Courtesy of Jeff Economy, a couple great articles on the surprisingly laborious effort to restore the original King Kong (1933) for DVD release in 2005, coinciding with Peter Jackson’s remake.
In a nutshell, the problem is the original negative was lost long ago. That meant the restorationists had to scour the globe for the best surviving prints and dupe negatives, meticulously log each and every shot from every candidate copy, and then piece it all together. The situation was such that in some cases they used a shot from one print, then tacked on a handful of frames to the end from another. Only once that had all been assembled could they proceed to digital restoration which was also far more labor intensive than your usual project like this. The same had to be done with the soundtrack (just because a print’s image was best didn’t mean its soundtrack was). For that they even used material from a 16mm print.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it, and the following make for fascinating reading.
The January 2006 issue of Millimeter magazine has a rather lengthy sidebar — “Kong, the Original” — that provides a good overview of the lengths that had to be gone to, the processes used, and the decisions made along the way.
Meanwhile, an earlier piece at The Digital Bits, “King Kong: The DVD Interview,” is a transcript of an interview by the site’s editor with George Feltenstein, Senior VP Theatrical Catalog Marketing for Warner Home Video; Ned Price, VP of Mastering for Warner Brothers Technical Operations; Ronnee Sass, Executive Director of Publicity for Warner Home Video.
If I may suggest, if you’re going to spring for the DVD (and haven’t yet already), the 2-disk collector’s edition is well worth the extra few bucks. The feature-length documentary on the second disk is truly excellent and worth the price of admission on its own merits, and the other extras (including Team Jackson’s recreation of the legendary lost “Spider Pit sequence”) are tasty icing on the cake.
You should also take pains to get the DVD edition, released simultaneously, of Mighty Joe Young (1949 — NOT to be confused with that Disney crap from a few years ago), which remains an immensely entertaining film and features some jaw-droppingly advanced stop-motion animation and matte work executed by Willis O’Brien (Kong’s animation poppa) and his assistant, Ray Harryhausen, the latter day stop-mo king who made his feature debut with this film.
Finally, Son of Kong (1933) is also newly available — in fact all three of these flicks are available together as a box set — but, I dunno, is probably of purchase-interest mainly to completists. As the release date shows, it was rushed into production (on the cheap) after the blockbuster success of “daddy” Kong and, alas, it shows. Its 75 minute running time barely merits the term “feature film,” the effects are good (once they finally show up) but not quite up to snuff, and the matte work is much simpler — when stop-mo is combined with live action, it gets its own section of the frame, with none of the combining and overlaying from the original Kong. The script is an embarrassment, going for cornball and lame ethnic humor rather than, um, pretty much anything else. Finally, the DVD print includes obvious jump cuts and gaping continuity holes suggesting, at best, that whole sequences are missing or, at worst, the poor thing was butchered in the cradle by the cigar chompers at RKO. One imagines the talented Willis O’Brien cringing in embarrassment and frustration even now, from beyond the grave.