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August 2014
Issue: October 1, 2006

IN A FIX?

By: Christine Bunish
"When I began my career in post production, restoring aging film was a time-intensive and cost-prohibitive process, and in most cases only films with wide audience appeal would ever be considered for restoration treatment," recalls Dan DeVincent, director of digital imaging/head colorist at New York City's Cineric. "Today, new tools have not only improved the restoration process in general, they have made it more economical, allowing for the image and color restoration of much more than just old films. In fact, just about any type of content, at any resolution, may benefit from restoration processes, including DVDs, upcoming movie releases, documentaries and historical films, television programming and commercials."

CLASSICS

Most projects coming to Cineric (www.cineric.com) are vintage films and new motion pictures requiring digital restoration. Cineric's tool of choice is da Vinci's Revival mastering suite. "Revival eliminates the tedious, time-consuming tasks involved in restoring aging film and allows our facility to bring old movies back to life and in the way each director originally envisioned," notes DeVincent. "While every film presents new and unique challenges, the important thing is to have the tools and support needed to address them head on in order to achieve the highest quality result, while reducing the time and cost associated with the restoration process."

Cineric recently restored Stanley Kubrick's 1964 BandW masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, in preparation for screening at the London Film Festival this month. "All we could get for the scan was the fine-grain master, which presented a unique set of challenges," says DeVincent. "It was a very high dynamic range element, and we had to devise special look-up tables to scan it into DPX at 4K."

Cineric's liquid-gate scan capabilities eliminated surface dirt and scratches early on. After the scan, the 4K files were sent to Autodesk's Lustre for balance and contrast correction. Although Dr. Strangelove's fine-grain master was good quality "a lot of dirt and scratches and movement issues were photographed in," DeVincent reports. "There were a number of rear-screen projection effects shots with a lot of flicker built in along with dirt and noise brought in from that process." Revival's denoising tool, which da Vinci customized for Cineric's work on the 1943 Technicolor romantic comedy The Gang's All Here, was tapped for Dr. Strangelove and proved effective on the BandW film.

Director of marketing Chip Wilkinson brings up the key issue of how much restoration is appropriate for any vintage film. "One sequence in Dr. Strangelove features a model B52 whose wire rigs can be seen. We have tools today for wire removal but should we do it? For decisions like that we go back to the studio and give them the option. In this case, Sony Pictures decided to leave the wires in — it's the way everybody remembers the scene, and if it had been too perfect it wouldn't have been true to Kubrick's intention in the early 1960s." The wire-rigged bomber, adds DeVincent, "historically places the picture where the technology was at the time."

On the other hand, the stock shots of the nuclear explosion, which ends Dr. Strangelove, were riddled with dirt. "We checked with the studio and they said, 'Yes, clean it up,'" says DeVincent. At press time, the 1959 drama The Best of Everything was presenting Cineric with a different set of challenges. The wet-gate process removed about 75 percent of the dirt and scratches, decreasing the amount of clean up required later in the restoration process "by a huge amount," DeVincent reports.
But The Best of Everything's original negative was badly faded. "It's blue channel was maybe 30 percent of what it should be," he says. "After scanning we did the color correction in Lustre to bring out all the elements in the image to full contrast. Getting the levels right first gives you a better image for the clean up. It helps you make better artistic decisions."

When Cineric was restoring Carousel, its first digitally restored feature, Lustre was the best color correction tool on the market working in log space, DeVincent recalls. "Others were not ready for primetime." Today Lustre has competition but "it's still a very good log color correction tool. I come from a color-timing background, and Lustre works a lot like color timing — it feels very comfortable to me."

Many of Cineric's titles are plagued by missing scenes, which have to be pulled from separate masters. In this process DeVincent will tap a registration tool for Revival, which da Vinci customized for Cineric's work on The Gang's All Here. "Color fringing on Technicolor films is caused by the differential shrinking in the BandW film," he explains. "Da Vinci has worked closely with us to develop a tool which fulfils our need to re-register film automatically on a frame-by-frame basis. We're still testing it, and it looks good."

DeVincent notes that, "Because we work primarily in 4K on projects, all the tools we use are put to the limits. We may be one of da Vinci's only clients that uses the full 4K capacity of Revival. We give da Vinci a lot to chew on. They're working to reduce the amount of processing time (required for various procedures); when they give us software upgrades they try to give us additional speed too."

THE SIMPSONS

With its 18th season underway, The Simpsons promises to keep Hollywood's Laser Pacific (www.laserpacific.com) busy with restoration work for some time to come. "We restore all The Simpsons episodes for DVD," says account services representative Rebecca Moon. "We do about two seasons a year. We're restoring the ninth season now, and have worked on The Simpsons since they were part of The Tracy Ullman show."

The series began almost two decades ago, so its run has spanned numerous changes in technology. "With season nine we're still seeing episodes mastered on 1-inch with 1-inch drop outs and hits," notes Moon. "We also do a lot of animation clean up. The lines on the characters disappear frame to frame and there are color inconsistencies and background flutter."

