Nearly 60 years on, classic Ealing Comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt, has been restored for re-release by the rights owners Studio Canal, and Fiona Maxwell gets the inside track.
Celebrating its centenary in 2002 Ealing Studios began life as a base for film-making on Ealing Green when film producer, director and cinematographer Will Barker bought White Lodge in 1902. It is the oldest working film studio in the world, famous for its strand of Ealing Comedies, of which The Titfield Thunderbolt is a much-loved classic. Filming began in 1952 and the feature was first released the following year.
Restorations can be driven by anniversary dates, or lack of quality masters for today’s digital, HD and Blu- ray releases, as well as deteriorating elements that require preservation. However, in today’s economic climate, getting budget approval for the expensive business of restoration demands a business case to highlight the potential commercial success that a re-release will produce.
Studio Canal aims to work through its complete catalogue, applying this criteria slowly and restoring each title to preserve the original elements – which can be in a delicate condition. The impetus for this particular restoration is to re-release the film in 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the film’s original premiere. It will be released in January both on DCP (digital cinema print) for theatrical re- release and on a special edition DVD,
as well as – for the first time – on Blu- ray. This re-release is to follow on from the BFI’s (British Film Institute) Ealing Season, which screens during November and December this year.
The Titfield Thunderbolt is a comedy about a group of villagers who take over their local train passenger service when British Railways decided to close it. The film stars Stanley Holloway and Sid James and is directed by Charles Crichton. The screenplay was written by TEB Clarke, and was inspired by the restoration of the narrow gauge Talullyn Railway in Wales, the world’s first heritage railway run by volunteers.
This was the first Ealing Comedy to be shot in Technicolor, and it used the three-strip camera negative process. It was also one of the first colour comedies shot in the UK. Famously, it used many different British locations for the filming, blending the scenes into an idyllic notion of a typical English village. For the true film fans, there is even a website devoted to identifying the locations in the film and a YouTube link showing them during and after filming.
The project was supervised by Studio Canal’s Stephen Hill and I asked him about the particular challenges of restoring this title. Hill replied: “We encountered colour restoration errors within the combined negative caused by the three-strip process. This was evident in every shot, manifesting itself in mostly red and blue halos around objects. We also encountered missing and severely damaged frames, kicks on the cement joins, obvious dirt and scratches and over 0.5% shrinkage over some of the reels.”
The technical partners chosen by Studio Canal to carry out the required work were Pinewood Post-production, under the supervision of Simon Hill, and Narduzzo Too, working with multi award-winning colourist Vince Narduzzo.
The starting point for the process was for Pinewood to scan the 35mm re- combined dupe negatives at 2K resolution on a Northlight 2 pin register film scanner. In terms of data management, Pinewood offers a secure data management centre for dealing with large volumes of data. In the case of this film, scanning at 2k resolution the volumes soon grew with each frame equaling 12MB at 2048 x 1556 pixels, with roughly 15,000 frames per reel.
A week was spent on this part of the process including the film cleaning and preparation prior to scanning. In the first stage of the process reels were all bench-checked by hand and ultrasonically cleaned prior to commencing the scan. Issues with the older method of using film cement on the reel joins caused hops and kicks with the scan, which had to be dealt with digitally in the following stages.
Once the feature was converted to data files and fully QC’d they were passed to Narduzzo Too, for Narduzzo to work his magic on the grading, registration, de-flicker and image sharpening. At the state-of-the-art suite conveniently situated onsite at Pinewood, and with a second facility in London’s Soho, Narduzzo had all the tools at his disposal to tackle the specific challenges of this subject.This included the use of the Nucoda Film Master grading platform (formerly Digital Vision) and the Phoenix restoration toolset, which is integrated into the Film Master grading system.
Narduzzo spent over 40 hours on the restoration process using an automated workflow with separate passes for the process of de-flicker and image alignment to deal with the registration issues. When asked about his part in the project, he responded: “At Narduzzo Too we are passionate about restoration. We believe that Image System’s Nucoder is a superior piece of kit; offering grading and restoration in one box, it provides the versatility and flexibility required for any major restoration projects. The system boasts an incredibly powerful set of tools for restoration work that includes de-spot and high end grain reduction software.
“Restoring material as we grade eliminates the need to switch from one piece of kit to another. It is this all-in- one package that provides solutions for our clients in restoration and remastering, whether required for archiving, digital cinema, HDTV or DVD and Blu-ray.”
Regarding the challenges of retaining the look and feel of the period and staying true to the integrity of the original, Narduzzo said: “The aim of this restored grade was to reproduce the original look and feel for which the three-strip process is famous. Considering budgetary constraints (ie restoring from a duplicate), the very best possible picture and restoration was achieved. Stephen Hill from Studio Canal visited to approve at every stage of the process and creative discussions were ongoing throughout.”
Once Narduzzo Too had completed the film grade and the automated restoration passes the files were sent back to Pinewood for the extra frame- by-frame manual clean-up that the automated process couldn’t handle.
Pinewood Post-production was also responsible for the audio restoration, which aimed to remove undesirable noises, such as clicks, crackle, hiss and hum and enhance the overall quality of the soundtrack. This was carried out both in keeping with the original movie and without introducing any audible artefacts.
The audio was conformed from two elements, the music and effects track (which was a single track mono dub) and the only other surviving copy of the soundtrack, a 35mm mag dupe from the optical track.
Pinewood’s Rolf Martens, who was responsible for the audio restoration, said: “Both elements were transferred by our archiving department playing them back on a 35mm Westrex replay unit direct into ProTools. Following the selection of the best possible elements, these were conformed and edited to sync to picture. The audio was manually de-clicked and then processed in ProTools, gently de-hissed and de- crackled to minimize distortion. For the restoration process we mainly use a combination of plug-ins from the Sonnox, CubeTech and Waves restoration bundles. After this process the track was remastered to make the recording suitable for today’s DVD standards.”
Pinewood post spent over 100 hours in total on the restoration, bringing this much-loved film back to its original high standard.
The newly restored digital print of The Titfield Thunderbolt will screen at the BFI in December ahead of the DVD/Blu-ray release on 14 January 2013.