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AI, UHD and 35mm: Arbelos Films’ David Marriott on the Present and Future of Film Restoration

A woman and two men sit in front of a gigantic photograph.The Rubber Gun

Launching in 2017 with a reissue of The Last Movie, Arbelos Films grew out of co-founders’ David Marriott, Dennis Bartok, Craig Rogers and Ei Toshinari’s experiences working at Cinelicious Pics. Since then, their slate of reissues have included Sátántangó, whose restoration opened up a relationship with the Hungarian National Film Archive that’s led to further Hungarian films being put out by the company, including Son of the White Mare and Twilight. In addition to Arbelos, Marriott has now started a second company with Jonathan Doyle, Canadian International Pictures, specifically focused on his native country’s cinema. Invited to the Jeonju International Film Festival to present three of those titles—1965’s Winter Kept Us Warm, 1977’s The Rubber Gun and 1984’s Hookers on Davie—Marriott sat down with me on the empty outdoor deck of a chicken-centric restaurant to discuss the current state of restoration, AI mediation and UHD.

Filmmaker: I always thought of you as a company that reissues restorations others have done rather than a company that does restorations and then reissues them. I guess that was baked into your conception from the beginning. 

Marriott: It was baked into the conception, even though at this point 50% of our slate is more traditional—we work with archives and license restorations. But for some of the ones we wanted to do, we want the agency to be able to say, “We like this film, we believe in this film and we have the expertise and knowledge to mobilize that ourselves.” Ei Toshinari and I, who run the company, were coming out of a previous company that was also a post-production facility, so we had a lot of hands-on experience with film scanners, digital restoration artists and color grading suites. We understood how to build a workflow in order to do our own stuff. When you’re doing that, you’re a little bit more in control of how you roll it out; we can choose, like, “We’d like this to premiere ideally at this festival in this strand.” Whereas some of those other ones it’s like, “It’ll be at Cannes Classics and we’ll see it with other distributors.” It’s almost like buying a new film in that way. Also, the work is fun. I love archives. I went to archive school at UCLA. That’s how I came to the business, so being in that universe is very familiar. 

Filmmaker: In terms of digital restoration, what would you say some of the most meaningful changes have been over the span of you running this company?

Marriott: Everything is more or less the same. You’re starting to see certain trends creep in, like de-graining is back now. AI is going to change a whole bunch of stuff really soon. In terms of arthouse film restoration, I think we’re relatively insulated for now. It’s more of a thing that’s happening at the studio level, like James Cameron doing crazy things to Aliens and The Abyss. 

Filmmaker: Is he using AI? 

Marriott: I believe a lot of those restorations were done using some new AI tools. I’m no expert on that, but anecdotally I think that’s what’s happening—weird color shifts and de-graining and everything’s in focus. There used to be like a focal plane where Arnold’s sharp but then behind him it’s gently soft, whereas now it’s like the machine interprets those as mistakes, like everything should be sharp. My partner works at Apple, and I was asking her, ”So, does this mean that everybody who’s doing restoration is going to be out?” No, but it means a lot of colorists and digital restoration artists will probably be coming on hard times in the next 10 to 15 years, but there will still be somebody who’s telling the machine what to do, at least for now. For us, it’s still very much like it used to be, working with archives or facilities to scan camera negatives. A digital restoration artist goes through and cleans it up, and we go back and forth and tell them how we want it to be. 

Filmmaker: And what are your scanning levels—2K, 4K? 

Marriott: That’s actually something that’s changed a little bit. It used to be the thinking was, if it’s 16mm, we’re going to do 2K and if it’s 35mm we’re going to do 4K.

Filmmaker: It’s double the gauge so therefore it should be double the resolution on the digital? 

Marriott: It’s sort of like, “The resolution peak that you’re going to hit extracting from like a 16mm piece of film is going to be roughly around 2K, and 35 is twice that.” Whereas now everything, if it’s from negative, is generally being scanned at 4K, because you can pull a little bit more out of it. That’s even shifted in the films I’m presenting here. The Hookers on Davie 16mm print, we scanned it at 4K. Rubber Gun we’d done the year before, so that’s 2K. I think they both look great, but now it’s becoming the default to go 4K. 

