Now that the dust has cleared and we will be seeing lots of popular movie titles on Blu-ray discs for our home entertainment, there are lots of directors and DPs stopping in at film restoration shops to see how their work looks all cleaned up, in 1080p HD and with their deleted scenes reinstated. Older films, like The Godfather, are undergoing intricate rehabilitation. And there are those that are older still: think Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Or the Three Stooges. Post recently talked to a number of top industry people engaged in what’s looking like a coming avalanche of newly-improved movies in HD.
About two years ago, after a two-year hiatus at TI where he was director of technology development on DLP cinema products, Glenn Kennel returned to Hollywood’s LaserPacific as VP/GM of motion picture services. While LaserPacific (www.laserpacific.com), a Kodak-owned company, is an industry leader in DI-powered film restoration, Kennel points out that there’s a market beyond restoring old films. His team has been busy remastering popular movies that are not that old for retail sale as Blu-ray discs.
Friday, the Ice Cube comedy vehicle, and Set it Off (four women, including Queen Latifa, compelled to rob banks) are two good examples of movies that are not exactly Gone With the Wind but are exactly the kind of moneymakers that still have legs after their original mid-1990s releases.
“In both cases we’re involved in re-cutting the films to create new director’s cuts,” says Kennel of the F. Gary Gray-directed movies. It means adding some deleted scenes and updating “basically everything: the opticals; color correction; and producing new high definition masters for Blu-ray release.” Blu-ray, since it won the HD for DVD wrestling match, has become the new destination for popular films. LaserPacific delivers its finished masters on HDCAM SR tape: “It’s full resolution; it’s full color sampling, 4:4:4; it’s 10-bit and a much lower compression ratio than previous tape formats, so it’s a much cleaner HD master.”
Restoring a film optical — a dissolve, for instance — starts with translating the old EDL into a new scan list to scan the incremental scenes that are being added and then rebuilding the opticals (fades, dissolves and transitions) from the EDL information. “The first part of that is technical,” Kennel says, “the second part is more creative because it involves color correction.”
For most movie work Laser starts with an interpositive (IP), which incorporates all of the edits and the original scenes, as well as optical transitions “but that changes when you decide to come up with a director’s cut and pull in new elements,” Kennel says.
For the new shots added to the F. Gary Gray films, Laser went back to original negative. Kennel says Laser was able to use the MTI DRS tool “to help us match the look of the IP with the new negative that we were inserting.” The point was to adjust grain and sharpness so that the new shots “intercut without being obviously different.”
DRS cleanup is the first step after scanning. If it’s a negative element, dirt shows up as white. If it’s a positive film element, like an interpositive, then dirt shows up as black. DRS can be set to detect both white and black dirt.
“We use DRS as our ubiquitous platform for cleaning up all the film material that we run through our plant — for feature film, for TV, for trailers, home-video masters,” says Kennel. This includes scratch removal and repositioning framing or pushing in to keep out unwanted objects (or crew). Mike Castillo heads up the effort at Laser as VFX manager.
DRS typically serves first in an automated pass — in a fairly mild correction mode — and subsequently as a manual cleanup tool. “The nice thing about the DRS tool is, everything is adjustable; it’s interactive; you can see what you’re doing; you can try a technique and adjust it if need be,” Kennel says. “It’s not like you have to set it up and render it and come back and make changes; it’s all very intuitive.”
For Friday and Set It Off, Laser scanned IP (and new negative clips) and conformed everything in Autodesk’s Lustre color corrector, which is the platform used typically for DI work at the shop. “Color correction is done from data files within the Lustre,” Kennel says, “and when it’s finished and we’ve had approval from the director and DP, we lay it off to HDCAM SR.” Lustre, he adds, has had a lot of features added that are specific to DI work on feature films. The starting point for such work begins with looking at the original masters created in the mid-’90s. “Once we got the creative people involved, they had the license to make some selective changes,” Kennel says. “Because the tool set we have today is better, we have the capability to do things they didn’t have on the original master.” There is more consistency from shot to shot and “there’s more opportunity to select window and grade portions of a frame; pull things out of the shadows; clean up, sharpen up a shot.”
