Imagine a room filled with 600 state-of-the-art computers working around the clock — that’s the kind of computing power it takes to digitally restore your favourite films.
Toronto-born John Lowry, one of the world’s foremost experts in film restoration, has developed a special process (run by all those computers) to improve over 100 of Hollywood’s most beloved classics, including Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Star Wars to name just a few.
When MGM approached him to restore all 20 James Bond films (minus the latest, Casino Royale) for a special DVD collection — all at once — Lowry knew that he was in for a massive undertaking.
“This was easily the largest project for digital restoration ever,” Lowry says during a phone interview with Popjournalism.
Over two-and-a-half painstaking years, Lowry’s company and MGM worked on restoring picture and sound quality on Bond films from 1962’s Dr. No to 2002’s Die Another Day.
While the computers handled most of the automatic processes like dust removal, more complex problems like torn film had to be fixed manually, taking up to 20 minutes per frame — and keep in mind that a two-hour film has approximately 172,000 frames.
It sounds like the definition of tedious work.
“Tedious is the last word I’d use to describe my job,” Lowry says with a laugh. “I think of the process as puzzle-solving. What caused this problem? How can we fix it? It’s often a mind-bending process.”
One of the most challenging films to restore in the Bond series was the first film, Dr. No, whose negatives had degraded over the years due to numerous reprints and lack of care before the franchise had taken full bloom.
“I don’t think they had any idea of what they had a hold of,” Lowry says. “In terms of filmmaking, it was sloppy in some ways, too, but the movie was so great that it made up for those shortfalls. Cleaning up some of those problems, removing technical things like bad optical effects, like dissolving or wiping effects, was part of the restoration.”
Still, that begs the question, does even minor restoration like this go too far in changing the original film presentation?
“Well, in the archiving community, to change anything in a film is wrong. My job is given to me by a studio to improve the commercial value of the product. What I give them back has a greater commercial value, as opposed to scratched and dirty film.”
Lowry says that while he is attentive to the concerns of film purists, he wasn’t always so considerate.
When his company was contracted to restore Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North By Northwest, Lowry was faced with a dilemma during the famous crop duster scene.
“We had restored the film so well that 15 frames prior to the impact, the wires of the model plane were obvious. I asked myself, What would Alfred Say?”
The answer? Take them out.
And so he did.
“I wouldn’t do that now, but was that going too far?”