Ben talks to Jim Hardy, CEO of Illuminate, to find out how the company completely re-assembled all 201 episodes of 'The X-Files' for the digital age.
When 20th Century Fox decided they wanted to fully remaster the cult classic sci-fi series 'The X-Files' in high definition, they turned to one of the premier production facilities in the United States; Illuminate. But there's a lot more involved than just pulling the original 35mm negatives from storage, where they've safely resided for the last two decades.
Over a period of nearly two years, Illuminate scanned millions of feet of 35mm negative and completely reassembled each episode from the ground up to pull Mulder and Scully out of the standard definition dark ages, and into feature film quality high definition. We talked to Jim Hardy, the CEO of Illuminate to find out what the project entailed.
Illuminate has worked on a number of high profile 35mm TV restoration projects in the past, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, and feature films such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Pulp Fiction. What specific challenges did The X-Files project pose and how were they overcome?
When you take on television show projects like The X Files, there are a number of unknown challenges before the project begins. You have to go into these projects with your eyes open and take on the task. Even the studio, who has stored the original negatives for two decades doesn't know or have all the specific details. They really don't know how much film was shot for each episode. Is the 35mm negative shot in three perf or four perf? Is there missing film footage? How were the stock shots acquired during production? How many visual effects have to be recreated?
On the first few episodes of season one, production shot approximately 60,000 feet of 35mm four perf. As the show became more successful, later episodes had as much as 120,000 feet of 35mm three perf negative per episode. Before we begin, we log all of the film assets and evaluate and organize the negative. After the initial scans, there are about 29 different processes to undertake in order to complete each episode. This starts the beginning challenges for our hardware, software, and organization.
How long did the entire project take, from conception through to delivering the final masters to Fox?
In total, it took about 18 months to complete all 201 episodes.
What was the condition and cataloging of the negative like and was there any damage or degradation that prevented its use?
The original negative was in excellent condition, although the organization needed some care and attention. We reorganized and reboxed each episode for the studio once it was transferred and complete. Often, not all of the film for each episode was boxed together. In many instances, we would find a missing scene from one episode in cans for a later episode or even a different season. We kept track of all the scenes that were missing over every single episode, and we would have to constantly search our database for them. Our software was able to keep track of those missing scenes, and once we found them, we would go back and edit those shots back into the master.
What resolution was the negative scanned at and what was the final output resolution?
For this project, it was 1920x1080.
Is there a benefit to scanning negative at 4K, even if the final delivery is 1080p?
Yes, definitely an advantage. The overall image would be slightly better than standard HD, absolutely. For The X-Files, it was a little too early to consider 4K. It would have been a massive amount of data wrangling if Fox had wanted it in 4K, a huge undertaking. We recently remastered the television series Freaks and Geeks in 4K for Paramount and Shout Factory. We did the same process where they shot in 4x3, and we created a 16x9 version and it looks really great.
Throughout the series, some visual effects sequences have been uprezzed from the standard definition D5 master, while others have been re-composited from the original elements. Can you discuss any issues or decisions that went into selecting which sequences were re-composited or upscaled?
We would have loved to have recreated all of the visual effects shots for the show, although there's a very high percentage that we did recreate per episode. Unfortunately, some VFX were not possible due to missing elements, complexity, time or CG. For those shots that we didn't recreate, we were happy with our uprez process we call 'SmartRez'.
We believe our process is the best upconversion software out there, which we developed and fine tuned as we progressed. It really makes a big difference. We can create a better quality image and resolution when we upscale using the existing NTSC. We can make it sharper, quieter; we can do a lot of manipulation that doesn't make it artificial looking, but as natural as possible.
Apart from standard definition stock footage for establishing shots and the aforementioned special effects sequences, how much negative was ultimately missing or unable to be used?
We were determined to locate as much of the original film as possible - roughly 99% of nonvisual effects and stock shots were located. For scenes that required our SmartRez process, we spent a lot of time restoring them to cut into the show as seamlessly as possible. We constantly did updates and research all the time to make sure we found every single piece of film that we could. That's a lot of data management, but we did it.
The decision to reframe the original three seasons to a widescreen 16x9 aspect ratio has been met with a range of responses from fans. Was there any involvement from the original crew in these re-framing decisions and what, if any, specific issues did these cause?
The early seasons were shot 1:33:1 and remastered in both 4x3 and 16x9. Later seasons were shot 16x9 1:78:1. We were aided by having the film scans of the whole negative, which gave us more image to work with. Unfortunately, we didn't have any input from the original production creators regarding the reframe to 16x9. We would have loved to have worked with the creators or anyone affiliated with the show at the time. We gave our best effort to maintaining the highest overall image we could. Decisions have to be made to position each shot, and I think overall we were very successful that the end product worked well. There was some input [from the studio] on certain things, for instance, on visual effects. We would list all the VFX for each episode that we could identify. Sometimes you will have a shot that looks like a practical shot, but it's actually full of effects work. Some of those shots could have five or six composites in it. We've had a number of scenes that fell into this category. Fox had a budget that we had to work with for the visual effects work. We ultimately did far more recreations of visual effects than what was paid for. We wanted to go beyond the budget because we knew this was a high profile series that people really admired and we wanted to give Fox 110% of our efforts, over and above what they asked for.
