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Man Has Entered the Lab: Inside the Bambi Restoration

by Peter Sobczynski

Although most viewers of all ages will likely be too traumatized from the still-shocking moment when Man enters the forest to notice at first, the classic Walt Disney animated feature “Bambi” has undergone a stunning restoration in preparation it for its DVD debut.. The first release under the studio’s new Restoration Initiative program, the film underwent more than a year’s worth of renovations to clean up the picture, color and sound and the extensive Disney archives were raided to provide supplemental materials. The result is one of the best releases of a classic film to date on DVD–the film itself looks and sound gorgeous, probably the best presentation that it has had since its original 1942 release, and the bonus materials contains both kid-friendly games and treats and in-depth looks at the history of the film (including“Inside Walt’s Story Meetings,” in which transcribed notes between Disney and his animation staff as they developed the story have been transformed into a fascinating look at how it all came together) that will satisfy animation buffs as well.

Recently, Dave Bossert, who began his career as an animator and later became the artisitic supervisor of the Restoration Initiative, sat down to talk about the immense amount of work that went into bringing “Bambi” back to life. He also talks about some of the treasures that he discovered along the way and perhaps gives a hint or two about what may be coming down the road.

Even though most of the classic Disney animated films still play well today with contemporary audiences, “Bambi” is one of those that is especially beloved both by kids seeing it for the first time as well as adults who are revisiting it. For you, what is it about this particular film that provokes such a strong reaction from viewers more than 60 years after it first premiered?

I think “Bambi” resonates from generation to generation because it deals with life. It is about growing up and first love and the death of a parent. It is about all of those things that I think touch all of us. Also, it is just such a beautiful film to look at–I must have watched it 50-60 times over the past year while we were doing the restoration work.

How did you get involved in this line of work, both the general field of animation and the more specialized world of film restoration?

I was always interested in art and I took a lot of art classes in high school and decided to pursue a career in art. I was actually going to the state university in New York at Farmingdale for advertising art. I took a TV graphics class and that was the first time I did some animation. At the same time, John Culhane, who had written a number of books for Disney and who was also teaching at NYU, wrote an article on Cal Arts in the “New York Times.” This was the first time that I had heard about the school and the fact that they were training Disney artists there. I sent my portfolio out and got accepted into their animation program. I moved to California and went to school with the intention of learning animation and going back into the commercial market. One thing led to another and I got hired at Disney and I’ve been with them for 21 years.

I was always interested in short-form work, whether it be commercials or short subjects. I started on some feature films and wound up getting hooked into “Fantasia 2000", which was really just a collection of short films. I started branching out into special projects and oddball things that the studio wanted to do. One thing led to another and I started doing restoration work on “Walt Disney: On the Front Lines” and got pulled in more and more to that particular world. They wanted somebody who had an animation background who understood the process, was a student of animation and who could essentially bring the artistic view to the restoration effort that they wanted to do to a number of projects. I became the artistic supervisor on the Restoration Initiative and “Bambi” is the first one to come out of the chute.

When did the restoration work on “Bambi” begin?

The restoration team was first assembled in late 2003, where the individuals were first pulled together and we discussed how we were going to approach this. We also ran some tests with different vendors on the type of work that was going to need to be done. A lot of people don’t realize that the original “Bambi” negative, which was a nitrate negative, is successive-exposure. It is a black-and-white negative and then there are three color records for each frame and you basically have to scan in three frames to get one frame of color. There were a number of things that needed to be done, some testing that needed to be done before the original negative could be retrieved from the Library of Congress. Once we decided what the process was going to be and who was going to do it, then it was a matter of getting the negative back and inspecting it for damage.

There was some, but it was in surprisingly good shape from a chemistry standpoint because it wasn’t breaking down. The imagery was a mess because of the inherent flaws in the technology that they used. There was a lot of dirt and dust that was photographed into the images. It was in good shape and I think we were fortunate because the studio has loaned these negatives to the Library of Congress and they are stored in their film facility in Ohio, which is a state-of-the-art facility where the negatives are inspected on a fairly regular basis. They are in the most optimal environmental conditions that you can get to slow down the deterioration. You are never going to stop it because nitrate dies a slow death. What you can do is slow it down and mitigate that dying process and prolong the life of the negative for as long as you possibly can.

Where there any unique challenges that restoring “Bambi” posed in comparison to the other projects that you have worked on?

A lot of people don’t realize that acetate cels are a petroleum product and they were in short supply when they were making “Bambi” because of the war going on at the same time. It made those cels expensive, so what the studio was doing during those years was they were washing the cels. They took a fresh cel and inked Bambi onto it for a scene and photographed it against the background. When they got the film back, if the film looked good, they would take those cels and wash the ink and paint off and just the washing process itself would introduce scratches to the acetate as well as warp it. What you wound up introducing into the film was these cel scratches and light reflections (because they weren’t lying flat) and they were being photographed. As an artistic supervisor, you have to ask what the artistic intent was in each scene. Was the artistic intent to photograph dirt and dust and scratches? The answer, clearly, is” No”; they were working with the best materials that they had in their day and it was what it was. We were fortunate to be able to go back digitally and remove all of those flaws and anomalies.

With some restorations in recent years, there have been controversies over changing some things that the original filmmakers clearly intended to do in order to bring them more in line with contemporary tastes; the best (or worst) recent example being the time when the people working on “Gone With the Wind” toned down the bright Technicolor because they thought that audiences would only accept the more muted colors that they had become accustomed to. In the case of your work here, which included both the restoration of the color and a new 5.1 soundtrack, was it difficult to maintain a balance between the old and the new?

For us, our goal was to bring the film back to what the original intent of the artists was. As far as color goes, we went through an interesting process on that. We were fortunate to have enough of the original backgrounds around, which are stored at our animation research library, and we were able to take most of the backgrounds, which represented the full color palette of the film, and have access to them. What people don’t realize is that when you are shooting artwork onto SE film, it picks up saturation and contrast. The background artists, and this was true of most of the Disney films up through “The Black Cauldron”, were used to painting the background in one way and knowing that it was going to show up another way on film. When you look at the original backgrounds, they are slightly muted in color, but when you photograph them on SE film, it picks up the color saturation a bit and the contrast a bit.

That is what it needed to look like and if you were going to adjust the color on “Bambi,” you couldn’t simply look at a background and adjust the color because you would screw it up. What we wound up doing is we took the backgrounds and scanned them and photographed them onto SE film. Joe Guiliano, our camera guy, was actually able to get some SE film stock of a chemistry fairly close to what was used in the 1940's. We developed that film and when it came back, that was what we used as a baseline for the color adjustment. That, plus some other reference materials that we were able to dig up, was how we were able to bring the color back to where it was supposed to be. I think it looks incredible in comparison to the last VHS release.

As for the sound, unlike today, where you have multiple soundtracks to play with and mix with, we had the original optical tracks but we basically had a music track, a sound effects track and a dialogue track. Those went through a restoration process as well to get rid of hisses and pops and things like that. On the DVD, you have the original mono track that you can watch it with or you can go with an enhanced mix. Terry Porter, who has been doing these for us and who is terrific, was able to take the tracks that were available and digitally pull them apart to give it a fuller, lusher sound. To me, there was never any question about the sound, we were always going to have the mono track on. In my mind, you have what was originally done and you also have the option to listen to it differently. I think that’s a good thing because it appeals to the non-collector, the people who are used to watching films with a fuller soundtrack and with the advent of home theaters, I think it is wonderful to listen to that way.

The two discs are loaded with archival materials chronicling the history of the film. Obviously, you are a student of animation but when you were going through all of this material, where there things that you discovered that came as a surprise even to you?

There always is when you are doing one of these projects. The Disney studio is an amazing place because there are little treasures that are constantly being found. On the “Bambi” DVD, they found a stack of story notes that was transcribed from when Walt and the story team were fashioning the movie, so they were able to create the “Inside Walt’s Story Meeting” feature, which I think is unbelievable because it is essentially what we go through on every project. It lets you be a fly on the wall and for us in the business, to be able to be a fly on the wall during one of Walt’s story meetings was a treat. I’ve watched that thing a couple of times and I’ve learned things as they are questioning things and pulling them apart.

There is another story that I like to tell about discovering things. There was a cabinet in the basement of the animation building on the studio lot, one of these steel storage cabinets. It had to have been there for at least fifty years old, back from when the building was first put up. Over the years, somebody had put a wiring conduit in front of it, so you couldn’t open it. A couple of years ago, they decided to take a saw and just cut open this cabinet in order to get it out of there without disturbing the wiring. They cut it open and inside was one of the original Pinocchio models–a hand-made Pinocchio model was sitting there! It was made of wood and it was used by the animators and it was priceless and it was just sitting there and no one knew about it! Now it is in the animation archives and it has had some preservation work done to it. That is the kind of stuff that you find. We just started working on “Lady and the Tramp” and I was talking to the archivist and they have stacks and folders of story sketches that we haven’t even gone through yet. That is when you have these gems that someone pulls out and it gives you new insight into what they were doing.

A feature like “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings” is obviously something aimed squarely at animation buffs. However, a DVD like this is clearly something to be marketed to a broader audience–mostly children and families–who might not be interested in such things. In putting together the DVD, was there any resistance to adding on feature that would appeal only to a more select audience?

Not at all. What we have tried to do with the bonus features on all of these DVD’s, and this has been true of the ones I have worked on, is to try to put an eclectic mix of things on that will appeal to collectors as well as things that are family-friendly. There is always some kind of mix.

When “Cinderella” comes out, it will be the last of the classic Disney animated features to appear on DVD. Seeing as how “Bambi” is the first result of the Restoration Initiative, will the other films receive similar treatments as it comes time for their next video incarnation?

Right now, there are a dozen or so films that are on our list that we are going through. We are just in the process of finishing “Cinderella” and then we are going to begin restoration work on “Lady and the Tramp” at both 1.33 and the 2.55 scope version, since there were two negatives done. There is a slate of other films after that which I can’t talk about, but most people who are fans of the company will know what is coming down the line.

One title that people have been talking about a lot in the last couple of weeks has been the long-suppressed “Song of the South” . . .

I can’t give you any insight into that whatsoever. There are no plans right now to release it and there are no plans to do any restoration on it yet. I would hope that since we were able to put the “On the Front Lines” set together, that would help the cause.

There was also a chunk of the film on the “Alice in Wonderland” DVD as well last year and there was no outcry over that.

I’m not going to deny that it is being talked about but there are no plans now.

At the same time that Disney is sinking time and energy into restoring their traditionally-animated films, it appears that they have begun to shift their current output from that form to an all-CGI approach. As someone who has studied the classic form for so long, what are your thoughts on this shift?

I get asked that question a lot and I have to say that right now, we have the “Heffalump” film out in theaters right now and that is hand-drawn. On the “Bambi” DVD, there is a trailer for “Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest,” which is a terrific sequel that pays homage to the original film and it is hand-drawn as well. To say that the studio is not doing 2-D animation is wrong, because we are. There are at least another half-dozen hand-drawn films in production right now. Yes, Disney Feature Animation is working on a slate of digital films as well. I think that because of the digital technology, I think you are going to see different techniques ebb and flow in terms of popularity.

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originally posted: 03/08/05 06:34:24
last updated: 04/07/05 04:09:01
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