After decades in the vaults at Paramount Pictures, the 1927 silent film Wings is now available on Blu-ray and DVD after an extensive restoration. The first and only silent film to win and Academy Award for Best Picture (then called Best Production), Wings was the Top Gun of its time. Starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Gary Cooper, Wings was epic in scope and big on high flying action in the skies.
After receiving Paramount’s red carpet restoration, the new Wings Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with a newly-restored musical score by J.S. Zamecnik in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and an organ score by Gaylord Carter in 2.0 Dolby Digital. To bring Wings to life in the modern era, Paramount enlisted the help of Academy Award winning sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the team of sound engineers at Skywalker Sound to add World War I sound effects to give viewers a true-to-the-period experience.
Ahead of the January 24 Blu-ray release of Wings, The Deadbolt went one-on-one with Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount Pictures, to learn more about the restoration of a classic, working with Skywalker Sound, and what it was life to bring a silent film to life with today’s technology.
THE DEADBOLT: The restoration of Wings is a pretty big deal, isn’t it?
ANDREA KALAS: Well, we certainly think so. We’re excited that we’re able to work on this film in our 100th year. We’re celebrating our anniversary at Paramount this year. It’s a fantastic film that we were able to work on. Fortunately for me, the restoration technology had evolved enough to do Paramount proud and really do a good job. We needed digital tools that were both really powerful yet nuanced, because we needed to make sure the compromised picture element was resoted with honor.
THE DEADBOLT: How bad was the negative before you began the restoration process?
KALAS: We looked around the world to find the best possible element. With silent films you often have to do that because the idea of film preservation and archiving came after the silent era. What we actually used was something within our own vaults, which was an acetate duplicate negative that had been printed in the 1950s from a nitrate print.
So the nitrate print that made this element had nitrate deterioration, which meant what we had was a copy of a print that was literally starting to lose some of the image down the side. There were numerous hairline scratches, which are very typical of an overused print, even a little projector dirt in one particular shot.
We also had generational issues that comes along with having duplicates. We had our restoration “to do” list finely tuned by the time we started this project.
THE DEADBOLT: For such a huge movie in scope, with so many different action sequences, where did you begin in the process? How did you know what to focus on first?
KALAS: During the research part of it, in terms of finding the best element, we also found a continuity script that told us where the original tints actually were as well as some of the special hand color effects. We also read up on the actual exhibition of the film and how it was presented with a live orchestra and sound effects in bigger towns across the United States and even in England. So we had a roadmap of the restoration process based on our own research. We knew that we had to scan the picture and start doing different forms of clean up before we did the tints. There was a natural progression that came out of our research.
THE DEADBOLT: Can you talk about what exactly was done at Skywalker in terms of adding sound effects?
KALAS: We had the original score in our archive, so we recorded that score. Then Ben Burtt, the amazing sound effects designer (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark), happily agreed to work with us on doing the final mix of that score and adding in sound effects that were as authentic as he could make it.
He read up, and we read up, on a lot of different ways that sound effects were originally presented in the theaters. Sometimes they would be percussion instruments while other times they would be foley like effects. But we generally knew what they were after was creating this very realistic wartime experience. That’s exactly what Ben brought to the final mix.
In my opinion, the result is just spectacular. As Ben Burtt said when he worked on the film, he thought of it not as a silent film but as a warm film. I think the evidence is there in the recorded soundtrack.
THE DEADBOLT: Overall, what was the biggest challenge with the film itself?
KALAS: When I was talking about the nitrate deterioration in the actual image, that was one we had to be most careful with and was the most painstaking. There was so much image gone in certain places that we really had to work carefully with our good friends at Technicolor who provided that technical expertise to make sure that when we were replacing different parts of the image that we were doing it absolutely accurately. And that took a lot of time.
THE DEADBOLT: Since Wings was the first and only silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, how does it feel to see a silent film in the running this year?
KALAS: I think it’s fantastic that people are actually interested in the history of cinema, which is the way I see it. Not only is it an actual silent film, and people are going to see it and liking it, but it’s about the history of cinema. It’s about the transition from silent to sound film. To me, that’s what I do. I take care of old movies. So the more people who are interested in them them better. I think it’s fantastic.
THE DEADBOLT: After spending so much time with Wings, what does the film mean to you?
KALAS: Well, I always sat that when when you restore a film, you spend a lot of time with it. It’s always a pleasure to be able to spend time with a film that’s worth getting to know. Films never cease to amaze me. I will never stop thinking, how did he do that? How did they figure out that flight sequence? When you watch it again and again, it constantly gives you new surprises and new brilliance of filmmaking. It’s an absolute work of art in that way.
Wings is available on Blu-ray and DVD as on January 24.