In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar landing module and walked on the moon. Those iconic B&W images are now being restored at Lowry Digital, which was commissioned by NASA to do so as part of the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary.Â The on-going restoration is scheduled to be completed in September.
Lowry Digital Chief Operating Officer Mike Inchalik notes that the company’s proprietary technology and experience in repairing moving images is up to the task. Interestingly enough, company founder John Lowry worked with NASA to improve images as they were sent back live from the Apollo 16 and 17 missions. Lowry developed those nascentÂ methods,Â in the 1970s with his team at Image Transform to create the beginnings of what became The Lowry Process, the company’s signature temporal image processing technology.
The surviving footage–2.5 hours of material–that is now at Lowry Digital’s Burbank headquarters was produced by television scan converters located at NASAâ€™s tracking sites. Some of the material, including the famous descent of the ladder by Armstrong, was captured while the camera was mounted on the leg of the module. Later, Armstrong moved the camera to a tripod, where it captured images of the flag being planted and Aldrin’s movements on the moon’s surface.
Lowry Digital is not, however, working with the original, archival footage, which was apparently degaussed and reused. The
original images beamed back to Earth–via slow scan television (SSTV)–were captured at 10 frames per second, with 320 lines of resolution for the live telecast. NASA also tracked down a number of copies around the world that were recorded in a variety of formats. One source was an 8mm wind-up film camera that was handheld and aimed at a video monitor at mission control. Amazingly, this 8mm film copy includes the only extant copy of some portions of the telecast.
“The challenge was the fact that there were so many formats, frame rates and resolutions,” says project manager Patrick Edquist. He notes that the images were beamed to earth via slow scan television (SSTV), a primitive, low-bandwidth mode of video communication. The images had also been converted to PAL, NTSC and other television standards using conversion techniques that moved fields and frames ahead and back to make the 10-frames-per-second material work in 25 fps PAL or 30 fps NTSC. Other material had been translated to VHS format from feeds coming from various points in the system. The 8 mm film images were recorded at 16 frames per second. All these formats and techniques added their own artifacts and flaws to the images.
NASA chose Lowry Digital for the efficacy of its Lowry Process for digital restoration. The process compares information from a large number of consecutive frames in a sequence and uses the similarities and differences between those frames to regain proper contrast, resolution and noise level in each frame. The algorithms have been refined over the course of 400 feature film restorations over the last nine years.
But Lowry Digital also had to create a number of new modules to handle specific challenges in the footage, says senior algorithm scientist Kimball Thurston. One problem was vignetting, by which the corners of the images darkened. “This is typical of an analog tube camera of that era,” says Thurston. “Because the cameras require a moment or two to register an image, ghosting is also problem â€“ shadow areas look transparent briefly before becoming opaque.”Other issues were lag, smearing and bleed.
Some of the artifacts–such as dust and dirt on the camera lens–visible in the original images, however, remain unchanged. “We could make these images â€˜perfect,â€™ but at a certain point you begin to lose authenticity,â€ says Edquist. â€œAfter some discussion, NASA decided that those should be left in. The restored footage is as improved as we can make it without changing the heart of it.â€ Another “flaw” that remained in the restored images is the reflections that show the astronauts. “It’s a static reflection on the extreme right of the frame,” says Edquist.
Among the footage being restored are 15 “highlights,” which include astronaut Neil Armstrong descending the ladder of the Apollo lunar module and taking manâ€™s first steps on the surface of the moon; astronaut Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder to the surface of the moon; the astronauts unveiling and reading the commemorative plaque; Buzz demonstrating walking and running on the lunar surface; raising the U.S. flag; and President Nixon’s phone call.
Lowry Digital continues to work around the clock on the footage, which will be completed by September. The digital deliverables will consist of “all the flavors of HD” on hard drives; NASA will make all its tape transfers.
â€œThis work for NASA represents the first real effort to apply Lowry Digitalâ€™s proprietary image processing and repair tools outside the entertainment space,â€ adds Inchalik. â€œOne thing has become crystal clear to us through this project. The need to increase detail and remove the noise and artifacts in moving image sequences is much bigger than just movies and TV shows. The need extends to scientific and industrial images, medical images, security and military images. The underlying technology that John Lowry first invented in the 1970â€™s during Apollo 16 and 17 and is now so much more advanced at Lowry Digital, and applies just as well to those fields. Weâ€™re excited by those opportunities.â€
“We’re delighted by the progress we’ve seen so far, and all of us at NASA are excited by the possibilities that Lowry Digital’s technology is bringing to the restoration of this historic event,” says Richard Nafzger, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who oversaw television processing at the ground tracking sites during Apollo 11.
Lowry Digital is a subsidiary of Adlabs Films Ltd., India, and a member of the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. Adlabs Films Limited, a member of the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, is India’s fastest growing film and entertainment services company. Adlabs’ services include motion picture processing and DI, film restoration, digital mastering, studios and equipment rentals. Its facilities are spread across India and the United States. Adlabs is also India’s largest cinema chain with about 400 screens spread across India, the U.S. and Malaysia.
Did you enjoy this article? Sign up to receive the StudioDaily Fix eletter containing the latest stories, including news, videos, interviews, reviews and more.