Digital Restoration

What goes on in Hungarian laboratories when restoring 14 Czech archive films?

In the past two years, many articles have been written concerning digital restoration in the Czech media discourse, at least in the mainstream media, but without the reader being aware of how exactly this process takes place and what is meant by terms such as digitization, digital restoration and digital remastering and who exactly is a (digital) restorer. Often times, not even journalists themselves have ever seen the process of digital restoration and do not know its basic principles and procedures. Even the most often mentioned institution, the National Film Archive, which is currently digitally restoring 14 films chosen from a list of 200 titles selected by commissions of the Ministry of Culture and the Association of Czech Cinematographers, which is a frequent opponent of the NFA, based on the manifesto of the Digitally Restored Authorizate, use these terms, which are often used in various connotations.

At the end of January, a team of students from the Olomouc and Brno Department of Film Studies went on an excursion to the Hungarian Film Laboratory, a division of the Hungarian National Film Fund, to witness the process of digitally restoring Czech films Ikarie XB1, Starci na chmelu and Bílá nemoc. "The mission of the National Film Archive is to take care of our film heritage and make it accessible to the public for further inspection. That is not possible without digital restoration, as almost all the cinemas in our country are now digitized," was the reaction of Anna Batistová, manager of the project of Digital restoration of Czech film heritage, to the question of why it is important to digitally restore archived films.

The main objective of digital restoration in the Hungarian laboratories is to restore the film back to its form when it was first launched as close as possible, which often took place over 50 years ago. For this purpose, the NFA chooses a so called reference copy, ideally the one used to screen the film at the premiere. "Searching for a newer copy makes no sense, as the result of later copying to another film medium could lead to the alteration of visual information," explained restorer Teresa Frodlová. The search for the reference copy is preceded by extensive historical research involving analysis of existing film materials, even written archival materials, historical documents, various technical records, as well as screenplays and interviews with witnesses.

Ideally, the source for the image information is the original film negative, but multiple copies can be used as the source for the digital restoration of the audio tracks. "We obtain sound data from a larger number of copies, because not always does a single copy have a whole intact soundtrack preserved,’’ commented Jan Zahradníček, head of the digital lab of the NFA. He added that in line with the NFA objective when dealing with digital restoration of a soundtrack, they make sure that by the end of the process it is noticeable that it is an optical sound track.

Only once the NFA has a suitable reference copy, but also suitable source film material for image and sound (the least damaged and photographically most valuable), the Budapest laboratory takes charge. It will once again manually check and subsequently treat the film to avoid any threat to its integrity. After the source film materials are scanned, the data is passed on to digital retouchers, who digitally purify the image and keep records of all the steps they make. They report all major findings (a missing box, considerably noticeable damage, etc) to the team of Czech restorers, who will decide whether the damage will be left (the evaluation is carried out primarily by the criterion of whether the damage was created by the influence of time, or was part of the original form of the negative or copy) or on how to remedy the resulting damage.

Now comes the difficult and most discussed digital restoration phase called grading. It is the process in which the colours of a digital image are adjusted so they correspond as closely as possible with the colours of the premiere screening of the film strip. It is in no way computerized or programmed and the unpredictable human senses play a major role in the decision making.  "Grading is a visual process and it largely depends on the experience and capabilities of the colourists to assess the situation," said the colourist Bronislav Daniš. The main colourist from the Hungarian side of the team, Szabolcs Barta, then added that the biggest challenge in digital restoration is to only use those options that take into regard the original technologies, not the newest possible technological procedures, by commenting so he crashed through the thin ice in the current, overly emotionally escalated debate.

Representatives of the opposition against the whole digitization process taking place in Hungary, often request to have the restored film launched in a way that corresponds to the intentions of the creators, not the form that contemporary technology enabled. On the other hand, the workers of the NFA aim to (and in reference with the NFA mission as a heritage institutions, it is a stance they must have) introduce the film in the form that comes as close as possible to the premiere presentation of the film, and therefore they must resist the temptation the latest digital technology offers.

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