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Tinted Love

Barry Sandrew has gone from imaging work at Mass. General to setting out to prove that film colorization has come of age

Barry Sandrew says digital colorization can now produce 'images with colors and resolutions never before possible.'
Barry Sandrew says digital colorization can now produce "images with colors and resolutions never before possible." (JC Matsuura for The Boston Globe / Digital Illustration)

The controversy over colorizing black-and-white films may have faded, but back in the 1980s it became a conflict worthy of a Hollywood epic.

Atlanta businessman Ted Turner led the pro-colorization charge when he hired American Film Technologies to colorize hundreds of films he acquired from MGM in 1986. Mustering the anti-colorization troops were directors and actors who slammed the process as cultural vandalism, contending that it destroyed the filmmaker's artistic intent.

For former Boston resident Barry Sandrew -- the man who developed all-digital colorization while at AFT -- the process was never intended to be divisive.

``By adding color, we hoped to put new life into old movies that had been gathering dust for years," Sandrew said.

While his spectral facelifts were a marked improvement over earlier attempts, the coloring still lacked natural and realistic tones. ``As good as it was, the technology and computing power just wasn't available 20 years ago," said Sandrew, who is now president of Legend Films, a San Diego company hoping to bring film colorization to a new generation. ``Today we can produce high-definition digital images with colors and resolutions never before possible."

Sandrew, 58, hopes today's DVD-savvy home audiences and Hollywood moguls alike will see that colorization technology has now come of age -- and that his company is dedicated to preserving the old films.

``The original black-and-white 35 mm film is never damaged or changed," he said. ``We make a high-resolution digital copy of each original frame -- about 129,600 frames in a 90-minute film -- then fully restore and colorize each one. We include both the restored colorized version and restored original black-and-white version on each of our DVDs, so people will always have the option of watching whichever version they want."

While that hasn't silenced the anti-colorization crowd, there are signs of Hollywood approval.

``The films that were colorized prior to Legend Films coming on the scene left a lot to be desired," the legendary actress Shirley Temple Black said in an interview. ``In my opinion, much of the criticism the early results received was justified."

So when Sandrew and Legend Films CEO David Martin approached Temple Black in 2002 with the idea of colorizing some of her early movies, the former child star had to be convinced of the quality.

``They set up a computer workstation in my living room to show me their high-definition colorized version of `Heidi,' " she said. ``The film looked great and had a totally fresh, new look."

So impressed was Temple Black that she permitted Legend Films to restore and produce episodes of her '60s television show, ``The Shirley Temple Storybook Collection," which had been stored in the basement of her San Francisco home for decades.

``They also restored and colorized the `Baby Burlesk' shorts, the first films I appeared in," said Temple Black. ``These were in my personal library at home , where I used to show them at birthday parties for my children!"

Filmmaker Ray Harryhausen also found Sandrew's new technology appealing. From the late 1940s into the 1980s, Harryhausen's innovative stop-motion animation thrilled generations of fans in movies such as ``Mighty Joe Young" and ``Clash of the Titans."

``In the early days, we filmed in black-and-white out of necessity rather than choice," Harryhausen said by phone from London. ``I wanted to shoot many of my early films in color, but the studios wouldn't pay for it. With Barry's color technology, people will be able to see these films the way I originally envisioned them."

A better image
Back in the early 1980s, movies were the last thing on Barry Sandrew's mind. With a doctorate in neuroscience, he was working at Massachusetts General Hospital, using imaging to study the spread of epilepsy. ``I was fascinated by the use of color to enhance the diagnostic value of medical imaging," he said.

While attending a Radiological Society meeting in Chicago in November 1986, Sandrew was approached by Bernie Weitzman and George Jensen, then president and CEO, respectively, of AFT.

``We asked Barry if he could develop digital technology to colorize movies," said Weitzman, a former vice president and general manager of Universal Studios and longtime vice president of business affairs at Desilu Studios (which is now part of Paramount).

As a researcher, Sandrew was intrigued, and he required little persuading to take up the challenge and move his family to California to develop the process. Sandrew and AFT produced their first colorized movie -- ``The Bells of St. Mary's" -- within a year. It premiered nationwide on the Fox television network on Dec. 16, 1987.

``The ratings were huge," Jensen said. ``It eventually led to a $55 million contract from Ted Turner to colorize his film library."

According to Jensen, founder and CEO of USA Technologies, AFT rapidly expanded, creating 300 jobs in one year alone with $18 million in sales. ``Our stock jumped from 40 cents to $14 while I was CEO," he said.

Despite its early success, AFT began to fail in the early 1990s. ``We did not have a competent marketing team, and management did not have the foresight to move the company effectively into the direction of content ownership," said Sandrew , who, together with Jensen and Weitzman, left the company.

Sandrew co founded Lightspan, one of the largest computer education companies in the country, but in the summer of 2001 he returned to colorization. Armed with the latest technology, he formed Legend Films with David Martin, a former executive with Hollywood Entertainment, and Jeff Yapp, an MTV executive. They quickly found financial backing in Sandrew's old hometown.

Ed Shapiro, a partner at Boston-based PAR Capital Management , said he saw great potential in Legend Films and invested $6 million in the company. ``I think there are two primary reasons why colorization will now succeed -- improved picture quality and the growth in the home video market," Shapiro said. ``Today, with the advent of DVDs, it's a $23 billion industry in the US alone." And, Shapiro said, Legend Films has become more diversified than AFT, with projects to colorize TV commercials, public-domain movies, special effects, and with international projects and contracts with major studios.

One such client was Martin Scorsese, who hired Legend Films to colorize segments of ``The Aviator," the 2004 film based on the life of Howard Hughes. Scorsese inserted colorized clips from Hughes's own films into ``The Aviator."

``We colorized flames in crash scenes and dogfights from `Hell's Angels,' stock footage from the `Hells Angels' premiere, and a segment with Jane Russell from `The Outlaw,' " said Sandrew.

Russell, 85 , said she enjoyed seeing her freshly animated ruby-red lips flash across the screen. ``The colorized clip of me in `The Aviator' was only a few seconds long," Russell said in an interview. ``But the color looked great. It was not too strong, like in many of the early colorized movies that made the films look cheap."

Legend Films' fully restored and colorized version of ``The Outlaw" will be released next year with Russell -- a longtime friend of Hughes -- and Hughes' s former wife, actress Terry Moore, providing running commentaries and discussing their experiences with Hughes.

``If good-quality color film had been available at the time, Howard probably would have used it to make `The Outlaw,' " Moore said. ``I'm sure he would have been fascinated with the technology and would have approved of using it to restore and colorize movies."

Some critics remain unconvinced.

``I'm still vehemently opposed to vulgarizing the classics by adding color," said Richard A. Blake, a Boston College film historian and critic. ``I don't care how much fidelity the newer technology provides."

Continued opposition to colorization doesn't surprise Sandrew.

``Some people are always going to be biased, no matter how good the films look," he said. ``I certainly would not colorize films like `Citizen Kane' and others that were intentionally shot in black-and-white. But where budgetary or technical constraints prevented the use of color film, we can now show everyone how these movies were truly meant to be."

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