The Perks and Perils of Preservation on Your Own Label

When I decided to do a preservation of Little Orphant Annie, I also decided to start my own video label. It was a calculated risk, and it remains to be seen if it pays off. I’ve done much work for major labels, including Shout! Factory, Kino, Flicker Alley, etc, and I’ve helped smaller labels including Cartoons On Film, Undercrank, and Thunderbean. But Annie was different. It was my baby. I’d gotten it through numerous hurdles, and I really didn’t want it to be announced as NEW RELEASE FROM XXX VIDEO! PRODUCED BY ZZZ and with restoration by some dude named Eric.

Besides, none of the other labels wanted to release it anyway. Well, some of the smaller labels would have been willing, but then it would have been the same thing, and I didn’t want to do that. Now, many of you will be out there saying, “That Eric is just a credit hog and wants to get his name out there. What a ham.” Well, in a way that’s true, but overall it isn’t.

You see, I do a lot of film work, and preservation especially, but no one knows who I am. Well, some of you do, particularly if you read this blog, but in general, I’m an unknown quantity. That works out very well for me in some ways, because I’m the guy who likes to stand in the corner at parties and eat black olives until everything is over, but it doesn’t work out for me in other ways. By staying unknown, it reduces my chances to do other, more interesting work. There has to be a compromise between me standing silently in a corner and me being a ham who just has to be in front of an audience all the time. It’s a tough balance to find.

So Annie was my first shot at this. If you’ve been following me on Facebook, then you’ll know that it was the first of two giant preservation projects that I did starting in 2016 that have only recently reached fruition. The other one was the Milan Miracle Basketball films, which are the original game films of the David-vs.-Goliath basketball championship in Milan, Indiana that inspired the movie Hoosiers (1986). In both cases, the films needed preservation, and no one else had the immediate capacity to do it. If I hadn’t done them then, it would be too late for at least some of the elements by now.

I had to do a bunch of research on the DVD and Blu-ray formats. This is why I sometimes put polls up on my Dr. Film Facebook page. Some people do on-demand DVD publishing, which is easiest to do, and takes the least up-front money. But you can’t do Blu-ray discs on demand through Amazon, so that put the kibosh on everyone who said, “WE WANT BLU-RAY, NOT DVD!” Of course, then there were the other folks who told me that they didn’t want to buy a Blu-ray player, because their old TV works just fine, thank you, so could you put it out on DVD?

Thunderbean and Cartoons On Film have a good answer for this. They make combination packs of DVDs AND Blu-rays, both of which are functionally identical. That way, if you buy the package, there’s a disc for whatever your use is, and it saves the publisher from having to do separate art for the Blu-ray and the DVD boxes, because they are different sizes. That said, I guarantee that at shows I’ll still get people that tell me that they want one or the other and that this disc won’t play in their system.

Then there was the next problem. Everyone told me they want commentary tracks. Well, OK, the DVD software I’ve used for years doesn’t support commentary tracks, and it also doesn’t support Blu-rays at all. So that meant I had to learn a new software package, which I thought was OK.

Except it wasn’t. In order to get a software package that would do DVDs, Blu-rays, and support commentary tracks, I had to use a piece of software that is so horrid I shall not name it. Versatile it may be, but user-friendly it is NOT. I also learned the Blu-ray is a Sony monopoly, so every disc professionally pressed has to go through a Sony employee for approval. This is why Blu-rays cost so much. High-demand ones are fairly cheap, but the first run of them is expensive because you have to pay for the Sony guy. This is why Harry Potter Vs. Spider-Man’s Avengers is only $3 while Little Orphant Annie is expensive.

I thought that on-demand would be a lot cheaper for raising seed money, and if it didn’t work out, then I wasn’t out the minimum Blu-ray order of 1000. Many people told me, “It’s a boring old silent film! It isn’t even that good! You’ll never sell 1000!” Others said I would probably sell them, but it might take a while.

I thought I’d also try to do some on-demand to see how that went, too. Toward that end, I remastered the Dr. Film TV pilot we made in 2008. If you’ve followed the blog, then you know that we tried to sell this to TV for years and no one cared, and the blog and Facebook page were made to promote the show. The irony is that we tried to sell a show that no network  wanted to buy, but we succeeded in selling the blog and Facebook pages, so we’re still marketing Dr. Film, even though there isn’t a show in the works…

There was no reason to release Dr. Film as a Blu-ray, since we shot it in standard-definition. Glory-June Greiff and I sat down and recorded a commentary track in which we discuss what went in to making the pilot and how we really didn’t understand how to market it. If you decide to buy the DVD, then make sure to listen to the commentary track, because it’s probably even more fun than the show.

My strategy is starting to work! I have been approaching archives to see if they’ll work with me on my next restoration project. Instead of hearing the phone click in my ear, I’m now hearing, “Oh, yeah! You’re the guy who did Little Orphant Annie! That was cool!” So those doors are opening. That means I can start to do more things now.

