Restoring A Hard Day’s Night for a Theater Near You

The Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night' a Janus Films release (c) Bruce and Martha Karsh
The Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night' a Janus Films release (c) Bruce and Martha Karsh / The Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night' a Janus Films release (c) Bruce and Martha Karsh

When they were gathering the original source materials for their new restoration of A Hard Day’s Night, the experts at the Criterion Collection—the famed home video label that gathers some of cinema's best films and releases them in editions of the highest possibly quality—had a big problem. “The first and last reels of the negative were missing,” Criterion President Peter Becker tells us when we meet at the company's New York City offices. “I don’t know why exactly or when they disappeared, but they have been missing for a period of time, and we were unable to turn those up.”

But they didn’t panic: The film reels the company did have were completely intact, without any glaring defects that would make it impossible to keep the film from looking—and, of course, sounding—as good as it did when it premiered at London’s Palladium Theater on July 6, 1964. To replace the missing reels, they used duplicate negatives from other source prints, and with all the materials in place, the restoration began.

The year-and-a-half-long restoration process culminates in both a recently-released dual format Blu-ray and DVD edition and a nationwide theatrical release this weekend by Janus Films (Criterion's theatrical distribution wing) to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary. Audiences will now get to enjoy the movie—a somewhat exaggerated, semi-autobiographical musical-comedy that features some of the Fab Four’s biggest hits—at home or on the big screen. Here's how Criterion restored the classic film.

A Restoration Revolution

This isn't the first time Criterion has released A Hard Day's Night: In 1987, the company released the movie as a laserdisc (and also, curiously, as a CD-ROM under a now-defunct offshoot called The Voyager Company). But Becker and others at Criterion thought they could do better, and when the rights to the film—formerly held by Miramax—expired a year and a half ago, they jumped at the possibility of bringing the film out of obsolete formats and giving it the so-called updated Criterion treatment, and quickly acquired the rights.

At Criterion, each restoration begins with a single in-house producer who individually oversees the step-by-step process of all the departments—including the in-house restoration team or the design team—who are working on the project simultaneously. “I think the reason we work the way that we do is that, over the course of working on [films], you get to know [a producer’s] certain areas of expertise,” says Becker. This helps the company decide who will oversee new projects, either in a hands-on capacity or simply serving as an expert who can provide guidance. “So, for example, we’ll have a producer who is the steward for Fellini’s legacy”—the Italian director behind such classics as and Amarcord—“[and] they may not necessarily be the producer of all the Fellini editions that we do, but effectively, they become the steward of those editions.”

The perfect steward for A Hard Day’s Night was longtime Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson, who had previously worked on similar music-related releases, including the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter and D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop. She also happens to be a huge fan of Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night. “You can sort of feel, internally, what sorts of projects will gravitate towards which producers,” Becker says, “and this one clearly landed there right at the outset.”

In approaching any film restoration, the company abides by a set of principles that favors the integrity of the physical film itself over imposing their mark on it. “Our particular philosophy has been to use a light hand to try to retain the look and feel of film, and I think that’s what has happened here,” Becker says, “which is to say to honor the [film] grain, and to be sensitive to what makes a film image alive.”

In the case of A Hard Day's Night, the company's plan was to digitally scan the original source materials into 4K—giving the film a high definition resolution of four thousand pixels—at their in-house lab. But instead of using their countless digital restoration tools to over-stabilize, over-saturate, or clean the 24-frames-per-second images completely to make the movie totally digitally pristine, the Criterion team used the less-is-more mantra when necessary.

To show that technique in action, Becker takes me deep into the offices—through hallways peppered with posters of the company's releases—into the restoration editing bays, a series of darkened rooms impressively stacked with every possible restoration tool imaginable. The team is working on restoring a documentary in which one frame of a scene had misplaced film sprocket holes through the middle of the image. This effectively put a huge hole in the middle of a person’s face in that frame. Members of the restoration team were exploring using adjacent frame restoration techniques to fix it, examining single frames before and after the marred frame to see if they could cut and paste a portion from a clean frame over the damaged area. (The same strategy might also be used for more common defects, like dirt or scratches on the image from frame to frame.) The idea isn't to completely change the image, but to reestablish it. That the film they're working has a run time of about 50 minutes makes me marvel at how patient they need to be when working on films double or triple that length.

“Our principle is always: Do no harm. We would much rather see original damage than see evidence of our fixes,” Becker says. “If we can make a fix without leaving a trace, then by all means, [we'll] go ahead and make the fix. But if you’re going to leave a trace of your fix, I would much rather see the original damage.” This allows the restored version of A Hard Day's Night to resemble the tangible quality of the film as if people were seeing it on the big screen in 1964, but still gives the team enough space to fix common physical defects like film warping or torn frames from the celluloid that was passed on to the scanned image.  

It Really Rocks

Restoration doesn't stop at cleaning up the film. Criterion also has to consider sound—and it's especially crucial for a music-related flick like A Hard Day's Night. They commissioned an all-new 5.1 stereo mix of the soundtrack that will appear on both the dual format release and in the theatrical release, remixed and remastered by music producer Giles Martin—son of longtime Beatles producer George Martin.

The original music materials for A Hard Day’s Night were well-preserved, sitting virtually untouched in the vaults of the famed Abbey Road Studios. But Martin—who calls from Abbey Road Studios, where the main audio remastering was done—says he found restoring the film’s sound effects to be the most difficult. “We had to go and find them at a few places in LA, some at Twickenham Studios [in London], and it was all separate reels,” he says. This forced his team to marry the virtually unspoiled audio quality of the music with the patched together examples of original effects material.