Restoration of a show begins with a dirt removal pass on the MTI Correct DRS 5 system. A pass in a color timing bay follows to even out color. Then the episode heads to Autodesk's Discreet Flame for a render pass to degrain and sharpen. The client spots the show for cel flares, dirt, animation issues, any 1-inch problems and negative scratches, and details what fixes are necessary. After those repairs are made the client spots the show a second time — "there can be anywhere from two to 3,000 dirt fixes per episode," Moon points out, and any issues remaining are addressed. The completed episode is sent to Third Eye for a QC pass and then typically dispatched to Fox for DVD authoring.

Flame artist Brian Ross, a veteran of restoring the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, finds Flame's speed a big asset in his work. "Flame is able to render quickly so the first render pass to degrain and sharpen is done in three and a half hours overnight," he reports. "We burn through a lot quickly with Flame: It only takes four hours to do a huge list of shots."

Flame's versatility is also crucial to Ross's restoration. "I can do composites and tracking and I'm able to paint to fix disappearing Xerox lines on the characters. When there are color inconsistencies I can lift a key and re-color certain elements pretty easily."

He notes that the restoration process has "gotten easier over time. The earlier seasons were in a lot rougher shape, and we've streamlined the process to get a lot more accomplished in the time we have." Ross is joined by fellow Flame artist Bruce Mann on The Simpsons restoration.

"There are fewer issues with episodes as the seasons go by, and [shows are] a lot less dirty," echoes Moon. "With season 15, the shows went to digital ink and paint, which is very clean. The issues we're dealing with now won't exist on future episodes. We are about to start season 10, which is the first year finished on Digital Betacam. We will be re-evaluating the kinds of things we'll be fixing."

Laser Pacific provides post services for the current season of The Simpsons, as well, fixing any problems the show doesn't have time to send back to animators in Korea for repair, and compositing Bart's chalkboards in the main title.

SHORTS FOR DVD

San Francisco-based Shieids Pictures (www.shieldspictures.com) owns and controls the rights to three vintage Paramount Short Film Collections: Speaking of Animals, Unusual Occupations and Popular Science, the latter two of which feature rare Cinecolor film. The 10-minute short subjects, which garnered numerous Academy Award nominations and two Oscar wins, were part of the movie-going experience from 1930 to 1950.

Shields Pictures established a relationship with cable's AMC in the 1990s to air the three collections, which not only proved to be popular with audiences, but also raised money for film preservation efforts. To prep the shorts for AMC, Shields Pictures did extremely high-quality transfers of the studio masters.

Recently, with classic films on DVD a hot commodity, Shields Pictures began to research tools to restore the collections. Without a big-studio budget behind him, president/owner Mark Punswick sought a cost-effective and easy-to-use approach to prepping the Popular Science series for a DVD release. The hands-on Punswick had just acquired a Macintosh G5 quad and had Apple's Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro software. Intrigued by Red Giant Software Film Fix, he decided to try the program for his restoration efforts.

"I had no experience with After Effects, which Film Fix integrates with, so I talked to Red Giant and they had a tech nearby who came out and showed me how to use it," Punswick recalls. In less than two hours he gained a working knowledge of After Effects and Film Fix, and was pleased with his choice of restoration tools. "Film Fix does everything it says it does," he reports. "Some aspects work more or less in realtime."

It takes Punswick 10 to 12 hours to perform dust and dirt removal on a complete short; he plans on buying one or two more G5 quads to automate the process. "I had worked in million-dollar telecine suites, and when you pushed the equipment to remove dirt you ended up losing the picture information you needed," he notes. "Film Fix gets rid of the dirt and doesn't mess with the rest of the image. I don't want to overly-digitize the image. I want to enhance what you're seeing but not get some weird synthetic thing that doesn't reflect the original film."

The Speaking of Animals shorts, created by famed animator Tex Avery, had real animals with animated mouths and lips and expressive eyes. "Sometimes in the animation process, dirt was printed in," Punswick explains. Some World War II footage featured in the Popular Science series also printed in dirt. "Film Fix got rid of it and didn't harm the integrity of the images," he says.

Punswick also taps Film Fix to balance out any luminance shifting that occurred on the old prints and to stabilize images. "It works beautifully; the picture is now rock steady," he reports. "It's a testament to Film Fix that someone like me can do all this. I'm not a computer geek, so if I can do it, anybody can."

The Paramount Short Film Collections' DVD releases will be genre-driven, a "more fun" approach than simply compiling assorted shorts, says Punswick. The first Popular Science DVD — covering Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Things to Come: Inventions that Changed the World; Those Wacky Gizmos and Gadgets; and The Home of Tomorrow — is expected to be released as part of the December issue of Popular Science magazine. A package of shorts will also launch on iTunes this month and next.

SILENT FILM

"Just about everything done today and anything shot 100 years ago gets put through a restoration process, whether you're cleaning up dirt, making things a little prettier or fixing digital problems," says Tim Gallegos, head of the restoration department at Post Logic Studios (www.postlogic.com) in Hollywood.

