Bringing home the epic

  • Bringing home the epic
  • Bringing home the epic
  • Lowry Digital in Burbank, California
  • Bringing home the epic
  • Bringing home the epic
  • Bringing home the epic
Date:31 January 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

It’s about time. With hi-def discs and downloads now widely available, Hollywood is finally tackling the job of turning film classics into digital masterpieces.

The colour of the world’s most widely recognised currency is green – greenback being a popular slang term for the US dollar. The colour of pool table felt in Martin Scorsese’s 1986 movie is … blue? Wait a sec – rewind. That’s not quite right, is it? Actually, it’s wrong. The blue pool tables in have nagged the makers of the film since it was shot.

When Scorsese began preproduction on the sequel to the classic movie , he toyed with the idea of shooting in black and white. The studio, Touchstone, wasn’t crazy about the idea, so Scorsese opted instead to “paint with colour” for this story of an ageing pool shark (Paul Newman) and his cocky young protg (Tom Cruise). For the first two-thirds of the film – which takes place largely in a wintry Chicago – Scorsese, production designer Boris Leven and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus designed the film in grey, black and white. The results were striking, with one slight hitch: “Because of the nature of the lighting, the green felt of the pool tables kept going blue,” recalls film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a longtime Scorsese collaborator. “There was nothing we could do about it, because we wanted to make sure the skin tones were right, and the overall look of the fi lm was right; so we let it go.”

Last summer, Schoonmaker was at New York’s Technicolor Creative Services staring at those blue pool tables again. When the film was fi rst made, there was no fix for the problem. Now, thanks to digital technology, she could correct it easily. “All we had to do was open digital windows on the pool tables and fill them in with green, without affecting the rest of the shot,” Schoonmaker explains. Why was a multiple-Oscar-winning editor concerned with colour correction on a 20-year-old movie? Because, like many classics from Hollywood’s archives, is about to be reborn.

Home theatre, the new theatre
The movie industry is at a technological turning point. The era of high-definition video, which has already transformed the broadcast and cable television industry, is just starting to make its impact felt in Hollywood. After a six-year format war, Sony’s Blu-ray hi-def disc emerged last year as the winner over rival Toshiba’s HD-DVD, paving the way for studios to jump onboard and release a library of beloved movies in HD.

Some consumer scepticism is understandable. Didn’t we all just upgrade from VHS to DVDs a few years ago?

The mass-market appeal of HD discs is still unproven – Blu-ray discs are expensive and, although the prices of players are falling, they are still more expensive than regular DVD players. Yet, if the sales of HDTV sets are any indicator, there is considerable consumer interest in hi-def, especially among those who love movies and home theatre. And the term home theatre has never been more apt – HD source material for movies is currently available at resolutions up to 1 920 x 1 080 pixels (known as 1080p), six times the resolution of DVDs. Now a homeowner with a quality screen and audio setup can not only approximate the feeling of a movie theatre, he can arguably improve upon it. After all, the hometheatre environment is calibrated by and optimised for the guy on the couch who owns it. No long queues, bad seats, awkward viewing angles or sticky floors. And if anybody talks during the movie, it’s probably you.

The advent of high-definition home cinema – whether delivered by Blu-ray discs or a variety of new downloadable technologies – presents moviemakers with a great new opportunity to bring the movie theatre experience directly to living rooms. But it also presents new challenges, both technical and artistic. For one, many consumers buy HDTVs that are optimised for sports viewing, not for the nuances of classic films. And studios sometimes don’t understand how to take advantage of HD’s tack-sharp picture quality – or worse, they use it in ways that undermine the look and feel of the original film. So it’s up to the directors, cinematographers, editors and restoration experts to answer one very important question: how should a movie look and sound in the home-theatre environment?

For and against the grain
To understand the mammoth effort it takes to transfer a classic film, Popular Mechanics visited the facilities where the Criterion Collection restores its movies. Criterion is legendary for its painstaking remastering jobs. These days, most of what we refer to as “film restoration” isn’t done on film. “There could be multiple copies of film elements, original negatives or duplicate negatives,” says Lee Kline, Criterion’s technical director. Criterion gathers the best it can find, then transfers those elements to the digital domain. Most are transferred using high-definition DataCine, where film is scanned in near real time (24 frames per second) directly to uncompressed data files. But, in the case of fragile negatives, restorers often choose the more painstaking method of digitally scanning individual film frames using a scanner synchronised to sprocket holes at the edges of negatives. After it is scanned, each movie is sent to Criterion’s facility on HD CAM cassettes at full 1080p high-definition resolution and is uploaded in the company’s central machine room.

