METROPOLIS 2K

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Digital restoration at ALPHA-OMEGA

Between Dec. 2000 and Feb. 2001, ALPHA-OMEGA digitally restored the famous 1927 silent film classic METROPOLIS on the behalf of rights-owner Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and the German federal filmarchive, Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv. Using state-of-the-art technology, countless fragments of original film, including most of the original camera negative, have been scanned at 2K film resolution and digitally restored by ALPHA-OMEGA. The final data was printed back to 35mm by Centrimage, Laboratoire Neyrac Films, Paris. The result was first screened in 35mm at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival.
METROPOLIS became the first full-length feature film in Europe to be restored using high-resolution digital restoration. But the task was far more difficult than a simple digital process: because the film no longer existed in its original premiere cut, it had to be reconstructed and scanned from separate surviving fragments of different METROPOLIS film prints collected from film archives all over the world.
Following an edit-list, it took film restorer Martin Koerber two years to complete the work of other reconstruction efforts that began thirty years before. All in all, 1257 single scenes were assembled from positive prints and dupe negatives to augment the surviving parts of the original 1925 camera negative. All the scenes were timed, and then transferred using 'wet-gate'-technology, onto a 2-terabyte disc array.
Most of the transfers couldn't be made at 6 frames per second as initially planned, but instead had to be scanned frame-by-frame. The original splices were so stiff and thick that transferring at any rate resulted in picture deformation whenever passing over splices or repairs. Furthermore, the aging film material was strongly bowed, brittle and easily broken; it had suffered many torn perforations, rips and repairs over the past 75 years.
Timing (grading) the film for a consistent visual appearance was even more difficult, because many shots had to be reconstituted by jumping between completely different sources in mid-scene. The most vicious indignity METROPOLIS has suffered over the years was continual re-editing. In the first few years after its original release, the film was repeatedly recut to satisfy the expectations of individual distributors. Many shots were shortened in the process; trims made 70 years ago had to be re-connected to restore each scene to its longest possible original length.
Digital restoration of the captured film data was performed in three steps. First, there was a general software-processing pass, using an alpha-version of 'DIAMANT' to erase very small dust particles and scratches. Great caution was taken with this automatic defect clean-up, to neither take away nor alter fine picture information.
The original film grain, which was sometimes very pronounced, was left untouched by this processing, which when too zealously applied can result in a too-clean, video-like look. The slight density-flicker of the 1925 photography was also purposely left unchanged, as it was part of the METROPOLIS' original visual texture.
The second step of digital restoration was to reestablish picture stability on numerous scenes, another task that had to be done frame by frame. Because scanning one frame at a time doesn't yield satisfactory scene stabilization, stabilization in the digital domain was necessary for all shots, not just those that were unstable on the available pieces of film.
The third and last step was a computer-based manual retouching of every scene in the film, to eliminate major defects, including glue around splices, dirt and scratches, and emulsion defects. There were many instances of torn frames, which involved much time-consuming digital repair.
Step two and three of METROPOLIS' digital restoration required in themselves 3,196 hours of labor between December 22 and February 7, to retouch a total of 163,200 frames of film data. That means that each digital restorer averaged 50 film frames stabilized and retouched for every hour worked.
Special Problems: There were some daunting challenges in restoration of METROPOLIS - starting with the animated BABEL sequence:
All of the film material on the BABEL sequence collected from archives around the world was of quality so poor that letters in the animated inter-titles could hardly be read. The decision was therefore made to recreate the dramatic original titles in this meaningful metaphorical sequence.
Scanned from the original sequence, the pictures were digitally re-animated on a super-black background, in exact focus for later compositing with the glowing borders, which were also scanned and retouched from the original frames. Animation and compositing were performed by the graphic studio Allez! in Munich. The resulting new original negative film has a beautiful 'non-digital' look, just like the original might have had back in 1927.

Second: the special effects. Some special effects of the original film negative had been destroyed by age and were therefore no longer available. In particular there was a scene near the end of the story where a huge underground industrial dynamo called the Heart Machine breaks down and explodes. Those shots had originally been created with the double-layer print technology of the 1920s. What had survived to work with were the single layers on separate original negatives:
One containing the Heart Machine, with crowds of people cheering, and a separate negative that recorded only the lightning flashes on a black background. To recreate the look of the original while digitally combining these two elements required that a special program be written. Combining two images in the digital world adds values of white completely differently than does light passing through strips of film with a double exposure. To recreate the original effect precisely, the correct animated lightning strokes on the negative had to be carefully chosen and aligned for each shot.
Because each restoration process proved to be so difficult, the original time for completion of the job was underestimated. Only six of the seven double reels, 134 minutes out of 146, were digitally finished in time for the Berlinale premiere screening. The last reel shown to the audience was a traditional print from the original negative. This unplanned mixing of the two technologies, the old and the new way, dramatically showed the benefits of digital restoration in direct comparison to the best results that photochemical reprinting can offer.
Especially evident was that the 'look' of the digitally reprocessed film appeared a good match for the original, especially the grain texture that had been so painstakingly retained. The immediate benefit of digital restoration was the complete eradication of torn frames, jumps on splices, and irritating picture defects, none of which can be improved with traditional labwork. Scanned and timed (graded) from the original negative, the picture quality has better contrast, showing much richer detail in darks and lights than could any traditional print.
With its 'new' original-negative preserved for all time on a digital format, the superior quality of the restoration can be infinitely reprinted to film or reformatted to video, without ever losing picture quality again, promising a future for METROPOLIS very much different than any traditional photochemical process could offer.
The final digital work for reel seven of METROPOLIS was completed by the end of March, 2001. With that, one of the most important film classics in history was restored in a form more faithful to the original script, and with a superior visual presentation unmatched since its original Berlin premiere on January 10, 1927.
On November 8th 2001, the new negative of METROPOLIS was honored by being placed on UNESCO’s list of unique artifacts in their ‘memory of the world’ collection.
The restoration of METROPOLIS is now listed side by side with the Guttenberg Bible and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We at ALPHA-OMEGA feel a great pride in this acknowledgement for many extra weeks of work we donated to perfectly finish this project .


right-owner of ‚Metropolis' is Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden.
worldtrading company of ‚Metropolis' is Transit-Film, München


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