'Bambi': Restoring the Original Circle of Life on DVD

Bill Desowitz talks with the people behind the restoration of Bambi about the various challenges of bringing a treasured classic to DVD.

The beautiful artistry in this1942 masterpiece about the cycle of birth and death has been restored in todays new release of Bambi on DVD. All Bambi images © Disney. All rights reserved.

With todays important release of Bambi on DVD, Disney inaugurates a new digital restoration/preservation program, allowing us to view this and other early classics at home with unprecedented sharpness and clarity. I was blown away you see the cel shadows and ink lines, beamed famed Disney artist Andreas Deja, who supervised The Lion Kings Scar, and is working on the DVD sequel, Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest. Indeed, from the darkly elegant opening in the forest to Bambis ill-fated attempt to skate on ice with Thumper, the rabbit, to the blazing fire that terrorizes the friendly forest creatures and nearly destroys their home, you can see more of the beautiful artistry that went into this sublime 1942 masterpiece about the natural cycle of birth and death that stood as Walt Disneys own personal favorite among his beloved animated features.

As the DVD market begins its slow transition to high-def at the end of the year and with the ever-growing sophistication of digital technology, Disney decided to embark on a new restoration/preservation program a year-and-a-half ago to better present its esteemed animation library. The studio enlisted Steve Poehlein to spearhead the Bambi project as director of mastering and restoration. The first thing he did was assemble a team of film, computer and animation experts from Feature Animation and Studio New Technology and Worldwide Technical Services, including effects animator/visual effects supervisor/director Dave Bossert as artistic director.

Steve Poehlein (left) spearheaded the Bambi project as director of mastering and restoration while Dave Bossert was tapped as artistic director of the project.

The first step was inspecting the original nitrate camera negative at the Library of Congress. Fortunately, Bambis original film element was in great shape. As animation aficionados are well aware, before the advent of color negative in the early 1950s, animation was photographed on special black-and-white film, with each drawing shot three times by the animation camera on to successive frames through a color wheel containing three filters red, green and blue.

Then the negative was shipped to the studio in Burbank, where it was inspected and digitally scanned to capture every subtle nuance. We wanted the best possible imagery off that negative because we probably wont touch it again, Poehlein asserts. Eventually, it will literally disintegrate. When we put up the raw scanned images, everyone was astounded at the clarity of the images and the detail of the brush work that no one ever saw because of the imperfections in the optical printing process. The black-and-white files were then combined and registered to create each final color frame with a proprietary program similar to Warner Bros. Ultra-Resolution software designed for three-strip Technicolor features (Gone with the Wind).

We actually did some tests with the Warner Bros. process, but ultimately there were some issues that led us down a different path, so we developed our own technology, Bossert explains. It allows you to take 20-30 targets on each frame and line up the three frames exactly. The interesting thing is that because we have all three color records on one strip of negative, we are in a much more advantageous position than the three-strip process, where you have three negatives aging at different rates and multiple registration problems.

The restoration team digitally scanned the negative to capture every subtle nuance. A DVD bonus feature shows the restored/unrestored process.

These final frames were then computer-processed to stabilize and remove any flicker, excessive grain and dust. Then, a team of artists painstakingly worked four months on each frame to remove any remaining dust, scratches and other photographed anomalies (Newton rings, scuffs, static cel dirt), including one instance when Bambis hoof is painted the wrong color on a couple of frames. Once the frames were restored, the team assembled it back into scenes and the scenes back into the final movie, matching it against the original to make sure nothing was missing. After that, they not only archived the digital files but dropped out a new negative.

They used several different sources for reference, including original backgrounds from the animation research library and a dye-transfer reissue print from the 50s. In the end, the project spanned 14 months (eight of which was devoted to restoration) and involved 110,000 frames and 9,600 man-hours. To me, by using the latest technology available, we were able to see this movie the way it was intended, Bossert says. I think when you look at what we did, each image up on the screen looks as if you were to lay a cel down against a background right in front of you.

One infamous error that has now been corrected occurs at the end of the movie when the animals come out of the water after the forest fire. A raccoon appears and then suddenly pops off the screen in the middle of the scene. According to Bossert, it was actually caused when the camera operator inadvertently put the raccoon on the wrong peg.

