Digital Magic Restores 'Tora! Tora! Tora!'

I was a student at Radford High School when "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was filmed at nearby Pearl Harbor, and when the movie was released in 1970, I went to see it with my girlfriend at the Waikiki Theater. It was spectacular, a tremendous big-screen experience.

But after its run, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" pretty much vanished in the dustbin of memory, revived periodically for cable TV viewing.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" is back, released this week in a spectacularly restored Blu-ray edition ($35) featuring commentary by director Richard Fleischer and Japanese-film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, the "Day of Infamy" documentary, the original theatrical trailer, an "AMC Backstory" on the film, a collectible hardcover book and other extras.

Schawn Belston, senior vice president of library and technical services at Fox Filmed Entertainment, was in charge of herding the movie back to its former glory.

"Like most people, I didn't see it in a theater originally," he said in a phone interview from 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."

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 invented in the 1950s as an alternative to Technicolor that faded from use in the mid-'70s. And faded is the word: The layers of color in Eastman Color negatives are made of vegetable dyes that fade.

"Yellow is the first to go, making everything look kind of pink," Belston said. "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," Belston said. "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."

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 wasn'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 10 minutes of Japanese scenes, and we were able to restore them from original Fujicolor negatives."

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