How Does Criterion Resurrect Lost Films?

Criterion allows us to find lost gems, but how do they make them look so good? 

One of my favorite things to do is turn on the Criterion channel and just get lost in an old movie. The quality of films they have there is great, and I'm not just talking about the watching experience. Their movies look amazing. 

Part of that has to do with the complicated restoration process they use to get films looking their best. 

Check out this video from Gizmodo, and let's talk after the jump. 

How Does Criterion Resurrect Lost Films? 

The idea of a lost film seems romantic, but it's actually pretty tragic. Many of our earliest films were shot on silver nitrate, which deteriorates over time, or were lost in fires in the early days of Hollywood. 

Thankfully, Criterion is doing God's work by restoring the films we do have. And they do it in some awesome ways. 

In the video, we see the process used on Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. It's a great paranoid thriller that actually is registered with the Library of Congress.

To restore this film, they scan the entire negative into the computer. 

To scan in 2K it can take around four days, but with everyone loving 4K, those scans can take around eight days or longer, depending on the material you are scanning. Best case, you get the original negative, but if you are scanning a copy of a few reels that have played all over the world and are damaged, it might take even longer. 

They scan these frame by frame. Each frame becomes a file they can alter, and each reel is a larger file containing all the frames.  

From there, they decide what the film should beas in, what did the director and cinematographer intend for us to see in this work? To make this determination, they watch other movies by the creators and even check out other films made at the studio at the time. 

They look at real-life locations and even try to figure out the sets and studios and how they would have looked. 

They look at the damage that transfers as well to see how it's concentrated. They can do this by looking at the image as well as the data collected from those images, the scoped waveforms, and vectorscopes.  

After that, it's working digitally, making the blacks look black and the whites look white, so to say. 

Color grading and restoration happen simultaneously with color correction, as they remove scratches, dirt, and other film damage. 

While the picture is worked on, so is the audio. They want to take out the scratches, pops, hisses, and other distortions that make the audio hard or unpleasant to hear. This can be done by hand or using programs that anticipate the right sound and help plug it in. 

They call these spectral repair tools, and they allow you to play with the intensity of the audio symbol. 

Criterion cover art
Credit: CriterionCast

At the end of the day, we love Criterion not just for the movies, but the epic packages and posters. There's an all-star team of art directors and designers who work on covers, packages, and other design elements to make things pop. 

They even help restore the movie titles and credits when needed. 

I love to nerd out over this stuff almost as much as I love watching their work when it is finished. 

What's your favorite Criterion restoration? 

Let us know in the comments.      

Your Comment

1 Comment

My favorite Criterion video came from this article in 2014.
https://nofilmschool.com/2014/02/go-behind-the-scenes-at-criterion-as-th...

November 11, 2020 at 7:28AM

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Zac Heileson
D.P. VFX Supervisor
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