Last week at NAB, Laser Pacific colorist Lou Levinson dropped by Filmlight’s demo room to show reporters a quick look at his work digitally restoring two popular titles on the super-powered Baselight color-grading system — director Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

If you’re like me, you might wonder how much restoration really has to be done on two films released at the turn of the 21st century. I mean, how bad can they look?

As described by Levinson, these two restorations were class acts. The original camera negatives were scanned at 6K on a Northlight scanner to create a detailed and nuanced 4K image to work with. (If the same work were being done today, Levinson said, a Northlight 2 would likely be scanning the film at 8K — a resolution that he said is “getting near film’s theoretical limits.”)

Color-grading was performed on the Baselight 8, a system powerful enough that organization becomes the biggest problem for a colorist to manage, rather than any issues with the capabilities of the hardware or software, Levinson said. If a picture is in really bad shape, Levinson said he’ll turn to tools from The Pixel Farm to perform serious geometrical restoration on distorted film frames.

Levinson chatted a little bit about dust-and-scratch removal — the latest toolsets make it much easier to fix vertical scratches, he says — but a restoration job can be more complicated, and more amusing, than just that. Levinson showed us a shot from Gladiator in which several members of the film crew are just visible around a corner of the Roman cityscape. They have now been painted out using a clone tool to replicate bits of brickwork where they once stood. (Levinson suspects one of the men caught in the shot is Scott himself, but has yet to enlarge the image enough to verify that hunch.)

On Saving Private Ryan, one of Levinson’s primary goals was to recapture the ENR (silver-retention) look of the film’s original answer prints. That got me thinking about an issue I’ve always assumed to be fundamental to the job of creating new video masters. Is a colorist attempting to be true to film history by recreating the look of an original theatrical screening of a film? Or is he trying to take advantage of digital technology to, let’s say, “enhance” the image in (one hopes) tasteful ways? I asked Levinson if he considered an original answer print to be the ultimate reference when working on a project like this.

“A lot of creators never stop thinking about their films,” even after their release, Levinson said in response. He went on to explain that the director is the arbiter of how far a colorist should go in refining a film’s imagery. He mentioned one type of director — naming no names — for whom a film’s look is a bit of a moving target. “I’ve done the same movie four times and had it look different all four times,” he said.

I talked about this subject a little more with Laser Pacific mastering guru Ron Burdett, who insisted that the company won’t even consider a restoration project on a living director’s work unless that director is available to sign off on the restoration. (What happens when a living director butts heads with a living cinematographer is a whole ‘nother story.) As you might expect, film grain is often one of the first characteristics of the picture to receive scrutiny. Some directors display their grain proudly, while others prefer to have it dialed down a notch or two for posterity. Before you bake in that decision, you need the fellow who helmed the movie to give it the thumbs-up.

Levinson is a go-to guy for Spielberg, having worked on digital masters for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, and more of his films. On deck to receive some Baselight TLC is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which will get a full restoration and perhaps a stereo 3D makeover. But the current science project at Laser Pacific is an implementation of the IIF-ACES workflow (see Film & Video‘s coverage of its use on season two of Justified), a 16-bit OpenEXR process that requires 76.5 MB per frame and 1.8 GB per second of footage. The first beneficiary of that will be the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close from 1996. We’ll try to get more information on that project for publication here at StudioDaily later this year.