True Film Restoration services in the B2C Market

RHMG – Bill Werba

As a B2C business owner in the home movie transfer business, I’m always looking for ways to improve and add to my services for my customers.  Where are things trending?   What’s next for the industry to stay relevant?

From my point of view, the next stage in services evolution is Film Restoration, which has long been available at the B2B industrial level but is considered too expensive for Joe (sorry, and Mary) consumer.  I’m referring to a complementary service where amateur family films are truly restored to its original unblemished state (or as close to…), like that seen on the day the little yellow boxes came back from the film processor.  Has the time come for true film restoration? I think it’s getting close as there are a few daring souls who do offer restore services at challenging prices like $0.60 to $1.00/ft of film.

Right now most B2C film restoration services is limited to two activities, one, physically cleaning and repairing the film and two, digitally applying colour correction and reducing video noise.  Any attention to the removal of other visual anomalies like dust, dirt and scratches is virtually non-existent.

In the B2B realm, there are companies that have been around for some time offering expertise in restoring old 16mm, 35mm and 70mm cinematic films.  Those restoration projects could run into the six figures and thus the equipment and expertise needed to get exceptional results are equally expensive.  This level of service and sophistication however, has long been a deal breaker for the consumer just due to cost.

Just suppose, if true film restoration services were to be made available to the B2C market, what price point would be palatable to that customer base?  The software tools are still expensive and the computers to run the specialized software must also be high performers, as those number crunching machines at the industrial level.  Sure, there are free to low cost options available to consider like plugins for AVISynth and VirtualDub,  but those have limitations.

Looking into the suppliers of film restoration software and their offerings, it is apparent the market is quite specialized and narrow just by counting the few numbers in the business is a strong indicator.  The very nichy nature of these software products screams high prices, which in turn could translate to big bucks for the consumer.

Most industrial level film restoration software vendors offer a standard set or sub-set of filters in their product lines to ‘clean’ old films.  Other more sophisticated filters are available in the form of add-ons or are made part of their ‘Pro’ advanced packages.

So what are we talking about when it comes to ‘cleaning’ films?  Here is a rundown of the most common cleaners or what’s commonly called ‘filters’:

Dustbusting and Dirt Removal
Those annoying little spots of dust randomly placed on the video frame.  Can be light or dark shaded.  Dust attraction perhaps due to effects of static electricity during film cleaning phase or in some cases buried in the film itself during recording time.  Dirt is usually attached to a single frame containing a transient gob of dirt.  Equally, the dirt can change shape and be spread over several frames and move frame to frame.

Hairs
Can be any length, creep in from any side of the frame, come and go as it pleases.  An annoying effect of poor film cleaning or static attracting airbourne ‘stuff’ or it is part of the film itself when it was first recorded.

Scratches
They are usually vertical, can run for many frames, jiggle frame to frame, be thin or thick in width, be light in nature or be very numerous in density, a toughy to remove.  After ‘removal’, may leave a slight residual track as to where the scratch was depending on the removal and reconstruction power of the algorithm.  Regardless, a big step in improving the digitized film’s visual presence.

There is a real-time process during telecine called Wet Gate which does a decent job in eliminating light scratches. A special liquid is squeegied over the film at the gate and fills in the scratch/gap in the emulsion providing a temporary fix as the film frames are captured.  The liquid dries up before it gets to the take up reel.

Blotches and Stains
Odd shaped objects or splatters on the film frame surface which can have various degrees of opaqueness and size.  May reside on single or multiple frames, change shape and opacity.  They typically are by-products or the effects of mould and other ‘crap’.

Degrain, denoise
Sometimes this term is a little confusing in its definition and understanding.  Once a film frame is digitized it carries with it the level of grain in the film body itself.  It is a property of the film.   Assuming no other sampling or compression mixing products acts on the ‘graininess’ nature during digitization and there is no video noise introduced, then what you see is true a representation of the film grain.  But from a digital point of view it is still seen as noise, but a distinctive noise and as such can be characterized and filtered.  Results of reducing the ‘noise’ can range from the subtle to the surreal.  Settings here are important.

