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Six Steps For Restoring Your Old Films

Six Steps For Restoring Your Old Films

Did you know that 50% of all full-length features produced before 1950 have vanished? Fewer than 20% of features from the 1920s survive in complete form; survival rates of 1910s is <10%?[i]

While more than 90% of the world cinema produced before 1929 can no more be restored and are lost forever, the major players – from restoration agencies to film production houses – are trying to revive old classics digitally.

Film restoration is an archaeological expedition for curators. Apart from factors like dust, scratches, film grains, shrinkage, and color fade, heritage films are also at-risk due to climate conditions, lack of training in film preservation, and sometimes, unstable political conditions.

Film restoration is crucial for the preservation of films, especially those whose original elements have substantially deteriorated. The critical steps of restoring a film are as follows:

  1. Film identification: Film restoration is a costly and labor-intensive process, sometimes consuming more than 1,000 staff-hours to repair a film. Therefore, it is essential to identify the films that need to be restored.
  2. Film treatment and repair: Curators clean the films using chemicals, cleaning machines. Further, they use splicing tape, film cement, or ultrasonic splicers to repair perforations and tear on a film before using it on projectors, printers, and other sprocket-driven film equipment.
  3. Digitization/ Scanning: Curators scan each frame into a digital file before proceeding with restoration. The back-up copy replicates the video and audio content of the film and ensures the copy can be used in the future to create subsequent viewing copies.
  4. Film comparison: Before proceeding with the restoration, curators compare all the known surviving source materials to ensure the chosen version is the best available version for restoration.
  5. Digital restoration: A widely used restoration format today, the films are restored using digital or hybrid techniques, and the output can be in film or digital form. Digital restoration also incorporates the following:
    • Comparing each frame to its adjacent frames
    • Fixing the frame alignment
    • Restore areas blocked by dirt and dust by using parts of images in other frames
    • Restore scratches by using parts of images in different frames
    • Reducing film grain noise
    • Restoring sound
    • Correcting flickering, lighting, and color changes, even minimal, from one frame to another due to the aging of the film
  1. Digital asset management: It is essential to create a set of database records with metadata and other relevant information that allows end users to identify, locate, and retrieve a film from the archive.

 

From documentaries to fictional narratives, newsreels, industrial films, home movies, political ads, and travelogues, films are a witness of the past. By restoring these works, we can illuminate our heritage with the power and immediacy unique to film. To know more about film restoration, read:

 

[i] http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/Talks/cineteca-mexicana.pdf
Five factors that damage audio tapes

Five factors that damage audio tapes

Cassette tapes were first produced at a mass scale in the early 1960s and became popular in the 1980s. Long before DVDs and cloud storage became popular, audio tapes and reels were used to record information. Magnetic tapes have a lifespan between 10 – 30 years and has been used to record and store sound, numeric and textual information, motion, and still images. While magnetic media adds on to the kind of artifacts, we can use to capture and store, their transience and degradability have been a concern for archivists and librarians.

To understand the reason for the degradation of audio tapes/reels, we need to delve into the components that form these tapes. Tapes have three parts – a magnetic layer, binder, and backing – all of which are potential sources of failure.

  1. The magnetic layer has a magnetic pigment suspended within a polymer binder.
  2. The binder holds the magnetic particles together and helps in recording and storing the magnetic signals written to it.
  3. The backing film supports the magnetic recording layer, which is very thin and cannot be a stand-alone layer.

All these components are susceptible to damage in the following ways:

Instabilities in the magnetic particle (top layer): If there is any change in the magnetic properties of the pigment that stores the recorded information, the recorded signals are irretrievable. The magnetic particle can become unstable due to demagnetization by an external factor like a hand-held metal detector, or suffer normal wear and tear.

Loss of lubricant in the binder: Lubricants reduce the friction of the magnetic top coat of the tape, reducing tape wear. With time, the level of lubricant decreases due to normal wear and tear, frequent consumption, degradation, and evaporation.

Substrate deformation (backing film): Polyester that is used as a substrate backing is chemically stable. However, excessive tape pack stresses, aging, and poor wind quality can cause deformation of the polyester in the substrate, thereby distorting the tapes.