WEST WING STUDIOS
As head of imaging at West Wing Studios (www.westwingstudios.com), the film restoration company has a storied veteran in Price Pethel. He’s received a technical Academy Award for his work in developing the compositing software Nuke and won technical Emmys for his developments in film transfer while at CIS (now Efilm). Pethel was an original founder of Digital Domain and has worked closely with James Cameron on True Lies, Titanic and later, the 65mm stereo film Aliens of the Deep. He’s also served at Disney’s Secret Lab and at Lowry Digital, as well as worked independently on DI film projects such as David Fincher’s Zodiac and on U23D.
If you boil it down, Pethel’s interests lie in film, digits and color, so he’s at the right employer and he’s settled on a favorite system — Iridas SpeedGrade. Pethel started using Iridas while serving as chief color scientist at Lowry (now owned by DTS). Pethel’s focus there included bringing color work into an offline environment and eventually rendering it on a renderfarm — a process that’s attracted many industry adherents today. “The rendering part of SpeedGrade was integrated into Lowry’s final restoration rendering software,” Pethel says. He believes most of today’s color work, despite the “hero suite” reputation that DI has garnered, is — and should be — non-supervised. “Color grading, color alignment, adjustment, restoration — all that together — is not a client-interactive environment needing leather sofas and cappuccino. More tuned-in filmmakers realize that’s not necessary.”
Pethel’s modus operandi, nonlinear color, means working along in parallel with the editorial process of a film. “I would work along with [editorial] and do color design and color matching at the end of the editorial process. Just as offline nonlinear editing replaced the online rooms and palaces, I see that same trend in color design. It will benefit more and more from hardware and software that doesn’t start at a half-million dollars and go up.”
One of the features of a non-destructive coloring environment like that of Iridas SpeedGrade is “it’s just an abstract, like an offline edit list. You have an opportunity to do lots of changes and versions and things, and they’re not that costly.”
“I really love dealing with older, classic films because there’s a kind of ethic involved,” says Pethel, who works to remain true to a film’s original creative intent. While at Lowry, Pethel got deep into classic film restoration — the first 21 James Bond films, including Dr. No. He worked hands-on on the first nine and supervised the rest. Regarding Dr. No’s iconic meeting of Ursula Andress and Sean Connery, Pethel says, “I was duty bound to make that as realistic and as true to what the filmmaker would have viewed in a theater.” Working on the series, Pethel found the ever-progressing sophistication of the lighting — and therefore the budget — fascinating. Lowry scanned original cut negative on an Imagica.
“We would find the best version of a print and reference off of that. In my mind, I sort of reverse-engineered that print and evaluated the stages they might have gone through to get that look. We actually got the cut negatives of those films. That was incredible. Since we had the negative we scanned it and treated it as though we were doing a complete DI by today’s standards.”
Early James Bond effects such as dissolves, were, of course, film opticals, which were cut in — creating a “bump” in the film going from the negative to two more optical generations (the dissolve) and another bump coming out of it. “We had to make some special uses of the [Iridas] software to compensate for that bump,” Pethel says. “We had to create a new type of digital dissolve to match the optical dissolves in the original film. This was done by changing [each optical dissolve’s] ‘dissolve math’ in order for them to match and have the same transition quality that an optical dissolve has.
“No one has ever seen the Bond films as pristine and as perfect as they are today,” he continues. “The technology has allowed us to get rid of all the dust, all the scratches, the bumps, hairs in the camera and all that stuff you tolerated.”
Working at West Wing Studios today, Pethel has been on some rare expedition shorts created for Disney 50 years ago, such as Men Against the Arctic and Seven Cities of Antarctica. For the Antarctic short, they went back and found the original 16mm negatives and had them optically printed to 35mm with a wet-gate transfer. “Then we scanned the 35mm negative so what we have is one optical generation away from the original.”
Then Pethel went to work in the Iridas SpeedGrade. “It allows me to intermix all these different film types and give them a unified look at the end. The color tools inside Iridas are powerful.” Besides the classic panel interface, Pethel also likes to use the mouse-and-keyboard interface, especially when working at home. “It will actually work on a laptop, so I can take it on location, plug it into an editing environment and work off of the edit files.”
