Shortly after I reviewed
THE SHADOW WHIP in issue #195,
I received the following letter from a gentleman named Michael Lam:
I actually worked on the restoration
of THE SHADOW WHIP and I can confirm those comments that you made
about the stains and, of course, some of the blurriness as well.
This was one of the first films I helped restore and it was one
of the toughest. The staining was unbelievable (not as bad as the
original MR. FUNNYBONE movie but still very bad). I don't know how
Shaw Brothers kept their films (maybe in a wooden shack without
any cooling) because many of the films I helped out on were hopeless
until now. The newer titles have been transferred using better green
I asked Michael a few
questions about the restoration process these films are undergoing
and he was kind enough to let me post his answers here...
HKD: Michael, could you tell us
a bit about what you do and how one comes to be in this line of work?
Michael: At first, I was a
small time video editor editing short movies for friends and a small
business in the United States. I wanted a change, so I moved to Hong
Kong. Apparently, you need no experience in the restoration business
since all the machinery is new. There is no way you could have had
too much experience with the machines since there are only about 15
companies in the world using them. So, you get taught on the job.
Obviously, knowing a bit about film and video will help but, when
I joined, many of the people there had almost no experience in film
and video and the manager who was hired later didn't even know what
a Digital Beta tape was!
HKD: How was your company chosen
for this restoration work?
Michael: The company is actually
Shaw Brothers. Celestial hired Shaw to restore the films themselves.
Celestial paid an estimated US$80 Million, I believe, for the entire
Shaw library of 700+ films. Shaw agreed to restore them in accordance
with Celestial's quality checks.
HKD: In general, how would
you rate the condition of the SB negatives? Have they done a good
job preserving them?
Michael: About half the films
were in great condition. However, there is no actual way to determine
where they kept them and how, or why certain negatives were dirtier
than bums on the street while others were in pristine condition. For
example, with THE MONKEY GOES WEST (I believe this is the title -
forgive me, it has been awhile since I've worked there), almost the
entire film was in great condition except for one reel. That one reel
we had to fix turned out pretty crappy. MR. FUNNYBONE could not be
restored until they acquired better green stain filters and, even
then, it's still in terrible shape. I was no longer there once they
came up with that new filter but my friends who still worked there
had to redo it several times before Celestial gave it even an acceptable
score. Mostly, the films are in okay shape but some reels were just
in horrid condition, THE SHADOW WHIP being one of them. Some of the
frames jump and the negative was torn, so on and so forth. On the
other hand, some of their films were in great condition and almost
no work was required.
HKD: What is involved in removing
or otherwise disguising damage like scratches, speckles, or stains?
Michael: Speckles are quite
easy. If you were on a standard definition film, then we had a few
ways of handling if before Da Vinci (a Florida-based post-production
company whose website can be found at www.davsys.com)
just took the idea and made a one button process. It simply blurs
the picture and the speckles disappear. Celestial didn't notice this
at first but, after a bit, they realized that they were losing picture
quality. Not much but, if the process was used too much, then the
blurring could be quite noticeable.
HKD: This explains why several
reviewers (myself included) have complained that some of Celestial's
16:9 transfers look like upconverted 4:3. They lack the crispness
one expects from an anamorphic presentation.
Michael: Scratches were easy
as well unless there was a lot of background action (and you do know
that the Shaw Brothers library is FULL of kung fu films where people
just jump and dance around the enemy creating a commotion). There
was a tool on the tablet that allowed you to create a square around
what you wanted to get rid of. It would take the majority of the black
pixels and make that area black or, if the scratch was on red, then
it would make it red. It was a very nice tool to have.
The worst thing to happen to Shaw
films were stains. The worst kind of stain that I had to handle while
there were blue vertical lines traveling left and right on the screen.
The Revival system we used gave us the option to reveal behind to
a clean frame or in front to a clean frame as a reference. Kind of
like using a rubber stamp tool in Adobe Photoshop but there is no
need to press a bunch of buttons to achieve the cover. It was nice
but useless if each frame in front and behind had stains. You had
to use the square selection tool designed for scratch and dust stains
to remove what you could to get rid of the staining. Sometimes it
worked and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes an entire reel had to be
redone. Three months into the work, Da Vinci came up with that green
stain filter but it took five minutes for each stain removal. That's
a long time to wait to see if it MIGHT work! The vertical lines were
easy if the picture was still. If the camera was panning or tilting
or moving in any way...well, you get the picture. Not fun.
HKD: Have any particular films
Michael: THE SHADOW WHIP, MR.
FUNNYBONE, and THE THREE SMILES. The latter was one of the most difficult
films I've ever seen. Instead of a vertical line, imagine white dots
in a column about three to four dots wide and then have this column
moving left and right while the camera is also moving with the actors
- also, not fun! Those are the ones that stand out in my mind. I even
have a list of all the films I had a hand in. It was fun for awhile
there. REALLY FUN.
HKD: Can you comment at all
on the Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mixes that have been added to some of
the films? I'm guessing that you were not involved in the creation
of these, yes? A lot of collectors (at least here in the West) seem
to be quite unhappy with them, particularly by the way that supposedly
ambient sounds (like insects) have been greatly increased in volume.
Michael: Strangely enough,
Celestial asked Shaw to redo all the sound as well BUT the audio cleaners
only removed crackles or any high treble noise, pops, and other anonymous
noises. As a matter of fact, the sound that is on the track you hear
is not the track that the Shaw Brothers staff has re-done. Celestial
had someone else re-do the sound because the sound editing system
and processing might have been different with the Dolby 5.1 and the
Shaw facilities may not have been able to handle that. I am just guessing
on this but there is a fairly good chance that's why. I would assume
that some of the viewers might find extra noise around them would
add to the experience but I guess according to your comment about
the buyers being unhappy, this is not the case. Is there any reason
why they don't like the extra sounds?
HKD: The new sound FX that
have been added are almost always too crisp and prominent in the mix.
Basically, this layered on foley (particularly chirping birds) sticks
out like a sore thumb and works against the restoration of these films
to their original state.
Michael: That's a shame about
the sound but some of the movies I've bought myself for sentimental
reasons were left in mono.
HKD: Fortunately, they are
now leaving a few more in their original state without the six channel
Special thanks to Michael Lam for
his generous participation.