From unveiling new levels of detail to repurposing unused footage, Cinelab London CEO Adrian Bull talks the beauty and benefits of remastering archive film
Think back to your favourite old classic movie. From Casablanca to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Sound of Music to The Godfather, wouldn’t it be amazing for these films to be seen in the highest quality we’ve come to expect today? Or what about experiencing the euphoric win for the England football team at the 1966 World Cup in crystal clear, 4K resolution? Being able to see every emotion on Geoff Hurst’s face as he scores the winning hat-trick.
All this is possible today through the latest technology and advanced film scanners, giving us the ability to restore and unlock amazing images from the reels and reels of treasured historic footage that we have in our archives.
One of the biggest misconceptions about archive film is that it is of lower quality than both the film and digital cameras we shoot on today. But this is entirely untrue, as Adrian Bull, CEO of Cinelab London explains: “Film has been of ultra high quality in terms of resolution and dynamic range for a long time. 35mm film has been around for over 100 years and as digital technology has developed, we are only now at a stage to fully realise the quality captured on the original film”
“We are able to rescan archive film at a higher resolution than before and see details that were already there but that we were previously unable to extract” he says. In the guide below, Adrian takes us through the reasons why we should consider restoring archive footage and answers some of the biggest questions on how this is achieved.
What sort of quality can you expect to get from older film?
Film stock has multiple layers of emulsions which react to different colours and wavelengths of light to capture an image exactly as you see it. Every image within a length of film exists within its own right, frame by frame, like a series of photographs. 35mm film comfortably has in excess of 4K resolution with newest stocks closer to 8K.
“Even with a 40-50-year-old film we can scan it using today’s advanced technology in HD, 2K, or 4K, and show meaningful differences between the original print you will have seen in the cinema or on TV,” Adrian says. “The technology that was available 20-30 years ago, was extremely limited in terms of resolution because that’s all that a TV was capable of reproducing.” But today, Cinelab London are able to revive archive films and reveal a viewing experience that no one will have seen before.
What are the benefits of remastering and restoring original film?
“One of the biggest benefits of remastering original film right now is that while the majority of production is unable to go ahead and make more content, we can still repurpose existing content,” Adrian points out. “Lockdown stopped production and there will be a lack of new entertainment for many months. It’s a great opportunity to look at your back catalogue.”
“In the case of commercials for classic products such as Coca-Cola, you could be creating new ads using some of the previous rushes. Only a small percentage of what is shot actually gets used, so there is often plenty of alternative material to work with. There’s a lovely retro element of going back to iconic commercials and cutting them together with more recent footage.”
Cinelab London have been working with Cannes Lions to digitise their archive of the world’s award winning commercials, dating back to the 1950s. “Instead of just storing these films in an archive where it’s hardly seen again, restoring and digitising them means that they can be easily shared and viewed by many people. It’s a phenomenal resource for creatives, producers, directors and researchers to see how advertising has evolved over the years and a great source of inspiration for commercials of the future,” he says.
What sort of footage is worth remastering or restoring?
“Many clients aren’t aware that up until mid 2000’s the majority of high end content, such as TV dramas, commercials, music videos and almost all feature films were shot on film,” Adrian says. “All of these can be remastered along with classic sports matches and concerts bringing a new lease of life to audiences.”
“One of the biggest projects we have remastered recently was Pink Floyd’s ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’ concert from 1988,” Adrian says. “We worked directly with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour and director Aubrey Powell. We went back to the original camera negative rushes, it was a ten camera shoot, recorded over three nights, producing an amazing 350,000 feet of 35mm film (which is equivalent to 65 hours worth of material or over 60 miles!)”
“The concert had an amazing light and laser show playing to one of the strengths of film - it’s incredibly good at responding to high dynamic range scenes (HDR). If you look at the light show captured on film, it would still be difficult today for a digital camera to capture all of that quality.”
How do you edit archive film footage to make it current?
Adrian explains: “Ideally you need to keep as faithful as possible to how the film looked when it was first released. It is helpful to collaborate with those who were involved in the post production originally, if possible, as this can help guide creative decisions for grading, sound and style.”
He continues: “However, for Pink Floyd’s remastered concert, a creative decision was made to produce a contemporary cut of the footage to bring it up to date. It took 18 months for the re-edit and it was a phenomenal effort from director and editor Benny Trickett, who re-cut the whole concert. He’s directed and shot lots of music promos and concerts and also has a long term relationship with the band.”
“Our responsibility was to ensure every frame of film was prepped and scanned immaculately. Once we received the revised cut from Benny, we rescanned in 4K and in some shots where re-framing was required, we scanned at 6K. Every stage of the remastering was meticulously followed, we’re incredibly proud to have been a part of such a high quality production.”
How long does it take to scan something in 4K or 6k?
“We have the widest range of scanners available including Arriscan, Scanity and Spirit. At 6K, our pin-registered HDR Arriscan can take more than a second per frame so almost half an hour to scan 1 minute of film. We have just installed our second DFT Scanity which scans 4K much faster at around 12 frames per second – so takes approximately twice real-time,” Adrian says.
“An added advantage of Scanity is that we can scan at lower resolutions faster than real time, so in standard definition we can scan an hours worth of film in 15 minutes. For a large archive where you are trying to create access copies for review and approval of quality, content or create editorial off-line versions this is a really efficient and cost-effective choice.”
What about the damage that occurs to film over time - can it be restored?
When it comes to restoring and preserving film, there are two aspects to consider and the physical condition of the film is fundamental to the end result. Adrian says that, “Our film technicians inspect the film, repairing any physical damage and ultrasonically cleaning it. This is vital so that scans are the best possible representation of the film. If these stages are not followed, it just means there will be more work to do with the next stage of digital restoration.”
“Once the film is scanned, a comprehensive range of digital tools are available to help correct issues such as stabilisation, flicker, dirt and scratches – all typical artefacts of older film. Having a sequence of images allows the digital restoration tools the opportunity to compare images and effectively take the best bits from frames either side to re-create a close to perfect result. These tools allow us to genuinely improve the final result to a condition better than would ever have been seen before.”
He continues: “Our archive colourists are accomplished at grading faded prints restoring them to their full glory whilst importantly matching the originally intended look. In parallel the sound is remastered to reduce noise, equalise levels and in some cases create stereo or surround sound versions from what could originally be mono audio only. Everything is carried out under one roof,” Adrian reveals. “We understand all aspects of the analogue film world and integrate this with the latest digital technology.”
What kind of conditions do film reels need to be kept in to preserve quality?
“The great advantage of film is that it has proved already that it has a long life. The earliest films we have transferred at the lab go back as far as 1907. Unfortunately, we don’t have anywhere near the same confidence with digital equivalents. Data tape formats, drives and even solid state storage all suffer from degradation and the concerns of format obsolescence of both the media and the host platforms all pose a risk to many digital formats. Try and find somewhere to read a 3.5” zip or jaz drive from the 90s!”
Ideally film should be kept cold and at a constant humidity of about 35% - in these conditions it is proven that it will last for hundreds of years. “Without this, the typical deterioration results in fading, shrinking and decomposition referred to as vinegar syndrome due to the smell,” explains Adrian. “At this stage, film should be scanned as soon as possible as the deterioration will continue and if it needs to be stored, ideally it should be as cold as possible or frozen to reduce the rate of decay.”
“With the pace that technology advances, digital material doesn’t have the same shelf life. As we continue to develop tech that can handle higher and higher resolutions of detail, digital material that was shot even just a handful of years back will quickly look outdated. With film, it just keeps on giving, unlocking new levels of detail and clarity that have been carefully stored within the negatives from the moment it was first captured.”