Lowry’s Legacy: Toward a More Detailed Image
This Saturday, film restoration pioneer John Lowry was to receive a long overdue Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the annual ceremony that precedes the Oscars. Word came last week, however, that Lowry had died on January 21 at his home north of Los Angeles. Lowry and the four others at Lowry Digital Images who perfected the "unique and efficient system for the reduction of noise and other artifacts” with him at the company he founded will be honored.
Lowry's innovations in noise reduction went beyond mere dust-busting. The Lowry Process, as it is known, removed millions of pieces of dirt and scratches from film prints like Casablanca, Star Wars, Roman Holiday and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but has also been used to remaster films for digital projection and IMAX and enhance digital images that never set foot on film. The Lowry Digital restorations of Hitchcock's North by Northwest and Sunset Boulevard, which his team recovered from a third-generation dupe negative, are legend. David Fincher has used Lowry's process since Zodiac and James Cameron's quest to build outTitanic in 3D began with Lowry Digital's 4K restoration of the original film. The process also cleaned up more than a few live-action scenes in Avatar.
John Lowry had a Janus-like ability to move forward chasing "absolutely unsolvable problems" while keeping a keen eye on our shared cultural past. His restoration problem-solving began with an algorithm that cleaned up two of the Apollo mission films for NASA. The native 32-bit floating point Lowry Process has since saved great films we've all heard of and many more we should revisit often, like George Stevens' Giant, Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce and David Lean's Brief Encounter. In 2010, when he stopped working for Lowry Digital (now part of Reliance MediaWorks), Lowry co-founded his own 3D company, TrioScopics.
Sometimes his process worked too well, or not precisely enough, and restoration efforts stumbled when contrasts wobbled out of balance and a film's original elements unintentionally disappeared. An early Lowry Digital restoration of Citizen Kane for DVD release was heavily criticized for its overly aggressive noise reduction that took out more than just the film grain.
At least Lowry had already received news of the award he shares with Ian Cavén, Ian Godin, Kimball Thurston and Tim Connolly. Unlike the ballot-bound Oscars, the winners of the Academy's Sci-Tech Awards are announced in advance of the ceremony. He will be missed, and no doubt mightily remembered, at tomorrow night's event.