Issue #200           HOME          E-mail:        BACK ISSUES        February 23rd, 2004

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Cleaning the Classics

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 stain filters.

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 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 been problematic?

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 gimmickry.

Special thanks to Michael Lam for his generous participation.

For those interested in actually seeing how digital video restoration is performed, all titles in The Jess Franco DVD Collection from Swiss distributor VIP include an excellent documentary showing how the original negative for Franco's film JACK THE RIPPER was painstakingly restored. Each step shown in detail.

All images included in this issue are courtesy of Intercontinental Video Ltd. To read the captions, hover mouse over image.

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