Little grey cells

First broadcast on ITV in 1989, POIROT is an enduringly popular mainstay of British television, faithfully relating Agatha Christie's novels and short stories about Hercule Poirot, the mannered, irritating, but brilliant Belgian private detective. Originally filmed on 16 mm and broadcast from standard definition masters, the first six series of the program were ripe for digital restoration and HD remastering, a task that ITV Studios Global Entertainment assigned to JCA in London. Matt Bowman, Commercial Director at JCA, spoke with ARRI News about the role the ARRISCAN and ARRI Wet Gate played in that process.

The ARRISCAN's particular strength, for our needs, was the way it handled the registration of the joins.

ARRI News: Did you specifically buy your ARRISCAN for archive and restoration work?

 

Matt Bowman: Restoration was definitely the market we were focusing on. There's been a little bit of overspill into new films, but on the whole we're a restoration facility and so we already had the work. We used to service this type of project by doing high definition telecine transfers to HDCAM SR and then converting to a DPX sequence, but clients became more sophisticated and wanted data backup files, which moved us towards a scanning process.

 

Our clients were also starting to push for very tight deadlines. In the past for restoration projects we've usually had a good few weeks to turn around a single program, but when we were negotiating with ITV Studios Global Entertainment about restoring POIROT it was clear that we'd be working to a transmission schedule. We had to aggressively pursue a workflow that would let us deliver at least one 50-minute program per week from 16 mm A and B-roll cut neg. The net result was that we decided to invest in a scanner, so we tested literally all of them with the same piece of film from our source material.

 

AN: Why was the ARRISCAN chosen over other scanners?

 

MB: By its very nature, 16 mm has stability issues because the joins hop as they go through the gate. We liked the ARRISCAN for a lot of reasons: we liked the way it was engineered and the way it looked, the kudos of being best-of-breed and we were intrigued by the ARRI Wet Gate because we come from a telecine background and are very comfortable with wet gate systems. But the ARRISCAN's particular strength, for our needs, was the way it handled the registration of the joins, because it dealt with them uniformly. With all the other scanners we tested we had to fix each of the thousand hopping joins per program manually, but with the ARRISCAN we created a fix plate and applied that to every single cut, saving a great deal of time.

AN: How did you prepare yourselves for the hectic pace of the POIROT restoration?

MB: We actually began by working on SHARPE'S RIFLES (1993), which was for the same client but driven by a Blu-ray release rather than a transmission schedule, so the timeline was less critical. That allowed us to refine the workflow and get it quicker, putting us in a position to do the 55 episodes of POIROT. We had proven how quickly we could do them without compromising at all on quality, because ITV Studios Global Entertainment's QC requirements are extremely stringent. Scanning at Super 2K and then down-converting to 2K for the digital restoration helped us maintain that level of quality.

AN: With such a fast turnover of episodes, could damage to the film materials upset your schedule?

MB: It was really tricky. You never know what you're getting until you see it, so committing to a schedule in advance is brave. There were instances where we found that material was missing, for example if an episode had won an award at some point, the neg might have been pulled and shots taken out for a screening. If those trims didn't get put back in the reel, then we'd find holes in the material. In the worst case you might have to up-res the standard definition original to fill the gaps. We also came across physical damage, such as images that are completely torn in half, right in the middle of a scene. That meant we had to piece it back together, paint it all out, stabilize it and clean it up.

There was an instance where we had to use the Wet Gate because there was some severe scratching.

AN: Were you using your ARRI Wet Gate on this job, or other dust-busting tools?

 

MB: We don't use the Wet Gate as standard, we wait until we've seen the material because the work is so specialized. If we find something we think will benefit from a wet scan then we'll go and talk with the client; it's our responsibility to show due care and get approval for every process used. On POIROT there was an instance where we had to use the Wet Gate because there was some severe scratching down one side of the film, going right across skin tones. The Wet Gate proved invaluable for getting rid of those scratches.

