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Tremendously marvelous restoration

TMR’s Film Treatment Centre employs Grass Valley Shadow and Spirit telecines.

Whilst the bulk of film restoration work is undoubtedly for old films, even new films can need restoration. Take, for example, “Wah-Wah,” the first film directed by Richard E. Grant. Shot in South Africa, dust had crept in, and the film had to be electronically cleaned before release. With old film, there is no real way of knowing how it has been stored over the years, so a bit more than a quick clean will be required.

Soho-based The Machine Room (TMR) has more than 14 years of experience providing specialist restoration, digitization and telecine to the TV industry. The post-production facility has the UK's only traditional film treatment centre, as well as full feature film mastering and duplication facilities. Its traditional lab offers ultrasonic cleaning, re-washing, glass wheel polishing and scratch concealment treatment across a variety of film formats. Its technicians combine modern technology with traditional film handling techniques.

Restoring film is a three-stage process. First, the film is run through the film lab, where it is inspected and mechanically repaired. Film that has been spliced will have been joined either by a glue or joining tape. Whatever method was used, these will be weak points in the film and must be checked and remade if necessary. If this is not done, more damage might be caused by running it through a cleaner or telecine machine. Once all the joins have been remade and any tears fixed, the film can then be ultrasonically cleaned before being run through a telecine.

For the “Born To Boogie” restoration (a DVD about T.Rex front man Marc Bolan), 272 rusty film cans (containing 30,000ft of film) arrived at the post house to be restored. Every single film join had to be undone, cleaned by hand and rejoined before it could be taken through to the next stage.

When in telecine, the film is exposed and graded to what will probably be the final look. But changes can still be made later if the need arises. At TMR, the telecine can either be a Grass Valley Shadow or a Spirit with Pogle Platinum and PiXi. Depending on the project type (SD or HD), the film will be telecined to HD-D5, DigiBeta or straight to a data file.

Then the electronic restore process begins. From here on, we are in the Restoration Centre, a high-tech suite full of specialist machines that will get the film back into peak condition. The first stage is to do a basic electronic clean that will fix minor dirt and some film scratches, whilst the material is being ingested into the final restorer — the MTI Correct. This pass will either be through a Snell & Wilcox Archangel for SD work or a Teranex ImageRestore for HD work. However, the Teranex can also work in SD if required.

Both devices have filter settings that allow them to fix or ignore the various artifacts you are trying to correct. The Teranex operator will ensure that the settings do not affect any detail within the picture because if the settings are too aggressive, elements of the film may be wrongly corrected or even disappear. Rain, for example, could look like grain or fine scratches. An experienced operator will know exactly how to remove grain and dirt without affecting the detail within the film.

As an example, on the “Born to Boogie” project, TMR had to take care to control the levels to ensure the processing filters did a good job, but at the same time make sure they didn't blur or remove any of the finer details, such as the guitar strings and drumsticks.

The footage from “Born to Boogie” had not been seen for a long time, so it was critical to keep it as close to the original look as possible. It was vital to convey the colors and energy of the original '70s footage; therefore, keeping artifacts to a minimum was crucial. The result was more than 50 hours of restoration, with the team working in shifts, 24/7, to restore the pictures to their original quality.

As mentioned earlier, both the Archangel and the Teranex provide a ‘pre-restore’ to the MTI, which is used for the more major restoration problems. Both units compare around five frames of material, enabling them to work out what is dirt, grain or scratching and then use information from surrounding frames to repair offending frames. The Teranex will let you view uncorrected and corrected as a split screen and highlight what it thinks are errors in red. You can then use this information to adjust the sensitivity of the filter.

You can also apply masks so that the machine will either ignore or work only on that portion of the picture. For example, a constant scratch that is in more or less the same place can be removed; meanwhile, other verticals in the picture are kept intact. Teranex will match the grain structure with its corrections, so the join is not visible. Bear in mind that this is only the first pass; the major work (if required) is still to come.

After the project has been ingested into the MTI via either the Archangel or Teranex, the painstaking manual process of fixing larger artifacts of dirt and damage can begin. Whilst the ‘Correct’ has automatic settings that do a very good job, it is more likely (depending on budget) that the film is analyzed frame-by-frame.

For large areas of damage, such as a tear or large piece of dirt, the information can be taken from an adjacent frame, and the new piece can be matched for exposure, color and movement (if the area has movement in it) to repair the frame seamlessly. Similar to the Teranex, the MTI allows you to view errors highlighted in blue so you can decide whether it is part of the film or a proper error. The MTI also has a paint capability, enabling artifacts to be painted out or color-corrected to improve matching back with the original.

The quality-control operators in TMR's VT area will produce a QC report, which lists the film artifacts that need removing. The VT area will then do another report at the end of the project to ensure all artifacts have been cleaned without error.

Some of the corrections available are truly amazing. Not only can you do all the usual stuff as mentioned above, but you can take out camera wobble as well as the normal ‘hop’ and ‘weave’ film artifacts. One issue that arises when restoring films is knowing when to stop. If you remove everything, there is a danger that it will lose the film look that encourages so many to continuing to shoot on film.

A perennial problem in film restoration with noise is that in trying to correct it, it begins to turn the material into more of a video look and the details and film grain disappear. Film is inherently grainy, so you don't want to remove it all and make it look like video. Having said that, with certain types of film such as 16mm, the grain is gigantic when it's blown up. Therefore, it needs to be addressed with the noise reducer.

Richard Watson is head of restoration at TMR, part of VTR.