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Computers Bust Dust From Disney's 'Snow White' : Film: A new Eastman Kodak computer process removes dirt from the negative. It used to be done with razor blades.

July 31, 1993|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The numbers are staggering, even for a generation that accepts feats of computer power as everyday fare.

Twelve million pixels or 39 megabytes of information for every one of the 119,500 frames in Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--a total of 4.7 terabytes or almost 5 trillion pieces of data. The reissued "Snow White" showcases a new restoration technique that sounds more appropriate for a Buck Rogers serial than an old German fairy tale.

Through the years, even the most carefully protected negative will pick up dust, dirt, tiny scratches and so forth. For recent reissues of the Disney animated classics, technicians have removed dust particles from the negatives with razor blades. But for "Snow White," crews at Cinesite in Burbank used state-of-the-art technology: Each frame of the film was digitized into a computer and displayed on high-resolution monitors.

Software developed by Eastman Kodak--irreverently dubbed "Dustbusting"--removes the dirt from the image. The computer detects the difference in color between each particle and its environment and blends it into the background. When the process is completed, each frame is transferred back to film.

"While it only takes about a minute and half for the Dustbusting program to 'clean' an individual frame, setting all the parameters can take up to eight hours," explains Bruno George, creative director at Cinesite. "Defining what constitutes dust and dirt has to be done carefully: If we set the parameters too high, we'd erase all the characters' eyes. So we had to make sure that the animation was always protected."

For "Snow White," the dirt the negative had picked up during the last 56 years was only part of the problem. The film was made using relatively crude and often experimental techniques that produced additional dust, camera flares and reflections--not all of which were apparent to the filmmakers.

"We set out to re-create the experience audiences had when they saw the film in 1937, but we discovered we weren't just removing defects introduced into the film over time," George says. "We found camera defects that were probably masked by the Technicolor process in 1939; the current Eastman color process is so much sharper, it's made them obvious. We had to dig down and remove a lot of dirt that had always been in the negative, but had never shown up on the screen."

Ed Jones, the president of Cinesite, says that Kodak began testing a digitizing system in 1991 but that the initial results didn't look good enough to show audiences. Last October, Cinesite ran a 2,000-frame test that satisfied Disney.

"We proved to Disney that the system could produce an image equal to anything on the screen today and could handle a show this size," Jones says. "But that was just the appetizer: We hadn't gotten into the dinner yet. No one had ever digitized an entire film before--and we only had 18 weeks to do it."

During those 18 weeks, more than 100 artists and technicians literally worked around the clock on "Snow White." George says that the Dustbusting program removes 80% of the dirt but that any remaining problems have to be dealt with by people using cursors. The hyaline clarity and glowing colors of the new prints speak for themselves: The film has never looked better, not even in 1937.

"Snow White" has been one of the few bright spots among Walt Disney Studios' summer movies--since its re-release July 2, it has brought in $30 million at the box office.

Cinesite may restore other animated Disney films: When "Fantasia" is re-released with new sequences in two or three years, the studio may want to boost the clarity of the old footage to match the new sequences. But Jones is eager to see the technology applied to live-action films as well.

"I think people are going to be interested in this technique if they feel they can re-release something that's going to have a more pristine appearance and be truer to its original form," he says. "It's not clear what that will mean at the box office, but in terms of restoration and preservation, when you strike a new negative this way, you give a film another 100 years of life it might not otherwise have--and with the best-quality image current technology can produce."

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