Disney artist Andreas Deja was stunned by how the original animators gave the characters dignity and poetry.

Its interesting that when they painted backgrounds, they compensated for what it would look like on film, knowing that the contrast and saturation would be boosted, Bossert continues. We were fortunate to have a full range of backgrounds available representing the full color palette. So what we did was we re-photographed those onto successive exposure film stock that was close to the chemistry that they used back then. We used this as our baseline for color correcting the film. That is why the color is so accurate.

And that is why we can now fully appreciate the innovative work of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, four of The Nine Old Men, among others, but also the invaluable contribution of Tyrus Wong, the in-betweener on Mickey Mouse shorts responsible for the lyrical and ethereal look of Bambi. Stylistically, the Tyrus Wong influence on the backgrounds [was groundbreaking] where he brought in more of a Chinese minimalist and Impressionist quality, Bossert adds. What was also interesting about the backgrounds was that every shot was composed so that there was a particular area of detail that your eye was drawn to. They were pretty much inventing the feature animation process while making this movie, which was in production in the late 30s and was stalled by the impact of World World II, which also affected the materials they were using. They had to wash and reuse acetate cels because they were rationed.

And then, of course, there was the perfectionism of Walt, who tirelessly pushed his team of animators (more than 100 artists and technicians over the five-year period) in pursuit of something more naturalistic and less cartoony. How to make leaves tumble or a drop of rain hit the wet ground or a fire envelop a forest like an outstretched hand? Or how to animate animals more realistically? In fact, one of the innovative features of the Bambi two-disc DVD set is, Inside Walts Story Meetings, which re-enacts the creative sessions from the actual transcripts. The most important thing is that you found out what Walt thought, Deja says. He was so involved in this, from the opening shot down to how the characters feel about each other. Its very much a back and forth team effort.

Bambi allows viewers to fully appreciate the innovative work of The Nine Old Men and Tyrus Wong. This team pretty much invented the feature animation process while making this movie, asserts Bossert.

And what did Deja, who, along with his craft, has made a hobby out of studying the Disney classics, glean from revisiting Bambi on DVD? It really leaves you stunned what they knew and how they tactfully handled something that couldve been very iffy and kitschy. There is a certain amount of sentimentality in it, but they always gave those characters dignity and theres even poetry to it. Theres so little dialogue in it that music plays a big role in the beginning of the film where Bambi falls down. Ollie animated this and its done to such a beautiful musical beat as he starts hopping along. With each note, he shifted into a different weight, and I asked Ollie about this combination of music and visuals and he said, Well, you know, the music had already been written by an in-house composer before I actually animated it, so I had a beat track and I knew when to hit a certain pose to give it rhythm, and it becomes such a great unity.

A team of artists painstakingly worked four months on each frame to remove flicker, excess grain, scratches and dust. The team then re-assembled the film, matching it against the original and dropped out a new negative.

The look is very gutsy because there is a certain amount of Impressionism in it. Before that, things were more literal and painted out in detail and here you have these wild backdrops with perhaps only a leaf or two in the foreground, sort of crisp. The focus is only on character. It was something new that they hadnt done before and they completely pulled it off. Ill never forget the first time I saw it I mustve been 13 or 14, and I thought the opening multiplane scene was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. And what I came away from it growing up in Germany, where we have these little pockets of forests, I would notice for the first time how the light hit the moss or the mushrooms. Its interesting how these things can open your eyes.

When I started researching this again and put all the model sheets in front of me, it was like, Oh, youre in trouble this stuff is amazing! These are like Michelangelo drawings; they are as good as it gets. You think about it for a couple of days and you wonder if you can even make Bambi walk. So you go through a walk cycle and then you work yourself into it.

In Bambi, the complexity of the artwork and the inconsistent paint that they used were quite a challenge, according to Poehlein, in comparison to the far simpler Cinderella, which they are completing now for an October DVD release. In some ways it was good that we did Bambi first because we encountered every conceivable problem, but I sort of wish that we couldve done it later because we wouldve understood the process a bit more and it wouldve been less painful.

Bambi Platinum Edition featuring bonus material. Rated G. Walt Disney Home Ent., feature running time 70 min., $29.99.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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