SIXTEENmm

1769 films and counting...

The World of Preservation - Blog

2019-10-21

One of the most frequent complaints I hear today is that Hollywood has lost its imagination. Films now come in series and universes, rehashing the same ideas over and over, without the creative opportunity to bring us something new.

In some ways, that's not entirely true.

But in yet others, it most certainly is.

There are still creative works, incredibly creative works, coming out of the film industries across the world. America does verge on the conservative with their approaches, but that isn't exactly something new. They're more likely to invest in the things they know they will get a return on, and that's always been the case.

The film industries past is littered with conservative mini-eras like this. The eras of John Wayne and films to cover every battle of World War II are just some examples.

However, like today, amongst all these mainstream films are some truly inspiring and creative works.

Some of them are leftfield ideas like Ninja Empire, which can seem odd even by today's standards.

Still from 'Ninja Empire', 1990

US federal agents reach out to a group of ninjas to help them solve the murders of several prostitutes.

Others are fun films that just don't seem to get made as frequently anymore. Films designed simply to entertain, not to beguile or carry a deep meaning that the viewer is forced to explore. Films like the Snake People.

Still from 'the Snake People', 1971

A scientist creates an army of zombies using LSD.

There are even several films that try something brave, and insane, like crossing genre boundaries in ways people don't expect. Like Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter.

Still from "Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter", 1966

Jesse James hides out in Frankenstein's Castle.

All of these films however have something in common: They're endangered.

We think of them as unique because they push boundaries in ways that we don't see as often today, but they're unique in other ways as well. Most films like this haven't been well preserved, and when we have a copy it is unlikely to get close to the quality you may have seen if you got to see it when it arrived. (Which may well have been a miracle in the case of some films like the Necrotic, which only saw 7 days in theatres).

There are some concerted efforts to storing, preserving, and recovering these old films. Such as archive.org's incredible efforts.

However, we often don't have the tools we need to make this happen in an effective way.

How does one go about recovering a film damaged by radiation, water, fire, smoke, dust and age?

Well, in the case of The Story of the Kelly Gang, we had all of those problems.

Still from 'the Story of the Kelly Gang', 2019 restoration

A SIXTEENmm original recut, that takes the remains of the first ever feature-length film, and restores them beyond anything yet seen.

We had to invent a new technique to be able to restore this incomplete carcass to some reasonable amount of life.

filmTrace was the result.

The technique is fairly simple to describe, but implementing it was a tad more... Long-winded. 12 months on, and we're still attempting to improve it, so that we can ensure we keep some of those wonderful moments of inspiration in the past alive.

filmTrace works by:

  1. Breaking a film down into individual frames (Somewhere around 15-30 frames are shown per second in a film).

  2. Breaking up each frame into slices of colour. 328 colours, to be exact. This does mean that there is some colour loss, but it tends to be good enough for now. This number can be arbitrarily increased to the 1024 colours you might expect to find in an average film frame... But it doesn't actually increase the quality of the final product.

  3. Each colour slice is converted from a bitmap image (a group of pixels) into a vector (a group of maths describing how to draw the image). This is where most quality is lost. Shapes can lost exactly how fine-tuned they are. However, a vector can be resized to any size without losing it's quality, because it describes mathematical curves, not pixels.

  4. Each vector is re-layered together, stitching together a final image. This image is converted to a bitmap, because a video does work on pixels. (There have been one or two attempts at vector videos in the past. They don't tend to work well, and most computers need extra software to view them.)

  5. We recombine all the frames to recreate the final video.

It doesn't seem that difficult. Five easy steps... That took 21 days to run, when we restored the Kelly Gang.

We've had some speed improvements since, but not a lot. It's an intensive process.

However, the tool we used to do this, filmTrace, is one we also published in such a way that anyone can use it freely. To give back to the community and help others potentially improve the tool, and certainly help to preserve more films that this industry desperately needs to remember.


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