The Color of Stock

For historical purists, the idea of using modern techniques to enhance or alter archive footage - particularly for non-fiction programming - is anathema. But as technology drives the push for `bigger, better, and brighter,' most doc-makers are willing to concede the...
November 1, 1999

For historical purists, the idea of using modern techniques to enhance or alter archive footage – particularly for non-fiction programming – is anathema. But as technology drives the push for `bigger, better, and brighter,’ most doc-makers are willing to concede the necessity of at least cleaning up historical stock images, and some are pushing the envelope as far as colorizing and adding digital graphics.

Of course, the debate over whether to tamper with the footage (and to what extent) becomes moot if the film has not been properly preserved. That stewardship rests largely with the stock houses, where such relatively modern innovations as video have proven to be both a blessing and a curse.

As a broadcast future full of high definition film and DVDs looms, the pressure’s on for historical docs to shake off at least some of the dust (both figuratively and literally) in order to maintain a presence.

Black and white and shades of grey

Jeff Martin, supervising producer at Chicago-based Towers Productions (The History Channel’s Wrath of God series, A&E’s American Justice), is on board regarding the removal of irritating dust and scratches from historical archive images, but draws the line at colorizing. ‘I am very wary of doing anything to footage that is not going to make it easier on the eye and clearer. Archive footage is a historical document,’ he says. ‘You want it to look as good as possible, but you don’t want to start manipulating it in any way that might distort the truth of it.’

Nowadays, most film is cleaned up during the transfer process to video master. ‘It’s a lot easier to clean up things like sparkle, negative dirt, scratches and tracks when you’re taking it from film and putting it on tape,’ explains Martin, who once worked for a stock house.

Bill McClane, a director/producer with New York-based Atlas Media, agrees with Martin about colorizing. ‘It’s very expensive,’ he says. ‘And you’re guessing at the historical accuracy of your colors. I think there’s a slight integrity issue there…. Color is a very powerful tool in creating a lasting memory, and you have to be careful with it.’

A better route, says McClane, who has spent the last five years working on such light historical programs as Royal Families of the World (13 x 30-minutes) and America Drinks (a two-hour special), is to dig around in unconventional sources, to find footage no one else has. ‘We try to find [rarely seen] material for almost everything we do. It allows us to show the audience things they have never seen, [footage] that was filmed and stuck away in a vault somewhere 50 years ago. If you dig hard enough, you’ll find it.’

McClane is willing to invest in cleaning up and transferring new-found archive footage, and considers it money well spent. He estimates the cost at anywhere from US$50 to $400 per hour, depending on whether it’s a one-light, three-light or supervised transfer. ‘That [footage] becomes a commodity in itself, because there’s a look at history that nobody’s ever seen.’

Color your world…

For Steven Lewis, an executive producer at L.A.-based Mandalay Media Arts, the advantage of colorized archive footage versus the original black and white is like the difference between a real memory and the memory of a photograph.

With that attitude in mind, Lewis says 35-40% of Mandalay’s upcoming 8 x 60-minute World War II HD series, The Color of War, will be colorized (see Sidebar). ‘We thought long and hard about the editorial and moral issues, and decided the material would have been shot in color if the technology had been available at the time,’ he says. ‘And as long as we are historically accurate and put on the right colors, we have no problem with that.’

The US$1 million series is currently in pre-production, and Lewis says he doesn’t expect shooting to start before summer 2000. The search for, and acquisition of, footage is time-consuming. As Lewis explains, ‘We are looking for the most pristine negatives that we possibly can…. There’s so much inferior product, and it doesn’t make sense to go through the time, effort and money that it costs to do it on anything less than the best material we can find.’

Once Lewis and his team settle on the images, the colorization process can go ahead – at a hefty price. Lewis estimates the cost to be around $4,000 per minute, but he figures the expense is worth it over the long-run. ‘Our feeling is that the shelf-life for a program like this will be far longer than the way programming is being done now,’ he says, and adds that he believes broadcasters will be less and less likely to want black-and-white fare as they try to attract viewers who have only ever experienced color TV and film.

The 3-D Effect

Colorization isn’t the only way to manipulate historical archive footage. Layering digital graphics onto stock images, particularly maps, produces a 3-D effect that has gained favor with some doc-makers. Ken Maliphant, managing director of London-based Lamancha Productions, says his company has used the technique for segments of Battlefield – a four 6 x 120-minute series, three of which focus on World War II battles, and one of which centers on the Vietnamese conflict.

‘On [Battlefield]Vietnam, for example, we spent a long time and a lot of research producing a graphic representation in 3-D of the entire map of Vietnam,’ Maliphant says. ‘The Vietnamese villages and the tunnels were also done in a graphical way. We even re-constructed a North Vietnamese village.’

Lamancha does the graphics for its series in-house (with the help of graphics designer Greg Moodie), a process involving a combination of masking, keying and mixing. The estimated cost is about 40% of Battlefield’s average £70,000 (US$115,000) per hour budget.

