Fixafilm and Digital Vision’s Nucoda Rescue Phoenix from the Ashes

Reprinted from : www.digitalmedia-world.com
Written by Adriene Hurst

Fixafilm post-production company in Warsaw has re-constructed and digitally restored a classic film directed by Andrzej Wajda in 1965, titled ‘Popioly’, or ‘The Ashes’.

The project required not only patient, precise cleaning and colouring, but also editorial reconstruction to reveal once again its intended social and political message. It was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope by cinematographer Jerzy Lipman and, appropriately, the story could be compared to the epic Western movies made in the US at that time.

“When we found it in the archives, we discovered that the film had been heavily censored, which had changed the meaning of the film completely.

Form of Protest

‘Popioly’ is based on the novel of the same name, written by Stefan Zeromski, about a young nobleman who grows up amid slavery, poverty and class warfare in 19th century Poland. After witnessing the death by duel of his brother, he joins the army and fights under the leadership of Napoleon. The story then follows his rise through the ranks and the Polish army’s violent and brutal efforts to regain freedom for their oppressed homeland.

Originally 234 minutes long, the film was cut back to 160 minutes for international release, and entered into the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. The film had been stored in less than ideal conditions in the Polish National Film Archive. It included a lot of flicker, damaged inter-positives and many scenes had been printed on bad stock. To restore and preserve the image quality, Fixafilm used Digital Vision’s Nucoda for the grade and restoration work, including the DVO restoration tools, as Fixafilm’s president Wojtek Janio explains in this article.

But the restoration also involved another, wider-reaching challenge – the film had been censored. Many films made during that time in Poland were regarded as a form of protest against the communist government. Instructed to make films as propaganda, filmmakers in fact did the opposite, creating allegorical stories designed to follow a quite different agenda. When their secrets were uncovered, the films were edited and their true meaning suppressed.

Reconstruction

Wojtek Janio said, “When we found it in the archives, we discovered that the film had been heavily censored, which had changed the meaning of the film completely. So, part of our restoration job was reconstruction. Unexpectedly, the original, edited version was only found when we looked in the archive, and the censored version was unknown in Poland. In fact, the only people that actually saw the censored film were the Cannes Film Festival committee and attendants of the festival. We do not know who made these cuts – even the director himself was surprised.”

Fortunately, alongside that final, censored cut, were three inter-positives including the director’s cut, that could be used as reference as well as prints and other copies to compare it to. The magnetic sound reels were also complete. An inter-positive, or master positive, is made from the original edited camera negative on specialised negative motion picture film – which results in a positive image. Using this material preserves colour characteristics that allow more accurate colour reproduction, also for monochrome projects, than if standard print films were used.

Fixafilm worked with a restoration supervising and research company, the Digital Film Repository in Poland, to find all the materials and help put the story accurately back together. The re-assembly edit itself was done in-house working alongside director Andrzej Wajda.

Restored Frame - Copyright Zebra Film Studio
Restored Frame - Copyright Zebra Film Studio

We spoke to director Andrzej Wajda about his recollections of filming POPIOLY and his thoughts on the restoration.

 

Production did not present many challenges because I had ample time to shoot. I had worked with this crew many times before, they helped with everything. Unfortunately, there were no chances to make this movie in Spain and I had to settle for mountains in Bulgaria instead.

Polish and Bulgarian troops did the battle scenes, and soldiers of course always preferred working on the set than regular military exercises. As a result, they were grateful and devoted extras.

When I faced epic scenes with French Army, I did not have enough costumes. Fortunately, Sergei Bondarchuk, who happened to be working on War and Peace at the same time, loaned those costumes to our crew.

I appreciate the opportunity to revisit a film from the past, restoration and refreshing of movies makes them immortal and this is wonderful because it allows them to come back after having been almost forgotten sometimes. As for the young audiences, I am not sure if restoring old movies is enough. I believe that this generation is still waiting for their own Popioly.

I was impressed by how much it was possible to clean up some of the more degraded sequences. This process is always about something more than just cleaning up the picture and sound. Thanks to restoration these movies gain new energy and they can be enjoyed by today’s audiences.

Preserving Image Quality

Restoration work began after the edit was locked and both sources digitised. To retain as much image quality as possible, Fixafilm mixed and matched their sources, saving 150 minutes of the original camera negative footage, and using only 85 minutes from the inter-positive print. “The director was involved from the very beginning,” said Wojtek. “Sadly, the DP Jerzy Lipman is no longer alive, but thePolish Society of Cinematographers found one of the original cameramen, Andrzej Kostenko, who was Jerzy Lipman’s apprentice and could oversee the grading.”

Research and restoration, partly funded by the Polish Film Institute, took five months to complete and re-editing the film took about a month. Working on the Digital Vision Nucoda Film Master for the grade and restoration, supported by the DVO restoration tools, Fixafilm completed the final conform, the deliverables, and both the re-grain and scanned grain as well as scratch and dust removal, deflicker and all the grading including a pre-grade to balance the different elements.

“The grading was very important,” Wojtek said. “We needed to match negative and, and manage and match the grain. We spent many days matching grain and grading during parts of the film. We chose the Film Master due to its flexibility and ability to do basic compositing. Our colourist, Gosia Grzyb, likes using the colour tools and finds it easy and quick to get good results. She has a design background and uses Nucoda to grade her stills as well.

