Remastering Old Work

About 5 years ago I was helping my parents clean out my childhood home when I came across a collection of VHS tapes. With no VHS deck in their house, I loaded the tapes into my car and brought them back to work where I had access to a deck. Most of the tapes were what you would expect – birthday parties, Christmas morning, school concerts, etc. But there was one tape that I was a little confused by. It was a 30 second tourism video for Franklin County, NY.

I asked my parents why they had such a video, and they mentioned that they were actually in the commercial. Sure enough, I queued up to the last shot of the spot and there they were. Pretty fun to see.

The footage was in awful shape. The audio was warped and distorted, the footage had tracking lines all over it, and everything seemed blurry. It looked as though it had been dubbed over several times – which was pretty typical for that kind of material. Once I realized there was some relevance to this commercial, it got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could remaster this footage?

I knew that this commercial was created by an advertising agency out of Lake Placid, NY because the countdown slate was still attached to the video. I recognized the agency because a childhood friends’ father worked there when we were kids. So I called him up and he got me the contact info for the agency. When I called them up, they directed me to the founder of the company who knew the exact job I was referring to. He told me that they shot all the material on 16mm back in the summer of 1989. They did not have the film anymore, unfortunately. But they did have the next best thing. The original film to tape transfer. The film was thrown out years ago.

So they sent me the original 3/4 tape and I dusted off our old deck at work. It took a little bit of work to get it up and running again, but I eventually got there. I captured the entire tape while bumping the image up to 1080 pillar-boxed via our old school Teranex. It was really fun to see the transfer footage as it reminded me of when I first started out in the telecine bay.

Once I had everything captured as a 1080 Quicktime I ingested the :30 commercial from the VHS tape. And while referencing the spot, I sorted through the newly acquired footage and eye matched the edit. Shot for shot. Frame for frame.

I debated reframing for 16×9, but it just didn’t feel the same. Too much information was getting lost on the top and bottom of the frame. So I decided to keep it at the intended 4×3 ratio. The quality of the material looked way better, but the deinterlacing was still pretty distracting. That’s not something that we really have to deal with anymore these days, but was pretty common back in the days of standard definition. Basically the film was shot at 24 fps but to go on TV it had to be 29.97 fps. As an over simplified explanation, extra frames were blended into the material in order to get there. That’s the comb-like effect that you see on older footage from time to time. The technical term is called “pull-down”.

But since I had the first generation of the film transfer I could reverse the 3:2 pull-down. Basically, I had to find the cadence of the extra frames on each shot. Once I found that, I could automate the pull down removal for that shot. The result was a much cleaner, less jittery image.

Once I had all the technical stuff taken care of I did my best to tidy up the color. It was quite limited considering the material was sourced from 3/4 tape rather than 16mm, but I was still able to get something out of it. I would have loved to have been able to scan the 16mm for a real remastering, but unfortunately this was the best I could get. Which was still pretty crazy considering this was shot back in 1989. And for the final visual cherry on top, I did my best to mimic the original graphics and fonts.

In terms of audio, everything was shot MOS. So I had nothing to work with. I’m lucky enough to work in tandem with a audio facility that was able to do a music search that matched the vibe of the commercial and then they did some ADR work on the one line the woman delivers. Here is the final result…

Now, I know this all seems quite excessive for a home video, but I promise there is a reason for me drawing this out in detail.

I have always been fascinated by remastering work. This project was an experiment for me to see if I could do it and to see what it would take to do it well. Ideally, at some point, I want to do this with the music videos that I grew up with. Think late 80s and early 90s MTV. Classic, high end music videos. There are so many great videos out there that could be brought back to life with a freshly scanned negative and clean color grade. I would want to keep the creative intent of the edit intact, but use today’s technology to give it an updated polish. Little did I know this was done back in 2016 by The Mill on an Oasis music video. This was the best link I could find that shows the two videos against each other but the old version is obviously stretched.

As you can see, the results are pretty impressive. A much sharper image with a really nice, clean grade. The biggest challenge would be obtaining the original negative. But if that could be tracked down, then I see no reason why there couldn’t be effective results.

As I started to do a little more research and dig a little deeper into this type of work I found that some classic commercials have been also been remastered. One stuck out to me in particular just because it was such an iconic campaign.

Nobody can deny that the images look better, but the real challenge would be finding a market for the material and a way to monetize it. One thing to take into account is it could be a great way to archive media that may never see the light of day again. There is a certain shelf life to film and this would be a great excuse to digitally archive it.

The trick with remastering work like this is that it is a painstakingly detailed process. There are a lot of things to consider and a fine line between recreating the image and keeping the original intent of the piece. If too much of the process becomes automated or isn’t monitored closely enough there can be some pretty tough results. Although I never watched the show, I found this video quite interesting.

This is a totally different line of work than my normal day to day color correction, but it really fascinates me. I really like to see how old material can be brought back to life. How to pursue this avenue of work, I’m not too sure. But I think it would be a very rewarding aspect of the job and incredibly fun to see the results.

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