Of all the reader suggestions for what I should do with my little film Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview, not one involved showing the movie in theaters. Yet that was the first thing that came to my mind. How old media-like of me and how new media-like of you. So we’re opening November 16th for a short run in about 20 U.S. theaters. These are mainly Landmark Theaters, but some others are now coming on and we’ve even had inquiries from Europe and Asia (keep them coming, please). The idea came to me late at night so I e-mailed Landmark owner Mark Cuban who replied in five minutes. proving insomnia has its virtues
Seeing a movie in a theater is a social experience, where most other viewing options generally aren’t. I remember where and when I saw many films that were important to me from Barbarella (it wasn’t the movie but the girl I was with) to Star Wars (it was the movie), mainly because I saw them in theaters with my friends. It’s just not the same watching on YouTube, which is exactly why I decided to start with theaters.
Those who want to wait and see the show online will probably get their chance to do so since I don’t expect a long theatrical run. There will be many ways to see this interview, but theaters come first.
And did I mention that getting a writing credit for a film opening in theaters finally qualifies me for group health insurance through the Writers Guild of America? I haven’t been eligible for group health insurance since 1994.
Other than confirming when and where the film is opening (below) I want to cover the technology involved in turning an old VHS tape into a movie fit for showing on big screens.
Triumph of the Nerds was shot on PAL Digi-Beta SP, a format very advanced for 1995 but obsolete today. It’s true digital with 4:2:2 encoding and a screen resolution of 720-by 576 lines at 25 frames-per-second (remember this was originally shot for European consumption). Taking this to film wouldn’t be that hard, actually, given the number of features that have been shot on DV beginning with the Blair Witch Project. It’s not great but it’s not bad, either. But the tape we have isn’t Digi-Beta or digital at all — it’s analog PAL VHS with only 288 vertical lines, not even Digi-Beta’s 576, much less HD’s 1080. And that’s our goal for this film — 1080 vertical lines.
Home movie footage is used all the time in feature films, but it’s usually supposed to look like home movie footage and ours isn’t. Fortunately ours was shot and lighted by professionals and it shows. The VHS dub we have was done on professional equipment and it is likely that the tape was never even played after being recorded, though there are two very obvious instances of tape stretch in the piece — places you’d normally just cut around except we’re on some media honesty kick and determined to share the tape unedited, so we’ve had to work hard to improve those stretchy parts.
Once we had the master tape in the best possible shape it had to go through any number of steps including de-interlacing, de-noising, color correction, and resolution enhancement. The last is the most interesting but it turns out the first is most important because there are right and wrong ways to de-interlace video.
Video is interlaced at all because that’s the way it had to be done in the early days of television with slow TV set phosphors (remember that white dot in the middle of your TV set when you turned it off?) and equally slow camera tubes. So an analog TV frame, whether it is NTSC or PAL has two fields that are recorded sequentially then rendered together as an interlaced signal with a line from Field A followed by a line from Field B and so on. Converting this interlaced signal to the progressive scan used on most HDTVs (and computer screens) requires de-interlacing, which most often means throwing away either Field A or Field B then doubling the lines of the surviving field.
No-can-do for us, though, because that would drop our 288 lines down to 144 lines, from which I am sure we’d never recover. And to be honest no-can-do for most other professional de-interlacing since we now have smarter ways to do it, the point being to not throw away any information.
The general technique is to first make the video look less bad and then make it look better. The former comes through de-noising (removing artifacts that are obviously not part of the original signal) and color correction (making the colors look right or, if not right then at least the way you think they look the best). The latter comes through a process of temporal interpolation that is usually called Super Resolution.
Remember your neighbor who got a home equity loan to install a home theater and how he bragged about his line doubler? How oh-so 1999. A line doubler scales-up resolution by creating new lines in the frame that are interpolated from the lines above and below. Super Resolution does much the same thing but it creates lines using information not just from the lines on either side but from all the lines and other picture elements in several frames before and after. Typically 4-5 frames are involved and if you think that we are going from 288 vertical lines to 1080 that’s about a 4X increase so we’ll need every bit of that temporal data from those extra frames.
I decided when we started this adventure on October 14th that we’d have to take a shotgun approach to tape restoration, so that’s what we have done, using three completely separate approaches in parallel.
First the folks at Red Giant Software up in Portland, Oregon helped us use their plugins for Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. We first thought we’d be using just Red Giant’s Instant HD tool from their Magic Bullet Suite, but soon learned they have separate tools for every stage of the process including de-interlacing, de-noising, color correction and more.
There’s a hardware approach to the same problem courtesy of an Orlando, Florida company called Teranex. Their $3000 box (the one we used was the Teranex Mini) sucks in video in one format and spits it out in another. A smart Teranex operator knows to do the job in several passes accomplishing the different tasks in a specific order, but the process in each case is accomplished in real time, which is astounding.
And finally, from behind Door Number Three comes MotionDSP of Burlingame, California. MotionDSP sells a $49.95 Windows product called vReveal that does most of this as well as a professional product called Ikena that does it even better for a lot more money. I understand that iKena is particularly popular with certain three-letter agencies for improving the resolution of satellite images.
Which worked best for our little film? We won’t know for a couple more days when we have a side-by-side comparison and the winner goes out to theaters. So far they all look great.
Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview cities and theaters (so far)
New York – Sunshine
Los Angeles – Regent
San Francisco – Opera Plaza
Berkeley – Shattuck
Palo Alto – Aquarius
Seattle – Metro
San Diego – Hillcrest
Denver – Esquire
Dallas – Magnolia
Houston – River Oaks
Chicago – Century
Indianapolis – Keystone
Boston – Kendall
Philadelphia – Ritz Bourse
Washington, DC – E Street
Baltimore – Harbor East
Atlanta – Midtown
Milwaukee – Oriental