He recently finished intensive restoration of various projects, including the 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments. "It was in bad shape when it got here," Gallegos reports. "There was lots of grain, lots of film damage, flicker, big film scratches.

Sections of the film had suffered nitrate damage and people's faces had disappeared.
After the film was scanned, Gallegos worked frame by frame, "painting and patching, borrowing information from surrounding frames, kind of winging it at times," he says. "It was really fun — the kind of stuff I like to do, a real challenge."

The typical restoration process begins by scanning the film to a file-based system and then putting the files on SAN. "We can do restoration before color correction or after, but we typically do it before," says Gallegos. "It seems to be faster within the workflow."

His chief tool for manual restoration is MTI's Correct system. "Industry-wide, it's the most robust tool for the job," he says.

Two artists manning MTI Correct work on the feature reels, "cleaning and cleaning and fixing and fixing until we're done," he explains. "We can do deflicker and noise passes if needed. Some movies are a walk in the park, some need extensive work. It takes a lot of finessing to get a pristine end product. We shoot for the best image we can get [that looks like it was] created using the technology of the day."

To eliminate as much manual work by the artists as possible, Post Logic uses Diamant by HS Art on a large renderfarm to run through 2K or 4K files. "Diamant is semi-automated, so scene by scene the artist sets up each module, aiming for continuity so nobody knows you were there," says Gallegos. "They go through to the end of the reel, hit render, and Diamant takes care of deflicker, dust, grain, scratches and stabilization. Then the artist goes through the files and makes sure everything was done correctly."

Sometimes an old title "needs everything we can throw at it. We do the scan, an automated pass with Diamant to eliminate as much manual work as possible, move onto the SAN and work with Correct frame by frame. Working in concert, Diamant and Correct are the two strongest restoration tools you can get your hands on."

Gallegos points to the manufacturers' responsiveness to develop features and upgrade software. "A few years ago MTI had no warp or deflicker tools. They saw some others overtaking them in those aspects and went to work. They also added a lasso tool we use every day. Diamant is pretty new, and they try to write programs for us within their software if we need something. We test other tools, but it's all about how they work together, how the pieces fit. We don't just want to be ahead but better."

CLASSIC and CONTEMPORARY

At New York City's The Criterion Collection (www.criterionco.com), the creator of classic and contemporary film packages, technical director Lee Kline recently oversaw the transfer and restoration of The Seven Samurai for a three-disc DVD set as well as its inclusion in a boxed set of "the 50 most important films," a collection celebrating the 50th anniversary of sister company, Janus Films.

No original negative exists of The Seven Samurai, so after making some tests in New York and Tokyo to determine the best film element to commence the restoration process, Kline asked Tokyo Laboratory to make a new dupe negative from the master positive. Technicolor NY performed a best light transfer and performed deflicker and image stabilization with its da Vinci Revival system. The result was color corrected in 2K, recorded to HD and delivered to Criterion.

At Criterion, Digital Vision's DVNR ASC III advanced scratch concealer allowed the restoration team to remove light dirt and scratches in realtime, something that "would take us a long time to do by hand," notes Kline. A second manual pass was done with MTI's DRS system, which can also handle rips, tears and density changes within a single frame.

"Every film goes through these two processes to get as clean an image as possible while maintaining the integrity of the film," Kline explains. "If we feel the electronic processes will jeopardize the film in any way — leaving artifacts, changing grain structure — we won't do it, or we won't push the hardware as hard to avoid video artifacts."

Many filmmakers whose work is undergoing restoration are no longer alive, so Criterion strives to "treat the film with the respect the filmmaker would want," says Kline. Those who, thankfully, are still active team with Criterion to establish parameters for the restoration. To this end, Digital Vision's AGR4 helps Criterion strike the right balance in grain reduction. Albert Maysles requested that Criterion ride the levels of grain to reduce but not eliminate it from the classic documentaries he and his brother, David, made in the 1960s: Grey Gardens, Salesmen, Gimme Shelter. D.A.

Pennebaker also shared his thoughts on grain management for Monterey Pop and asked if the blue speckles in the film, which had always bothered him, could be dealt with. They could — in a time-consuming, manual process with MTI's DRS system.

Although Kline praises the Digital Vision, MTI and da Vinci toolsets and is pleased with the close relationship Criterion enjoys with Digital Vision's and MTI's developers, finding the best original film element is the key to restoration success. "When you're left with a dupe negative struck from a print, you can throw all your tools at it, but months down the line in the restoration process you still won't be able to improve it that much. You're at the mercy of the material."

So it's understandable that Kline has to be dogged in his determination to find the best film element. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game had been re-edited and restored back in the 1950s; it had been pieced together from various sources, including rushes and dailies. When time came for a video restoration of the film material, Criterion had access to a dupe neg in France, but rumors of the existence of a fine-grain interpositive kept Kline hunting until the IP was discovered in the vault of a Paris lab. "It still wasn't great, but if it was even 15 percent better that's a really large percentage for resolution and gray scale that you didn't have before," he observes.