Ken Burns' 19-hour masterpiece, 'Baseball,' is returning to MLB Network on Wednesday at the end of a year-long process that has given the 26-year-old project a stunning new look. To see it now -- digitized, crisper, cleaner, reformatted -- is to experience its beauty all over again.
“It’s how it looked through the viewfinder of Ken’s camera,” said Daniel White, post-production supervisor at Burns' Florentine Films. “We want to make this like it just came out.”
MLB Network will begin airing the HD version of Baseball with the “First Inning” at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday and the “Second Inning” at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. Other episodes will air throughout the month.
'Baseball' is the story of the national pastime told from its origins in the 1840s right through the formation of the American and National Leagues, the Babe Ruth Era, the Jackie Robinson Era and all that has happened since. Burns returned to the project a decade after its initial release and added the “Tenth Inning,” which deals with PEDs and their impact on the sport.
“My pride in seeing the finished product is always Ken’s reactions,” White said, “and hearing him talk about it and be so happy and see something he did so early on come back to life for the first time as the way he saw it.”
As for the audience reaction, he’s hoping the film appeals to fans of a certain generation who’ve watched 'Baseball' countless times along with a younger generation that has never seen it.
“The older generation, they’ve been fine with it because it's something that they're used to, and they love it,” White said. “So to have it brand new and fresh for them is wonderful feeling because they’ll have a whole new feeling about it.
“But another part of this is to bring it to a new audience, people who might normally not have watched it, because of the quality. It will look to them to be a new film. That is my greatest hope. What we've been trying to do with Ken's earlier films is to bring them back to life for what people expect nowadays.
“Younger people have a higher expectation of quality when they're watching these films. And so we've been going back to Ken's original camera negatives and rescanning them. You will think this was just filmed, except for seeing some of the interviews.”
To drop one name -- a younger Bob Costas.
“This process we put it through essentially looks like we just shot it, except Bob Costas looks like he’s a kid. We had this pristine negative, and we even brought the color up to date. Back then, they didn’t have the technology to control the color like we do now. So all that depth and all that nuance that’s in the original camera negative, we were able to bring that out.”
The process began by taking the original broadcast version from the George Eastman House in New York and going through 93,000 feet of 16mm film. That’s 3.6 million frames of reshooting, recasting and stabilizing.
“There’d be a lot of dust and a lot of what’s called film weave,” White said. “The film would kind of bobble. If you’ve seen the old film, it would kind of move around, and that was from the film going through the scanner for the analogue transfers. We corrected that.”
One issue with the new technology was that baseballs being thrown or hit would disappear, which can be a problem in a baseball documentary.
“We’d see people hitting invisible baseballs or trying to catch invisible baseballs,” he said.
In the end, that got worked out, too.
“I was somewhat skeptical to begin with,” White said. "But when Ken saw it, he said, `This looks like it has always been this way,’ which made me feel much better about the process.
“And having been at Florentine for 19 years, we all strive to understand Ken's intent and his composition. I've learned enough about him and his other cinematographers to understand what they're always going for. Hopefully, I do Ken proud and the other editors and producers and cinematographers.”