Restoring Classics: `Fantasia' Leads Way

Preservation fever is spreading in the movie industry. Hardly a studio remains that hasn't reached into its vaults during the past year to put a deteriorating classic back together again.

Last year ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' ``West Side Story,'' ``Tom Jones'' and ``Gone With the Wind'' were restored to their original big-screen glory.

A deluxe wide-screen edition of ``The Ten Commandments'' toured the country last spring, and earlier this month brand-new 70-millimeter prints of ``Ben-Hur'' and ``The Sound of Music'' turned up in Los Angeles theaters.

Universal Pictures has just announced that Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic, ``Spartacus,'' will undergo an extensive 70mm restoration for 1991 rerelease. Columbia Pictures is working on new versions of ``The Guns of Navarone'' and ``The Last Picture Show.''

Predating all of these restorations is Walt Disney's brilliantly animated two-hour concert movie, ``Fantasia,'' which has been available in various forms since it introduced stereophonic sound to the movies at its New York pre-

miere on Nov. 13, 1940.

When the picture flopped with moviegoers outside the major cities, an 88-minute mono version designed for double bills was released. The first restoration to the two-hour length was made in 1946. A controversial SuperScope reissue arrived in 1956, and a four-track stereo reissue in 1977. By this time, Disney's ``folly'' had become one of the studio's most reliable moneymakers, in the same box-office league with reissues of ``Snow White'' and ``Bambi.''

In 1982, the movie's entire musical sound track was rerecorded in Dolby stereo and digital sound by conductor Irwin Kostal - much to the dismay of Disney purists, who also complained that the introductory sequences with musicologist Deems Taylor had been cut. That version is now back in the vaults.

For its 50th anniversary, and its first theatrical showings in six years, the studio has restored ``Fantasia'' once again. This time Disney and the YCM lab in Burbank have gone back to the original Leopold Stokowski recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the original non-wide-screen aspect ratio and the original 35mm negative, which hasn't been used to make prints since the mid-1940s.

A 70-millimeter, six-track Dolby stereo print will open Friday at the Egyptian, while 35mm Dolby prints will play other theaters.

``Every release since 1946 has been made from a dupe,'' said Pete Comandini, a vice president at YCM, during a recent phone interview. ``Because the animated and live-action sequences were originally done in two different formats, it was much more complicated than the restorations we did for `Gone With the Wind' and `Bambi.' ''

Although the live-action elements with Stokowski, the orchestra and Taylor were shot in then-standard three-strip Technicolor, the animation sequences were photographed in successive yellow, cyan and magenta exposed frames. For the film's first engagements in 1940, these separate segments had to be spliced together in every print.

When the movie went into wider release, this proved impractical and uneconomical, and new copies were made from a composite that was one step removed from the original negative. Comandini and his crew have spent the past two years going over the original negative, hand-polishing it frame-by-frame and using razor-blade microsurgery to remove particles of dirt.

``The difference in graininess, sharpness and color is quite noticeable,'' said Comandini. Disney claims that improved lenses and film emulsions have also altered the visual quality of this ``Fantasia,'' giving it deeper blacks, a wider range of shade gradations and more color saturation.

Because of the scattered nature of the original negative, Comandini did have to improvise at times. Two small sections - the openings of the ``Rite of Spring'' and ``Pastoral Symphony'' episodes - could not be found, and he was forced to use dupe material, including footage from ``A World Is Born,'' a Disney short that was made directly from the ``Rite of Spring'' sequence in the 1940s.

Another element the studio couldn't find was the original nitrate musical track, which disintegrated long ago. In 1955, a copy was made by transferring it to magnetic film, over a telephone line from the Disney studios to an RCA rerecording facility.

``The original nitrate sound track is gone,'' said Comandini. ``The studio even went on a search party to the collectors' circuit to see if anyone had it. No luck. But it didn't hurt to make that copy over the phone line. It was a special noise-free line, something like what you'd do with a computer phone line today.''

Disney's rerecording mixer, Terry Porter, worked on this latest restoration of the 1955 transfer, using Stokowski's handwritten guide sheets to determine what Disney had intended with the ``Fantasound'' stereo system that introduced the film in 1940. More than 3,000 optical pops and snaps were removed, along with a low-frequency hum.