Digital is Over There! It’s Only a Matter of Sampling!

Bruce Lawton made me aware of an article in the New York Times that I found highly annoying.  It was highly annoying because it was inaccurate.  It reflects the complete misunderstanding of what “digital” means in the media and public.  In short, the public and media seem to believe this:

“Digital imaging processes are a modern miracle and are a complete replacement and upgrade from older technologies.  All digital images are perfect by their nature and will never degrade or become outdated.”

This is simply not true.  I hate to burst your bubble.  A closer summation would be this:

“Digital imaging is a miraculous tool that allows us to do things that were previously impossible to accomplish.  They can produce very high quality, not perfect, reproductions of their source images.  Their biggest drawback is that they become outdated quickly and most digital storage devices have short shelf lives.”

Now, once again, I’ll draw criticism from the masses: “You hate anything digital!  You’re a luddite!  You’re clinging to an outdated technology like film!  Get with the modern program!”

Once again, this is not true.  I use digital imaging all the time.  I think it’s great.  I did digital restorations for the Buster Keaton picture Seven Chances.  I am doing a digital restoration on King of the Kongo.  But I still believe in film.  Film doesn’t get computer viruses, hard drive crashes, or incompatible software upgrades.

I have film, actual film stock, manufactured in 1926 that is still projectable in modern projectors and plays fine.  I have digital images from 1991, carefully saved and copied,  that are incompatible with any modern program.

What would you think of a library that had a book from 1991 that you couldn’t read anymore?  Not because it was damaged in some way, but rather because they couldn’t figure out how to open it. You’d say they were crazy.  You’d be right.

I’m going to refute the New York Times article point by point, but first I have to lay out some ground work.  Fear not, technophobes. I’ll try to make it as clear as possible and minimize all the math.  It really is pretty simple, but for some reason, people want to believe in the miracle part of it instead of the truth.

In the early 1980s, Disney made the first real computer feature.  It took years to complete, but it was called Tron, released in 1982.  Tron was made with a bank of computers each with less computing power than your iPhone.  Your old iPhone.  Yeah, that slow one.

Tron is not notable for many dramatic triumphs (after all, it’s basically The Wizard of Oz set inside a computer), but for cinema, it was a real breakthrough.  Disney experimented with various resolutions.  Now, before you get all paranoid about a scary word like resolutions, let me explain.  It simply means how many pixels (little squares, like the ones you see in the image above) are used in the image.

Higher resolution = more pixels = smaller squares = sharper image.  In television, this is also measured in lines, which is the number of horizontal lines in the TV picture.  You know how people keep trying to sell you 1080p HDTV?  Well, standard definition was 525 lines, and HDTV is 1080.  Again, more lines = more pixels = sharper image.  See?  Simple!

Disney knew that they would have to output their computer graphics to 35mm film in some way.  There was no digital projection at the time.  They were very concerned about “stair-stepping.”  This is an effect also called aliasing.  Don’t be scared.  Look at the picture above.  You notice that it’s made of little squares?  Omar Sharif’s collar isn’t a collar, but it’s a jagged set of white lines.  You went to plot something that was supposed to be a line and you ended up with a jagged representation instead.  It’s aliased because the thing you tried to plot isn’t what you got!

Disney’s people discovered that they could see aliasing on most images until they put the resolution at 4000 lines.  This has been the “gold standard” of digital imaging for years.  Well, almost.  Tron had a limited color palette because of the software and hardware of the time.  This made jagged lines easier to spot.  As we were able to represent more colors and shades, we discovered that we could drop the resolution to 2000 lines, and it still looked pretty good… just a little blurry to some people. Remember, this is for material generated by the computer, not something scanned from an outside source.

In engineering parlance, 4000 lines = 4K, 2000 lines = 2K, and HDTV at 1080 lines makes almost exactly 1K.

