John Lennon & Yoko Ono's 'Imagine' Film Returns to Theaters: Inside the Restoration Process

Simon Hilton Yoko Ono
Anne Terada  © Yoko Ono Lennon

Simon Hilton and Yoko Ono

The 1972 film Imagine, which John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-directed, co-wrote and co-starred in, featuring cameos by Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Miles Davis, George Harrison and more, has been remixed, re-mastered and restored for one-off and limited-run theater screenings worldwide, starting tonight (Sept. 17), with theater-only extras and select viewings in Dolby Atmos surround sound.

The film -- restored by Simon Hilton, remixed and re-mastered by Paul Hicks, with Ono serving as producer and creative director -- is like an indie music video compilation of all the Imagine album songs, plus some from Ono’s Fly. The couple co-produced the album with Phil Spector.

Eagle Vision is pairing Imagine and another restored film, Gimme Some Truth, for release on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 5, the same day the six-disc box set, Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, drops.

Working since 2016 on the film, Hicks says the song transfers easily came from multi-tracks, but the sound effects and dialogue from the whispering to “John-Yoko” call-and-answer segment to Ono’s lengthy avant-garde song “Don’t Count The Waves” were a little trickier.

“Sometimes we had to take it from the original source, sometimes in terms of sound effects Simon and his people went back a layer and worked out where the sound effects came from,” Hicks tells Billboard.

 Josh Giroux
Paul Hicks

Hicks, who won Grammys for The Beatles Box Set and The Beatles’ Love, recommends people see it at the cinema for optimal audio and visual experience, but recognizes that many will view it on laptops or even (shudder) a phone.

“My one biggest suggestion is go see as big as possible because we first mixed it in stereo and then in surround, and then for the purposes for the complete box set, for the film side, we did it in Dolby Atmos as well because it’s the whole Imagine album and a handful of Yoko tracks, and the Yoko tracks are quite wild. So there are the rock ‘n’ roll-y ones and then there’s really good fun Yoko pieces.

“Atmos gives more definition in sound because you have the speakers above and at the sides as well. The whole idea was to immerse the viewer, listener, in the music. It’s funny how younger generations are happy to watch a TV program on their phones. [If that’s the case], definitely get a good pair of headphones and listen to it.”

The restoration of the film took eight years. Billboard spoke with Hilton about the painstaking process.

What shape was the film in?

With the film, a couple of really interesting things that had happened with the film, one of which was it was originally made for TV in the U.K. So it had all been shot at 25 frames per second, and, of course, for theatrical, you need to have everything shot at 24 frames a second. So all the performance footage in the studio couldn’t be used for theatrical release. And they filmed all this conceptual footage, which is more interesting - the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard was quite a big inspiration for Yoko for that.

In terms of the restoration itself, what we had was a print of Imagine and what happened is I went through that print and eye-matched every shot in the film to all of the original negatives. We had all of the original negatives transferred to HD a number of years ago and then I took a print and eye-matched on an Avid. Literally went through the footage and found every single shot and matched each shot from the negative to the shots in the print. So we went literally back to the original footage that went through the camera to remake the master.

At the end credits, it says the digital remaster 2010 – 2018. It took eight years?

[laughs]. Yeah. Well, it was eight years ago that we did the transfers of the footage. The audio mixes were done over the last two years. But the actual eye-matched part of it was a pretty rapid process. It’s happened in different stages over the last few years. Once we had done the neg [negative] cuts, it went off and was digitally cleaned, frame by frame, and the team at a company called Munky literally went through and hand-cleaned every single frame because the nature of it being very grainy 16 mm film is that it doesn’t stand up very well to going through a box to be cleaned. If you have clean footage, you can generally put that through a computer but in this case we wanted to do it frame by frame. So that was quite a long process.

So it was made for TV originally, then it was released in 1985 on VHS.

Yeah, it was originally made for TV and then it did a theatrical run in America and the U.K. But the film ended up being edited at 25 frames a second and it was projected at 24 frames per second so it ran a bit slow. And the VHS version that was out was also slower. [Simon sings slowly] ‘Imagine all the people’ [laughs]. So one of the joys of this project was having it all running at the correct speed.

Another great thing is Paul Hicks, who is a triple Grammy Award-winner, who has re-mastered all the Lennon catalog for Yoko historically, he was able to remix the entire soundtrack from the original multi-tracks. We’re old pals. He’s remixed everything from first generation, multi-track audio transfer, so the quality of the sound in the cinema is really superb and he did a Dolby Atmos mix for the film especially, which is a really terrific thing. That’s one of the greatest features of going to the cinema to enjoy this is hearing it because the quality of the sound is just off the charts amazing.