While Pethel works in Burbank, West Wing also has a facility in Goa, India, with about 50 people there doing the hands-on work of film restoration equipped with Iridas and Diamant dustbusting software from HS-ART. They also use The Foundry’s Nuke. The Goa shop receives data either by Internet or on a disc and, when feasible, the team in India only send Pethel back the metadata. “This works perfectly for Iridas because it’s a virtual color correction environment. We can do preliminary shots here, where we set the look of each shot; we send [Goa] a script; they import the script into a version of Iridas there and they can see exactly what the color grading is that we expect to get back.” The Goa team sends the finished work as a script back to Burbank where they produce the final product. The Goa facility has a lot of talent in coloring B&W footage like that of The Three Stooges comedy series they restored. Even when a color clip is considered unrecoverable, Goa can strip down the damaged frames to black-and-white and then re-color the clip by color matching everything to undamaged footage.
When a veteran film preservationist inspected Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-laden The Godfather not long ago, he found “the worst negative” he’d ever seen from the era.
Back in 1997, screening the highest-quality print of the film for its 25th anniversary was a disturbing experience for director Coppola. The ravages of time, print-making and some oddities in old splices were just some of the problems spelling a dim future for The Godfather and its first sequel, as well as for Paramount’s hopes to sell product to millions who love the mob saga.
It took almost 10 years — and the machinations of Coppola’s pal Steven Spielberg, to get Paramount to move into serious restoration mode before it was too late. The final result is, indeed, a Great Master from which many prints and copies may be made nondestructively — new 4K preservation negatives, YCM separation masters and backup LTO data tapes. New DVD and Blu-ray Godfather collections went on sale in late September.
But before any of that was possible, every inch, every frame, every splice, every dissolve, every scratch, tear, fingerprint and hair — you name it — had to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb and repaired. Coppola oversaw this painstaking process with Robert A. Harris, restoration expert extraordinaire, who worked at Warner Bros.’ MPI facility (for Paramount). Harris and the approximately 30 staffers he worked with at Paramount, Warner Bros. MPI and Pro-Tek toiled on The Godfather for about a year with a budget “well in the seven figures.”
For starters, Godfather film elements would move to the (Kodak-owned) Pro-Tek Media Preservation Services facility, but only one at a time. “Geographic separation” guards against the possibility of a disaster at a single location destroying all a film’s elements. The original Godfather negative was examined — shot-by-shot, frame-by-frame — at Pro-Tek where they “do a book” on that negative and file daily reports with Harris. Once the separation masters got to Pro-Tek, it came out that they were incomplete. After those elements are moved out, Pro-Tek gets the CRIs — color-reversal internegative. What was not known in the late-’60s and early ‘70s was that Kodak’s then-new CRI stock would have a shelf life of seven to 10 years before fading.
The newly restored Godfather relies on snippets of film culled from many sources. “There was no foundation left. It is a Frankenstein,” Harris says, “and this is why we needed digital tools and a 4K workflow, which enabled us in harvesting an image in scanning, through image manipulation and all the way out to recordation.”
The Godfather turned out to be one of the first movies to undergo 4K DI rehabilitation. Among the few facilities with the full-on 4K capability, Warner’s MPI — Motion Picture Imaging — stood out. They took on a highly complex job. “There was tape — Mylar tape on both sides — holding the negative together,” Harris reports, and The Godfather’s film elements could not risk going up on a sprocketed or pin-registered scanner. At MPI, Harris and company relied on scanner Chris Gillaspie and the Thomson Spirit 4K to digitize footage. “It gave us an image that was grain-perfect as far as I’m concerned,” Harris says. They also used the FilmLight Northlight for scanning subtitles and a few pick-up shots in 6K.
“MPI has multiple SANs,” says Bill Baggelaar, VP/engineering at MPI. “We have a total raw capacity of approximately 1 petabyte. The HP SAN where The Godfather projects were stored has approximately 400TB of usable space.” It’s designed for extremely high data throughput and can sustain multiple film scanners running at over 300MB/sec.
Early on, Harris and his assistant, Joanne Lawson, physically compared a 1972 Godfather print with a current print on a synchronizer, calculating shot-lengths, position and lengths of dissolves and fades “and basically creating a skeleton to put the film back together again from the selection of elements that were best with one another.”
That’s where MPI’s senior DI colorist, Jan Yarbrough, comes in “and his eye, which I think is incomparable,” says Harris. MPI’s DI set-up uses a large screen to help the team create the look of the original from DPX files.
Harris and company had to check The Godfather’s continuity — figuring out how the film was put together. In so doing they noticed an uncalled for dissolve. “This is where detective work and archeology come in. Before you can restore a film, you have to know what it’s supposed to be. We went back to an original 1972 print — and [the dissolve] ain’t there! Francis and his editor had encoded in many cases these beautiful, lyrical 12- and 16-foot dissolves.” At a facility in the mid-’80s, Harris says, the dissolves “became six-footers or three-footers or four-footers” because the originally encoded dissolves had not been checked.
“You don’t want to be the one to have to call Francis or Gordon [Willis, DP] and tell them, ‘You know that really great shot? Well we ripped it down the middle.’” Even though Harris, Gillaspie and company at MPI held their breaths as The Godfather negative ran through the Thomson Spirit 4K at about 4fps, “we did not tear one frame during the entire restoration.”
You don’t want to digitally clean an image unless you know that shot is in the final restoration. So Harris and company would gather sometimes three or four examples of the same shot before selecting the best one to undergo digital dust and dirt repair work at MPI. Daphne Dentz is MPI’s VP of digital services and Kate Largay was conformist and media data wrangler on the project. Steve Sanchez heads digital repair.
In The Godfather, Al Pacino’s character must have his ailing father (Marlon Brando) moved from one hospital room to another. Moving the bed, we first see Pacino back into the frame, then we see the bed, then the nurse. “The entire beginning of this shot was damaged,” Harris says, up to the point where Pacino first appears. Trying to obtain replacement footage, Harris saw that the CRI was no good; the interpositive would not match properly; and the separation masters would require triple scanning, which would adversely affect the budget. Fortunately, Paramount had saved the editor’s line script and DP Gordon Willis’s daily camera reports and Harris had their inventories. He even had a record of what can the original footage should be stored in over at Pro-Tek. “We found the head trim of the actual shot; had leader cut onto it; took it back to Warner’s to [Gillaspie] who scanned it; you see the guy holding the slate and you’ve got seven or eight feet of just the hallway. It was just what we needed!” This footage had faded slightly differently than the conformed negative which had yielded perhaps 200 prints.
“One of the great things about MPI is, about 20 minutes after it was scanned, Kate sent it over to Jan’s Baselight in his room and put it up next to the damaged scan.” They selected 10 or 12 frames and cut it in where it was needed — before Pacino enters. “Then all we had to do was color correction. You’re doing a digital splice, so there’s no bump,” says Harris.
Reel 5B contained Pacino’s performance in the restaurant where he shoots a mob rival and a crooked cop. “Gordon shot it thin — not fully exposed — over two nights. That’s the way he wanted it.” Thanks to a goof in the original film processing in ’72, the two night shoots did not match and the second nights’ negative was too thin. Willis sent the film over to Technicolor Hollywood to get the contrast and gamma up. “They made multiple sets of separation masters from the original negative,” Harris says. “From those separation masters they mixed and matched the color records and got something that worked. It was never perfect, but it worked and that’s the way the film came out.”
In 2007 Harris noticed the disparity and phoned Willis, who recalled the events unhappily. “We did a search for any piece of film that was used in the production of the intermediate separation masters toward the creation of the final dupe that was conformed into the negative — or the original negative that was thin. Over a five-month period we found the majority of either the separations or the original negative.”
