Restoration Spotlight

Cleaning Up Spike Lee’s Mixed-Format Masterpiece

Inside Criterion / Tech Corner — May 14, 2020

I was just coming of age as a moviegoer when digital video hit the big screens, around the turn of the twenty-first century. At the time, I remember being every bit as entranced by the gritty horror of 28 Days Later and the stripped-down production of Full Frontal (to name two features that experimented with the form) as I was by the rich 35 mm that was then still the standard. So I was especially intrigued when I saw Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), a movie shot on both MiniDV and film that I’d missed upon its initial release, on the Criterion Collection production schedule last year. I predicted that the many quirks of the standard-definition video format would make this an unusual and memorable job for me, in my capacity as postproduction supervisor at Criterion. And sure enough, as I began working on the restoration of Lee’s controversial satire—which follows a TV executive (Damon Wayans) whose flagrantly offensive latest creation, a modern-day minstrel show, winds up becoming a smash success—its particular treatment of the dueling formats led to some interesting challenges.

Elements

The first step in any restoration is to determine which source elements to use. In the case of Bamboozled, the Super 16 mm original camera negative was the obvious choice for the film-based shots, reserved in the movie for the presentation of the minstrel show itself. But we had a big decision to make regarding the MiniDV that makes up most of the film. Should we source from the 35 mm interpositive used to make theatrical prints, or go all the way back to the standard-definition interlaced PAL DigiBeta tapes that predated Lee’s final picture lock?

My vote was to use the IP. Bamboozled was one of the first MiniDV films to be “filmed out.” At the time, film projection was the only way to screen movies in theaters, so for footage shot on digital video, the data had to be translated into a signal that could expose the emulsion on film. A company in Zurich, Switzerland, called Swiss Effects came up with one of the first film-out methods. Though very rudimentary, it enabled the MiniDV parts of Bamboozled to be shown on the big screen. In my mind, the unique look of digital-video features from this era is defined by the murky textures and impure colors that result from this process. It’s hard to imagine a movie like Celebration or Julien Donkey-Boy without this funky, smeary aesthetic.

But the film’s cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, the supervisor of the restoration, was adamant that we work from the original digital video. She explained that both MiniDV and film were used to create as much visual contrast as possible between the movie’s “real” world and the world of the minstrel show. The filmed-out prints had never lived up to her expectations for how stark this contrast should be.

16 mm
Digital

Color

When film is scanned to a digital format, the resulting image is usually encoded to a “log” format, making it appear washed-out and dull without the proper preparation but actually allowing us to cram extra information (particularly in the highlights and shadows) into a limited digital container. In color correction, we manipulate this image to restore the filmic look. Since the MiniDV format is already in the general color “space” TVs use, our initial strategy was to make only minor tweaks to match the look of the original Swiss Effects film-out. But color-grading tools have evolved tremendously in the twenty years since the making of Bamboozled. After reviewing the first pass, Kuras felt the images were still a bit flat. “We should use all of the modern tools at our disposal to bring out the best from the MiniDV,” she said, “but not rob it of its original character.” She had us add a touch of cyan to the shadows and a faint vignette to the frame edges to bring out extra depth and contrast. Finally, she instructed us to use our color software to add some slight noise reduction (to clean up the texture) and also a hint of sharpness (to make the details pop).

Before color correction
After color correction

While the colors looked better than ever, we were still skeptical about the resulting image quality. This would be the first time Bamboozled had been released on Blu-ray, and there’s a lot of processing that goes into converting twenty-year-old SD to HD. Was this really the best we could do?

Deinterlacing

Unlike film projection and modern televisions, which create the illusion of motion by quickly displaying a succession of individual frames, old-style standard-definition televisions displayed alternating lines of interlaced fields. Because the even and odd lines captured slightly different instants in time, if the interlaced video is displayed on a modern “progressive” display without the proper processing, both fields appear simultaneously, and the viewer will notice a distinct “combing” effect:

It isn’t until we run the video through a deinterlacing filter that the image looks correct:

While the MiniDV footage had necessarily been deinterlaced during the original mastering a decade earlier, our DigiBeta source was pure, unadulterated interlaced video. While we were easily able to match the quality of the original processing, we noticed a lot of “ghosting” (blurred fields that resemble motion blur but look worse), pixelated “jaggies” (on fine lines that SD’s limited resolution has difficulty rendering properly), and other artifacts that made us skeptical about our results. There are a lot of ways to deinterlace footage, and they all have different trade-offs. Was this really the best the film could look? Would there always be this distracting checker pattern in Damon Wayans’s glasses on this one shot?

My colleague Andrew Alvarez and I ran a few tests with some other software, and while some tools did better than others, none of them fixed every issue. One had less motion blur; the other had better resolution. In one, Wayans’s glasses looked better, but you could barely make out the poster of Muhammad Ali behind him. We resigned ourselves to Frankensteining the film together by using the best scenes from each attempt.

Last-minute changes

Then, at literally the last minute—5:30 p.m. on the Friday we were supposed to ship a file for disc authoring—Andrew showed me a video. It was the first thirty minutes of Bamboozled, processed with an obscure command-line software he had just gotten to work.

Jaggies were minimal. There were no inexplicable artifacts. The newly preserved resolution lent the image a brand-new clarity. And that one shot of Damon Wayans?

It looked amazing.

So we held the presses while we got the approval from Kuras, then reprocessed and reconformed the entire film for the third time. And this time we knew we had gotten the most out of those tapes that we possibly could have.

Until we deinterlace it again in 2049.