Fixing film, source: hsart.com

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-screening of the 3D, 4k restoration and rerelease of Terminator 2 at Backlot Studios in Melbourne.

Historically I’ve always been a touch sceptical of these sorts of things. I figured it was just the studio’s upping the contrast, maybe chucking in a deleted scene and re-releasing the movie in slightly fancier packaging. Trying to fool us into paying, again, for a movie we’d already seen. Ha! I thought, ignorant and smug. You’re not getting any of my precious dollary-doos.

But now I admit my cluelessness. In the spirit of eating a fat slice of humble pie, I thought I’d release this public service announcement on what 4k restorations actually are.

Terminator 2 4k Restoration
Decades later, Arnie is finally ready for his close up, source: gizmodo.com

How do you make a 4K movie restoration?

A 4k restoration utilises the original motion picture film. Yes, the old plastic and gelatine emulsion reel, to create an updated version of a movie. Because film is a physical entity, material breakdowns do occur. Film makers often have to use multiple sources, multiple reels of the same movie.

Once they have sources gathered, the process of individually scanning each frame and uploading them to a digital format begins. They use a machine, one that costs about the same as a spare liver on the black market for a good one. A machine, that is, not a liver…

After the full feature in all it’s thousands of frames has been uploaded, artists, editors and all sorts of people with specific and intricate jobs can go in and play with all it’s precious parts. Colour, contrast, removing and fixing up faults and scratches. Often they overlap digital effects on top of old ones. Heresy you might think, but really, some of the old effects (especially makeup and puppetry) just do not hold up today.

The result is an enhanced version of the film which is pretty damn close (if not slightly better) then how it was originally released.

Richard III Restoration
Restored and remastered shot from Richard III, source: mtifilm.com

But, how is this remastering magic possible?

I know, I know, pretty cool huh? But that’s not even the best part. These days films are mostly made in a digital format. It makes sense, I mean why bother having a physical copy when you have to upload it anyhow.

See, the thing about digital film is that the quality is determined by file size of amount of information available while watching. Digital film has elements like pixels. The more pixels the better the resolution, and the higher the resolution the bigger the file size. This goes for things like sound quality as well. With DVD and VHS, there is limited storage capacity, so the drop in quality is necessary to fit the film into the available space. Once the quality is dropped, it is not easy to restore

Old fashion film on the other hand, is considered analog. It doesn’t have a resolution. Like vinyl, quality depends on the device you use to view or listen to it on, not your storage capacity.The way film is made means that the picture, colour and lighting, never diminishes. It’s the same way you can take old film and still high get the same condition of photo as when it was originally taken.

There’s a lot more technical nitty gritty to the process, but that’s pretty much the bare bones.

Jaws: Wearing greasy sunglasses vs not wearing greasy sunglasses, source: 4kshooters.net

So why should I care about 4K remastering?

Because, quite frankly, these updated versions of films are the closest we are ever going to get to seeing them in their original quality. Your dusty old VHS copy of A New Hope is not how that film is meant to be watched. It’s simply a product of watered down digital film. While the faded, blurry pixillation might hold some nostalgic quality, the fact is they are a product of technology that wasn’t capable of holding the precious cargo it was charged with in the first place.

4k versions of movies are becoming more and more prevalent, and you’re going to start seeing them re-released in cinema’s more and more. Frankly, knowing what the hell they are is going to help you navigate cinema. Plus it makes you sound really smart when you know what you’re talking about, and that’s always a bonus. (Pro-tip: if you start talking about this stuff and people begin looking like they just got a lobotomy, I’d stop. Not because you’re lame, but because they suck.)

Furthermore, its a great way to preserve some of our best cinema for the next generation, and the next. Even if most of them probably won’t appreciate it.

Final thoughts on 4K remastering

When it comes to these restorations, if it’s a movie you love, definitely go see it at the cinemas. Seeing it in it’s intended, better-then-original version is something you probably won’t get the chance to do again, so seize it while it’s there.

If Terminator 2 is a favourite of yours, go see it. I couldn’t recommend it more.

Learned all her valuable life skills working at the hotdog stand at Ikea. Writer of sci-fi, devourer of books, and drinker of wine in the hopes that one day when she’s old she’ll fossilise into a Winosaur and the powers that be will hang her purpled bones in a museum and she’ll finally become infinite.