Were any frame leader charts photographed at the head of reels to guide the 16x9 extraction?
No, there weren't any 16x9 alignment charts photographed. We did our best to maintain what we thought were the best decisions.
To confirm; seasons 1-3 were re-assembled in the original 4x3 aspect ratio?
How tempting was it to go in and fix errors in the original production?
Our job was to recreate what the filmmakers created in the original NTSC master. It's not our place to do anything subjective or more creative than what the original creators had in mind - unless we work with the creators, and they wanted something different, and then they are at liberty to do so. There may have been some things that are a little cleaner, a little better than what it was in the original NTSC. If we composited a VFX shot, maybe we had better tools to make the image look a little better, but it always stayed in the exact same vein as the source and stayed true to the original integrity of the shot.
Was there any attempt made to try to recreate, rather than uprez, the opening credits sequence?
The main title is a hybrid of recreated and uprezzed elements. Any element uprezzed was restored to cut in as best it could.
Some fans have expressed disappointment that the original logo font has been changed in the opening titles for this remaster. Were there issues that prevented the original text style being retained?
Unfortunately, the exact font was not available to us. We used the closest font we could find to match the original production.
I find that interesting in that Fox included the original logo font on the cover of the Blu-ray set and also on newly produced merchandise.
If we had known what the original font was or had access to that, we would have used it. We did our best. Maybe we didn't talk to the right people; maybe there is somebody out there that's "oh, this is the font", but we didn't have access to them. Yes, it's not exactly the same, but hopefully people can look aside from that and look at the integrity of the entire show and accept the fact that it's not the same, but it looks great.
Was there any changes made to the masters between the delivery of the television syndication remasters and the Blu-ray release?
There may have been an occasional digital hitch here and there, but nothing huge, no.
How much data are we talking about for a typical 45-minute episode?
The original film scans were as large as 18 terabytes per episode. The final edited episodes were about 480 gigabytes per version. There were many working versions per episode, for example, we create a noncolor corrected master, color corrected master, texted and textless masters for both 4x3 and 16x9. It's a massive amount of data to wrangle. It was a real challenge... the project was a huge undertaking. I don't think people really understand how complex it was to manage and how efficient you have to be to get this project done effectively and efficiently.
The thing that everyone should be concerned about is archiving the current crop of digital content. We know that film negative will last 70 plus years with very little deterioration, but we have no idea how long these digital files will last. If you think about it, ten years ago you might have had a floppy drive or a disk drive with some sort of data on it. If you try to retrieve that data today, it would be a challenge.
First, you have to have the correct equipment to do it. Secondly, it's very likely you're going to be missing bits of data. The same thing will happen to some of today's series and features in five or ten years if they don't archive it properly. It is extremely important to keep migrating data files with today's current technology. Digital technology progresses so fast that it's hard to keep up with it. If you don't keep up with migrating and archiving your data, who knows where it's going to fall apart? These shows that are shot today on a digital platform, we don't know how long they'll be around if they're not properly archived.
With revenue from physical media falling, but partially offset by streaming revenue and syndication rights, how is that affecting large scale remastering projects such as The X-Files?
It has a big effect. The studios are very cautious. The studios have to balance the creative, archive, and financial aspects of projects like these. There's so many series' that are being ignored. That's to their detriment because now there's many avenues to get these shows back into the marketplace. There's a broader range of distribution than before. You aren't necessarily going to make all your money back on one deal but over a number of years.
There are so many shows that need this process that are just sitting in the vaults, and it's a real shame. The overall quality is so, so significantly better than the old NTSC versions and they'll be able to license this product many times over, there'll also be new audiences for these programs. With classic shows like MASH, back in the day, they had cut negative. It wasn't until non-linear editing came about in the mid 80's that they were still cutting film.
There's a lot of great episodic series and lower budget features that needs this attention, but it ultimately becomes a directive from the accounting side. But what are you going to do? I hope the studios and distributors have a change of heart and focus more on their legacy assets. If they don't focus their attention to the legacy archival assets, there's going to be no value or revenue to be generated.
Scanning hundreds of miles of negative and reassembling is by necessity not a cheap process, but what technical breakthroughs has Illuminate made that is streamlining this process?
Our proprietary iConform process uses image recognition software to search through all the scanned film elements. It conforms perfectly to the original. We don't need any original edit lists or logs. It doesn't require any manual organization, but we do this as a matter of procedure. With just the film negative and a reference tape, we can deliver a conformed master in HD or 4K.
Any final thoughts, Jim?
I hope The X-Files Blu-ray release is successful for Fox. I do know the series will have more exposure on all of the other platforms that are now available too. A lot of the folks who worked on this project here at Illuminate are huge fans, so that made a big difference. There's nothing better than working on a project that you love. This is a really, I don't want to say historic, but a significant television series that a lot of people have great admiration for. Case in point, they're resurrecting the series, with brand new episodes.
What I'm sad about is that they didn't actually come back to us and say "you know what? You guys recreated the whole series from the original film dailies. Maybe you should work on the new series with us". We didn't get that option. It would have been great. I believe we put our whole heart and soul into recreating this the best that we could. I think we did a very good job of that, and I hope the fans acknowledge that and understand that. We were very excited to work on this project, it was a challenging process, but a lot of care and attention went into it, and we believe it shows in the end product.