When Ken Burns‘s 11-hour documentary The Civil War first aired on PBS in 1990, it set new standards for television documentaries through its sweeping and often heart-wrenching recount of the epic conflict between the North and South. Working under the direction of Burns and restoration producer Daniel White, Technicolor PostWorks New York recently participated in a meticulous 4K restoration that brings the classic documentary vividly back to life. The project was done in preparation for the 25th anniversary rebroadcast of The Civil War on PBS and its Blu-ray release this month, and also coincides with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war.
The Civil War was shot on regular 16mm film by Burns and his co-cinematographers Allen Moore and Buddy Squires in a production spanning more than 10 years. For the new restoration, 50,000 feet of original negative, conserved by George Eastman House, was scanned frame by frame. This enormous task was shared between George Eastman House and Technicolor PostWorks, using identical ARRIScan film scanners at 4K resolution.
The entire documentary was then re-edited on Avid Media Composer by White, under guidance of Paul Barnes who cut the original 1990 series in classic A/B roll manner on a flatbed Steenbeck editing platform. “We took the A and B scans and edited them together based on the original broadcast masters,” explained White. “We recreated the show cut by cut, reproducing every single cut, every single dissolve. Episode 1 had about 1,000 cuts.”
Restoration was accomplished at Technicolor PostWorks by a team of artists, editors and producers, including vice president of creative services Ben Murray, conform editors Jeff Cornell, Allie Ames and Ryan McMahon and colorist Jack Lewars. CTO Joe Beirne and director of technology Matthew Schneider contributed workflow design and imaging pipeline management. Noelle Penraat, who cut the negative for the original project, was brought in by Technicolor PostWorks as a special consultant and worked with the imaging team to prepare all the film elements for scanning.
The restoration team conducted a multi-stage process to correct problems related to the age and condition of the original 16mm negative, removing dust, scratch marks and other artifacts and stabilizing the imagery. That was followed by 4K remastering and color grading. “What began as a standard restoration workflow became more detailed and nuanced as we worked with the images,” explained Murray. “After we performed an initial automated dust pass, we realized the images themselves were weaving and jumping, so we stabilized every frame. That process revealed more defects. As we addressed those problems, we found smaller artifacts and we also found that we needed to reduce grain in certain areas.”
“Everything was bobbing up and down,” said White. “The film weave problem was so bad, it created a feeling like motion sickness.”
Fixing those problems required special attention. “Our first step was to fix splice points,” said McMahon. “At every point where there was a splice in the original, there was a jitter that was more pronounced at 4K. We first stabilized every shot through a batch procedure, then we manually addressed individual shots that needed additional stabilization or where we had to reduce the automated stabilization.”
A variety of tools were used for restoration and image stabilization including Digital Vision Phoenix, DaVinci Revival and Autodesk Flame.
Lower thirds and other graphic elements from the original had to be entirely replaced. To recreate those titles, White first had to locate small segments of negative that were used to produce the original optical effects. Half were found in storage at George Eastman House, the rest were unearthed in a painstaking search through unlabeled containers at a film storage vault.
Data management was a major challenge throughout the process. 4K files for the full 10-part series comprised more than 110 TB of data with more than 25 TB kept “live” at any one time. Artists worked on multiple episodes simultaneously and shared sequences across several processes. “We used our in-house collaboration tools to manage the project,” said Ames. “That allowed us to track progress, ask questions, indicate what items were signed off on and instantly monitor the state of the project. Anyone could jump in and immediately see where everyone else was in the process.”
Color grading was performed by Lewars on Autodesk Lustre. As with editorial, the original 1990 broadcast masters were employed as reference. “We had a lot more latitude in terms of density, light and dark. We were also able to bring out a lot more detail, but our aim was never to stray from the original intent,” said White. “The Civil War went through an earlier remastering process in 2002, but the toolset then was much more limited. The new restoration is much closer to Ken’s original vision.”
That vision appears with far greater clarity than ever before. “When we began the process, we weren’t sure how much of a difference restoration would make,” recalled Lewars, “but it quickly became apparent that the difference was huge. We were astonished. We’d sit back in our seats and be blown away by how good the image looked.”
White points to a segment on the Battle of Antietam to underscore the improvement in image quality. “It looks like a painting,” he said. “Only when you notice that the water in the river is moving and leaves are shifting in the breeze do you realize that it’s real.”
White also notes that viewers will see “more” of The Civil War than ever before. While the 1990 documentary appeared in standard television 4:3 aspect ratio which cropped in heavily on the 16mm frame, the new restoration gained about 10% image area on the left and right side creating a 1:43 aspect ratio within a 16:9 frame. “In a lot of shots in the original, people on the sides of the frame were cropped out,” he said. “Now, you can see them. That is very exciting to me. People can see everything that Ken intended them to see.”
White also had praise for the team at Technicolor PostWorks and their months-long effort to restore The Civil War so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come. “They did remarkable work on a challenging project,” he said. “They encountered many complications along the way, but they dealt with them one by one. It was wonderful to see how well their workflow performs.”