The iconic Sharpe TV series with Sean Bean was shot on Super 16mm; that, says Fiona Maxwell, gave much scope to repair and restore the deteriorating sound and images to bring it up to today’s standards, acceptable for HD broadcast and Blu-ray release.
The topic of 16mm film stocks and its suitability as a source for high definition and Blu-ray has been much debated and is a topic close to my heart. I have myself discussed and defended it at conference sessions at venues such as BAFTA and FOCAL in London, and IBC in Amsterdam. I have also seen the results of many of these transfers, having supervised many re-mastering and restoration projects during my tenure as Operations Director for ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The advances and innovations in technology today really do open up a vast inventory of quality dramas and made for TV films previously resigned to the back shelves of the archives as unsuitable material.
This is a case study of the restoration of the popular television series Sharpe, originally commissioned for Central Television. There is a lot to learn from the processes applied to the project and what the marriage of research, expertise and technology can bring to the party.
There was much to challenge the team responsible for the re-mastering of the iconic Sharpe series, to repair and restore the deteriorating sound and images to bring it up to today’s standards, acceptable for HD broadcast and Blu-ray release.
Having been released previously only from standard definition tape masters, the re-mastered versions were much anticipated both in the UK and the US where this classic series has a large following. The original impetus for the new transfers was both consumer-driven, with a demand for Blu-ray releases from the fans, and commercially driven by ITV Global’s need to provide HD content for broadcasters. These combined demands helped the business case make sense in investing funds in the longevity of this content.
The appeal of Sharpe is far reaching, from the wonderful portrayal of the title character splendidly played by Sean Bean bringing a charming roguish quality to the role, to the authenticity of the battle scenes and richness of the landscapes. Shot on location in India, Spain, Turkey, the Crimea and Africa these feature length films have all the look and feel of epic productions of the time bringing a gritty reality to the story telling. Based on Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling novels these fast paced action stories blending danger with romance are brought to life on screen by the dedicated production team.
With excellent direction by Tom Clegg, produced by Celtic Films with executive producer Muir Sutherland, and Picture Palace Productions’ producer Malcolm Craddock, the 14 Sharpe films were shot between 1992 and 1997 for a total budget of £28 million. They have sold extensively around the world with individual films receiving BAFTA nominations for best drama series and winning an RTS award for best photography.
What made the Sharpe series an excellent candidate for this re-mastering work was that they were shot on Super 16mm, thus giving much scope for a high quality result utilizing today’s technology. The first challenge for the restoration team was to research and locate all of the original negatives before quality checks could begin to assess the original material. As this had been an independent production for ITV in the days of Carlton Television (before the merger with Granada and the formation of ITV Global), there had been much movement of the original assets. They had been stored at a number of sites over the years and moved to various facility houses for previous transfers to video tape from film.
It fell to ITV Global’s Mark Stanborough at the Perivale Archive facility to play detective and trawl through the many storage house inventories and facility house despatch notes to trace the reels. This research was long and involved as not all of the movement records had been kept and in some cases the information on the inventories was not accurate as to the contents of each film can. This left Stanborough no choice but to call in every can of film that had any identification connected with the series and literally lay them out on the archive floor. With assistance from Heather Duberley, the archive’s experienced film handler, each can was opened and checked against the label and where necessary the reel would be threaded onto a Steinbeck film bench to view.
The task of finding 100% of usable original negative was not completely possible with a small percentage of missing or badly damaged negative having to be transferred from another source. This amounted to less than 5% of the total footage contained in the final high definition masters.
There has been much debate about the suitability of 16mm film for Blu-ray but with high resolution scanners and tools to manage stability and grain, the concerns previously held when comparing 35mm and 16mm as an HD source have been allayed.
A quote from Steve Hilton from ITV Global’s Perivale Archive on re-mastering from 16mm: “The results we are now achieving from over the last couple of years have been pretty outstanding in most cases, not just from the newer Super 16 stocks, but from earlier standard 1.33 material. A lot of these results have been achieved due to the grain management processes like dark energy (relativity) and clarity. I believe in many cases 16mm can now be worked on to look like it was a 35mm sourced program. A fully restored 16mm shot HD master can now look as good, and on occasions better than some 35mm shot programs.”
The facility that bid for and won the commission to fulfil this work was JCA who carried out the scanning, conforming and grading under the supervision of ITV’s Stanborough. The series had only previously been released at a 4:3 television ratio, but in accessing the super 16mm negatives to fully scan the images a widescreen 16:9 framing could be achieved. This meant that the title sequences and subtitles had to be digitally reconstructed to fit the wide screen format. Some of the post produced visual effects also had to be recreated for widescreen. The viewer experience is now much enhanced, with the full action in each frame and it surprised some viewers, one quote being: “There is much additional image on both sides – now you see there were 12 soldiers standing on the right, not four, and there is a horse on the left that wasn't shown in the old 4:3 version.”
Ray King, the restoration and re-mastering expert at JCA, supervised the workflow of the complex project through the facility. Following the research and element assessment by Stanborough, JCA bench-checked each reel to establish the right technical route. First they established whether there was any requirement for remedial work, such as splicing repairs, that could cause further damage to the film in the transfer process. After this all elements were then ultrasonically cleaned, to remove any surface dirt and dust.
Following this evaluation and cleaning process the reels were scanned at 2k on one of the UK’s only Arriscan wet-gate 16mm scanning machines, supervised by ITV’s Stanborough and JCA’s King to ensure that the best obtainable quality was captured from the original film elements.
Once all the material was transferred to digital data, the restoration process was started. The workflow included digital repair of tears and scratches, dirt and dust removal, correction of warped frames, picture stabilization, flicker adjustment and even replacement of missing frames. The core of JCA's workflow is the Pixel Farm's PFClean restoration package. This package is designed for the clean and repair of film for digital intermediate and film restoration. This is a hugely flexible application for restoration but JCA also utilized multiple software solutions to gain the best results possible meeting the needs of the original material.
This was all repaired within a completely non-linear, non-destructive workflow to produce clean digital image data without affecting the original scan or digitized sequence.
Next came the important stage of colour grading to bring the film back to its former glory. JCA is one of the few facilities in London pioneering the use of the Yo-Yo equipped Pandora Revolution digital grading system. This offers a fusion between creativity and flexibility in the data grading abilities of this software based system marrying them to the realtime rendering capabilities of the hardware based systems.
The sound has not been forgotten in this restoration and has never been better with a full 5.1 mix having been created for the Blu-ray release. The dialogue is clean and cleverly mixed to be prioritized over every orchestral section and the gunfire and other special effects are punchy and realistic. The original issues of miscellaneous ambient sound on set and loose ADR in post-production are not entirely eliminated but have been considerably tightened up.
The workflow above all contributed to the final quality of the finished masters but in the case of Blu-ray was not the end of the process but a great starting point for the authoring process to begin.
The Sharpe Blu-ray box set is available now on ITV DVD and through Amazon.
Photo credit: ITV Global Entertainment