I have to introduce one last concept.  It’s called the Nyquist Sampling Theorem.  I know, it’s an engineer thing.  Nyquist is a law of digital sampling.  It says that if you are scanning an analog signal (like a piece of film), the minimum rate you can use, so that you get no significant loss of data, is twice the number of the highest frequency in the source.

Oh, no.  The mathophobes are dying now.  Please don’t.  That simply means if you’re scanning a 4K image, you need to scan it at 8K or else you’re get a picture blurrier than it should be.  For a 2K image, you scan at 4K.

Now, we can tackle this article.  Take a deep breath.

Error 1:

“(Lawrence of Arabia was shot in 65 millimeter — nearly twice the width of a 35-millimeter frame — so its negative had to be scanned in 8K, creating 8,192 pixels across each line. But it is still referred to as a 4K scan because it has the same density of pixels, the same resolution across 65 millimeters that 4K has across 35 millimeters.)”

This is a very poor way of explaining the concept.  They’re saying that this means they’re scanning more lines because the negative is bigger, not because they’re scanning more lines per inch of film.

And, guess what?  What we’re seeing here, by Nyquist, through Disney’s research, shows that they’re undersampling (blurring) the negative.  Now, I don’t blame them, and it’s probably “good enough,” and very expensive to do more, but let’s start on the right playing field.

Errors 2-3:

“When Lawrence was last restored, in 1988, some of these flaws could be disguised by ‘wetgate printing,’ a process of dousing the print in a special solution. But the new restoration has no prints. The film’s digital data are stored on a hard drive, about the size of an old videocassette, which is inserted into a 4K digital projector. In short, the problems would now have to be fixed.”

Wetgate printing is still used.  It’s simple enough.  You take the negative (not the print), and soak it gently in a fluid (some archives use dry cleaning fluid), that fills in the scratches on the clear film base.  That fluid evaporates by the time the film hits the takeup reel.  Similar processes can be used in scanning.  If it wasn’t done that way in this case, then it means more work for the people retouching the images.

The new restoration has no prints.  SO WHAT?  That has nothing to do with what you’re talking about and is a diversion from the point.  Wetgate has to do with the scanning or printing the negative, not projection. Note to the sticklers out there: yes, we can use wetgate transfers on prints, if that’s all we have, but that is not what is happening here.

Error 4:

“Luckily, there have been dramatic advances in digital-restoration technology in just the last few years. New software can erase scratches, clean dirt and modify contrast and colors not just frame by frame but pixel by pixel. In the old days (circa 2006), if you wanted to brighten the desert sand in one scene because it was too dark, you’d have to brighten the sky too. Now you can brighten the sand — or even a few grains of the sand — while leaving everything else alone. And in those days there was a limited palette for restoring faded colors. Today’s digital palettes are much vaster.

“In one sense, this restored Lawrence might look better than the original. Because of the film stock’s exposure to the desert’s heat, some of its photochemical emulsion dried and cracked, resulting in vertical fissures. ‘Some were just a few pixels wide,’ Mr. Crisp said, ‘but some scenes had hundreds of them, filling as much as one-eighth of the frame.’”

The way this is written implies that there were shooting errors that caused exposure problems with things being too dark or too bright.  It further implied that Grover Crisp and his co-workers are going in and haplessly changing things to suit their own artistic eye, not that of director of photography Freddie Young or director David Lean.

I have a lot of respect for Grover Crisp, and I know he’s not doing that.

Lawrence of Arabia was shot on Eastman color stock that was very unstable (it was especially bad from 1958-63.)  The colors fade unevenly, and brightness fades unevenly.  What they are actually doing, despite the way the article is written, is to match the colors with the way some of the old Technicolor reference prints look (Technicolor prints don’t fade, but they are 35mm and 2-3 generations down from the negative).  This is restoration, not willy-nilly artistry.  There are certain colors that will be almost entirely gone (especially blues and greens).

Error 5:

“Sony went to so much trouble to create not just this release but also a new archive for the ages. Film degrades; digital files of 0’s and 1’s do not. In the coming years, new software might allow still better restorations. But the technicians making them can work from the 4K scan. They won’t have to go back to the negative.”

