Rules for revising past work

Since I’ve been putting together a sort of retrospective Blu-Ray of my past work, I’ve had to take a look at my old films. I want to make sure that I present everything on the Blu-Ray in as good quality as possible, so I decided to make fresh renders. I’ve also been restoring two films that never got a proper digital presentation.

In the restoration of Dream, I ended up losing a frame on the edge of each cut. That’s a story for another time, but because of this I had to redo the sound mix in order for everything to sync up. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I’d gone beyond adjusting timing and levels, and I started swapping out different voice over takes!

When I started rendering Black Weeds, I realized that I wanted to revise the color correction a bit. Then I found a bunch of other things I wanted to do.

This brought up a conflict for me. I was really excited by the improvements I was making to my old projects. But, I felt worried that what I was doing was wrong. After all, part of the point of looking back at old projects is seeing the faults.

Lots of creators have revised their work in different ways, perhaps the most notorious being George Lucas. I am not a fan of any of the revisions he has made to his films. I definitely don’t want to do something like that – think that I’m improving my films, but actually make them much, embarrassingly, worse.

Hardly any people have even seen my films, much less become attached to them the way so many have with Star Wars. Even so, I became paranoid that someone would accuse me of “Lucasing” my projects. As I worked on my revisions, I kept trying to tell myself that I’m allowed to do what I want, but the feeling kept coming back.

I decided I needed to lay out some rules for how to revise past work in a respectful way. The idea is to present the original creative idea/story as clearly as possible. You’re preserving the creative faults, but getting rid of some of the technical faults. Creative faults are more interesting than technical faults.

Here are the rules I came up with:

1. No adding imagery

This is the biggest reason that the Star Wars special editions are awful. The imagery that you come up with when making a film is one of the main things you’re doing. Adding something new to that is too much.

2. No adding anything that sticks out

If an addition draws attention to itself, it’s probably not part of the original idea. I can see why it’s tempting to do this – to want the new version to be obviously better than the old version. But the goal should be for someone to not consciously notice a difference.

I actually added one sound effect to Black Weeds, but I’m sure no one would notice it unless they watched both versions side by side.

3. Hiding technical mistakes is OK

Technical mistakes aren’t interesting in themselves. They can only distract from the story. So if there’s a boom in the shot and you can erase it without drawing attention to it, then that’s great. In my case I’d actually tried to digitally hide some mistakes in the original version. But I did it in a way that was a bit overblown and maybe attracted too much attention. So in the new version, I tried to dial it back a little, and make the digital repairs a little more subtle.

4. Editorial changes allowed only if they improve the story as originally intended – and only if subtle

Making edits can get dangerously close to sticking out. I decided to swap out some audio takes in Dream, because I thought it improved the storytelling. In the original edit I chose takes that I thought were more interesting. Ten years later, having lived with the film for a while, I think they are actually just more confusing. I know this comes close to being something that sticks out, but I do that that changes in audio are more forgiving than changes in visuals. I’m confident that most people wouldn’t notice the difference.

I also made a few small cuts in Black Weeds, the new version is 2 seconds and 14 frames shorter than the original. The changes are very subtle, but they fix things that have been bugging me for a while, and they help the story.

5. Color grading and sound mixing are OK

Film watchers are very used to seeing films with different color grades now. Almost every time a film gets a new video release it gets a new transfer and color grade. So I think color grading is fair game for improvement.
Upgrading a sound mix similarly seems more technical. Even though it is definitely a very creative area, most of what goes on in a sound mix is changing levels. This puts it in the same category as color grading to me.
One mistake I’ve made many times is making certain visuals too dark, or making certain audio parts to quiet. This is a creative issue, but I think it is OK to make sure that something is visible or audible, especially if it is important to the story.

So those are my rules for revising past work. I hope they will be helpful to you if you are experiencing a similar situation. If so, or if you have come up with any other rules of your own, I’d love to hear about it!