Q&A with Paramount’s VP of Archives on the restoration of ‘Wings’, Oscar’s first winner

A scene from 'Wings'. Courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment.

Paramount Pictures is celebrating their 100th anniversary this year and along with a wonderful (and free) iPad app they’ve released to commemorate this great feat, they’ve also gone back into their vault to restore one of their most cherished properties — the 1927 silent World War I film Wings.

Directed by William A. Wellman, and starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Jobyna Ralston, Wings tells the story of two men from different social classes who are both in love with the same woman. But when the two join the Air Force during the “great war”, they go from enemies to good friends as they battle for freedom in the skies. The film is comedic, dramatic, sad, and occasionally sweet, and features some great effects for the time. It’s no wonder the film was the very first Best Picture Oscar winner.

For a film that was almost considered lost, Paramount’s restoration, being released January 24 on Blu-ray, is breathtaking. Not only have they gone back and drastically cleaned up the image, but they’ve also added the score and sound effects that would have accompanied it at the theatre. I was glued to my television in awe while watching it and could not believe this was an 85-year-old production I was seeing.

Andrea Kalas, Paramount’s VP of Archives, spoke with Criticize This! about how the restoration of Wings came to be and what went into the process. Read our Q&A below.

Brian McKechnie: As the VP of Archives at Paramount, what does your job entail on a daily basis?

Andrea Kalas: I oversee the archives for the back catalogue and also ensure that new features produced and distributed by Paramount are also archived well. We have a prop and costume archive, a stills archive, and we oversee vaults and digital archives.

BM: So this is not just a room with film reels and hard drives full of movies?

AK: No, here at Paramount it’s basically the creative output of the studio that we attempt to preserve and provide access to. Both from the history of Paramount to the present.

BM: What goes into restoring a film like Wings, which was considered lost by many?

AK: It wasn’t so much a lost film as much as one that couldn’t really be restored until now because the digital restoration technology had to advance. So many films from the silent era do not have original negatives preserved because the concept of film preservation and archiving came many years after the silent era.

Our first step was to look around the world to find the best existing original element and it turned out to be one in our own vault. After we had determined we had the best possible material to start with we then did the technical work of scanning that original picture and began correcting the image. Significant scratches, dirt from a film projector — the condition of the image was compromised with age so digital technology allowed us to really honour the original look of the film.

BM: How long did you work on the restoration?

AK: It took longer to research than it did [to restore]. We spent about six months reading what we could from when the film was released. It was a blockbuster at the time it was released and in big cities these were big deal screenings with a full orchestra and sound effects. We also read about the special effects that were included in the film which made the flames orange when the planes are crashing or when the machine guns are firing. We also researched as many original documents that we would. For example, an original continuity script gave us information about the tints and which colours the actual tints were in the film. When you watch it you’ll see it’s not black and white all the time and that it’s got either an amber or lavender tint to it.

BM: With more people getting into high-def and Blu-ray has that given a new life to restoring films like Wings because there’s more demand for them now?

AK: It’s been nice to see some catalogue titles have done well on Blu-ray so I’d like to form the conclusion that people are really appreciating high quality restorations as a result.

BM: With digital filmmaking taking over now how will the future of preserving and restoring be affected?

AK: Archiving digitally is a really important part of what we do actually. Figuring out how to preserve things in a digital realm is, next to restoring films, probably the number one thing that takes up my day. Films that are shot digitally now, such as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, need to be preserved. So that preservation aspect is very important to us. In terms of seeing things in different formats, I strongly believe that the higher resolution you start with the further down the line it looks better. When I watch the trailer for the Wings Blu-ray on my iPhone I know where we started from and I know that has improved the look of it.

BM: Since this is the 100th anniversary of Paramount, do you have anything else planned around the celebration?

AK: There’s been a lot worked on and we’ll be involved with different festivals and organizations to show our movies. We’ll be busy all year. Watch this space [laughs].

BM: Is there any other film you want to get your hands on to restore?

AK: I have to say it’s going to be hard to top Wings in terms of a very transformative restoration project. To go from the really compromised quality that we started with with the picture to come up with what I think is a very nice [image] and also to be able to rerecord the original score and add the sound effects to give people the idea that a silent film was never truly silent, that’s a really exciting restoration experience and I’m still on a high from it.

The restored version of Wings is now available on Blu-ray. Support Criticize This! by purchasing it from Amazon.ca via the link below.

Top image: A scene from Wings. Courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment.

Brian McKechnie

About Brian McKechnie

Brian McKechnie is the founder and editor of Criticize This! Email him at brian@criticizethis.ca.