keeping the past current with new technology and techniques

Restoration: keeping the past current with new technology and techniques

Claudia Kienzle

THE surge in demand for film restoration is being fueled by two major trends. First is the recognition by motion picture studios of the value of their content. Before the advent of cable channels, HDTV, DVD and other new distribution outlets hungry for content, movies used to be packed away in vaults with no real plans for re-use beyond the theatrical release. Now, studios want to preserve classic movies for posterity, as well as re-purpose them for re-release in today’s exciting new venues.

The second trend is the demand for an ultra-pristine image by consumers of DVDs, HD TVs and other home theater equipment. Because of this, even today’s big-budget movies are routinely restored–to remove dirt, scratches, grain, flicker, jitter, among other defects–as part of the digital intermediate process. As a result, the post houses we spoke with all say they have seen a dramatic increase in the volume of film restoration business.


“We have booked more business in the first three months of this year than we did in our entire four-year history. We’re incredibly busy,” says John Lowry, founder and CEO of Burbank’s Lowry Digital (, whose services are dedicated to film restoration.

Lowry is currently restoring the entire collection of 20 James Bond movies for MGM. They are destined for DVD and HDTV release, however, nine are being scanned at 4K resolution for new negatives. There’s also a new movie, directed by James Cameron, destined for IMAX (70mm) release and restoration of the first Stars Wars trilogy for director George Lucas. Restoration work was completed on the Indiana Jones trilogy for director Steven Spielberg and dozens of classic films such as Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca.

Lowry Digital uses proprietary, software, called The Lowry Process, which employs 600 dual G5 Macintosh computers, each with 4GB of RAM, harnessed into a “supercomputer” configuration using a Gigabit Ethernet network and 400 TB of hard disk. Lowry’s software automatically eliminates defects like flicker, jitter, weave, dirt, scratches, mold stains and color fading, frame-by-frame, leaving no artifacts.

While the process is digital, with digital data archived on hard drives, Lowry recommends making a new film negative. In fact, “the best method is to make a YCM [yellow, cyan and magenta] three-color separation where the red, green and blue picture information is captured separately on sequential frames on the same film reel. In this way, all three-color records are subject to the same shrinkage or fading over time. “In the 1930s through the 1950s, Disney used this sequential YCM process in photographing animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which Lowry restored last year. He says, “This forward-thinking image capture method results in an ideal film archiving model. Restoration from these sequential YCM separations yields beautiful subtleties in tone and color that we rarely see in color negatives.”


Hollywood’s film archives are filled with priceless films, many of which are being restored for posterity by Technicolor Creative Services (TCS). Without expert restoration, these cinematic images and sounds could be lost forever. The primary approach that Technicolor takes is to restore films by employing traditional film photochemical processes to preserve and archive the movie as a film, not make a digital copy on data tape or videotape.

“When you create a pristine, new film negative that faithfully captures nearly all of the picture and sound information of the original film, you truly preserve the image of that film. Decades from now, people will be able to hold that film up to a light and see those images, which might otherwise be lost,” says Paul Stambaugh, VP of film preservation in the North Hollywood facility of TCS, a division of Technicolor (, which is owned by Thomson.

When picture information is stored as 1s and 0s on a tape-based medium, decades from now, there might not be a playback device capable of displaying that picture properly. “The first and most cost-effective step is to try photochemical processes first, such as frame washing dirt and Wet Gate to remove scratches from the film’s base, through contact and optical printing methods,” says Stambaugh. “Then, if there’s a scratch or other defect that can’t be eliminated photo-chemically, that original element, or an interpositive of it, could be scanned at 4K and repaired in a digital process resulting in a B-roll element that can be printed and stored with the original negative.

“The best film preservation method is to make a YCM color separation master; where the yellow, cyan, and magenta elements are stored as B & W film negative reels. It’s then printed using an RGB light, where the red affects the cyan dye, the green affects the magenta dye, and blue affects the yellow dye. This allows the full reproduction of the original colors with the highest integrity when the three elements are combined through contact printing,” Stambaugh says.


While three-color printing is associated with movies from the 1930s through 1950s. Stambaugh says, “The concept of having three separate records is still extremely relevant and valuable to today’s film restoration and preservation.”

