Movie restoration getting A-list treatment

Studios are restoring an increasing number of films

It's a magical experience to view pristine film classics, and these days it seems studios are restoring an increasing number of their most valuable assets for commercial as well as historical reasons.

Among the reasons for this upswing:

>The advent of Blu-ray Disc and larger home displays are putting increased emphasis on image quality;

>Studios are fielding requests for digital versions of legacy films for display at digital cinema theaters as well as film festivals;

>The emergence of the digital technology means there are more capabilities than ever.

Restoration increasingly has been shifting from a lab process to a digital one. The digital intermediate process has played an important part in that transition, along with such specialty tools as MTI Film's Correct and Digital Vision's Phoenix.

This new technology has advanced the field of restoration. But it also has shifted the model and raised new questions, from what should be restored and how to go about it to how to preserve it and how to pay for it. The community will address those issues at the Reel Thing Technical Symposium -- a nonprofit event dedicated to studying the technology used for restoration and presentation -- set for June 6-7 in Los Angeles.

"Restoration is taking on a sense of urgency because there is a capability that wasn't there before," said Ray Feeney, co-chairman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Science and Technology Council. "Those doing restoration are empowered."

Empowered as well as, in some cases, cautious, adds MTI CEO Larry Chernoff, "because it can have profound impact on the image. ... The idea is to attempt to bring back its original state without altering the intent." That's why many projects have had the oversight of the original film's director and/or director of photography.

Budgets, of course, also are an issue. "It's very difficult to get funding for titles that don't have immediate commercial outlets like Blu-ray," says Tom Burton, vp of Technicolor Digital Services. "The sad reality is there are a whole lot of other titles which are brilliant pieces of filmmaking that will probably never benefit because they don't have that outlet."

From a technical standpoint, the shift toward digital has raised many questions. Among them: What is the best resolution for the work? And how do you archive it?

Today, 2K resolution is commonly used, but 4K -- four times the amount of picture information than in a 2K file -- is gaining on it, meaning there are bandwidth and cost issues thrown into the mix.

As for digital archiving, a landmark report on the subject recently released by the AMPAS' Sci Tech Council laid out a series of issues. Chief among them is the fact that the annual cost of preserving film archival material is $1,059 per title, while the cost of preserving a 4K digital master is $12,514.

Industry leaders agree that the only proven way to archive is film negative -- today's standard practice. Digital archiving, however, is a critical concern.

"If we are not careful, we are going to have a really big restoration problem," AMPAS film archive director Mike Pogorzelski says. "With data, it's either readable and there or it's not. So if file formats change or equipment becomes obsolete, that it, it's over. That is a really scary situation."

Ned Price, vp mastering at Warner Bros. Technical Operations, adds that audio also should be viewed as an "urgent situation. ... Compared with picture, the magnetic film (where audio is originated and stored) is decaying at a faster rate."

Grover Crisp, the newly named senior vp asset management, film restoration and digital mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment -- and who is coordinating the Reel Thing symposium with Sony technical specialist Michael Friend -- says standardization also must be addressed.

"The data from the DI process presents a problem for preservation right now because there aren't any real standards for preservation or workflow in place, certainly none that are agreed to by any sanctioned body. Everyone is kind of operating on their own, although there are some best practices in place."

Digtal archiving also is a point to consider for new films that are digitally lensed, posted and mastered.

Which leads to yet another question: How will this generation of filmmakers preserve its digital history?
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