Company founder John Lowry came to the job with a unique pedigree in imaging. In 1971, he started Image Transform, a company that processed live images from Apollo 16 in 1972 and pioneered video-to-film in the early 1970s. Lowry left Image Transform and spent time in Canada building timebase correctors and synchronizers. But his cutting-edge stretch in Hollywood wasn’t forgotten. Lowry teamed up with company President Michael Inchalik, an engineer at Cinesite in the early days, and founded Lowry Digital Image in June 1998. The company’s initial, rather abstract, goal was to improve the theatrical experience without changing projection technology. "I wanted to extract more information to survive the multi-generation printing process," explains Lowry.
Refocusing on DVD
Clients have a way of defining a manufacturer’s products, and Lowry Digital Image was shaped by the needs of its first studio clients. In 2000, Lowry demonstrated his system to Warner Bros., which asked him if he would apply the process to restoration. Lowry agreed, with the stipulation that Warner Bros. would need to commit to three movies to enable him to gear up. As the company legend goes, by the time Lowry got home, his fax machine had spit out a Warner Bros. purchase order to prep North by Northwest, Gone With the Wind, and Now, Voyager for new DVD releases. Lowry bought 12 Mac G4s and got right down to work. Lowry won’t describe the exact process he uses, but he will say that trained colorists set parameters for film sequences, which are then restored through automatic processes.
Lowry achieved his initial goal. He estimates that his digital restoration process removes the degradation caused by two or three generations of film printing, enabling viewers to see movies in "show print" condition – in other words, the image quality that the director and cinematographer saw. The early days of software development were full of surprises. In an auction scene from North by Northwest, for example, James Mason flips his glasses back and forth, twirling the ends, which the system read as dirt and removed from the picture. It was back to the drawing board for Lowry and his R&D team. Real films continued to provide unexpected challenges. "I thought it would take 20 films to sort it all out," says Lowry. "By the time we got to 60 films, we thought we’d got it."
Now, four years after its founding, Lowry Digital Image possesses an impressive amount of rendering power, especially for a non-governmental entity (yes, the CIA has visited). Those first 12 G4s have grown into 600 dual-processor 2-GHz G5s, each with 4 GB of RAM, all interconnected with Gigabit Ethernet for high data rate transfers. Over the next year, the number of G5s will double to 1,200. They’re all connected to 378 TB of disk storage, a figure that’s expected to triple in the coming year.
Last year, the company made news when it scanned and restored Sunset Blvd. and Roman Holiday at an unprecedented 2K resolution. Now Lowry routinely scans and restores films at 4K.
Jumping into DI
Speed is about to become an issue, however. Starting this month, Lowry will offer digital intermediate services. Lowry plans to purchase two new Imagica scanners, for a total of four, and add a film-out recorder. For the past several months, the facility has been testing a DI system from Munich-headquartered Iridas. Inchalik reports that the Iridas system was selected "because it was the most open system and, also, not yet finished. We’ve had input in terms of its development."
At press time, Lowry and Inchalik hadn’t yet decided whether Iridas will ultimately be the DI system they will choose. "That depends on whether they’re able to develop a feature-rich environment that the client expects," Lowry explains, adding, "For the high-end DI, you must be very fast and very feature-rich."
When Is Grain Good?
The Lowry Digital way of restoration isn’t without its controversy, and both Lowry and Inchalik acknowledge the rumblings. The crystal-clear imagery turns classic Hollywood films into a brand-new viewing experience. Where’s the thin line, for instance, between correcting for the grain introduced by multiple generations of film prints and the excision of so much grain that the image resembles video?
But Inchalik’s response makes the Lowry Digital Image position clear. "Is all grain sacred?" he asks. "I appreciate grain, but sometimes it’s a limitation. If I’m handed something three generations old, it’s silly to preserve that level of grain. We should get back to the quality analogous to the show print seen by the director and cinematographer." But, he notes, the decision to restore the Lowry Digital way is made by clients. Lowry Digital Image is betting that those images will open up a new market for them in DIs. "The images people will see will, pleasantly, cause waves," predicts Lowry.