Technicolor also has a proprietary approach to accurate sound restoration called Digital AIR (Audio Image Restoration), which performs a 2K scan of the optical sound element of the film and loads a broadcast WAV file onto a hard drive. “Then the system’s software reads that track and identifies any anomalies [such as crackles, pops, hiss, or other unwanted sound] interrupting an otherwise smooth rise and fall of the audio pattern so the operator can eliminate them,” says Bruce Graham, senior VP of sound services for TCS in Glendale, CA. In the last six months, Technicolor has added the capabilities to restore “Variable Density” soundtracks, which depict as grayscales rather than waveforms.

“What we are most proud of is our ability to restore the original sound without coloring or embellishing it,” says Graham. “We only clean it up and reverse the aging process, often resulting in better sound fidelity than audiences heard when the movies were first shown in theaters.”


Sunset Digital, has established a “Film Restoration Forensic Lab” where motion pictures and television shows in need of restoration are evaluated to determine what problems are evident, what may have caused them, and what assets are available and required.


“These assets include not just the media assets but also the metadata required to perform the restoration,” says Ron Burdett, president/CEO of Sunset Digital ( in Glendale, CA. Occasionally, missing metadata assets need to be created from other existing assets, such as re-creating a missing Flex file from the original transfer master. The subsequent analysis allows us to develop a customized, effective workflow for that specific restoration project. This understanding results in more accurate repair.”

The idea stemmed from the restoration of historical video of The Beatles’ first four appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, along with the original commercials. Burdett says that by using picture artifacts as clues, the team determined that it had been a multi-camera show recorded to 2-inch quad tape. They used MTI’s DRS and the Snell & Wilcox Archangel to restore the video to a pristine condition. They finished by restoring the monaural audio and adding 5.1 surround.

Sunset Digital also restored 275 episodes of Cheers to HDTV to give it a new lease on life, including DVD distribution. And, they restored 10 episodes of Paramount’s Andy Richter TV series for broadcast on Mark Cuban’s HDNet satellite channel. “Since Mark Cuban doesn’t take upconverted SDTV programs, our forensic team had to go back to all the original film negative, which was as much as 60,000 feet per episode of uncut film negative, and re-construct the show using old ‘Flex’ files of the original edits and the aired video masters for reference,” says Burdett. “We then transferred the selects to HD and conformed and color corrected a new HDTV master.”

Among the 2,000 classic movies restored at Sunset Digital, Burdett says one stands out in particular: the 1995 restoration of The Ten Commandments. This VistaVision film involved a combination of photochemical and digital restoration to eliminate dirt, scratches, chemical stains, watermarks and other problems. Whether they are destined for HDTV or DVD, movies are ultimately being compressed to MPEG-2, which means that the picture must be pristine to maximize digital bandwidth and storage, and meet the expectations of an increasingly savvy audience.”


“Film restoration has become an integral part of everything we do,” says Larry Birstock, executive VP of Post Logic Studios, ( in Hollywood. Five to seven years ago, whenever there was a problem in the film element, our clients had to live with it because the industry didn’t have cost-effective tools to remove those spots, cinchmarks and other flaws during the mastering process. Today, film restoration is so common that, as part of our mastering service, we give our clients a list of any issues we see with the provided film element, starring them from worst to least, so they can determine which problems their time and budget will allow them to fix. But increasingly, they want us to get everything.”

Post Logic Studios recently opened a New York facility to meet the growing demand for digital film mastering from such NYC-based clients as Miramax. Among the tools that the New York facility is using for film restoration is the DRS (Digital Restoration System) by Mathematical Technologies, Inc., which when introduced 10 years ago, was the very first system dedicated to digital film restoration. Birstock says, “Current DRS systems offer enough speed and efficiency to tackle the time consuming job of film restoration.”


“At our facility, all new features and trailers are being finished as a digital intermediate, either 2K or beyond or in HD resolution,” says Dick Millais, VP of marketing for IVC High Definition Data Center ( in Burbank. “During the past two years, a large number of classic ‘Feature Library Titles’ have been remastered as a 24p/HD digital intermediate restoration for ‘Collector Edition’ DVD release and/or for HD broadcast use, and/or for limited digital cinema re-release.”