There are many people who have never seen the original. What’s the biggest compliment they could pay you after seeing it?

Just how it sounds and looks. Beautiful. Imagine is kind of like the most expensive home movie ever made [laughs]. In the history of music video, it’s a seminal work. Normally you’d expect to see people playing either live or in the studio and interestingly, it doesn’t do any of that. Obviously Yoko’s avant-garde sensibilities went into it. John’s experiences making A Hard Day’s Night and Help! where there are a lot more acting sequences or people doing things — whereas in Let It Be, they’re just playing — but those sensibilities came through. It’s a really interesting piece of cinema in that way, but it also has this really lovely home movie, home-made feel to it, which makes it great fun.

We obviously put a lot of work into restoring the pictures, which were filmed on very grainy film stock. The pictures are great and really enjoyable, but for me the quality of the audio that’s one of the greatest things about enjoying this.

You say most expensive home movie ever made, do you have a rough figure?

I don’t know how much it cost to make in those days. It was self-financed. I don’t know who came up with that quote first.

It does show what’s possible with other archival footage, not just of John and Yoko but other artists of that era. But it clearly is a lot of work.

It is a lot of work. I think something that is really exciting about it is how self-generated it was. They didn’t get in a huge production company. They directed it themselves. They got in a few cameramen. John came up with this idea of getting a helicopter, which was used for “Jealous Guy” and a lot of the filming in America was done on the hoof. Nic Knowland was down in Ascot filming with them and they just woke up in the morning and decided what they’d do that day, and when they were in America and doing the editing, there is a guy named Doug Ibold, who was the assistant editor on the job, and he was telling me stories of how they’d grab a film camera and go out and do something on the street [laughs], on the spur of the minute. I love the spontaneity and warmth in the film.

The recordings of the album were done in their home recording studio and the filming, a lot of that was done at Ascot and a lot of it in New York and the sense of it being the marriage of John and Yoko and their combined skills really shines through in both the film and the music.

I watched it on my laptop. It will be coming out on DVD and Blu-ray and it has its theatrical release. Some people might even watch it on their phones. Did you have that in mind?

Hopefully people will watch it in as many different ways as they possibly can. It doesn’t really change the way one would approach the re-mastering process. The music has been mixed in Dolby Atmos 7.1, 5.1, stereo. So people can listen to it in all the different configurations.

If they saw the original form and then on their computer or phone, would they notice the difference?

On a smaller screen, you get more contrast. Things will look sharper. When you go and see it in the cinema, on a much bigger screen, I saw things I’d never picked up on before, as it reveals more detail in the picture. But it didn’t affect how we re-mastered it. Yoko has a really high standard of excellence for work that she does, both for her as an artist and in the way that she approaches bringing out John Lennon things. And she’s very hands-on. She expects a really good standard of excellence and she is very involved too. She likes to be there and part of it and she has a very strong creative direction with what she does. And something she is very keen on is preserving the integrity of the originals and that was something we did in approaching the audio remixing and the film re-mastering. The cut doesn’t change.

There is a temptation when revisiting these things like Adrian Maben did when he went back to Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii is to change the cut and add more footage or take it away and/or to recut it according to how people edit things now, which tends to be faster. But the purpose here was to stick with the integrity of the original.

When they released it in 1985, they chopped out a song, “Mind Train,” half of “I Don’t Want To Be A Solider” and other bits. Got it down to 55 minutes.

There are two versions of the film — one is the full-length version, which is the one that you will see now, which was their original version and the one that did the theatrical circuit. I think the record company put out another version where they cut out Yoko’s songs, so it was just John’s songs and she didn’t have any say or hand in that, which is really unfortunate because Yoko’s songs and her scenes in the film really add a great quality to it, particularly in the 5.1 mixes, Yoko’s songs really shine through. She and Paul had a lot of fun in the placement of some of the avant-garde sound effects in that regard, which makes it a much more interesting auditory experience.

Speaking of auditory experiences, if you go see it at the cinema, there’s three additional films. How Do You Sleep? How? and Oh Yoko! And for How Do You Sleep and How? they’ve been mixed in what we call 'Raw Studio' Mixes where it’s framed as if you sat in the center of John & Yoko’s recording studio at Ascot and the musicians are placed exactly as they were placed in the studio. So John’s coming out of the middle speaker in front of you; Klaus Voormann playing bass behind you to the right; George Harrison is playing electric guitar in front of you to the right; Nicky Hopkins is on Wurlitzer to the left and Alan White is on drums behind you to the left. So you feel like you’re in the room with them playing. It’s quite a unique mix. People tend to mix in a formulaic way now and this really breaks that formula completely. So it’s a really exciting add-on that you get to see when you go to the cinema because of these three extra features.