Making The Unseen Visible

The huge 2" Secam Quadruplex system used to digitise the original recordings of the Bolshoi Ballets, now the only one of it’s kind

The Russian State Archive (GTRF) holds a multitude of film and video treasures. From footage of the Bolshoi Ballet and Second World War Siege of Leningrad, to home movies of Tsar Nicholas II, the Soviet space program and rare images of the Chernobyl disaster. But this is just a fragment of the invaluable footage contained within the vaults of the Russian State Archive (GTRF). In fact there are over two million pieces of historical footage to be found in there, all of which has never before been viewed outside the USSR.

Cineimage is the digital restoration company charged with reviving the footage from the Russian Archive, for their client RTRW (Russia Tele Radio Worldwide). Cineimage business owner Steve Boag, explained how they came to use PFClean to bring Russia’s history back to life.

“I was approached by the head of RTRW, Anthony Gould, to help restore the catalogue of footage in the Russian Archive,” says Steve Boag. “Having worked in film for most of my life, and through other work I’ve done in the past such as my involvement with the ITN Source Archive, I knew this was going to be a huge project, both technically and commercially. The process moved forward naturally from there.”

Cineimage were given the raw footage from 12 Russian ballets, and the restoration began.

Film cans inside the The Russian State Archive (GTRF)

Perfection Takes Time — Not Any More

Cineimage first concentrated on the performances of Maya Plisetskaya and the Bolshoi Ballet. These had been shot on a variety of formats, from SD SECAM to 35mm Film, each of which posed a unique set of challenges, and all had to be restored and standardised to the same format (full HD (1920x1080) @ 25fps) for broadcast and preservation.

After initial assessment of the footage and through further investigation of other titles, it became evident that much of the ballet was shot on video tape. This in itself presented an obstacle, as Adam Hawkes explains: “Video often displays unique issues on each individual tape, resulting in a lengthy restoration process in order to bring the footage up to a degree that is broadcastable.”

The material shot on analogue tape and tube cameras demonstrated various issues and defects that were going to prove tricky and subsequently time consuming to resolve. A problem that always rings alarm bells for Cineimage.

“Heavy noise was visible in the shadows and midtones of the images, caused by the extreme lighting conditions. Horizontal streaks appeared sporadically throughout the footage, which meant that entire frames were sometimes lost and required painting back in,” Adam describes. “We were also confronted with discolouration, flickering and on one of the more modern titles, chroma issues, which needed resampling and smoothing out.”

1" typeC tape pictured above and Quadruplex 2" tapes are typical formats found in the archive

Other major issues in the footage such as mistracking, servo off-locks and transverse tape damage soon presented themselves too. Previously, in order to fix off-lock errors, Cineimage would have to complete the time consuming task of re-registering and correcting the image by hand, in order to fix the instability in the video signal that was visible across frames. “Now,” Adam explains, “we can use PFClean’s image stabilise and fix frame tools to correct the error, and we are done in the space of a few seconds. Most importantly we can do this without losing any imaging area or integrity of the framing, which is crucial when dealing with the ballets.”

PFClean’s fix frame tool alongside some manual paint work, also assisted with transverse tape damage issues. As a result, the noise and rolling bands of misregistered image that appeared across the footage were fixed quickly and efficiently.

Once these issues were resolved in PFClean, the projects had to go through a very tough broadcast quality control process; “they all passed,” Adam reflects, “which is a huge testament to PFClean given the age and level of deterioration in some of the content.”

Making the Impossible, Possible

The Russian State Archive (GTRF) currently faces the issue that many other archives are experiencing; the expensive and incredibly time consuming process of digitalisation. “In order to monetise your archive,” Steve explains, “it can’t sit there on SD tapes, or reels of film. It needs to be digitised.”

Despite their experience on other archive projects, the enormity of the task that remained began to dawn on Cineimage.

“One of the the biggest problems facing a lot of archives is the sheer quantity of material that needs to be restored, and to a high standard. Quite often, the lesser titles get overlooked in favour of more commercial or significant works due to either time or budget,” states Adam.

In the case of the ballets, the restoration duo found themselves having to cherry pick the titles with the most famous ballerinas and well-known performances.

Is this the End, or Just the Beginning?

With the imperative need to tackle the abundance of material that remained in the Russian Archive, the pair had no choice but to think outside of their established, linear workflow box.

“We started utilising the parallel productivity features that PFClean has to offer,” Adam explains. “Introducing a fast storage server and a 10GB network to our facility enabled us to employ PFClean’s batch processing to send multiple streams of footage to our render nodes. This freed up the operator workstations, and allowed them to continue working on the more fine detailed artefacts, such as removing offlock errors and transverse tape damage.”

Their revised workflow methods, demonstrated immediate benefits, not only in speed but in the sheer amount of material that could be processed in one go. As a result, Steve adds, “It allowed us to spend more time tidying up titles which we would have otherwise skipped over.”

With their improved workflow, Cineimage were able to tackle a much larger workload, which was essential in managing the extensive selection of material in the archive.

But their challenges with handling the large workload didn’t end there. The client, RTRW, then tasked Cineimage with rendering out multiple versions of the ballets, in order for them to be delivered to different broadcasting regions around the world. Therefore, both up and down conversions in NTSC and PAL, in addition to HD formats had to be created, along with a proxy preview files of the restored piece for the client to examine.

This was an intimidating task, with each restoration requiring up to six deliverables. “Fortunately,” Adam muses, “PFClean was able to render out multiple versions of the restoration with ease and speed. We could set up File Outs, export them, and then continue on with our next project.”

Having made PFClean the core of their restoration pipeline, Cineimage also saw the potential that integrating the software into their preparation workflow could bring. Adam says: “We are now exploring the possibility of replacing elements of our existing pipeline with PFClean, for tasks such as the preparation of screeners, the reformatting of clips and burning in time codes, as it will dramatically increase the efficiency of our workflow.”

If a Job’s Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Well

Throughout their restoration of The Russian State Archive (GTRF), a high quality end result was of utmost importance to Cineimage. After all, when tasked with restoring such important historical images, it was imperative that they were shown in their absolute best light.

“With PFClean we feel we have achieved the desired results reliably, and consistently. On every occasion we have wowed people with the finished product and the process of the restoration has become as much a talking point as the production itself,” says Adam.

Since Cineimage began their restoration of The Russian State Archive (GTRF), five performances of Maya Plisetskaya and the Bolshoi Ballet have been premiered on Sky Arts, and their revival of the archive continues, with more historic ballets due to be restored later this year.

Conclusion

PFClean achieves successful outcomes through an innovative approach that helps to deliver fast results within client’s budgets and expectations, at a time when those budgets are tighter and those clients demand ever more for less. Large-scale restoration projects such as RTRW’s are perceived not to be economically viable, and crucially, fail to deliver the expected results many clients demand. This need not be the case. When executed correctly, PFClean’s extensive toolset empowers users to complete large time consuming projects quickly and efficiently.

Related Links

Cineimage

RTRW

Read more about Anthony Gould and the restoration of the Russian Archive:

Historic films from Russian State Archives to be released worldwide

Restoration drama: bringing Bolshoi ballets back to life

See the restoration process of Adam and Eve:

Adam & Eve: before and after showreel

The Russian Ballet Collection: would you Adam and Eve it?

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