My last task, after the restoration was done and the Kickstarter thank-yous sent out, was to pick a name for my label. I sweated over this. Dr. Film is a bit silly, but some people know it. Others know me only by my own name, which is important too. I ultimately decided that I’d be Eric Grayson (Dr. Film) to cover both bases. Yeah, it’s kinda lame.

Maybe you have a better idea for a name. I’m always willing to listen. You’ll find me at the next film restoration gathering. I’ll be the guy standing in the corner eating black olives. Come and say hi.

An Open Letter to Google: You’re Killing Us

The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.”  Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys.  You’re being evil.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us.  By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films.  And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.


YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies.  It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema.  People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”

But there’s a problem.  Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down.  The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin.  Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time.  New videos pop up every moment.  And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.

Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download.  A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books.  When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid.  After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?

No, it isn’t.  And it’s even worse for people restoring films.  You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable.  Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise.  I’ve researched it.  If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.

So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube.  A lot of people think this is great.  It’s cool.  It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience.  And, to a certain degree, that’s true.  It is giving publicity to the work.

But it’s free.  And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before.  They’re just not paying for it.

Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support.  But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20.  Five to ten percent.  90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE!  IT’S FREE.”

So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right?  Well, don’t believe me.  Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson.  They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.

And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films.  That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way.  Except no.

The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million.  This equates to about $ .0006 per view.  That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube.  It’s got 40,500 views at this point.  I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.

I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.)  The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.

And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold.  I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set.  I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.

While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more.  Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible.  The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.

I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice.  By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad.  People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques.  This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.


Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance.  The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb.  Sometimes for good movies.

Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting.  It’s got the copyrighted score on it.  Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film.  That’s not even against Google’s rules.

Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying.  At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired.  Why should they license films from outside?

That leaves Google.  I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube.  If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good?  Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”?  Throw those people or organizations a check.  After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.

I suppose we can consider, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube.  It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.

I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do.  I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them.  Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”

Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo.  I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes.  Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube.  Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.

I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this.  And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now.  Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:

  1. About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
  2. Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
  3. Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync.  (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
  4. Synchronizing the sound.  This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
  5. Getting everything moved.  The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey.  This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth.  The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
  6. Restoring the credits.  Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
  7. De-noising the picture.  Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust.  About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand.  This takes about two weeks.

Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this.  They covered the lab expenses.  Everything else I did myself.

So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?

Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free?  (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)

I’d love to.  I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter.  I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.

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.

The Lost Weekend With Buster

I’m going to apologize in advance for this departing from my usual blog format.  I normally like to do reviews or some sort of film thing, but this is mostly about me.  Still, it’s about film preservation, and I think it’s a worthy thing to discuss.

I’d been aware for some time that Kino/Lorber was producing a new Blu-Ray edition of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925).  It’s certainly not Keaton’s best feature, not by any measure, but it’s a nice picture, and I loved it.  It still has one of my favorite Keaton moments in it: Chased by scads of women who lust after his potential fortune, Keaton has accidentally started a rockslide in order to get away from them.  The women outsmart him and get to the bottom of the valley before he can, while the rockslide gets progressively worse.  Keaton looks up at the rocks, and down at the women, and he’s flummoxed.  He scratches his head as he wonders which fate is worse.  It’s quick, understated, but it’s pure Keaton.  William K. Everson often stated that Keaton seemed to be a visitor from another realm, confused and unaware of our rules and conventions.  This little moment sums that up for me.

But that’s a digression.  The key point is the Seven Chances had a Technicolor opening sequence.  It’s in two-color Technicolor from early in the days of the process, back when it was fairly unstable.  Some years earlier, I’d toyed with restoring the color from Kino’s previous edition, and I had come up with some curves in Photoshop that got the color back to some semblance of the way it used to look.  I had the file sitting dormant on my hard drive.

My friend, film historian Bruce Lawton, has been consulting with Kino on some of their new Buster Keaton Blu-Ray releases.  He’d let the producer of the new disc, Bret Wood, know about the work I’d done on it.  I knew that it had been delayed and pushed forward a number of times.  I also knew that if they could do the restoration in-house, that they probably would, because that would be easier and cheaper.  That was all great.

Finally, Bruce told me that they were making little headway with the color sequence.  Bret sent me some notes and FedExed me the opening sequence at HD resolution from the material preserved at Library of Congress.

Let me back up and tell you that this was at the beginning of October 2011, the 7th to be exact.  I’ll also tell you that I don’t work in film exclusively: I’m also a computer consultant, with a degree in Electrical Engineering.  On the morning of the 7th, I had gotten a call that a client of mine had had some printers fail on him, and I was obligated to spend the afternoon fixing them.  The package from Bret arrived sometime in the afternoon.

Now, October is a crazy time for me.  Everyone wants me to do Halloween movies, and this year was no exception.  I generally run all over my home state of Indiana doing shows.  I also consult and project with the Heartland Film Festival, and that was due to start on the 13th.  I’d also promised my supportive girlfriend that we were going to go off for 2-3 days, a long-delayed break from a hectic schedule.