Among the many specific changes he made, Martin found and reinstated the original sound effect of subtle train background noise during the performance of “I Should Have Known Better” which, for some reason, had been cut out of the audio source he was working with. He also added a faint feedback sound effect when George Harrison mistakenly knocks over his amp during the performance of “If I Fell.”

Much like Criterion’s delicate approach to restoring the picture image, Martin had to strike a balance to complement the whole. “Once we’ve amassed all the separate sources, then we start thinking about how we’re going to approach it,” he says. “We try and clean it, but not varnish it. The whole idea is to make the film punch out of the speakers, and sound good out of the speakers, and sound immediate.” But the sound itself was never meant to be intrusive. Instead, the team took a cue from director Richard Lester’s original approach: that the music should always emerge organically from the film—even if musical instruments magically appear out of nowhere, as they do for the “I Should Have Known Better” performance—instead of being lazily laid over the top of it.

According to Martin, the song they most improved on was “Can’t Buy Me Love." To Martin, the previous versions of the song—and even parts of the original mix—sounded relatively flat. He intensified the audio quality of the song to suit the 5.1 surround mix. Now, Martin says, “It just bursts with energy. It really rocks.”

The new 5.1 audio-track creates a better spatial sense of the music and the environment of the film instead of playing with surround sound tricks. Yet another other audio track for the dual format release, directly coordinated and mixed by Criterion’s audio supervisor Ryan Hullings, will be included, because it’s how the original would have sounded—and is still Lester’s preferred audio track.

Some Esteemed Collaborators

In putting the complete package together, Hendrickson and the Criterion team wanted to create extensive supplemental material that reflected the spontaneous and celebrated nature of The Beatles’ first foray into movies. So the company called on countless Beatles-related outlets, including Mark Lewisohn—the world’s leading Beatles historian who was interviewed for the extras—as well as Apple Corps, director Richard Lester, and even the remaining Beatles themselves.

The potentially daunting task of representing The Beatles’ legacy, as well as the notoriously image-sensitive Apple Corps, didn’t phase the people at Criterion. “I think [they] were generally thrilled by the stuff we were finding, by the quality of the material that was getting produced around [the movie], and by the quality of the restoration that was being made,” Becker says. “It was a whole team who came together to really make something. We wanted them happy, they knew we wanted them happy, and from the very beginning we invited their input. They have been just amazingly supportive.”

Becker points to the process of creating the final poster art for the new release as an example of that support. Chosen from over 65 different variations of a theme from three different artists, the poster was created by designer Rodrigo Corral, and is noticeably different from any previous A Hard Day’s Night designs, including the famous credit-sequence photos that make up the original LP cover. Becker and Criterion didn’t want to retread over something that was so iconic. “We really felt it was important for this release to have a look,” he says. “We didn’t want to just be bringing back a ‘Hey, look at this old album’ mentality. Yes, there is a nostalgia factor, and yes, it’s a great piece of design—but it didn’t feel to us that’s where we wanted to land. I think the idea was always that we wanted to make something that was ours, and it’s very hard to design for something that already has its own iconic presence.”

The final, minimalist design, which perfectly captures the manic spontaneity of the film, was the only design the team presented to Apple Corps, and they gave it their stamp of approval.

Celebrating a Moment

Surely something as important as The Beatles’ first movie couldn’t just be contained in a DVD and a Blu-ray. “What do you do for the 50th anniversary for something that is so culturally significant on a global basis?” Becker says. “I think the answer, as always, goes back to the way that we think that movies are meant to be seen, which is in a theater with as many strangers as possible, all coming together for a really fantastic theatrical experience.”

Janus Films, the theatrical distribution branch of Criterion, has always released restored and art-house films into theaters, but mostly on a small scale. It wasn’t until their theatrical run of last year’s The Great Beauty—which later won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film—that they began to think much bigger and more spontaneously. 

Usually, Criterion sends out a limited number of 35mm prints or DCP (digital cinema package) bookings to a few theaters to play out over a long period of time. But the success of The Great Beauty meant that the film quickly expanded to nearly 100 theaters nationwide—new territory for Janus and Criterion. This realization that they could reach a large number of theaters, coupled with the immense popularity of The Beatles, made them push to release A Hard Day's Night theatrically on the combination anniversary/holiday weekend. The company had originally aimed to get the restoration into 50 theaters, but it will now be playing in over 115 in North America—and that number continues to expand.

To Becker, the film has always been the ultimate trans-generational feel-good experience, which he says has something to do with The Beatles themselves. “There’s something about the feeling of infinite possibility [in the film] that lends to this kind of feeling,” he says. He hopes to see families and people of all ages coming together to celebrate the film—and the moment it represented. “The music is familiar and the ebullience of the moviemaking is infectious," he says, "and it is one of those cases where there are people who are currently in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, who were in their teens, 20s, and 30s when The Beatles took the world by storm.” In a sea of forgettable summer movies, A Hard Day’s Night offers a timeless ode to freedom and fun—a cinematic surge of energy, creativity, and great music—that's missing from blockbuster films today. Criterion’s restoration looks and sounds gorgeous, and the July 4th weekend is the perfect time to experience it for the first time—or the one hundredth.

“They absolutely remember what that was like, and they absolutely love returning to those moments,” Becker says, “How often are those moments still relevant for the 6, 7, and 8 year olds, or the 15 to 20 years olds of today?”

All photos courtesy of Bruce and Martha Karsh.