“It’s a Wonderful Life” looks wonderful in 4K
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE”
4K Ultra HD; 1946; unrated; Streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube
Best extra: Restoring a Beloved Classic
HOW MANY times have you watched the holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
Five times! 10 times! 30 times! 100 times!
No matter how many, you’ve never seen it as clearly, or as well-defined as this new 4K Ultra HD with its expansive High Dynamic Range grayscale. Sorry, physical disc lovers — Paramount, who owns the rights, only released it on digital streaming sites in 4K.
“It’s a privilege and honor to take care of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a huge burden to make sure we do it well,” says Andrea Kalas, senior vice president of Archives at Paramount Pictures during the featurette “Restoring a Beloved Classic.”
Over the years, Paramount has given Frank Capra’s ageless Christmas tale of small-town hero George Bailey (James Stewart) lots of attention – checking the camera negative every couple of years at the studio's archive vault. There was a period during the 1970s and ’80s when the movie accidentally fell into the public domain and inferior prints popped up and were shown on almost every local TV station across the U.S. That’s where the film grew its fan base and how it became a national treasure.
Capra and Stewart both considered it their favorite film, and the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time selected “It’s A Wonderful Life” as No. 1, topping “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Schindler’s List.” It also received five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Sound and Film Editing. Inexplicably, however, it lost money during its original theatrical run.
During their latest inspection of the negative, Kalas and Laura Thornburg, Exec. Director of Film Preservation at Paramount, discovered the film was showing signs of deterioration. They felt the time was right for a complete 4K restoration using the latest digital advancements.
The original 35mm camera negative was nitrate-based, just as were all other movies made pre-1950. The high silver content was the origin of the term “silver screen,” which produced a “sparkly and lustrous look about it,” says Kalas. But that film stock was extremely flammable and a number of studio fires forced nitrate film into extinction by 1950.
A special 4K scanning device at Technicolor was used to preserve the original film (1.38:1 aspect ratio) without using the sprocket holes to guild the film through a series of rollers. Each frame was scanned twice – with and without the sprocket holes – to optically stabilize the image. Thirteen of the 14 original reels survived, but portions of the ends revived the biggest issues. Two second-generation fine grain negatives, struck in the late 1940s, filled the gaps. Those were also scanned in 4K. Final decisions were made on a shot-by-shot basis for the best source, plus digital tools gave them the ability to fix tears and cuts in the higher resolution that had been impossible in years past.
Capra’s production values were superb, and “Wonderful Life” was Stewart’s first film after serving during World War II, when he flew combat missions over Germany. The craftsmanship is a testament to Capra’s vision and, although three different cinematographers captured the story, it looks “remarkably consistent,” says Thornburg. “We really appreciated the quality of this negative. Not all of our negatives are this perfect,” says Kalas.
Plus, the advances in HDR technology has given “It’s a Wonderful Life” a much broader range of grayscale with new detail, especially with the highlights and dark shadows during the film noir Pottersville sequence. The film grain is also more noticeable and controlled on the 4K, without any signs of dirt, marks or scratches. They also removed any jitteriness in the frames and perfected seamless cuts between the original negative and the second generation. Those moments required adjustments with the contrast, the grain, and density between frames to make it cohesive. The 4K also extracts details never seen before, such as background objects, and facial expressions on distant characters.
“We’re really sensitive to restoring a movie to make it feel film-like. And that involves backing off on the contrast, plus new technology and better color spaces help us out.” – Laura Thornburg Exec. Director of Film Preservation at Paramount
Paramount also struck a new 35mm negative to be stored in the cold vault and several new 35mm prints were produced to be exhibited in rare theatrical presentations.
The digital version on iTunes and Vudu also includes additional featurettes. “Secrets from the Vault,” offers insights from film historians Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, who are fully-versed on the production. They offer plenty of backstories from Capra’s decision after WWII to start Liberty Films, his own independent company. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was its first production and directors William Wyler and George Stevens joined Capra’s studio, which set up shop at RKO.
The streets of Bedford Falls were filmed at the 89-acre RKO Encino Ranch, with its large nostalgic main street and storefront façades. The winter scene was actually filmed during a heat wave in the summer of 1946, and salt, gypsum, and plaster were used for the snow on the ground, trees and buildings. Previous films bleached corn flakes to mimic falling snow, but the crunching sound they made when stepped on forced actors to rerecord their dialogue. Capra knew Stewart’s best dramatic performances were during the first takes, so they developed a technique using firefighting foam as the falling snow. It was lightweight and could be sprayed from high-pressure hoses and then blown into the scene with high-powered fans.”It’s a Wonderful Life” won a Technical Achievement Oscar for simulated snow falling, and a variation of the foam is still used in films today.
Other featurettes consist of eight minutes of home movie footage from the film’s wrap party, showing Capra hitting a double during a softball game; and a 1991 piece hosted by Capra’s son, Frank Jr., containing interviews with Stewart and Capra.
If you’ve been hesitant to sign up for a 4K digital streaming account via iTunes or Vudu or FandangoNow, or any other apps featuring 4K content available for purchase or rent on smart TVs, this restored American classic is the perfect excuse to make the leap.
– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer