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October 2014
Issue: November 1, 2012

Sound & Picture Restoration

By: Christine Bunish
Restoration services are in increasing demand as studios serve up features and classic films for Blu-ray release, iconic titles for landmark anniversaries, and as film archives endeavor to present old and rare footage to new audiences.

A variety of tools make restoration easier, quicker and higher quality than ever before and offers solutions to those who didn’t previously have those capabilities within reach.

BLACK LIKE ME

Black Like Me, the 1964 feature based on a true story, in which James Whitmore plays a white reporter who darkens his skin to experience life in the segregated south, has long been part of college and film schools’ curricula. Jason Weichelt, finishing artist at SonicPool (www.sonicpool.com) in Hollywood, remembers seeing it in film school at the University of Wisconsin some 20 years ago. Little did he know that he’d be working on its restoration one day via Video Service Corp.



SonicPool worked from the film’s cut black-and-white negative with finish artist Ricky Hayner supervising the scanning of the six 35mm reels to 2K DPX files on a Golden Eye film scanner and importing them into Blackmagic Revival. “The film was in really good shape except for a couple of shots in the last reel where there were eight or nine frames with 50 percent of the frames pulled off — they were stuck to each other,” Weichelt says. 

“We were able to use Revival to repair that. In the past we’d have had to use compositing or 3D for those kind of fixes. But we were able to keep everything inside Revival, cloning elements from previous frames and interpolating the look from beginning to end.”

Black Like Me had the usual dirt and dust of a nearly 50-year-old film, he notes. “Even a film in good shape that’s been around that long requires three or four passes to clean it up.”

While Hayner and Weichelt manned Revival systems, Adam Greenberg began the color grading. “Adam had never done anything in black and white, so it was a lesson in gamma!” Weichelt says. “It’s rare to see black and white these days unless you’re doing restoration.”

A prepass set the levels and then with their systems linked, Hayner and Weichelt in their grading/editing bays replaced Greenberg’s DPX files with their own finished files so the colorist could open the files back up in his DaVinci Resolve suite and further tweak the grading. 

“For about three weeks straight Ricky and I were tag-teaming,” says Weichelt. “You go through shots three or four times because you still miss certain things.” Revival’s Auto Tools proved “fantastic” for scratch removal and adding grain back in, he reports. Hayner and Weichelt moved to SonicPool’s THX-approved DI suite for the final pass.

True to its name, SonicPool also performed the audio restoration on Black Like Me. “The original mag tracks were transferred and had a lot of clicking and popping in them,” says Weichelt. “The client wanted a 5.1 mix made out of mono so we went into Pro Tools to clean things up and then generate the 5.1 by splitting the track apart using proprietary tools. It was surprising how well it worked.”

SonicPool delivered a 16x9 HD master, a full center-cut version and 2K DPX files if the client wants to strike a new negative or use digital cinema projection. The restored Black Like Me will go back into rotation for educational viewing and is planned to hit broadcasts in early 2013 during Black History Month.

Weichelt says Black Like Me marks SonicPool’s “gateway into restoration work. Our staff has film experience, we do Blu-ray and DVD mastering, and we’ve used restoration tools to fix problems in new features,” so the company decided to enter the restoration market and tap a new revenue stream.

“[Thanks to these lower cost tools], we can do it all under our roof: color, restoration, sound, tape and file deliverables, Blu-ray mastering,” he says.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

It hardly seems possible that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia has hit the half-century mark. With its 50th anniversary in sight, Sony Pictures Entertainment decided that the film should undergo its first significant restoration in more than 20 years to produce new 4K digital cinema and Blu-ray versions. Grover Crisp oversaw the project.

Lawrence of Arabia had an extensive reconstruction and restoration in 1988 when Lean and editor Anne V. Coates produced a definitive director’s cut, with Robert A. Harris overseeing the initiative. This version of the film served as the basis for the new restoration work. Happily, both Coates and Harris were available to provide their expert input to the task at hand.

Sony Pictures Entertainment began the process by scanning the original 65mm camera negative at 8K, the equivalent resolution of the 65mm negative. The files were then reduced to 4K and sent to Colorworks, the company’s DI facility, where the restoration work came together (www.sonypicturesstudios.com).



Crisp reported that the negative was badly scratched in places, had torn and missing sections, some chemical stains, and suffered from a lot of wear and tear as prints were made over the years. To solve these problems, reels were dispatched to Prasad Corporation in India for general image clean up.

Colorworks was charged with restoring the film’s trailer (“trailers are usually a lot dirtier than the film elements,” notes Colorworks restoration artist Jackie Lopez) and its featurettes using Pixel Farm’s PFClean. “We spent over 100 hours on the trailer alone, handling all the clean-up basics,” Lopez points out. Restoration artists Jason Ruitenbach, Tim Schmidt and Beth Osterman pooled their talents on the job.

But Lawrence of Arabia also had a unique problem stemming from its desert locations: The heat distorted the film stock in the cameras, so there were places where the emulsion had cracked and then sealed over. The cracks appeared as vertical bands running across the frame in desert scenes in almost every reel, and these flaws were exacerbated over time.

With no one-size-fits-all solution in sight, MTI Film in LA, after months of experimentation, developed a new algorithm to solve the problem using a combination of digital restoration and color grading techniques coupled with extensive manual intervention.

The six-channel stereo masters, created during the previous restoration, were used by Chase Audio for additional audio restoration work and remastering.

When restoration was complete, the entire film was regraded and remastered in 4K at Colorworks by colorist Scott Ostrowsky, using a Filmlight Baselight system under Crisp’s direction. Ostrowsky used director-approved prints as one source to match color. 

The newly restored Lawrence of Arabia had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW

Iconic television series are enjoying new lives on DVD and now Blu-ray as Baby Boomers wax nostalgic about the shows of their childhood while new generations discover how some classic programming never grows old.

Point 360 Digital Film Labs (www.point360.com) in Los Angeles recently completed restoring all five seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show for Paul Brownstein/Image Entertainment for release on Blu-ray. The series, which debuted in 1961, introduced audiences to TV comedy writer Rob Petrie and his ex-dancer wife Laura and their often hare-brained adventures in show business and suburbia.

Point 360 transferred all 157 episodes of the show from the original cut negative, which was found in “very pristine condition,” according to GM Bill Infuso. “There was a moderate amount of dirt but a lot of grain.”

The grain issue was handled with Point 360’s proprietary ART (Advanced Restoration Tools) process, which was developed about three years ago. “ART is resolution independent; it can remove up to 100 percent of grain,” says Infuso. “The client is usually involved in setting up the desired look: You don’t want to remove all the grain or it will look plastic, but with excessive grain you get sizzle.”

In bidding for The Dick Van Dyke Show restoration, Point 360 ran a sample of the show through the ART process with a rudimentary setting. “The client was blown away,” Infuso recalls. “It looked like it was shot today but in black and white. So we established a de-grain level they were comfortable with and applied the ART process to the frames.”

He notes that sometimes, when more aggressive fixes are required, grain can be taken to zero, repairs made, then grain reintroduced so the results “don’t look fake.” ART can also match grain to a movie’s sequel or prequel so the look is consistent across a boxed set.

Consistency is a concern with series, too. To meet an accelerated deadline for the Blu-ray release, Point 360 had multiple colorists manning DaVinci 2K systems to color grade episodes. “It’s not feasible having one person work on a series, so you need to make sure everyone is consistent with their corrections after we balance and set a look,” Infuso explains.

Point 360 deployed manual DRS on its Revival system to remove the usual stains, dirt and hair, and perform minor image stabilization. The company delivered HDCAM masters to Brownstein for Blu-ray compression.

Point 360 has a formidable arsenal of restoration tools. In addition to ART, which was also recently used for the feature Predator, several Revivals are on hand along with Reel Align for reregistering color separations.

Infuso hopes to see more classic TV series heading to Blu-ray. In fact, his Dick Van Dyke Show client is so pleased with the results of restoration that he’s sending The Danny Thomas Show next.

“There are so many methods of getting entertainment — everyone is streaming everything,” he says. “There’s an audience that’s pretty hungry for content out there.”

INTERNATIONAL HISTORIC FILMS

As a film archive specializing in the military, political and social history of the 20th Century, Chicago-based International Historic Films (www.ihffilm.com) finds itself “pretty much restoring everything” that comes in for licensing or theatrical exhibition at art houses, says president Peter Bernotas. 