Filmmaker: You have used “canon-expanding” in your boilerplate, but stepping away from that a little bit: Since the pandemic lifted, there is a much larger quantifiable audience for hard art films. In New York the restoration of Stalker played for two months, Millennium Mambo for three months. Have you seen that benefiting you and the titles that you work on and, if so, what do you think that’s all about?

Marriott: We’re also seeing it in LA. The thing that’s happening in parallel with that for us is, physical media just exploded during the pandemic, so now we’re able to invest in a different way in doing that sort of stuff and have a whole other audience coming in from that. It was there before, but it used to be streaming was the thing, then theatrical, then home. Now streaming is behind physical media for us. That’s a larger thing too: a lot of restorations, even studio titles, are being driven by home entertainment companies. There’s quite a renaissance happening in arthouse film collector world and genre world, and they’re kind of overlapping. We tapped a whole new audience during the pandemic, largely by way of physical media, then when we came out of that and theaters got back on their feet we started to see that grow together.

Filmmaker: Do you see that same hunger coming from bookers? Are they getting the idea that these films might be a little sexier than they would have been 10 years ago?

Marriott: It’s been the same for us, to be honest. During the pandemic, obviously there was no theater-going for a while. When we came out of that it took a minute before we were booking theatrically again because we had a bunch of stuff to catch up on that we’d acquired. The whole first year for us coming out of the pandemic was, we went from releasing nothing on physical to doing six things in a year, which for a company our size is a huge amount of stuff.

Filmmaker: And what is that like? Obviously with digital you don’t have to strike 10 prints. Your company couldn’t exist to the same extent in a photochemical distribution world. 

Marriott: No, we’re really tiny. Everything is a big swing for us, so the fact that we can make a DCP and put it on Filemail and send that to a venue is quantifiably game-changing. That jump from having to be like “We’re gonna do 25 cities, we need 25 hard drives, we’re gonna put the DCP on that and put them in a case and gonna send that all around the country”—the idea that that’s a link now is maybe not the most exciting thing, but it genuinely changes our workflow in a significant way. 

Filmmaker: And have you seen that also expanding your geographical footprint in terms of who’s willing and able to book?

Marriott: You would think so but no, it’s been about the same. To go back to your first question about us producing our own restorations: Another reason that’s something we like to do is, we generally take world rights if we can do that. So, in addition to what we do in North America, we’ve become sort of de facto international sales agents in a very niche capacity for restorations, so we’re able to facilitate lives for these things in other places, like with Carlotta in France. We’re doing a lot in South America now. It’s a big part of how we’re able to continue to exist as a company. 

Filmmaker: How many titles do you do a year? 

Marriott: Five to six, then the Canadian company does 10 to 12 but those aren’t rolled out the same way. Some are just for Blu-ray, some of them are everything. 

Filmmaker: And what do you plan to speak on in terms of presenting Canadian films to a Korean audience? 

Marriott: Our function as a distributor is to facilitate access. You can save the films, but if people can’t see them that’s sort of where they live and die. That was why we started this Canadian company. I’m going to talk a little bit about the films themselves and why independent films from Canada in the run up to the ’90s are, in many cases, impossible to see. 

Filmmaker: And why is that?

Marriott: Largely distribution and financing. You have the NFB, which is amazing—they do a really good job taking care of their stuff and we work with them on a ton of things—but that’s the government moving into film production. You have this whole parallel side of the equation starting in the mid to early ’60s running up through the tax shelter years, where the government is coming in and saying “We’re going to loan you money to stimulate a private ecosystem for independent filmmaking in Canada and then you make your film. It’ll be successful, then you’re going to pay us back.” None of that really worked out, largely because of distribution. A lot of things had trouble crossing the border and getting a life in the States, and that’s super important, and in the early years Canadian critics were very unkind to Canadian films and that didn’t help. I’m sure your readers are already very familiar with the tax shelter years.

Filmmaker: Assume that they’re not. 

