FilmSlashTV: An all-new ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’

Dec. 2, 2011 | 0 Comments

In the days prior to digital F/X, films like 'Tora! Tora! Tora' were shot with real airplanes. (Courtesy Fox Entertainment)

In the days prior to digital effects, films like "Tora! Tora! Tora" were shot with real airplanes. (Courtesy Fox Entertainment)


A personal note: I was a student at Radford High School when “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was filmed at nearby Pearl Harbor, and when the movie was released, I went to see it with my girlfriend — where is she now? — at the Waikiki Theater (where is it now?) It was spectacular, a tremendous big-screen experience, but the girlfriend kep asking questions, and I kept whispering answers, until the guy in front of us turned around and yelled at me to shut the hell up. I haven’t spoken in a theater since.

But after its run, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” went away. It vanished in the dustbin of memory. That’s what happened to movies back then. You’d see faded, scratchy versions on TV, or clips used in other films, but it wasn’t until the advent of home video that Hollywood began realizing that the cans of old film in backlot warehouses still represented moneymaking assets. As movies moved out of theaters and onto home “entertainment systems,” revitalizing older films became a growth industry in Hollywood, with its own special army of technicians, editors, marketers and film historians.

“Tora! Tora! Tora!” will be back Tuesday, Dec. 6, released in a spectacularly restored Blu-Ray edition. (A sneak preview screening will occur at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center theater. It’s free. Reservations at 954-8721.)

Schawn Belston (Fox Entertainment)

Schawn Belston (Fox Entertainment)

Although Schawn Belston has the impossibly long title of “Senior Vice President of the Library and Technical Services at Fox Filmed Entertainment,” when he first came to Hollywood, he just knew he wanted to be in the movie biz. “Ever been on a movie set?” he says. “It’s magic!” Belston was the trailboss in charge of herding “Tora! Tora! Tora!” back to its former glory.

“Like most people, I didn’t see it in a theater originally,” he said, long-distance from the Fox offices in Los Angeles. “I saw it on TV, and not big-screen TV. I didn’t see it in a theater until a decade or so ago, and it was really impressive,” adding that he’s a regular at revival screenings in Hollywood. “I love seeing movies on a giant screen with a theater full of strangers, hearing their reactions.”

Belston’s crew works digitally, converting physical film into electronic files that can be tweaked on computers. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was filmed in Eastman Color, a one-strip film negative that was invented in the 1950s as an alternative to Technicolor, and faded from use in the mid-’70s. And faded is the word. The layers of color in Eastman Color negs are made of vegetable dyes that fade.

“Yellow is the first to go, making everything look kind of pink,” said Belston. “And that makes the shadows go blue, because you need all three colors to make black.” The file copy negative of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” had these problems.

“Another problem is that scenes were shot on different kinds of cameras, which cause different kinds of deterioration. They deteriorate at different rates. An aerial scene could be faded, but cut to people on the ground, and they’d look fine. We scanned in the negatives, and use digital techniques to make it all match up. Color fading is easy to correct digitally. And we could also digitally repair scratches and tears and dust in the negative. Everything gets ravaged by time.”

While filming, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” had a famous falling out between Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and producers Darryl Zanuck and Elmo Williams, who fired Kurosawa after a few weeks. The footage Kurosawa shot is the Holy Grail of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” restoration, and Belston said they were unable to locate it. “We had every bit of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” footage sent to our lab, and it wsn’t there. That footage is legendary, but to the best of our knowledge, it doesn’t exist.

“The Japanese cut of the film, however, has an extra ten minutes of Japanese scenes, and we were able to restore them from original Fujicolor negatives.”

The digital files of this new restoration are 4K, meaning that there are 4,000 lines of vertical resolution. Most theaters that screen digital prints are 2K, so Fox is planning for the long haul for this film, expecting even higher resolutions in the future.

High-resolution film files create their own philosophical problem, as the resolution is often finer than the original film grain. “We try to make the viewing experience as close to that of the original theatrical screening as possible,” said Belston. “We could, if we wanted, actually remove the grain texture entirely and make it look like it was shot yesterday. But that’s not what it looked like in 1970. We don’t want to do anything that the original director wouldn’t approve of — we have to make shot-by-shot decisions.”

For example, the higher resolution of digital revealed that some of the aircraft models in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” are hanging from wires. The wires aren’t visible in the physical print, but they were in the digital file. So the wires were electronically erased. “We’re pretty sure the director wouldn’t have wanted the wires to show!” said Belston.

While restoring Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant soundtrack, however, they discovered an error that has never been corrected. Until now.

“When the film comes back from intermission, the sound and the music fade in, and that’s the way it was mixed all these years,” said Belston. “But hidden in there was a big Goldsmith musical note that signalled a return to the film. An orchestral hit. It’s back now, and makes a big difference.”

You sound buffs out there, don’t expect fancy 7.1 sound. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was released in a basic Left-Center-Right mix. In other words, stereo.

Although “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is now restored to modern theatrical standards, and is fairly timeless — and a far better and more accurate movie than “Pearl Harbor” — Belston doesn’t see it getting a theatrical release, except in a revival house. Nor does he see it being converted to 3D, a notion that makes him laugh.

“The film preservation movement in Hollywood didn’t really start until the 1970s, when Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola and Scorsese and other new filmmakers made it an interest. And then videotape came along — god bless VHS! — and studios became aware they could re-release older films for the home market,” said Belston. “And so, preserving old films as a career doesn’t have a long track record. Maybe 25 years.”

Which means, that if your memories of a movie in a theater seem to make it brighter and more colorful than what you see on TV, you’re not mistaken. It was.
Burl Burlingame is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at and follow him on Twitter.

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