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Last Updated: Friday, 22 October, 2004, 17:51 GMT 18:51 UK
Macs do Star Wars dirty work
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
BBC Click Online reporter in California

Behind the scenes, painstaking effort and computing power has gone into cleaning up George Lucas's original Star Wars trilogy for its DVD release.

Star Wars DVD promotion
The original Star Wars trilogy on DVD has been immensely popular
Since 1977 the Star Wars saga has been followed by hundreds of millions of viewers and grossed more than $3 billion.

Now the original trilogy is out on DVD, and the hype for this matched that of the biggest Hollywood premieres.

Far away from the hype there is a back lot in Burbank, California, where a lot of the hard work was done.

Images from some of the most famous movies ever made adorn the walls of Lowry Digital Images, showing off their impressive record of digitally restoring some of the true Hollywood classics.

Star Wars was their highest profile project yet.

It took 30 hectic days of work to restore the trilogy for DVD.

Today's large screen TVs and high quality digital playback would definitely show up the ravages of time on the original film reels.

John Lowry, CEO of Lowry Images, says the biggest single problem with the Star Wars series was dirt.

A movie such as Star Wars has about 180,000 frames
John Lowry, CEO, Lowry Images
"The films have been, as everybody knows, extremely successful, and success means dirt, scratches, handling of the film.

"Film is, in fact, a very delicate medium. A New Hope, for example, which was the worst of all, had maybe a million pieces of dirt in the first couple of reels of that movie. Unbelievable."

The age and condition of old film demands a delicate scanning technique, using respectful and gentle machinery.

Mike Inchalik, president of Lowry Images, explains: "The film scanners are the eyes of the facility.

"They are the devices which convert each frame of film into a digital file which the computers can later repair.

"Each frame of film is slowly pulled past a CCD sensor. It takes approximately four seconds to take a frame of film and digitise it.

"When we're done we have a computer file of roughly 70mb for each frame of film. A movie such as Star Wars has about 180,000 frames."

Formidable power

The 70 MB per frame of film requires an enormous amount of storage, and fortunately there is an impressive 400 terabytes sitting just down the corridor.

Computers at Lowry Digital Images
Massive computing power brings the picture back to the original quality
The processing power is quite formidable too. The brains of the facility are 600 Apple G5s, each a dual processor 2GHz machine.

Mike Inchalik says: "The Apple G5s were chosen because it's an extraordinary floating point processing machine, and with 1,200 such processors there's a really immense amount of processing capability here.

"One of the beauties of using general purpose computers to do this work is they get faster and faster every year.

"Each computer works on a different shot from the movie.

"So instead of trying to identify a piece of dirt from what else is in the frame, our software compares the frames on either side of the frame it's examining.

"It asks: Can I track anything logically from one frame to the next and decide whether this is really a piece of scene content.

"It could be a fighter, it could be a bird flying across screen, or in fact a one-frame, spurious event that we need to remove."

Special effects

The small army of digital specialists examine each shot, and instruct the computers on what sort of thing needs fixing.

It soon turned out that dirt was not the only problem with the Star Wars series.

Although still more than passable today, the films' groundbreaking special effects did affect the picture quality.

John Lowry
We can take a fabulous, brand new picture, off the best camera there is, and make it look significantly better
John Lowry, CEO, Lowry Images
Digital imaging specialist Patrick Cooper says: "There are so many film generations that go into making an optical shot, with layers and layers of different special effects composited together to make one shot.

"So you get dirt introduced from each of those layers of film that you've suddenly put together into one shot."

John Lowry adds: "One of the things that we had to work hard at was, for example, the light sabre scenes. They were grainier, they were dirtier, they were softer."

Lowry's massive computing power can bring the picture back to the original quality.

And the process can even make it even better, by adding more detail than was there in the first place.

Minute detail

A single film frame is filled with detail.

Although it seems to be very good quality, if you zoom into extreme close-up you can see the limits of the film's definition.

The grain obscures minute details. But the grain is random, different in every frame.

So by using information from several frames at once, you can eliminate it, and fill in the missing detail.

It is like pulling back a veil. Now every frame in the movie becomes pin sharp.

Suddenly the technique becomes useful not just for restoring old film, but for converting modern films to High Definition TV or IMAX format.

As John Lowry says, "We can take a fabulous, brand new picture, off the best camera there is, and make it look significantly better because we can improve the resolution beyond what the camera was capable of."

In Hollywood the mighty movie stars still rule the empire, but as companies like Lowry Digital are proving, there is a growing rebel alliance of technical wizards getting ready to play their part.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

Other items in this programme:

Film prize for Star Wars creator
16 Oct 04  |  Entertainment
DVD review: Star Wars trilogy
22 Sep 04  |  Entertainment
Star Wars DVDs break sales record
21 Sep 04  |  Entertainment

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