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Tech features prominently in restoration of films

By XU FAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-06-23 08:55
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With a history spanning more than 100 years, China's film industry boasts many classics, and as theatergoers age, so do the nitrate reels on which those classics were shot. That is why preserving old film reels is a cause for concern, according to some.

As a pioneer in the restoration of classic movies, the Beijing-based China Film Archive, a national film storage and research institution, has been using digital technology to restore films with archival significance since 2006.

Following in the archive's footsteps, a string of State-owned studios and institutions, including the Western Film Group in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and the Shanghai Film Technology Plant, have also created their own teams dedicated to restoring old movies.

The latest available data show that the China Film Archive has restored some 3,100 feature films, around 500 of which have been delicately restored to high-definition formats, according to Xinhua News Agency.

"Many of these restored classics have been screened at international film festivals in recent years, which has propelled cultural exchange and boosted recognition of Chinese cinema overseas," said Li Tao, director of the archive's production center.

Depicting the work as similar to the rescuing of cultural artifacts, Li said that restoring an old movie consists of three steps.

First, any dirt present needs to be removed from the film, and sections that have become worn or damaged must be repaired. Next, the celluloid reels need to be remastered in digital format. The final part, which is the most challenging, involves adjusting the new digital footage so that it matches the director's original vision.

Li cited the restoration of the 1958 spy film The Eternal Wave as an example.

He recalled how restorers reached out to the daughter of its late director Wang Ping to learn more about the film, which was China's first feature to be converted from black-and-white to a 4K digital color format. It took 100 members of the China Film Archive and the China Media Group over seven months to restore each of the 116-minute long film's 165,000 frames.

"We usually follow the rule that an old feature should be restored to its original appearance, but The Eternal Wave was a bit different. Wang was working with a limited budget and technology, and was unable to produce a color version, which was what she wanted," Li said, adding that in this sense, the restored version marks a fulfillment of the director's wishes.

Sometimes, the story behind the restoration of an old film is more dramatic than its plot. Speaking about the endeavor to restore Laborer's Love, a silent short movie from 1922, Li said restorers had to hire a vehicle to transport the movie's three reels-which were stored in a special cooling container that kept their temperature under 20 C-from the archive in Xi'an to Beijing.

"Old nitrate films are potentially flammable, so they can't be transported by plane," he explained.

To ensure the reels were returned in late May before the summer began, thus avoiding the risk of rising temperatures damaging the film, Li's team worked nonstop for 10 days to finish restoration work.

Lei Gang, director of the Western Film Group's restoration center, said that some 300 dramas produced by the group-which was formerly known as Xi'an Film Studio-have been restored, including Zhang Yimou's iconic Red Sorghum (1988) and Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident (1985).

He said film restoration work has achieved a breakthrough in recent years with the country's development of an artificial intelligence system. This makes identifying the damaged parts of the film easier, reducing manual labor and improving clarity.

"For the better part of a decade, Chinese film restoration technology has been leading the world," Lei said.

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