 

We also have the infrared option with our ARRISCAN [Kodak Digital ICE Technology] and we use it all the time. We slow the scan down a bit to get the dirt maps, which we import directly into the digital restoration area. Through experience we're now very competent at knowing what we can and cannot remove, because with infrared you have to be careful about highlights; if there was a small candle flickering in the corner of the frame it might be seen as dirt and eliminated. Like with everything, the kit is only as good as your operator's eye and his ability to manage the asset as well as possible.

AN: What other challenges did you face on this restoration?

MB: During the era when these programs were made it was normal to transfer to tape and then put the effects on in post, which meant we had to recreate those effects because they don't exist on the negative. One of the things you have to be aware of when trying to unlock value from a back catalogue is the nature of the show; if it was CGI-heavy then you're not going to have any CGI plates in the right resolution and re-doing visual effects is very expensive. That's why programs like POIROT are being chosen, because they're not visual effects-heavy.

AN: Has the original aspect ratio of the program been maintained?

MB: POIROT was shot on standard 16 mm rather than Super 16, so we didn't have the extra width in the frame and that led us to maintain the original 4:3 aspect ratio. Other 16 mm programs we've worked on were shot later, when Super 16 became the norm, and Super 16 lends itself much better to 16:9 HD broadcasting.

AN: In terms of the digital restoration, what has to be done to 16 mm material when the client wants to repurpose it for HD broadcast?

MB: We go through a number of processes. The start point is obviously getting the material scanned and assembled; after that we do the auto dirt pass using infrared plates. Then we set up an automated, non-destructive restorative pass-by on a scene-by-scene alignment, going through the whole program and effectively creating an EDL of how much processing power to apply to each shot. Once the auto passes have been completed and reviewed, we begin manual passes on stuff that wasn't possible to pick up automatically. At the preview viewing my head of restoration will allocate any particularly problematic scenes to senior artists, who use various different software solutions to rebuild damaged frames.

After that we use the ARRI Relativity [now Dark Energy from Cinnafilm] software as our grain treatment, sitting down with the client to find the best possible settings. Effectively what we do is remove the 16 mm grain and put in 35 mm grain, which makes it gentler on the eye and maintains detail. Some of the POIROT Blu-ray reviews have been outstanding in terms of feedback from viewers about how they found the experience compared to other restoration processes.

AN: After working on 55 hours of content, your team must have become world experts on POIROT.

MB: Well fortunately for my chief restoration artist, POIROT was his favorite TV series. At the end of the job we took 30 people from the company out to dinner, and he turned up dressed as Hercule Poirot, so calling us a tad geeky about the program would probably be entirely reasonable!

AN: Do you think the success of this project could see more classic, film-originated TV dramas being restored and repurposed for modern distribution channels?

MB: I certainly hope so. For years I ran a film lab in London and in those days we were doing 15 dramas shot on Super 16 every night of the week, so there's a huge catalogue of material out there that is suitable for HD repurposing. The other thing that people forget is that there's an awful lot of 35 mm-originated TV drama that hasn't yet been remastered. Super 16 was primarily used in the 1980s and 1990s, but before that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, series were quite often shot on 35 mm.

Anything that was captured on tape has limited resolution at source, but anything captured on film retains the resolution to exist in the high definition domain. Revisiting an already popular series is an awful lot cheaper than shooting something new, so we're seeing a wealth of this approach from ITV and other broadcasters. They're all looking back at their catalogues because with the broadcast channels having such a high demand for HD-originated material, you can't make the content quickly enough. Going back and unlocking the value of those historic assets is far more cost effective and of course you know you'll have an audience because of the existing fan base. 

AN: What other restoration projects is JCA involved in?

MB: We're working on a lot of different types of project at the moment, with some exciting things coming up. Recently we've been remastering various classic British films for Film4, including BRASSED OFF (1996) and RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO! (1987).