IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Gets its 4K Wings

I wish I had Frank Capra’s masterpiece on 4K Blu-ray. Hot Dog!

It’s a Wonderful Life releases on 4K UHD Blu-ray on October 29.

Note all screenshots for this article are captured from 1080p standard Blu-ray (movie) or iTunes (extras) sources. Images are included for illustrative purposes only and are not representative of the quality of a 4K disc.

Simply put, It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a classic masterpiece, but one of the greatest American films of all time. Paramount released a stunning new 4K restoration to digital platforms last year, but disappointingly did not produce a corresponding disc release at that time. Thankfully, that finally becomes reality this holiday season. Hallelujah!

I discussed my affection for the film for last year’s digital release, so rather than reiterate all of that (you can read it below), I’d like to deep-dive into the features that accompany the 4K release.

The Package

It’s a Wonderful Life arrives on 4K Blu-ray in a handsome release that includes a 4K UHD Disc, Blu-ray Disc, and Digital Copy. My copy came with a slipcover; this is glossy with metallic elements.

A very important note; the included Blu-ray is not your typical Blu-ray copy of the movie, but rather the alternate Colorized version of the film (the same Disc 2 as the prior 2-Disc Blu-ray edition).

This is kind of a bizarre choice. Besides the fact that the colorized version is widely disliked, this that also means that we miss out on the 22-minute bonus “The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life” which was included in the prior Blu-ray release’s main disc, but didn’t make the jump to the 4K disc. (It is, however, available as an extra on iTunes, so you may be able to access to it that way — assuming the digital copy code includes iTunes extras).

Special Features and Extras — 4K Disc

Restoring a Beloved Classic (13:03)

I love informative restoration documentaries and despite a relatively short runtime, this is a really great one. This short doc features Paramount’s Andrea Kalas (SVP, Archives) and Laura Thornburg (Exec Director, Film Preservation), along with Film Scanner Eric Chilpa at Technicolor, discussing the scanning and restoration process.

For It’s a Wonderful Life, the restoration effort had the original nitrate negative and 2 close secondary sources, also nitrate. These film elements were subject to nitrate deterioration, so the secondary sources were subbed in when the original negative was unsalvageable.

I’ve always wondered whether HDR has any discernable impact on black and white films in particular (since they obviously have less need for color information), and this question is addressed head on. Whereas modern restorations tend to amplify contrast in order to try to extract details from monochromatic images, this restoration relied on HDR for rich, subtle grayscale gradation in order to enhance the filmic experience.

Laura Thornburg specifically calls out, as an example, the appearance of breaths in the cold air during the “Buffalo Girls” scene as being newly visible in the new restoration. I viewed this scene and compared with my old Blu-ray and confirmed that there was a dramatic difference in visibility of this particular detail.

Secrets from the Vault: It’s a Wonderful Life (22:11)

Effects artists and film historians Craig Barron and Ben Burtt host this look at the production of It’s a Wonderful Life, beginning with director Frank Capra’s radical pioneering as an independent (by opening his own production company, Liberty Films, with Williams Wyler and George Stevens) and then moving into the film’s subtle but incredible movie magic of weather, cinematography, and effects.

Weather plays an important role in the film, with rain, snow, and the sound of howling wind often naturally setting the mood for the scene. I’ve never even questioned the reality of the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, which are completely illusory. These wintry scenes were filmed in the summertime, the incredible work of talented effects artists. Russell Sherman famously pioneered a revolutionary and award-winning new method for creating safer, realistic, biodegradable “snow”, a variation of which continues to be used to this this day.

The film’s cinematographic accomplishments are also discussed; the work of multiple cinematographers who worked together for a consistent and cohesive look. On a similar note, the cinematography and editing use frequent “punch-ins” to create an intimate space for characters to occupy.

Another shocking revelation was the incredible use of matte paintings and seamless optical compositing to create the illusion of real locations; I was amazed to learn the extent to which this was implemented during the bridge scene.

Perhaps the most eye-opening subject covered is a deleted scene — footage of Potter’s mansion which didn’t end up getting used in the film. (There’s no specific “Deleted Scenes” section so this is the only place you’ll see it).

The pair close out their discussion with a short narrated recap of the discovered wrap party footage, which is also included separately as another bonus feature.

It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party (8:05)
Home movie footage of the film’s wrap party (no sound)

Special Features and Extras — Blu-ray Disc

Colorized Version of the Movie

A/V Out.

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It’s a Wonderful Life 4K UHD Blu-ray

Note all screenshots for this article are captured from 1080p standard Blu-ray (movie) or iTunes (extras) sources. Images are included for illustrative purposes only and are not representative of the quality of a 4K disc. Images may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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