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Restored to Life

But it may be Cinesite’s digital restorationists who work the biggest technological miracles from day to day, making old, unviewable films look as new as they did the day they were printed. Restoration, in fact, is the one area where digital technology is close to an unadulterated blessing, for it gives technicians an unprecedented ability to remove defects caused by production mistakes or the ravages of time.

In a room rimmed with computer workstations, Corinne Pooler is painstakingly restoring a sequence from the classic 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, which Universal Studios is planning to rerelease in a pristine theatrical print. Because Mockingbird’s original negative had been damaged beyond usability, the restorers are working from two fine-grain prints unearthed in Europe and the United States and subsequently digitized by the company’s scanners. Each print has its own myriad imperfections, however, which presents Pooler with the challenge of assembling one clean print from the undamaged portions of the two others.

The secret weapon is another program called Moviepaint, which Kodak specifically designed for Cinesite. On her monitor, Pooler displays a frame showing a clapboard house on the left, the branches of a spreading oak on the right, and along the frame edge the large, ugly blotch that is her quarry. Pooler carefully aligns the digital image of the previous frame over the stained image. Then she launches a function that allows her to import the pixels from the clean frame into the stained image, in effect erasing the blotch.

“It can be tedious,” she says of a process that will have to be repeated, with minute variations, on thousands of scratches, stretches, dust globs and breaks. (A Cinesite program called Bitzer automates much of that process, but only manual work using Moviepaint can correct every flaw.) Pooler, nevertheless, is well aware that she holds a job that would not exist at all but for digital technology. Seven years ago, she explains, she was a housewife with a job with her local school board. As it happened, her husband, Jerry Pooler, creative director for digital restoration services at Cinesite, was beginning work on the restoration of Sleeping Beauty.

“I was off for the summer, and Jerry needed people to help paint out dirt hits,” Corinne recalls. “He told me, If you can paint 150 frames a day we’ll keep you. If not, I’ll have to fire you.’” Pooler had no training in art or computer science, but she did have an eye instinctively capable of distinguishing between the minuscule details on a frame that are actually part of the image and the imperfections that call for obliteration.

In this craft an innocent misjudgment can wreck hours or days of work. Pooler recalls the time her team was called upon to paint out the vestiges of stunt gear from a 3,000-frame paratrooping sequence from a big-budget adventure movie.

“Six of us divided the work. The first person saw a line of tiny black spots in the image and painted them out of the frame. The next person took a look and said, You erased all the parachutes!’”

Mixed Media

The inadvertent erasure of real-world objects is only one of the occupational hazards awaiting moviemakers as digital technology continues to spread.

“Increasing technology always yields increasing complexity,” says Daniel Rosen, Cinesite’s chief technology officer. “If you’re in a film theater and there’s no image, your eyeballs will tell you what’s wrong-a lamp burned out, or the film broke. If you’re in a digital theater, what happened? Was the satellite down? Or the server? Or is there an encryption problem?”

A former TRW engineer, Rosen is Cinesite’s resident technical visionary and voice of realism-equally alive to the virtues of digital technology and to its shortcomings. On the plus side, he says, is the incredible flexibility producers will gain from having digital negatives of their films, which they can feed into a multitude of formats, be they theater prints, DVDs or TV broadcasts.

On the other hand, Rosen doubts that artists or audiences will soon want to give up the unique sensory qualities of film. “If we look decades ahead, people will come to realize that digital [photography] is another way of doing things, but film will give you a different organic look,” he says. “It’s like oil paint and acrylic. Digital has a different texture.”

And just as acrylics, watercolors and other media haven’t replaced oils, digital movies may never fully replace film. More likely, the two media will coexist, with digital’s practical advantages and differing qualities widening directors’ and cinematographers’ artistic and logistical options as the technology advances. Think of it this way: if Sony Pictures ever develops a Cast Away 2, and the producers discover that a digital Tom Hanks can shed 25 kilograms instantly, rather than dieting for a year, then the island may not be the only thing that’s virtual.

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