At IVC, they offer both photochemical restoration, through its in-house 35mm/16mm color/B & W film laboratory, as well the latest resolution independent, digital restoration processes, along with digital intermediate mastering and data transfer/conversion services.

“With restoration projects, the budget, quality, type of best source elements and the end use all determine which approach is taken,” says Millais. “Clients can start with a Liquid Gate printing process [using original negatives/separations or other best source elements] that will minimize minor surface defects and scratches to provide an improved film intermediate/ preservation/transfer element. Or they can go directly to the digital realm by transferring the best source elements to HD or scanning them to 2K or higher data resolution. Or, it may be beneficial to combine photochemical and digital processes.”


A combination of Liquid Gate IP printing and various digital restoration processes were used to restore and preserve the 1948 classic Joan of Arc for a May 2004 Collector Edition DVD release. One of the biggest challenges to this film restoration was the condition of best remaining picture and sound elements, which had been procured from various foreign and domestic sources over the years.

“All these film elements were damaged by age and wear, and many of the original camera negatives had been lost. So, for many scenes and entire sections, Robert Gitt, film preservation officer for the UCLA Film and Television Archives, had to substitute the best remaining ‘dupe neg’ or print element in order to reconstruct the feature to its original release length,” says Millais.

A da Vinci 2K color corrector with Power Windows and newly-developed, proprietary restoration software were used in this HD digital intermediate mastering. “We removed film dirt, scratches and other film damage, reduced grain, weave and color breathing, improved apparent sharpness and matched the color, contrast and overall look between images from very different source elements,” adds Millais.


Cinesite just completed the film restoration of Williamsburg: Story of a Patriot. This classic movie has been shown at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia since the 1950s. Shot in VistaVision, the original film elements began to show signs of wear and tear–such as dirt, scratches, unsteadiness, color fading and bad splices–and NYC-based executive producer Bob Harris brought the project to Cinesite (, in Hollywood.

“The biggest challenge we faced is that each frame of this VistaVision movie contains 100MB of digital information, so we scanned the original camera negative at 6K data resolution and worked at film resolution throughout the entire digital restoration process,” says Jerry Pooler, executive director of creative for Cinesite.

“To accomplish this, our in-house research and development team wrote proprietary software that would enable us to perform all the necessary repairs at 6K data resolution,” adds Pooler. “We also faced ‘registration’ problems because the original film elements had been archived as YCM color separations on three separate film reels. When we went to overlay these three frames, the registration was off and custom software was needed to ensure they would realign perfectly on a frame-by-frame basis.” Cinesite output a VistaVision Interpositive, from which a 65mm “dupe neg” was made and, ultimately, a new 70mm IMAX film print.

Lastly, since film restoration is so time consuming and labor intensive, is there any possibility that the work would be “outsourced” to places like Asia–the way that some animation work has? Sunset’s Ron Burdett says that this was highly unlikely because the major motion picture studios are so security conscious and protective of their valuable film assets that they want to closely supervise their film restoration work.

RELATED: European restoration

LONDON — “We are seeing a tremendous increase in film restoration business, including modern features, and archival film collections from throughout Europe and Asia. These clients are becoming more and more open to digital film restoration because they see they can use many of the same tools already being employed for digital mastering,” says Helle Absalonsen, GM/producer for Digital Film Lab ( based in Copenhagen, Denmark, with a London sales office.


At Digital Film Lab. film-to-tape transfer is done using the Thomson Spirit HD telecine, with color correction on the da Vinci 2K. And depending upon the budget and needs of the project, automatic film restoration is done using the da Vinci Revival film restoration system. Some of the common problems routinely tackled are color fading, scratches, dirt removal and shrunken film. They can also restore from two- and three-strip color separations and output to film using the Arrilaser film recorder.

However, if the project is already in the DI pipeline, restoration may also be done using the Discreet Inferno, which is capable of restoring all defects in the frames, as well as re-ordering and re-conforming film. Also in use is a film restoration solution called Diamant from HS Art of Austria.–Claudia Kienzle

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