Then the fun begins. A technician in a small office sits in front of a computer monitor with a virtual pen and touchpad and goes through the movie frame by frame, fixing scratches, removing dirt and schmutz. Take, for instance, Criterion’s painstaking restoration of art-house favourite Wong Kar Wai’s . The film’s opening sequence is in slow motion, but rather than create that slow motion in camera, Wong Kar Wai did it in postproduction, duplicating each frame three times with an optical printer. Every single frame – the original and the three duplicates – and its imperfections must be dealt with individually. There are automated methods of cleaning up digital transfers, after which technicians can assess the results and backtrack in case of error. But is getting an exclusively human touch, with hands-on techs making all the decisions on what stays, what goes and what replaces what goes. And that’s just the visuals: In another part of the facility, an audio technician goes through the film’s soundtrack, using Pro Tools and other software to remove extraneous pops and other forms of sonic distortion. The cleanup of the one-hour 42-minute film will take 480 hours.

But as glorious as HD film restorations can be, they can also be disastrous. Scorsese’s is arguably an improved product over even its theatrical release, because it was remastered with care and attention. But the Blu-ray of , produced without the participation of Scorsese or Schoonmaker, is a sloppy mess. In the opening scene, as Liam Neeson’s gang marches through its underground headquarters preparing for a turf war, the flames of the torches and candles illuminating the scene look like cartoons. Skin tones are often orange, and the visuals are made all the more surreal by edge-enhancement techniques that give the characters full-body halos.

Two movies by the same director, two totally different results. The lesson is that, in a hi-def world, details matter – because all the details are visible. On DVDs and VHS tapes, moviemakers didn’t have to concern themselves with whether or not to smooth out film grain, because you couldn’t see it.
With HD, you see everything.

Archivist Robert Harris knows a thing or two about fi lm grain. One of his most ambitious projects to date is a restoration of the trilogy. The Blu-ray transfer of Francis Ford Coppola’s mob epic – consisting of two masterpieces made in 1972 and 1974 and a less well-regarded picture made in 1990 – took nearly two years, with considerable input from Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis (who shot all three films). The project raises a question: just how much tinkering does a classic film need?

Harris has a simple answer, a mantra provided by the exacting Willis: “The film is already there. Our job is to reproduce it.” And that means, among other things, reproducing film grain – which often gets “cleaned up” via digital noise reduction. For the films, Harris says, “We didn’t touch the grain, except to equalise it where we were dealing with (mylar editing) tape over frames. But The is a grainy film. So is Part II. They were shot in a very specific way.” Harris points to opening wedding sequence as an example. The scene was purposefully overexposed and made to look as if it had been shot on mid-1940s film stock, with blown-out colours and lots of grain. “That is The Godfather,” Harris says. “If you take it away, it’s no longer . It turns into a Movie of the Week.”

Clarity and precision are at the heart of the HD digital video medium. Consumers expect knock-your-socks-off brightness, colour and detail, which means that a faithfully reproduced cinematic image can seem flawed. “You walk into the big-box stores, and they’ve got all these monitors lined up,” Harris says. “Colour is cranked. Contrast is cranked. They’re running images of clown fish swimming in coral. It’s the clown fish that sell the HD sets. When the buyers get home, if they see or in hi-def with grain on it, they say, ‘That’s horrible.’ They don’t know it’s not video noise. They don’t know that what they’re watching is the film.”

Directors and cinematographers may debate endlessly about the purity of HD film transfer, but John Lowry, founder and chief technology officer of Lowry Digital, is in the business of delivering what his clients want. If they want to retain film grain, as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did when they brought the first three films to him, he keeps the grain. But if the client requests a grain-free image, the grain must go.

For example, Lowry Digital did the restoration for Disney Home Video’s first Blu-ray disc of a classic animated title, 1959’s . Hand-drawn animation movies don’t benefit from the film fidelity that gives its visual style. Instead, the aim of restoring an animated movie is to remove the influence of film and get to the essence of the illustrated artwork underneath.

By any measure, the transfer of was an epic job. Lowry had access to the original negative from the Disney archives. The film was originally shot in the Vista Vision format, in which a single frame is the size of two 35 mm frames. The negative was also in what is called sequential colour – first frame red, second green, third blue. Since each frame of film produced three scans, that meant three times the restoration work. As a result, the digital restoration of the film took eight months instead of the typical six. “You scan that kind of material carefully and you get incredible results,” Lowry says. “Beautiful colour. Excellent resolution. And what little grain there is can be cleaned up, along with dirt and scratches, to create the ideal version of what the designers, animators and colourists intended.”

Lowry is a master of the digital magic that Thelma Schoonmaker used to change those blue pool tables in to green. The technology can do even more elaborate tricks. In restoring , Steven Spielberg was finally able to correct one of that film’s most famous gaffes – the reflections on the pane of glass that separates Harrison Ford from a room full of snakes in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Likewise, director Terry Gilliam was able to erase wires holding up the flying characters in for its Blu-ray release.

