digital reporter

Ultra Resolution brings Warner classics to life

When watching the DVD rerelease of "Gone With the Wind," what once appeared as simply a green cloth shawl worn by Vivien Leigh is revealed as a garment of dark emerald velvet so rich it beckons touching.

Similarly, in the film's opening scene, while Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara rambles on about the tedium of war, the white bodice of her dress now displays precise lace patterns and threads.

Likewise, when Errol Flynn rides horseback into Sherwood Forest in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood," the detailed pattern embedded on his and other soldiers' armor is so vivid that the number of small metal rings can be counted.

These elements have been made clearly visible through a patented technology created by Warner Bros. in collaboration with AOL that involves digitally realigning and sharpening the older film negatives of classic movies shot on Technicolor three-strip film.

Known as Ultra Resolution, the technique is nominated this year for a Scientific and Technical Academy Award and has restored films in the studio's vast library including "Singin' in the Rain," "The Searchers" and "The Wizard of Oz" ? prints that over time have exhibited blurring or "color fringing" as well as shrinkage, stretching and other damage.

It was while observing a projected picture of "GWTW" during some digital scanning that Chris Cookson, president of Warner Bros. Technical Operations and chief technology officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment, says he was inspired. He noticed a frame five pixels out of alignment and knew the resolution could be improved if somehow all the sharp edges could be better matched.

"The purpose of Technicolor was to make color, not precise images," Cookson says of the Technicolor process used in the 1930s and '40s, which involved stacking together each frame of a negative to produce a full color print. "In a sense, we're mining the film and audio elements that have been sitting on these prints all these years."

The endeavor began in 2001, with the process being refined over the past few years. It was after senior systems engineer Paul Klamer took the technique's software as far as he could that two sisters who serve as heads of research and development at AOL, Keren and Sharon Perlmutter, became involved after the AOL-Time Warner merger.

With a background in developing video-compression technology for AOL, the Perlmutters devised an algorithm to analyze each square block of a frame, detecting the edges of each original color record and adjusting the color alignment accordingly.

Although Warner Bros. holds four patents on the technology with additional ones pending, the studio has shared the technique with other studios; recently, it is being used to create a new negative for damaged scenes in Paramount's "Chinatown."

Cookson recounted the reaction of "Singin' " director Stanley Donen when he was shown the digitally restored version of his 1952 film.

"It looks like it did that day on the stage," Cookson recalls Donen saying of the Ultra Resolution version of "Singin'," which has just been encoded for Cablevision's VOD platform.

For Cookson and those who worked tirelessly on the restoration of some of history's most classic films, the ultimate beneficiary is the film consumer.

"It not only benefits Warner Bros. and the industry at large, it benefits the movies themselves and the people who love them," he says.
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