Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spot Scanning Silliness

So I had a really great opportunity to see the inner-workings of one of the busiest and most respectable film labs in the country earlier this week. I won't divulge the gory details - you guys know I never do by now, sorry - but it was a lot of fun seeing the photo-chemical labs, the digital film printers, the DI theaters, film restorationists at work cleaning scratches... all the stuff I've studied from afar, and finally had a chance to see going on at the highest level with my own two eyes. I had a lot of fun, and I can only thank the new friend I've made for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to give me and the missus a tour.

There was one thing he mentioned that's stuck in my ear like an errant brainworm, though, something I'll try to paraphrase as best I can without context or having taken notes;

"This particular Telecine is a CCD scanner, so it uses different technology from the flying spot scanners over there. Yes, the CCD tech is newer, but a lot of clients don't like the 'sharpened look', and they actually request we use the CRT based machines instead. It's sort of like how some people prefer the sound of vinyl over CD, you know?"

Another thing he pointed out is the difference between "Telecine" and "Scanning". This may sound unimportant at first, but by definition a Telecine is a real-time output, typically to tape, while a Scan is typically a slower process. More importantly, scanning ALSO typically implies higher resolutions, better light output resulting in less signal noise, constant (and sometimes optically enhanced) 4-pin registration to prevent stability errors, and a higher tolerance to things like surface scratches, splice related judder, vertical artifacting, and a host of other nasty analog-to-digital issues I always seem to find and then complain about. Obviously these examples have to be taken for the propaganda that they are, but Lasergraphics has some fairly convincing arguments for 11fps scanning being far preferable to real-time 24fps telecine, even when using the same basic CCD technology.

So every "New" HD transfer made in the last couple years is a 'scan', right? Nope, not even when it comes to brand new productions that were clearly put together on a Digital Intermediate. There's technically nothing stopping a content provider from requesting a real-time telecine and then having that HD video converted back to DPX images for a Digital Intermediate editing workflow... which is exactly what some providers do. And I know they do because I've spoken to the guys actually in charge of restoring those materials - though, admittedly, that's another guy entirely. Keep in mind this miniature revalation was from the mouth of a guy working at a world famous lab that caters to some of Hollywood's biggest studios - if they have a sliding scale on how 'good' your films can look based on how much time you want to take and money you want to spend, perhaps it's not especially surprising that small, independent labs can't always push out "A+" efforts with decade old hardware.

I was also thrilled to hear a colorist use the word "Intent" when discussing how they go about their job when there's no real point of reference worth mentioning. Absolutely everything they do is approved by someone given the full authority to approve or deny the process, but when extensive restoration is required, a new transfer might take several weeks, or even months. Suddenly, the "Director Approved" banner takes a proper context; unless they're OCD control freaks with literally nothing better to do they basically watch the first draft, give the colorist some notes, get back to work and then come back in whenever those notes have been followed. They may come back a few times to ensure that everything's fine, but hey, when you're still working on new projects how anal are you going to be about something you made 30 years ago? This explains how we have masterpiece transfers like The Evil Dead and Taxi Driver, weak entries like Dracula and Suspiria, and everything else in between - sometimes even great transfers destroyed by their creators, like The French Connection, or to a lesser degree The Holy Mountain.

That all doesn't make shoddy work acceptable, but it's still good to know HOW it happens anyway. A proper restoration isn't unattainable for any film with a surviving camera negative, it just requires properly maintained and high quality hardware, a staff that knows what they're doing, and a budget to fuel the both of them and keep them focused on doing the best they can with the best they have. Knowing that some directors or producers literally shoot themselves in the foot by using lower quality methods honestly makes my head spin, but... I guess that's all a part of the approval process, isn't it? 

1 comment:

LoBo said...