The lead actor of 'Popioly', Daniel Olbrychski, speaks at the restoration's Premiere event.

Scanning to Digital

“To be able to work on the project in the Nucoda both the incomplete negative and the complete inter-positive were fully scanned. Then we generated proxy files for the editing software and compared the inter-positive to the available copies of the film. Fortunately the inter-positive was full and uncut with no missing frames.  Then we conformed all the shots from the neg to the inter-positive. At this point we had already decided that we would rather use full shots from the inter-positive. Then the resulting EDL was fed into Nucoda. Then we exported the whole movie and those were the final files that the restoration team received to work on.”

The scans were done in 4K 16-bit LOG to preserve as much as possible from the original negative and inter-positive. The pregrade was done using these 4K 16-bit log files and downscaled to ‘oversized’ 2K 10-bit (2204×1732) log files. The movie was then restored in logarithmic colour space.

The grain was first defined by watching scans of the negative, inter-positive and a positive distribution print. Andrzej Kostenko, the cameraman, decided that the negative grain looked the best, and from there the rest of the film could be matched to this. “There are basically two methods of re-graining – either by digitally generating an artificial grain structure or using a scanned grain,” Wojtek explained.

Re-graining Tools

“Scanned grain is achieved by shooting a gray plate with a regular 35mm camera with ideal lighting and exposure settings, and then scanning the film. Then a compositing software like NUKE is used to impose that grain on the footage. However, that doesn’t always look right, as the grain will be distributed evenly over the whole picture, which is not how real grain behaves. Real grain is distributed differently between highlights and shadows. So we’ve developed a much more sophisticated method that uses Nucoda’s compositing functions but allows us to have total control of the grain distribution.

“Digital Vision recently introduced a new re-graining tool that generates incredibly realistic grain and beautiful structure. It gives the user a lot of control of the grain generation process, so you can set the size and distribution scheme for each colour channel separately. It has been so successful that we don’t use the scanned grain anymore, apart from some special cases, in our new restoration projects.

“It also simplifies the workflow, allowing us to use Nucoda for the whole beauty pass and finishing stage. We also use Nucoda’s DVO Sharpen and DVO Aperture filter tools in the finishing stage but before the re-graining process. Those filters, if set properly, can greatly boost the clarity and sharpness of the image without introducing any digital artifacts like ringing. The result is an easier workflow, handled in one grading package.”

“Digital Vision recently introduced a new re-graining tool that generates incredibly realistic grain and beautiful structure. It gives the user a lot of control of the grain generation process, so you can set the size and distribution scheme for each colour channel separately. It has been so successful that we don’t use the scanned grain anymore, apart from some special cases, in our new restoration projects.

“It also simplifies the workflow, allowing us to use Nucoda for the whole beauty pass and finishing stage. We also use Nucoda’s DVO Sharpen and DVO Aperture filter tools in the finishing stage but before the re-graining process. Those filters, if set properly, can greatly boost the clarity and sharpness of the image without introducing any digital artifacts like ringing. The result is an easier workflow, handled in one grading package.”

 

Grain and Grade

Fortunately, the grain did not affect the grade significantly, due to three factors. First, the final grade is always done after the movie is restored and grain-managed, but before it is regrained. Consequently, the colours no longer flickered and the colour keys hold throughout whole shots. Also, because the movie had already been stabilized and cleaned before grading, the colourist can safely use all tracking tools.

The second factor is that fortunately in this case the negative grain was very fine and not very aggressive. The grain structure of the whole movie was matched to the negative grain, so the colourist didn’t have to struggle with coarse grain in the inter-postive. “The third and most important factor is Nucoda’s colour keying module, which is as good for grading old, grainy movies as it is for the new noisy, digital movies. The idea is simple, but very efficient and elegant – the keying module has built-in median and blur filters that allow for much more precise colour keying,” Wojtek said.

While a grading system is very important, when it comes to grading restored movies, he said that the colourist’s skills and his or her experience are what create the grade in the end. Nevertheless, he noted several other functions in the Nucoda that make it a good match for grading classic movies. “The keying module with pre-blur options make it easy to grade even a very grainy movie. Also, flexible LUT managing means that the LUT can be changed any time, switched on or off, and you can apply the LUT to the whole project or just to one clip,” Wojtek said.

Delivery

“The system has very flexible conforming and data and file managing tools. You can re-conform any footage and keep the grades, or even change the path to files and never leave the project. This allows the colourist to start the grade right after stabilization and deflickering are done, as mentioned. The colourist can also easily replace the old clips with the newest ones delivered by the restoration department. The ability to render DNxHD and ProRes files directly from Nucoda is really useful, too, and the composting tools are simple and effective enough to allow you to easily manage the grain.”

In late 2014 Fixafilm’s work on ‘Popioly’ won a Polish Film Institute Award for ‘Digital restoration of works of Polish cinema’. It has now been delivered in several different formats to distribute for cinema and home video release, including 2K DCP, 2K DCDM as 16bit linear TIFF files in the P3 colour space, and HD 16bit linear TIFF files for TV and VOD in the REC709 colour space. Two DPX 10-bit log deliverables were also prepared, either uncropped full-frame with the borders and perforation holes, or panned, scanned and cropped in 2Kx4K to match the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.www.digitalvision.tv

 

Images: copyright Zebra Film Studio

www.fixafilm.com