The Oak: the Story Behind the First Ever Romanian Restoration

5 February, 2020

On Tuesday evening, one of the most important cult-films in the history of Romania had its restoration “premiere” at Bucharest’s National Theatre: The Oak (1992) by the late Lucian Pintilie, the first feature film he directed after returning to the country in the aftermath of a two-decade-long exile, which premiered on the Croisette in 1992, out of competition. The Oak also helped launch actress Maia Morgenstern’s career at an international level: for the role of Nela, she won the European Academy Award for Best Actress.

After having been shown at the prestigious Lumière festival in Lyon, The Oak is being widely released in Romanian cinemas as of today in a 4K version, the initiative behind the restoration belonging to the Lucian Pintilie Fund, a project of Foundation9. The team which undertook the difficult task of restoring the original reels – the first ever film restoration to have been entirely undertaken in Romania – was done by Studio Avanpost, the most advanced post-production studio in the country. The chief consultant of the process was Florin Mihăilescu, one of the most important directors of photography in the country, renowned for his collaborations with Mircea Daneliuc, who could advise the engineers in the absence of both Pintilie and the film’s DOP, Doru Mitran, both of whom passed away in 2018.

We talked about the restoration process, its details and difficulties, as well as about the absence of digital restoration practices in Romania with the two chief technicians that supervised the operation at Studio Avanpost: Sebastian Plămădeală, who took care of the film’s cinematography, and Florin Tăbăcaru, chief sound engineer.

The gala premiere on the 4th of February 2020. photo: Transilvania Film / Facebook

As far as I understand, the copy that was digitalized for the restoration was one that was kept in the Hiventy laboratories in France. What was the state of that copy and how did it compare to other copies of the film?

Sebastian Plămădeală: The digital copy that we received from France was in a very good state, keeping in mind that it was in storage for a long time. After seeing the copy available at our own archive, we decided to go for the Hiventy copy, since it had a much better overall quality.

Which were the main defects of the copy that you used and how did you correct them? Could you describe these processes?

Sebastian Plămădeală: The main defects were micro-scratches and certain impurities of the film reel (such as dust), as well as random spots. To remove these defects we used several specialized pieces of software, which have been created especially to tackle such problems – however, due to the random placement of these defects, we oftentimes had to have „handpainted” individual shots, frame by frame. In the case of larger defects – sometimes, they would cover even more than half of a given frame – we intervened by using a „cloning” method to heal the affected surfaces, using preexisting frames.

Florin Tăbăcaru: The main problems and defects of the original material mostly had to do with out-of-sync sound, background noise (which was present in the majority of scenes) as well as other parasitic sounds. Restoring such material means attempting to eliminate or reduce such perturbative elements. During such a process you have all sorts of adjustments regarding sound levels of the original sound mix, which you’re trying to improve in terms of quality, in order to get a copy that is more “vibrant”, more “full of life” and in line with our contemporary technical standards.

The Oak was shot on 35mm reels – which, in time, deteriorates in terms of color, on top of defects which can appear even during the development process. How did you work on equalizing the colors and what were your principal guiding points?

Sebastian Plămădeală: It just so happened that one of our team members is Claudiu Doagă, our Senior Colorist. He is the very same colorist who, more than ten years ago, worked on the very first digital transposition of the film, in a procedure called telecine. He managed to get the 4K scanned negative that we have to a status that was very close to the original look of the film, using the advanced technology we now have at our disposal. Obviously, this procedure led to the creation of a digital copy that is vastly superior in terms of quality.

What are the issues that arise from analogical, film reel-stocked sound? How do you work to modernize and remaster a soundtrack that was recorded using pre-digital means?

Florin Tăbăcaru: In and of themselves, the problems of analogical sound storage are especially determined by the perishability of the material, as well as by the recording and copying methods. Digital transposition of analogical materials gives us the certainty that we can maintain the original quality of a recording for an indefinite amount of time. In regards to The Oak, this was a positive situation, since the original materials (meaning dialogue, music and ambient sounds) were stored separately, at a quality level that proved to be good and useable.

How did you collaborate with Florin Mihăilescu for the duration of this process? And what difficulties arise when one is restoring a film in the absence of its director(s)?

Sebastian Plămădeală: Mr. Mihăilescu was close to Mr. Pintilie and Mr. Mitran, both personally and professionally. His observations, along with the details he could offer to our colorists helped us maintain the original art direction of the movie. At the same time, due to the technology that is available nowadays, some technical limitations in terms of shooting and post-processing (which have now been long overcome), we could significantly improve the cinematography of the film in every single aspect.

Florin Tăbăcaru: As a close friend of Pintilie’s, Mr. Mihăilescu was of great help in helping us stay faithful to the initial directorial concepts behind the film, and he also is a very good technician himself. The artistic contribution of a sound designer is very important in the process of creating a piece of cinematic artwork. In this case, having already had a starting point – meaning, the pre-existing sound – and the knowledge of Mr. Mihăilescu, our attempt was to try to improve the materials which we had at our disposal, to add plus-value. 

What was the most difficult task that you had to face during the restoration process?

Sebastian Plămădeală: The most difficult aspect of our work was to find the best way to make sure that there is a balance between the vibe of the nineties and the original art direction and what modern restoration technology can offer in terms of improvements.

Florin Tăbăcaru: What I would probably call the most difficult task, especially considering that we worked in the absence of the film’s original creator, was to be tempered and to place ourselves in line with the original conception of the film. It’s an exercise in imagination for any single engineer and it consists of trying to understand and respect the auteur’s vision. That also means trying, as a result of my restoration work and the “enrichment” of the soundscape to not modify anything that was part of the director’s view on the soundtrack.

Compared to countries that are renowned for the restoration efforts of their cinematic patrimony – such as the United States (World Cinema Foundation) or Italy (the Bologna Cinematheque) – Romania doesn’t do anything, which turns your work into a truly impressive feat. Why do you believe that we are in this situation, and what can we do to improve it, with or without the support of institutions such as the National Film Archives or the National Cinematography Council?

Sebastian Plămădeală: The very first and most important elements that put such procedures into motion are the will and involvement of those who are in decisional positions. From my point of view, these can only arise once these cinematic works of art are recognized as a part of the cultural patrimony of a country.

Just as is the case with the process of depositing films in an archive, restoration implies costs for things such as equipment maintenance, costs for acquisitions of specialized and very important software, as well as a budget for paying a specialized workforce, which knows how to manipulate film reel and to do digital restoration work. Unfortunately, our past administrations have shown no interest in such parts of our cultural patrimony. Maybe because there is a lack of knowledge on this topic, lack of funds, even a lack of interest, who knows. Of course, you can also find private funding solutions, but these can only take the shape of very punctual interventions and they should not become the norm, under any circumstances. I hope that this restoration won’t be our only restoration this decade, but rather an impulse for our industry, which could lead to a more ample process of revitalizing our cinematic history.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.

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