Battlefield producer Dave Flitton (formerly of Lamancha, now of Malin Film and Television in Donegal, Ireland) feels the use of graphics on the series helps distinguish it from other history programs out there. ‘One historical program can begin to look very like another because archive tends to look the same,’ he says. ‘So, the first challenge was we had to keep people watching. The second challenge was how to stamp on an identity – our identity – as storymakers. And that’s what the use of graphics allowed us to do.’

Flitton acknowledges that graphic overlays don’t come cheap, chiefly due to the standard demanded by viewers. ‘Their expectations have been informed by very sophisticated computer gaming, as well as television. And if they’re playing a 64-bit game on the latest Playstation or something, they’re really seeing some quality. TV has to work fairly hard to keep up with that.’

But, he adds that the technology is gradually becoming more accessible to producers. ‘As people’s expectations are rising, the producers’ access to very powerful graphics technology is also improving. So, perhaps those two things are keeping pace.’

Preservation before anything

Twenty-five years ago, if a producer wanted to include a piece of archive footage in his film, the process was daunting. In each case, the original footage had to be duped and a new print had to be made. On top of that, film originally shot at 16 or 18 frames/sec had to be transferred at 24 frames/sec, producing the jerky movements viewers are accustomed to seeing in old movies. But the age of video mastering has changed all of that.

Not only are archives more accessible on video, they also look better. ‘We transfer at the original rate, so if it was shot at 16 or 18, we transfer it at 16 or 18,’ says Matthew White, president of the Chicago-based WPA Library. ‘It gives a very natural movement for material from the turn of the century, or the teens and ’20s.’ (Thanks to video, WPA has D2 masters of the British Pathe news archive in its own library.)

Of course, the long-term reliability of video has not been proven. ‘The only absolutely 100% guaranteed archive format is film,’ says Peter Fydler, commercial manager at British Pathe. ‘A lot of early ’70s and even early ’80s video is utterly redundant now. It’s all basically welded together and unseeable, whereas most film has survived at least twice that period.’

Most reputable stock suppliers keep the original film footage in climate-controlled storage (50ûF and humidity-free). ‘If they’re not properly stored, you will develop problems, either decomposing or what is called vinegar syndrome,’ says Mark Heller, president of New York-based stock supplier Streamline. Heller describes vinegar syndrome (named for the smell of decomposing film) as ‘a cancer that can spread. So that’s why, if you keep it in [plastic] cans, the air won’t go from one film to another.’

Nitrate film, which was popular until the 1950s, requires even more particular care. ‘It was a potentially explosive chemical format, so that there have been some very notorious nitrate explosions and nitrate fires that have destroyed a large amount of film,’ White explains. Fydler notes that the U.K. has strict regulation about nitrate. ‘I don’t think you’re allowed to store more than 500 cans in one space, and it has to be specifically designed space.’

Where does the future lie? The Internet, says White. ‘We’re going through a process where a serious amount of footage will be compressed into digital files and streamed on the Web. Through that process, customers will be able to preview samples of our material on-line.’


From pastel tones to technicolor

Post-production houses, such as Hollywood-based Cerulean Digital Color and Animation, are the ones to call to implement footage colorization. ‘The only limitation we have is what kind of grey scale is available,’ says Tracy Pearce, Cerulean’s director of production. ‘If something is shot with black and white film, and archival footage is typically black and white, then it’s going to have a very limited grey scale.’

Pearce explains that since color cannot be added to either pure black or pure white, it’s all of the grey tones in between that provide access to a color palette. ‘We find with archival footage, going for a limited, subtle, palette tends to give it a timeless feel.’

Mandalay Media Arts in L.A. and Cerulean have already had discussions about the color treatment for The Color of War. Since Mandalay will be transferring footage from 35mm to HD for the series, Pearce says he’ll likely have a bit more leeway with the grey scale. ‘In the transfer from 35mm to HD, we’ll try to match the grey levels between two different shots because one shot might be very light in grey values and the other might be very dark.’ He notes that only the mid-range grey tones and black levels can be adjusted during the transfer.

The next step is to pull frames from each of the shots, which will be used as the basis for the original palette of colors. Employing Cerulean’s proprietary software, Pearce says staffers start at the back level of each frame (i.e. the sky, hills in the background) and work forward, first drawing a polygon around each element then filling in the colors.

In Pearce’s experience, one of the most useful aspects of the software is the histogram, which indicates the grey values available within a polygon. ‘Let’s say we have an outdoor shot, and it’s a tree, but you can see the blue sky through the branches,’ he says.’ We can draw one polygon around the top of the tree, where all the leaves are, and call up the histogram. The histogram will show us the grey levels – and usually the leaves will be darker and the sky will be lighter. We can tell the computer, or the histogram, that anything at the dark range of grey we want to make green, and anything that’s lighter we want to make blue. So, it separates out.’

Once the client approves those frames, the rest of the film can be colorized. ‘We’ll take those stills and drop that color information into the full shot,’ explains Pearce. Animators are responsible for re-positioning the polygons on a frame by frame basis, if a shot has movement, like walking or dancing. For a project as extensive as The Color of War, Pearce estimates it would take 10-12 weeks per hour to complete.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.