The weather has finally started to get nice here, and, honestly, I always feel like Scrappy in Dr. Bluebird watching the nice weather when I need to get various projects done, and there’s a lot of them right now. A bunch of the ‘special’ sets have been finished in the last few weeks, and more finishing up progress, along with many of the ‘official’ sets. My hands are very full, but fortunately the backup forces are starting again to get things out the door and all finished. Cartoons Paradise is almost done dubbing and we’re working on combining these pre-orders all together, along with the long awaited Screen Songs special set. Thanks to everyone for supporting these projects.
Since there’s so much interest, I’m making Screen Songs available through the Blu-ray.com forums for a little while. Details are here.
Now, onto part two of last week’s post:
The Flip’s have been an interesting task to make look nice. Some of the materials are in absolutely beautiful shape, while others need lots of work. Happily, most everything looks pretty decent as its getting finished, and that has a lot to do with my great group of freelance digital cleanup and restoration help.
When I started Snappy Video back in the late 80s, I was incredibly lucky to find a handful of advisers to give me a very brief introduction to the world of telecine transfers. Jeff Missinne was probably the most helpful person early on, listening to some teenager blabbing about how good he wanted to make VHS sets while still in high school! 1986 was a pivotal year in my personal figuring out the basics of how to do sets. I was able to get the first scans done for the sets in 1987, borrowing some money from my parents to have a group of reel scanned. The $150 an hour of film seemed really steep at the time, but then again, I was just out of high school earning $3.35 an hour while working two jobs over that summer. I had already figured out that I could get a cleaner transfer of these films by having Vitafilm or a similar cleaner on them, so I had everything wiped with cleaner when I turned the prints in to be scanned, only to have the folks at Filmcraft labs inform me that they had to clean all the films before they were ‘wet-gated’ on their Rank Cintel scanner! It must have been difficult for them to deal with this little teenager who didn’t really know much about what it took to put sets together technically.
I managed to get a job at the University of Michigan Film and Video library late that summer, inspecting 16mm prints. Later, I would work full time there as the ‘Senior Film Inspector’ for the better part of my early 20s. I bugged the heck out of the University of Michigan Television technical staff, housed in the same building. They gave me all sorts of advice on tape, sound and editing systems at the time. All these years later, I still sort of miss the analogue aspects of editing.
At one of the first Cinevents I attended, someone showed me a tape of a digital restoration process that was being used for Hollywood features. It was a piece of hardware that would find the defects in each frame, replacing them with details from the frame before and after. It was being done for preparation to colorize films. It seemed to be a non-adjustable, automatic process, but yielded incredible results. I watched the VHS tape with disbelief, and wondered if there was any way for me to afford to do this, ever.
Here is a story showing the colorizing process back then, in the mid to late 80s:
All of these years later, I’m happy to say we’ve been cleaning films up digitally for a decade, starting with some very simple tools and graduating to more professional grade ones. The first program we got (in 2008) was a plug-in for Apple’s Final Cut Pro called ‘Film Fix’. It could remove dust, dirt and scratches pretty well from film, but was barely adjustable, and there was no way to ‘undo’ the over fixing that would happen while trying to clean up films. This overfill included erasing lines around the characters as well as other background details. Worse, the program would crash over and over again. I figured out I could process about a minute and a half of standard definition video at a time without crashing. I would then take the cleaned up footage into Adobe’s After Effects, sandwiching the original footage under the cleaned up footage, and erase back to the original where it over-cleaned things. This process was used for almost all the Thunderbean titles in standard def in from 2010 through 2013.
Our jump into HD is largely the fault of a few people. Our own Jerry Beck was trying to find a decent copy of Gulliver’s Travels for broadcast, and this sent me on a search to find a good print. Happily, several prints became available in the collector’s market, and we managed to scan then, but too late for the broadcast. Happily, the ‘Golden Age Cartoons forum’ members had already been great supporters of the Thunderbean sets, and they contributed to the scans of the Gulliver material.
In 2013, at the Columbus Cinevent, I showed the scan to my friend Stewart McKissick and John McElwee (of the essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows). Both were enthusiastic about the results, and suggested I pursue preparing the film for Blu-ray. At this point, I didn’t even own a Blu-ray player, but was excited to see what could be done. Later that same day, McElwee generously offered to contribute to the costs of producing the sets, providing the much needed funds to acquire a one-year lease on restoration software. One the better part of 2013, I worked on cleaning up Gulliver, almost entirely by myself, figuring out the best format, output, color grading for HD, rescanning pieces and finding both the features and limitations of various restoration software suites. After finishing this project, it was clear that we needed to continue using these kinds of tools on all future releases.
