Reproducing Colors We’ve Never Seen Before – the “The Wizard of Oz” in HDR

Watching the latest superhero movie release – loaded with CGI and eye-melting explosions – is obviously a great way to test the cinematic benefits of High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) formats on your brand-new TV. But what about the many thousands of films from the first hundred-plus years of cinema?

Well, it turns out that one of the earliest full color films ever produced contains a rich range of colors that audiences have not been able see since the original screening of the film in theaters over 80 years ago.

Barry Goch, writing for postPerspective on Warner’s recent 4K HDR restoration of 1939’s multi-Oscar-winning classic, The Wizard of Oz:

George Feltenstein, SVP of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, spoke about why the film was chosen for restoration. “The Wizard of Oz is among the crown jewels that we hold,” he said. “We wanted to embrace the new 4K HDR technology, but nobody’s ever released a film that old using this technology. HDR, or high dynamic range, has a color range that is wider than anything that’s come before it. There are colors [in The Wizard of Oz] that were never reproducible before, so what better a film to represent that color?” (emphasis added)

This is a fantastic use of HDR and WCG technologies. Many classic films have been restored multiple times in recent decades as new formats arose from laser disc to DVD to Blu Ray and so on. Each subsequent release brought improvements in image quality and fidelity but the color reproduction has never really been close to that of the original film. Until now.

Film and Digital Gamuts

Color Gamut of Print Film and modern Digital Camera Sensors compared to the DCI-P3 and BT.2020 standards in CIE1931*. Data source: Sony

Many color movies from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s were filmed with rich, vibrant colors. In fact, many popular film-stocks could reproduce a wider color gamut than even the best-performing HDR TVs on the market today. Technologies like Technicolor’s insane Three Strip Process enabled cinematographers to capture and reproduce a range of colors that may have been closer to BT.2020 than DCI-P3.



Brilliant red fireball in The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz, presents a vibrant, fantastical world containing colors across the spectrum from the famous ruby red slippers to the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City and even the occasional bright red fireball. It is therefore a perfect fit for remastering in wide color gamut.

But it is by no means the only older film worthy of this treatment. There are quite a few movies, such as An American in Paris (1951), Singing in the Rain (1952) and countless early Disney animation films that relied on the Technicolor three strip process to create richly colorful worlds. I look forward to seeing more restorations of these classic films that bring back colors that haven’t seen in many decades and that many audiences (anyone under ~90) have never had the chance to see.

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*: Why CIE 1931? Haven’t most people (including me!) moved on from this ancient color space in favor of the far more uniform CIE 1976 or u’v’ color space? Recent work by Dr. Kenichiro Masaoka (the guy who invented BT.2020) suggests that good old CIE 1931 may actually be more useful for making color volume comparisons. Recommend reading his recent JSID paper from 2019 “Color Gamut of Multi‐Chromatic Displays” for more detail: