Audio/Video, Business

How Lowry Digital is saving our history for a digital future


Lowry Digital transformed Marlon Brando?s The Godfather, Richard Burton?s The Robe, and now Buzz Aldrin?s 1969 moon walk into modern viewing formats. Using constantly evolving moving image technology, the film restoration company is working magic on memories, and milestones.

The principals of Lowry Digital, John D. Lowry and Michael Inchalik, have been saving old films from extinction for over 30 years. John Lowry has patents for motion image processing technology. He designed the Image Transform system that was used to clean and enhance the TV pictures received on earth from the moon during the later Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 lunar landings. Now, his company is working on restoring the lost images from Apollo 11?s astronauts walking on the moon. The historic moment disappeared from the NASA archives and must be reconstructed from bits and pieces gleaned from four sources from around the world. 

Mike Inchalik was a key player in the development of the Cineon digital film system, which became an industry standard for digital film work. The system allows scanning and converting images that were originally captured on film into digital files. Capable of 4K resolution, it includes image processing software and a laser recorder that renders the processed digital files back onto film. In 1993, the first film it was used to restore was Walt Disney?s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Digital scan of The Robe
Restauring The Robe from damaged film is exactly the type of work Lowry Digital specializes for…

Lowery Digital just completed work on The Robe. "Starring Richard Burton, The Robe is the story of the Roman tribune who won the garment Jesus wore prior to his execution." The 1953 film was the first released in CinemaScope format, which presented images in a widescreen 2.55:1 aspect ratio. It was photographed by Leon Shamroy, ASC and nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards.
The film?s elements were scanned at 4K resolution and converted to digital files using IMAGICA film scanners, then color corrected with the Baselight color correction system to look like the Technicolor dye-transfer prints of that time period. Finally, the proprietary Lowry Process rounded out the restoration. It uses complex temporal image processing to restore detail and resolution and to reverse damaging processes that cause grain build up, softening, and excess contrast.
Referring to the constantly evolving technology, Lowry said, "Restoring The Robe to its original CinemaScope glory was a painstaking task ? I doubt it would have been possible even one year ago."

Michael Inchalik said of the challenge they face in restoring the Apollo 11 video: "this is by far and away the lowest quality" they have worked with.

It is made more difficult because they won’t be working from original tapes. The original 45, one-inch, videotape copies were part of about 200,000 that NASA erased and re-used during the 1970’s and ’80s. Today, they are paying dearly for not running to the corner drugstore to pick up a package of the video equivalent of Memorex. NASA, historians, and conspiracy theorists have varying opinions regarding one of the major "oops" discovered this century

The problems Lowry will be addressing include trying to balance disparate capture elements to create a consistent look across all images. Issues they must face are age and wear from handling and storage conditions. They will need to remove dirt, scratches and chemical stains, and repair physical damage. It is said to be a $230,000 refurbishing job.

Melding the various formats, frame rates, and resolutions adds to the challenge. The original images from the moon were captured at 10 frames per second [fps] on Earth, with 320 lines of resolution for live telecast. Copies from around the world were recorded in a variety of formats, including 8mm film from a hand-held camera aimed at a video monitor at Mission Control.

The images arrived on Earth from slow scan television (SSTV), a "primitive, low-bandwidth mode of video communication." Adding to the degradation, the 10 fps were manipulated to work in 25 fps PAL or 30 fps NTSC. The 8mm film was recorded at 16 fps, while other material had been translated into VHS format.

Lowry Digital and NASA have agreed that some "flaws" should not be "corrected." For example, dirt and dust on the camera lens. Patrick Edquist, Lowry Project Manager for the Apollo 11 restoration said: "We could make these images ‘perfect,’ but at a certain point you begin to lose authenticity." The completed images will be finished in HD format.

Buzz Aldrin setting up for an experiment

One of the images being rescued is astronaut Neil Armstrong descending the lunar module to be the first man to step on the moon. Another shows Buzz Aldrin setting up the solar wind experiment. His memorable demonstration of mobility as he floats, more than walks and runs, on the lunar surface is also coming to life again.

The company recapturing these fantastic moments, Lowery Digital Imaging, recently became a subsidiary of Adlabs Films Ltd out of India. Who would have thought that Hollywood, Bollywood, and NASA would be rubbing elbows.