The word ‘restoration’ is both accurate and misleading in some ways. The tools for all the suites I’ve used do a great job cleaning top footage, but, unless you’re working in the full resolution of the original material, I feel (as others) that a full ‘restoration’ of the material isn’t happening. On many of the films, we have been able to work at the full resolution of the image, so these cleanups could go back to a film negative.
The professional ‘restoration’ digital tools are still expensive these days since it’s such a niche area of work, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to afford a handful of licenses to spread the work around to a handful of freelancers. I’ve had quite a few people work directly with me at the Thunderbean Studio as well as working by themselves. I’ve found that the best people to clean up animation for these sets have a background in film or animation, or are great fans on the material and *want* to make sure they look great. This particular attention to detail, with them as well as here, allows a production pipeline that would be hard to duplicate at a larger studio in a cost-effective way. I have a great luxury with Thunderbean in being able to make sure everything is the best I can get it. Still, I look back at the finished ones and wish I had done this or that to make particular films just a little better.
The current team on ‘Flip the Frog’ is an excellent group who really cares about the shorts. David Grauman is one of my usual suspects in this process. He’s a great detail person and excellent at making sure the films look as good as possible. Animation History expert and Cartoon Research contributing writer Thad Komorowski is, among his other talents, one of the best digital restoration artists I’ve worked with, often fixing things that I was already happy with on his cleanups of the Flip materials. He continues to contribute work to this set as well as others for Thunderbean and other companies. Both were excellent in contributing to the on the Willie Whopper project, In this past year, Animation History expert and contributing writer Devon Baxter also joined the team this year, contributing to both this project as well as the Rainbow Parade cartoons.
The basic process of cleaning this films up starts with the scans. We try, whenever possible, to wet gate the materials and to personally supervise the scans. Having a cleaner liquid on the film helps to hide abrasions as well as helping to clean off dust and dirt. Its important to be careful of the film in this process since materials can be brittle, especially in torn sprocket holds and old cement splices. Newer technology (including the excellent Laser Graphics Scan Station) has allowed an even more precise ability to can the surface of the film at the needed exact ‘level’ that avoids the light refraction caused by the scratches.After scanning, the digital material is either single image files or compiled quicktime movie files. These are them brought into a program that allows digital cleanup, then often into a specific film/ digital restoration program. Adobe After Effects or Premiere are often the first to do some processing, from editing several versions of a film together steadying the image scene by scene and other work. Each stage is important to get right, since anything you do to the film will affect the final version.
When working on the films in a digital restoration program, the process often involves automatic passes in cleanup, followed by a frame by frame manual pass to ‘unfix’ the overfixes, followed by another pass or two to manually clean things the automatic pass didn’t. Depending on the film, this process really takes an experienced eye in deciding what process should be involved next, and sometimes it’s trial and error to make sure what you did was the most effective.
The final stage of the process includes editing in the sound, any titles to fix or replace, color correction, cropping and framing, and any other required work. Often several elements are compared to see what looks best, and sometimes additional materials are brought in, even at this stage, to make a version a little better. Of course, it’s always best if you can work from a single element to get the final result, but on the Flip the Frog set, many require at least a few elements to complete the film.
One of the biggest heartbreaks on the project has been thinking we had found the color material on several other Flips. Sadly, *all* have turned out to be B/W tinted versions of the shorts rather than the Harris Color originals (like Fiddlesticks). I have the feeling that Fiddlesticks only exists in color because an edited together master was sent from England to Iwerks to make a Black and White master. None of the Flip’s appear to have been released in color in the United States.
Flying Fists, the second of the Flips, seems to only exist in black and white. Both masters at UCLA in 35mm were pretty beat up on this title. Thad took this particular work on and did an excellent job. To show you what he was up against, I’ve included here the opening scenes from these two masters, followed by the combination of these elements on the new cleaned up version. We both agreed this was the hardest of the series to clean up. I’ve included a few other clips here in the original element and the cleanup as examples as well. Note: this isn’t *quite* the final version of the footage; there is another pass beyond this to fix a few small problems, as is frequent when working on these films!
So many of these films look really excellent, and the team effort on this particular set is perhaps the biggest. The team effort to fully realize this set (so far!) includes David Shepard, Serge Bromberg, David Gerstein, Mark Kausler, Thad Komorowski, David Grauman, Devon Baxter, UCLA archives, Sami Kerwin, Lauren Schmidt, Mary Dixon, Jerry Beck and others. I’m very grateful to have a great team behind this project.
Have a good week everyone!