Risen from the ashes

Founded in 2012, Warsaw-based Fixafilm is a relative newcomer to the world of film restoration, although the company has already built a reputation for completing high-profile restorations on a tight schedule. At the recent Gdynia Film Festival, Fixafilm founders Wojtek Janio and Lukasz Ceranka were presented with an award for their restoration of director Andrzej Wajda's 1965 epic POPIOŁY (THE ASHES) by the Polish Film Institute, which funded the restoration in partnership with PKN Orlen and rights-holder ZEBRA Film Studio. Here, Janio and Ceranka discuss how ARRISCAN archive tools including the Wet Gate allowed them to assemble a clean, visually consistent movie from the damaged and disparate surviving film materials.

The restoration process is about more than just cleaning up the picture and sound, it is about giving movies new energy so they can be enjoyed by today's audiences.

What is POPIOŁY about and why was it selected for restoration?


Wojtek Janio: It was selected because Andrzej Wajda is a respected international director and he is still active, so was able to provide input during the restoration. The film is about a very specific and dark chapter in Polish history, when this country fought alongside Napoleon in a bid to regain its freedom. They didn't have a big budget for the movie so they had to shoot on black-and-white film stock instead of color, but it was recognized as an important Polish production and was screened at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.


What film materials were available for you to work with?


Lukasz Ceranka: It's a long movie, almost four hours, but before it was sent to Cannes the communist government of that time re-edited it down to slightly less than three hours, discarding all the politically sensitive scenes. Unfortunately they cut the original camera negative for this re-edit, so we had the short version on the original negative but we only had the full-length version as an interpositive print. 

WJ: Some shots were literally cut in half and we realized that it wouldn't look good to mix the original negative and the interpositive within a single shot. Even if you try to match the grain and the grade, the resolution is very different and the audience would notice, so for shots that had been partially edited out we used only the interpositive for the restoration. Occasionally there were just one or two missing frames at the end of a shot on the negative, which happened because of editing techniques at the time; in these situations we restored only those frames and used the negative for the rest of the shot, because the human eye doesn't register a change to the final frames of a shot in the same way as it notices changes halfway through.

What about the actual condition of the different film materials?

WJ: There was a big problem with flicker on both the negative and the interpositive. This can happen as a result of storage conditions over a 50-year period; if you have a can of film on a shelf against the wall, the side by the wall might be a bit colder and therefore fade in a different way, which causes flickering when you run the film. It could also be that the wrong chemicals were used to develop the film in the first place, potentially meaning that the negative was not chemically stable when it went into storage. 

LC: Another difficulty was that there were a few shots where the camera negative had clearly been lost during the original edit, so they'd had to use the daily rushes to fill in those bits. The quality was really bad because the rushes would have been hurriedly printed with a one-light setting, so a duplicate negative created from that can only be poor. To match these different elements we digitally removed the heavy dirt and black spots caused by the bad rushes printing, and we also had to manipulate the aggressive grain of the negative.

Doesn't that mean you were making the film even cleaner that it was at the time of its original release?

WJ: Yes, but does the goal of every restoration have to be to get the film as close as possible to the state in which it was premiered, or first projected? Archivists work from original camera negative whenever possible, which has a totally different grain structure to a print taken from it. The print seen at a premiere would be dense, with lower definition and less grain, so working from original camera negative immediately distances you from the look of what was originally seen by audiences. 

The big advantage of the Wet Gate is that in one pass you can fix a lot of problems organically that would be very difficult and time-consuming to fix digitally.

LC: One argument is that restoration gives filmmakers the chance to create what they would ideally like to have shown on the day of original release, even though they couldn't do it at the time. The ethics are tricky and there's no right answer. Our approach in Poland is to scan everything in 4K and archive it, and then to create a new version that has been digitally cleaned as well as possible, mostly to attract young viewers who are used to modern images.


For this job you used the Wet Gate on the ARRISCAN for the first time; why was that?


LC:  There were several reasons: the Wet Gate gets rid of a lot of scratches and a lot of dirt, and it also reduces localized flicker caused by bacteria eating the emulsion in some parts of the frame but not others, which is really hard to remove with digital tools. The big advantage of the Wet Gate is that in one pass you can fix a lot of problems organically that would be very difficult and time-consuming to fix digitally. 

WJ: When we did a comparison test between a one-light scan on another machine and a Wet Gate scan with the ARRISCAN, the difference was just amazing and we knew straight away that we had to use the Wet Gate. We turned to WFDiF, a company that owns an ARRISCAN with Wet Gate; they did a beautiful scan for us and they did it incredibly fast. We were supposed to do this job in three months, but all the problems with the different film materials lost us time and in the end we had to do it in less than two months. If we hadn't scanned everything with the Wet Gate, we would have been in trouble. 

Did Andrzej Wajda actually attend the restoration?

LC: We worked with Mr Wajda on a direct basis for the grading of the film. He really liked what we had done with the image and he appreciated the fact that we could clean up the bits of rushes cut into the negative, because he regretted them getting lost in the first place. The cinematographer is no longer alive but his assistant is, so he helped us as well.

WJ: In Poland if the original cinematographer of a film cannot be there to advise during a restoration, then the Polish Society of Cinematographers designates someone else to do it. In this case it was the camera operator on POPIOŁY, Andrzej Kostenko, who is good friends with Mr Wajda and was able to call him with questions. For example you sometimes couldn't tell from the negative whether a scene should be graded for day or night, because they had originally shot day-for-night, but Mr Wajda was able to provide guidance on that. It was great to have both of them involved in the process.