This is just crazy on a lot of levels:

  1. Robert Harris made a nice duplicate negative in 65mm, on color-stable stock, for the 1980s restoration.   At the time he made it, there were already a number of unrecoverable scenes and missing bits.  This article makes it seem that Harris’ work is now outdated and rather trivial.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Harris and director David Lean worked together to save Lawrence of Arabia, and without them, Lawrence would be less than it is today.
  2. Ones and zeroes don’t degrade.  Hard drives do.  These are spinning media that are subject to magnetic fields, ball bearing problems, heat, cold, and probably the most fatal problem, sticktion.  A hard drive with sticktion has had the spinning magnetic rotor stick to the read head (much like a sticky record album sticking to the needle).  If it sticks too hard, then the drive can’t spin, and the disk is ruined.
  3. Ones and zeroes don’t degrade, but file formats aren’t forever.  Neither are disk drive formats.  Had Lawrence of Arabia been restored digitally in 1989, the results could have been saved on 5.25” floppy disks, and no one could read them today.
  4. Scanners are wonderful and they get better every day.  I’d bet that if the film is stored well, it will hang together well enough to survive until better scanners come along so that it can be scanned and improved again.

This same thing happens often with other “restorations.”  Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were shot in 3-strip Technicolor, which produces three extremely stable black-and-white negatives.  These are a pain to reproduce, so they got “restored” in the 60s to “modern” Eastman color stock.

Whoops, the restoration faded in a few years.  No trouble.  They reprinted it again, with better technology, in the 1970s.  They went back to the black-and-white negatives, which were still around.

Whoops, that restoration faded too.  No trouble.  Another restoration was done in the 1980s.  Guess how?  From the black-and-white negatives.

Oh, wait, they got a better way to reproduce the film and make the alignment sharper?  Back to the negatives.

And they needed to re-scan to make a Blu-ray (well, this time, they did an 8K transfer, which is what the Nyquist sampling theorem says we should do for such a film).  Gee, they went back to the negatives.

The moral of the story: save the negatives for as long as you can because they seem to get used a lot for restorations.

Error 6:

“Between the detective work and lots of video improvement (before the days of digital), it took Mr. Harris 26 months to restore the movie — 10 months longer than it took David Lean to make it.”

The preservation work Harris did on Lawrence of Arabia was on film.  He didn’t use video improvement.  There was no video that would do the work.

Error 7-8:

“Its life in home video has been spotty as well. The first DVD, in 2001, was made from a badly done HD transfer: colors were way off, contrasts too bright or dim. A redo, two years later, was much better, but the dirt and scratches were cleaned up by a ham-fisted process called ‘digital noise resolution’ — the easiest and, for some problems, the only technique available at the time, but it softened the focus and dulled detail.”

I am not sure, and it’s not really worth looking up, but I doubt that the DVD was made from an HD (High Definition) transfer in 2001.  It’s technically possible, but it’s unlikely.  It was probably done from a standard definition transfer, which would also account for the color drift, since the color gamut on standard definition television is pretty limited.

I have no idea what “digital noise resolution” is.  I suspect that what he means is “digital video noise reduction” (also DVNR), which is an automated process to remove scratches and other imperfections from films.  Cartoon aficionados have been bemoaning this for years.  DVNR is still used, fairly often in fact, but it can be done gently or in a ham-fisted way that the author describes.

“A forthcoming Blu-ray Disc of the film, out Nov. 13, fixes all those problems, in part because it’s Blu-ray but more because it’s mastered from the same 4K restoration as the theatrical release.”

Is the mere fact that something is Blu-ray some way of saying it’s anointed with a perfection not yet seen?  Blu-rays, DVDs, films, and videos can all look great or terrible depending on how they are handled technically.

The overarching thing that the author misses (and that others are not missing) is that this digital restoration is not archival no matter how much we would like it to be.  I’m on mailing list after mailing list from archives in a panic about how to store things so that they will last.

