t cling on to what I did before. As new technology develops and there are new tools out there, I think that we can always make it better.

I tend to like the latest things that I do, though I’d probably have to go with The Ten Commandments. That really worked out incredibly well. It turned out so much better than we had anticipated that our colorist said, “You know, I’m very proud of what we did, but I definitely feel like there was some form of divine… inspiration.”

I can believe it! I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day for me today. Just one more thing for the Audrey fans. With this release of Breakfast of Tiffany’s and The Criterion Collection’s previous release of Charade, we’ve now got two of Hepburn’s films on Blu-ray, but we’re dying for more. With Paramount having quite the stable of Audrey’s films, is there anything else on the horizon?

Yeah, they’re all on the radar. She’s a treasure. There’s no doubt about it.

Great to hear! Again, thank you so much for your time and it was a pleasure getting to speak with you.

Well, thank you so much! I’m really pleased that you’re writing about this and I’ll definitely check it out.

– Matt Hardeman

Special thanks to Ron Smith and the PR folks at Paramount Home Entertainment

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