Marriott: That’s basically like, you have this program where the government is going to give you some of the money to help your film, but you’ve got to get private investors, matching money, that sort of stuff. Then, when that wasn’t working so well, in the late ’70s they were like, “You know what? 100% of anybody’s investment in this is going to be totally tax deductible.” All of a sudden you have all these people coming out of the woodwork investing in Canadian films just as a financial proposition, but what really happens is that opens the door for runaway American Hollywood productions to come to Canada make a movie on the cheap. They import an American star to make it sellable in the States, and what ultimately happens there is you start to see the industry get stripped of the parts that are originally supposed to be this idea of, “We’re going to do Canadian films. They’re going to be Canadian stories. Finally we’ll have some sort of a national mythology through moving images.” I mean, I love a lot of those tax shelter films, and things like the Cronenbergs and The Silent Partner are just masterpieces, but there’s also a lot of schlock. It’s fun schlock, but it’s not a national cinema in the way that you’ve had people talking very loftily about that in the ’60s. So, by the time you get to the ’80s that’s crashed and burned a little bit and there’s a lot of negativity surrounding it, and you get this fallow period for a while until the late ’80s with the Toronto New Wave—Bruce Macdonald, Adam Egoyan, Peter Mettler, Patricia Rozema. That’s the table setting for our modern Canadian film industry.

Filmmaker: There’s an Anglophone emphasis in your selections.

Marriott: There’s a huge short film/avant-garde French language tradition in Canadian cinema that we’re not addressing with what I’m choosing to show here, largely because those Francophone films don’t need restoring from us. There’s a company called “Éléphant, the memory of Quebecois Cinema.” That’s an amazing initiative based out of Montreal, and they’re funded to be able to do X amount of really good new 4K restorations of Quebecois cinema every year. We’re releasing a lot of those; Denys Arcand’s crime trilogy did really well for us. About half the slate every year is French-language films, but I’m not talking about that so much here, because that work is already being done.

Filmmaker: So you have your Canadian component, you have a Hungarian component. What else is in the national portfolio?

Marriott: Those are the only ones that are regularly recurring so far. I think you can sense a sensibility in terms of what we’re choosing, but that can take on a lot of shapes and forms depending on where we are in the year. Like we have an American indie, Time of the Heathen, coming up. That restoration wasn’t us; that was a UCLA collaboration with the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who’ve been doing really cool stuff. They also funded the restoration of Wayne Wayne’s Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive that we took out, and we’re working with them on a couple other things that haven’t been announced yet. They got a chunk of funding. Jesse Pires, who’s the curator of the Lightbox Film Center there, he’s working with Ross Lipman, who used to be at UCLA and has been an independent restoration force for many years. They’ve been doing all these amazing projects that happened to really align with our sensibility. They went to town on that audio restoration. They were going back to, I think, the quarter inch tape, remixing stuff and using AI. They were getting the score from the quarter inch and then using AI to extract the dialogue from the mag mix. Crazy stuff.

Filmmaker: Oh, so you are involved with AI a little bit.

Marriott: In terms of what we’re doing, I don’t think we’re ever gonna be the company that has AI do our restoration for us, but I think those tools will definitely start to make their way into what we’re doing in cases like what I was just talking about. 

Filmmaker: It sounds like it’s a little bit less potentially harmful in an audio context than a visual context.

Marriott: I’m less conversant in audio. You might talk to an audio expert who’s going to say it’s super harmful, but at the end of the day too it’s sort of like if, you know what it used to look like and you’re qualified to make that call, you can use that tool. I mean, it goes back to all those questions about medium specificity and ontological shifting when we started to do digital restorations in the first place instead of photochemical ones, you know?

Filmmaker: It used to be that 4K could only be projected on a 2K projector, because most places only had 2K projectors, right? 4K was a little bit wasted. Now, because of the ten-year projector lifecycle, theaters have to buy a new projector anyway. That gap that used to be between the efforts that you had and what people were able to see is finally being closed. 

Marriott: Absolutely, and I think even if people aren’t totally aware of that, the eye is registering stuff differently. I think a 2K restoration plays differently now, whereas five years ago i don’t think people would really know. 

Filmmaker: Do you think that 4K is enough, or do you think that eventually everyone’s gonna re-scan everything in, like, 6K? 

Marriott: Probably, but now we’re in high dynamic range mode, and that’s a whole different thing. The next frontier wasn’t, “We’re gonna double the resolution again and go to 8K”—I mean, I know that’s happening and that’s out there, but it seems like in terms of a cinephile audience, it’s HDR.

Filmmaker: How many different formats do you have to do for each restoration?

