Digital enhancement brings reel improvement

Researchers in the UK are developing a digital image restoration tool, which could be distributed free on the internet.

A great deal of old film is slowly rotting due to chemical processes inherent to celluloid, and historic events captured on film could be lost unless high-quality transfers to digital recordings can be made.

Researchers at the University of Surrey, led by Dr. Theodore Vlachos, are aiming to remove flicker and unsteadiness from film, where the image jumps left or right or up and down. These jumps are caused not only by problems with the original recording – for example inconsistent light levels – but also by dirt, mould and other particles that have collected on the original film. They become marks and smudges on the image when it is transferred to video.

Dr. Vlachos and his three-man team at the university’s school of electronics and physical sciences will not be digitising old film during the project, some of which would not survive the process, but will be using existing digitised film data for analysis.

‘We are using a cluster of Sun workstations and PCs. We want to carry out sophisticated analysis and develop image analysis algorithms. The film data is held on the hard drive and we’ll use languages such as C++ and Matlab for algorithm simulation. At the end we could offer a free software tool on the internet and if there is enough interest we could develop it into a product’.

Film restoration has previously relied on complex techniques carried out by skilled operators. A computer-based system to improve film at the pixel or sub pixel level once it is digitised could automate the process.

The project is due for completion in 2007, when Vlachos plans to showcase a number of movies that have been aided by the new tool. The university is receiving £226,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but has no industrial partners.

However, Vlachos has close links with the BBC and a film post-production technology firm, which he hopes to use to aid the project.