And then the package arrived…

Well, I had the file, and notes on what I’d done.  How hard could it be?  I was obligated to go out for our local art celebration that night, but not before I’d snatched a quick look at the new files.

Instantly I realized why this was a problem.  The material that I’d recalibrated those years back was from a different print.  The new one was faded beyond use.  I could get only a very little color out of it.  I went off to our artist party and pondered it.

I was about to give up on the whole thing.  I thought that there probably was no hope for it.

Then I remembered something.  It was from my engineering training.  When American video was defined, it was designed to be compatible with older black and white TV.  The color was designed to be overlaid on a standard black and white image.  If I could take only the filtered color from the old print and overlay it on the new print, then it might do what we need!

Immediately I knew that this would be a lot of work.  My girlfriend and I had been holding out hope that I might be able to do a belated one-day trip, but as this whole thing progressed, I realized that it probably wouldn’t happen.  I knew I’d be lucky to get it done at all!

If you’re about to skip to the end, fearing this is an article with charts, graphs, and math, then fear not!  (I’ve been asked previously to keep this blog a math-free zone.)  I find this to be a human interest story, and I’ve taken as much technical material out of this as I can.  All that’s left is the bare bones to get the story across!  If you’d like to read a slightly more technical version, please refer to the Nitrateville interview I did recently. You can also feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I knew what the calculations would be.  I got Kino’s new video file, located the same frame in my older file, and I realigned the color by hand.  Frankly, I was amazed.  It looked better than the old restoration I had tried, because the new print was so much sharper.

But that was ONE FRAME.  The whole thing is 4440 frames! (I just looked it up, so there.) Bret had already told me that Kino had to have this on Monday the 10th.

How could I possibly do this in such a short time?  I had to think about it.

Bruce got my sample frame, and was very enthused about the prospect of resurrecting the sequence. But now I had to figure out how to automate it.  I decided to go to bed and get a little sleep.

When I awoke, I tried several different programs to try to automate this process.  Nothing worked too well.  Frankly, the amount of computation was pretty severe, and it slowed my computer down quite a bit (I have a very fast home-brew computer… remember I’m an engineer.)

I worked on it all day with varying degrees of success.  Nothing was very promising.  Most of the ideas I had involved processes that would simply take longer to run than the time I had left.

By Saturday night, I just about gave up on the whole thing.  I fell asleep at about 3am, upset and dejected.

I woke up Sunday morning to find that my computer had locked up and, despite the fact that I had carefully saved everything, I still needed 2-3 hours to get back to where I’d been.  I figured out a better method, but it required me hand-clicking the mouse over every frame, 4440 times.

I couldn’t look at the restoration while I was doing it, so I clicked away and discovered the whole thing was horribly misaligned.  Well, this takes about 3 hours just to run, so off for another shot.

Round two was much better, but still not usable.  Three more hours.  Round three worked pretty well, but the alignment between the sources drifted a little as it progressed, so it was necessary to readjust at about the halfway point. Another ninety minutes.  Time was tight.

Round three and a half: alignment was finally decent, and color fairly good.

It was now late Sunday night.  I had not left the house or showered in over two days.

I finally had a pretty good color version, but I had to get it to Bret, and it was 700MB (very very large)!  I set it for overnight upload, and I hoped they could get it in time.  By Monday morning, I had another idea for a slight update, which I did.  It arrived by Monday afternoon.  I know that my results were further corrected in Kino’s color suite, but I only had time to send what I had!

Bruce and Ken Gordon finished recording their commentary, which Bruce then feverishly edited and uploaded for Bret, and so ended a long weekend.  Wrong.  Bret was excited enough about my results on the color sequence that he wanted me to record a commentary for it.  By this time, I was in the midst of 16+ hour days at the Heartland Film Festival, so I came home, recorded a little, and tried again.  I hope it sounds okay.  I fear I sounded like a horrid idiot, but I was wiped out!  I slept very hard in November… trust me!

Now, why did I do this?  For the money?  For the glory?  Hah, hardly.

I had a moment of insight on that Friday night that I’ll share with you.  I realized (as did Bruce) that I might be the only person in the world who could and would do this restoration.  I know that sounds pompous, but it really isn’t.  My girlfriend remembers discussing this with me and encouraging me to go on with the project.  She felt so strongly that I should pursue this that she was willing to give up the vacation.    It needed someone familiar with early Technicolor, a competent computer user, a guy who knows how complex non-linear color filtering works, and someone who cared enough to lose a complete weekend doing it.

I thought that there might not be another person who could do this, and I feared that if I didn’t do it, then it might never be done.

That’s why I had a lost weekend with Buster.  Bruce and Bret wanted him to shine in color once again.  So did I.

Thanks to Kino/Lorber for permission to use these images and to Bruce Lawton for finding the rare stills.