Burned frames
You’ve seen ’em. These are frames of film that have been partially or completely destroyed when the film has stalled too long in front of a hot projector lamp.  Destroyed film frames still represents time periods, so just cutting them out is not a proper solution, though is done as a quick fix (not good if there is an associated sound track).  Dead frames can be recovered by looking at frames before and after the affected frame(s) and applying some form of averaging filter to reconstruct the bad frame or frames in question or by just doing a simple frame copy of an adjacent frame.

Mould
Mould occurs when the film stock has been subjected to long term temperature/humidity cycling which introduces bacteria within the film emulsion.  It is manifested in many forms but the most common is a snow flake look.  The film, usually in long stretches, have many snow flakes of differing sizes and opacities within the frame.  It is tough to remove.

Image parts missing and tears
Another tough aspect to repair, where part or parts of a film frame is ripped or missing.  The filter will attempt to rebuild the affected frame with whatever information that it has to work with.  This type of filter will use techniques involving both spatial and temporal information processing.  Very sophisticated.

Image stability
Whether due to bad operator motion at the time of recording or frame jumping due to a mechanically defective camera, stretched/stripped sprockets, this defect when repaired makes for a smoother playback experience.

Image Brightness Flicker
This is an effect where film sequences change in brightness levels during playback usually in a quick cyclic fashion.  The look is due to fading in the emulsion or the color dyes from environmental factors.

Sure there are more filters to consider like, dead pixel repair, de-warping, registration errors and others, but in many cases not critical in a successful small gauge defect repair.  The lions share of 8mm or Super8 film restoration projects undergoing just dustbusting, scratch and hair removal with degrain\denoise filters for good measure will vastly improve the look of visually problematic amateur films.

So, is it time true film restoration services are made available to the consumer market even when the service price still weighs in as a heavy consideration?  On the surface it’s early to tell but things appear to be changing.  To offer a pretty good film restoration service a minimal investment of at least $10K to $25K must be considered for a turn key off the shelf solution, -not including learning curve costs.  So depending on the goals, ambitions, cost/benefit and risks laid out in one’s marketing plan, that entrepreneur could be among those early pioneers to offer this service and break some new ground for the slower to adapt competition to follow.


5 Comments

  1. I think its funny that some people spell mold as “mould” and others spell it as “mold”.

    I’ve been doing mold remediation for 10 years now and still don’t know which is the right way. =]

  2. Good list of the “expected basics”, but going beyond these is what the “home crowd” really wants (IMHO and experience)…

    At http://vimeo.com/4930152 I posted a 2 min demo of S-8mm that I transferred to 1080p uncompressed HD and then applied major steps of post-processing that go beyond those listed above (aggressive stabilization, film grain reduction and pan smoothing). The final result was deliberately intended to simply be as “clear” as possible, with no regard to preserving any of the original “film look”. The Vimeo text summarizes the workflow used and also contains links to before/after processing split screens and an unique(?) technique to smooth strobbing and judder during pans (which is applied to the opening pan of the demo).

    This project is the result of an engineer’s retirement hobby limited to archiving our family and friends films. It is not practical for a business without being more software integrated and run on a fast computer with raid drive(s). It is posted on this very informative BLOG to show how far I was able to push this “honest” approach using basically CS4 Premier, VD/Deshaker and Neat Video.

    Bill – I’ll send you an Email with more information than is practical to post here. Use it as you wish. Hope everyone finds this approach at least interesting. IMHO, most home movie customers would quickly choose this high level of processing – if the price was right. That’s the real challenge.

    • Ted,

      Good stuff. I looked at your videos and comments regarding your HD project. Your telecine transfer is better than the average from what I have seen. It just goes to show with the proper equipment, informed know how and some simple filters the results can be quite astonishing.

      I’ve played with Neat. Getting the right settings to get those super results needs patience. Getting it wrong shows the effects of the motion estimation function has within the Neat algorithm. When set spot on however for the content to finesse, will generate very nice results without looking fake or unrealistically soft. I know about Deshaker but never fiddled with it. Looking forward to your email. Bill

  3. Very good blog! Thank you very much!

    • Hi

      Thanks for the feedback. More technical stuff coming. Working on Film Resto articles and upcoming services.

      Bill

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