By Simon Firth, May 2006
It’s that big scratch across Scarlett O’Hara’s
face, the red blur obscuring Robin Hood’s heroics,
or the white blotches that pepper King Kong as he climbs
the Empire State Building.
Classic movies are fragile treasures. They pick up dust,
are easily scratched, and often shrink or fade and get
otherwise disfigured as they age.
The most famous will occasionally be painstakingly restored
by hand, says HP Labs’ Qian Lin. But of the thousands
of other movies sitting in archives around the world, Lin
says, “very few go through this manual processing,
because the cost is very, very high.”
That’s a big deal to Hollywood studios like Warner
Bros., owners of Gone With the Wind, Robin Hood, King Kong and thousands of other classic features.
HP researchers, in collaboration with Warner Bros. Motion
Picture Imaging, have come up with a process for automating
much of the restoration process and are now looking to
bundle their set of media-processing techniques into a
single engine, or video-processing pipeline. It’s
already yielding some spectacular results.
In test clips Scarlett now sweeps down the stairs to meet
Rhett unaccompanied by background glitches; Robin Hood
fights his battles in glorious, sharp Technicolor; and
King Kong climbs through a clear Manhattan sky.
“We have many of the most beloved and important
films ever made in our library, and we feel a strong responsibility
to preserve these films so that future generations will
be able to enjoy them,” says Chuck Dages, executive
vice president of Emerging Technology at Warner Bros. “And
from a pure business standpoint, these films are an invaluable
asset and need to be properly cared for."
Studios need to re-copy their movies every time a new
distribution technology comes along, says Dages.
Following VHS video and then DVD, the industry is now
moving toward the next generation of optical disc formats:
High Definition DVD (HD-DVD) and Blu Ray formats. The new
formats offer studios a great economic opportunity, Dages
says, but a challenge too.
“Older movies that have been transferred to video,” he
explains, “just don’t cut it when they go to
the high-definition television formats”
In response, studios are making super-high resolution
digital transfers of each frame of many of their library
movies. But without special processing, whatever dirt,
scratches or other imperfections that mar the original
frames are transferred to the digital copies; all in high
Until now the only way to get rid of imperfections, explains
Dages, was to have “someone sit with a mouse and
laboriously click to take the dirt out.” No wonder,
he says, Warner Bros. was hoping “that there was
HP technology that could be applied to help automate the
Although HP Labs had never looked at film restoration,
researchers had plenty of experience working with still
photography and personal video.
“We found that a lot of that expertise can be applied
to the film restoration process,” says Lin, who leads
the research team.
Researchers were able to apply much of what they'd learned
from an earlier investigation of color-sensor technology
to address blurring of images in older color library titles.
Work on single- lens cameras that de-blurred an area of
color using edge information from other patches of color
in the frame also proved useful, as did research into video
super-resolution, a technique for combining information
from nearby frames to increase a particular frame’s
The automated restoration process works like this: Each
film clip is first run through a set of algorithms that
selects out only the frames likely to contain an image
artifact. For example, says researcher Amnon Silverstein, “we
look for a pixel that changes color dramatically from frame
to frame. Or within a frame we look for a small area that
is very different from everything else in its neighborhood.
And in color, we look for things that are saturated and
A second pass fixes many of the glitches. When dust creates
a bright red, green or blue spot in the frame, for instance,
the researchers' software fills it in with information
interpolated from the area around it.
Although some particularly complicated frames must still
be repaired by hand, automated fixes dramatically reduce
the amount of manual work required.
In the cases where the team had access to scans of the
original set of color negatives, the images took on a new
“Thanks to this technique, you can now look at the
chain link in Robin Hood’s armor or the lace in Scarlett
O’Hara’s dress and they pop out with incredible
detail and a purity of image that you never saw before,” says
Richard Place, global manager for all of HP’s Time-Warner
Digitized frames from black and white movies, for example,
contain less information, making scratches, dust and other
errors harder to spot. Early black and white film also
tends to look grainy and suffer from flicker, a result
of the poor shutter control on early cameras, giving each
frame a different exposure.
Perhaps the team’s biggest challenge was Cinerama.
Only 13 features were made using this widescreen technique – a
format that requires a cinema equipped with a curved screen
and three projectors that run simultaneously – but
nearly all are considered classics.
The HP team worked on clips from the 1962 epic, How the
West Was Won. Beyond the usual dirt and scratches, Cinerama
films doubly distort when transferred to home-viewing formats.
Because they were projected onto a curved screen, they
look odd when shown on a flat screen. And they suffer from
clear overlaps and lines where the three images join.
“To resolve the vertical-line issue, the team borrowed
technology for putting ink on paper, which is very similar
to putting ink on film,” reports Richard Place. “They
then used another algorithm to eliminate the flattening
The result, says Warner Bros. executive Dages, “is
remarkable. The technology really has turned what has been
an issue for many, many years into a solution that allows
us to repurpose the film.”
HP and Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging envision a process that would
either run automatically or be ‘dialed’ up or down in sensitivity
depending on what is happening in a particular sequence (the more action,
the more likely that one of flying arrows, for example, might be mistaken
for a scratch, requiring the software’s sensitivity to be turned
Cleaning entire films requires enormous computing resources.
“These films take up terabytes of storage,” says
researcher Silverstein. “So we’ve been looking
at how you can take a film, send it out across a set of
servers, process it efficiently, and handle cases when
machines are added and removed.”
Each two-hour movie has 172,800 frames – if you're
processing that on a single machine at about five minutes
per frame, it would take 600 days to complete an entire
movie. By using a cluster of servers, engineers can speed
up the process considerably.
Such a process would employ state-of-the-art data security
from HP, a crucial feature for content owners worried about
It’s not just Hollywood that could benefit from the innovations
behind the video-processing pipeline.
There are major theatrical movie archives in India and
Hong Kong, for example, as well as large research holdings
in public collections like the U.S. Library of Congress.
Although digital is gaining ground, film remains the medium
of choice for making movies and high-profile television
And despite its flaws, says Warner Bros.' Dages, film
continues to be the studio’s preferred archival material. “We
know,” he says, “we can put a piece of film
in the vault and under proper conditions, it will last
up to 600 years. It is a great archival media."
Simon Firth is a writer and television producer living in Silicon