Restoration tools duplicate 'film look'

Lowry Digital didn’t set out to be a player in digital post-production. For more than a decade, John Lowry’s company was mostly in the film restoration business, developing tools to polish such cinematic jewels as “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather.”

“Our tool set has evolved over 10 years now with every new project that would come to us,” says Patrick Cooper, a senior imaging specialist at Lowry. “Whenever there was something new, we’d come up with proprietary software or a new algorithm or module to address that issue.”

But those tools turned out to have an unexpected application: cleaning up footage captured with digital cameras to make it look as warm as film. Lowry helped “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” get a cinematography Oscar nomination and is keeping busy with other born-digital pics going forward.

“Benjamin Button” was shot on a Thomson/Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera as well as a Sony F23 HD camera and 35mm film.

“They saved the poor little Viper,” laughs “Button” d.p. Claudio Miranda. “If there’s a little bit of noise in the low end, or a little bit of digi noise, it eliminates that. It looks like the image becomes sharper in a way but without the typical sharpening edges. It’s a much cleaner image.”

One challenge was helmer David Fincher wanted one look for all three sources.

Alan Silvers, Lowry Digital’s director of business development says, “Our proprietary software made it possible to get more out of the Viper footage because it is designed to find and reveal greater picture detail by taking away artifacts, managing grain and dealing with noise levels.”

These techniques also helped integrate visual effects shots into the mix. “We were able to adjust sharpness levels, noise and flicker to make everything more consistent and put all elements on an even playing field,” Silvers says. “After we’ve worked with them, they go back to the visual-effects pipeline.”

“You’re dealing with the same problems on a modern movie that you have with a restoration,” Cooper says. “Maybe a camera is a little jittery or you have different elements that need to be put together with a seamless finish, but you’re talking about the same thing — making things look smooth from shot to shot.”

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