The big squeeze
With contemporary films, there is no need to clean scratches, film grain and dirt for a hi-def home release because there’s nothing to clean up. “On modern movie titles, the HD masters are part of the (original) production process,” notes Grover Crisp, senior vice-president of restoration and digital mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Studios and filmmakers increasingly use “digital intermediates” to colour-correct and otherwise tweak films prior to their release. So studios have a digital version of a film in place before it hits theatres, which explains why contemporary films often look so stunning on high-definition discs. Of course, movies that are shot or animated digitally require no “transfer”, since they never leave the digital domain at all. Pixar, for instance, creates all its movies – from to – as huge digital files. Preparing them for a home release requires only that they be compressed to fit the HD media.

Compression, though, introduces a whole new set of technical challenges. This process squeezes down the size of a film’s digital file by applying an algorithm that trims redundant picture information, hopefully with minimal distortion. Despite marketing claims to the contrary, there is no such a thing as “lossless” digital compression. Most video compression is “lossy” – that is, it loses information that the eye presumably can’t discern. The algorithms are incredibly flexible, and there is no standard for hi-def compression. Consider, for instance, that the uncompressed digital master of a typical Hollywood movie requires 5 to 15 terabytes of storage space. To fit it onto a Blu-ray disc, it is compressed by 100 times or more to 50 gigabytes. For distribution over an HD rental download service, it is reduced to 6 gigabytes or less. Yet all of these versions of the same movie are considered hi-def.

To save space, mastering engineers get creative. One trick is to apply a lot of compression to dark backgrounds – thereby reducing the bit rate (the amount of video data presented each second). But too much compression can create blacks that look like dark clumps instead of a natural part of the overall picture. Picture information with a lot of motion in it, such as flickering flames, needs to be handled carefully in compression, lest the result be a bleary, unrealistic rendition.

To companies such as Disney and Pixar, compression is itself an art form. “We work with compression artists and try to get the highest bit rate to make the best experience,” says Sara Duran-Singer, Disney’s vice-president of worldwide postproduction. “In the case of the Pixar titles, the filmmakers approve it. They know quite well how each part of the film is going to compress.”

Digital technology also has the potential to change the way we watch films. Many of the Blu-ray players on the market can connect to the Internet, and digital-movie download devices such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 are networked by design. That opens up options for home movie watching that are impossible in a public theatre, such as editing and sharing your own film sequence – as you can on the Blu-ray version of director Paul W S Anderson’s – or allowing viewers to instant-message each other onscreen as they watch, as kids can do on .

Isn’t there some irony in providing potentially disruptive extra features to such a painstaking restoration? Possibly, says Lori MacPherson, Disney Home Entertain
ment’s general manager for North America. But she notes, “These are extras you can opt into. They’re not pushed at you if you just want to watch the movie.”

Imagine that: sitting back and watching the movie. Cinema purists and new-media technophiles will argue whether interactivity has a place in the movie-watching experience, but such is the dual nature of the new hometheatre technology. You can bend the movie to your creative will, but you can also surrender to it, forget yourself for a while, become a guest of the Godfather at his daughter’s wedding – all from the comfort of your home. It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Building your personal cinema
by Joe P Hasler

Don’t treat your movies like ordinary TV – give them a theatrical release.

For maximum movie performance, a TV that can handle deep blacks is worth the money. But don’t mount it high like a painting – it should be at eye level when you’re sitting on a couch. Then move the couch to the ideal viewing distance, which is 1,9 times the width of your set. Also, buy dark curtains – direct sunlight washes out even the finest HD picture.

Experts say that you’ll never tell the difference between 5.1- and 7.1- channel surround sound in small spaces. In a large room, however, the extra speakers help. Not every Blu-ray disc is recorded with a full 7.1-channel soundtrack, but the format supports it. As discs evolve toward 7.1 sound, an affordable all-in-one home theatre can seem like a futureproof bargain if you have the space for it.

When designing a home theatre, it’s best to hide components and their blinking lights inside cabinets or closets, but make sure the space is wellventilated. Components need room to breathe, or they can overheat and fail. And although remote controls may clutter your coffee table, home-theatre installation expert Tony Yoo advises against a universal remote. “Programming six remotes into one system is often more hassle than it’s worth.”

Unlike DVD players, new HD players are Internetenabled, so make sure you have network access available to your components. Wire up an Ethernet cable to the Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-ray player or the Microsoft Xbox 360 console, and you can stream Netfl ix movies on demand. Other devices such as Sony’s PlayStation 3 can link to Wi-Fi so you can rent HD movies over the Internet.

Top 10 HD Epics to own

Every movie buff needs a library of classics to show off his HD system. These films reward repeat viewing with great stories, evocative soundtracks and dazzling visuals.

Here are the movies

Blade Runner
This pristine digital rendering of Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking sci-fi thriller, which follows a world-weary police specialist who tracks and eliminates a group of genetically manufactured replicants, corrects a couple

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