I was at the Library of Congress recently seeing the process of the entire run of Laugh-In being copied from 2” tape, a format now long obsolete, to something now (we hope) more permanent.

At the same visit, I saw a roll of film made in 1893 by the Edison people.

Which of these is archival?

The Library of Congress still uses, and intends to use, 35mm film for archival storage.  They haven’t found anything to beat it yet.  They are keeping Kodak and Fuji from shutting down the manufacturing lines.  Other archives demand film, too.  It just holds up better.

That doesn’t mean digital doesn’t have its place.  It’s just that digital isn’t the magic panacea that cured the world’s ills.

It’s a tool, just like anything else.

12 thoughts on “Digital is Over There! It’s Only a Matter of Sampling!”

  1. When I read Fred Kaplan’s maddening NY Times piece on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, I immediately knew the one person that needed to provide an expert and detailed response…..THANK YOU “DR. FILM” !!!! You did NOT disappoint!

  2. I go with Glory’s comment on sending this to the NYT as an Op-Ed response to the poor article.

      1. So formal it up a little and send it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an article per se (although that would be ideal). You’d be CORRECTING their erroneous piece! How they–the editors–ever let that by is beyond me. Fact checkers? We don’t need no stinkin’ fact checkers! One expects a good deal more from the NY Times than this exercise in stupidity.

  3. Thank you for your learned and thoughtful corrections and explanations. In November of 2010 I was at the Reimagining the Archive Symposium at UCLA and heard the head of the Library of Congress respond to a question about archiving of digital films. He said that if a film was shot digitally and shown digitally they would not archive it and advised the film makers to store their work in multiple formats and keep those formats updated. Not long after that I showed films in a class at UCLA and the instructor told me that it was wonderful being able to show films to her students from the UCLA archive but that she needed a variety of decks to show films that had been transferred onto outdated formats. Just last year I was at the NW Film Archive in Manchester, England. There the director told me that no archive will commit itself to all digital storage due to the high failure rate of hard drives.

    When I was still a union projectionist in Seattle in the late 80’s I showed the restored 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia at the King Theater. The combination of carbon arc lamps and the epic film and the huge screen was a wonder that few will ever see again.

  4. I’m sure digital can be good if it is done right. 35mm is good when it’s done right. unfortunately, most of the time it hasn’t been done right. The weakest link in a good 35mm presentation has always been the projectionist. being a projectionist myself, i know that it is up to the projectionist to maintain a sharp and crisp image, to make certain the sound is at its proper level and to handle the print witch care in order to not inflict any visible damage to it. poorly maintained equipment would be a close second, but most regular day-to-day maintenance is performed by, once more, the projectionist.

    Both of these weak links are almost eliminated with digital technology. Also most 35mm setups have lasted for decades, that’s why quite a few are not in top condition anymore. contrasting this with brand new equipment is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. A brand new, or even just as well maintained 35mm projection system would, most likely, give any digital setup a run for its money, if fairly compared side by side. I’m convinced that a 2k projection will not hold up against 35mm on, let’s say, a 100+ft drive-in screen.
    Which brings me to two things i’d like to add. First, HDTV is actually nearly identical to 2k. In film, image resolution is measured in width, the amount of pixels across the frame. in video, it is measure in height, the amount of pixels/lines from top to bottom of the frame. so 1080 is not 1k, it is 1080 pixels high, but 1920 pixels wide, closely approaching the resolution of 2k (2048 scope, 1998 flat).
    Second, standard definition stateside (ntsc) is a maximum of 480/486 lines digitally, much less in analog. your vhs topped out at 200 lines. In pal countries, digital is at 576 lines.
    Not checking facts, just throwing in my 2 cents worth.

    1. Yes. Alas, I’ve double-checked your numbers, and (sadly) it makes the situation even worse. Thanks for putting in your comment.

