Film Restoration

From Our Town to I Bury The Living:
Bringing Movies Back to Life with Revival Digital

Reprinted from da Vinci Masterpiece, Summer/Fall 200

When Jack the Ripper came to Screen Time Images (formerly Sensory Technologies) for restoration, more than one horror story was involved. The 1976 slasher - a German production starring Klaus Kinski - was in appalling condition. Tiny red speckles had developed on the color film stock - sometimes hundreds of them on a single frame. And that wasn't all.

"It had some really nasty scratches," recalls Sensory Technologies' Sean McKee. "They were moving all over the frame. Typically, a scratch might wobble a little, but these were moving from one side of the screen to another."

Another post house had already taken a look a Jack the Ripper and abandoned the restoration project. After all, this isn't an AFI top-100 list item. Using traditional methods of film restoration - even conventional digital methods, requires many weeks of work for a feature lenght production. And, in fact, until now it is only the most popular classics - like The Wizard of Oz - that could justify the considerable expense of typical restoration methods.

But Sensory Technologies doesn't do things in a traditional way. McKee and his partner Karen Sheehan are among the first users in North America of Revival Digital, a new system from da Vinci that dramatically reduces the time and cost involved in restoring motion pictures. Unlike the generic tools that have been used until now for digital film restoration, Revival Digital is the industry's first standalone, deidicated system for bringing movies back to life. It does automatically, in a matter of minutes, what used to take hours using manual paintbox techniques. And it's changing the way the industry thinks about restoration - not only of the pictures made decades ago, but also of films that have been released in the past few years.

Sensory Technologies represents one side of the story. Since restoring the 1952 Orson Welles classic Othello: The Moor of Venice, the Downers Grove, Illinois post-house has become a specialist in the restoration of classic films. Recent projects have ranged from Our Town (1940) to Dementia 13 (1963), the first feature directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Since the beginning of this year, these projects have been done with the use of the Revival Digital system.

"We restored Othello using a manual digital paintbox tool," Karen Sheehan explained, "and essentially hand painted frame by frame. The project took us six weekends to complete, and the client had to choose specific frames where he really wanted us to focus our work." (NOTE: Othello has since been run through Revival for all subsequent releases as of Sept. 2000). By using Revival Digital, Sheehan and McKee have cut the time needed for subsequent projects by more than half.

"We're faced with these old black and white films where the elements are in very poor condition and have huge amounts of dirt, hairs, all kinds of slashes and emulsion chipping, chemical stains, and scratches," Sheehan said. "With Revival Digital, we start out by using the auto-pass feature to remove dirt, noise, and grain problems, which usually takes just a few days depending on how aggressively the film is processed. Revival is the only system that will restore only the damaged part of the film without touching any other part of the frame, whereas other systems implement global changes that affect the entire area of the frame and can have an undesirable softening or blurring effect. After running auto-pass, we see what's left over, and clean that up using Reival's interactive mode." According to Sheehan, there's no comparison between using Revival Digital's auto-pass and manual digital restoration methods - the time savings are on the order of 70 to 80 percent.

"In interactive mode it has features that no one else has either," explains Sean McKee. "Like manual paintboxes, Revival has reveal and clone functions, but it also offers an additional area of interest feature, in which it interpolates the area for you based on before and after information, as well as looking at the information adjacent to the area of interest."

The combination of both auto-pass and interactive modes means that restoration can be sped up significantly while preserving complete control over the whole process. And speed turns into lower costs. As a result, it's not just blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz that can be restored, but films with a somewhat narrower appeal - such as Jack the Ripper or any of an extensive series of "drive-in movie" features, such as The Screaming Skull, I Bury the Living, and Attach of the Killer Leaches, that Sensory Technologies was recently hired to restore.

Screen Time Images (formerly Sensory Technologies Inc.) is located at 974 Estes Court Schaumburg,IL 60193 - phone, 847-534-9000.