“Until recently, we restricted restoration with software methods like Revival to the more important titles, and we outsourced that work. Then we discovered Snell’s Archangel late last year, and since we implemented it in-house in April we’ve done 14 films, including the Soviet wartime documentaries Ukraine in Flames, The Battle of Sevastopol and Defeat of the German Forces Near Moscow, the Nazi propaganda film Stukas and the (1959) documentary March to Aldermaston about the first anti-nuclear protest in Britain.”



Bernotas reminds us that “dealing with rare historical documentaries and features we never get ideal elements, we have to work with whatever’s available, including banged up release prints” and original nitrate elements.

“We were looking for something that worked in realtime so we could tell in a matter of minutes if it was effective or not. It speeds production, and we can use it to different levels, running it at the auto level as a dirt remover and giving more attention and time to issues at the higher end.”

He hails the tool’s performance on the big three restoration issues his films require: scratch and dirt removal, and image stabilization. “It does scratch removal on the base or emulsion side — something we used wetgate systems on before. It gets rid of 80-90 percent of dirt on an auto level, and allows us to perform image stabilization in realtime: films often shrink 1-2 percent over time and a shaky image can actually make viewers sick.”

Bernotas is also a fan of Izotope RX for audio restoration. “It beats every former system we had and makes everything else unnecessary,” he says. “It’s similar to Archangel in terms of being a good tool for film people to master. It has a very graphical interface, a very clear spectographic display.”

Izotope proved itself on the rare, uncut Nazi propaganda film Aircrew Dora, which had never been seen in the West. “The audio had terrible perf buzz on it, a machine-gun rattling sound. It was a difficult noise to remove with conventional tools; I sent samples to a few audio technicians. But we found we could use an aggressive level of Izotope filtering on it and get rid of 95 percent of the perf buzz.”

Izotope also was put to work on March to Aldermaston, which was narrated by Richard Burton. “It just had a bad inherent soundtrack,” says Bernotas, “with artifacts of noise gain, mostly during the narration, which was difficult to isolate. “The client applied a telecine transfer with different focal lengths of the exciter and we applied Izotope” and the documentary was greatly improved.

The picture quality of Russian wartime docs suffers from “typical age issues,” he reports, including image inconsistency since footage for a single doc was often captured from an array of sources. “We’re working on A Day of War, a documentary for which the Russians sent out 140 cameramen to capture the action on a specific day on the Eastern Front. Those 140 reels of film were edited in a wartime post production process complete with fingerprints on the footage. There were scratches, dirt and grain differences. So we asked ourselves do we restore it completely to make it all look alike or do we let it go? We decided we wanted viewers to see the variations. We used our restoration tools to maintain the integrity of the original.”

SESAME STREET

Big Bird and his cohorts have been getting an audio makeover in preparation for the November 6 DVD release of  Sesame Street: Old School Vol. 3. Award-winning post mixer/composer Bill Lacey performed audio restoration on selected episodes from the show’s 1979-84 seasons; Lacey often partners with New York City’s Sandblast Productions (www.sandblastproductions.com) on projects, which are done at the Creative Group facility in Manhattan.

Lacey says the Sesame Street episodes exhibited the hum and buzz that are “typical problems of that era in TV broadcasting. It’s usually not steady, but they come with quite a lot of harmonics, which is extremely complicated to remove because it impacts music and dialogue.”

The Sesame Street shows also had hiss, crackle, electronic noises and occasional drop outs, the latter an age-related issue. Lacey worked with WAV or AIF files of the stereo tracks from 3/4-inch video transfers. “It was fun to work on Sesame Street,” he says. “Sometimes restoration focuses on the worst-sounding stuff, so it was nice to have something pleasant to listen to from Big Bird and Bert and Ernie and their friends — it was live TV basically.”

Lacey is a longtime user of Cedar Audio tools. “I probably used their first system in America in 1990 at RCA Studios when I was mastering and restoring Toscanini and the NBC Symphony recordings. When I started in the business we were editing clicks one at a time with old Sony DAE1000 editors — it was brutal. Then Cedar came along and allowed for a background process and later a realtime process. So I’ve seen the evolution of noise reduction products!”

Lacey’s home studio now sports a Cedar Cambridge V.8 system and a rack-mounted DNS module that’s paired with Pro Tools. The latest version of Cedar Cambridge incorporates video for the first time, he notes. Having a visual reference integral to Cedar Cambridge makes things “a lot easier” than jumping to other devices to check certain tracks to picture.