Various factors result in the damage of audio tapes and reels. We have listed five of them below:

  1. Temperature and humidity: High temperatures and humidity can decrease magnetic capability, deteriorate the binder or backing of the magnetic tape, resulting in loss of readable data. Ideally, tapes should be stored at a temperature between 0° C – 23° C and in places with less than 70% humidity to prevent fungal growth and degradation.
  2. Frequent access: Frequent access reduce the life expectancy of tapes due to wear and tear. The more tape is handled, the more it is contaminated with fingerprints and debris, which reduces its life considerably.
  3. Exposure to the strong magnetic field: Strong magnetic fields like luggage screeners in airports, X-ray scanners, and metal detectors – both hand-held and walk-through – can erase information from audio tapes and reels, which uses magnetic particle to store data.
  4. Dust and debris: Dust, tape debris, and smoke particles can affect the tape when it is being played, resulting in loss of signal, and subsequently damaging the tape.
  5. Corrosive gases: Magnetic tapes are susceptible to airborne sulfides, ozone, and nitrous oxides. Bare metal particle (MP) and metal evaporated (ME) tapes, which are contained in cassettes, are affected by corrosive gases.

While storage options are aplenty now, audio tapes and reels are still of sentimental and historical value to librarians, archivists, and old people. While audio reels will degrade with time, some ways in which the decay can be contained are:

  1. Using and storing magnetic tape reels and cassettes in a clean environment.
  2. Avoiding contamination of the tapes by dirt, dust, fingerprints, food, cigarette smoke and ash, and airborne pollutants.
  3. Keeping the tapes away from strong sunlight and water.
  4. Not storing tapes near electronic or magnetic fields.
  5. Ensuring the reels are not laid flat for long periods while storing.

Having said all of that, it is best to create a back-up and copy of the information in modern formats to ensure there is no information lost.

Film Restoration: From Pix to Pixels, Celebrating the Yesteryears in Reels

Film Restoration: From Pix to Pixels, Celebrating the Yesteryears in Reels

As King of Jazz (1930) made its world premiere last month at Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, film enthusiasts were introduced to a genre of films which they thought are lost in time. The event, which celebrated lesser known European works like Broadway (1929) and the Kiss before the Mirror (1933), highlighted the effort production houses are putting to bring Technicolor back to theaters in a new form.

Film curators all over the world are celebrating the yesteryear’s in reels. The recently held San Francisco Silent Film Festival (June 2- 5, 2016) brought five such gems from the silent era into life. Rob Byrne, board president of the Film Festival was quoted saying that he grew up watching Chaplin’s silent films like Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931) and wanted to bring them back to the theaters for a larger audience.

Film restoration is more of an archaeological expedition for curators. While finding an old film is like a treasure hunt, the effort that goes behind bringing back the movies to life is overwhelming. Byrne says that sometimes the curators need to go through exhibitor publications to understand the exhaustive details before reconstructing the missing shots.

The amount of effort that has already been put in film restoration is notable. From global film production houses to mid-size restoration agencies, the major players are putting all their efforts to digitally restore old classics – some even in 4K. And what makes the restoration effort noteworthy is some of these films have never even been released on DVD, leave alone Blu-ray.

Film curators hope that the digital restoration will introduce the old works to new eyes, apart from bringing back old favorites to life. From Kurosawa to Chaplin, old classics that were almost once lost has been digitally restored – some even in 4K. The list is varied – from classics of world cinema like The Third Man (1949), The Bicycle Thief (1948), and Notorious (1946) to cult hits like Dracula and Frankenstein. What makes the list more interesting is many among these have never been released for home viewing.

While some classics in the first half of the 20th century – the era of silent movies has been lost forever, curators are experimenting with classics that can be restored. Notable among the effort is John D. Lowry, a Canadian film restoration expert who developed his own technique called the Lowry Process to restore films. The technique reduces visual noise in motion pictures like dirt scratches and flicker, sharpening the quality of existing images, before making it possible to restore the complete film.

Lowry has restored more than five hundred classic films using this process, which includes some popular classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Casablanca (1942), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom(1984), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1965), and James Bond Film franchise to name a few.

Taking Lowry Process further, production houses has restored Hollywood classics like the original Star Wars trilogy, North by Northwest (1959) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

To cater to the diverse formats in which millennials consume content, curators are now restoring movies from celluloid to 4K digital where each frame is digitally polished to remove noise, colors and contrast are enhanced so that the film looks as good as new. For example, the Warner Bros Motion Pictures restored Citizen Kane (1941), which was recently premiered at the 68th Cannes Film Festival.

Who said you can’t relive yesteryear’s?