Marriott: We just did our first UHD. It’s interesting. It’s so much brighter than it ever was, so it looks great. Does it look like what the film has always looked like? When we do it, it’s really important to me to have the Blu-ray and SDR come in the same package as the UHD, because you still have the option to be like, “This is much closer to what it would have looked like when it was like projected in terms of brightness.” But we’re also not a nonprofit. We are in the market and need to exist, so it would be impossible for us to totally ignore it. We use a really light touch with it—I know some people really like to crank it and burn your retinas out. We try to make it still in the spirit of what it’s always been. I’m really curious to read more about people talking about that once it becomes something that the public is a little bit more interested in, in the way people really understand color grading if they’re watching restorations a lot in a way that they maybe didn’t 10 years ago.

Filmmaker: There’s this whole subsection of controversy about the color signatures that different restoration houses have. It’s one of those things that, once you see it, you can’t really unsee it. Do you think it’s real that these restoration houses have these house styles?

Marriott: In our own work we try really hard to not have that. We want to have really good reference materials and want the thing to look like what it’s always looked like to the best of our ability. I know that’s the company line, but that is actually what we’re trying to do. Sometimes, because of film stocks and color fading or this or that, you can only take it so far and that’s fine, but that’s not us imposing a look. We’re also always bringing in filmmakers whenever we’re able to, so I think it would be hard for us to impose, like, a yellow bias, because if the filmmaker comes in and is like “No, this is supposed to look green,” it’s gonna look green. 

Filmmaker: But what if the filmmaker is wrong? What if the filmmaker is William Friedkin and he wants to degrain everything?

Marriott: We’ve never had that, thank god. That’s the biggest nightmare in this field for me—one day we’re gonna get a filmmaker that wants the thing to look purple, or they’ll do the Michael Mann thing and all of a sudden it’s a whole different color. 

Filmmaker: If you don’t have access to a filmmaker with a living memory of what it’s supposed to look like or a cinematographer, what would your other reference materials be? 

Marriott: We’re generally trying to get a scan of the answer print if that’s in good condition, an element that we can get an accurate rendering, that does the best job of showing us what this would have looked like when it was first projected. If that’s not available, we’ll look at other stuff that the filmmakers made, that the DP made, try to find any writing about the film from when it came out.

Filmmaker: Another hot topic is in fact that people can’t get their TVs to work properly. Do you find yourself wanting to issue instructions to consumers on how to calibrate their TVs, the way David Lynch’s DVDs used to? 

Marriott: Yes, that would be great. I don’t think I have the apparatus to really put that into play, but it is a huge problem. We just took a trip to Scotland, my partner and I, and we were in a different hotel every night. They only had the BBC channels, and every night The Shining was on TV, and every night it just looked so wildly different. And it also somehow got worse! By the time we were at the last hotel, it looked like The Shining was like a ’90s soap opera. It was ridiculous. So yes, it’s a huge problem—I don’t say it’s a losing battle, but it’s definitely something where I don’t know if it’ll be us who breaks through on reversing that trend. When you leave like a color grading suite—let’s say you’re looking at something on a calibrated monitor, but your team isn’t all in the same city and don’t have the ability to go into a post facility with another calibrated monitor, so you’re sending a Vimeo link. Right there you’re already losing this perfect setup. The second it’s done and out the door, we lose a degree of control. I mean, it’s not going to look the same in every theater either—you know, the bulbs will affect the projection differently, there’ll be those slight variants. But in terms of people who are buying our Blu-rays, I think they’re going to go that extra mile. You’re not finding our stuff by accident and just throwing it on 

Filmmaker: 35mm theatrical exhibition in the specialty space is coming back in a really big way, often to the degree of stupidity, where people are striking 35 millimeter prints of digital titles. Do you see yourselves moving into that space and do you see that as a positive development?

Marriott: Yes, I think it’s a positive development. We have considered doing film-outs on the digital restorations. It always feels a little bit weird, because we’re not doing photochemical preservation restorations, so if we’re going to be in that space it’s going to have to be a film-out from our existing digital restoration, but at the end of the day it’s just about getting the work seen. Anything that gets people turned on to the films ultimately is a good thing. We haven’t done it yet, but we have considered doing a film-out on a digital restoration. I would not be surprised if we moved into a space where it’s like, “We’re gonna open this thing in New York and have a DCP and a print, and those will both have lives after that.”

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