Making the old new again

'Alien' and the Space Jockey.
‘Alien’ and the Space Jockey.

On Halloween of 2003, thousands of Alien fans enjoyed a long awaited re-release of the legendary 25-year-old film. Only a few months later, it came out on DVD, which gave many more a chance to see the beautifully restored version.

A lot of people have commented how the image was pristine and the film looked “as if it was shot yesterday”. Let’s take a moment and look deeper into this issue, and explore the technology and processes that went into creating this new Alien.

First of all, let’s define precisely what digital restoration means in the film industry. It is a process of restoring damaged film prints or negatives back to the state they were in when they were first produced.

For Alien, the process began somewhere in late 2002 when 20th Century Fox chose a company called Modern Videofilm for the job of restoring the film. Before the original camera negatives were handled by people at Modern, they were sent to “YCM laboratories”, a company created by former employees of Technicolor – the same company did the restoration of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997.

The negatives and outtakes that were to be incorporated into the new “director’s cut” of the film were chemically restored, removing all the dirt and some scratches. After that, the lab made color-separation black and white positives so that the film could be preserved for a long time without fading.

Each strip of three black and white films is exposed using one of three primary color filters and captures only one primary color from the original negative. Black and white films fade much slower than color films, and if a color separation film is stored properly, it can last up to 500 years.

The negatives were then handed over to Modern Videofilm. They used a Spirit DataCine film scanner/telecine to scan the images into digital format. Spirit is actually a modified telecine machine originally designed by Phillips, for which Kodak designed the imaging head that scans the image (telecine machines are generally used for converting film to video-tapes for TV and home video releases).

Unlike regular telecine machines, Spirit can output individual image files for each frame of the film, just like real film scanners. The outputted file can have a maximum resolution of 2048×1556 pixels and a color depth of 10 bits per color (red, green and blue) in logarithmic mode (equals 14-bit linear mode, that computers use everyday).

This was the output used in the Alien restoration. While this sounds great, it’s not perfect. Spirit actually scans the images at a slightly lower resolution, then digitally enlarges the image.

When the scanning was finished they had thousands of images (one for every frame of film). Those files were loaded into Quantum computer servers that used a program called, IQ. It is a powerful piece of software that can do all kinds of changes to moving images just as Photoshop can to still images, including an automated scratch and dirt removal feature that restores damaged film images.

But there were some image defects that IQ was not able to repair on its own. That was where QPaint came in. This software was used to manually “paint out” the damage frame by frame.

This process constituted the majority of the year it took to restore Alien. After all that hard work the images were clean and ready for fine tuning of colors.

Quantel systems can be connected to color correctors like Pandora, QColor (made by Quantel), or da Vinci. Color correctors are similar in their appearance to music recording consoles – they have all kinds of switches and sliders that control different aspects of the image, much like sound recording consoles.

The color corrector used for the Alien film was the da Vinci 2K Plus. And the chief operator was colorist Skip Kimball, a man who has worked with the film’s director, Ridley Scott, on several other projects. This process was done in Modern Videofilm’s digital mastering facility in Glendale, California. The facility has a 33-seat screening room with a digital projector provided by Digital Projection, Inc. and a Kinoton 35mm film projector. The resulting images were projected in real time on the screen so the director could see and give directions to the colorist. This way every shot of the film was fine tuned with primary and secondary color corrections. Individual colors could be isolated and corrected separately. This allowed Scott to adjust the color timing to be closer to what he originally wanted. The color timing process was much less “user friendly” in 1979, Scott has said, compared to today’s digital process.

Now, when all of the footage was restored and fine tuned, the work was finished and ready to be transferred back to film. The Arri laser film recorder was used for this task.

The difference between a “archival” digital restoration (in cases like Snow WhiteThe Man Who Knew Too Much, etc.) and a restoration like this one is that with an archival restoration a much higher quality standard is used in order to retain every detail of the image in the original negative. As such, the resolution is four times higher than with Alien for standard 35mm film (4096×3112 compared to Alien’s 2048×1556), and pin registered film scanners process the image.

A pin registered film scanner tracks the framing of every frame so that the image is very stable. The Spirit DataCine is not pin registered, as a result the image can shift up and down, left and right. This means special digital algorithms are needed to stabilize the image.

It is difficult to predict if a real digital restoration will be done in the next 20 years for Alien, but even without a future restoration work the current film elements (black and white separations) will hold the image in its original quality for decades, maybe centuries to come.

This means Alien will be safe for future generations of film lovers.

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