Digital restoration of silent films (was Re Chaplin & DVD)

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: alt.movies.chaplin,alt.movies.silent
Date: Friday, December 19, 1997 5:50 PM wrote in message …
>In article <eT6J5OlB9GA.179@upnetnews04>, "David P. Hayes"
><> wrote:
>> DVD looks very good. Sharper-than-laserdisc images, stable colors. DVD
>> depends heavily on the skill of the people doing the transfer; they need to
>> spend a lot of money on transfers at present, so financial justification for
>> doing so will have to be established by the market. DVD relies on heavy
>> compression of redundant data, but pixel artifacts are rare. Advances in
>> compression technology are expected to improve with regards to stray pixels
>> and to the difficulty of doing the work.
>Glad you touched on that compression thing. From what I've read, DVD
>encodes the data so that pixels that do not move are simply repeated from
>the previous frame. Technically, then, we're not getting a frame-by-frame
>copy of a film, but some kind of computerized interpretation of what the
>film should contain.
>Now, my question - how would DVD deal with silent films - particularly
>ones with a lot of wear and tear and surface scratches? Would it read the
>different scratches and defects as a pixel-change and require
>frame-by-frame coding, or is someone electronically altering the image to
>"improve" the scratches and defects (they did this with the latest laser
>release of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" - yeah, half of the billion
>scratches are gone, but overall it looks like you're watching the movie

I can best respond to the question of what DVD is capable of delivering is to answer with what I know from my own experience about what digital formats are capable of delivering. (Notice that I'm not talking about the current actuality, but technical potentiality.)

On January 10th of this year, I was in attendance when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ran the Western United States re-premiere of Frank Capra's long-lost 1928 comedy-drama for Columbia "The Matinee Idol," with Bessie Love and one Johnnie Walker. It was the a landmark presentation of a digital video format.

I had already held the notion that the most feasible means of preserving the largest number of vintage films is to copy them to a digital video format that would not be subject to degradation nor deterioration. The people at Sony seem to have had the same idea.

"The Matinee Idol," we learned in an introduction to the movie, is the first live-action film to be entirely restored digitally. The results were so good that you could not tell the difference between it and an image that had come directly from a film negative. The image has those teeny grain-like particles that edged over ever so slightly from one frame's image to the next, as if you were seeing the different locations of the finest grain of the camera negative which on a film is not located at the same spot from one frame to the next (the manufacturing process being such that chance determines where each "pixel" lands). There was an array of black hues and grey shades, and the translucent quality we associate with television was not in evidence, nor were the solid blocks of archetypical colors that one associates with computer monitors.

In the minutes that preceded the showing of the feature film, the Academy coordinator who introduced the film showed some before-and-after comparisons of the film as it was found and as it was preserved. The word was done from a negative made from the sole surviving print, and that print had scratches, cinch lines, and blothes that resulted from the emulsion of the film having come off. Using the digital system software, these deformities could be fixed by electronically duplicating redundant pixels from adjacent frames. The projected image was slowed down during the education presentation so that we could plainly see where there were white blotches on the screen the sizes of the actor's faces in a medium shot. Once restored (or should I say modified?), the image was as whole on that frame as on the others, and no lines gave away the alterations.

A friend who was also had that presentation told me of his surprise at how good the picture quality was, and we shared observations on how this will make preservation more likely to occur. As you know, when a sole surviving print has damaged sprocket holes, copying it onto film becomes an onerous, time-consuming and expensive undertaking if the resulting image is to have a stable image. Not so much a problem is this to digital copying, in that a computer can be trained to look for background lines that are to appear in the same place in each frame and then adjust the position of each frame in accordant to the placement of the fixed details. Similarly, making copies on digital video of an image with limited contrast is not so tricky, in that video is not subject to becoming darker or lighter in manner that the film development process can alter the range of hues, and in any event, the end result can be checked right there on a screen as one is working rather than being learned only hours (or days) later when expensive celluloid-based media has been removed from the chemical baths.

I was pleased. Let me summarize in that way.

About the film itself: Johnnie Walker plays a character obviously based on Al Jolson. The film is amusing and quick and humanly touching, with Bessie as appealing as you've ever seen her, here playing an underdog by position who puts all her energies and talents into producing local theater. The Walker character chances to see her amateurish production--and also chances to be in it--he unbeknownst to her being a big Broadway star who having failed as a dramatic actor had found huge fame as the preeminent blackface comic, the central figure in the revues in which he appears and so beloved by his audiences that he can step out of character in front of his well-dressed audiences and share with them his decision to let a rare mood he's in dictate a change in the program. (Sounds like the real-life Jolson.)

David Hayes


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