Lacey usually does a number of passes on shows, addressing one aspect at a time because “removing one problem often reveals another one that had been masked before.” With the Sesame Street episodes, “when I was dealing with low-frequency issues I started to hear some harmonics — they went up and up as I removed hum and buzz.”

One particular track proved challenging because “the number of bands of hum were pretty significant,” he recalls. “If you tried to remove them with a $200 tool you’d get a comb-filtering effect and horrible hollow-sounding audio. But Cedar excels at dealing with really difficult stuff. For me the real issue is always ,‘What does the result sound like?’ Any program can remove hiss and crackle to some degree, but what will it sound like afterwards? I tried a low-cost approach as a comparison and the results would have been awful. But Cedar did not degrade or damage the sound in any way while trying to fix it. I was very confident that what I’d get at the other end would be clean.”

While the Sesame Street restoration was relatively straightforward, Lacey says he’s “learned to no longer say that something is impossible to do — Cedar has proved me wrong too often. They tend to pioneer new developments and come up with new ways to solve problems. Over the past 24 years they have invented nearly all the aspects of modern digital audio restoration.”

ANNIE

In real life, the orphans have reached middle age by now but the cast of the original Annie movie is newly preserved in all its hard-luck innocence with the 30th anniversary release of the musical on Blu-ray. Chace Audio by Deluxe (www.chace.com) in Burbank saw to the audio restoration of the now-classic feature.

The project “points to what I like to call the three ‘Ps’ of significant sound film restoration: passion, persistence and providence,” says Bob Heiber, VP of audio at Deluxe Media. “It takes on the high aesthetic of the client, Sony Pictures Asset Management, led by Grover Crisp with Bob Simmons and Maria Blanco, who go to great lengths to uncover all the pieces that go into restoring motion pictures.”

Sony’s ongoing “thorough inventory process for all archived soundtracks, particularly as they relate to score,” has yielded hundreds of cartons of music material from an underground vault in Kansas, he reports. That’s the passion part. “We’ve been cataloging and evaluating it, and sometimes we find absolute gold,” says Heiber. “We knew that Annie had a stereo legacy and a standard Dolby stereo release with a small 70mm stereo release in 6-track and a Dolby Stereo track. So we should have been able to find multi-channel stereo material.”



Here comes the providential part. Eight cartons with some 50 reels of material were unearthed for Annie, including a 6-track stereo music score and 4-track stereo isolated vocals, plus a complete mono dialogue, music, effects, vocal track. “So we could recombine the vocals and score, and use the score and dialogue to underscore sections of the film,” he explains. A 4-track stereo (LCRS) M/E with vocals and without vocals also enabled many of the movie’s original stereo sound effects to be used.

Senior restoration mixer James B. Young applied persistence in restoring the sound and creating a new 5.1 mix, which has garnered rave reviews. “There was a modest amount of audio restoration required,” says Heiber. “Some restoration was done in the early 2000s, so Jim didn’t have a super heavy lift.” Young worked primarily in Pro Tools using WaveArts’ Master Restoration Suite and Izotope RX to remove the “usual minor hisses, ticks, pops, stage movement noises and a few noisy mag edits.”

Young was careful not to overly enhance the 5.1 environment to make the music “overpowering,” Heiber notes. “You want it to sound very much like a live Broadway show with the orchestra upfront in the pit and the reverbs in the surrounds. You don’t want isolated instruments in the surrounds.”

Persistence also paid off in ensuring that the final audio “was authentic” for legions of Annie fans who would speak up if they found discrepancies. “A lot of the vocal stems we found had vocal parts that didn’t make it into the final mix,” says Heiber. “Jim used the mono track as a guide. As he rebuilt the track he matched its authenticity going back to the original elements but never including any that hadn’t been there before and not forgetting what had been flown in at the last minute at the predub stage. Fans will be the first to tell you if you’ve made a mistake!”

An “ancillary benefit” of Sony’s ongoing underground vault inventory process is a “new focus on film score music,” he notes. “Catalog releasers are putting film scores on DVDs to accompany the picture. So now we have a newly preserved Annie sing-along score that accompanies the picture and score elements preserved in Sony’s digital asset management system.”