“We created a unique, custom light balance for each, scanning in 4K,” says MPI’s Jan Yarbrough. “This enhanced any existing image from each piece of film. We then evaluated each element in our DI suite using the FilmLight Baselight to optimize the 4K images. The best images were selected using available dynamic range [color and luminance], apparent sharpness, and correctable physical damage as criteria. I was able to combine whole shots, individual frames and segments of frames to create a smooth, cohesive scene that didn’t call attention to itself and cause distraction from the story being told.”
Summing up his Godfather experience, Harris says, “It’s the worst negative I’ve ever seen from the era and as far as I know it’s the worst negative that anyone has seen from the era. And it was never mishandled by the studio, but when you release it to a lab, sometimes the negative gets beaten. There were not decent duping materials during the ‘70s and early to mid-‘80s, and prints had to be made.” But when people ask why The Godfather was not fixed for its 1997 25th anniversary celebration, Harris says the answer is easy. “They didn’t have 4K technology and you needed 4K all through the process to do this work.”
New York-based Cineric, owned by Balazs Nyari, considers itself a smaller shop in the scheme of things, with about 25 employees. With over 20 years’ experience in film preservation and restoration, Cineric (www.cineric.com) has taken its own route to 4K DI film restoration. The shop is still also a full-functioning film lab/optical facility that can make prints and screen them the old-fashioned way.
Key systems here are the Oxberry Cinescan 4K and Lustre for DI color. But a lot of care is also given to damaged film in a kind of artisanal, hands-on approach that involves applying just the right-sized gate for scanning shrunken bits of film. “We do a lot of work on films from the early Eastman Color era — 1950s, ‘60s,” says Danny DeVincent, Cineric’s colorist and Lustre specialist. Cineric’s first fully digital restoration was almost three years ago on Carousel for Fox. The film was shot in 55mm Cinemascope. “We could not have done it had it not been for our traditional photographic technology,” he says. “We were able to design and make a gate to scan in the original 55mm material. What’s nice about the Oxberry is we can use liquid-gate scanning, which takes care of a lot of dirt and abrasions that we then don’t have to clean up digitally, which is helpful.
“All of our material here has some form of shrinkage or problems with the perf holes due to time and damage,” says DeVincent. “We can utilize the gates and the technology we’ve developed on the optical end, on the Oxberry scanner.” Of course, film must be visually inspected to spot where frames have shrunken prior to putting it up on the sprockets.
“Most of the time, fortunately, even with really shrunken material, we have gates that we can use and we can actually change the pin diameter to accommodate it and be able to scan it. The Oxberry scanner is very useful to us,” he says.
“Most everything we can, we scan at 4K,” he continues. “A lot of material gets over-sampled at 4K and downsampled at 2K. Carousel stayed 4K entirely. We usually capture to 10-bit log DPX files — that’s pretty much the standard right now. With the Oxberry scanner we’re able to adjust LUTs a little bit to accommodate older film stocks — one size does not always fit all when it comes to capturing the dynamic range.
About 18 months ago, Cineric restored Dr. Strangelove — in a “pretty in-depth, full-4K restoration” effort for Sony, and a Blu-ray release is in the offing. Working with Sony’s asset VP, Grover Crisp, Cineric gave Sony the restored 4K files and delivered a high-def 4:4:4 master.
The Last Wagon (1956), a Richard Widmark Western for Fox, came in as original cut negative on 35mm Eastman Color that was badly faded. After scanning, Seth Berkowitz cleaned the images with da Vinci Revival and then DeVincent addressed the faded color in Lustre. “Even fading” is handled very well in Lustre and most color correctors but, DeVincent adds, when film is faded more on one side, “you can put windows up and get into secondaries and fix that. On almost every color title we get in, that becomes a necessity.”
Pixel Farm’s motion-estimation tools are also helpful at Cineric. “Having their good algorithms for motion estimation is a helpful part of digital restoration,” DeVincent says, so restoration is becoming more of a focus for Pixel Farm. The lion’s share of clean-up is done on da Vinci Revival.
Data management has become hugely important at this shop that was once film-only. Cineric stores its work on a 140TB SAN, but once original scans are done, they back up to LTO tape. The restored film is also backed up to LTO. Film-out prints are created via an Arri film recorder.