  5. while the corrections are nice, and i do appreciate
    the effort.

    to anyone that’s not a projectionist of film preservationist.

    digital is more than fine, and for opening the field
    to non-studio filmmakers and not having to go through
    the hassle of using projectors and film. just being to
    watch a movie in the convenience of home on a nice
    HD screen, with either a digital projector or media
    player is more than good enough with the right source

    i’ve seen bad projections on film and great digital
    projections (and vice versa)..

    i work in the computer industry. and while computers
    have issues (what technology doesn’t?).. the cost,
    ease of use, and maintenance is a lot easier to overcome
    than outdated, and outmode mechanical processes.
    especially the companies manufacturing those cameras
    aren’t even making parts for them anymore. good luck
    finding the right bulbs, and parts when the equipment
    starts breaking down… hard drives may fail, but solid
    state drives, tape backups and other formats are just
    as stable when used properly. format conversions are
    trivial with the proper software. i have old floppies and
    other files i can easily access using emulators and hardware
    that still works. getting them, storing them, and displaying
    them is trivial for someone that works with them all the

    companies are going digital for several reasons. that’s how
    technology works. if everyone was happy with film, they
    would have stuck with it, and we would have never needed
    anything else. obviously, that’s not the case.


    1. I’m not against digital at all. I keep saying that but no one hears me. Digital has advantages. But don’t tell me that third-rate undersampled video is “just as good” or, worse yet, “better.” Let’s call it what it is. It’s more convenient and easier. And, but the way, the reason no one is making parts or bulbs now is not because the mechanics are outdated, but because the demand has fallen off.

      I saw Samsara the other day, which was sampled at 8K (not 4K as Lawrence of Arabia was), and it looked BEAUTIFUL. Do it right and I won’t rake you over the coals. Do it wrong and I’ll complain until the last breath in my body. If we convert to digital, let’s not make the picture softer and blurrier. Let’s start off and make it at least as good.

      1. i have heard you repeatedly say you are not against digital
        processes. and yes, i have read your other articles also.

        i believe it. i never said you were against it.

        however, we are addressing different issues:
        1) digital processes such as intermediaries, or
        primary shooting
        2) digital archival
        3) digital projection
        4) digital restoration

        while you make take issue with one or all of these,
        each case has it’s advantages and disadvantages
        that you have mentioned. so in that sense, you are
        not ‘against’ it….

        however, while continually pointing out the shortcomings
        such as inferior projection standards (which film also
        has), inferior archival (look at how many films are in
        bad shape, negatives and all).. and so forth… you are
        not even trying to acknowledge that to the VAST
        majority of people. not even one of them is remotely
        an issue for them, or the ‘film’ industry either.

        all of these have been adopted, and are currently in
        the process of replacing any and every manual film
        process in place (with the exception of a few film/tv

        there is no case for stopping it, reverting back, or
        changing, unless you want to stop progress or turn
        back time..

        it’s fine that people will appreciate film for what it was,
        much like old video, or vinyl records (which i still have
        thousands of in a collection). but i am not going to deny
        the advantages or not see or use what is currently

        if poor projection is such an issue, i know you would
        say something, but in once you didn’t, and suffered
        through a poor showing. i wouldn’t sit there through
        it, only to write about it later. fortunately, i’ve never
        seen a poor digital projection yet, and have seen
        many, many poor film projections, and have seen
        people stop/complain, and have something done
        to fix the issue. granted it didn’t happen often,
        but it was a lot more obvious than with digital

        if poor projection is the only problem you have
        with digital, or poor source material or transfers.
        that’s a pretty easy to fix issue with time, resources
        and the upgrades in equipment. it’s a continually
        improving process.

        i doubt film has had it this easy, compared to the
        landscape littered with failed film formats of every
        size and shape out there (cinerama? todd ao? 65mm?)
        35mm is not the end all be all that it appears to be
        either. film formats tend to obsolete every other
        version when improvements were made, sound,
        color, aspect ratio’s … a lot more was lost
        in continually trying to update theaters, and
        keep the technology current with all of those


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